Arrived and No Thanks to Air Canada – from Vancouver through to Delhi and the beginning of Day 1

Awesome art at the Delhi Airport.  I’ll let you all figure it out.  It took me a

second but then it made me so, so happy

Hey everyone!

It’s been a long time since I posted in this blog.  I debated with myself (you should really see that happen, it’s quite a spectacle) as to whether I would post about my travels in this space or on my other blog at Born A Sikh.  Finally, I decided this blog would be more personal and not necessarily always spiritual, so here it is.

India is far away from home.  Far, far away.  12.5 hours time difference away.  30 hours of travel minimum away.  Don’t have the idea yet?  Well, Delhi where I am right now is more than 12000 km from Whitehorse where I was about 43 hours ago.

Let’s just talk about Air Canada first and get that out of the way – since it will be my only bitch-fest in this post.  Air Canada sucks.  It always has but this trip, it reached new levels of suckiness.  Brand new levels.  First, it was a 9 1/2 hour flight from Vancouver to London on a Boeing 777.  Love the plane – good job Boeing.  But 9 1/2 hours in tight space is hard and harder still when you have a steward in your aisle who is a complete jerk.  Some context:

I am in a window seat near the back of the plane.  A lovely British couple takes up seats H and J in the same row next to me.  In front of me is a young mother and two beautiful girls.  Behind me are three 30 somethings, one of whom is very chatty.  Between the chatty woman, the massive engines on the plane and the two girls (who are both gigglers), I can’t hear much.  The flight attendants don’t start a dinner service until after 10 p.m. (about 3 hours in to the flight and at least 1 1/2 hours after the pilot announces that service is beginning.  Before that, there isn’t even a drink service except for the alcohol for sale cart.  No Coffee.  No Tea.  Not. Even. Water.

They serve about 70 special meals and at least two attendants get upset at people who buzz them to ask for water.  Water is one of our most basic human needs but a request for some was met with “we have over 70 special meals to serve (which serving took an hour and a half with 7, that’s right, 7 attendants), we’ll get to you when we can.”  Nice response given that those that asked for water (let me repeat that until it sinks in a little more… water.  water.  It’s freakin’ water.) waited more than two hours to even ask.  We could all see they were busy… serving one tray at a time and despite the fact that the seat numbers were written in big letters on big cards on the special meals, searching and searching for the correct seat.

Anyhow, it’s now 11:20 p.m. before they get to my seat.  Meantime, they have announced the meal choices as “chicken” or “meat”.  Meat?  What the hell?  I think more people than I were a little suspicious about what ‘meat’ meant.  More context – this is a flight from Vancouver (largest Sikh population outside of Punjab) to London (also a massive Sikh population).  Lots of turbans on this flight, and there is ALWAYS lots of turbans on this flight.  Lots and lots of Muslims on the flight as well.  You’re going to need to be a little more specific than ‘meat’…

So they get to seat 57K and Jerk just hands me a tray.  No choice at all.  I don’t take it and Jerk looks very annoyed.  Instead, I ask if there is a vegetarian option.  Jerk rolled his eyes at me.  Then the lovely Brit couple next to me also asked whether there was a veg option as did chatty lady behind me.  Well that set Jerk off.  He tells us “maybe you should have ordered a special meal ahead of time.  I can see what I can dig up in the back but it will probably be bread.  You should just take the tray.”  Umm… very politely I said, “okay look in the back.  I don’t want your ‘meat’ tray.”  Didn’t see him again for another 3 hours.  He passed us up for snacks, for the for-purchase food service, for coffee, for tea, for everything.  Except every 15 minutes they began to offer us water.  On a 9 1/2 hour flight – no food, none.  Unless you count a tiny cup of yogourt offered as we were descending and needing to put our tray tables up.  Yeap.  And Jerk could not have been more obnoxious the entire time.

It got worse when he realized that I am hard of hearing.  At that point, I became less than worth any effort so he just spoke to my neighbours.   Unfortunately, you can’t expect more from that particular airline.  I was never so glad to land as to get rid of Jerk.

Okay, so end of Jerk, end of rant.

London was great.  I was really hungry by the time I landed.  I figured out how to get from my arrivals terminal and zone to Immigration.  Everyone along that way was so pleasant.  The immigration officer that I dealt with was genuinely friendly and seemed super excited when I told him how long I would be in India.  The officers next to him were also super pleasant though they were dealing with a rather silly drunk lady from a different flight.  Super, super nice.  I got through Immigration no problem at all.

I then proceeded to pat myself on the back for figuring out their rather unique systems of terminals and zones and metros to not only find where I was supposed to be next but actually get there.  Yay me, right?  Yeah, a little bit but my little brother who was meeting me at the airport was at a completely different terminal that felt like it was all the way across the channel in France.  bwahahaha

Finally found him only to find out that the one restaurant we were anywhere near… had no food.  Something wrong in the kitchen apparently but we were invited in for pints anyway.  Ummm… not a good plan on a completely empty stomach on a good day…  Another walk all the way back across the channel not only led to food but to the most awesome latte I have ever had, at Nero Coffee in Terminal 4.  Probably it tasted THAT good because of my advanced state of starvation mixed with exhaustion, I don’t know.  But that was a damned fine latte.

Thankfully, I was on a Jet Airways flight from London to Delhi.  They don’t tell you what gate you are at, only the terminal, until the flight is ready to board.  So you can’t hang out at a gate.  Instead, once I said goodbye to the little brother unit and sent him on his way then passed quickly through security, I hung out in front of the Harrod’s, reading “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer.  (Please remind me to post about this apologist of a ‘writer’ one day).  I thought it was rather strange that the whole terminal was decked out for Christmas – on November 2nd no less.

I looked up only to find a lovely tall woman and her family and she was in a turban!  Just to double-check I looked down at her right arm and there it was – a beautiful iron kara.  Hear that people who think they know about my faith?  It was another woman in a turban and she was beautiful!  Unfortunately, we do not have a common language so we played charades and smiled alot and that is how we spent our time waiting for our flight.

She was in a different section of the plane from me unfortunately, and I did not see her again once we boarded.  That made me a little sad.  Then… a lovely woman and her husband took the H and J seats next to mine.  My word she was friendly.  She and her husband, who was quite disabled were going on a yatra.  This is a sort of spiritual tour of holy and sacred places.  They were Jains, raised in London and it was their first trip back after many decades.  I take it from the conversation that it would be last trip back for her husband.

I watched the two of them all night as we flew across Europe and then the Middle East into India.  I tried to watch a movie, to give them some private, quiet time but I noticed that she was so tender with him.  She had to help him with his meal, and with his blanket, with the AC and even with moving to the bathroom and back.  She was so graceful, patient and gentle about it.  I felt like I was witnessing all that is good about us moving through this one tiny, super friendly, cheerful woman.  Whatever your own spiritual beliefs, for me I saw God in her.  My heart swelled at her obvious love for this gentle but very ill man.  My heart also pained for their future and grieved my own.

The first thing I noticed about Delhi was the air as we were landing.  It was thick.  This is a town that really struggles with pollution, not in a Beijing, China sort of way but in a heavy way nonetheless.  As we pulled into our gate I prayed that the air would not smell as bad as it looked.  It didn’t.  So far, in fact, I have to say that India does not stink as some would have you believe.  Delhi smells like any other city but with less diesel exhaust fumes happening.  That’s right.  Less exhaust fumes.  Calgary, Alberta smells much worse.

The thick, thick air above Delhi

At the airport, first you go through immigration.  I hate, hate, hate what I am about to say but there were some serious stereotypes happening at immigration.  The Americans were impatient and demanding, trying to rush into line before anyone else.  Also, they were not willing to ask questions of the Indian workers there to help us.  They only wanted to hear from other (i.e. ‘white’) travelers about what forms they needed to fill out.  Meanwhile, while they fretted and got aggressive and directed their questions at other first-timers, I was helped by a lovely immigration officer, who took all my information, reviewed my Visa and let me through in about 3 1/2 minutes.  He was super helpful and (surprisingly for the Americans in their little mob of obnoxious) knew a substantial amount about his country and how to clear people through immigration.

You pick up your bags after immigration.  And then you follow one of two lines through customs.  The green line on the floor if you have nothing to declare or the red line on the floor if you do.  There are five or six menacing looking customs officers in khaki at the end of the lines.  That’s good that they’re menacing in appearance because apparently customs works on the honour system here.  They don’t tell you what you need to declare and what you don’t need to declare.  You just follow your line (if you notice it on the floor) to the exit.  The green line goes right to the exit while the red line appears to go to the end of the arrivals terminal.  So I’m guessing that most people ignore (or don’t see) the lines on the floor and head straight for the exit.  When I tried to ask one of the menacing looking customs officers whether there were any forms that told me what if anything I need to tell them about, she smiled, said “Namaste” and pointed me at the taxi stands outside.  Yeap, through immigration, got my bags AND cleared customs in all of maybe 7 minutes.

I was thinking “Wow, this is going so smoothly.”  Well, yeah, you know that’s the part of the story when things start going amok, right?  Let’s talk about hawkers and shills.  I expect we’re going to be talking about them a lot.  They are everywhere and this is how they work (for the uninitiated) – they will be super friendly, offering to help with your bags, or to find you a taxi… but really they are being paid by someone a commission for getting you into their cab, their shop, their hotel.  Some can be quite forceful about it actually.  Polite “no thank yous” have exactly zero impact on them.  You really just have to be rude and I do mean forceful and rude.  I yelled at one persistent bugger “What is wrong with you?  This is my tenth trip to Delhi and you do this every time!  Get away!”  It worked.  He apologized in Hindi and backed right off along with two or three others who were also right behind him.  First, look like you know where you are going even if you don’t.  If you don’t know how to do this, walk straight up to the first man in a police officer’s uniform (careful because khaki is worn as a ‘uniform’ by hawker guides as well – the police officer in India will have a weapon and it will be obvious that he or she has a weapon) and ask him or her where the authorized taxi stand is.  Once you get in an authorized, registered, metred cab, don’t let anyone but the driver handle your bags.  The others are looking for money or to take your bag (happened to a guy right in front of me).  Tell the driver the address you are going to and tell him that you have a family member or friend waiting to meet you there.  “Call” the family member or friend that you just made up and confirm with them that you are on your way to the hotel and you should be there in 15 minutes.  If the driver protests that it will take longer, repeat into your phone that you will be there in 15, maybe 20.  This way you get a direct route to your hotel without anyone trying to convince you to come to the hotel that is paying them a commission.  Once at your hotel, if you have a decent quality hotel, there will be security there to scan all your bags and lead you to be lobby.  Don’t let anyone hanging out in front of the hotel handle your bags.  Ignore them or be rude.  I hate to say that but holy man do you have to be rude.

That wasn’t a rant, just the way it is with hawkers and shills.  If you’re friendly about it, they will think they have an in and become more persistent and more aggressive.  Also, some are pickpockets who don’t get too close to the lady who is willing to yell and be rude.

So, got to the hotel which looks about 30 years more run down that in the advertisement.  That’s sort of what I was expecting anyway.  Inside is beautiful and new and clean and that my friends is all I cared about at that point.  I arrived in the room at about 10:45 and by noon I was happy for one more modern feature – air conditioning.  Delhi is hot and it is the beginning of winter.  The temperature got up to 22C and with a humidex of around 900%, it felt like I was being wet roasted in my own skin.  A very cold shower and switching on the AC brought my temperature back down to something more reasonable for an Arctic dweller.

The rest of the day was spent exploring Connaught Place, going to a quick stop at the India Gate, booking a private guide and being rude to many, many more hawkers.  Tomorrow, I will take privately guided tours to Qutab Minar, Humayan’s Tomb, Jantar Mantar, the Red Fort, Jama Mazjid and Raj Ghat.

Sorry this is so long, but that was one heck of a first day in Delhi.  Now I’m off to try some wonderful (I hope) Kashmiri food in the restaurant downstairs.

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