(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

I’ve had a couple of requests to write a blog about our recent trip to India. The suggestions were mostly from demented friends. Normally that wouldn’t require a request since I generally enjoy writing about my adventures. This particular trip was more a case of misadventures and for some reason I was less than motivated. Given that part of the purpose of this blog is for my own personal documentation, it’s best I record the good with the bad - and the ugly.

Over the years I’ve had some pretty crazy things happen to me. I was arrested for being incorrectly identified as a drug dealer in Switzerland. I mistakenly wandered through a secure area (unmarked) outside Cairo and was arrested by a group of armed soldiers. And so forth. So things happen. Some you can control. Others you can’t.

In this case it was a bizarre series of things that made us question why the heck we decided to go to India in the first place.

(I’m writing in the Bujumbura airport en route to Rwanda and a cockroach just crawled across my table near my French fries.  I subjected him to the bottom of the salt shaker and now he has gone to where all cockroaches go when they die – which I’m pretty sure is hell.)

So for starters, Kiran, Priya and I were all sick in the days and hours prior to departure. I lost my dinner from the night before just as I was walking out the door to go to work and then the airport. We strongly considered calling it off but in the end we decided to soldier on. Silly us.

After an overnight in Nairobi to see Priya’s friend from school, the flight to Delhi turned out to be delayed by a couple of hours. Not a serious glitch but it was annoying and would move our arrival to 1am or so. Nonetheless, my stomach was starting to feel better so my optimism for the trip was increasing. Silly me.

Bleary-eyed, we arrived in Delhi. Kiran was good but she’s a lot more active than the last time that we flew with her. We made our way to immigration and, long story short, they didn’t like my proof of vaccination for yellow fever. After a while we were escorted to a back room where, a couple of hours later, we would learn that I was going to be quarantined for the next six days (or turn around and leave the country as the man so politely suggested). I figured immediately that this unpleasant bureaucrat was gunning for a little bribe since: a) he took long pauses as he was completing the document of my doom, a method I’ve seen before, b) my proof of vaccination had already been acceptable to India in a previous trip in addition to many other countries over the last eight years, and c) we couldn’t imagine such a stiff penalty when it was obvious that I was already vaccinated.

home sweet home
Nonetheless, it stuck. By 3am we were stunned to find ourselves being hauled away from the airport in the back of a dirty little Ministry of Health paddy wagon. We arrived at the yellow fever hospital/incarceration facility. My passport was taken away and we were locked in. Priya and Kiran were free to go but we chose to stay together while we figured out how to get me out.

I won’t go into all the efforts to convey reason to the Ministry of Health but it involved the US Embassy, friends of ours who are doctors in Delhi, the clinic and doctor in the US where my vaccination was administered and many others. Alas, it was all for not. It was the first time since I was born that I would remain indoors for six days in a row – something that most prisoners are not even subjected to.

It could have been worse. I did have a TV, air conditioning and, likely thanks to having a ten-month-old baby, a large room. I was given a small hand towel but no food (Priya ran errands for me thankfully). No information was provided to me except, thankfully, that which Priya obtained using her Hindi. I can’t imagine how it would have been if I’d been alone. Eventually Priya got me a local phone and a USB internet key which made a huge difference.

passing the time
The first few days were filled with anger and I didn’t sleep well. As the days went by we began to feed off the positive energy from Kiran and we enjoyed some good family time. With a day and a half to go, Priya and Kiran headed north to Mussoorie in the Himalayan foothills where I would join them the next day, assuming all went well.

In fact I was released on schedule. The guy at the facility where I was incarcerated felt bad and gave me a warm smile as I was leaving. I had a hard time returning the favor but I eventually did, knowing that the whole thing likely had nothing to do with him.

me on the day I was released
It was a weird feeling coming out of the facility. I wasn’t used to the intense afternoon heat having been indoors for a week. I’d arranged for a little tuk-tuk taxi which carried me to freedom. I headed directly to the Delhi airport to catch a one-hour flight to Dehradun. From there Priya’s friends had arranged a taxi to take me up into the hills where we would spend the weekend.
doesn't look like where I went to school
The weekend was a great change from the previous week. Priya’s class reunion was a good time and it was nice to meet some of the people I’d heard stories about for several years but had never met. The school, established in 1854 by a company of British officers and two American missionaries, is located in a beautiful hillside setting in the former British hill station of Mussoorie. Renowned for its academics, it is among the more well-known boarding schools of the Indian subcontinent and south Asia. It’s an impressive setting, particularly when it’s clear.
the class of '92 and their families

our host Fabi and our little gymnast
 About forty hours after arrival in the cool mountains, it was already time to leave. On Sunday we traveled to Dehradun by taxi and then caught the train onwards towards Delhi. Once in the city we checked into the hotel I’d booked while in quarantine. It was located in the heart of town and provided walking access to much of what we wanted to do. Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse again. This time it was Delhi belly and the innocent victim was my dear wife. My only two non-quarantine days in Delhi were to be spent looking after Kiran and staying in, or close to, the hotel. It was another annoyance but unfortunately it would not be our last. The next twist in our misadventures was just around the corner.
the wonderfully supportive Tyles and us in Delhi
smiling in the traditional Ambassador taxi
On Tuesday it was time to leave. We caught a night flight for Nairobi and it was once again time to test my ability to sleep on an airplane. I failed, of course, except for about an hour or so. I was very much longing to be home and in my own bed. Kenya Airways and the Nairobi airport, however, had other plans. A couple hours before arriving in Nairobi, the pilot announced that in fact we would not be going there. Surprise. We were now heading for Dar es Salaam. All we knew at that point was that the runway was “blocked”. We would find out later that an EgyptAir flight had sort of a crash landing and skidded off the runway. They were conducting an investigation as to whether the problem was the plane or the runway. By the time they figured it was the plane, nearly thirty flights had backed up and been re-routed.

Now ordinarily I would have nothing against traveling to Dar except that we don’t live there anymore. We live in that little, elusive dot in the middle of Africa called Burundi.  Nonetheless, Dar it was. In fact Dar it would be for the next 13 hours after we arrived. The airport would be my new captivity as we would be subjected to the worst kind of punishment – intermittent hope. Our crew by law was not allowed to continue with us on to Nairobi (due to how long they’d already worked or something) so a new team had to be flown in from Nairobi to fly us back to Nairobi. There were periodic promises regarding when they would arrive and when we might leave. Though we knew right away that we would not make our connection to Bujumbura, as it became evening we began to consider the fact that we might be stuck in Nairobi if we ever got there. Through it all, Kiran was fantastic and, in spite of all the dramas (and her diarrhea), she just took it all in stride. She seems to do well at helping us keep things in perspective. And watching her face when she eats a lemon slice is priceless.

Eventually we did catch our flight to Nairobi and as feared, it was too late to continue on to Bujumbura. It was midnight and I was operating on an hour of sleep or so from the night before. I now had to brave the Kenya Airways transit counter to get boarding passes for flight to Bujumbura the next morning, or rather later that morning, and then catch a shuttle to a hotel. We’ve had this happen to us before and the whole process might as well be a day in Guantanamo.

The transit desk was sheer hell due to the hundreds of passengers of all the re-routed flights. Typical Kenya Airways organization, there were no queues and people of all shades elbowing each other to get to the TWO poor individuals charged with fending off the chaos. I dove in and let Priya and Kiran stay out of the fray, pondering whether we would ever get home. It was madness, during which some West Africans were nearly coming to blows with other counter person. Everyone was on tilt and it really shows how ugly humans can be when tired and disrespected. Seriously, the airline did such a crappy job of informing people and looking after them. I just gritted my teeth, did my share of elbowing and an hour or so later I had our precious boarding passes.

We then moved onto our next punishment. We needed transit visas to get to the shuttle to get to the hotel to get to that ever-elusive bed. We honestly weighed whether or not this would be worthwhile since by now it was past 1am and our boarding time was 7:30am. The time to get the visa, catch the shuttle, drive downtown to the hotel, check-in, check-out, drive back to the airport, go through security, etc. We found out later that many opted to do just that – sleep somewhere in the airport. We did that in Amsterdam a while back and it wasn't fun. This time with a baby? No way.

The transit visa was unnecessarily a nightmare experience since the airline was supposed to be facilitating it
(but they of course didn't). They don't know what they're doing and the proof is that this experience wasn’t unlike the last time this happened to us.

Once through the gauntlet we caught the shuttle fairly smoothly, drove downtown, weaving through the hookers to our simple but clean hotel. I figured that the reason the airline chose this hotel in the red light district is so that they could get hourly rates. We would be turning around and catching the 5am shuttle back to the hotel leaving in a little over two hours.

We did get a nap in but now our diaper stocks were getting dangerously low due to all of this extended travel nonsense and neither the airports nor hotel shop strangely carry such things. We figured that if Kiran kept her diarrhea under control we MIGHT make it. I was seriously trying to think of other options (burp cloths combined with fashioning some sort of plastic bag...).

Once back in the airport we made our way to the lounge, had some breakfast and then headed to our gate. The rest of the story is wonderfully bland. One of the biggest surprises was that we were even greeted by our bags upon entry into the baggage claim area in Bujumbura. Masochist that I am, I went straight to the office and would work for the next five hours or so. Priya went home with Kiran. I met them in the middle of the afternoon just as they were launching into a very serious nap.

By the next morning all was well. Very thankful and happy to be back. I would not have to be in an airport for the next three days.
yep, I still think life is good
Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot. 
-Charlie Chaplin, actor, director, and composer (1889-1977)

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