Wednesday, February 16, 2011

2010/11 Incredible India Adventure - Part X

11 December 2010 – Saturday – Bombay, India
We awoke very early at Sandeep’s place. Very early, indeed. The chickens weren’t even halfway through their second to last dream.
But what choice did we have?
What sounded like a football stadium full of riotous fans drifted past our window at god knows what hour and woke us all up! It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard that didn’t have wings and turbo engines attached to it. It turned out to be a procession of Hare Krishna followers on their way to the temple, singing and chanting and beating their drums like they were trying to scare the sunrise away.
But I didn’t know that then.
What I did know, after being slammed out of the best sleep I ever remember having, was that Sandeep’s apartment had been invaded by an unruly mob of gangsters who were dancing and singing around my bed. (please don’t ask me why I thought gangsters would be singing and dancing around my bed at 6 in the morning, but in my groggy state, I was pretty certain they were). Sandeep came running in to tell us not to worry and that the Hare Krishna people go by at that time every morning. When my poor heart began beating normally again, I thought it strange that he didn’t tell us the night before, you know, give us a little heads-up or something. I could have prepared a small pile of shoes, or rocks, or a tub of hot oil or something that would fit through the metal grill on his windows and cause a lot of pain.

That being said, it was actually a good thing we awoke early because we knew we had to get to the domestic terminal for our flight to Goa, but we had no idea how long it would take.
So we gave ourselves three hours.
We packed up, said goodbye to Sandeep and his family, piled everything into the waiting cab, and set off for the airport. (The giant-sized, completely overstuffed suitcase fit nicely into the luggage bin on the roof of the cab. It was so big and heavy that it didn’t even need to be strapped down, said the poor, out of breath driver, who had to drag that miserable, deformed beast down 5 flights of stairs and hoist it up on top all by himself). When he was finally able to stop his poor bony legs from trembling, it was on our way we went, up to our necks in traffic, of course, but happy to be on the road.
It wasn’t long after that when GoAir, our airline to Goa, sent R an SMS message saying the plane was delayed by two hours. We hadn’t been on the road for 15 minutes. Had they sent it 15 minutes earlier, we could have hung out at Sandeep’s place an hour or two longer and not had to rush out of the house the way we did. And there was no way we were going to turn around and go back. That would be silly. I guess what it really meant was that we definitely weren’t going to miss our flight due to heavy traffic and that we could have driven to Goa from Mumbai in less time then it was going to take to fly there today. How stupid is that?

As it turned out, we made it to the airport in 25 minutes flat.

You know it’s going to be a great day when you give yourself 3 hours to do some menial task and it ends up taking a fraction of that time to get that thing done. Normally, you would cheer and think how cool you were that you got something done so quickly. We, on the other hand, groaned. It doesn’t matter how ‘nice’ an airport is, how modern or how many fun shops it has to poke around in, waiting anywhere for six hours is a huge pain in the ass. Literally. Especially when you’re in a great city like Mumbai and all you really want to do is walk around the city and take pictures.
And so, without ever taking the camera out of my bag, we waited and waited and waited some more. And when we were done with all that waiting, we changed seats and waited even more.
Finally, when we used up all the waiting time assigned to us by a god who didn’t give a shit about our asses, it was time to get into line to check-in. We stood up, rubbed our weary eyes and numb butts, stretched our arms and legs, and then began collecting all of our belongings, piling them back on the 3 wheeled trolley that had been straining the entire morning under the magnificent weight of the giant-sized, completely overstuffed suitcase. We also began steeling ourselves for the security check ordeal that awaited us after checking in.
It was right then that a booming voice came over the terminal loudspeakers telling everyone they had to immediately evacuate the building in a quiet and orderly fashion and that the entire terminal was being cleared.

What??? What the hell was going on with that? We had a flight to catch and fun to have…

But there was no time to think about any of those things because out came the big guys in military gear who pushed us out of the terminal the way those white-gloved guys in Japan do when they cram all the people into the subway cars, only I never saw a white pair of gloves anywhere..
We were quickly ushered out the front doors and into the massive parking lot across from the terminal entrances. As we all poured out of the terminal, the Bomb Squad pulled up right in front of us in their fancy trucks, and out jumped an entire battalion of heavily armed, heavily protected soldiers. It seemed to me that there was a kind of unhurried, nonchalance about everything they did, so I figured it must have been a test of the evacuation process and not a real bomb scare after all.
Or not.
It’s entirely likely that there actually was a suspected device somewhere inside the terminal and this was how it was responded to. It’s kind of how they respond to everything here.
Either way, I was happy to be out of the terminal while the bomb guys were inside. As I always say, it’s better to be outside alive than blown to bits and dead somewhere inside.
And so it was outside that we continued to do what we had nearly perfected inside – namely, waiting. We stood in the parking lot with all the other travelers, the aircrews, the terminal staff and everyone else who worked in and around the giant terminal, shuffling impatiently from leg to leg and trying to shield our heads from the hot sun. Myself, H, R, and The Little One, all huddled as best we could beneath a nearly dead palm tree. The poor thing possessed exactly three scrawny, almost brown, leaves that provided absolutely no shade whatsoever. I suppose, on a positive note, you could say that at least we weren’t sitting. We already did our quota of that for this entire trip.
I had no idea how long it was going to take before the bomb guys left and we got the “All Clear” signal to return to the terminal, but I was trying to position myself as best I could once it came, without letting anyone know that was what I was doing.
You see, whenever you enter an airport terminal here in India, you must first pass through armed military guards at the front entrance. The guards check your flight ticket and your passport, they look you up and down, and if they are satisfied, then they let you in. But it can take a good 3 or 4 minutes for a group of 3 people and a baby, like us. Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind tight security at airports, it makes all of us just a little bit safer, but I knew, as we stood outside in the parking lot with the thousands and thousands of others, that if we weren’t one of the first ones to enter back into the terminal, we could well be lined up for hours while the security guards check each and every person trying to re-enter the building.
So as soon as the signal was given to let everyone back inside, I broke away from the pack like a race horse and sped along, as quickly as I could, the suitcase trolley out in front of me like a battering ram. Through the crowds I weaved, across the sidewalks and the 3 lanes of traffic, bumping up and down against the curbs, nearly mowing down everything in my path. I have no idea why the suitcases didn’t all come crashing down on top of me because I was pushing that trolley like a mad man. I whizzed by as many people as I could, and finally ducked into the nearest entrance that wasn’t yet crowded with people. Once inside, I jammed my cart into the very end of the line that had formed there, nearly breaking several pairs of legs in the process. It was only then that I looked around to see if H and R and The Little One were anywhere in sight. I saw them, away off in the distance, with shocked looks on their faces running frantically to catch up.
Huffing and puffing and trying to catch my own breath, I was very pleased with myself that I had actually managed to get inside the big sliding pre-doors to the terminal before I hit the line-up. As I stood there and waited for the others to join me, I couldn’t help but turn around again and see the swarms of people that had suddenly amassed around the big sliding doors outside. It was going to take them ages to get inside. From where we entered, it only took about 10 minutes to make it through the armed guards, which was fantastic.
Once back inside the terminal, we dashed for the GoAir check-in line, which, unfortunately, was quite crowded by the time we got there. The irony, of course, was that there was absolutely no one in the line as we were preparing to check-in before the evacuation. It took another 35 minutes to make it to the check-in counter and check our luggage and get our seats.
Once we had our boarding passes, we walked the entire length of the terminal, took a hard left at the end of the check-in counters and made our way to the proper security clearance area, which everyone must pass through before moving towards their gate. By the time we got there, both the Gents and the Ladies lines where impossibly long. As a result, it took H and R and The Little One almost exactly the same amount of time to pass through as I did. That’s how busy it was. Usually the Ladies line is incredibly short and H always has to wait on the other side for me while the Gents line slowly snakes its way through. But this time I reached the X-ray machine a good 5 minutes before H and R and The Little One. It took 40 long minutes of shuffling forward, a few inches at a time, to get there, but I was first. Woo-hoooo!
When I finally made it to the front of the line, I fought my way through the crowd of men huddled around the x-ray machine.
I always find it shocking that there ever only appears to be one lousy x-ray machine working at every airport terminal security check-point I’ve ever been to in India. It’s so typical. It explains why the security check-in procedure is always such a harrowing ordeal - and why the crowds are always so massive.
I bumped and crashed into nearly everyone as I struggled to get the carry-on bag and my camera bag up on the roller wheels and watched, triumphantly, as they were both sucked into the bowels of the x-ray machine. From there I had to shoulder my way through the crowd of men around the rectangular door-frame metal detector.
Then, out of nowhere, just as I am about to mount the 2 steps of the detector, I feel a tap on my left shoulder. I turn around and it’s H. She grabs me by the arm and drags me out of the thick of things.
“We are in the wrong line.” She said.
“What?” I said, completely stunned.
“We are at the wrong gate,” she said. “We have to go back and find the right gate.”
“Are you kidding me?” I said, “I just put my bags through the x-ray machine.”
“Go through and get them,” she said. “We’ll wait for you over there.” She pointed to bare spot along the wall to the left of the teeming mass of people waiting to pass through security.
She said it just like that, “go through and get them,” like it was the simplest task in the world, like she was asking me to pick up milk on my way home from work. Couldn’t she see the hundreds of people I would have to fight my way through to get to the metal detector, grab my bags off the x-ray machine rollers, explain to the armed security guards that I was at the wrong gate, fight my way back through the crowd of men waiting to pass through the metal detector, and then fight my way even harder through the endless mass of waiting men squeezed so tightly together that air doesn’t even pass through them? Couldn’t she see that that is what I would have to do to “go through and get them”?
It could take me a week to do all that.
I suddenly wasn’t in a happy mood anymore.
But what choice did I have? So into the crowd I waded, hunched over, my weight low to the ground, like a football player. I pushed through to the front of the metal detector line and passed through as soon as a space became available.
The people I butted in front of weren’t happy, either.
I first had to plead with the guards who frisk you that I wasn’t really trying to avoid being searched, but that I was just passing through because I needed to collect my bags since I was at the wrong gate. They actually seemed amused by my frantic mutterings. I think it was because they knew what a frightening mass of humanity I would have to fight my way through to get out of there. So they let me pass. The x-ray people also seemed amused and let me take my bags off the rollers without a peep, and, with the sweat dripping off me, I draped my camera bag over my shoulder and picked up the carry-on bag and began to push my way through the huge crowds of people again. It was a horribly awkward procedure because I couldn’t drag the wheeled carry-on bag behind me since there were just too many people around, so I had to clutch it against my chest. My camera bag rested on my right hip and basically crashed into every single person I passed. After about the one hundredth “I’m sorry,” or “excuse me,” I finally stopped saying anything to anyone and just put my head down and forced my way through, bumping into every single person who stood anywhere near me. I felt kind of bad about being such an inconsiderate brute, but not too bad, of course - it was their fault, after all, for being in my way when I had a bloody plane to catch!
When I finally met H and R and The Little One at our chosen rendezvous site, I looked like I had just run a gauntlet. My clothes were disheveled, my hair was a mess, I was sweating profusely, and I was completely exhausted.
So much for ‘go through and get them.’
It damn near killed me.
But I was not dead yet and we still had a plane to catch. So once I caught my breath, we raced back out into the main terminal in search for the correct gate.
We searched.
And we searched.
We looked high and low.
We checked signs and billboards, anything that had something written on it.
But we couldn’t find it.
We began asking everyone we came across where the correct gate might be, but no one seemed to know, not even the stupid security guards! We kept checking our boarding passes to confirm the gate number, we raced this way and that, scrutinizing every sign we saw. But the gate didn’t seem to be anywhere. We still had about 40 minutes before our flight took off, but we certainly didn’t want to miss the plane now because of some small technicality – like being unable to find the stupid gate on time. I mean, how fucked up would that be?
But there was no gate.
We checked everywhere.
Nowhere in the main terminal was there a secondary entrance to another gate.
It just wasn’t there!
But wait…
Hmmmm…. there was an escalator up to the second level… But that was just for the CafĂ© Coffee Day coffee shop… wasn’t it?
There were no signs or anything indicating it was the way to another gate or anything, so how could it possible be…?
It was right then that the giant light bulb finally went off and all three of us turned to one another with owl eyes.
Without needing to say a word, we dashed off together towards the escalator.
Yes, it was to access the coffee shop, we could see it as we slowly rode the escalator up, but on the other side of the coffee shop, which you couldn’t see from the terminal floor, was a long semi-circular corridor that led to what appeared to be the back of the terminal. As we ascended, we looked all around the escalator for some kind of indicator that this was the correct way to the second gate, but there nothing, anywhere! How incompetent does an organization need to be not to clearly mark access to something you would think would be as important as this in an air terminal?
Oh wait, this is India!
Of course… The signs had probably been removed for cleaning, and some genius forgot to put them back. Duh…

As soon as we got up to the second level we raced past the coffee shop and down the long corridor, which took a gentle curve to the right, so you couldn’t see where it led. But once we got halfway down, the corridor opened up and right there at the end was the 2nd security check-in, and behind that, lo and behold, was the gate number we had been driving ourselves insane to find.
It was as though we had discovered El Dorado!
Wooooooo-Hooooooooo! All of us cheered.
I can’t believe it took us that long to find the gate. No wonder no one in the building knew where the hell it was. It was so totally and completely hidden from view that you needed a bloody bloodhound to find it.
(My god, traveling in this country can be stressful!)
I suppose if one were looking for a ‘silver lining’ in this little adventure, it would have to be that the line-up for the security check was astonishingly short. Compared to the madness downstairs, here it was a cake-walk.
So we passed through security without a hitch, found a nice comfortable row of seats to sit down on and there I promptly collapsed. I was exhausted. I fell instantly into a dead sleep. But it wasn’t 5 minutes later that the announcement was made for boarding. H said she shook me for a good 30 seconds before I responded. She thought she might need to call a medic.
As we dragged ourselves off the seats and took our place in line, I looked around at the rest of the travelers and thought that there was no way to tell us, who had pretty much moved into the terminal early this morning, from all the others who had arrived there an hour or two ago. We all looked the same.
The only difference, of course, was that all of our souls were scarred beyond recognition.