We were already behind the counter at the Delhi International Airport “Visitor Centre,” waiting as the glacially slow airport internet connection loaded the American Airlines webpage so we could print our own ticket. “I’ve been all over the world,” he continued. “No airport makes you do this.” I gave him a resigned smile from behind the counter and told him that, well, it’s just the way it was here. The agent had let me sit there to print my ticket. He had the patience of a sadhu. He needed it, because his English wasn’t up to handling the simultaneous complaints of a dozen annoyed Western travelers. I’m now checked through to LAX, but the system wouldn’t let me print Adrian’s boarding pass as it has somehow suddenly decided that the name on his passport doesn’t match the name on his ticket. At 9:30, when the AA check-in counter opens, I’m told I need to enter with my boarding pass, my passport and Adrian’s passport – without Adrian – because, of course, having a second party present your passport and get your boarding pass makes us all much safer from terrorists.
While the maelstrom of humanity and aggressive touts that once greeted arrivals at Indira Gandhi International Airport are long gone, Delhi must be the only airport to penalize travelers for arriving early. We got to the airport shortly before seven. As two Argentines were refused entry to the terminal just ahead of us, I remembered with a sinking feeling in my stomach reading somewhere that you needed a paper ticket to enter. Who travels with that anymore?
“What time your flight?” asked the security guard. “Midnight,” I told him. He motioned us towards the Visitors Center, a glass-walled ghetto of foreign early arrivals. If you tire of sitting in the crowded, fluorescent-lit box, a narrow chute leads to an elevator down to the arrivals level of the airport, so Adrian and I now sit at the sad but convenient little coffee concession where we began our day following our arrival from Udaipur. Sad, because India is not a coffee-drinking culture and so any coffee concession there is by definition bound to be sad, frequented by Westerners tired of masala chai yet desperate for a caffeine fix (have I mentioned how sick I am of masala chai?). Convenient because – hallelujah! – there’s a mobile and laptop charging station with a universal outlet!
7:30 pm… one more hour before I attempt to win my husband his boarding pass. Amazing how tranquil Indian airports are compared to train stations. Actually, there are six universal outlets on the pillar next to our table. Only one works. Get away. It’s ours.
A Westerner of Indian origin approaches the battery of outlets and pulls out the charger for his mobile. “They’re all broken,” I warn him.
“You have the only one in the whole terminal that works,” he says. “I’ve looked!” Turns out he’s Aussie and was heading back after two weeks in India for a relative’s wedding. I let him plug his phone into my laptop as he calls to give a status report to his ride back home in Sydney.
“The way things work in this country stretch belief,” he tells us. “I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.” We did, but somehow it seems that the Indian Westerners I’ve talked to on this trip have less patience for the chaos, inefficiency and disorder of Indian cities than others who grew up in Chicago, Paris or Oslo.
His call completed, he heads up to the departures level tourist ghetto to await his flight. A hefty man in shorts, Japanese passport and mobile in hand, is now squatting next to the battery of outlets, futilely trying each as the plug falls impotently out.
“India,” he sighs in exasperation.
At 8:30 p.m., I go upstairs to get Adrián his boarding pass. They're perfectly happy to let me enter departures with someone else's passport and to print me a boarding pass in someone else's name.
At nine p.m., we finally rouse ourselves from our quiet corner and head back upstairs, triumphantly entering the terminal with our printed boarding passes. We pass through security without issue, have a long, leisurely dinner surrounded by drunken Western businessmen at a fancy buffet, only to encounter another x-ray machine and metal scan at our gate. The young, portly woman at this security checkpoint has a perfect American accent and the soft, delightful demeanor of a Bronx cab driver. She says I have to get rid of the three liters of water that I bought beyond the first security check to take on the flight.
“I don’t know why you bought it,” she sneers. “Everyone knows you can’t take water on a flight. You have to throw it away.”
“I’ve been all over the world,” I begin. “No airport makes you…”
I stop, remembering the man back at the entrance of the Visitors Centre. Instead, I guzzle three of the half-liter bottles, defiantly fixing my eyes on her as I gulp. I stop to breathe.
“Gonna drink any more or do you want to toss them now?” she asks.
Chin high, I slowly take one more bottle, holding it up as I screw off the plastic top. I drink it in one go, replace the empty bottle with its three empty and two full brethren in the plastic bag from whence it came, set the bag on the table in front of her, and woozily turn to board our flight.
Halfway down the jetway, we’re patted down in a final security check. Just in case water girl missed something. Could've been worse; it could have BEEN water girl doing the groping. We settle into our seats on the 777 -- bulkheads! Bliss! -- exhausted and feeling lucky to have made it aboard.
Three weeks later we’d already be missing it.