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60 in the Air, 300 on the Ground October 1, 2006

Posted by KG in Bangladesh, India, Travels.
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It’s going to take me a little bit of time to process the fastest and most frenetic trip to India I’ve ever embarked upon.  The grand total time spent on the ground in the motherland was only slightly more than the total amount of time it takes to get to Calcutta from the East Coast.   A blog entry on the experience of Durga Puja will come, perhaps with photos, when I’ve digested it all.  In the interim, let’s talk about air travel.

When it comes to flights, I’ve very recently been spoiled.  The Department is good to us when the travel required is of the “across the globe” variety, and I am not going to question that policy.  (Actually, it’s fairly easy to defend, if you really want to get into it.)  But my travel experience  back and forth from Dhaka to Calcutta was painful in a way that I think any traveller, from budget to no-holds-barred, can appreciate.

Departure from Zia International started off ominously.  There was no real way of telling where exactly I was meant to check in, or how.  When someone stood up and waved at all the Calcutta bound passengers, I dutifully followed.  When another person did the same, I followed again.  With two hours to spare before the intended wheels up, it was perfectly okay.  But when all the computers went down, the check-in staff mentally checked out, and things started to get frustrating.  Then someone cut in front of me in line — in that inimitable South Asian “no, I was just standing in a line of my own” sort of way — and had the cheek to tell me to get some manners.  About then, my blood headed towards a state of boileration.

But I was in Bangladesh.  Here, things have a way of not working out.

Finally, the check-in staff noticed I wasn’t checking luggage and waved me through.  Then it was another glacial line through immigration, behind two Bangladeshi passport holders in the “Foreign Passport Holders Only” line.  And off to the transit lounge, or so I thought until I saw that there was none assigned.  1 hour before departure.

Eventually I did end up getting on a plane, a small prop, seated next to a nice marine engineer and behind a steady line of tiny cockroaches.  That last part is 100% true; it seems that the little miniature Gregor Samsa’s were looking to see Durga Puja as well.  The plane taxied for an abnormally long amount of time and I dozed off for a bit.  When I awoke, we were back at the gate and told to disembark.  It seemed that our flight was to be delayed.

The cause of delay was eventually revealed to be rain.   Take a minute there to digest the absurdity: a plane in Bangladesh unable to fly because of rain.  That’s like a plane in LA unable to fly due to smog, or a train in Switzerland stuck in the station due to excess amounts of cheese. 

The waiting befits yet another Kafka reference.  Undecipherable announcements came over the loudspeakers in English and Bangla.  When airport staff were asked what the announcement was, they claimed not to hear them and could provide no answers.  We were told to wait in one room, then to leave, then to sit in one lounge, and then another.  Other airlines took off, sailing like seagulls through the storm.  Eventually, samosas were provided and my fellow frustrated passengers munched away their complaints.  About 2.5 hours later, we were on the plane, and 30 minutes later I was on the ground in Calcutta.

Later, I found out my dad had an equally ridiculous experience trying to get information on my flight from the other side.  I wish I could re-tell his side of things, but I can’t remember the order of who he talked to or how many times he was told “oh no, the plane is on time.”  But it definitely was not a display of efficiency.

Now I’m not a huge fan of Zia International Airport, but it’s not so bad.  Especially compared to my frighteningly similar experience departing from Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose (nee Dum Dum) Airport in Calcutta.  There, the same “where do I check in?” dance continued, but with the added pleasure of no one knowing exactly what the status of the plane was.  Nothing.  When I finally made it past check in, I sat in a leather chair and waited for word on just why there was a problem.  Was it mechanical?  Was it rain, again?  Was it because the pilots had decided that maybe this job really wasn’t for them and quit to take dance lessons?  I never found out — which was significantly more frustrating than the “it’s the rain” excuse.  At least with a weather-related delay, I could transfer some of my anger, illogically, to Mother Nature.

That was a rather long digression to say, basically, that the Calcutta airport is not a fun place to be stuck.  Unlike Zia, Netaji airport’s international departure area has almost nothing to divert one’s attention from the fact that the walls are too white, the tea is weak, and your plane has not arrived.  At Zia:  a decent cafe with comfortable seats, an internet cafe-type-thing, a brightly painted rickshaw that explains how intrinsic the vehicles are to Dhaka, and a duty free shop that sells more than liquor.   At Netaji:  the aforementioned weak tea stall, a food station unaccessible after security check in, and two telephone booths.  It is not a fun place to wait, at all.  I wish I could write as much as I did about waiting for my outgoing flight, but the fact is that unlike the shuttling about I had in Dhaka, in Calcutta it was just waiting plain and simple.   No announcements, no hint of when we were leaving, nothing.

After 2.5 hours, though, we were on a plane.  The rest of the journey was uneventful, and I got home safe, sound, and exhausted.  It was a good trip (despite the maddening airplane issues) that I’ll try to write about before the memories and stories fade. 

Oh, and I forgot to mention that on my return flight there were no cockroaches.   I assume that’s because they managed to get Sunday off.  Jerks.

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