Saturday, 9 April 2011

2 US

I'll try and describe here the 2 days it took me to reach from my home in India to my new temporary home in the US (2 days refers to parts of Wednesday and Thursday, not to the whole 48 hours). For those of you who don't know, I am now in Portland, Oregon US till September, to complete a research fellowship with the Metro Regional Government and the Portland State University as a result of winning a competition. :)

The packing disaster
So, here I of the most organised packers I have ever come across. I helped my sister pack for UK. I do most of the packing at home. I had made so many lists for packing to the US (inventory, to-do, reminders). I had all my luggage divided into specific sections - stationery, recreation, bags, coats, skirts, Indian wear, electronics, and so on and so forth. The only thing I didn't manage to do was to put everything into the bag till the very last hours. Well, there's a lot of factors responsible. I was tired and a bit unwell. I wasn't sure of the baggage regulations right up till Wednesday. And then, at around 5 pm (when I was supposed to leave for the airport by 9.15 pm), I discovered, with the help of my dad, and a day-long weighing exercise for individual sections, that I would be way overweight if I packed all my stuff up.

Of course, thanks, to my organisation into sections and weighing of individual sections, it was easy to come up with a list (with dad's help and some arguing) and decide how much to remove from each section to meet the target. On the flip side, this exercise cost me two hours and it was only by 8.30 pm that I actually got to packing. In such a stressful state, mom had to do most of the actual packing as I sat directing and allocating stuff to one bag or another. As was expected, the packing of the backpack was awful and I had to leave a few important things behind as well. Meanwhile, I had no time to organise my documents or take stuff from the computer. I had  to get dad to do these things for me, which he managed beautifully (but those of you who know me well, would understand how tough it must have been to alocate such important work to someone else and what crisis would have forced me that way!). Thank heavens mom and dad were there and could help me a lot. But by the time we were out of the house, it was already 9.40! I needed to reach the airport by 9.50 (thanks to Dad's driving skills we reached in time).

Crisis on-the-go
But the crisis wouldn't end there. Halfway through to the airport, I realised a very important piece of equipment was missing - my cell phone! I didn't know how to tell this to dad, but I did. What else could I do? He was calm about it and offered me his phone. At the airport, mom got off, and dad went back home to get my phone or his charger (whichever he could find). While mom continued to stand outside the airport building, I went in to start with the check in.

And calamity struck again! After completing the check in process helped by an extremely courteous and helpful staff, it was discovered that my backpack was falling apart. Thankfully, there was a solution again! The guy at the counter told me I could get the entire thing wrapped up in plastic. I went to the wrapping place with some directions and could get everything wrapped up for Rs200. I got the bag checked in. On the bright side, all my baggage was absolutely within the weight limits. :) It was somewhere around this time that India beat Paksitan in the Criket World Cup semi-final and at the precise moment the entire airport ground staff and passengers cheered, and I knew (and couldn't help but smile!).

After the check in and confirming that I have some extra time, I went to the airport facade and saw mom through the glass. She was standing while I could sit :(. I called dad and he told me he couldn't find my phone (it was discovered later on the floor) and he was on his way back, so I waited with mom on the other side of the window! When dad finally arrived, I took the charger and a pen (thank god I took the pen, I needed it all along the journey). As I was moving to the immigration counter after saying a final goodbye to both, I was desperate enough to ask a KLM official the way and luckily she told me i needed to fill out a departure form as well and that I should rush. When I reached there I was directed to the shortest line, and then I crossed to the other side after the immigration officer was satisified.

By the way, I was wearing a sweatpant and shirt, over which I wore a skirt, and two jackets (items that i needed but didn't fit my luggage) and must have looked pretty amusing. Obviously I didn't care and made a style statement out of that too. ;)
So in the checking area, I had to take off both my coats and it was quite a task putting everything back on :)

Terminal 3
Once through, I called dad and asked them (they were still waiting outside) to go home and eat. Then I went on to get some food myself. It was over 11 and I hadn't had anything since 3. I placed my order at Dominos and it took some time to come. As I sat to eat, a KLM official came up to me and said I should rush to boarding and that I could eat on the plane. On hindsight, I am thankful he asked me to leave at once, because my boarding was at gate 12 which is really far off. I had to walk almost a km and the carpet made the luggage move very slowly. I didn't even dare to go to the restroom after I fathomed the length I would need to walk, knowing well that having a window seat, it would be difficult to take a bathroom break without disturbing other passengers. Needless to say I reached in time and joined the queue. Again, I was asked to move to the shorter line :)
Terminal 3 view from food court

Terminal 3 food court

Terminal 3

Terminal 3

Terminal 3

Flight - Delhi to Amsterdam
Fast forwarding to the flight. My co-passengers were Indian parents off to meet their son in Seattle for six months. They were from Yamuna Nagar in Haryana and it seemed like their first international flight. I got straight to my window seat after saying hello (and hurting a few people with my luggage before a tall man offered to put it up), and started eating my Pasta (I was really hungry).

The in-flight entertainment system was cool (I wish I'd taken a photo) and you could check out the latest movies, TV shows, the food menu, in-flight exercises etc. The control panel could actually be detached and used like a remote. On the back side, was a panel for making telephone calls or sending emails after swiping your credit card (I realised quite late that I wanted to send an email and by the time I was ready to hit send on my draft email, the flight started descending and the panel was disabled!). Being a technology person, I found all this really cool. I also helped the man sitting next to me operate his in-flight entertainment system (his wife didn't seem interested in talking or watching anything, probably because she felt a bit intimidated with the new environment).
inside the flight
So, as I said, I was on the window seat. That would have been great, except I boarded the flight at night. The interesting thing about this flight and the next one was that since we were constantly crossing time zones, the first flight (8 hours long) flew entirely during the night, from one country's night to another; and the second flight (10.5 hours long) flew entirely in the morning, from one country's morning sun to another one's :). It was quite interesting though, to see how various cities could be distinguished at night by the increased density of lihgting.

Another disadvantage of being at the window seat was access to the restroom! I hadn't used the restroom since I left house, and I didn't want to wake my fellow passengers. So after hours of waiting and trying to sleep (with my awesome travel pillow and airline provided pillow and quilt), I finally saw both the man and woman awake and asked them to excuse me. Luckily, they decided to use the disturbance to take a quick break themselves. And after minutes of struggling with the restroom door, I finally made it (phew!!).

The rest of the flight was pretty unventful. Oh, but I have to say that for the first time in my life, I felt happy to see air hostesses. All flights had a very pleasant crew, and I think there is something about the Europeans that allows them to smile with their hearts instead of pasting plastic smiles without meaning it. Another interesting thing was the meals. I hadn't expected dinner, and so after the seatbelt sign was switched off after take off, I quickly gobbled up my pasta, only to realise an hour later that dinner was actually being served. It was an interestingly packaged "samosa chaat" along with  dhokla and some sweet (which I didn't eat). If that wasn't sumptuous enough, breakfast arrived in a few hours, containing croissant, fruits and something else I can't remember. In short, I was really full by the end of the flight.

The Amsterdam airport
As we landed into Amsterdam during the wee morning hours, I could see that it had rained. I entered the airport and saw this huge information screen displaying all the flights that were scheduled to take off and desperately trying to find mine. It didn't help. I didn't know who to ask and so spent around 10 minutes worrying where to head (this is a huge airport, if you head in the wrong direction, you'll get lost). Finally, it struck me to look at my boarding bass, which informed me that my flight left from gate E22. It also said that the boarding gate was subject to change (Thank God I read that part). The tension was a bit high because I hadn't set my watch to Amsterdam time and wasn't sure what time it was. The tension was further heightened by a  constant female voice at the airport every five seconds going "Manju stat" or something like that (I don't know what she said because it was in Dutch). So I rushed to the direction of terminal E and kept walking and walking, crossing walkalator after walkalator (a much longer trip than the one I described at the Delhi airport) to finally reach E22.

Although the information display screen did not show my Portland flight, I decided to wait there for a bit. I then went to the restroom and when I returned I saw that the screen still did not display anything. Concerned that the gate might have changed I started walking back to the main area, and just by sheer luck checked the screen at the next gate (E19) to discover that my flight was to take off from there. Thanking God for yet another miracle, I went on to the restroom to clean up and finish my Sprite. When I returned (a full 20 minutes later; I had found the local time and adjusted my watch to that time), I saw that the departure gate had been shifted (again!!!) to E5. So I swiftly moved my luggage onto a trolley and made my way to E5.

After making sure this was it, I moved on to buy a calling card so I could call mom (i had no euros). The calling card was sold for EUR10 only at one book shop at the other end of the airport, and on my way back I made a wrong turn. As a result of these adventures, I actually managed to explore the entire airport (it has terminals A-H) and see many interesting shops and instresting statue-cum-seating area of two men. I then made my way to a phone and called mom. I figured out the machine fairly easily. After I was done, another lady asked me to help her (she was dialling a Canada number). Her currency didn't work (although it was euros), so I asked her to buy a calling card as well. Sadly, it didn't help (I think there must have been a problem with the number). I felt quite bad for her.

On reaching back E5, I waited a bit and then joined the immigration checking line for Portland. When it was my turn, the immigration officer (who was really courteous and smiled a lot) asked me a few questions about my programme, my luggage (who packed it) and the electronics I was carrying. Then I proceeded to body check. After a full body x-ray scan I waited in the waiting area till boarding was announced. I then boarded the flight fairly safely and got to my seat. It was larger than the seats in the previous flight, but I guess.......

Flight - Amsterdam to Portland was not large enough. Well at least not for the big Ukrainian gentleman (I mean literally gentle) who came up the aisle and took the seat next to mine. He was huge, and had the hugest smile on his face as he took out his passport and pointed out to me that he was from Ukraine and did not speak English. I was instantly suspicious!! And then, the magical bonding moment happened as the air hostess brought along the customs and immigration forms for all of us to fill. I realised he didn't speak English and told the air hostess. She said she didn't speak Russian and said he should wait. So I decided to take out my pen and started filling out his form with assistance of his passport and a lot of sign language to communicate with him :). He was so happy and thankful that I started feeling guilty for being suspicious.

And then, as I spent my time writing that mail (the in-flight entertainment system had similar technology) and watching Avatar (finally!!)  and The Social Network (fiinnalllyyyy!!!!), his elbow kept entering my space and he apologised for being so huge (by the way he was 40 years old, so don't get any ideas). And then, I helped him with his in-flight system as well.

I also discovered a great option (between watching the two movies) where the instructions for filling out the forms were available in all languages including Russian and Ukrainian. He was surprised when I showed the instructions video to him and happy too. He got up and took out a new packet of peanuts and gave it to me! And I refused first, but he insisted (by the way, before this he also offered me some Ukrainian money to thank me for my services but I sternly refused; no wonder I was suspicious). So I told him he should open the packet and I'll take some. So he opened the packet, took some himself and then gave me the entire packet (which like him, was huge!).

I didn't know what to do. I was afarid the peanuts might be drugged or unsafe (that's me being a typical Delhi person, always suspicious! - "don't take food from strangers") but since he ate them, I ate some too. Actually, they were quite good, so I ate some more. But there was no way I could finish the packet and I did not want to carry the packet through immigration. So I stuffed the bag into my front compartment, hoping he wouldn't notice when I just leave it there as we alight the aircraft. By the way, I got a Hindu vegetarian meal on this flight, which meant an extremely interesting burger with a slice of aubergine inside instead of the regular patty for breakfast, and for lunch, some yellow rice and dal. I unfortunately didn't get the chocolate ice cream that everyone else did. He offered me his ice cream, but I declined.

After the meal service was over, one of the air hostesses who spoke Russian came up to my co-passenger and told him he could fill out the form printed in Russian language and gave that to him. He copied the English alphabet from the form I had filled into his Russian form, but at least now he knew what was being asked. After completing the form, he said through gestures that the one I had filled was pretty while his own looked bad. Actually, I think he did a good job at copying! (I had filled my own forms also by then, so don't get worried).

As the captain began the descent with the plane drawing near the Portland area, I was taken aback to see so many trees. It really is a green region. And the trees are planted in rows, making it look very planned and beautiful. You could also see large parking spaces, organised rows of houses, and minimal traffic. The city had been washed by rain last night and stood there gleaming and looking clean! When the plane landed, Mr Ukrainian was kind enough to get my bag down for me. He moved with me to the immigration hold area and stood behind me in queue.

At the Portland airport
As I was called to the immigration desk, I thought I wouldn't see Mr Ukrainian again, so I said bye and moved to the immigration officer. He was a man, and he seemed quite passionate about his job. In the form, I had left the checkbox on whether I was carrying any food or not empty; I really didn't know what constituted food. So I told this to him, and he was like "in America, if you can eat it, it's food!" So I showed him the polo in my pocket and he said it was food. Wow! So I told him I was carrying some packaged food, and he ticked yes on the form. And then came his words of wisdom, " if you're uncertain about a question, answer yes......if you don't have food and say yes, you'll still be safe; but if you have food and say no, you might face fines upto $300"....Sensible advice I'd say.

After he stamped my I-94 and attached it to his passport, I remebered that Dad had asked me to reconfirm that I can stay up to September 31. And he said that he had written Duration of Status (D/S), which meant I could stay till the programme said I could (including the 30-day grace period). I kept re-checking and he got irritated and said, "I don't know how things are done in India, but I know my job and I'm doing it". But he didn't lose his cool and I kept smiling, and so all's well that end's well. I was clear to go.

Nancy, my gracious host who has provided me with super comfortable lodging at her house, had already arrived at the airport to pick me. So I called her to tell her the progress of my exit and she said she didn't mind waiting (how sweet). I rushed to the luggage hold, never mind that restroom trip I needed! Lucky me, as I reached the conveyor belt, my suitcase approached me and within a minute my cumbersome rucksack arrived too. So I loaded everything on to a trolley and was directed to the agricultural products area, where I was asked if I was acrrying any pickles, meats, plants or vegetables.The I was asked what food I have and then my bags were scanned and I was free to go :) All this while, every staff member and immigration officer was super helpful and smiling!

A good deed doesn't go unnoticed
Portland airport
Once clear, I made my way to the bus that would take me to Nancy. I boarded the bus with all my luggage, and the lady there voluntarily helped me by bringing one of my luggage items onto the bus. And then the Ukrainian guy came onto the bus, and lo and behold, he knew everyone there...the bus driver, the door security, the lady who helped me with the bag...they all knew and loved my co-passenger. And for reasons beyond my comprehension, my co-passenger was all praise for me, telling them how I helped him and all. That was enough for them to thank me over and over. I decided to take a picture of this man, so I could put it up on the blog when I write all of this. (I will do that once I have the equipment to transfer photos). When the bus pulled over at its destination, the friendly driver actually took some of my heavy luggage down and placed it on the trolley for me. I said thank you and goodbye and moved to find Nancy. I crossed past her, unaware, and so I called her. We noticed each other with the phones in our hands and made the connection. She had even made a name placard for me :)

Portland airport
Mr Ukrrainian
She seemed like a very warm and helpful person. She guided me to the parking and on the way I saw Mr Ukrainain again. He was just ahead of us and was greeteed by a cheerful family (I guess his brother and sister-in-law and their two kids, who really love uncle!). I felt so happy to have helped such a guy. We moved on as they continued with their reunion, and then I realise this guy is again describing my acts to his family and his brother and sister-in-law came up to me and said thank you. I shook their hands, while Nancy was wondering what was happening. The brother asked me which country I was from (everyone spoke English except my co-passenger). I said India, and it seemed that India went into their good books after that! So I am glad I could make that difference :)

Portland awaits
As we moved on, I explained to Nancy what all that was about. She asked me which country he was from and I told her. We reached the parking area by then and she seemed to have forgotten where she parked. As she pressed her car alarm to locate the car, I could see where it was and pointed it out. She was quite happy that we had found the car. We loaded everything into the back, she helped me with the bags. Then she went to keep my trolley in the right place ad told me I could sit in the passenger seat. I felt odd that I should sit in comfort while she does a task ideally I should be doing. So I continued to stand outside the car (when she returned, I told her it was so she could spot the car easily).

And we sat in the car, buckled up and moved out to a city I was to explore for the next six months! 


  1. It took quite a while to read the whole thing, must say, totally worth it. It was like I was living the experience , I could almost see each and every aspect of whatever you described. I can understand your trauma at having to ask uncle to do the needful at various instances, and can totally picturise you procrastinating your visit to the rest room in order to not disturb your co-passengers. Forgetting where the car has been parked seems to be an universal phenomena :) Way to go ! Awaiting more to read..

  2. Reeealy Nice Blog!

  3. Hey Ishani...
    I wrote a message to you the day you left. Now I finally know why I didnt get a reply. We were wondering how you are and how its going. I dont mind reading long blogs. Please tell us all about your experiences.

  4. Woah! Done Delhi->Schipol on KLM but slept straight through. Looks like I missed a lot.


  5. The escalator was saying "Mind Your step". I realised on my second visit to Schipol!