As I prepared for this trip, it seemed like everyone I spoke to gave me the same advice. “Something will go wrong, but don’t let it bother you.” “Roll with the punches.” Ok, got it. I write from seat 27F of a Boeing 777-200 heading to Delhi. Today, everyone—me, the 3 other girls, and our professor—was supposed to fly from home to JFK airport in New York. Then, we’d all meet at the gate for our Air India flight and be on our way together. That was the plan. Not too complicated. All you people who warned me about bumps in the road? How right you were.
My flight from Raleigh to JFK was fine. Great, even. I had a friendly seatmate on the tiny American Eagle plane—a PhD student at Vanderbilt heading home to Poland—and we chatted for the duration of the flight. Once we arrived in rainy New York, we wandered over to the international terminal together. We said goodbye and went off to our separate check-in counters. I got in line at the Air India check-in desk behind Liz, one of the other girls in my group. When I received my boarding passes from the ticket agent, she asked me if I’d like an aisle seat. “You look tall…you would like the extra legroom…how about an exit row?” Fantastic. Boarding passes in hand, I headed down to the duty-free area of the international terminal to grab a bite to eat. I ran into my Polish friend again, and we ate McDonald’s together.
I made it through the second security checkpoint with no problems. One of the TSA guys wanted to look at the transformer and adaptor that I had in my backpack, and when he unzipped my bag, he had to move my stuffed Eeyore out of the way in order to reach the adaptor. I was the only one in the security area. He looked up at me, smiled, and said, “Eeyore’s my favorite, too. I really identify with him. Have a safe flight.” Wonderful—no problems there. I meandered through the very empty gate area, bought a few bottles of water, and found a good spot to wait for the girls.
Liz and Cynthia came along shortly. Cynthia had been in touch with Colleen, our 4th group member, who was supposed to be arriving at JFK from Philadelphia. Colleen’s flight was delayed and delayed again—she was having trouble deciding whether to get on the flight or not because she wasn’t sure that she’d make it to JFK in time for the India flight. Our professor was supposed to be arriving at JFK around 3 pm, but Cynthia had been texting him and his flight from Chicago was delayed as well. Liz and Cynthia’s AT&T phones both dropped service, so we were communicating with our professor on my phone. At about 4 pm, he texted me saying that his flight had been forced to land in Hartford, CT. Colleen’s flight hadn’t left yet. Our plane to India was scheduled to depart at 5:05 pm. Colleen and our professor will just take the next flight to Delhi-Calcutta, but that means that Liz, Cynthia, and I are on a plane to India right now. Alone. Well, not alone—we have each other—but much more alone than we thought we’d be.
So ok. We’re going to India by ourselves. Awesome. We made some quick calls to our parents to say goodbye (on my phone since the others weren’t working), but we decided to wait to tell our moms that our professor wasn’t going to make it on the plane with us. No sense in worrying them about it—there wasn’t anything we could do to change the situation. I told my dad that Colleen and our professor would be arriving at a later time, just because I needed to tell somebody. But Cynthia and Liz and I gathered our things and got some money changed so we wouldn’t be stranded. Rupees mean absolutely nothing to me. I think the exchange rate is something like 40 or 50 rupees to the dollar, which makes rupees basically like play money. It even kind of sounds like videogame money. I have no concept of how much stuff will cost, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out pretty quickly.
As we were preparing to board the plane, the gate agents fumbled to hang up a banner that said “Congratulations! Welcome Aboard Flight 102! First Arrival to Terminal 3 at Indira Gandhi International Airport!” I didn’t really know what to make of the sign, but then I heard the announcement, “If you have been following the press, you’ll know that today’s flight 102 to Delhi, with continuing service to Kolkata, is the first flight to land in the brand new integrated terminal at Indira Gandhi International Airport!” The announcement continued, but basically this flight is a big deal. We got special commemorative gym bags as we boarded the plane, and a representative from the terminal construction company is on board. We’re about an hour and a half into the flight, and the pilot just made an announcement saying how we’ll be greeted with a small ceremony when we land and that all passengers will be receiving certificates to mark the occasion. I think I even heard something about water cannons. Wow. How’s that for making an entrance? I was flipping through the magazine in the seatback pocket, and there was a big article about the new terminal “T-3”. It’s designed to accommodate 34 million passengers per year, and it’s home to Southeast Asia’s longest runway (which we will be landing on). The article specifically mentions this flight (AI 102) as being the first to land at “the biggest and most modern airport terminal in the world”. I’m pretty excited to see what all the hubbub is about!
After receiving our fancy gym bags, Cynthia, Liz and I boarded the plane. I plopped down in my emergency exit aisle seat and promptly realized that my television was broken. I showed the sari-clad flight attendant and she shared my sorrow (“That is very sad indeed.”) and offered me another aisle seat nearby. Easy peasy. Moved my bags over, had an overhead compartment all to myself, ended up with the blanket, pillow, and water bottle I brought from the first seat. As soon as I sat down, I tried to buckle my seatbelt. No luck. The fitting (the not-buckle part) was jammed underneath the seat cushion and wedged under/around/between the armrest mechanism for the middle seat. I found the flight attendant again and asked for some help. She couldn’t get the seatbelt fixed, so she grabbed the head stewardess, who didn’t have much luck either. They had me sit in the middle seat for takeoff, but I got permission to sit in the seat with the broken buckle during the flight. The head flight attendant came back with a pair of pliers and wrestled with the buckle for a bit, but then it was time for takeoff, so she retired to her seat. My seatmate is an older lady. She doesn’t speak much English (if any), but we’re getting along just fine.
I ate my first Indian meal—I chose to have the Indian dinner, rather than the Continental-style dinner. The meal consisted of chicken curry (chicken, rice, and green, rather anonymous veggies), a roll with butter, plain nonfat yogurt, a tiny salad with a hot pepper and a lemon slice, a dessert that I think was some sort of rice pudding, and water. The chicken was spicy (and I can handle some heat), but I watched the kid eating across the aisle from me and figured out that the thing to do is to have a bite of chicken curry and then a scoop of yogurt. The dessert was yummy. It looked a little shady (picture milk with teeny, skinny pasta strands, and some suspicious green topping), but once I figured out that the green stuff was a pistachio crumble, I felt much better. Before dinner, the flight attendants came around with drinks and the most adorable snacks ever. I received a packet of “Cloud Hoppers”, a mix of cloud-shaped pretzels and airplane-shaped crackers. So cute.
When we arrive in Kolkata, there should be a car waiting at the airport to take us to the residence where we’ll be staying. Before we get to Kolkata, however, the plane stops in Delhi. It’s 13.5 hours from New York to Delhi, then a short layover (and our super-duper welcome ceremony!), then an hour to Kolkata from Delhi. Altogether we should be arriving in Kolkata at around 10pm tomorrow.
Air India 102, the inaugural flight into the new terminal (T3) at the Delhi airport, was a big deal. I already mentioned how we received special gym bags as we boarded the plane. Shortly before landing, cabin staff distributed personalized certificates to all the passengers. As we taxied to the gate, two firetrucks made an archway for the plane to drive through—that was the water cannon thing. Then, when we disembarked, some women on the jetway gave out special keychains. As we slowly made our way up the jetway, we joked around, “What if we get interviewed for a newspaper!?”. And then it happened. A reporter and a cameraman signaled to me and asked if they could speak to me. I awkwardly answered a few questions and moved along. “Did you girls see that!? I’m gonna be famous in India!” At the doors from the jetway into the terminal, two more women stood distributing flowers and boarding pass covers. Behind them, another pair pressed their fingers into pots of red paste and gave all the disembarking passengers red dots on their foreheads. Of course, Liz, Cynthia, and I got dotted.
We felt so Indian, but we clearly didn’t look the part. As we made our way through the terminal, photographers, reporters, and cameramen followed us. At one point, we stopped to receive special CDs (maybe DVDs?) from a T3 employee. The reporters flocked around us and began interviewing Cynthia and I. Liz got a little left out—I think Cynthia and I were more the focus of the attention because we’re both tall. The reporters asked me even more questions, I think because of my blonde hair. I’m afraid we didn’t do a great job of answering the questions. One man said, “You are well traveled and have seen many airports in the world. How does this one compare to the others? What airports does this remind you of?” We made some comments about T3 being very nice and smelling new and having pretty colors, but I didn’t really address the question about other airports. We turned down some more photo ops and interviews and walked away. We realized that none of us had really been to a whole lot of other places before—we certainly didn’t have much to compare the airport to. The terminal was new and clean and uncrowded, but it pretty much looked like an airport terminal.
We realized why the Indian press was so excited about the opening of T3 when we arrived at the old terminal where our flight to Kolkata would be departing from. A rickety Air India bus transported us from T3 to the other side of the airport, which resembled a jail. We’re talking barbed wire fences, crumbly brick, banged up baggage carts, and rusty tractors to pull them. We went inside to wait for our flight and enjoyed a round of celebratory “we made it to India” Kingfishers at the airport bar. Cynthia paid for them using a 500rs note and a 1 dollar bill—the bartender wanted to see American money.
The flight to Kolkata was about 2 hours long, and we arrived around 11 pm local time. Our bags all made it through (thankfully!) and we had no troubles with customs. We got some money changed and went outside to find our driver, who was holding a sign that said “Loreto Sealdah Notre Dame”. The man picking us up was the bus driver for the school where we’ll be working for the next month. The twenty minute ride from the airport to the Gomes residence was a really intense introduction to India. Driving here is even crazier than in Europe, and none of the cars have sideview mirrors. Since it was a British colony, India drives on the left. All the knobs here turn the other way, too—righty tighty, lefty loosey doesn’t do any good.
The drive to the guesthouse was like a game of look and find. I Spy…a naked woman, a stray dog, a Kolkata police booth, human-powered rickshaws, a statue of Ganesh, a roadside slum, a man carrying a bag of potatoes on his head, an ambulance stuck in traffic, a pedestrian barely missing getting run over by the speeding cars. Absolute chaos. When we arrived at the residence, the couple who own the home, Richard and Cecilia, welcomed us and showed us to our room. We met the other travelers who are staying here—there are 3 English kids (2 girls and a guy) and a few Irish girls. Liz, Cynthia, and I are living in a room with 4 beds (one for Colleen, who should be arriving any time now) and a private bathroom (toilet and shower!). We strung up our mosquito nets and got ourselves unpacked.
Another little speedbump I’m dealing with involves my phone. I brought my cell phone to India having purchased a special international plan that would allow me to have internet access here. The humidity and heat are making my Droid’s touchscreen do funny things, and the clock hasn’t switched over yet. I called my parents last night to let them know that I had arrived safely, but that the internet wasn’t working. We went to an internet café today (7/15) and I was all prepared to post on the blog, but I found out I couldn’t use a flash drive to transfer the files. We’re going to a different internet café tomorrow, and the Irish girls told us we can use flash drives there.
Today (7/15), we showered, went to the internet café, went to the grocery store, and napped. We haven’t been eating much—haven’t really had much appetite—but we are forcing ourselves to eat a little bit. This should be a great way to lose some weight (: Our professor still isn’t here. He sent us an email saying that he would arrive between 3 and 6 pm today, but the time window came and went, and he’s not here. Richard said that he called and left a number for us to call, but we don’t have phones yet.
So, India is a lot. Of everything. The stereotypes are completely true—there is music playing all the time, it rains in the afternoons, it’s a billion degrees, there are people and weird smells everywhere. I’m not adjusted yet, and it’s going to take awhile. We’re going to the school for the first time tomorrow. I think that getting to know some of the girls there will help the adjustment—it will be easier to have relationships with some people here, so I don’t just see everyone as a faceless, nameless mass of humanity. The poverty is hard to overlook, and we’re in one of the more affluent areas of the city. We’re scared to do much on our own—I want to do a little bit of sightseeing, but it’s hard to do that here. When you walk outside, you have to know where you’re going and get there quickly. You can’t just go out for a stroll.
I’ll try to post pictures as much as I can, but the girls at the house said that bringing a camera to the school is a bad idea because the kids get obsessed with seeing their photographs. I’ll probably wait to bring my camera to the school until the end of the trip, but we’ll see how things go. I’ll post more as soon as I can! Much love.