Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Painful Passage to India - Part 2


So there we both were at the packed departure lounge for Calcutta at Dubai Airport, spaced out and drained from the first leg and six-hour linger, having then searched for a wheelchair for less-mobile mum and now waiting for the first boarding announcement.

Usually the airline lets those in wheelchairs and carrying babies board first but a major hindrance had materialised: a large number of passengers had decided to not so much as queue before the gate as form an impenetrable crowd of bodies and baggage blocking the way for whoever was called first.

Now I could understand the thinking behind this approach if we were about to board a Ryanair short-hop with unallocated seating, when many flyers customarily want first dibs on seats to the extent that they'll start queuing long before boarding, and if you want to guarantee a seat next to your partner then you have join the line.

However, on a long-haul flight with pre-allocated seats, when they call you on incrementally in specific row sections, there is actually zero point in queuing early unless you somehow knew they were calling your seats first. Just standing blank-faced like cows waiting for milking, and then of course refusing to budge when the announcement arrives for rows A to C to please begin boarding.

easy boarding - not realistic

Naturally, those holding the correct tickets can’t get past the unmoving mass, some of whom at the front have the cheek to try walking through anyway, then look affronted when told it’s not their turn by the gate attendant.

And then, to make matters nicely worse, instead of sensibly rectifying the situation with a polite yet firm announcement for everyone to just back away from the gate until your section's been called, the airline then announces for rows D to G to begin boarding, after the previous rows have very visibly been unable to get through.

Hell breaks loose as a mini stampede piles through, Bengali curses and exclamations ringing out as people get shunted. All mum and I can do is hang back shaking our heads at the sheer needless idiocy of it all - I regret not recording the scene with my camera to create a realistic anti-advert for the airline and air travel in general.

flight welcome - not realistic

Once we’d finally scrambled onto the jumbo the bad luck continued. The only thing that had kept me alert and sane on the previous flight was the entertainment screen with games and movies on demand. On this one the screen was too small and hazy and you could only watch what they had chosen at the times they choose. Stuck with an obscure film I could barely see or hear on a much noisier flight, I wasn’t a happy camper.

The only thing that could alleviate the situation was a semi-decent in-flight meal as the extended wakefulness and previous missions had triggered some major rumbles. A dragged-out feed could also kill the best part of an hour too, but it would have to be something soft-ish as my swollen jaw couldn’t handle anything harder than a banana. At long last it arrived.

Lamb medallions - the airline version, ie. having sat around for so long their consistency was closer to pencil erasers than meat. Unable to chew them without wincing and clasping my face, that was the moment I hit rock bottom, 30,000 feet above the Arabian Sea. All my options had dried up. Nothing left could lighten my spirits while trapped in that seat – I couldn’t even drink alcohol as I was on so many antibiotics and feeling rough as fuck. I did try though, and funnily enough it didn’t help.

After managing to scrape together a mini-meal from the limp side vegetables, condiment sachets and mum's donations I had to ride out the rest of the flight playing a primitive version of Battleships on a tiny fuzzy screen that kept freezing, broken up only by an old Bollywood flick with no subtitles.

hahaha

I spent the last two hours sat motionless with my eyes closed, praying for the release of sleep that wouldn’t arrive until we’d landed and made it out of the airport and back to the hotel. Needless to say that part didn’t go particularly smoothly either but that’s a different story to recount another time, along with the more positive sides to India that weren’t mired in chaos.

In that first jerky hour-long cab ride through central Calcutta however, what should've been an entertaining eye-opening welcome to the city’s bustle seemed like the shrieking road to hell, a ceaseless barrage of noise, fumes and gridlock traffic, emaciated figures looming up at the window at every standstill, mutely begging us captive passengers for currency we didn’t yet possess.

It put things into perspective though – my immediate problems of oral pain, hunger and sleep deprivation would have receded by the next day, the jaw a little longer, although that would be superseded by the affliction cursing most Western visitors here, of which I won’t need to go into much detail.

My hardy mum also needed to dialyse every other day at local hospitals while experiencing the same, struggling with the nature of the beast of a modern-day urban India completely at odds with the more serene memories of her childhood here.



Kris Griffiths BBC link  Kris Griffiths website  Kris Griffiths recent disaster story

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Painful Passage to India: Part 1


I’ve had some great luck on flights over the years. For my very first long-haul, to LA in the mid-90s, my fam and I were jammily upgraded to business class after my dad’s winning banter with the check-in clerk.

Then in early 2011 I hit it off with a ginger girl sat beside me on a budget flight to Marrakech, telling her she reminded me of Catherine Tate with her Easyjet-orange hair, a bold negging gambit that paid off as we're still together (and she looks nothing like Catherine Tate).

It's not all been good though. A domestic flight to Inverness in 2004 was interrupted halfway by the pilot announcing that due to an “engine fault” we had to turn back to London immediately. Not only was that return descent as trepidatious as can be, we had to wait hours to get back into the air and no one was compensated.

Finally, a night-flight to Tokyo in 2009 turned into a bizarre battle of endurance with the paranoid Japanese man next to me, which ended worse for him than it did for me.

All of them were blown out of the sky though by my Emirates flight to Calcutta last month, during which I reached a nadir of despair that was to become a harbinger of my stay in India.


The prologue to it all is that I’d actually been looking forward to the trip for months, to be finally visiting my Anglo-Indian mum's hometown (she'd not returned since childhood) and to meet at the triennial global reunion in Calcutta hundreds of fellow Anglo-Indians whose dying community I’d just featured for the BBC.

The first major spanner in the works was that a long-dormant wisdom tooth had suddenly chosen to unleash a siren-wailing level of pain in the months leading up to the trip. My dentist told me it had to come out and booked me in for the extraction – five days before the flight.

The op wasn't that bad, the only truly grim moment a preliminary injection penetrating my gum almost to the jawbone, but it was nothing compared to the ensuing days of swelling, inability to eat and ultimately a rank infection necessitating further injections back into the wound.

dentist website photo - a bit unrealistic

By the time I’d arrived at Gatwick with my mum I’d taken over 50 painkillers in five days as well as a triple-course of antibiotics and now a long stretch of anti-malaria pills which, as many will affirm, can make you feel nauseous for hours.

My final problem was that as I can’t sleep on planes the first seven-hour night-leg was spent awake and aware of a new development – altitude pressure causing extraction-wound throbbing. Then after landing in Dubai there were six hours to kill before the connecting flight, so into the bright morning we traipsed, looking for a taxi we could haggle with a handful of old dollars and a five-pound note to drive us round the sights and keep us alert 'til check-in.

classic brave face

Funnily enough we found an Indian driver seduced by the fiver of all things who agreed to take us on a whistle-stop tour of the Burj al-Arab and Khalifa. It was trippy enough beholding these behemoths jet-lagged in blazing sunshine having left freezing dark England ten hours previously, but by the time the next busy departure lounge swam into view five hours later, that’s when things really, really started to get shit.

Continued in part 2: Dubai to Calcutta