As I started writing this from the hotel room in Salt Lake City, I distinctly remembered what the gem merchant had told me not so long ago - "This will be a huge eye opener for you!"
The journey was long, almost two days (excluding the half day I had lost in travelling to the other part of the globe) On friday, I had reached the Bangalore airport almost three and a half hours before the schedule and the first sign I saw on reaching the airport was "The flight AF 0191 from Bangalore to Paris has been delayed" I had no idea that this was just a small beginning of a series of "Waisa bhi hotha hai". I carried 2 huge suitcases, along with a hand bag and a laptop. This was the first time after my school days that I was carrying so much weight. Even though the baggage limit was 30 kgs per bag, the "negative-thinking" person in me told me to carry much lesser than the limit, so as to completely avoid any chances of overload. But, Air France had different plans. Effective, 1st Nov, they had changed the limit to 23 kgs! So, I unloaded the luggage and got the boarding pass. I tata-ed all my relatives, amidst the chorus of "take-care"s. The scene was anything but emotional, as no one cried. Probably, me going abroad had given them more joy that the sorrow of missing me(?) for three months. Even I was pretty cool - I was not as excited or tense as I expected myself to be. Very unlike me, I said to myself.
I went through the security check, and sat in the lounge waiting for the plane. There were lot of french people in the airport - the oldies were flauting the Sai Baba badge on their shirt, reading "Sai Baba - his story" and a few closed their eyes with rudrakshi in their hand, as if to convince themselves about "that". The french kids were lying all over the floor - riding their toy cars, writing sketches. Finally, I got into the plane, and we had a TV to kill time. There were many music channels - I tried everything from Easy Listening, Classical, Kids Rock and finally settled for Latino music. The best song I heard was the latino version of "Hotel California". After a while, I got bored, and started surfing the movies. I saw some weird french movie, about two street singers, their struggle and things like those. They started singing "Happiness is better than life. It was Philippe who said that, not I" and within a few minutes, I was in deep sleep.
The flight reached late to Paris. It was snowing! I had never seen snow, and walking in snow for a few minutes gave me such a high. I was already late for my next flight and I started running towards helpdesk to know my terminal. It was 2C. I got into the shuttle to reach 2C. There was a middle aged Canadian, my only co-passenger in the bus. I asked him where to get down. He showed me the map in the bus and explained me that 2C is after 3 stops. I knew that CDG was a big airport, but I had never expected it to be so insanely huge. Seeing me breathing heavily, he asked me "First time?". I nodded. He smiled and said "Dont worry, this will be a huge eye-opener for you" In the meanwhile, he asked me about my profession, about India's GDP etc. In a short span, he covered many topics like how China is slowing down, how americans are lazy, how India is improving, his profession of being a gem merchant, how he wants to expand in India with Jaipur as base. "Your stop, 2C!" he said. I thanked him, and ran as fast as I could (By the way, I never could very fast!) I went through the security check, and I tried hard to frame as small a sentence as possible to make the french understand. He opened my baggage and pointed to the umbrella and asked me what it was. I told it was an umbrella, showing my fist and helping him visualize the umbrella. "Umbrella, umbrella", he said a couple of times to himself and felt really happy for learning another english word.
Then, I reached the terminal and thought of telling "bonjour" to the mademoiselle sitting behind the desk. I was not sure whether to pronounce it as "bon-joor" or "bon-zoo", so I settled for a safe "Hello ma'm". The plane had already left, and I asked her as to when did it leave. "It-it is left much much more time" I cursed the french for not learning proper english and FTV for not teaching us any french beyond "lingerie"! I collected the tickets for another flight (I was supposed to go from Paris to Atlanta, but now I was flying to JFK, New York) Even this flight was delayed because of heavy snow fall. I got the opportunity to roam around this terminal. Almost all the shops were related to fashion. I was wondering how two middle-aged french women might talk - "Nim huduga fashion aa, nam hudugi noo fashion" (Similar to "Nim maga computer aa, nam magaloo computerru" in India)
Finally, the flight started at 5.45 PM, again an Air France flight. As I had explored all the options in TV in the previous flight itself, I decided to sleep. It was already night when I reached New York and the view was spectacular. As the flight started late from Paris, I had missed the flight to Salt Lake City. As there were no other flights on that day, I got the only flight to Salt Lake City, early morning the next day. But, this flight was from Newark, 60 miles from JFK. It was already 10.00 PM and the shuttle services had stopped at 8.00 PM. There were a couple of taxis waiting outside. There were three ladies who asked me if I want to share the taxi and my answer was YES! But, they decided to go to some other place in the final moment and I ran to the other taxi where a family of four was already seated. They asked the driver if I could join them, to which the driver replied "No sir, only four!" and the taxi sped away. I was standing all alone in the cold of the New York night, remembering Tom Hanks in "The Terminal". And all of a sudden, a heavily-built guy came from behind and said "Wanna go to Newark. There are no more taxis. Come with me". I just followed him, thinking that he would take me to another taxi stand. In the parking lot, he asked me to get into his limousine. Before I could think anything, I was in his limo. And then, the fear started.
He did not look like a cab driver and now I started wondering why he was so enthusiastic in helping me. I wanted to get down and run. But, my mind told me that if he is a crook, he can follow me and attack, as there was no one in the parking lot. The limo started and I started thinking of alternate plans. In case he tries to attack me, I have the weighing machine in my bag, I can hit him with that. No! If he snatches it from me, then I am gone! Cool down, there must be some other way, I told myself. I started to talk to him and disturb his thought flow, in case he is planning to rob me. "Sir, where are you from?" I asked him, amused about myself, for giving so much respect to him. "Bhopal" was his one-word reply, and started concentrating on his driving. After a few deafening silent moments, I asked "Sir, your name?". "Alex" was his reply. Is he really an Indian? Is he an Indian Christian? Anyway, I would not have believed him, even if he had told some other name. We were travelling on the highway. There were only two human beings I could see - one whose heart beats I could hear, and other one was driving! What if he robs me at gunpoint and throws me out of the car? Whom will I ask for directions here? Or even worse, I thought of the newspaper heading - "Java developer murdered near JFK" The heading somehow didn't amuse me! Then, he started sharing with me his domain expertise. "I drive limousine, my company has 1000 vehicles. This way, it is called Queens. This is a very long tunnel - the Hudson river flows over this, I have to pay 20$ for toll fee. This is Manhattan" Manhattan! I remebered the ladies near the airport talking about going to Newark via Manhattan. So, he must be genuine, or he might have a plan of taking the limo to some unknown road in downtown. Manhattan was not great. The roads were bad, tins of coke and litter was all over the roads. There were traffic signals every 100 feet. I started wondering if this was a better way to handle traffic, and I was proud of my thinking - social responsibility even in times of personal crisis! Finally, I saw the board, "Newark airport" and then I knew he was genuine! I asked him if it is safe to stay in the airport all night. "You can stay. Look around for cops. Be careful from black people, homeless people!"
I had landed at Terminal C, and my flight for the next day was supposed to be at Terminal B. I started walking towards the air train and saw a few blacks there. I remembered the words Alex had told, and I realised how Preity Zinta felt when she was alone in the airport in Dil Chahta Hai. I reached Terminal B. Even here, there were a few blacks, but they did not seem homeless. I talked to a cop I met "Excuse me sir, can I stay here all night? Is it safe?" What a stupid question, Vasuki! You are talking to a cop and he would obviously tell it is safe. "Yes, you can stay here, no problems!" I went down the stairs and sat on one of the chairs (does this sound like a rap song?) There were only a few people in the whole floor - another black woman - no, she also does not seem homeless and she looks totally disinterested, an old thin man - he cant be dangerous, I can take on him, if he has underestimated me, a young man - sleeping on the floor, he seemed to care about nothing except his sleep, a young girl - with pierced nose and ears. I put on my gloves to hide the rings on my fingers and wore my cap to hide my hair color, to mislead any novice crook around into assuming that I am an Italian or a Spanish! I started looking at the TV, with the train timings on it. The time was still 10:50 PM! I still have to kill time for more than 7 hours. Unless, somebody else kills me! The weaker part of me told me to pray God, but decided against it as I was not prepared to share the credit of this excitement with God! The fear of death and missing the flight kept me awake. And to give me company was "One night @ the call center". The book was very amusing and interesting. Cleaners were walking around, and after sometime they started playing some spanish music in their rooms. I started enjoying the music and remembered what Philippe said - "Happiness is more than life"! At one point of time, I was the only person in the entire floor. It felt scary at first, then I realised its safe, as no one was around. As the clock turned 4.00, I called Avi, and then passed the message to home that I am fine. Got the flight to Salt Lake City early morning and reached here by noon.
I lodged a complaint about my missing baggage and got a taxi to my hotel, and thought of getting a good bath and sleep. I felt like all my troubles are over. How wrong was I! I went to the hotel only to realize that the booking done was declined because of some issue. I asked the receptionist to allow me check in and I will clarify this in the evening - but he refused. I gave a call to my client, who did not receive the call, as he was on a vacation. I asked the receptionist again to allow me an international call to India. "No international calls", was his reply. I decided to stay in the lobby and keep trying to call the client every one hour. I said to myself "Worst case, I will stay in the lobby all night and go to the office directly in the morning" and once again said to myself what Philippe had said! I asked receptionist for some newspaper or book to read. He gave me the Utah travel guide. So, I went through it, to decide what places I should be visiting in the coming weeks. "Whatever happens, happens for good" I said to myself. At around 3.00 PM, he allowed me to check in, by taking 100$ deposit. I sent a mail to the company and resolved the issue the same night. And, I had the most peaceful sleep that night.
The journey had just begun!!!