Zero Visibility

Clearing the Fog at
Bagdogra AND Delhi Airports

When the Jet Airways flight to Bagdogra was cancelled, and my own Air India flight was delayed, I didn’t have high hopes that I’d be enjoying dinner in the charming colonial dining room of the Windamere Hotel in Darjeeling. No big deal, I’m not in a rush, I can adapt.

Of course, what I didn’t anticipate (which, thinking back, I really should have) was what a disaster a flight cancellation might be for the uninitiated and linguistically impaired in an Indian airport.

It took about three hours from the cancellation announcement to collect my luggage, get my name on a list, get on a bus to the hotel, and get into my hotel room. Now, when you think of it in those terms, it wasn’t really that bad. But it wasn’t so much the time that threw me. It was the process, or lack thereof. I can handle a lot of stress, but being out of the loop is not my strong suit.

 

Without the benefit of an announcement from Air India (other than the cancellation), I decided to ask at the airport information desk what I was meant to do. They pointed me to a gate but offered to real information. I managed to figure out that the other passengers on my flight were walking through said gate. The were, in fact, being escorted down to Arrivals to collect their bags. In checking the tags on the belt, which were few and far between, I managed to confirm that I was in the right place. After a good hour’s wait, and some serious fretting, my trusty MEC bag finally arrived. But then what? I asked again at an airport information desk, and they pointed me to the horde of people at the baggage services desk (again, with no explanation).

Crowd of men in front of desk in airport

Working my way through the horde, to get my name on The List.

My instinct was to get myself booked on the next flight with an empty seat. Then I could plot my next step. But, that’s not how it works here in India. Even though the delay was due to weather, the airline was going to put us up in a hotel. I figured this out by talking to a few nice people standing in the horde.

I also found out from my horde-mates that fog was the problem, and that yesterday’s flights had also been cancelled, and that if I wanted to get a hotel and book on tomorrow’s flight, I should get my name on The List. I was also told by horde mates to get my boarding pass signed and stamped in another room, but when I tried to do that, I was told to go back to the horde and get on The List. Once on said List, I looked around. Everyone else was sitting and waiting. Like an Indian production of Waiting for Godot. So I waited, with no earthly idea of what was going to happen next. And I was famished. After some time, I headed to the vending machine to prevent myself from passing out from hunger.

After struggling with different denominations and bills, I finally got the machine to accept a 10 rupee note  (50Rs was needed for a bag of Lays). As I was getting the second note ready, one of the nice men from my cancelled flight called to me as the horde passed me by: “Ma’am, com’on.” So I abandoned the machine and followed along. I followed them onto a bus and even got a seat, after some jostling and shifting.

Pile of luggage near doors of airport transport bus.

While I carried my own bags, most of our luggage was just tossed onto the bus to hurry us along!

Making an even longer story short, after arriving at a hotel and waiting some more, I handed over my boarding pass at the desk and got a room key for the trouble (but still wasn’t entirely clear what was happening). My first order of business was food, so I headed down to the coffee shop to order something, or anything, and I stumbled across a simple buffet. I was waved over by a waiter to partake. I was so hungry, I didn’t care—I’d pay whatever I had to to eat. I got a plateful and sat down. No one took my room number or brought me a bill, so I eventually concluded it was on the airline. A few hours later while watching TV in my room, I got a call telling me to come down to the buffet for tea. When asked if I wanted one tea sandwich or two, the server answered my puzzled hesitation by telling me that dinner would be served in an hour or so.

Now, from the moment the flight cancellation was announced until I found myself writing this post after dinner, not a single Air India staff person told me a single thing about what was happening, what to do, or where to go. I just followed the horde.

An object lesson in high-context culture!

I still don’t really know what is going on. It was my fellow passengers who took pity on me and kept me informed—they could read the frustration and vulnerability in my face, I’m sure (along with an escaped tear or two). They are very pleased to see me a little less distressed now, using the lobby WiFi in this gigantic 1960s-era airport hotel.

My new friends have told me the flight will be at the same time tomorrow. One also said something about 8 o’clock, which makes me think there might be a shuttle for us in the morning.

So, tomorrow, I’ll try again to get to Darjeeling—but this time, if the flight is cancelled, I’ll join in with the horde and take my free hotel room and free lunch, tea, and dinner in stride. Because unlike my fellow passengers, I’m not trying to get home or visit family or make a meeting. If I never make it, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll survive.

But now, at least, even if there’s no visibility at Bagdogra, my path will be a little clearer.

UPDATE: I made it to Darjeeling the next day. And the following day, while wandering around town with a new friend I’d met on my re-booked flight, we came across a young French couple who had been booked on the cancelled flight. Apparently, they got their bags, got on to a flight to Kolkata, and took the bus to Siliguri—they had just arrived in town, 48 hours later! Seeing what their tag-team “initiative” had gotten them, I was glad I waited in a solo-traveller daze for someone to tell me what to do! Everything happens for a reason, right?