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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

FLTA Diaries - The False Start

There I was, sitting at a window inside Frankfurt airport, sipping a glass of draught beer, chomping on a Burger with Swiss cheese inside, and wondering why nothing had gone wrong yet. It felt almost unreal that everything had gone so smoothly. I had my farewell party two nights before, so I wasn't drunk for my flight. My friends had booked a cab and hence I was at the airport well in time, had checked in with 19.5 Kgs, my hand baggage was clear too, and there I was, waiting for my connecting flight to Chicago O'Hare airport, wondering how nothing had gone wrong. "Surely, something must go wrong", I thought to myself, as I looked first at all the United Airlines flights landing, taxiing, taking off, and then a little further, in the vault of my mind, as my memory took me to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I had just landed there on an IBM project, and realized that my salary hadn't been credited, and that I needed $50 for my 3 month multiple visa. They let me go to the ATM machine, which I knew was pointless, for there was usually never any money in my account after the 20th of any month; but I still went, clutching for a straw of hope, their words ringing in my head, "We will find the next flight back for you, and it will be free!!", as I pictured my boss's screaming, face distorting with disbelief and fury, yelling at me upon my return, and the ten thousand other embarrassments that I would have needed to undergo, had I not experienced a miracle. 

Here at Frankfurt, however, I didn't seem to be in need of miracles, as I gulped down the beer, finished the burger, picked all the crumbs off the plate, and walked around trying to figure out if I should cash the travelers' cheques at the airport. The conversion rate and the agency fee were a lot, so I decided to wait till I reached the USA before I made any major purchases. I had set out with a wishlist of things I needed to buy - portable speakers, tennis shoes, a Tortuga travel backpack, an electric trimmer, and a decent pair of headphones. I also had a list of things I wished to do while I was in the US - watch Roger Federer play, visit the Grand Canyon, Graceland, New Orleans, and have dinner with Jessica Alba. I wasn't sure how many of these would actually happen, but I was positive that I could make some of these happen for sure. I strolled around a bit, enquired at the UAL counter twice to make sure I was at the right gate, and well, everything seemed perfect; nothing had gone wrong yet. Nothing like the time when I had fallen asleep under the stairs near the boarding gate on my way back from China, before I was to board the connecting flight, or the time when I was on the flight back from Cairo, only to realise that I had left my phone at the hand baggage screening counter, and had to take the air hostess' permission to run back, escorted by security, to retrieve the phone, and caused a resultant ten minute flight delay. I still remember the look on the passengers' faces as I walked back down the aisle, smiling at first, and gradually just hurrying to my seat to hide myself behind the seat in front of me. 

As I got into the line, I thought to myself, "Maybe you have grown up, after all". Thus, with a smug look on my face and a nod indicating agreement with my aforementioned thoughts, I walked on ahead in the line, waiting to board one last flight for the day. I checked my pockets again - wallet, phone, passport - all checked. I checked my hand baggage - each hanging from either shoulder; I hadn't misplaced anything. As I progressed in line, the ground staff was checking the passengers' documents to ensure they had all that was required. A lady called Angela (name tag) came up to me. With the same smug look on my face, I handed her my passport and my e-ticket. She looked at it, then looked back at me, and asked, "Where is your I-94?" I wish someone had taken a picture of my face at that point. She looked at my blank expression, and said, "Weren't you issued an I-94 or a DS - 2019?" I pointed at the visa stamp and told her that I got the visa only after I showed my DS -2019. Long story short, I was escorted out of the line, and a most formal US officer posted there was summoned, to check my documents. He checked a number of websites, made a few calls, and confirmed that if I didn't have the DS form, I would have to be put onto the next flight back to India, unless I could get a German visa, in which case he recommended that I spend some time in Frankfurt before going back. 

There it was, the situation I was anticipating. I had no clue where that stupid DS 2019 form was, and I was positive that it was not in my checked in baggage. It was now time for that miracle, but I didn't see one coming any time soon, or maybe I was wrong. When I had landed in HCMC in 2011, I could imagine my boss's disgruntled face spitting fumes all over my face, when he found out that I was deported for not having had enough cash for my visa. I ran to the ATM machine, inserted the card, but knew that it would be two days before I received my salary. I needed a miracle, and I needed it right then! Well, it didn't happen then, because as expected, there was no money in my bank account. I had no credit card either, and even if I did, I don't think they were accepting cards at the visa counter. I don't generally panic in these situations, as I was solely focused on what to do next - something that has held me in god stead in most difficult situations in life. Like that time when I had gone for Pauline's wedding, and the day after the wedding, we were headed downhill on one of the streets of Aizawl in a Maruti 800 cab, the driver and I in the front and Mami and Mimi in the back seat, when a bus driver behind us lost control and hit a Scootie driver, ran her over (she died on the spot), dragged her scootie along and hit our car, dragging our car downhill to almost certain death. The girls in the backseat started screaming wildly, but the driver kept his calm and kept driving, the bus pushing us downhill with all it's momentum. The same thought came to my mind - "I'm here now; what can I do?" And then the miracle happened - I saw a vacant parking spot on the side of the road. I pointed to it and the driver turned into it. The cars were parallel parked and the driver's skills, especially considering the situation he was in, were exceptional. He pulled in and the bus took his left tail-lamp with it, screeching to a halt maybe 50 metres downhill, somehow. No one in the bus died that night. Neither did anyone else, apart from the girl on the scootie behind us.

So that day in HCMC, as I was walking back from the ATM, to almost certainly be put on the next flight back to New Delhi, I thought to myself, "I am here now; what can I do" - something that IBM taught me, when as a 'fresh' graduate I had joined my first job, my manager would always tell me, "Don't come to me with a problem; come to me with a solution". So I went to the travel desk, and there were two Vietnamese girls in their Ao Dai, talking to a customer. I patiently stood in line, my guitar and my suitcase in my hand. When it was my turn, I walked up to them and told them my story - "My card isn't working... I will get my money next week... I need $50...I can leave my suitcase and guitar here till I return with the money..." Ridiculous, right? Well, I didn't know what else to do. And wait, what happened next was that one of the girls pulled open the drawer, took out $50, and said "Please return it, because I'm taking this out on my account". I could barely believe what had happened, and offered to leve my guitar behind, but she wouldn't have any of that. I got her phone number, thanked her maybe a hundred times and ran to the visa office. I paid my dues, got the three month, multiple entry visa, and went back to thank the girl. She smiled and said it was no problem, I promised her I would return the money soon, and left. It took me 7-10 days to find the time from my schedule to call her back, and when I did she was surprised, for when she had told her story to her friends, all of them convinced her that she had been cheated. I called her for dinner to a restaurant close to the place where I stayed, and returned her money, and she thanked me for returning the money and restoring her faith in kindness, and I obviously kept thanking her all throughout dinner.

Back to Frankfurt, when I was given the option of boarding the flight back to India. I thought to myself, "I am here now; what can I do?". I tried writing to the IIE folks and the Fulbright office in India, but it was a Sunday, and neither office was open. I didn't have an international calling card, and the official from the US was extremely business like, without any appearance of feeling in him - he may well have been a robot or a coded clone. "I have checked with the authorities concerned, and the only options available to you at the moment are to locate your I-94 or be deported back to your home country". I realised there was no use reasoning or pleading with him - he was certainly not another Nga Nguyen - he was just another American who wouldn't see anything that hasn't been printed in his book of rules. As I stood there, waiting for a miracle, Angela from UAL came back to me, and figured out from my face that I had had no luck, and looked me in the eye and said, "I know you said that you don't think it's in your checked-in luggage, but why don't you check once? Your flight leaves in 20 minutes, so you don't really have much time". I said okay, and she made a few phone calls, escorted me three floors down, and 5 minutes later, I was rummaging through my checked in backpack - and tucked in neatly and carefully, under a few layers of clothing, was a file where all my important documents had been filed neatly, and right in front of all of them was the DS 2019 form. I could have hugged and kissed Angela at that moment, but I realised the inappropriateness of that action, and not wanting to get into further trouble, I thanked her thrice as I quickly packed my bag up, and thanked the guy who had got it up, for he had to now take it back to the cargo slot. I ran back and showed the American the DS form, upon which he remarked, with no sign of a smile remotely appearing on his face, "I'm glad you were able to locate it. You saved yourself a lot of trouble". I couldn't possibly have been bothered with that statement, and almost feeling victorious, I walked up to the line, where they were nearly done with the boarding. I walked in, placed my hand baggage in the overhead cabin, and as I sat down and buckled up, I realised that maybe I still had a lot of growing up to do.