Guess what, India? We’re baaaaaack!
Nobody who knew the three of us believed it a year ago when—as old friends since our university days—Janine, Jaya, and I actually managed to meet up in the middle of India. So obviously, we just had to push our luck. (Actually, that bit nobody had any trouble believing…)
This time, Janine and I were supposed to meet up at the Mumbai International Airport. But due to a tragic annual event we have up north (winter), both our flights were delayed.
I’d been traveling from Scotland for over eighteen hours, much of that time spent on the runway as the plane was repeatedly de-iced. More than a day earlier, Janine left her home outside Washington DC in the middle of a blizzard, making it out on the last plane to take off before the Eastern USA put out the CLOSED sign and climbed back into bed to binge-watch old seasons of Walking Dead.
One thing about international flights is that they feed you. This is not, however, necessarily a good thing. Shortly after our flight took off, the attendants began distributing the trays. I think they had approximately two vegetarian meals for a flight headed to a country where over half the population are vegetarians. By the time they reached my section—so far back in steerage I expected to be chained to an oar by a whip-wielding flight attendant—they were offering passengers a choice of beef stew. (The choice was to take it or to leave it.)
“Beef stew.” The flight attendants repeated this to each incredulous passenger as they made their way toward me. “We only have the beef stew.” The next person would politely request, “Vegetarian.”
“No. Beef stew.”
“But I ordered the veg meal.”
“We didn’t get our meal orders because of the weather. All we have is beef stew.”
I have to hand it to the attendants. As far as I could tell, they never once got upset about having the exact same conversation with each and every passenger.
The passenger in front of me cried. Her husband glared at the attendant, who offered a bottle of water and a roll (no butter).
My turn. “I’ll have the veg meal please.”
The flight attendant’s smile never wavered but something in her eyes made me think about all the hours we still had to spend together. And that whip.
“Just kidding. Do you have any beef stew?” The smile turned beatific. I thought she might kiss me as she handed over the foil-covered meal. I peeled off the cover and…it was absolutely, completely, astonishingly inedible. In whatever form the contents of that tray had started life, they had obviously undergone some transformation that wouldn’t have been out of place in a SciFi horror flick, spreading to smother all items with a gelatinous brown goo. I pressed the foil back around it before it could escape and start turning my fellow passengers into gooey mile-high pod people, and asked my new flight attendant buddy for a coffee. She smiled sympathetically and offered me extra milk.
As the attendants repeated the same meal offer two more times over the course of the flight, neither their smiles nor the menu varied. By the third pass, they didn’t even pretend to hand out the trays as they pushed their little carts the length of our steerage economy cabin.
But hardship and deprivation can bring out the best in people. A woman across the aisle from me handed around one of those big discount bags of gummy candy and got a standing ovation.
When the flight landed in Mumbai, exhausted passengers stumbled off, desperate for anything that was:
- A) not beef stew and
- B) …actually, A) pretty much nailed it.
But first we had to run the stamp-intensive gauntlet that was passport control. Luckily, I’d been to India before so I knew how to line up before the row of immigration officers behind their high desks. Or, more precisely, how not to line up. There is, of course, nothing remotely resembling an actual queue. You just plunge in and crowd surf until you’re pushed up to the front. I could hear American voices behind me protesting bitterly that people were not waiting their turn and it was just so not fair, while British passengers cleared their throats fiercely.
I held out my paperwork to the agent. As he looked it over, we agreed that yes, Madam’s passport was very full and yes, Madam did go lots of places, and no, Madam didn’t know they would need several pristine passport pages for their stampage, and yes, Madam would most certainly see that she had more blank pages next time, and no Madam didn’t mind at all that after twenty-plus hours of beef-stew aggression and international travel, she didn’t resemble the photo in her passport. Frankly, if Madam did look like her photo at this point, either Madam or that passport would have to be shredded. Maybe both.
Behind me, the other Americans were still looking for actual lines to wait in, and still complaining about it. Lots. I hid my now copiously-stamped passport and tried to look Canadian.
The Mumbai Airport is in two widely-separated locations—Domestic and International—which have to be navigated Indian style. The usual friendly soldier with the usual honking huge gun waved me toward signs for Domestic transfers, and at last I ended up at a roped-off circle of chairs randomly placed in the middle of the airport terminal. Eventually, a lady in a quasi sari/uniform came over and told our group to follow her to the buses headed for the Domestic terminal. In the UK, that would work perfectly. Baby ducklings following their mother couldn’t fall into queue more precisely. Even in the US, passengers would lope along in a rough follow-the-leader line.
But this was India, where travelers are an independent breed. The others in the chair circle leaped to their feet and surged for the doors at a dead run. Uniform Lady made a good show of trying to keep up with them, but somehow I lost her in the general melee. Men in suits, grandmothers in saris, mothers in embroidered salwar kameez (holding babies and clutching children’s hands), and one severely jetlagged old American lady—we all trotted as a pack through the terminal, along corridors, down stairs, out the doors and over to the bus at the curb.
People tossed their suitcases into the luggage section under the bus and pushed aboard, sweeping me with them. When it became obvious that there were not enough seats for the entire crowd, Uniform Lady reappeared and began ordering people off the bus. This caused delays as they remonstrated with her.
But Uniform Lady was adamant, so we all waited through even further delays as each evicted passenger attempted to convince Uniform Lady they should remain in their
perch on top of the luggage rack/steps at side entrance/entire aisle at back half of bus/perfectly legitimate seat. Finally, all the luggage was removed from the under-bus compartments so the refugees could retrieve their luggage and put it on the next bus, which had actually been waiting immediately behind us the whole time. Uniform Lady walked our bus aisle, evicting two other indignant passengers pretending to have seats on the luggage racks at the rear, and at last waved us away.
When we arrived at the Domestic Terminal, there was no sign of our flight to Vadodara (a small airport relatively near Jaya’s home in Gujarat). I looked around the waiting area for Janine to make sure she wasn’t hiding behind the oversized glowing statue of a giant holding up a truly enormous tire. Nor was she inside the outpost of one of my favorite stores, Fab India. Just to be sure, I looked especially carefully for her over by the pair of gorgeous earrings (which I bought), or modeling the silk scarf (which I also bought) or by the block printed shawls (yeah, yeah…). [Don’t judge—I was still suffering post-traumatic-stew-disorder. I needed the retail therapy.] All I knew was that she had left for the Washington DC airport more than thirty hours earlier, just ahead of the blizzard closing airports across America’s east coast.
It’s safe to say that Janine and I were not the two sharpest knives in the travel drawer that night. But we didn’t have to be, because we have a foolproof method for finding each other in foreign countries in the middle of the night. I went to the only open coffee bar and ordered for two. [NOTE: for you amateurs out there, do NOT try this on your own. It only works with someone you’ve known for the better part of four decades, so that you know exactly how they will think.] When Janine eventually arrived at the Domestic terminal, she beelined it for the coffee bar, where I’d already ordered her latte.But we still had a problem. The crowd was nervously watching the departure gates, and when they finally put up the sign for the Vadodara flight, all surged forward, waiting for the gate to open. And waiting. And waiting. A woman in front of us cautioned that all the people pushing in from the sides would attempt to cut us off, and suggested that we link arms and form our own blockade. We waited some more. Eventually, the Vadodara sign was taken down again, and the blockade strategist wandered off. Still we waited.
Finally, the sign went back up and the departure gate attendant requested that everyone present ticket and passport. It was the last word he got in before the crowd surged through the gates en masse. The attendant gave a what-can-you-do shrug and turned away. Our passenger group rushed the doors only to find… more buses. Although there were several airplanes next to the terminal, apparently getting to our plane would require transport. After people filled the bus, indignant passengers without seats were evicted, and the driver was satisfied that all had official seating, the bus finally moved away from the terminal. First it drove for some distance straight out, then circled a roundabout to drive for several blocks back, passing the airport terminal where we had boarded the bus, and continuing on in the opposite direction. At another roundabout, it turned around again and headed back to the airport terminal.
As we slowed to a stop before a plane parked right outside the terminal, Janine whispered to me, “This is where we got on, isn’t it?”
As far as we could tell, we had just taken thirty minutes to board, ride, and depart from buses that took us across the street.
The flight itself was only half-an-hour, but the crew served a full meal. Racing down the aisle, attendants dealt each passenger a tray with a speed that a Las Vegas dealer would envy. My tray held a delicious breakfast (vegetarian) and a little booklet telling me that I’d won a wonderful prize of a discount on a water bottle. But before even the fastest eater could have finished, attendants were back to collect the trays, tell us to fasten seatbelts, and prepare for landing.
Neither Janine nor I could have told how long we’d been traveling at this point. But it didn’t matter because at the open end of the tiny airport, we saw Jaya waving.
We were back in India and that could only mean one thing. It was time to eat. After a huge and 100% beef-stew-free meal, we headed out for a walk in the nearby town park. We weren’t sure if we were hallucinating from the sleep deprivation and jetlag, but we saw what looked like Cinderella’s carriage (if Cindy had been REALLY into neon). Gorgeously dressed guests, beautiful horses, a full marching band, and women carrying gigantic light fixtures were all milling around.
“It’s a wedding,” Jaya observed in the disinterested tones of someone describing paint drying. “They have them most nights.” Sure enough, a young man dressed like a prince was soon seated in the carriage and it was drawn slowly through the streets, the band playing, and the women with the giant light fixtures now balanced on their heads leading the way. They didn’t get far before a tune that everyone seemed to know started up.
A group of gorgeously dressed women—wedding guests and bridal party—all began to dance in an expanding circle. “It’s called the garba,” Jaya explained. “Here in Gujarat, you can’t help dancing it.” Even as we watched, women approached me and asked me to join them. Ignoring my protests, they pulled me in.
Luckily, the movie Wedding Crashers had been among the oldie selections on the plane coming over. I’d watched it in between refusing beef stew, so I already knew the rules of wedding crashing (as listed here). But for those of you who might have missed the movie, here’s how I applied those rules:
- Invites are for losers. (Translation: jetlagged American tourists wearing inappropriate clothes and confused expressions don’t need invites.)
- Stop. Look. Listen. At weddings. In Life. (Translation: hold onto your passport in case you need to leave quickly.)
- No excuses. Play like a champion. (Translation: you’ll never see these people again. Unless that kid’s cellphone video goes viral…)
- Blend in by standing out. (Translation: try being the only foreigner wearing jeans and sandals in a sea of silk saris.)
- Never leave a fellow crasher behind. (Translation: so what if every single dancer is a woman? You can still pull that guy in…)
- Never walk away from a crasher in a funny jacket. (Translation: That would be the groom, actually. Always.)
I’m very sorry to report that both Janine and I attempted to dance the garba while Jaya did her best to record my dance failures for future blackmail purposes. US/Indian cultural understanding might have hit a new low.