>Going, Going and Gone…

>10:00 PM 01/05/10 PM MST
Shadow Creek Apartments, Mesa Arizona USA
The day has finally arrived. Its been almost three years since my last visit and I am very sure things would have changed a lot since then. I was in college doing my masters back in 2006 when I made my last trip to Chennai India, which is my real home and since returning from that trip I had dreamt of the day when I will be going back. The day has finally arrived. I came very close to making this trip earlier this year, but couldn’t fulfill it. Since the previous visit, I have graduated college, found a new job, moved to Arizona, missed marriages, festivals and get-togethers of family members and friends. And in about 7 hours I will begin the epic journey of magnanimous proportions whose enormity can only be described by the very definition of the word gigantic. Or it could just simply be a very long and boring journey. Either way I want to remember this trip for a long time and the easiest way to do that is to just type them. Mine is an early flight tomorrow and so I am in my bed ready to sleep and wake up early. I had already finished up all the packing and just finished a mental check of what needs to be done before leaving my apartment. With that our pre-travel preparations are done and we are ready for flight. Let the traveling begin.

5:40 AM 01/06/10 MST
Terminal 4 SkyHarbor International Airport, Phoenix USA
There is practically now one within 15 feet of me in any direction. The sounds I hear are from distant places, far and below from me, and its totally fine if you could not guess that I was at the busiest Airport in Arizona. I got dropped off at PHX airport Departures at Terminal 4 by friends just past 5 AM today. I had a fair bit of luggage- given that my itinerary spans major portions of the North America, Europe and Asia and the Atlantic Ocean in between- and I learned upon arrival that the airport charges for the trolleys that one uses for pushing the bags. I had already spent more than a couple of thousand dollars for this trip to my home town in Chennai and so I wasn’t going to pay the 25 cents for something I can do without. As is the norm with most of my travel plans there is always something that would change ever so slightly that the whole agenda would be threatened. Trying to not think of it I pushed my luggage to United Airlines counter- which was my transit flight to chicago- and after a short wait, the woman at the counter says that the confirmation has been cancelled!! Then she says its on a different flight. I keep trying to explain to her that I booked the flight three months ago and got confirmation too. Then she finally finds out that its a code share flight. Apparently Lufthansa, my actual ticket provider, code-shares with UA and UA in turn code shares with US Airways. She does some typing and comes back to me that I have to get to a different terminal which is where US Airways is located. She also dropped one on me by saying that I have to hurry and might not make it to the plane in time. Although my flight is a good 3 hrs away, I am thinking may be there is big crowd for security check. Why would I question her information – she is only the employee at the airport who does this for a living. So now I am hauling two large and heavy suitcases + plus 1 cabin bag and one laptop bag and hurrying. I get to the terminal bus stop and luckily the “Roadrunner” bus – which is how PHX intl. airport names its transit buses- arrived in a matter of seconds and in about 10 minutes I am at terminal 4.
Again the counter here has a slightly long queue and when its my turn, the lady says this is for UA flight and I have to go back to Terminal 3. At this point, I simply dropped my suitcases and shoulder bag, leaned on the counter that seemed to have been cleaned just moments ago and gave her the complete history what has happened so far and, surprisingly, managed to convince her. She called in someone else and she did some more typing and then finally saw the light. Relieved I started checking in my luggage only to be stopped by her. Apparently Lufthansa had started to charge an additional 55$ for every baggage checked in after the first one. As always I tried to reason with her explaining how my travel agency website did not say anything about this, and even when I checked Lufthansa website it clearly said 2 bags can be checked in for free. This time I could not make her agree with me and she stuck to her story that any ticket booked after August of 2009 must pay this additional fee and Lufthansa may not have updated their website. By this time I had pretty much lost any interest arguing further and simply wanted to get on with it. But my Indian nature wouldn’t agree. For the next 30 minutes I kept saying the same set of reasons over and over for not having to pay the fee, mostly hoping for some kind of discount, and, like it is said in stereotypical comedy routines, its hard to get a bargain out of far east asian people. I gave up in the end and paid her, got the receipt and finally got to check in my bags. As a leaving note she tipped me that there was practically no crowd at the security check point and I had all the time in the world to catch my flight. And she was right. The security check point had sparse crowd and an Indian couple was nice enough to let me go in front of them. Now on to the gate.

6:15 AM 01/06/10 MST
Gate B6 SkyHarbor International Airport, Phoenix USA

I woke up at 4:15 AM today and already feeling sleepy. I am not used to waking up anytime before 8:30 even on work days and 4:30 is torturously too early. The flight is scheduled for 8:50 AM departure and the norm is to be at the airport 3 hours earlier for International flights. I never notice the minutes part of the time in any ticket, so all I remembered was 8 AM in the ticket confirmation printout and 3 hours earlier would be 5 AM. I planned ahead and went to sleep early by 10 PM, but then again I usually go to bed by 12. So I didn’t really get to sleep until 1 AM and before I knew it my cell phone alarm went blaring. With this bit of pre-airport arrival info you would have calculated by now that I was about 2:30 hrs early at the Gate – B6 waiting. The flight number was, really, US -1. Yes, it was literally the first flight out of phoenix by US Airways. This gate with all other gates in my line of sight had a total of 3 people and I was one of them and one guy was cleaning the counters. Too much time to kill I started wandering off and managed to find a StarBucks shop just opening up. I grabbed a Tall regular, which what they call their smallest size, and as the first sip of warm coffee hit the taste buds my brain, as if woken up by the caffeine, remembered the facet that Phoenix intl. airport has free WiFi internet service. I had missed the last two episodes of ‘The Daily Show’ – The most trusted fake news show in USA. I started-up my laptop as I found a seat near by a power socket. Since the macbook starts up in less than 10 seconds in no time I was sipping coffee and, thanks to Hulu, immersed myself into the wonderful world free internet content video.

8:25 AM 01/06/10 MST
Gate B6, SkyHarbor International Airport, Phoenix USA
Finally boarding has began. There are more people around me now, I must have really lost sense of my surroundings while watching online videos. Just sent an email to my buddies informing them of my current status and called my home in Chennai to let them in on it too. A elderly couple from Hyderabad just approached me and asked if I can help them out in Chicago, which was our common connecting destination, to catch their flight to Frankfurt, which was also our common connecting destination one step further. I agreed, given my generous nature. My Zone-4 was just called. Got to go.

12:55 PM 01/06/10 CST
The Runway, Chicago O’Hare Intl Airport, Chicago USA
We just landed and the plane is taxiing in the runway at chicago OHare Airport. I should have eaten something while waiting at Phoenix. As soon as the flight took off there, my stomach started to growl and in-flight complimentary beverage only helped as an appetizer for a person with eating disorder. I tried to sleep, watch out the window, watch the girls around my seat- there were only 3, even tried reading the sky mall magazine. Eventually my stomach had no choice but to give-up its pursuit and once the glucose level dropped below certain point I simply dozed off. By the time I woke up, I started to feel hungry again, but from the elevation level of the plane I deduced that we were only minutes away from touch down at Chicago. The pilot’s announcement helped too. Heartened I thought about what I would type once I get to the terminal. I noticed the white blanket that totally wrapped the land sparing only the roads and driveways of tiny visible houses. The much reported cold front of North eastern United States which brought several feet of snow was clearly visible and coming from Arizona which is practically a desert state, I wondered why these people are complaining about snow. Its not so bad, Its white and fluffy. Then I remembered my days in Oklahoma where winter is just another euphemism for frigid cold winds and biting snow fall. But still, snow beats the sun, at-least in my opinion. For one thing, you can never play with suns rays like you do with snow flakes. Its been a while since I played with snow flakes. It was great when I first experienced it in Nov of 2005 in Stillwater. The dude next to me is asking to depart the plane.

1:30 PM 06/01/10 CST
Traveller’s Lounge, Chicago O’Hare Intl. Airport, Chicago USA
Inside the Terminal. Just found out that Terminal 1 was were we’re headed. ‘We’ as in me and the elderly couple I mentioned earlier. We walked about 20 feet, but then it occurred to me. What if they were on a different airlines. Surely there are other airlines that service Frankfurt. I asked the gentleman and he replied “Indian Airlines”. Yeah, lucky break. O Hare is a huge airport and it would have sucked to have walked all the way to Terminal 1 and found out that they have to go to, ummm..lets see..Indian Airlines-Terminal 5. I guided them to the entrance of Terminal 5 where the security man said ‘you gotta have boarding pass to get thru’ -which I had. “your gate is located in Terminal 1. you gotta have a boarding pass from this list of airlines to enter thru here’ – which I couldn’t since Lufthansa was not listed there. I gave the couple instructions on where to go and what to do once they get there. They praised my generosity and offered to pay me a large sum of money but, of course ,I refused. I have about 2 hours for boarding to begin for my next flight and to make things worse, chicago doesn’t offer free Wifi in its International Airport. Of course you can get it if you pay for it, but who wants to do that. I’ll just grab a big mac and wait.

3:30 PM 06/01/10 CST
Charging Pod, Chicago O’Hare Intl. Airport, Chicago USA
Although food from McDonald’s is supposedly bad for your health, its undeniable that it tastes great. Just finished the Big Mac and I have to admit there is nothing distasteful about slightly overpriced fast food as long as you add ketchup to it. Anyway, boarding is about to begin for my 8 hour flight to Frankfurt using the A340-300 from Lufthansa.

3:15 AM 07/01/10 German time
Somewhere over the Atlantic
Onboard the Lufthansa flight, halfway thru our journey to Frankfurt. Next to me is a nice middle aged lady from a town near Munich and so far we have made some good amount of small talk. Her english isn’t good and and mine is the usual. I think I am purposefully adding a lot of american slang to the my speech just make me look more sophisticated. We just had our meal-supposedly it was our dinner. A couple of spoons of cold salad, white rice, what tasted like sweet and sour chicken and steamed beans – was the whole course. And there was some kind of bread, american football shaped, very hard. I played with it for a while trying to figure out how to eat it without revealing my birth place, but soon enough I followed my seat colleague’s preference and left it on the plate.The hostesses are european looking- prominent jaw, pointy chin, sharp noses and raspy english accent almost to the point of being funny. I already finished watching 2 movies – “UP” and “500 days of Summer”. Both were pretty good movies, but I would have enjoyed much more if it wasn’t for the cramping sense in my feet and the constant sound of the four engines rumbling at constant pace. The overhead screen in the middle of aisle showed the disheartening fact that we were still on the American half of Atlantic ocean. I turned my watch to reflect Germany’s local time to save on future time conversion efforts for calculating arrival time. I think I might sleep for a while.

6:30 AM 07/01/10
45000 Ft over Germany
Were are apparently having breakfast snack now. A small container with a total of 5 small slices of fruits and what looked like a whole grain biscuit and juice and they rightfully called it a breakfast snack. I disagree with the breakfast part. Almost at our temporary destination now. The flight attendants have changed their dresses, sort of. Those who wore the official coat, removed it and others put it on. They also wear a signature scarf of blue-white/ blue-yellow stripes. But nobody is wearing Lapel pins. Not of Lufthansa, not of Deutschland. None. The captain is doing his thing over the microphone – cruising altitude, time to arrive and so on. The dude seriously needs some english coaching but his German was poetic-supposedly. The lady next to me was all praise for his use of sophisticated words. My Legs are killing me. May be I should take a walk, but I am feeling too lazy to do that too. I am watching Harry Potter And Half Blood Prince in fast forward mode selecting only sections that are exciting.

08:10 AM 07/01/10
FrankFurt Airport Terminal B , Germany
Just arrived at 7:35 AM local time at Frankfurt, Germany. The flight wasn’t as bad as I expected. The nice lady from Munich was enjoying the flight and once every half hour we made some small talk. She said something about american food having lots of calories and I mentioned something about German Beer. I learned that she was visiting her Boyfriend in Colorado for vacation and was going back and it must be noted that she looked forty-ish. The Food wasn’t all that good but I am just glad that its done. Also, I successfully completed the flight without ever leaving my seat. Thats right, for the whole 8 or so hours of trans-atlantic flight I never lifted my seat off the planes seat – even for a bathroom break. There is a possibility that this could be a record. At least for that flight. Just after exiting the plane and entering the terminal, I find out that the departing gate for my final flight to chennai is right next to this one, B-22. I have exactly 2 hours before the flight takes off, so I think i’ll take walk around the Terminal but before that I have to head to the mens room.

8:45 AM 07/01/10
FrankFurt Airport Gate B22, Germany

The whole of Gate B22 is filled with Tamil and Telugu speaking people. Many in awkwardly fitting western dresses, few in saris. I just realized I have not seen saris for a long time. I can hear them speaking mostly in Tamil about flight plans, and calling relatives and confirming their arrival time and so on. A few sentences here and there are in Telugu, Hindi, even Kannada. I am guessing they were talking about the same thing. May be I should call my home in India too, but I don’t have the number for the international calling card to call outside its registered phones. I cant use my cell phones since it will count as out of network roaming charges. Well, they just have to wait and see.

9:35 AM 07/01/2010
FrankFurt Airport Gate B22, Germany
The boarding process just began for my flight at 10:10. I just bought a cup of coffee for 3.15 Euros. I am not sure about the exchange rate but I know a Euro is more than a Dollar and it does seem a bit expensive. Anyway I gulp it down quickly and get in the line for boarding. I had reserved window seats all the way, and so for this plane too, I got a window seat. By the time we enter Chennai air space, it will be dark so this wont be of much help. Hopefully this final 8 hours of the journey wont be too long.

10:45 AM 07/01/2010
FrankFurt Airport Inside LH-758 , Germany
There is some moderately strong flurries of snow outside and they de-freezing the aircraft wings. As you might of guessed the plane is still on the ground and the time stamp is not wrong. I’ve been sitting in this stationary plane for an hour and still no word when the take off is going to be. The captain is saying, in german, hindi, english and surprise in Tamil, that there is some traffic on the runway and its causing extra delay. Thats not all. I had to switch my seat with an elderly Tamil lady so that she can sit next to her husband. And now I am stuck in the middle of the middle row of seats. There are a couple of kids ranging in age from approx. 1 to approx. 3 years and the responsibility of crying is being taken on diligence on their part. The happy prospect of meeting my parents after 3 years and going to my old home had already vanished and now I am just feeling trapped with a sad feeling for the next whatever hours until touchdown. I am wishing I was not in this plane right now.

12:00 PM 07/01/2010
somewhere 30000 feet above Germany
We just got our first round of drinks on board. For some reason I decided that I will only have orange juice during this flight and so far vie stuck to it. Our plane did take off at 10:50 which was a full 40 minutes past the original time. The hostesses on this plane are more Indian looking, still white and brownish, but slightly Indian. I am flanked on wither side by couple of tamil guys. One of them was a married guy and he had come with his German wife and daughter who seemed about 2 years old. She cried only a few times. The other guy was jovial type, mostly m age looking and was telling me how he got charged more for extra luggage by Lufthansa. I was annoyed, but slightly happy that someone else also suffered a similar treatment at the German carrier. The on board entertainment menu is exactly same as the previous flight, and I had already watched the two and a half movies I wanted to watch in the earlier flight itself. Right now I am just whiling away time by watching the onboard flight details screen which is showing our plane flying our green patch of land called Germany and time to destination is shown to be 6 hours. After more than ten hours of flight already done within the past 16 hours I am feeling groggy and still cant sleep. Thats a problem vie been having since my first flight. I cannot sleep while flying until I am extremely sleep deprived. So far I have deduced the cause of this to be the constant whining of the engines and also brightly lit screens from neighborhood seats. Oh, how I wish I could just sleep right now.

7:10 PM 07/01/2010 Indian Standard Time (IST)
40000ft above Arabian Sea. Indian Time
The cramping my legs are getting stronger by the minute. My attempts to focus my mind in other things for distraction is not really working. I watched Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince, again, this time in regular speed and completely. I chatted with the guy next to me for about 15 minutes which seemed like an hour. The pinching knots I felt in my legs few hours ergo have crept up to my knees and lower thighs and my in-seat exercises are not helping. The only relief in the past hours came when we had our lunch. We were provided, steamed turkey breasts with white rice, beans, and some chocolate pudding. Of course I had orange juice to drink, still keeping with my resolution for this flight. I has hoping that a full stomach will dull me to sleep, which I badly needed but so far no luck. The movie list provided for us had the Micheal Jackson’s “This Is It” – a video montage of his final show which was planned but scrapped due to his death last year.I didn’t watch it, but my neighborhood seat mates watched it in turns so many times that I can remember each scene. MJ looked just as creepy and siliconized as he usually did before his death, but more curiously his moves and flows where soggy and slow. The guys and girls who were rehearsing around him made him look like an aging dance master trying to teach his moves to pupils in slow motion. The clips shown in the movie were only rehearsal videos and so one could argue that the main show could have produced a more snappier MJ, but thats never going to happen now. The guy next to me just walked off from his seat. This is my chance to get out and do some much needed stretching for my legs.

11:15 PM 07/01/2010 IST
15000ft above Chennai.
We just entered our final descent for touch down at chennai. The captain acknowledged that we are running late and the thick was going to slow us down more. I am already restless. Still 45 minutes left for landing and I had already complained to my adjacent seat mate about the delay. We finished our dinner couple of hours ago and since then the wait has been long and distractions very little. I had watched all the movies I wanted to watch from the entertainment list and had to turn to my trusted iPod Touch for some podcasts to while away the time. Now as the plane descends much slower for my liking I checked and rechecked the forms that we were given for port of entry and swine flu purposes and stacked it with my passport together so that I can escape the crowd and quickly get past the emigration counters. The stewardess is gesturing me stow my laptop for safety reasons, so i’ll do that now and check back once I touch my tamil soil.

2:30 AM 08/01/2010 IST
My True home, Redhills, Chennai
Back at home, at last. After a very long stretch of flying I have finally come back to my child hood residence. Due to my organizing skills I breezed past the emigration counters and after a long 25 minute wait collected my baggage. I said good byes to my seat mates who were still waiting for some their luggages to arrive and pushed my baggage cart through the door that said EXIT. The distinct smell of Tamil soil had hit me in an unpleasant but nostalgic way and the aroma increased as I walked out the corridor with half-glass walls and through the single door which was causing a bottle neck for all the travelers trying to exit the building. I spotted my father in the crowd and we did a three way acknowledgement gesture. 15 minutes later I was speeding down the newly constructed Guindy Flyover in my Uncle’s Tata Sumo headed straight to my town Redhills.

Much has remained the same here since I last saw them, both inside and outside my home. Most of the furniture and electronic appliances that were there before remained in their last seen places, almost all of the stains on the walls were still visible, if only a bit dimmer. There were new spots, scratches and childish scribblings on the walls which showed the evidence of my 5 year old cousin’s frequent visits. On the way over from the airport, although tired and sleepy, I watched out the window enthusiastically for anything and everything and things were mostly the same, just dirtier. The way our driver and other drivers on the road were driving helped a lot in keeping me wide awake. An hour and half past midnight our eardrums were being exploded with blaring horns, of varying and mostly increasing decibels, even in places were the horn is not going to do any good. There was no slowing down in the intersections even though the approaching vehicles were coming from all possible directions. I looked out in horror as our vehicle was so close to the next one that they almost touched, but before I can thank the lord for pulling them apart a motorcycle with 3 guys screams past between us. It was like watching a fast action car chase in an action movie except that instead of seeing the scene through a camera, you are the camera here. I was surprised at myself getting surprised at this since only 5 years ago I was driving the same way, I was part of the chase sequence without even knowing it.
The Tata Sumo I was driven pulled up in front of my house 15 minutes to 2 in the morning and i got the expected welcome from my mother. After some talking I freshened up and had some wheat chapattis and fish curry which after 3 years of waiting tasted like something that was worth waiting for. We had a nice little chat after the dinnfast (dinner + Breakfast) and my parents went to bed. I am tired too, but after looking around for a minute – back where I grew up – I felt satisfied. I was at the place where i had almost 20 years of memories.

As I type the final entry into this travel blog, whats the over whelming feeling in my head? The next 30 days are going to be awesome 🙂

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