Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tom Bradley International Airport – A Nightmare!

Last Wednesday (08/08/07) I was sitting in the departure lounge of the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport in New Delhi, patiently waiting for my plane to arrive from Shanghai (Chine Eastern Airlines). Earlier at the ticket counter, I was told by the agent that my flight had been delayed by an hour, which meant that it would depart IGI airport at five in the morning instead of four. But obviously my connecting flight from Shanghai to Los Angeles would leave at its scheduled departure time. I did a quick calculation in my head and realized that I only had an hour and a half to get to the transit terminal in Shanghai. I was mortified. And sure enough as the China Eastern airplane landed at Shanghai-Pudong airport I found myself rushing past everyone to get to my transit terminal. I finally got there with only forty-five minutes to spare. This gave me enough time to grab a quick bite and check my e-mail. It was nice of the Chinese government to provide free Internet access at their airport for travelers. Now that’s something that LAX airport can do. Why they have not done it yet, beats me. Perhaps it is a “security” issue.

The flight from New Delhi to Shanghai had lasted six and a half hours and here I was boarding another airplane to Los Angeles, only this time the flight would last eleven and a half hours! I was not looking forward to this. I will spare you the gory details of what happened in the airplane and just skip to the part where the captain announced that we were approaching LAX, though he need not have announced it as a massive concrete jungle underneath a canopy of brown smog at eleven in the morning was clearly invisible below. The airplane made a soft landing and the passengers were shuttled by three buses towards immigration and baggage claim. Now for those of you who have not recently traveled outside of the United States, let me tell you that the immigration situation at Tom Bradley International was scary. There were many officers on duty but no matter what, the lines were huge. Airport security officers kept shouting at foreigners to get in line, to move this way and that way. It was quite a mess. We had been told in the airplane that our baggage would be delivered at carousel number seven. But since the wait to the immigration line was so long, there were three other flights after China Eastern whose baggage was also dumped on carousel seven.

My back was hurting, I was dehydrated and on top of all this there was an officer who kept shoving a white form in my face and asking me to fill it out at certain places where there was no need for me write anything. How do I know better than an officer in charge? For starters I have gone back and forth between Los Angeles and India enough times that I remember this form forwards and backwards. I have been through enough immigration officers to know what they look for in these forms. She even had the gall to say that if I did not fill in a certain line, this would create a problem and that I might even be sent back. I did not have the energy or the patience at the time to tell her otherwise and so I simply ignored her. I guess she was just trying to do her job of annoying the heck out of me. By the way, my line was moving the slowest. Of all the gazillion lines there, I had to choose the one that was moving the slowest. All the other line and two to three immigration officers while ours had only one! ONE! I felt like changing lanes and maneuvering into a faster line, but since I have never even done that on the freeways here, why try now when you were trying to get into the country.

As I looked past the immigration booth, carousel seven was starting to look like a mess. Luggage was thrown across everywhere. There was a very tiny lane where throngs of people were trying to maneuver their carts in the hopes of finding their luggage and hauling it out of the airport safe and undamaged. You know how on the freeways you think that the lane opposite to you is moving just a tad bit faster, especially when you are stuck in traffic, when the moment you change into the “faster” lane it slows down again. Well nothing like that was happening here. The line next to me was moving faster because there was an immigration officer who just kept letting the folks into the United States. She was processing their papers faster than a well oiled machine. She might have been of German descent.

Finally I was summoned at the immigration gates. The officer looked at my papers and that white form, and of course he did not look at the place where the lady officer had been bugging me earlier to write stupid, useless information. Thwack, thwack and I got my stamps on my passport and my departure ticket stapled. I collected my papers and headed straight for where the carts were stacked. I was praying to higher powers that I find my luggage fast and sure enough I found my two bags in five minutes. I safely made my way through the green channel and gracefully made my way to the shuttle area. It was good to be back in Los Angeles, safe and sound. It was good to bask in smog and sun yet again.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

I stamped my way through an Indian airport

As I was getting ready to leave Kashmir yet another time, yet again for an entire year, I was dreading the thuds of old and germ-infested rubber stamps at the Srinagar airport. Now you might ask what in god’s name is a rubber stamp doing at an airport? I will get to that shortly. But before that I have to take the reader through a tour of what I call a typical airport in India.

I reached Srinagar airport in the afternoon; chaos welcomed me with open arms. Due to added security we had to get our luggage X-rayed at the entrance to the airport which is about half a mile away. The airport was being renovated so you can imagine that there was even more chaos. There is usually chaos at Indian airports, but with this renovation at Srinagar airport there was more and I knew that this was going to be my lucky day and more is always good, right? As I entered the airport, the first thing that I had to do was walk through a metal detector and while that was being done my luggage was shoved through yet another X-ray machine. I actually don’t mind all this extra checking and this extra security, especially in a place like Kashmir with its recent checkered past. It was good to know that they allow passengers to carry their laptops in the airplane. As I am writing, you have to imagine people running around in all possible directions. We finally checked in our luggage at the ticket counter and made our way through which I at the time thought would be our final security check, but there was yet one more to come on the asphalt near where the airplane was parked. In any case I sat in the departure lounge while my father was chatting with some people he knew. By the way, since Kashmir is a rather small place and if you and your family have spent a considerable length of time here, you will eventually run into someone at the airport. It is guaranteed. It is a law of Nature and should be included as one of the axioms we learn in our high school physics textbooks. So while my laptop bag was being X-rayed, I was body-searched (in Kashmir the official term for body-search is “frisking”) by one of the security guards and then he asked me for my boarding card and THUD, I got my first official oval-shaped, purple-colored, rubber stamp and while he was doing this I heard another THUD from the guy running the X-ray machine as my laptop bag was alright and he stamped the cabin baggage tag which I had attached earlier. Two beautiful and lilac-colored stamps in a matter of minutes – I knew this was too good to be true!

I sat in a corner of the departure lounge waiting for my airplane to arrive. It had been raining the whole morning and there was some “talk” that the flight might get canceled. Right there I acquired a new habit of nail biting. For those of you who have never bitten your nails in your life, I highly advice against it. I found the experience painful, but then the pain helped me to focus my attention away from the inevitability of coming back to the same airport yet another day and facing another round of the dreaded security checks, but perhaps I could do it just to see the shine and gleam of the rubber stamps one more time. As I was fiddling and twiddling around with my fingers I noticed this Caucasian guy who was dressed in bottle-green khakis, check shirt, a cap and a black-colored Kashmiri jacket. The moment I saw a bushy beard with no mustache, I said to myself, “What is an Amish dude doing in Kashmir all the way from Pennsylvania.” At first I thought that the bushy-beard sans mustache was an early morning shaving accident, but when I saw his three daughters and a son, along with his wife, my faith in my earlier deduction started to solidify. Holmes would have been proud. I guess all those years of reading Conan Doyle as a child finally paid off. His entire family was dressed in Indian clothes, though he wasn’t. I thought that that was very hypocritical of him. I started to judge him and it felt good. The one thing that you will take away from Kashmiri society if you spend a considerable length of time is that you have a free card to judge other people. I got a refresher and a crash course this past month on judging people. While I try to keep it to myself, others will talk and discuss how they judged people during the day with their friends and family. It is a pastime that has no rival there.

The departure lounge was actually quite nice. There was an old rickety wooden television box in the farthest corner of the hall where it was serving mostly the security guards who shouldn’t be watching over-choreographed and pelvic-gyrating Bollywood songs in the first place. I also noticed a lot of trash and food on the floor just a few feet away from a big trash can. Whoever trashed the place should have realized that he is not Michael Jordan and should have stopped using it as a basketball hoop. It was quite disheartening for I always get this feeling that we Kashmiris have been given this beautiful country and we have no sense of belonging. Would it have killed the person to take three steps and throw away his/her food in the trash can? What example are we setting for the people who visit Kashmir from other countries? This goes both for Kashmiris and the dreaded “yatris” (pilgrims) who trash the valley every year, in order to make their annual pilgrimage to Amarnath cave in the Himalayan mountains. I think their secret agenda is to trash the place than see the cave.

I was elated to see my plane land, but before I could board it, I remembered that I had to identify my luggage. You see the luggage is strewn and lying in rows very close to the departure lounge. I went outside and after a while found my luggage and asked the official in charge that I had identified it and he made some cryptic remarks and signs on a sheet of paper that he was holding and did the same on the tag that was attached to my luggage. Another obstacle was kicked away by the sheer brilliance of my deductive mind. Before I could board my sweet plane I noticed a line of passengers on the asphalt and they were being body-search, nay, frisked yet again. I too was body-searched and was asked to show my boarding card and THUD, another shiny, red-colored rubber stamp. Yes, this time it was red, though I would have preferred something in a pastel shade, but that would not have looked ominous, important and urgent enough. I was finally in the airplane, seated, satisfied with a big smile on my face! I successfully stamped myself and my luggage through one of the toughest and most chaotic Indian airports.