In the last installment of '87 Days', I left myself open to a catastrophic let-down, as I built my hopes up for a great return to Punjab and its shining capital Chandigarh after 25 years.
En route from Chennai to Delhi, Captain Akash Sahokh's piloting skills must have been top class, as he wafted the A-320 through the sky like a baby rocker with its own white noise generator; I slept for all but a few minutes of his Jet Lite flight. Alas once I got to Delhi, the story changed as I was now in the hands of the national carrier- Air India/Indian Airlines.
Now I say Air India AND Indian airlines and I hear you ask- which one was it?! Well it was both, and neither. You see the partnership is so confusing I have had to consult my sage of all knowledge, Wikipedia. She (Wikipedia is a She of course!) says,
"Though the company that owns and operates the airline continues to be named Indian Airlines Limited, on 7 December 2005, the airline was rebranded as Indian for advertising purposes as a part of a program to revamp its image in preparation for an initial public offering (IPO). The airline operates closely with Air India, India's national carrier. Alliance Air, a fully-owned subsidiary of Indian Airlines, was renamed Air India Regional.
In February 2007, the Government of India approved plans to merge Indian Airlines with Air India. In May 2007, India's Ministry of Civil Aviation announced that Air India Limited (AI), India's national flag carrier and Indian Airlines Limited (IA), the government owned domestic airline, would merge with effect from July 15, 2007. The new airline formed by the merger was to be called "Air India", and would operate in both the domestic and international sectors."
Are you confused yet? I am. So Indian Airlines is actually "Indian" but nobody calls it that, they work closely with Air India but of course they should as they have merged(!), and after the merger, they are actually a new airline called Air India, but my flight was still on Indian Airlines, which technically doesn't exist? OK sure, for India- that's quite logical!
The 1:10 Departure of my 50 minute flight meant I had to wait 4 hours in the terminal building. Fine- I walked around the area about 17 times, played Valet Hero until my iPhone battery died, (I am addicted to this idiotic game where you have to guide cars to their parking spots).
Oh, and I also ate at McDonald's India for the first time (along with everyone else in the terminal as there was no other decent food there). McD's does not serve Beef or Pork so as not to offend Hindus or Muslims respetively, leaving only MuckNuggets (sic), fish and Chicken sandwiches. I ate the Chicken sandwich, as for some reason I keep thinking the waters around India are so polluted, every fish in their seas has ingested at least a pound of mercury, swam through raw sewage and nibbled on the heels of a few chappals (ladies sandals) lost at sea. Not enough irradiation by McDonald's would make me change my mind. However for some reason I also imagine the little chickens hand fed little tasty morsels of corn and croutons, by Monks in orange robes, overseen by the Dalai Lama himself, thereby making the Chicken sandwiches a better option, obviously.
Ok so the wait for my flight went beyond the scheduled boarding time and the natives started getting restless. Apparantley the crew was 'missing'. They hadn't shown up to work! We were told by the HCs (Headless Chickens, AKA Indian Airlines staff) to rest assured as there was no way the flight was going to be cancelled. In just 10 minutes they would be ready to go!
About 2:30pm, the flight was cancelled. The HCs had hell to pay. Fellow passengers were annoyed about the reason given too- it was Holi and a lot of staff had called in sick. Ok Holi is a national holiday celebrated by people throwing coloured powder at each other (makes for great National Geographic photography but I could imagine it's hell to get the coloured powder out of your eyes). Right then I wanted to throw coloured powder at the faces of the HCs. Using paint ball guns of course. So rather than take a day off, the staff called in sick and there were no staff to cover them, and we were just going to have to deal with it?!
The HCs told us they were organising a bus to take us to Chandigarh, or we could stay overnight. My uncle and aunt were waiting for me so I chose the bus. The HCs offered us free snacks from McDonalds- our choice of MUCKFISH or Chicken. Well I went for #2 (as in a second sandwich!)... Stuck in the airport for 7 hours and on my second McChicken Sandwich meal from McDonalds... this was turning into "The Terminal" meets "Supersize Me"!
Several hours later, the HCs had run around the terminal with a lot of paperwork, ran away from and towards several dozen passengers (in fear and with paperwork respectively), stamped a lot of papers and tried to calm a lot of people down. But there was still no sign of a bus.
Then a large red oblong beacon of hope, a large "Volvo" bus showed up infront of the terminal. We were like convicts who just made parole, and our wardens, the HCs were probably equally thrilled, now free of us at last they probably went inside and high fived each other.
The Volvo swallowed up our luggage in the hold and we were off!
Note- I learned that "Volvo" is to an A/C bus like Kleenex is to tissues- ie. the generic name. If you're lucky the bus will actually be a Volvo, but it's not guaranteed. (I didn't have time to check this one). I heard people calling to inform relatives that IC (Indian Airlines code) had put on a Volvo for them. I wondered why Swedes are featuring so heavily in my travels lately (Abba cafe in Varkala, travel buddy Hokkam from Sweden, the Ikean embassy in Chennai...) ?!
Well 5 hours later we were almost in Chandigarh, and I had made a whole load of new friends on the bus! This was actually the best thing that could have happened in my quest to connect with local people. I learned the story of a 56 year old man who was working as a concrete foreman on construction projects in Dubai; he was coming home to his wife in a small village in Punjab after 6 months of living with 4 other men in one room. He had brought her a few small gifts...from the plane! A "soft shawl" (airplane blanket) and "cutlery set" complete with plastic stirrer, and a pen (with the construction company logo on it). For himself he had picked up a bottle of Scotch from Duty Free. This was going to be a great vacation for him!
There was the college student who had gone to Kolkata and Shilong to get away from the pressures of studying, and a couple from Ludhiana who run a bicycle parts manufacturing company that supplies to the UK. They have a son doing an MBA in Cardiff they were proud to tell me...and finally an ex-army officer who now flies helicopters in the Northwest of India.
My great group of fellow Punjabis and I were all making the most of our misfortune by sharing stories at the Dhaba (food stall) in Karnal where we stopped off en route for some masala chai and biscuits.
We made it to Chandigarh around 10:30pm and my uncle was at the bus stop to pick me up, my aunt waiting in the street when we got home. Hugs and kisses and after recounting the tales of the day, I was off to sleep to begin afresh the next day.
What adventures awaited in Chandigarh?!
Either way, it is amazing