Thursday, January 14, 2010

Be Kind Whenever Possible

While checking my travel plans earlier in the week, I notice that the itinerary says, “First Class” next to my seat assignment.

“Oh crap,” I thought. When I booked the tickets with the corporate travel agent, I specifically asked for business class (and did even that with a guilty wince when they told me the price). I don’t want Pearson thinking I’m trying to take advantage of them, so I call the agency to inquire into the matter.

“Oh yes, Ms. Krajewski, I see here that you’ve received a free upgrade.”

“A free upgrade?” I confirm. “At no extra cost?”

“Yes,” she says, “That’s what a free upgrade usually is. How lucky for you!”

“I’ll take it!” I say, and slam a fist down on the kitchen counter as if I’ve just surprisingly won an auction of all of Jackie O’s sunglasses for the low, low bid of NOTHING. The dog gives a slightly nervous look. I assure her all is well.

Two days later, I’m standing in line at Gate K19 at O’Hare Airport when a skinny, grey-haired Steve Martin-type pushes between me and the other row of people in the “Priority Access” line.

“Excuse me,” he says, as he clunks people with his teetering valise, his wife trailing behind in his wake. “We’re PRIORITY,” he says like he’s just been named President of Earth.

I step to the side, looking at my ticket that reads in all caps: PRIORITY ACCESS while the King of the World walks all the way to the front of the line and right up to a scowling flight attendant who looks at his tickets, points, and shakes her head. He does the same. Finally, they both turn around and part the sea of first class and business passengers through which Mister Priority just waded. As they get within earshot, I can hear the flight attendant telling the argumentative Mister Priority, “Yes, all of these people are first class or business class. I checked all their tickets personally.” She rolls her eyes and they walk on.

The first time I flew first class for this whole India project, I felt terribly guilty. I took notes about how it would be nicer for everyone if they partitioned out the space on the plane evenly, giving each person a reasonable amount of room instead of giving some a whole wash closet full of space while others receive something nearer a child’s coffin.

But I fear a change has come over me. As he walks past, I, too, roll my eyes at Mister Priority and wish he would just stay in his assigned place—behind all of us first class and business class passengers. What an idiot!, I think.

This time, I want that whole, sordid, huddled mass to stay away from me with their coughs and sneezes and their body odor and their too big carry on bags that they will stuff into too small overhead compartments but only after a good 30 minutes of futzing.

This time, I’m expecting a hot hand towel served to me before dinner so I can freshen up—and I’m not despairing for the folks who don’t get one.

This time, there may as well not even be a back of the plane. We are all First Class—except for that one Priority clown, and he’ll have to deal with the Air Marshall if he comes pushing up here again now that we’re on the plane.

This time, I’m entitled. I’ve been deported. I’ve been detained. This whole thing has been a mess. So this time, I deserve a hot towel, and The New York Times—and maybe even a miniature, plastic glass of champagne. Damnit.

But then I think, *gasp*:

Is this how jerks happen? They decide that whatever headaches they’ve gone through mean they deserve better treatment than everyone else? I don’t think so. I don’t think this model of jerkness is sustainable. For instance, I know the minute I see some poor handicapped lady shoved into an economy seat, my sense of entitlement will evaporate in a guilt tornado.

No, I think real jerks don’t base their entitlement on previous pain and suffering, or even hard work. They just think they’re by nature more fabulous, more wonderful, or more deserving. Or maybe they don’t even think about it at all.

Or maybe I’m just trying to justify my momentarily not feeling guilty about the obscenely priced “luxury” of first class flight.

Nonetheless, I flip on the tv and peruse the available movies and shows, hoping there would be some new ones since my last international flight was rather recent.

I settle on the movie District 9, as I remember Scott telling me I might like it. In the midst of the opening credits, Peggy the flight attendant introduces herself and takes my dinner order: the saag paneer (a vegetarian dish of spinach and cheese).

Meanwhile, in South Africa, a race of aliens disdainfully called “prawns” is being held prisoner, experimented on, generally abused, and readied for a forced move to a new concentration camp to be known as District 10—until the male lead accidentally encounters some dark, toxic fluid which causes him to start mutating into an alien.

Half-man, half-alien, he quickly begins to identify with the tortured prawns and realizes they are not mere monsters, but intelligent beings with very recognizable emotions, and strong family bonds.

The flight attendant rushes past me and leaves a plateful of glistening PRAWNS on my tray table.

For a moment, I consider eating them even though it’s the wrong order, but then I look at the prawns, and I look at the t.v., and I look at the flight attendant and just say, “Ummmmm…”

Thankfully, without my having to explain the complicated and rather lame reason that I will likely never eat shrimp again, let alone at this moment, Peggy whisks the plate away and replaces it with my new meal—mushy spinach that was never a member of anyone’s family.

As the movie wraps up, I think, how would I review this? I’d likely have to say something about it being directed by Peter Jackson. This being the case, I was hoping for some giant walking trees, or at least a soft-focused, slow motion pillow fight at the end, but no such luck.

As the movie wraps up, I also think about how I really have less and less an appetite for violent entertainment. The blood and the guts and the guns and the fire and the explosions. I wonder what it’s all for. I wonder if, like eating prawns, I should avoid it completely—but I’m not one for hard and fast rules, except (subsequently) when it comes to eating prawns.

I find the classy eye mask in my first class ditty bag, slap it on, and recline the seat all the way backwards so that it pretty much resembles a bed. I put on an episode of 30 Rock, but don’t even make it all the way through before passing out.

I wake up a few times to hear people walking around or asking the flight attendant for things, but I don’t turn my seat back into a chair until there are just about two and a half hours left in the flight.

So my flight will work out to about eight hour’s sleep with about three hour’s chilling on either end of that. It’s not bad.

We land without incident. I get off the plane, and get through immigration with no problems at all. The monitor tells me to head to Carousel 5 to get my bags.

Our arrival was about thirty minutes late because they held the plane to fix some mechanical problems. Now, as we all gather around the empty carousel, our arrival is delayed even further.

About thirty minutes passes before any bags come out. Then, they appear few and far between, as though the Indira Gandhi airport hires one three-toed sloth to unload the baggage from each international flight. I imagine our sloth outside, moving like the goo in a lava lamp, just taking his time with our bags—one at a time.

I posit this theory to a black guy with braids from Chicago. He says, “You know, in India, they take time.”

Just then, I see my blue suitcase coming toward me, drenched in some sort of toxic-looking black liquid. I rethink my sloth theory. Maybe they have giant prawns working the baggage, I think, but I keep it to myself.

My second bag isn’t far behind. I grab them both and walk through the “green” customs lane, which means you have nothing to declare, and down the ramp where the taxi drivers line up. I read the signs for my name and get to the end of the ramp without finding it.

Must’ve missed it, I think, and head back up the ramp to examine the signs more closely, looking left and right with no luck. I try this trick two or three more times until it’s clear to me I require a strategy beyond looking for my name on a sign at this point.

I am so, so thankful at this point that something like this didn’t happen to me on my first trip into the country. I would have filled with panic and dread and done who knows what.

This time, though, I have a local cell phone (that I hope is still charged). And I have rupees in my pocket. And I have already spotted a pre-paid taxi stand that looks like it will work.

I take out my cell phone and call up the number of The Residence Hotel in GK1, but I get the crazy India dial go-round which consists alternately of strange beeping, Asian music, and a woman’s voice recording saying, “We’re sorry, that number does not exist.” I try every possible combination of numbers and area codes, with and without the plus sign (which sometimes helps but not always). I even ask a uniformed guard to help me dial. Nothing works.

Plan B: scratched.

Plan C? I’ve got Ranjani’s number in my cell. She does HR for Pearson. I call her up and tell her what’s going on. She says Kavita was supposed to confirm the airport pick up, but she’ll make some calls.

In the meantime, a driver holding a sign for The Oberoi Hotel says that sometimes the drivers wait outside as well. I’m suddenly sure that’s what happened, and I’ll soon feel silly for calling Ranjani and bothering her.

I drag my bags behind me into a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. I barely hear it, but catch my ringing cell phone. It’s Scott. He wanted to congratulate me on getting here okay. People push at me from all directions. I see a few signs, but none of them say my name.

“Scott, can I call you back? I’m trying to find my cab and it’s a little chaotic.” I hang up.

Nope, there is nobody waiting here for me: inside or outside. There is nobody at all. They messed up.

A dark-skinned driver with pointy incisors approaches me, “Madam, do you need a ride?”

I tell him yes, but I want to use a pre-paid stand. At this point, I’m thinking I’ll go back to the stand I saw inside the airport, but Toothy points me to a pre-paid stand that is conveniently this side of the pulsating throng.

He leads me to the booth where an Indian version of Danny DeVito fills out a little form and takes 250 rupees from me. He tells me I can take any of the black and yellow taxis in the lane, but Toothy is all over this deal. He grabs my bags and leads me towards the back wall of the arrivals section to a small, cracked up, hatchback.

He shoves my large bag, then my small bag into the back seat, and then I start to get in as well. Before I can sit down, he stops me by putting his hand between my legs. I vigorously swat his arm away, saying, “What do you want?”

He, apparently, wants a tip for having put my bags in his backseat. I think, what else will he want if I get into his cab with him alone?

My cell phone rings while I still have one foot in his backseat. It’s Kavita.

“Vicki, what are you doing?”

“I’m getting a cab,” I say, irritated.

“No! Don’t! It’s dangerous! You should wait. The hotel says they’re sending somebody. Don’t take a cab. It’s dangerous,” she says.

Yeah, no shit. That’s why it would have been nice if the HOTEL WAS HERE TO PICK ME UP!!!!

But, like my prawn joke, I keep this to myself. “Well, I already paid, Kavita. Just tell the hotel to cancel.” For a fleeting, unreasoning moment, I think I’ll somehow enjoy the guilt she might feel if something happened to me. I also want to prove I don’t need anybody’s stupid help.

“NOOO,” she says. “Wait at the airport!”

“Okay,” I give in. Toothy already touched my hoo haa in a crowded public place. I don’t want to even think about where he might really be going tonight. Kavita’s right. It’s dangerous.

Changing direction, I tell him I’ll give him his tip if he just takes my things out of his car. The hotel is sending a cab for me.

I dig into my backpack and hand over 100 rupees in exchange for the harassment I received. But Toothy is the gift that keeps on giving. Now he and his friend want to talk to me.

“You are marry? You are hot, sexy lady. You live United States? You give American dollars to me.”

I tell Toothy I have to go inside to wait for the hotel taxi, but then the phone rings again. It’s someone speaking mostly Hindi, but every 20th stray word makes me think he has the right number. It sounds something like, “slkdjrfweoiuredhj Miss Vicki slkdj aoeiruoiel sdfkljsahdfjhasd Hello? sdlkfjasdhfasdfhh taxi hotel lkejrewoir howeirdkdjfshjfghd skjhieuht Where you now?”

I try describing where I am to who knows whom, but the call gets dropped. All the while Toothy and his friend are leering at me. “You don’t need cab. You pay. You have cab. You like this car?”

The phone rings again. It’s my mystery caller. This time I don’t listen to anything he’s saying, but just start describing where I’m standing until I see a man with a navy blue rag on his head talking on a cell phone, and heading straight for me. He doesn’t tell me who he is, but he says, “Taxi?”

I guess.

I’m not sure this second route seems any less dangerous at this point. Who is this guy?

He points me to the pre-pay booth and tells me to get my money back. I tell him to forget about it, but he insists. Toothy and his friend drag my bags back to the pre-pay booth while the mystery man negotiates a refund from Danny DeVito.

Toothy wants another tip. American money. I tell him I don’t have any. He asks about five more times, with the same result.

“Indian money, then,” he says. I tell him I already paid him.

The mystery man is done speaking with Danny DeVito. I just have to sign for the refund, which I do.

Then the mystery man takes my bags and leads me to the other side of the booth to a large white minivan. He and a second person wordlessly put my luggage into the van and open the door for me to get in, which I do.

I really hope these are the guys from the hotel.

It is a wordless drive. I am angry once again. I even sent an email directly to the hotel this time telling them my flight number and all the details. I’m so sick of everything going wrong.

Well, I tell myself, not everything has gone wrong now, has it? They fixed the mechanical problem on the plane, didn’t they? They upgraded you to first class, didn’t they? They let you into the country this time, didn’t they?

Whatever, I answer myself. I’m still sulking. I decide I’m not going to tip this taxi driver at all. Tip him for what? Forgetting about me? Not showing up when he was supposed to? Jerk. And I also decide not to tip whoever it is that will help me with my luggage either. Dumb hotel. They don’t deserve tips for messing up.

Then I think of my Yahoo signature line. It’s a quote from the Dalai Lama. It says, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”


He’s right.

We pull up to the hotel.

I tip the driver.

I tip the guy who helps me with my luggage.

Then I go try to figure out if that black, toxic prawn liquid on my blue luggage is a permanent stain.


Nelle said...

Vicki, you are one amazing woman. What an adventure!
I hope you were able to take a shower and wash the thought of "toothy" out of your mind and anywhere else. ;-)

Vicki said...

Aww, thanks =)

LOL on Toothy!!!!

Unfortunately, my room was soooo cold that I couldn't bring myself to take a shower. I'm hoping it will feel warmer in there this afternoon.

It got down to, like 40 degrees here last night, and there's no heat and little insulation, so, brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Brianne said...

incredible story, I really respect you for still giving a tip after all that I would hope that in the same situation I would follow in your foot steps