Oh, to be in the right place at the right time. That line resonates whenever I think of my trip to India.. To start, I attended a roadshow for travel industry folk held by the Kerala Tourism Council in San Francisco on a random Tuesday night. Something I don’t often do, but it was brought to my attention by a colleague and India has always fascinated me. I was interested in simply learning more about the destination (free food and drinks were an added bonus). At the entrance, everyone was asked to leave their business card for a raffle – two roundtrip tickets between San Francisco and Delhi, plus nine free nights in Kerala! Fine, but really, who ever wins those things?
Well, at the end of the lengthy presentation on Kerala (slide after slide of statistics and data, with not many visuals..), my business card was pulled. Yes, my business card was pulled and my name was called. I won! I was called up to the stage to have my picture taken with the representatives from Air India, the Kerala Tourism Council, and all the partners from hotel chains and restaurants. I felt like a celebrity surrounded by paparazzi! I was flying high. I couldn’t even believe it. India had been on the top of my desired places list for a very long time. It was a literal dream come true!
I invited my childhood best friend to join me in India and scheduled our flights for nine months out. It was a 15 day trip that included nine nights in Kerala, some time in Delhi and Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, then ending in Varanasi. This was the first international trip my friend Michal and I had taken together. We had travelled together, but not to this degree. We had both done our own India research online and with guidebooks, and were beyond excited to be there, together. Our friendship started at the age of three and four, yet we lived five hours via plane from each other as adults. And, my birthday landed midway through the trip. It felt like a very special time.
The event I intended was promoting the new direct route between SFO and Delhi, so that was what we boarded. The flight is a long, but direct, 16 hours. Air India isn’t known for spacious comfort, but in addition to not feeling super relaxed, my video screen was out-of-order. No movies for me, plus Michal was seated on the other side of the plane. Whatever, they were free tickets! Unfortunately, the gentleman sitting next to me also had a faulty screen, but he was not so gentle about it. The poor flight attendants received cras, insulting earfuls on an issue they could do nothing about. It was painful to witness, and way too close for comfort. Luckily, into about the fifth hour, he finally calmed and fell asleep.
Our first night was in Delhi near the airport so we could catch an early morning flight the next day to Cochin in Kerala. My work’s partner in India ended up taking over our entire trip and graciously booked all our hotels for us, as a gift for our working relationship. All we had to do was book our internal flights. We were picked up from the airport upon arrival, given beautiful flower garlands and taken to a nearby Holiday Inn. It felt luxurious with its windowed shower and air conditioning. We had our first dose of Indian curry by ordering room service (in our defense, nothing else was walkable being so close to the airport). We were quite giddy to finally be in India, and get some rest.
The next morning, not yet bright but very early, we headed back to the airport to fly down to Cochin, also known as Kochi. We joined the long, windy line to check-in for our flight. Perhaps everything had been too seamless so far… When checking-in, Michal’s ticket was not found in the system. She had the printed confirmation in her hand, but the airline had no record of her booking on their end. They claimed her ticket had been “cancelled by the agent”, yet she booked it herself online. Great… They advised we needed to go to the customer service counter to get a new ticket. Go figure, that counter was overflowing with angry travelers all trying to out-yell one another. All of a sudden we started to feel the intensity that we were warned India can come with.
We finally squeezed up to the counter clerk, who quickly checked my bag in, then told Michal, “Sorry, the flight is completely booked. The next flight we have is tomorrow…”. Unfortunately, before her sentence was even complete, my luggage was carried off by the conveyor belt. We pleaded to get my luggage back, as I wouldn’t be going without Michal! She shrugged and implied it would take about 30 minutes to retrieve. For almost an hour, we waited around, people watching and trying to remain calm. No flight down to where we needed to be, and my bag was gone. We hadn’t even been in India 24 hours! Who might have an available flight to Cochin that day? We had to go to an entirely different building to inquire about availability. How would we advise our driver in Cochin that we wouldn’t be there for the scheduled pick-up? We didn’t have an international cellphone and the few payphones nearby weren’t working. In addition, we couldn’t just leave the building, we needed to be checked-out by official security with our passports and tickets present!
When my luggage eventually reappeared, we found someone who was authorized to check us out of the departures building so we could go to the reservations building. After two failed attempts, we were lucky enough to secure new tickets that routed through Mumbai (by paying close to $300), but it was departing from an entirely different airport. Of course it was, right? While walking to the recommended bus, we were approached by a man that spoke very little English. We were both on-guard, but slowly explained our situation when it became clear he was a taxi driver asking if we needed a ride. Hesitantly, but anxiously, we took him up on the offer once a price was agreed upon. Not only was the drive quick and painless, the driver kindly allowed us to use his cellphone to call the office in Cochin that was waiting for us. The poor guy had no idea they would call his phone back at least five times to ask us a questions and to reconfirm details. We gave him a generous tip.
With some extra hours spent at the airport, we were finally on our way to Kerala!