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Monday, 21 October 2013

Winning Entry of Aisle Be Damned Contest

A Whimsical Flight

My craze to travel abroad had never really died right from my college days; and finally, when the opportunity came knocking at my door, I decided to leave no stone upturned. Right from applying for the passport to the processing and stamping of visa I had been relentless in my pursuit. After all, it was a dream I had nurtured for so long.

As the wife of H1B VISA-holder I was entitled to travel to the U.S. to join my husband there. I booked myself on the earliest available Lufthansa flight to Dallas Fort worth. Due to the festive season, all the flights were packed to full capacity. So, hoping for a preferred seat by the aisle or the window was out of question.
Still, I found myself lucky to at least have the confirmed tickets in my hands. My only concern was the weather turning unfair. The mercury had dipped tremendously and the whole city lay enveloped in suspended fog for hours together. Christmas and New Year eve were round the corner.

After an endless wait, finally, the D-day arrived. To avoid the weekend traffic and keeping the three hour checking time in view, I left from home exceptionally early. The flight was scheduled at three in the morning. And promptly at midnight, beating the cold and the zero visibility, I reached the airport with my bag and baggage. Seeing the long meandering queue at the ‘immigration check’ counter, I almost fainted. The initial shock was enough to brace me up both mentally and physically. With cabin baggage straddled across my left shoulder, and the handbag dangling from my right, I thought I was doing just fine. I couldn’t stop marvelling at the way I had handled things single-handedly. Almost an hour was gone and we hadn’t moved more than just a couple of inches. Passengers in the queue had started feeling restless.

Though I had been on domestic flights quite a few times, I had never undergone such a series of conflicting emotions – panic, fear, excitement, tension, nervousness, confidence – all at once. “What if my visa is rejected, oh God? In that case they won't give me the boarding pass!”  Cynical thoughts just wouldn’t leave me.  I mumbled a short prayer and proceeded to the counter. Except for handing me an Embarkation Form, he didn’t ask me a thing. Just mechanically stamped my ticket and the boarding pass and shifted his attention to the next passenger. What an anti-climax it turned out to be!

At the personal security check too, nothing significant happened, and rather than feeling relieved I started losing my nerve. To my psychedelic mind, once the panic button was triggered, the worst was bound to come; it was yet to come!

The boarding had begun and in spite of all my alertness I found myself waiting almost at the tail end of the three-hundred-and-fifty-passenger-strong queue. By the time I made it to the aircraft cabin there were only the middle seats left unoccupied. And the added misery was that the one that came my way was between two male passengers! The window seat was occupied by a Chinese while the one sitting by the aisle was a middle-aged German. I didn't have to wait a moment longer to get to my seat, for even before my hand reached for the baggage bin to keep my stuff; the freckle-faced German had already left his seat and was shifting and pushing baggage, making room to accommodate mine. I politely acknowledged 'thanks' with a nod of my head and a smile. The formal gesture must have been encouraging enough for him, as, the next moment I heard his heavy German-accented voice - "Come, let me take your coat, ma'am". I was totally unprepared for this social etiquette or else I would have worn something less disconcerting under that coat. The clinging fabric of my quarter-sleeved T-shirt left no scope for relaxing, leave alone breathing freely. In a short while it was time for the nightcap. An attractively equipped trolley was wheeled in by an equally attractive flight attendant. All heads promptly turned in that direction and started ordering their preferences of liquor and wine. My mind was as such worked up with a lot many things going on inside it; the topmost one being -- 'ask for a blanket’...’ask for a blanket'...'ask for a blanket'...playing repeatedly like a tape recorder. And that is precisely what I did, when my turn came. Both my fellow passengers looked astonishingly amused as they chuckled mischievously, reclining back on their seats after having ordered Vodka each. I noticed helplessly that, they had by then, encroached upon a substantial part of my territory and both my arm-rests were gone! My condition at that moment was no better than that of a captive; or rather, even worse than that. I rested both my hands on my lap, stiffly avoiding any contact with their elbows. I realised very soon that it was sanely not possible to sit through the long hours of flight in that ridiculous posture. I thought and thought for a long desperate moment, but was unable to find any viable solution. This whole situation was driving me insane. "Enough is enough!" I said to myself. And, much to my own surprise, the next thing just happened on an impulse.  I pressed the buzzer and ordered for a shot of Tequila. And with that came the announcement- “Passengers on board are requested to fasten their seat-belts." So, at last there was something positive happening after all! We were finally going to take off! With that Tequila shot down my throat, it felt much better. I closed my eyes to relax myself, somewhat, and also to drink in, every bit of that golden moment. In order to contain my excitement, I started counting backwards......

Moments later, another announcement came, but I couldn't get a word of it due to the sudden uproar amid the clicking sound of the seat belts. All that followed seconds later was, unacceptable, at least to me. Imagine you are all set to take off and then asked to disembark the plane! Why? Because of the blessed fog! And you end up as a layover passenger; that too for an uncertain period, 'until further notice'!

What was going to happen next? No one had any clue, and there was no one to even tell about the further plan. It was already day-break and through the window-pane of the airport shuttle I tried to figure out where we were headed. The drive seemed never-ending. Only when we hit the Ring Road to Hyatt Regency did I gather my whereabouts. The entire Lufthansa crew along with the layover passengers was put up in the hotel until further notice. I rushed to the reception counter anticipating a long queue again, and asked for my room keys. But I was puzzled when the clerk at the desk handed a sealed envelope instead. Incidentally, this was for the first time that I was checking into a Five-Star hotel suite. I sheepishly took the elevator to get to the fifth floor. The room that I had been allotted was right at the end of the long corridor. Feeling tired and drowsy I found even my hand bag and coat weighing heavy on my shoulders. I just wished to drop dead in bed. I eagerly fished for the keys in that sealed envelope but could only find a card. "What am I to do with it?" I wondered. And the answer to my question appeared with the arrival of one of my co-passengers. From the corner of my eyes, half shielding my face, I saw her insert the card into the slot on the door knob and push open the door with such casual ease that I almost envied her. Through that clever imitation technique I had taught myself to 'enter' alright, but what if I got locked inside and was unable to unlock using the same trick? Logic doesn't always work, and I was taking no chances there! So, although it might sound weird but I left the door wide open and even placed a chair against it lest it should close accidently. Then, I cautiously sat at the edge of the huge cosy bed and made a phone call to my husband in order to inform him about my delay. He was in the middle of some important meeting at work, so, did not seem to register the message good enough. The moment I dropped the phone it rang again. The receptionist informed of the rescheduled flight. I almost lost my mind when I heard that it was freaking fourteen hours later! And the worst part was - there would be no room service provided to layover passengers. We had to collect our meals from the Hotel restaurant in the basement, only on producing our boarding passes. And catering to a crowd of three hundred and fifty meant spending the rest of the day in endless queues with boarding passes in our hands, like vagabonds standing with their begging bowls!

This was the price I was made to pay for my oh-so-perfect planning! And to think of it as only the beginning of my ordeal, gave me shivers! Nevertheless, there was no looking back now, so I looked ahead, upbeat.
It was two in the morning when we landed at the Frankfurt airport. The touchdown was somewhat shaky and bumpy enough to jiggle me out of my listlessness. I was so enormously relieved, I just can’t express in words! With all sorts of pressures building up all night, my plight was as distressing as my flight, both mentally and physically. My stomach was distended, my limbs were cramped and my neck, stiff as hell! Somehow, with great effort I gathered myself up and with my bags strapped across my right shoulder, I rushed to the loo of the aircraft cabin. I was so relieved, the sign on the door read - 'VACANT'!

I let my eyes roam the wide expanse of this extremely busy airport, but could not spot a single 'help desk' or counter of the Lufthansa crew. My heart sank! I had no agent to guide me. On my boarding pass, the details to board the connecting flight said - Terminal no. 48. "How do I get there? Who shall I ask?" I was completely clueless. I couldn't even make any calls since I needed to buy a calling card and the exchange counter was yet to open. A tall and hefty guy had been watching me for a long time. Or was he staring? My old phobia returned. I suddenly became conscious and felt my fingers tightening their grip around my handbag, drawing it closer, protectively. From the corner of my eyes I saw him approaching towards me. "What should I do? Who should I run to?" My mind was completely blank. With a tattooed arm and pierced eyebrows, the man looked notorious. "He could be a gangster.... a kidnapper....a rapist....robber..." My heart had started pounding now, violently. And that gave tempo to the rest of my body. I charged blindly in the opposite direction towards a kind of alley, and went on running till I came to the point of almost collapsing. And collapse, I did, with the sudden reappearance of that man before my eyes, giving me that 'why did you run away' look. Thankfully, I had landed myself on a 'sky rail platform' where I could see a few passengers waiting for the airport shuttles to reach them to their respective terminals. Yet, what was disheartening was, that they were not of my flight, and there wasn't a single Indian.

I promptly skipped into the next shuttle. Being the only occupant I was nervous like anything. Except for the local trains of Mumbai, I had no experience of travelling by these shuttles. I wasn't even comfortable using the modern hi-tech gadgets that they were equipped with; especially the door locks of washrooms and elevators. Closing my eyes in a silent prayer, earnestly, I wished for the company of a lady passenger. The company of a passenger I got alright, but not of a lady. I found the same fellow seated opposite me! Cornered and trapped in the compartment with this stranger, all that I could do now was, make peace.

"Hi. You seem to be on the same flight that I am travelling by. Are you?

"Yeah hi! You're right. We ARE on the same flight."

 "Lufthansa A-320. Right?" I confirmed, still suspicious.

"That's right; and my seat is right behind yours."

I fell silent for a moment, feeling rather stupid for causing myself all that unnecessary anxiety.  As unexpected as it turned out to be later, Davis, was the one who came to help me with my luggage at the conveyor belt and also at the customs.

When I introduced him to my husband in the parking lot, he smiled and said,
"Davis is my assistant in office. I sent him to ensure your safety"


~Manisha Gupta

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