Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Flight

We arrived at O’Hare with plenty of time to get everything arranged. There were few people in the airport and no waiting involved. We flagged down a skycap who helped us manage the four boxes, three bags, two pet carriers, one guitar case and our two carryon bags. We walked up to the desk and told them we were picking up our tickets. They were there as anticipated. The Air India agent looked at everything we had and excused herself, opening a door into a back room. After a moment or two, a gentleman came out and started asking questions, “Where will you be staying? Why all these bags? Why do you need these animals?” I explained that we were moving there.

“One way?” he said, eyes wide.

I nodded.

“So, you are returning home, yes?” he said, jokingly.

I replied, “In a way, yes.” I explained how I had lived in Mumbai as an exchange student when I was 15 and how I had always wanted to return, blah, blah, blah. He hesitated for a moment, looking at me, then he talked with the agent. I paid $266 for each of my pets, and $133 for a box and that was it. They made photocopies of the pet’s papers, and we were done. Tickets in hand, the skycap escorted the pets and us to the arrivals area, where we could walk Grace and keep Lance near us. We had over three hours until our plane would leave, but we had to wait until 30 minutes before to hand over the pets and go through security. Bored, we waited. I had anticipated going through security, getting something to eat, settling down in a spot to check email, get a drink or two, buy some magazines… all we managed was the magazines when we were finally able to drop off Lance and Grace.

We took off about 45 minutes late, but once we were in the air, the flight was uneventful. I read magazines and Will started reading the seventh “Harry Potter” book he had just received from his Gran. Next to Will was an older woman dressed in a burkha who didn’t speak any English. She had keep getting up for us because we were always moving around. After a while, I motioned for her to take the window and she declined. She used the little English she knew to tell me her knees bothered her and that aisle was better. She asked me to complete her Customs paperwork and she handed over her passport. After our next meal, she shared her after dinner digestive with me, a palmful of caraway and other seeds to freshen your breath and aid digestion. Not being a big fan of caraway, I took just a little bit and thanked her, popping it into my mouth. She shook her head, took my hand and dumped a bunch more onto my palm. I thanked her and chewed on the rest… She was really nice. I wanted to ask her a lot of questions regarding the culture of the burkha, but that will have to wait until another day, another woman. The food on Air India was actually quite okay for our palates. We ordered the Indian non-veg and were happily surprised. Whenever we were expected to eat continental style though – not so good.

When we finally arrived in Mumbai, it was 11:00 pm. Immigration was a breeze, taking only a few moments – not even one question from the officer. Next came the part I had been dreading – Customs.

When we arrived in Baggage Claim, I looked at the available luggage handlers and selected one who I thought could help. I told him that I had $40 on me and needed assistance with a large amount of cargo through Customs. He jumped to attention, assembling 3 or 4 other young men with trolleys to await my bags. I had expected my pets to come off first. When they didn’t, he went back into the loading area to find them. They were inside within five minutes. As soon as Grace saw me, she went nuts whining and barking, causing everyone to stare. It took six guys to get her crate (with her in it) off the revolving carousel. They kept stepping on each others feet and Grace shifted her weight, nearly causing the crate to tip over onto them. As soon as I could, I got her out of the crate and on a leash. She was the center of attention. Everyone was looking at us. Staring at us. The luggage guy was barking out orders to all the other helpers while Will was busy pointing out bags, boxes, and cases. The luggage guy wanted to know where we were going and well, there was a problem.

I had called Sprint before we left to make sure that my phone would be India-ready. I was sold the International package and didn’t have a way to test it. Apparently, the International package only works on the phone in the U.S. making calls INTO foreign countries. Once I arrived in Bombay, the phone did not work. My contact at the office had called while we were waiting at the airport in Chicago to let me know that he would be emailing me the name and phone number of the contact who would meet me in Mumbai and take me through to the domestic airport. Unfortunately, I never had access to my email and now had no phone access as well.

I explained this to my luggage handlers and they recommended taking the Jet Airways shuttle over. It was free. They would help me get on it even though we didn’t have our tickets. They were sure they could talk us on because my contact had thoughtfully sent the ticket numbers ahead, and I had them listed in my notebook. We started through Customs and with 8 trolleys full of bags, boxes, cases, and crates, plus about 8 or 9 people, a barking and whining dog, a cat, I think we overwhelmed the Customs agent. The luggage handlers kept loading one item after another, yelling to each other – by the time the last box went through, everything else had already left the area, like a tidal wave have come, sweeping all things away, leaving just me, the Customs agent, and one box. He asked me what was inside. I said personal items. He wanted to know where my papers were that listed every item. I looked at him blankly. He said open the box. Another agent came over and slit it open.

The box contained a Tibetan statue of Tara, the Goddess of Compassion. He had a lot of questions, but once I said I bought it on Ebay, he said, "go." We were pushed through the Jet Airways lines and through to the waiting room. I didn't even ask how they did it. We sat for a moment, then were ushered out onto the tarmac where a bus completely filled with people waited. The luggage handlers pushed our bags into any available opening, then stuck Will and the pets in the rear section of the bus, where they keep the tools, cleaning supplies and such - Grace had to make a five foot jump to clear the barriers - and then sent me to the front. A discreet request for a tip, money changed hands, and I stood in the stairwell of the bus as it sped off to the domestic terminal. It arrived about ten minutes later. Overall, the entire process took about 30 minutes.

When we got to the next airport, we had to ensure we had all the bags, boxes and crates, plus get my son and pets out of the underbelly of the bus. They jumped out covered in soot and grease, but okay. We approached the Jat Airways desk to arrange the next leg of the flight. At this point, Grace had had enough of this whole trip and refused to get anywhere near the crate. She was whining and barking, and the sound of her echoed around the nearly empty airport in the early morning hours. It sounded like someone was gutting an aminal alive. Of course, all eyes were again on us. Lance's crate was on top of Grace's, both sitting on a small trolley, the only size they had. While speaking with the agent, Grace pushed all her weight against the cage, sending her crate crashing down, and Lance's hurtling through the air landing on its top. Upside down, Lance joined in the cacophony and now everyone in the airport had stopped doing anything and just watched us, as we pulled the cratesopen, checked the animals for injuries and righted averything again. Grace must have realized her mistake because she stayed quiet for a while after that.

We had about five hours to kill, so we found a quiet corner to keep both animals out of their crates once we had our boarding passes. This calmed them down until it was time to hand them over to the agent. After a quick flight to Kolkata (just under two hours), we were finally able to meet our contact from the office who, with his staff, arranged everything getting us and our stuff out of the building and into two cars for our drive to the guest house.


Anonymous said...

Wow, did you capture all of this on film? Excellent writting. The story brought everything vividly to light. Smart choice on giving the big tip upfront before all hell broke loose. Any cheapsters would had surely been screwed and left to fend for themselves.

Your gmail account is bouncing back. Important update re: the new top dog. Jingled yesterday, MIXIE IM with top dog's email to contact him was received, but my damn pc crashed and I lost it. Please drop a line with your working contact info.

Love the blog!

Bat Boy

Please post pics soon!

Anonymous said...

40$ certainly did the magic..Hope you're settled..

Pls keep us updated with all your "India surprises" :)

Good luck

Radix(aka DesiKid@IndiaMike)

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