August 7, 2010

Yesterday (Thurs-Fri PDT) was such a whirlwind, I can’t remember a day or setting where I’ve been so challenged, so sensually (by that I mean in terms of all my senses working under a sensory overlead). It’s amazing to think I could travel 10,000 miles from India to the Valley of the Sun in one piece, both mentally and physically.

The drive from the Pune office to the airport was uneventful enough. The driver arrived a little late, but a couple of my India team developers went out of their way to ensure I was well taken care of – as if it was all they had to do from the first moment I had stepped into our Vadodara office shortly after noon on Monday! The warmth and fellowship that remains in my spirit for those guys (and girl!) is close to beyond my capabilities to express in words. Needless to say, while it wasn’t necessarily a tearful farewell, it remained nevertheless a heartfelt one.

The Pune airport, like the Baroda and Ahmadebad ones prior to that, is a drawback to air travel in the ’60s and ’70s, when you weren’t just flying, you were traveling! You walk out onto the tarmac where the plane is being loaded from both the front and rear. As soon as you walk outside from the (relatively) air-conditioned lounge onto the tarmac the humidity hits you in the face like a 2×4; it may not be raining cats and dogs (and camels) the way it was in Vadodara the day before – in fact, the sun was out – but it’s every bit as humid as I like it, the kind that empties itself into one’s every pore only to find it emptied out into the universe around you while you’re not watching.

The Jet Airways flight to Mumbai might have been only twenty minutes in duration, but it took us the better part of an hour to get there because the pilots had to fly through the monsoon clouds. It didn’t work too well, one of the more turbulent flights I’ve experienced in a year of extremely turbulent flights already. Good thing Tracey wasn’t there, she would have freaked – truly white knuckles time. The Chinese lady sitting next to me was reading a book called “Seven Ways To Health And Happiness”; I had to feel taking this flight wasn’t one of them.

The flight itself was bad enough, it was upon arriving at Mumbai at the domestic (as opposed to international) terminal that things started getting dicey. Local knowledge says all you have to do is disembark your plane, grab the waiting bus that takes you to the domestic airline terminal, grab a ticket at the kiosk for transport to the international terminal, wait for your number to be called, get in line for the transfer, then take the bus to your ticket home. Sounds simple, right? I got my international transfer ticket easy enough, but now 45 minutes later I’m there in the designated area watching the line to the international terminal bus grow smaller, then larger as interlopers from our area decide that waiting for any number – let alone ours – was something akin to waiting for resident Barack Obama to do something positive about the unemployment numbers. Fat chance of that.

The attractive young Indian lady sitting next to me (either newly engaged or a maid of honor to be, I presumed, from the temporary tatoos Indian women get when they are part of a Hindu engagement ceremony) traveling alone was starting to get a look of concern bordering on panic – probably similar to my own, if body language is to be understood – so, after 45 minutes of watching the line to the international terminal bus expand and contract like some boa constrictor after consuming a mouse and contemplating the possibility that if I “go sheep” I might get stuck in Mumbai for another night, week, year, or lifetime, I looked at her and said “we’re outta here – follow me!”. Which is exactly what she did.

It was bad enough that the bus we finally embarked on took its own damned sweet time making its way around every freakin’ possible construction site at the international terminal; the fact that we were dumped off without any idea as to where we were or ought to be going was even worse. I looked at all those airline signs hanging from the terminal ceiling trying to figure where the Continental Airlines check-in booth might be, but there were literally thousand of people jammed into the terminal, with little room to move. OK, I’ll admit to having been a bit nervous at feeling so far from home and having my bearings so challenged.

After what seemed like hours of walking around deer-eyed like some juvenile travel idiot, I put my laptop case down on the floor in order to find my cell phone and just so happened (why at this juncture I’m not sure how) to see a Continental Airlines sign pointing me to check-in. Overcome with relief, I yelled, “Thank you, Jesus!”, which I’m sure got the attention of all the Hindus and Muslims in the near vicinity. The crisis was over, but not the chaos.

Thirty minutes later, I find myself awash in a sea of pilgrims seeking a way out at gates 2-4 of the Mumbai airport. For whatever reason, there are three flights – Continental to Newark, Air India to Delhi, and Air Arabia to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – all departing within minutes of each other. There is no air conditioning and even less floor space for the literally hundreds of poor souls crammed into one single gate area. The 50+ Muslim women gathered together for the flight to Riyadh alternatively stand up or sit down at the whim of the leader of the group. The Catholic nun in her gleaming white alb and shining silver crucifix (looking like the Blessed Mother to me) is a sea of calm amidst all the confusion. I say a quiet prayer to God to thank Him for leading me to Roman Catholicism and wish I had the nerve to take a picture with my Blackberry of the crazy scene.

I need to get myself out of this situation, and fast. The place stinks, and I’m soaking wet with perspiration and tension from top to bottom, so I duck myself into a men’s restroom and start peeling off the clothes I’m wearing in front of all the men gathered there. I think it’s pretty shocking to them, but I didn’t care. The work clothes go off, the casual clothes on, and a bathroom attendent takes sympathy on me and directs me both to the water and the exit, for which I compensated him the crazy equivalent of ten U.S. dollars. Believe me, every cent of it was worth it.

I duck into a little restaurant/bar called “Celebrations” and understand their name – just to get this far warrants a celebration in and of itself! It’s completely empty except for me and some fat white guy in a red t-shirt nursing a Kingfisher, which, as it is packaged (like a bottle of wine), seems a bit much for me, even at this point. The Foster’s Lager I shoot is worth the $30 equivalent to what they were charging. I ask t-shirt guy how his Kingfisher is; he replies without looking up, “better than your Fosters”. I call my folks to let them know I’m OK, but now all of a sudden there’s a negotiation for my tip. I’m out of rupies so I give both the host and the bartender $5 in U.S. money each and a big smile breaks across both their faces.

The Foster’s helps soothe my nerves and prepares me for the final stage of the drama. The scene at gates 2-4 remains something like “The Year of Living Dangerously”, or at the very least east the fall of Saigon – people crammed in everywhere, just trying to make sure they get out of this hellhole, and fast. Finally, the business class passengers for Continental 49 are called, and it’s sayonara to everything that had been my last four days of life. Relaxing in business class and watching the poor saps (in any other situation, like me!) who would be stuck in coach file in for the next fifteen hours, I knew it was only the fine line of fate and circumstance that allowed me to be even nursing that chilled glass of champagne while everyone else was trying to figure out where to put their kids and their luggage.

The cabin doors close. The Challengers’ “Adventures In Paradise” plays on my MP3 player. My book on Thomas Merton breaks in half from all the humidity of the past few days. I’ve got a 15-hour flight ahead of me, but the seat is comfortable and my traveling companion in the seat next to me has already collapsed in a heap of exhaustion and is snoring away.

Life is good.

Fifteen hours later, I see the same Indian girl who joined me back at the Mumbai domestic airport in line at customs in Newark. I smile. She acts like she’s never seen me before. After the loing flight everyone looks like a piece of clothing hanging on a clothes line. An hour later, I’m seated on a humble little 737 bound for Phoenix. Everyone in first class is ordering coffee and juice. I tell the steward, “white wine chilled, and keep them coming”. He replies, “starting early today, huh?” I say, “I don’t even know what today is”.

Back in Phoenix the weather is searing hot and dry, and the palm trees stir in a soft murderous breeze. I return home to a car that doesn’t start (the ’99 Saturn needs a new battery). The rabbits are happy to see me – probably only because they associate me with bunny treats. I’ve got three work calls I need to attend to, as if nothing had happened in the last 24 hours. I’m beyond tired.

A message on my machine says I need to contact my doctor for the MRI on my prostate needed in preparation for my operation a little over a month’s time.

Life goes on.

Pool temp: 94 degrees

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 00:08 | Comments (0)
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