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Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Day I Flew Air India

On January 3, 2004, a plane flying from Cairo, Egypt to Paris, France had a mechanical malfunction and crashed into the Red Sea, killing everyone on board (mostly French tourists). However, because of the general world-atmosphere, until the cause of the crash became known, everyone immediately assumed it was an act of terrorism. In response, Air France cancelled all of their flights around the world for at least 24 hours.

I was in the Chicago O'Hare airport when I learned all of this. I was in the middle of making a connecting flight (to an Air France flight) that would take me from Chicago to Paris, where I would take another flight for the last leg of my journey into Berlin, where I would be living and studying for the next semester-turned-year-ish (and living in Communist Block Housing). I also had a terrible flu-like cold and was fairly heavily doped up on Nyquil.

Our study-abroad program was through University of Nebraska-Lincoln (not where I attended college - but our university didn't have the numbers or program support to do study-abroad for German students, so we were effectively out-sourced), and there were only around nine of us in the group. I have a vague memory of there being someone in charge, but in my Nyquil-haze, I can't recall the exact details. The airport was excessively crowded due to the number of flights that had been cancelled in the aftermath of the plane crash, so our small group huddled together while we waited for someone to give us some sort of direction.

Again, because of my flu-like state and excessive intake of sleep-inducing medications, the specifics of the next few hours are somewhat unclear in my memory. But I do recall that someone (possibly the person who may or may not have been in charge of us?) told us we had to run as fast as we could to the other side of the airport. At the time, I recall having no idea whatsoever as to the reason why. Perhaps they thought we needed to burn off some of that excess holiday weight we'd surely all gained? Or maybe they were merely trying to keep us entertained. Regardless, we obeyed like confused, obedient sheep being nipped at by a herding dog.

If you've never run through the O'Hare airport in a drug-induced haze, I strongly suggest giving it a try. There's a long section of the airport connecting two terminals that has moving sidewalks and a plethora of color-changing neon lights lining the ceiling and mirrors on all the walls. The rest of the tunnel is somewhat dark, so the overall effect (especially while doped up on medications) is somewhat trippy, to put it mildly. Walking quickly on the moving sidewalks gives you the impression of having super-human speed, the vivid colors are reminiscent of a light-speed journey through space (a la 2001: A Space Odyssey), the endless mirrors duplicate your being infinitely, and all the while a constant cautionary voice (God? Is that you??) booms overhead to pay attention to the end of the moving sidewalk. I no longer have any curiosity to try LSD.

When we got through the Tunnel of Drugs, our possible-leader took us into a giant room separated with huge glass walls. For some reason, we were still in a hurry. He/She told us in a panic to get our passports ready and wait in a line that magically appeared around where we were standing. I couldn't see where the line led to, but I could see select chosen people walking through turnstiles into the mysterious glass-enclosed room, which was filled with rows of chairs. Again, this entire area was packed full of people, all wearing heavy winter coats and looks of confusion and forlorn desperation. While most of this time is dreamy fog in my mind, I have an incredibly vivid memory of a boy about 12 years old, sitting on the other side of the glass wall, staring at us with an endless look that seemed to suggest all hope was gone from the world.

After what seemed like several hours (good thing we ran), it was finally our turn to approach the desk (the apparent goal of everyone in our make-shift line). The concept of a help-desk was skewed by the number of uniformed people running back and forth on the "help" side. They seemed just as desperate and helpless as the mass of us on the customer side. We were obediently herded to the desk as a group. A harried young female airline worker took all our passports without once looking at any of us. She turned to her computer and began typing at an alarming rate, then turned to one of the other uniformed workers smashed in behind the desk next to her, mumbled something, and turned back to the computer, seemingly with tears in her eyes. She sighed as she handed our passports back to us (again without once looking at any of us) along with a stack of papers that turned out to be boarding passes.

We were next ushered to a line that was evidently going through the turnstiles into the magical glass room. It was then that we noticed the guardian of the room. A massive black man (who was not wearing a uniform, in my memory) was directing all the peasants through the gates. And evidently, not everyone was doing it right. Every few seconds, his voice would boom out that someone had to "go back to the end of the line." In defeat, the coat-clad individual (or family) would dejectedly walk back to end of the room and rejoin the line on the outside of the glass room. I still have no idea why this was happening.

We got through the turnstile-gates without issue, though he did study our boarding passes with an incredibly discerning eye. Luckily, ours were not declared fakes. And with very little ceremony, we graduated to the glass room.

After several more hours (or possibly just a handful of minutes), it was time to board a plane. It was at this point that it came to my attention that the plane we were boarding was part of the Air India fleet. I have no idea how we ended up on this flight, but I now have a fairly good idea as to why there were so many available seats.

As soon as I stepped in the plane, I was struck with an instant nagging feeling that something was off. The plane just didn't feel right. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was because the plane appeared to be a Frankenstein of various other, most likely deceased, planes. The seat cushions didn't match the ones next to them, let alone the seat backs. The overhead compartment and ceiling panels were all varying shades of airplane-beige. The aisles were lined in worn strips of carpet, as if someone had just laid down carpet squares side-by-side. The stewardesses were all short, chubby Chinese women - but they were wearing Indian-style saris and bindis.

On our original flight, the small group of us students had seats close together, and we were planning on practicing our German on the long flight overseas. Of course, as we were now flying stand-by on another airline, our seats were scattered throughout the plane. The patchwork cabin had the most dreaded 3-5-3 seating configuration. Fortunately, I was on a side, but I was still the middle seat of a set of 3. The person with the window seat was already there, and I was pleased to see that he was a small, nondescript Indian man. I got what I needed for the 8+ hour flight out of my overhead bag (including more Nyquil), sat down, and buckled up. I took another Nyquil, then leaned back and closed my eyes, hoping I could just sleep my way through the entire flight.

When I awoke, we were already up in the air. Groggily, I opened my eyes to the unpleasant sight of broken ceiling panels and various burned out lights above me. As I came to a greater state of consciousness, I became aware of the person in the seat to my right. First I noticed his hand. I've never seen a hand that big before or again in my life. It was practically the size of the tray table. On his massive bratwurst fingers, he had several gold rings that were easily the size of golf balls. The presence of his obscenely huge body in that tiny coach-sized seat seemed to defy the basic laws of physics. He literally could not put down his tray table, because his presence engulfed the entire area between the back of his seat and the seat in front of him.

Seeing that I was waking up, he turned his head (no easy feat, considering it was practically smashed into the ceiling above us), smiled at me, revealing several gold teeth, and introduced himself as so-and-so. From Nigeria. He went on to tell me that he was a Nigerian prince. So here he was. The fabled Nigerian Prince of email-scam lore. In the (massive) flesh. And if he'd asked me to give him my bank account information so he could transfer his fortunes to it in return for many gracious riches of my own, I probably would have done it. His mind-boggling physical existence screamed of the truth of the classic scheme.

Soon after meeting my partial-seat-mate, the fake-Indian Chinese stewardesses (who spoke neither English nor Hindi, as far as I could tell), passed out our in-flight dinner. As it turns out, Air India flies complete with authentic Indian airplane food. I kindly refused, as even the thought of the meal turned my already queasy stomach. The cramped cabin soon filled with the most pungent airplane food smell imaginable.

Refusing the food turned out to be quite a mistake. The small, quiet Indian man to my left suddenly let out an exasperated sigh. I tried to ignore it. Another sigh. This one sharper and louder. I shifted awkwardly in my seat. A third sigh, this one clearly directed toward me.

I cautiously turned toward him, and he unleashed a fury of comically Indian-accented rage on me.

"You could have gotten the food and given it to me. I would have eaten it. At the very least, you could have just gotten it. It wouldn't have hurt you to just get the food and not eat it. I would have eaten the food."

"I... I'm sorry?" I squeaked.

Another sigh of disgust as he turned back to his own meal, which, evidently, was not only appetizing to him, but also not enough to satisfy his tiny stomach.

In an attempt to make some space between my disgruntled neighbor and me, I shifted my shoulders in the direction of the Nigerian prince. He took this as a sign of my interest.

"You know," he told me in his booming, rich, princely voice. "You are very pretty. You could come with me to Nigeria. You could be my princess. Would you like that? You could be very rich. They would like you in Nigeria. You could be my wife."

"I... um... I'm going to Berlin. To study German."

"Forget about that. You will come with me. In Paris, you will come with me on the flight to Nigeria. You won't go to Berlin. I will make you very rich. You will be my princess."

"Um... I don't think I want to, " I said, staring at the massive rings on his hand. They must have weighed several pounds each - they were clearly solid gold.

"Fine," he barked and turned away from me to finish his meal of airplane meat and curry, which was precariously balanced on top of the seat in front of him. He refused to acknowledge me for the rest of the flight.

I turned and faced the old, stained seat fabric of the chair in front of me as I took another Nyquil. "Please just let me go to sleep and wake up in France," I whispered to the magic green pill. "Maybe this is all just a sleep-deprived, drug-induced dream, anyway."

The next six sleepless hours of nighttime, trapped between the small, angry man who slept in his seat with his body twisted into a pretzel of Indian yoga and the enormous mass of disgruntled, rejected, snoring Nigerian prince proved to me that it was all too real.

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