I have a colleague at US Airways named Randeep from south India. We have had conversations about it as I went to a wedding in Chennai (then still called Madras) in 1998. Randeep announced he was getting married in Puducherry (still called Pondicherry) and invited our group to join him there. Hey, we're airline people, so we can hop on a jet 'plane and go to India for the weekend, right? At least that's the way it was twenty years ago when I worked for Northwest Airlines.
My last trip to India was a business trip in 2007 September to Gurgaon, near Delhi, in the northern part of the country. (It was the week India won the 20-20 cricket world championship over Pakistan.)
Some readers may be disappointed that this page is mostly about the travel rather than the destination. The old Eastern-Airlines advertisements said "Getting there is half the fun." If that's true, then you must be going someplace pretty awful. In this case, most of my time and adventure revolved around travel, so most of this discussion will be about travel as well. I'm glad the airline industry is filling its airplanes, but it's frustrating trying to get the same travel freedom that being an airline employee got twenty years ago when I started.
I took my usual digital photos of my trip.
Airline-employee travel is "space-available" travel, standby seating, we get there only if there's an empty seat. It's free or very cheap, but it's risky. After all, we can get stuck someplace with no recourse and no way to get home. The procedures are simpler and smoother with Internet access. The old method was to buy a paper pass on another carrier (airline) and then to call the other carrier to get "listed" on the flight. Then it was to hang around the departure gate trying not too be too pushy but to make sure they didn't forget about us and leave us behind with empty seats on the airplane. Today's method involves an inter-airline agreement called Zonal Employee Discount (ZED) that is almost universal among airlines so we carry each other's employees as standby passengers at a substantial discount.
When I asked for a more-specific procedure, I got puzzled looks. "You can buy the ZED and do the listing in any order," I was told. So I spent forty-five minutes on the telephone with Jet Airways to list myself on my flights back from India and the last question, after all that time, was for my "ticket number." "What ticket number?" I asked and I was prompted for the ticket number on the ZED coupon I presumably already bought at my own airline ticket counter. Apparently, there is a preferred order for things and that's why we have procedures. (I come from a generation with NASA-style procedures for doing things and that's what I was looking for here.) I found out that airlines are flexible about honoring ZED coupons for other airlines or other airports if the zone range is sufficient. I also was told that the Asian carriers (like the ones I'm using) are not so flexible.
I did my usual medical stuff, pills for malaria, Permethrin for my clothes, DEET bug spray for my body, and anti-diarrhea medicines just in case. For the trip, bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth, no ice in drinks, mouth closed in the shower, no uncooked or exposed fruits or vegetables (bananas are okay), wash hands early and often.
I decided to invite my friends near Frankfurt (FRA) to get together since it's "on the way" to India. As Phoenix (PHX) and Chennai (MAA) are pretty-much antipodal (there's a ninety-nine-cent word for you), pretty-much anyplace is on the way, at least anyplace in the northern hemisphere. We all decided to go to India through Europe.
Other than losing my chance at an "Envoy" seat, the US-Airways first-class product across the ocean, my flights from PHX through Philadelphia (PHL) to FRA were uneventful. I've done this enough times that I wasn't even all that jet-lagged when I got to Germany, nine time zones east of PHX.
My buddy Christoph was available for a run and dinner in Neunkirchen in the German state of Saarbrucken, so I took the train from FRA, a pleasant two-hour ride on a single train, no train-change to worry about, plenty of green, pretty, European countryside.
We had a delightful forest-trail run in the forest. The forest trails we ran were similar to the cross-country trails I run in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We were joined by his fiancé Kerstin for dinner and I got a good night's sleep before my train ride back to FRA for my flight to MAA. I did have a hard time getting my wireless laptop to work even thought it has worked fine all over the United States.
I got the last available seat on the Lufthansa flight from FRA to MAA. The good news is that last seat was in Business Class with a very-interesting seat-neighbor, a Danish fellow who was living in Chennai for two years. When we got to MAA there were thunderstorms and the captain stayed as long as he could before our fuel supply requirements sent us to Bengaluru (BLR, still called Bangalore). We waited while the jumbo-jet was refueled and we waited for the weather to clear in MAA. Weather delayed my arrival by 3.5 hours which made my arrival just a half hour before Sean's. (The other members of our party had standby-seat-availability delays in Los Angeles (LAX) and found their way through Houston (IAH) and Dubai (DXB) a day later).
I remember the crush of people as I left the MAA airport in 1998, but this time I didn't have local company. (Last time Satish (the groom) and I shared our flights through Singapore to MAA and were met by his family.) I called Randeep and he told me there was supposed to be a driver with a sign with his name, my name, and Sean's name. I caught Sean coming out of the airport and we started looking for our driver amid the dozens of other drivers looking for our business. (Two white guys walking out of the airport are easily noticed.) The driver turned out to have our names written in single-pen-width letters on a folded sheet of yellow paper, not the easiest to find in a sea of people.
Our drive to Puducherry (still called Pondicherry) was surprisingly pleasant, divided-highway, dual-carriageway expressway the whole way. After my previous experiences in India I expected more chaotic driving on narrower, slower roads. There was no livestock on NH 45. There were a lot of trucks (lorries) and there was some congestion, even at 4:00 in the morning. Our first impression was the humidity. 35°C (95°F) isn't hot by Phoenix standards, but Sean and I are used to drier air. I'm told south-India summers can be as warm as 45°C (113°F) and they're humid.
Randeep was a true trooper, doing all the telephone negotiations through the night to make sure Sean and I got our driver and got to Puducherry. The Hotel Jayaram was pleasant with terrific staff. Sean and I slept for a couple of hours and then we went to see Auroville, founded in 1968 as "a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony.... to realize human unity." It's not a religious settlement. There is significant emphasis on alternative energy sources, wind and solar.
Randeep's family had a pre-wedding dinner for family and friends at their lovely home in Puducherry. On a back alley, they're isolated from the noise of major roads. The food was great and the company was better. Sean and I met Randeep's family and some of Randeep's friends.
The rest of our gang showed up late that night. Triathlete-Ironman Jon shared my room so we could get up bright and early for a run. My experience running in India is there is a relatively-quiet time in the morning when most of the dogs are asleep and most of the drivers aren't yet awake. Even before dawn there was significant traffic at the market on the way to the beach and there were people taking their walks along the beach. We took a side trip on our run through a neighborhood and ran back to the Hotel Jayaram on the main road.
While the others were going through a two-hour group negotiation on where to have breakfast, I decided to take a side trip to the Ashram and to a temple. One of the auto rickshaw took me for a bit of ride and charged me Rs.200 (two hundred rupees, about USD $4.50) for a Rs.50 cab ride and I'm pretty sure he took me to a temple other than the one near the Ashram.
Lunch was at the wedding hall, Jayaram Thirumana Nilayam, the same Smörgåsbord of Indian entrees on a banana leaf I had in 1998 at Satish's wedding in Chennai (then called Madras). Fortunately, for those of us with less-strong palates, wedding foods tend to be less than full-strength spicy. I can handle most of the spicy foods they dish out stateside, but south India has some of the hottest food in the world. Just about every variety of food on that leaf was delicious, as was my previous south-India-wedding experience.
Our group went together to the Ashram and went for a walk along the beach of the Bay of Bengal on the Indian Ocean. We visited the temple where we met the elephant who blesses people who feed it. The tourist pays Rs.10 (ten rupees, about twenty-two cents) for a bundle of grass to feed the elephant. After being fed, the temple elephant taps the feeder on the head. Several of us paid Rs.10 to get patted by this pachyderm.
While walking from the Hotel Jayaram to the Jayaram Thirumana Nilayam wedding hall was practical, it was hot enough that we preferred to spend Rs.100 each way for two auto rickshaws to take the seven of us back and forth. These machines are really designed for two passsengers, but squeeze three in the back seats and one in one front seat and seven of us managed to get around Puducherry in these things.
The night-before-wedding celebration was fun, a good meal downstairs and celebration in the big hall upstairs with south-Indian music. After the brief pre-wedding ceremony the women sprinkled rice on the nuptial couple and then there were many, many photo opportunities. While the five guys in our group wore our usual business-casual clothing, the two women wore beautiful dresses for the occasion.
The wedding itself was at 6:00 the next morning. Our two women wore beautiful saris for the occasion. There was more south-Indian music, interesting in both melody and rhythm, and another terrific banana-leaf, Smörgåsbord meal. There was a video screen recapping the happy couple and they managed to find one of the few moments when neither of them was smiling. After all those pictures, their smile muscles must have been seriously worn out.
Two things I noticed. The Indian driving seems a little more sane than I remember. They were still aggressive and skilled, but there seemed to be more judgment than I remembered. There were traffic lights and people sort-of stopped for them, and they waited when going would have created a hopeless mess. My recollection of India was nobody waiting for anybody and then requiring exquisite skill to untangle the resulting mess. I also noticed less livestock on the roads, fewer cows and dogs, a few goats, and no pigs.
The drives from Puducherry to Mamallapuram and back were pleasant. The countryside was pretty and my driver was smooth and professional. I got a good lesson in Indian driving watching a smooth, professional driver doing his job so well. (I got similar lessons decades ago watching Manhattan taxicab drivers do their jobs.)
The others left for Delhi and Agra to see the Taj Mahal (where it was 45°C (113°F) and where I have been before), I had an afternoon to pass before my overnight bus ride, so I hired a driver to take me to Mamallapuram (formerly Mahabalipuram), where I have been before. There's a big rock that looks like it's going to roll down the hill, an enormous bas-relief cut into a rock face, a stone-animal menagerie, and the last remaining of seven temples from ancient times (fourteen centuries ago, I think). My guide explained the trinity of Hindu gods Brahma the creator, Vishnu the protector, and Shiva the destroyer. Mamallapuram in 1998 November had lots of monkeys which were noticeably absent in 2011 May, so I had to make due with goats. My guide said the monkeys don't like the mid-day heat, so they hide in the caves. They may be pests, but they're so cute to look at.
The big rock on the hill is still there, still looking perilous. In fact, eyeballing the side-view profile view, I think it's perfectly balanced the way it is, not perilous in the least, but it looks scary and it makes a good picture.
The bas-relief rock is still spectacular. It looked good after many centuries thirteen years ago and it still looks good today. Seeing the vast years of craftsmanship sprawled across this rock face (and the structures right next to it) reminds me of the comment on the Sistene Chapel, "My, didn't Michaelangelo have a busy weekend!" They tell me the entire structure is cut from a single piece of stone. My guide told me this was all done with simple tools, sand and drilling posts and stuff like that.
The stone-animals menagerie is still striking, an elephant, a lion, a bull, and maybe a few others. There are also temples here which, as I recall, are also carved from single pieces of rock. Another nice thing the admission ticket buys the tourist is relief from all the people trying to sell stuff. The trouble is that somebody who does buy a pack of postcards is soon inundated with a greater wave of sales efforts.
Finally, my guide and I walked over to the remaining temple by the sea. Legend says there were seven temples built fourteen centuries ago and that six of them, one-by-one, were washed into the sea. Even the latest tsunami in 2003 didn't take away the seventh and last temple.
After my drive back to Puducherry I showered and checked out of the Hotel Jayaram and took an auto rickshaw to the bus terminal. I bought a sleeper-bus ticket on-line from Puducherry to Bengaluru (still called Bangalore). I can assure you that a sleeper-bus is nowhere near as comfortable as a sleeper-train, but it beats trying to sleep in a regular bus-coach seat on an eight-hour, overnight trip. I arrived in Bengaluru well rested and ready to face the day.
I can't say as much about the auto rickshaw I hired from the bus terminal to my hotel. He was first in line to solicit my business as I stepped off the bus. I had been told it would be about Rs.100, but I figure a factor of two for my foreign complexion. He starts walking me away and I ask, "How much to the Chancery Hotel?" Three hundred rupees, I'm told. I said I was told closer to one hundred. I asked him to confirm one hundred and he sort-of nodded as he dragged my luggage away. I probably should have stood firmer, but he insisted on two hundred as the hotel was sixteen kilometers away. Then he called the hotel (from my information sheet) and asked for directions. Then he stopped for more direction advice. Then he stopped again for yet more advice on how to get there. Finally, he dropped me off at a hotel that wasn't the Chancery for Rs.200. Even with two stops for directions, the whole journey took less than ten minutes, hardly sixteen kilometers (ten miles). The good news is that the actual Chancery Hotel was only 300 meters up the street from where I was let off.
I noticed a different alphabet on the signs in Bengaluru, not the same Tamil I saw in other places. It was Kannada (it sounded like "Canada" to me).
My friend Aditi arranged a room at the hotel from morning to night, not the usual hotel-booking hours, but they were willing to be flexible. That way I could have a nice breakfast and a comfortable room for a shower and change of clothing.
Aditi was a colleague of mine at SAP. We worked together when she was at their Gurgaon office. We spend some time together when I visited Gurgaon and some more time when she and other Indian colleagues came to work with us in Scottsdale. Aditi took me to her workplace where I met a couple of interesting people she works with at Redwood Analytics. They specialize in business decisions, not terribly unique for this decade's start-up companies, but there were some unique insights about managing workforces in the United States and India.
After we spent time at the office and at lunch (another fantastic Indian-food feast, my last on this voyage), Aditi arranged for me to have a three-hour tour of Bengaluru from a local guide. He took me to parks, temples, and a castle. One of the temples was the first I visited in India where they let me take pictures and I got to hear some temple chanting music. I totally enjoyed my guided tour of Bengaluru, or Bangalore.
I was more than a little annoyed at the pressure to include "shopping" on my tour. I suggested I had a willingness to buy some shirts and that made it open season on my wallet. Finally I had to refuse to go to the third store as I wanted to use the extra time to take another shower before my anticipated long trip home. After I paid my guide and driver, I was also irritated that, by luck or design, I was charged Rs.400 for a car that my friend Aditi had already paid for. Once that was pointed out, my money was cheerfully refunded, but an already-expensive hotel should not be double-billing tourist services. My advice in this area is to enjoy India but watch your wallet carefully.
Of course there was significant confusion about my transportation to the airport. A cab was supposed to show up and, when he didn't, I ended up paying significantly more for the hotel driver because, as they told me, I had to pay for return trip to the hotel. It was a long and congested trip from the center of Bengaluru to the airport on the outskirts of town.
Here's where I sound like Dave Barry, American humerist writer, when I say, "I am not making this up." I sound like Alan King on the Ed Sullivan Show describing his attempt to get from New York to Miami on "the Wings of Man," Eastern Airlines. Flying home standby ("for free" or nearly free) took me seventy-one hours and a bunch of money. I'm not complaining as I had four years, 1991-1995, of unfettered airline-pass travel, twenty-plus weekends a year including many weekend trips to Europe, and I don't think I spent more than $500 total on any kind of airfare for that entire stretch. Twenty years later the flights are fuller and the airlines are running leaner, so it's a tighter squeeze getting home.
I don't think I did anything terribly wrong here. "If I had known...." would have been fine, but my laptop's wireless link (Windows 7), which has worked flawlessly stateside, decided to cooperate only sometimes in Germany, India, and Dubai. So I had to make decisions on partial information. The other-airline travel passes we have are specific. I'm told North America and Europe are more forgiving about letting interline travelers (that's airline speak for airline employees) use passes of equivalent value, but I found the Asian carriers insisted on a perfect match before they would honor a travel pass, as I was warned.
I left the Chancery Hotel in Bengaluru for BLR Airport on 2011 May 24, Tuesday evening, at 18:00 (six o'clock in the afternoon) for my 21:35 flight on Jet Airways to Mumbia (formerly Bombay, BOM). When I got to BLR I was told that my BOM-to-Brussels (BRU) flight was full-enough that I would likely not make it. There was a same-time routing from BLR through MAA to BRU with plenty of empty seats, but my passes were only valid through BOM and there was no US Airways ticket counter there for me to buy different-route passes. So my only choices were to buy a walk-up, full-price ticket to BRU or to take my space-available chances. There were no problems getting from BLR to BOM on Jet Airways.
When I got to BOM I waited for my luggage. (I had to check my luggage because it was over eight kilograms (17.6 pounds).) All the other passengers claimed their bags, one-by-one, and there I was all alone staring at the empty baggage belt. It's not a nice feeling being all alone there. Then, out of the blue, one more bag appeared and it was mine.
I walked up to the transfer desk, showed my travel pass to the person there, and asked what I should do. A second person was called, then a third and fourth. The fourth person told me I had to go to the international airport. "But Mumbai is an international airport," I protested. No, I was told, this was the domestic airport. I had take the once-every-half-hour bus to the other side where the international flights depart. I waited in line for twenty minutes, went through a metal detector, and boarded the bus.
The bus driver drove for a while around the airport with the usual Indian-style dodge-'em driving amid other buses and a few yellow-peril auto rickshaws. At one point along our journey, we stopped and waited for a bus in front of us. A crowd of official-looking people formed around the other bus and then I noticed nine people pushing on that bus. I figured I could sit there and watch the show or I could help, so I got out and helped push the bus. If you think it's easy to push a bus uphill, even a gentle grade, I can assure you I was working pretty hard to help move that thing. We got it over the hump and out of our way.
Sure enough, my flight on Jet Airways from BOM to BRU was fully sold out and the prospects for the next day were similarly bleak. So my only alternative was to buy a full-fare, walk-up ticket. Emirates had the next flight out, I waited in their long line only to be given a telephone number and told I had to call them to buy a ticket. The folks at the information counter let me use their phone (as my cell phone was somewhat flaky in outbound calls in India) and I eventually had a full reservation from BOM through Dubai (DXB) to John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) in New York City. I figured I could get home from there on US Airways. (Stop laughing. It wasn't that silly an idea.)
Emirates is a terrific airline to fly. They make coach/economy travel feel regal and important and I can only imagine what their business and first class products are like. The seats were comfortable and they reclined like movie-theater seats, not like typical, U.S.-domestic airline seats. I had access to hundreds of movies and was given good-tasting meals. The fourteen-hour flight from DXB to JFK were actually quite pleasant. I got to be a passenger on the new Airbus 380 double-decker airliner. I did have serious frustration trying to get my wireless laptop to work in DXB to find out about flights from JFK to PHX as my original travel plans had me going through Newark Liberty Airport (EWR) in New Jersey.
Getting into JFK on 2011 May 25, Wednesday afternoon, 14:45, about a half-hour late, from DXB meant missing that afternoon's last nonstop flight on US Airways to PHX. (I don't think there were any available seats on it anyway.) Now that I had access to a US-Airways ticket counter, I got a coupon for other-airline travel on that route and found both Delta and Jet Blue were also sold out. I listed myself on the morning US-Airways flight home and went to the local Howard Johnson's Hotel near the airport for a few hours of sleep. Back in the United States, my wireless laptop worked perfectly.
2011 May 26, Thursday morning, I was up at 4:15 to make the 6:35 flight from JFK to PHX. When I missed that by one seat, I tried the 9:59 flight. When that was full, I locked in my travel plans by buying a walk-up, full-fare ticket on Delta Air Lines for their 18:40 flight as I waited for my chance at the 16:20 flight which, not surprisingly, I also did not make. So I grabbed my luggage and took the airport train around to the terminal for Delta Air Lines with a sense of relief. Barring incident, I would be landing at PHX at 21:35 (half past nine in the evening) and home an hour later. After thirty hours of travel to get from BLR through BOM and DXB to JFK, this was twenty-eight hours at JFK that I really did not enjoy. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come.
When I book on Orbitz for the Delta flight from JFK to PHX, I made sure to select a seat. I even got one on an exit row, but that's only a seat request and I found myself assigned seat 29C at the gate. Besides the wailing kids sitting behind and across from me, the fellow in 29A was very wide and the fellow in 29B was very tall to the point where neither could realistically fit in a coach-sized airline seat. The tall fellow in 29B was so tall that his legs could only fit between the seat back and the seat in front by splaying his legs apart, which didn't leave much room for me in 29C. There is a great, big issue about who should or shouldn't be able to buy a seat that's too small for him or her to fit into. My lesser, more-personal issue was where I could sit without getting compressed into serious back pain.
So the flight attendants moved me to an empty bulkhead seat 10C. The couple in 10A and 10B got upset with me when I tried to use my light to read my book while they were trying to watch a basketball game on their TV monitors. Meanwhile, a cute, two-year-old child was shrieking in row 12. The kid just didn't stop, screaming on and on and on and on. So when we rolled out to taxiway and waited for a while, the screaming had an increasingly annoying effect, drilling a hole in my head. The captain came on after an hour or so and announced that the Boston-airspace controller had weather in the north so they weren't letting any more traffic in their south turf, or something like that. After 2.5 hours of this, kid screaming and screaming, my neighbors taking offense if I turned my light on, they announced that there was a new "three-hour" rule that said they couldn't keep us trapped on the tarmac for more than three hours and that we would be taxiing back to the gate.
We got back at 22:00 as the airport food vendors were all closing, so we waited around for an hour or two with nothing to do. Now I'm sympathetic to parents who want to get home and paid for airline tickets, but I'm also sympathetic to dozens of passengers like me who mind having a cute kid screaming in their ears. I feel those parents had sufficient evidence to know their child would not be behaving well when put back on the airplane and they should have sucked it up and found alternative transportation to Phoenix, maybe a rental car, maybe Amtrak. So we got back on the airplane and, sure enough, as soon as the engines started whining, the same kid started screaming. One of the parents was sitting in first class and the other in coach next to the child and neither apologized to anybody in my hearing range.
So here we were, late at night, going on midnight, waiting and waiting for Boston approach to clear us, having the kid screaming and shrieking at us for another two hours. I appreciate the airline's predicament with people like this, but travel is hard enough without the rest of us being tormented. The child did quiet down well after midnight and the 5.5 hours of actual flight time were blessedly quiet. I also decided I was going to use my light and to read my book no matter what the two idiots next to me were trying to watch on their television monitors. The airline should install lights and view screens so they can be used at the same time without conflict, and these people weren't particularly nice about it.
I got home 2011 May 27, Friday morning at 4:30. With the 12.5-hour time difference, that works out to seventy-one hours after I left the Chancery Hotel in Bengaluru, a long trip.
After two trips to Africa and two to India and two to China without digestive ailment, maybe I got sloppy. One India-savvy friend suggests I may have eaten or drunk something on the flights out of India where they get their food and water from India. I don't know, but I spent Memorial-Day weekend sick, drinking little and eating less, watching my TiVo in between long naps. I wasn't sick to the point of misery, just sick to the point of not being able to do anything. I'm particularly grateful that this happened here, after the trip, rather than there, when I was trying to enjoy India.
At the end of the trip, I'm happy I went, I'm happy I saw my friends from various places in various places, I enjoyed the wedding, and the travel was an adventure rather than merely a chore. My seventy-one hour, expensive trip home tells me that airline-pass travel is for spontaneous trips where everything looks right rather than for trips where I care about the dates and destinations. A twenty-year-airline-employee friend of mine says he hasn't used a space-available pass in two years. Full airplanes may or may not be good for airline revenue, but they're not good for airline-employee travel.
15:50:38 Mountain Standard Time (MST).
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