Just a Quick Layover…..IN HELL

When traveling, it is important to remain calm at all times.  When the airline has no idea who you are in the middle of a layover, remain calm.  When you must fly seated next to an irate, possibly alcoholic Pakistani princess, remain calm.  When men with machine guns lock you up, remain calm.  When you must dodge flowing streams of urine, by all means, remain calm.  I did.  I remained calm, and all of these happened before I ever touched down in Sri Lanka.

Let me back up.

I arrived at my local airport early in the morning – as in it was still the middle of the night, and all went well.  The woman at the airline desk, handed me boarding pass for my first of several flights, told me to check with the agent at the connecting airport in Dallas to get my seat assignment because it was too early for her to do so, and wished me well.   I cleared security, and boarded my plane, and the trip to Dallas was uneventful.  My friend, Keith, and I ate breakfast in the airport, and with a leisurely stroll walked over to the Air Emirates airline desk to check in.  Me, being the gracious and always considerate person that I am (cough, cough), allowed Keith to check in first and all went smoothly.  Then I stepped to the counter, and at this point the first of the seams began to come undone.

The agent began to type on the keyboard, slowly and deliberately at first, but the rackety-rackety of the keys built, becoming faster and more frenetic.  He asked for my ticket, then my passport, my driver’s license, and asked me for any nicknames I may have.  A manager was called over, and then another supervisor.  Finally, a confession was made.  I was no longer in the system. Somewhere between the Deep South and the Heart of Texas, my reservation had vanished.  There was no record of my flying to Dallas, and there was certainly no ticket there for me to move ahead to Asia.  I remained calm.

Leaving my fellow traveler, I left the airport, circled back around to the American Airlines counter, and explained what was going on.  They, too, had no idea who I was, but I was holding a print off of my receipt for payment of the tickets, and strangely it was discovered that there were two seats being held under my friend’s name.  Somewhere along the way, information had been entered incorrectly, and the problem was slowly resolved, and I rushed back through security and onto the waiting plane.  I was calm.

Because of the screw up, we no longer had seats together and I was seated next to two Southeast Asian women.  We began to talk and I quickly learned a few things about them.  First, they were from Pakistan, but had lived in the United States since they were teens.  Second, they were furious about having to fly Air Emirates Airlines, claiming the food was horrible and the service was worse.  I was pleased with both so far.

Had I missed something?  No, maybe it was them, wasn’t it?

However, the act of treachery that sent them over the edge was the woefully inadequate supply of vodka available to them on the flight.  Apparently, prior to take off they had asked someone working for the airline if “the Grey Goose” was on the plane. “Yes, of course,” They were told.

Oh, the woe that fell upon them when the economy class flight attendant informed them that “the Grey Goose” vodka was only available in first class, and that they would have to make due with an unknown black labeled Russian vodka.  The seemingly unending stream of profanities that began to fall out of the mouths of the Pakistani Princesses was shocking.  How on earth were they going to pass the next 12 hours?  How would they sleep?  They shouted that they must have “the Grey Goose!”  They must have “the Grey Goose” now!  The head of the attendants was summoned, and formal complaint paperwork was filed.  A demand that the flight land so that they could run into the nearest airport with a duty free shop to pick up a fifth was made.  Seriously.  They demanded that the plane be landed so they could make a run to the liquor store. Think about that for minute.

Yup.  It was them, ‘cause it sure wasn’t me.

Then Princess Number One turned to me, and asked me how I was going to make due without, “the Grey Goose.”  Shocked that somehow I had suddenly been brought into the protest, I replied that I didn’t really like vodka.  Princess Number Two told me that the only vodka she had ever had was “the Grey Goose.”  I saw my chance and began to discuss the virtues of Russian vodka.  The Russians created it.  Russians really know vodka.  Russian vodka really was the best in the world.  The Russian vodka available was really expensive because of the black label.  Anything with a black label was expensive.  It worked and the next time the drink trolley rolled by, each of the Pakistani Princesses ordered 3 minis of “luxurious” black label vodka and forty-five minutes later they were falling into an alcohol fueled stupor.  I had remained calm.

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Many hours later we landed for our second layover, this time in Dubai.  The sand dunes below the plane were exotic and a clear indicator that were in a far away land.  However, the airport was as modern, and non-nation specific as could have been built.  This isn’t to say it wasn’t nice, but the only way of knowing we were even in the Middle East was the abundance of women covered in head to toe in black.  We found a couple of chairs between the Paul’s Bakery and the Burger King, and slept for most of our time in the airport.

That evening our plane boarded, headed to Chennai, India, for another layover, or as we would come to think of it later, a little bit of Hell on Earth.  The plane itself was older, with only and handful of passengers onboard.  Just before we took off, the flight crew walked up and down the aisles spraying aerosol cans of disinfectant throughout the plane.  This should have been my first tip off that where we were headed was a bit different.  A few hours later and we were in India.

As we disembarked the plane I couldn’t help but notice the uniformed security guards holding machine guns, and the long walkway that took us up to the customs/connecting flights area of the airport.  To my right was a brick wall in which many of the bricks looked as though they had crumbled, and been replaced with a mixture of concrete blocks and large amounts of mortar.  On the left were windows looking out at the airport where I could see luggage stacked onto the ground.  Not on a cart or being transported somewhere, just stacked up in strange pyramids and columns in the middle of tarmac and left, alone.  One of the windows was broken and the missing glass had been replaced by a large piece of cardboard.  We turned the corner and we were in the passport control area.  Quickly, I realized there was only one security check and it was only for people entering India.  We weren’t and so I walked over the information office and tried to ask the teenage boy sleepily sitting in the cluttered room for help.  He spoke little English, but asked for our passports, and he referenced on the passenger manifest.  I could see that our names were highlighted in yellow, with a large black ink circles around them.  The boy quickly jumped up and led us away from the passport control back down the hallway in the direction we had come from.  He approached the guards and quickly began speaking to them Hindi.  The guard in charge, nodded, but did not look happy.  Maybe it was the expression of contempt on his face, his uniform, or the massive machine gun he carried, but I suddenly began having trouble remaining calm.

We were instructed to follow the guards, and all of us proceeded further down the hallway, and began to make a series of turns, before being spit out into a seemingly empty hallway of the main airport.  The door we passed through was then chained and padlocked behind us.  The teenage passport security clerk  asked us again for our passports.  He instructed us to sit in the chairs against the wall and the he would return.  I suddenly realized that I was in Chennai, India, in the middle of the night, and that I was being asked to turn my passport over to a complete stranger, a teenager no less, who promised to return at some point in the future.  As a teacher, I hesitated to do so, but then remembered the machine gun rajas on the other side of the door, and gave in.  For the next two hours, my traveling buddy and I sat and waited.

Keith and we had gone to high school together many years ago.  We had reconnected via Facebook, and out of sense of adventure had decided on a trip through India and Sri Lanka together.  We had never traveled together before, and I think we were both a bit nervous about how things would play out.  Luckily for us though, there’s nothing quite like being marched through an airport surrounded by machine gunned guards and watching your passport taken away by a teenager to bond you together.  We joked about the situation, both of hiding our nervousness, trying to remain calm.

We talked and slept, and watched the fan in the corner of the ceiling crank methodically back and forth, until our teenage hero returned.  He brought with him the best possible news.  Our tickets, and passports were in his hand.  He apologized for the delay explaining that the desk agent for the airline had not arrived on time that morning, and that he had taken the liberty to move us to the first class cabin of the plane to our flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka.  Excited about the better seating, and more so about having my passport back, were allowed to leave to enjoy all that Chennai International Airport had to offer.

We immediately went to the security line where I was barked at by a guard for not packing appropriately.  He didn’t like my packing of my camera bag next to my toiletries in my backpack, and lectured me sternly about making his job difficult.  I apologized sincerely, and was allowed to pass.  Once we were actually “in the airport,” both Keith and I realized we needed two things, food and a bathroom, but not in that order.  We made our way to the nearest men’s room, and agreed that I would go in first, and he would watch the bags.

As I made my way forward, the smell began to overwhelm me.  I’m not a lightweight when it comes to bathrooms.  I’ve survived numerous bathroom indignities including outhouses, dumps in the woods, and even the famed “non-flushing” toilets of the Moscow International Airport, but I could smell that Chennai, well, that Chennai was something special.  This would be a test for my abilities and call for a prolonged period of “mouth breathing.

The first thing I saw upon entering the door and turning the corner into the men’s room were the row of sinks.  Standing at one of those sinks was a Buddhist monk, with robes pulled up, giving himself a bath.  His robes were resting on his shoulders while everything else was exposed and lathered up.  He used his hands to cup water under the faucet and splashed water all over himself and the floor.  I noticed that the floor was wet, everywhere, in the large square shaped room.  On the wall next to the sinks were two small steps leading up to a series of doors, behind which “Turkish” or squat toilets waited to be used by weary constipated travelers.  I sighed a sigh of relief that I wasn’t there yet- and immediately was reminded to breath only through my mouth, only through mouth.   “Don’t smell, don’t smell, don’t smell,” I willed myself.

On the wall opposite the sinks were the urinals.  They were exactly what I needed. The monk was at the sink, a couple of the toilets were occupied, but otherwise the bathroom was empty.  I made my way toward the wall, urinals all waiting to be used, and I realized there were seemingly attached to the wall a bit too high to actually be functional for the average man.  Then I saw a small step made of bricks that rose roughly a foot from the ground, and was a foot from the wall.  Ah, I thought, it is meant to be stepped on to give the “user” the proper height to get the job done.  I climbed up, unzipped, and did what I do.

Things were going smoothly at first, but I noticed there was no way to actually flush the urinal.  There was no knob or a flush mechanism of any sort.  At the same time, the urinal started making a strange, gurgling noise.  It was like water going down a drain.  I shifted my gaze down, realizing, horrifically, that what I was giving to the porcelain gods, they were returning to me, through a small hole in the wall next to the floor.  It was running back out towards the ledge I was standing on, and then pooling, before running out through openings in step, flowing across the bathroom, and into a drain in the center of the room.  Just as this horror was fully taking hold of me, the bathroom door opened and dozens of men walked into the bathroom.  A plane must have arrived and everyone needed a bathroom visit.  It had been a long time since I had gone to the bathroom, so I was still standing there, doing what I do, what we all do, and this isn’t something that can be rushed.  I quickly did the math.  The urinals were all full.  The urine flowed backwards, below us, toward the drain, the door was behind me.  This was going to be bad.  Really bad.  Quickly I zipped up, took a deep breath, held it (somehow, to me, holding my breath was essential to what I was about to do), I raised up onto my tip toes, and with long and purposeful strides leapt over the flowing streams of piss.  I will go to my grave telling myself that with my long legs and my graceful ballet leaps I successfully forged the river of muck to safety.  NEVER tell me otherwise.  I walked past the monk, now sort-of dressed, except for his bare ass, and leaning over drinking directly from the faucet, and walked back out of the door to Keith.

It was his turn.  I don’t know what his experience was, we didn’t compare stories, really, but when he returned, I could read his face.  He, too, had looked into the face of horror.  He, too, had survived, but was a changed man for it.  We were now bonded, like soldiers, on the other side of the battle.

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We now had to eat, but the only vendor in the airport was single man operating a small stand with fired meats of some sort under hot lamps, complete with a row of black ants crawling across it.  We decided we could live without food.  We would be back in America in a week or so, after all.  We could stand to lose some weight, I thought, and if the worst came, I could always eat Keith.  We saw the potato chips at the same time.   On the corner of the counter were a couple of old, dust covered bags of Lays.  We ordered them and two bottled waters, and ate the glorious manta with gusto.  We practically inhaled them (we were no longer in the bathroom, after all), but then couldn’t figure out what to do with the bag and the empty bottle.  There were no trashcans anywhere to be seen.  While we were eating, the vendor had closed up, turning off the heat lamps, but leaving the food out until tomorrow.  We sat further, waiting on the plane to board, and noticed that everyone around us simply tossed any litter they had on the ground.  As a good, environmentally minded, recycling American, I thought this was horrible.  By God, I would find a trashcan.  I looked, and looked, and looked.  Nothing.  Out of desperation and boredom, I pulled the label off of the bottle and rolled up, and slid it inside.  Then I tightly rolled up the empty potato chip bag and slid it in as well.  Now what?  I put it under my chair, but felt guilty.  I left it next to the window, but felt guilty about that, too.  I thought about leaving it at the food stand, but was afraid the vendor might try to refill the bottle and sell it with the days old meats the next day.  Meanwhile, more and more people were filing in around us also waiting for their flights.  As they ate, and drank, and cleaned out purses, bags, even pockets, the amount of litter was piling up on the floor.  No one thought twice about it.  Shuffling along through trash in the airport seemed to be the norm at Chennai International.  Finally, I decided the only option would be to put my trash into my luggage, and haul it with me into Sri Lanka.  I would put in the trash bag on the plane, or I’m sure there would be someplace to dispose of trash somewhere in the country.  Calm rationality, was again the rule of the day.

Eventually, our flight was called, and we waded through the rubbish toward our gate.  The first class cabin was nice, and I slept, no doubt dreaming of places other than Chennai International Airport.

Follow on Twitter @tolandtravels

*In 2012, Chennai announced plans for a major overhaul of its airport.  Hopefully, toilets and trashcans will be included.

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