Thursday, December 27, 2007

Trek to India

I'm in my hotel in Bombay right now writing this post. There is a fountain outside the business center that only adds to my impression that the hotel is some sort of oasis within the chaos outside that is Bombay.

The trip here did not start out well. My original flight: Air India #349 direct from Shanghai to Delhi (with a stopover in Bangkok) was scheduled to take off at 1 AM on December 26. Yes, that is 1 AM after Christmas evening. The ticket was 1/4 the price for the two days surrounding Christmas, so I figured it was worth it. On my way to the airport, I received an email from (the Hong Kong-based website where I bought the ticket) notifying me that the flight had been delayed 3 hours. Nice of them to inform me, but a little too late.

When I checked in, I was given a middle seat. So not only did I have to bear the Air India quality of service on a long trip, I get to do it from the middle seat on an old Airbus 310. As I have written about before, Pudong Airport has nothing terrific going for it. It is even worse at night when everything is closed. No duty-free stores, no bookstores selling Chinese-only books, not even overpriced noodle shops. Apparently, at night, they turn off the heat as well. At least the lights were kept on for my fellow passengers and me. At 5 AM - yes, that's a delay of 4 hours - we boarded our plane. Originally, I was supposed to arrive in Delhi at 8:35 AM. I had a 12 PM flight to Bombay on a domestic airline, Kingfisher. 3.5 hours is enough, right? Of course, with the delay, I was going to miss this flight. So I called the airline and moved my flight to 2 PM. This would give me 2 hours from my new arrival time.

The plane was awful. It was old and smelled like a portapotty. The only saving grace is that after we landed in Bangkok, about half the passengers got off and the plane was left half empty. I was able to move over and get some elbow room at this point. But it only went downhill from here.

On arrival in Delhi, I ran off the plane so I could catch my next flight. I then spent 90 minutes in the line for immigration behind 30 Afghanis. Needless to say, the Indian immigration personnel were not ready to speed the Afghanis through security. When I finally made it out, our bags had been taken off the carousel. But I couldn't find my bag amongst them. I went over to the baggage office and they found a bag that looked similar (but not really). They then found that passenger's travel record and called him. He was already halfway home with my bag. After the other passenger returned with my bag, I was finally able to go through customs.

By this time, I had missed my Kingfisher flight. The Kingfisher counter told me that I should talk to Air India to compensate me for my flight. Of course, Air India is in a different building across the road and up a filght of stairs. At Air India, I was told that they were not responsible for the Kingfisher flight since I had booked that separately. They told me they could get me on a flight to Bombay but it didn't leave until 9 PM and I would still have to pay for it. Okay, back to Kingfisher down the flight of stairs and across the road. Kingfisher said that even though my ticket was fully refundable, since I was a no-show, it was counted as used. I could only get back the taxes. This is probably the one time in my life I will ever be happy that in India, taxes seem to make up ~40% of the total cost of a ticket. So in the end, I had to pay about $90 for a new ticket.

New ticket in hand, it was time to make it to the domestic terminal - a 20 minute drive from the international terminal. Twenty minutes for 15 km? Yes, this is India. I waited in a lounge for the shuttle to the other terminal. Some guy comes in and waves at everyone to go outside. He did not seem to be very official so I didn't follow him. Neither did anyone else. Then 2 minutes later, he does so again. This time, two Indian families went outside, so I followed. This other non-official guy asks to see my ticket and passport. He then tells me I have to go to another line near the taxis. I could see the "Official Interterminal Shuttle Bus" right in front of me, so I asked why I had to go near the taxis. He said it was because I was in terminal 1A and not 1B. Total BS, all happening right in front of the official desk. I ignored him, took my ticket and passport back and got behind the other Indian families.

After our 20 minute ride to the other terminal, I arrived at the Kingfisher counter. Here, everything seemed like it should be. They were courteous and checked me in quickly. I now just had to wait 3 hours until the flight was scheduled to depart. Inside, there were a total of 5 gates. Beijing is a relatively small airport for its passenger volume, but seriously, 5?! There are absolutely no jetways. Everybody has to board the bus to get to the plane.

At least the flight experience on Kingfisher was great. Everyone says Kingfisher is a revolution in Indian flying. It's true. I was offered bottle after bottle of water. I was also given a free pen and enjoyed television at my seat a la Jet Blue. The free meal was also pretty good.

In Bombay, I was safely in the hands of my hotel, Le Royal Meridien. I had called ahead for a car to pick me up (total cost 350 INR = $9). Once I got my bags from the carousel, I walked outside and immediately found my driver. He dropped me off at the hotel where I was upgraded to a nice room with a view of the pool. I quickly took a shower, brushed my teeth (with bottled water), and fell asleep.


Phyllis said...

you poor thing!!! i cannot believe you went through all that. travel in india is never easy, but that nearly wins for worst ride there.

liz and i are both in the office today and laughing as we read your posting. we were there together on a trip years ago and were checking our bags in at a domestic airport. we sympathize with you, as we had no idea whether we were leaving our bags with an official airport employee or some random indian man. no one had a uniform on and they took our bags in the middle of the terminal and not at some counter. then, i proceeded to the immigration area where the customs officer yelled at me b/c the person before me had left their passport and they did not seem to realize this. instead, this particular customs officer thought that i was trying to pass myself off as an indian woman. hello?! when we finally arrived back in the US and rcvd our luggage, we found that someone (maybe the man who took our bags) had stolen the fake "diamonds" that a vendor had gifted to us but left all the real stuff untouched. very, very odd! anyway, you will have an amazing time. even with all the craziness that comes with travel there (do not step on a train!), it is well worth it. it is hands-down one of the best places i have ever traveled to. happy new year!!!

Katie said...

That is a great story. At least you're there safely now!