Connections

This is the third part of the story of my first trip to India in 2014. Start here if you want to follow the whole thing from the beginning.

At this point, after many trials, delays, and changed plans, I finally have my Indian visa and have re-booked my flights. I just have to get up early on Tuesday morning to make my flight, and I will see Mónica in Chennai on Wednesday night.

2014-10-21
Tuesday
Departure Day (Finally)

I wake up in a dark room. I don’t know what time it is, but it feels like my alarms should have gone off by now. I set them for 2:20 and one of them is a sunrise light alarm. It’s obviously not on. I roll over and look at my phone. It’s 5:50! My flight leaves Portland in 10 minutes! Oh no. Balls! I’ve missed my flight. Do I have to call Mónica and tell her that the plans have changed? Again!?

There are a bunch of missed calls on my phone from the taxi I booked for 3:00. I feel like a jerk for standing him up when I was worried about him being the one to not show. I can’t believe I slept through all the alarms and calls. I guess staying awake for 40 hours straight after such a stressful week will do that. I’ve been able to accomplish some pretty impressive feats of human endurance and stamina before, but it looks like I failed at this one. Crap!

If I can still get to New York in time for my 12:25 flight, then all is not lost. I crunch some numbers in my head. Even if I started driving now, I couldn’t possibly make it in time. I run to the computer and check for flights. I know there aren’t any more this morning from Portland but I check anyway. Still none. I check from Boston. Lots that I can’t make it to in time, and lots that wouldn’t get me to New York in time. But there’s one chance. There’s an American Airlines flight that leaves Boston at 9:40 and arrives in JFK at 10:50. It’s about 6:00 now. If I start driving in 10 minutes and can make it to the airport in 2 hours (good time, but not unreasonable), that would give me an hour and a half to park, get from the parking lot to the terminal, check in, check my bag, go through security, and board my flight.

Then I would have an hour and a half in JFK to exit the American Airlines plane, get my luggage, make it from the domestic terminal to the international one, check in with Etihad Airways, check my bags, go through security, and so on.

I don’t have much time to think about this decision. The last time I flew internationally, it took me 3 hours to check in for my flight to Buenos Aires at JFK. If I don’t go for it, though, I will be letting Mónica down again.

I decide I can do it. I guess this is Plan G now. I book the flight from Boston. I have messages from Mónica, who is expecting me to be on the plane from Portland by now, but I don’t have time to explain what’s going on. I don’t have a minute to spare. I can’t tell her anything definite anyway, since I don’t know if I’m going to make it or not.

I take a 2 minute cold shower, throw on my clothes, run out the door with my bags, and start driving again. No dinner last night and no time for breakfast this morning. It’s a good thing I’m superhuman or this might be hard.

Plan G:
Drive to Boston to try to fly to New York in time to make my flight to Chennai.

The drive to Boston is incredibly stressful, but I stay focused and calm. I am determined to make this happen. I’m still asking myself what I should be learning from this experience. Maybe I’ve been too arrogant in believing each of my plans would work. I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of bad luck traveling before, and it’s mostly been due to flight cancellations and delays causing me to miss connections and creating domino effects that wreck all my other plans. I’m trying not to think about that possibility today.

The traffic is as bad as usual, but I get a couple of lucky breaks, including being the last vehicle to get through a key intersection before a train goes by behind me. I get to the economy parking garage about 10 minutes later than I wanted. Then it takes another 15 minutes just to park. I’m getting antsy. The shuttle to the terminal seems to take forever. I’m watching the clock like I’m in an elaborate heist movie. When it finally stops at the right place, I break for the American Airlines counter. My flight leaves in about 45 minutes. I check in quickly and hope the security line doesn’t take too long. Shuffling through it is excruciating, and I’ve really had to pee since I was driving through New Hampshire.

I get through security and put on my shoes with about 20 minutes left until the plane departs. I’ve got this. I run to the gate, see a few people lined up to board the plane, and figure I have just enough time to pee before I get on. I think I’m the last person in before they close the cabin door.

Success! But I know I have to beat the clock again when I get to New York. I keep thinking of the 3 hours it took for me to check in and check my bag the last time I flew from there. I just have an hour and a half this time, and that includes getting my checked bag from the flight that I’m on before I can check in for the next one. I send Mónica a message saying that I missed my flight from Portland this morning but I’m still on my way. She says she will do everything to help me break my traveling curse.

I spend the entire hour flight to New York stretching, breathing, and basically doing yoga in my seat. I paid extra when I booked this flight for a seat in the front row behind 1st class, so there’s actually leg room in front of me. I wanted to be able to get out of the plane as quickly as possible. It’s funny to think that I just booked this flight less than 4 hours ago in Maine. When I did, this entire row was empty, but now there’s a guy in a suit sitting across from me. I turn to him and say, “When did you get your ticket for this flight?” He bursts out with, “Oh my god, this has been a nightmare!” Then he tells me how the airline somehow lost his original booking and had to reroute him on this flight at the last minute. I smile and say, “My day’s been crazy, too.” I don’t bother giving him the details. I’m not the only one who has frustrating travel experiences. Everybody else is trying to get to someplace or somebody important, too.

JFK

When we land in New York, I jog to the baggage claim area. I’ll probably still have to wait on the bags when I get there anyway, but I’m not taking any chances. JFK is a big airport, and it seems like it’s about 2 miles from the gate to the baggage claim area. My bag shows up after a few minutes of waiting and I run to the Sky Train. I accidentally board the wrong train to get to the terminal I want, so I end up having to ride it around the long way instead of the direct way.

When I find the Etihad check-in counter, it looks like it’s closed. It is closed. My flight leaves in an hour. I find someone there and tell them that I need to check in for my flight. They send me to the Premier and Business Class check-in area. The people there are efficient and helpful. They take my bag and I run for the security line. Again, I get through with less than half an hour before my flight departs and board with a couple other stragglers.

I’ve made it! I message Mónica before needing to turn off my phone. I can finally start to relax. I’m smiling uncontrolably. I’ve got a 14 hour flight to Abu Dhabi to deal with next, but I’ll be holding Mónica tomorrow night.

Meanwhile, the airline makes a mockery of all my haste by having the plane sit at the gate for more than an hour after closing the cabin door. I spend the whole time chatting with the friendly young couple in the seats next to me.

Sanjay is from Nepal, and his newlywed wife Missy is originally from a small town in Wisconsin right next to the small town in Wisconsin where I lived for a year after college. It’s a funny connection. Sanjay is heading home after his first visit to the United States. We each talk about places we’ve been and he tells me how much I’m going to love it in India, and that I should visit Nepal sometime.

I’m curious about how Sanjay and Missy met and fell in love and decided to live in Nepal together. After all, here I am – a guy from Kentucky – flying to India to see the girl I love, who’s from Bolivia, and wondering what the future holds for us.

I don’t learn much before the plane starts moving and one of the flight attendants comes to tell me that I’m welcome to move into a row with 3 empty seats in the middle aisle to get more room. I look around and notice for the first time how empty the plane is. It’s maybe at 20% capacity, yet somehow the ticket I purchased barely 12 hours ago randomly seated me next to this couple that I’m very happy to have met. I think we make up the only set of 3 consecutively occupied seats in the entire plane.

As interested as I am in chatting with Sanjay and Missy, I accept the offer to move. I’m still really behind on sleep, this is my first chance to actually relax in days, and I’m sure Sanjay and Missy will appreciate having their own space for the long flight.

Even though I’m able to get pretty comfortable in 3 seats with all the pillows and blankets provided, I still manage to keep unbroken my record of having never been able to sleep in an airplane, no matter how badly I want to. Oh well. I’ve gone from being extremely stressed to being extremely excited, which isn’t much more conducive for relaxation. I read a lot and watch a couple movies before we land in Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi

The Abu Dhabi airport is a strange place for my 6 hour layover here. We get off the plane in the hot desert to ride a bus to the terminal. There are cranes and construction equipment everywhere, but no other signs of a city besides the airport. Just sand dunes going off into the horizon.

Inside the Abu Dhabi Airport

Inside, the terminal is packed with people. It’s standing room only, with at least 3 people for every seat. I realize that I haven’t eaten anything for about 36 hours, but there isn’t much in the way of options here. The only restaurants are a crappy looking sports bar and a McDonald’s. There are more perfume shops and toy stores than there are places with food. I check out the duty free store and it has three whole aisles of different kinds of nuts. Since I’m in the Middle East, I check out the pistachios. Pistachios in the US taste like cardboard compared to the unbelievably flavorful pistachios from Iran that I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy on a couple of occasions. Iranian pistachios are impossible to find, though, unless you have a friend from Iran who’s willing to smuggle some for you. These pistachios are packaged in the United Arab Emirates. I grab a big bag and some water and wander around the terminal some more.

It doesn’t take long for Sanjay to spot me and invite me over to where he’s sitting. When I make it through the crowds to where he is, he’s engaged in conversation with a group of about 40 colorfully dressed ladies from Bangladesh. It seems these women are all very poor, this is their first time outside their home country, and they’re all on their way to start working some unspecified jobs in Qatar. A few of the ladies speak some Hindi, as does Sanjay. It’s the only language they have in common and communicating is slow going. He’s concerned that they may be heading into some kind of human trafficking situation, as he says that Qatar is a very bad place, but the ladies seem to be saying that they’re going to be doing some kind of industrial labor. Sanjay exchanges contact information with one of them and moves the conversation on to more casual things.

I share the pistachios I bought. Unfortunately, they’re indistinguishable from Californian pistachios. One of the Bangladeshi ladies offers Sanjay and me some fruit from her bag. I don’t recognize it and ask Sanjay what it is. He seems to be trying to think of the right word for a moment, but then just says, “It’s a sour thing. It’s good for your blood.” It’s hard and green, the size of a golf ball, and is indeed very sour, though it has a complex, almost nutty aftertaste. I eat the whole thing and think, “Eating some exotic (unwashed?) fruit from a Bangladeshi stranger in Abu Dhabi. . . So begins the test of my immune system.” Everyone I know who has gone to India has gotten sick the first time, and I’ve been warned against doing all kinds of things like this. I’m really curious to see how my body holds up to all the new experiences. Following the mystery fruit, I share some of my very dark homemade chocolate, which Sanjay and Missy are impressed by.

After the Bangladeshi women all leave for their flight, Sanjay and I spend a while talking about Nepal. Turns out he’s a mountain trekking guide and translator. I show him some pictures from hikes I’ve done and he admires the colors of New England, a place he’s never been. He says I would love it in Nepal and that if I would like to come visit in the future, they would have a guest house for me. I start to think about how much of a fun challenge it would be to see how many places I can visit in the world just through making personal connections, rather than picking destinations where I know no one and going to stay in a hotel and being a tourist. I consider myself lucky to have randomly encountered this wonderful couple and do plan to keep in touch with them after my trip to India. Maybe Nepal would be a good destination for Mónica’s Fall Break next year. . . .

When Sanjay and Missy leave for Kathmandu, I still have about 2 hours of waiting before boarding my flight. The terminal has cleared out quite a bit and there are plenty of places to relax, but now the challenge is not falling asleep and missing my flight. According to Maine time, it’s about 6:00 Wednesday morning, and I have only slept about 5 hours since Sunday morning. I don’t want to take the risk and decide to walk around rather than sitting.

While I’m waiting, I should mention a little about how weird the Abu Dhabi airport is compared to every other airport I’ve ever been in. Normally, once you pass through security into the gate area, you enter what is basically a giant mall with lots of shops, food, bathrooms, and other services. In this terminal, the gate area beyond the security check is just an empty room where people stand around like cattle waiting to board the bus to the plane, which is parked miles away in the desert somewhere. There’s no bathroom, and no way to acquire any water to bring onto the flight. So most of the waiting time is spent in the unsecured part of the terminal, where there are bathrooms, but these have no toilet paper and are always soaking wet from the clumsy bidet-like water hoses that are mounted everywhere instead. Not a good place to try to change clothes. When I check out one of these hoses, the water pressure is so high that I can’t imagine trying to use one for its intended purpose. No wonder the bathrooms are soaked.

Getting ready to board the flight to Chennai, it looks like I’m the only non-Indian person here. No wait, there is one other white guy – bald and muscular, with a waxed mustache, pointy goatee, and a goofy mischievous grin. He looks like a circus performer, or like he should be on stage with Gogol Bordello. He winks at me when I look in his direction. I realize that wearing my big Akubra Territory hat, I probably stick out even more than he does in this crowd.

Before I can decide whether or not I should go strike up a conversation, we are shuffled into different parts of the plane and off we go. Another 4 and a half hours in the air and then I’ll be in India. Mónica says she’ll be waiting for me outside the international arrivals terminal with the biggest smile ever. I can’t wait to see her. Even though it was a struggle to stay awake in Abu Dhabi, I still don’t get any sleep on this flight.

Chennai

As we start our descent into the city, I look out the window to see countless fireworks going off in every direction for as far as I can see. This is a big city – about 9 million people – and tonight is Diwali, one of the biggest celebrations of the year. These are not organized fireworks displays. Instead, it’s like looking at a forest full of fireflies. It’s constant and ongoing and random. I’ve never seen so many fireworks in my life. It’s an impressive sight. On the ground, Mónica shoots this video from the roof of her apartment building while celebrating with friends before leaving to pick me up at the airport.

When we land, my first impression of India upon exiting the plane cabin is: I smell cows. Having spent a lot of time growing up on a farm, the smell is immediately familiar and unmistakable. I’m a little surprised that it’s so clear here at the airport. I can’t imagine there are any cows that close.

Inside, the terminal building is very sparse, dirty, and feels like it was built in the ‘70s. I’m given an immigration form to fill out and present to the customs agent. Among other things, it’s asking for the address and phone number for a reference contact in India. Hmm. I don’t have Mónica’s contact info on me anywhere except online, and there’s no wireless network in the airport here. When I get to the agent, I try to explain, but they won’t let me through without this information. “This is must”, the woman says, pointing at the blank address field.

I had to provide the same thing in my visa application so I don’t know why they need it again, or why they don’t already have it from that. I ask if there’s any way to get on the internet and they don’t seem to understand what I’m talking about. They direct me to an office to get special assistance from another official.

The office is closed. Eventually, a guy with a badge comes to ask what I’m looking for. When he sees that the reference address on my form is blank, he asks me which hotel I’m going to. I tell him that I’m staying with a friend. He treats this as very suspicious. I mention that my friend works at the American International School in Tharamani and he tells me to put that in the address field. He then tells me to put her phone number on the form. I say I don’t know it, and he asks how I’m going to meet her. I say she’s probably waiting for me outside right now. I have her phone number in an email; I just can’t access it right now. He tells me to put my email address in the phone field. OK, for all the good it does them to know that, it at least lets me go through customs. I probably should have just made up a number in the first place.

There’s an entirely different vocabulary of body language in India, and I witness my first Indian head wobble as I give my form to the new customs agent. I’m not sure if this means yes or no until he motions me on through.

While waiting on my checked bag to arrive, I find a bathroom. It’s even dirtier than the ones in Abu Dhabi, with the same spray hoses for soaking the walls and ceiling, and again without toilet paper. The mischievous circus man from my flight walks in, immediately comes up to shake my hand, and says, “Вы из Москвы, да? Как вас зовут?”

He almost seems drunk, but I think it’s just his odd mannerisms. I studied Russian for a year way back in college for no other reason than I thought it was a cool language, and I remember just enough to understand that he said, “You’re from Moscow, right? What’s your name?”

I respond back with a healthy portion of all the Russian I know. “Нет, я из United States. Меня зовут Alton.” He nods and shrugs like I might be trying to pull his leg about not being from Moscow. After all, I did just respond in Russian. Then he starts speaking in a mix of Russian and English that I can barely understand. He’s telling me that when I go outside, there will be lots of Indian drivers who will try to offer me a ride, but that I shouldn’t trust them because they’re there to rip me off. I tell him that I already have a friend picking me up and he says, “Хорошо, Хорошо.” Good. I wish I could understand more of the things he tries to tell me. Finally, he leans forward to shake my hand again with both of his, smiles and winks, then gives me a goofy salute before heading back out the door. I guess he didn’t need to use the bathroom after all.

Once I’ve got my bag, I head out into the warm night air. Stray dogs are wandering in and out of the open doors of the terminal. There are crows everywhere picking at garbage. It smells like fireworks, small engine exhaust, and cows. I don’t see Mónica anywhere. Several rickshaw drivers try to get my attention but I wave them off. After 20 minutes of hopefully watching each car that approaches, I’m wishing I had a way to call Mónica. Of course my phone doesn’t work here and without getting online, I don’t even have her number. There’s not really anything I can do but wait.

When she finally waves to me from her car, we both start beaming. She’s radiant, and holding her feels so good. I don’t even remember anything of the city from the drive to her place. My attention is all on her. It’s been an epic journey full of obstacles just to get this far, and now the real vacation is only beginning. Fireworks are still exploding all around as we climb the stairs to her apartment. Diwali signifies the victory of light over darkness and hope over despair. It feels like the celebration is just for us. I’ve spent three months wondering what it would be like to see Mónica again. Exhausted from days of traveling and not sleeping, simply being in each other’s presence feels so good. It feels like coming home. I sleep better than I have in a long time.

Mónica, a couple weeks before my arrival in India.
Mónica, a couple weeks before my arrival in India.

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