Warning: Long post of a long journey. Impatient souls beware!
This travelogue traces my first journey back to India after nine months at Virginia Tech, USA. The route taken was-
Flight #1: US Airways Flight 4148 from Roanoke (ROA) to New York (LGA)
Flight #2: Jet Airways Flight 9W227 from Newark (EWR) to Brussels (BRU)
Flight #3: Jet Airways Flight 9W227 from Brussels (BRU) to Mumbai (BOM)
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As luck would have it, after 15 days of bright sunshine, it was raining in Blacksburg the morning I woke up to start my journey to India. My roommates were still half asleep when Tracy Kimzey from my International Friendship Host family in Blacksburg came at 8:15am, along with her six children in a Toyota station wagon to drive me down to Roanoke Regional Airport, 40 miles away. The journey along Interstate 81 took approximately 45 minutes and we were at the airport at 9.00am. Tracy’s children wanted to come inside the terminal to see me off, so instead of just dropping me off, she went ahead to find a parking spot as I took my two big bags to the check-in counter.
A huge dark man, like the typical cops we see in Hollywood movies, was behind the counter. I had not weighed my bags before packing and as I put the first bag on the weighing scale, I was praying that it should not exceed the stipulated 50 pounds. By some incredible luck, my bags weighed 46 pounds and 52 pounds, which after a quick shuffling of some chocolates came to 48.5 and 49.5 pounds! Phew! Too close! The guy at the counter, going by the routine rules, told me I have to pay $60 for the two checked-in bags (yes, domestic flights in US charge for first bag too!). After explaining him for 15 minutes that mine was an international ticket with a single PNR number, allowing me two checked bags free on all flights, he finally relented and let the bags in for free.
The terminal at Roanoke Regional Airport is smaller than a typical bus station in India and with just one flight schedules to depart in the next two hours, it was almost deserted. The kids were hoping to see some planes through the glass wall separating tarmac and the terminal building but their hopes were washed away since the only plane standing in the rain was a US Airways 37-seater DHC D-8 turboprop which was to take me to La Guardia airport, New York. The usual security drill- remove all metal articles, remove shoes, remove laptop from bag, put everything through scanner, walk through metal detector was completed in 10 minutes and I had 30 minutes to kill before boarding could begin. Thankfully the tiny airport has free Wi-Fi so the time was spent easily.
The boarding began at 9.45am and since I had the last row seat (9A), I was hoping to walk in first into the plane, but one passenger had a US Airways Privilege Card and he hopped in before me. I asked the airhostess if I could take a photo of the cabin before the crowd entered, and she agreed. The plane had a 2×2 seating with 5 seats on the last row, and I was the only passenger there, having all five seats to myself! This was my first flight in a turboprop plane and I was surprised to find that, contrary to what I had heard, the noise from the propellers was less than that from jet engines in a small regional jet. We were cleared for take-off at 10.05am, 12 minutes before scheduled departure and after a long crawl up to the end of the runway, we took up straight into the low rain clouds, depriving me of any views of the Roanoke valley.
The first one hour offered absolutely no view as we were cruising in zero visibility in the rain clouds (God bless the radar navigation systems!). Contrary to what I had expected from a no-frills domestic flight in USA, the sole aged airhostess announced that drinks will be on the house in the flight. She took out the drinks trolley, and surprisingly, started drinking the first drink herself! Talk of hospitality! I, by now, knew the trick they use of filling up 3/4th glass with ice and little drink, so I requested apple juice without ice. As a result she could not fill up my glass with one can of juice she had opened, and opened another one to fill the glass. Seeing that the can had lot of juice left, she asked me if I would like a second serving, and needless to say what my response was!
The size and quality of ride reminded me of being in a ST bus on a bumpy rural Indian road but an hour later the rain clouds dispersed giving a beautiful clear view of the populated northeast of USA, popularly known as the ‘I-95 corridor’. The first city I spotted from the air was Wilmington, Delaware, followed shortly by sweeping views of downtown Philadelphia and the Philadelphia International Airport. I had checked flight paths online and requested a left side window seat I figured out that the landing approach to La Guardia airport in New York would give a birds-eye view of Manhattan on the left, and I was not disappointed. As we started the descent, first we flew over the gigantic Verrazano Narrows bridge and then came into view, on my left, the oh-so-famous skyline of downtown Manhattan with the Empire State building rising above the other scores of skyscrapers. We had a smooth landing at La Guardia at 11.50am, 23 minutes before schedule.
I was the only one on the flight who had checked baggage, so the baggage claim took less than 15 minutes. The Ground Transportation helpdesk booked me a seat on the shuttle for transfer to Newark Liberty International Airport, and like everything else in New York City, this too is super expensive costing $32. The shuttle was to arrive at 12.45pm and I had 30 minutes to kill, alone, and with no Wi-Fi available. When the shuttle finally arrived, I was the only passenger to board it and the driver was a super-talkative Jamaican who demanded the fare “and whatever tip you may want to give” at the start itself. La Guardia has different terminals for different airlines and after starting from US Airways terminal, we picked up one passenger from Shuttle terminal and one more from Delta terminal. The drive took us through Williamsburg bridge into Manhattan’s (in)famous Chinatown and into Holland Tunnel, finally to the high-speed Pulaski Skyway, reaching Terminal B of Newark Liberty International at 1.50pm. Unlike La Guardia, this airport had free trolleys but the design of the airport is so bad that after loading bags on to the trolley from the car on the road, there is no ramp to take the trolley up onto the sidewalk and into the terminal. So, I had to remove all bags, take the trolley up the sidewalk and load all bags again. Design fail.
As expected, hordes of impatient New Jersey desis had already queued up in front of the Jet Airways check-in counter at 2.00pm itself for the 6.35pm flight! The counter was not even open yet! Instead of joining them, I went to the food court, had a spinach mushroom pizza and strawberry milkshake and went back to the check-in counter at 2.55pm. By this time the counter had opened and the queue had dispersed. I checked in my bags and I was assigned an aisle seat (preferred by most passengers) but I refused and asked for a window seat instead. The lady at the next counter made the change for me and I forgot my passport there. Realizing it in ten seconds helped and I ran back to the counter to collect it before I could get a heart-attack! The security procedure was exactly the same as in Roanoke and completed in 10 minutes, resulting in me walking into the waiting area at the boarding gate at 3.15pm itself, more than 3 hours before the flight!
The waiting area around Gate 54 was filled up quickly with impatient passengers of Jet Airways flight 9W 227 to Mumbai via Brussels. A majority of the passengers were New Jersey – Connecticut based Gujju families and around a dozen odd students travelling alone. Like La Guardia, even Newark Liberty International has no free Wi-Fi, so spending three hours was going to be tough! I looked around until I found a vantage point in the waiting area offering unobstructed view of the landings with a backdrop of Manhattan- perfect for plane photography and I spent around an hour doing that. Later I shifted back to the area where my fight-mates had gathered and found myself sitting among a Gujju family with kids, a Tamil family with kids, a Marathi family with kids and some female Indian students. (their grumpy I-don’t-wanna-talk-to-you attitude confirmed they were Indian!) Guess what’s worse than hearing a Gujju girl talking in English with a fake American accent? TWO Gujju girls talking to each other in fake American accents!
As happens in the case of all flights with sizeable Indian crowd, the impatient junta had already queued up in front of the boarding gate when Jet Airways ground staff came around 5.00pm and requested everyone to sit down. Twice in 10 minutes. At 5.25pm, they announced that passengers travelling with infants and small kids can now board, and almost half the waiting area was up in a long queue! Next was call for executive class passengers and only one American lady turned up. Since my seat was 34K towards the rear of the plane, I was among the first lot of economy class passengers to enter. I had scanned the waiting area and figured out that there were at least nine cute looking Indian girls (all students) on the flight, giving me a 9/216 or 4% probability of getting a nice co-passenger but that was not to be. The Airbus A-330 200 had a 2-4-2 seat configuration and my co-passenger turned out to be a middle-aged talkative Gujju uncle, Indian-born-NJ-settled, more stereotypical than a Karan Johar movie, who later in the flight gave a scare to everyone when he started feeling dizzy (not surprising, since he had downed two glasses of “free” wine) causing the captain to announce at 2.30am that “We have a medical emergency. Are there any doctors on board?”
Unlike my earlier experience on board Delta and US Airways, the Jet Airways air-hostesses were pretty young Indian girls, very friendly and always smiling. Welcome change! We were cleared for taxiing at 6.30pm and when we reached the end of the runway, we were fifth in line for takeoff. Newark Liberty has two parallel runways and one was continuously handling landings while the other was handling takeoffs in quick succession, one almost every 45 seconds. The takeoff finally happened at 6.35pm and a steep accent took us above low level clouds. We took a 180 degree turn over Newark and took a northward route. The captain announced what most passengers already knew- that we would be taking a very northerly route to avoid the ash cloud generated by the Iceland volcano (whose name I can neither pronounce nor spell), resulting in increase in flying time to Brussels from 7 hours 15 minutes to 8 hours 45 minutes.
One of the advantages of flying to India by Jet Airways is that you get a feeling of being in the motherland 18 hours before stepping on Indian soil. Contributing to this is not just the Indian crew and predominantly Indian passengers, but also the in-flight entertainment. Apart from Hindi movies and a huge collection of Hindi songs, there was also a choice to see Tamil and Telugu movies, Malayalam songs and Gujarati plays, not to mention popular Hindi sitcoms. Since we were cruising smoothly at 37,000 feet with nothing apart from the clouds to see, I switched to in-flight entertainment. First on my list was Amitabh Bachchan starrer Paa by the middle of which, dinner was served. The veg option was purely Indian consisting of one roti, plain rice, dal, mixed vegetables in red gravy, salad, pickle and pudding for dessert along with apple juice. The quantity was not that great but the taste was finger-licking delicious. After dinner, tea was served even as most of the passengers had dozed off.
I tried to make good use of the soft pillow and blanket provided to get some sleep but the little legroom of economy class had me trying all different positions (no pun intended) in an attempt to get some sleep. When I woke up from the semi-sleep state we were flying south over Sweden and into Germany, two hours from Brussels and the cabin crew changed the dark mood lighting in the cabin to normal lighting to start breakfast service. Waiting for my turn, I switched to Hindi sitcoms for entertainment, starting with Sarabhai v/s Sarabhai and then Office Office. The breakfast had an extra-large delicious muffin, fresh fruits and orange juice, with an option for tea or coffee to follow. The descent into Brussels was again marred by low level rain clouds giving me my first ever view of Europe only when we were around one minute away from landing, and the scene was as pretty as we have seen in scores of Yashraj movies- a cute little village with a beautiful church in the center and sprawling fields and flower beds. The landing was the smoothest ever I experienced on any flight with no bump or jerk. Two Jet Airways flights were already docked at the aerobridges. Jet Airways has a smart schedule with flights from Newark, JFK and Toronto from the west and Mumbai, Delhi and Madras from the east arriving at Brussels at the same time and departing for the same six cities in two hours, thereby giving passengers eighteen different mix-and-match route options with just six planes! We docked next to them at the huge terminal at 9.25am local time, 1 hour 35 minutes behind schedule.
The moment the plane stopped, everyone hurriedly got up from their seats and blocked the aisles. Discipline is something that never comes to us Indians. It took fifteen minutes for the mess to clear and the last passengers to walk out. We were taken into the transit area, having to cross an extremely long terminal building on a moving walkway and queue up for security check. The same drill performed at Roanoke and Newark was repeated again, with the addition being that we were asked to empty out the contents of hand bag and re-pack. Once this was done, we were asked to head straight to boarding area to take the connecting flight, leaving no time to explore the duty-free shopping at Brussels airport. The huge queue for boarding the Mumbai flight had almost the same passengers that were present at Newark, and naturally, equally impatient as they were earlier. The plane for Brussels-Mumbai leg was an identical Airbus A330-200 as earlier but with a new set of crew.
We were cleared for taxi at 11.15am and after a slow crawl across the tarmac and 15 minutes of agonizingly long wait at the end of the runway, we were cleared for takeoff at 11.35am, 1 hour 25 minutes behind schedule. My co-passenger was still the same New Jersey kaka but now in a much somber mood after the air-hostesses on the earlier flight forced him to eat breakfast and not ask for more wine! As we started heading eastwards over the clouds, I decided to watch a Gujarati play titled “Babo Aavyo Courier Maa” (Baby came by courier) which like most Gujarati plays was hilarious at the start and started getting serious later by the time I was sleepy. The dinner (rather lunch) had the same contents as the one served on the earlier flight but with the red gravy vegetable now replaced by paneer dish in green gravy and the instead of pudding in dessert was now cheesecake. After lunch and hot tea, I went off to sleep and surprisingly, in spite of uncomfortable positions, got a sound sleep for more than three hours.
When I woke up, it was around 9.00pm Indian time and we were flying over Iran, with estimated time of arrival at Mumbai shown as 11.24pm. I decided to end my last round of in-flight entertainment with one episode of our favorite Indian sitcom (which was surprisingly listed under ‘Drama’ instead of ‘Comedy’)- C.I.D.! It was as entertaining as ever but I was disappointed to see this time Daya open the door with a key instead of breaking it! The last meal of the flight was now served and, God bless Jet Airways for this, it was the eternal Mumbai favorite- steaming hot yummy Pav Bhaji with Belgian chocolate ice cream for dessert! What a way to end the flight! End? No wait. At around 10.20pm we crossed Karachi and thanks to clear skies, I got a spectacular view of the city shimmering in lights below and after passing over Bhuj and Bhavnagar, we were nearing Mumbai airspace at 10.50pm with the estimated time of arrival now shown as 11.43pm. This is when the frustration began. The pilots had already dimmed cabin lights in preparation for descent but we did not descend anywhere. Instead the map showed us taking a big round in the sky at 19,000 feet, followed by another and then yet another round at the same spot, awaiting our turn for landing.
At 11.30pm, we finally took eastward path towards Mumbai again but did not descent. After moving closer, we were made to go in circle once more, followed by closing in some more and then one more circle! We had spent 45 minutes hovering over the Arabian Sea before I could see the first view of shining glittering Aamchi Mumbai below. We entered Mumbai over Goregaon-Malad area from the west and instead of preparing for landing, crossed Mumbai city and headed east. We were made to continue until we almost reached Pune and then made to turn around for an east-to-west landing approach. After passing low over the eastern suburbs, we finally touched ground at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai at 12.01am IST, 1 hour 31 minutes delayed. All the aerobridges were occupied, midnight being peak hour at Mumbai airport, and we were berthed at one of the remote bays. After another 15 minutes of discipline-less chaos, I disembarked using a staircase, like we see in the old movies, on to the tarmac where a fleet of buses was waiting to transport us to the terminal.
In spite of the huge crowd, the immigration formalities took less than 10 minutes and it was time for baggage claim. The wait was long and frustrating, taking almost 40 minutes for my bags to appear. The next step was Customs clearance and I walked through Green Channel as I had nothing to declare, but the keen eyes of the person guarding the X-ray scanner fell on a wrist watch in my bag. He asked me “Kaunse brand ka watch hai?” to which I nonchalantly replied “Big Bazaar ka Rs 200 wala hai” and walked away. The arrival area of the newly renovated terminal has an overdose of grey but looked cool nevertheless. I waited to use the washroom where, surprisingly, there was an attendant stationed inside, “welcoming” the users and after they are done with the job, giving them paper napkins to wipe hands and open the dust bin to throw it- a job I think is quite embarrassing and unnecessary. I spotted my dad and mom in the horde of waiting relatives and made a dash to the exit, welcomed by hot humid air of Mumbai and the aroma of Pav Bhaji. Yes, for the benefit of Pav Bhaji craving Mumbaikars, Shiv Sagar has set up an outlet bang outside the arrival gate in the airport premises itself. This is what I call Location WIN!