Thursday, November 12, 2009

All for the Best!

How interesting can a trip from the hotel to the airport really get? Well Add some drama. Some hysteria. Some surprises. Some raised tempers. Some skipped heartbeats. Some panic. Some mystery. Some hope. Some disappointment and loads of luck. And you get a sensational novel which can later get adapted to a thriller movie and a message at the end of it thrown in for good measure.

It was the 26th of July ’09. We were checking out from the Le Meridian in Paris located North of the Champs Elysses at Etoile. This was the last day of our 8 day Eurotrip which would be entirely spent flying from Paris to Mumbai, with a few pit stops for duty free shopping of course. We were 6 of us…3 guys and 3 gals. The KLM flight was at 8:00 am from Charles de Gaulle for Amsterdam, one hour stopover and then 11:15 am flight from Amsterdam to Mumbai. KLM has a tie up with Delta for these sectors, which sucks ‘cause Delta’s aircrafts are worse than our local trains, but they are the cheapest. We hired a cab for 4 since we couldn’t get one for 6 and loaded all the bags in it. Kaushal and wife Jigna, my wife Pooja and her sister, Kinjal were the chosen passengers for the cab, since Kaushal wasn’t feeling too well and one man had to play caretaker of the 3 women. Me and my bro-in-law, Marmik ditched the idea of hiring another cab at 50 euros and decided to take the train. When we arrived in Paris, 3 days back we had taken 3 day passes. This should see us through all train and bus travel within Paris for the 3 days of our stay which it did. So no point spending those precious euros for a cab ride when we could max out the pass with the metro to the airport. We checked our pockets for the train passes, even took Jigna’s which was purchased the day earlier and had a one day validity which should technically expire at 11:00 am.

So with our haversacks on our back, Marmik and me headed towards the Porte Maillot metro station, a 5 minute walk from the hotel. It was a Sunday morning, still dark at 5:00 a.m. While loading our baggages in the cab earlier, we noticed some commotion opposite the hotel. The valet informed us that the sat nite discotheques were closing and the French party animals were retiring for the night. We were impressed with the idea of all nite sat niters.

Commuting in Paris
Paris is crowded. There is lots of traffic and lots of people everywhere. One would think that coming from Mumbai, this should feel at home. But having spent the first 3 days of our Eurotrip in Amsterdam, where you find a few or no cars and majority of people on the trot or bicycles, the contrast of Paris does surprise you. Coupled with that, the public transport specially the busses are not that efficient and there are no trams as we frequently used in Amsterdam and Zurich for the previous five days. Busses and trams lets you see the city while travelling which we hoped to do in Paris as well. But an attempt to do exactly that proved to be futile. There was no bus for the 30 mins we waited on 2 occassions. And the metro station entrance 5 feet away was sheepishly grinning at us. We therefore resigned to our fate and took the first of many metro journeys all through our stay. Since its underground, you don’t get to see a thing. Imagine passing the Eiffel Tower and the Arc De Triomphe and not getting to see it. In the city of lights you are looking at dungeons!

And the metro stations are not very impressive. Clean yes, but pretty no. They seem like any Mumbai station only underground and cleaner. And once inside the station it’s a maze. You miss one signage and you would be going round in circles. And there are 5 to6 exits, three levels, innumerable platforms and too many signages. Did take some time to get used to the system and constant checking and rechecking the route maps had become increasingly necessary. Everytime we came back to Porte Maillot, the metro stop for our hotel we would discover a different exit. But Parisians swear by the metro. It is the obvious mode of transport i.e. if you want to use public transport. Anyone we ask for directions from the concierge to the cops, would promptly point towards the metro stations or plot out the route on the metro map.

The frequency of the metro however is great and gets you to your destination in no time. All entries and exits have gates which open automatically when you punch your ticket in the slot machine. The ticket gets pulled in, gets punched making a record of your travel and slides out of the other end. Even if the ticket isn’t valid it slides out but then the gates don’t open. Sometimes when that happened even though we were carrying perfectly valid tickets, or so we thought, we passed valid tickets back so that others could enter with the same ticket. After all they should work for 3 days irrespective of the no. of entries and exits punched on it.

The first sign.
When Marmik and me arrived at the Porte Maillot on that Sunday morning we were expecting to hop into the train, catch a quick nap and probably reach the airport before the cab. But it was not to be so. First, our 3 day passes won’t go through the ticket machines. So the gates won’t open. We tried again. No luck. We tried Jigna’s ticket as well. Even that didn’t go through. Wierd. These were supposed to be valid for another 6 hrs. Several attempts and precious minutes later, we decided to let go and purchase the tickets. We hustled towards the ticket counter. The officials sitting right inside informed us that they were closed now, and we had to get our tickets from the automatic vending machine next to the counter. They were in their uniforms and their booth was open but the counter was shut. They were just finishing off with the accounts for the day or night in this case. We had tried the ticket vending machine previously and had run out of patience trying to figure it out. This was definitely not the time to figure it out. This was so not the time. After a few insignificant punches on the red and blue buttons, we decided to bail out. So we waved to a passerby to help us out and she did. It turned out that a single ticket to the airport would cost 18 euros. That’s 36 euros for both of us. The cab was 50 euros. Damn. Now was no time to negotiate with a machine. What the hell…since we are here now. We still need to get to the airport. So how bad can the train really be. Bad decision as we found out. It was Sunday morning. There were fewer trains than usual and they were running slow. So we had to spend a good 20 mins waiting for our train. This compared to the 5 min waits previously set the tone of things to come. The train was crowded with young kids who were returning from their sat nite escapades. We did not even get a seat initially. We were now hating the idea of sat nite all niters. But that was the least of our worries.

The second sign.
We had to change trains at a station called Chatelet to take the express to the airport. After 30 mins we reached Chatelet, which was unusually crowded and chaotic. Plus our train was nowhere in sight. And the rest of the crew who had cabbed it out had already reached the airport. As the first of the 100 phone calls for that morning from Kaushal on international roaming informed us. And there was apparently a long queue to even get inside the airport. Then the check-in, security checks, immigration, and the duty free shopping…damn, can’t skip that. Considering we only had a one hour stop over at Amsterdam en route to Mumbai. And there were lists made and remade and calculations done even on spreadsheets to ascertain no. of bottles and cartons and their respective costs we can manage to optimize the duty free shopping from Paris. We used the wait constructively, checking with people around if this was the train to take to the airport. There were others with baggage waiting to board this train, surely they were going to the airport as well. The train finally toggled onto the platform and we jumped in as if that would save some time. Even if it did, though it didn’t, the train had other plans. It didn’t move its butt from that platform for the next 15 minutes. That’s when the first signs of panic hit us.

And that was not the tipping point yet. This train supposedly an express was travelling at a snail’s pace. Straight out of Jules Vernes’ “around the world in 80 days” where Philius Fogg was explained by a station master at Bombay how the local reaches Kolkata faster than the express. Don’t know what we had done to deserve this? Actually don’t bother.

It trotted along for as long as it could like a 1960 steam engine inside a supersonic aerodynamic jet-train body. We checked the route map over our heads. After 8 stations there was a station called Le Bourget from where the route forked into two directions – one went to Charles De Gaulle i.e. the airport and the other…who cares?! After a painful 45 mins of the train ride, when it did get to Le Bourget, we were feeling content at finally reaching the airport just in time. How could anything go wrong now. But it did. The station after Le Bourget was to be Charles de gaulle. When we arrived at the next station and peeked out of the windows of the door that we were standing by, we saw another name on the platform signage. The train didn’t go towards Charles de gaulle. It took the other line from where it forked to a station which was somewhere on the French countryside. We realized this only when it stopped at the next station and a quick look at the route map confirmed our wildest fears. We were on the wrong train! How did we manage to goof this one up? Why did we manage to goof this one up? Why did we do whatever we did now?

We rechecked with a couple of passengers quickly and got off. The platform was empty. We looked around. Not a soul in sight. It was a peaceful French village town apparently outside Paris as we found out later. But we were anything but peaceful then. We looked at the indicator. The next train to take us back to Le Bourget would arrive 15 mins later. And we have to take another train from there, hopefully the right one this time to goto Charles de gaulle. Damn. We had to go back the same route we came from and we had to wait another 15 mins to even do that. That at a time like this when we were going to miss our flight from Paris. 2 lonely almost broke Indians stuck in Paris. We were already wondering how we would spend the day if we missed the flight which seemed inevitable now. What a terrible situation. But hey, we should be close to the airport right. We should take a cab from here now and still end up saving some pennies from the 50 Euros we saved from the cab ride?!!! Actually, even if we paid double of that we didn’t really care now. Only thing that did matter was getting to that godforsaken airport and saving the cost of the air tickets and the hassle of booking again which definitely won’t happen at the same rate we got the current air tickets! And of course the other 4 who were waiting at the airport for us would be completely perplexed at what to do.

And the frantic phone calls from a worried Kaushal only added to the tension. We were in the greatest hurry and we were not even moving. There was some time till the train arrived. We decided to just walk out of the station and check ourselves. The side we came out on was deserted. Not a soul in sight. And there didn’t seem any roads to take us anywhere. And of course no cabs. We spotted a old black woman going into the station. Asked her for cabs, she said there wouldn’t be any on this side, but maybe on the other side of the station. We came back to the platform. Checked the indicator. 7 odd minutes now. We noticed a young guy who had just walked up the stairs from the other side to the platform for cabs to the airport hoping he could answer our prayers. The guy was lost. And he didn’t know English. After some miming, he shrug his shoulders pointed towards the exits and walked off. We contemplated. 6 minutes for the train now. What to do? It’s a gamble. We decided to make a run for it. Run to the exits, down the stairs, flash through the tunnels, through the ticket validating machines and thankfully the new tickets we bought got validated this time around, and then up the stairs again huffing and puffing while we reached the top. Not a soul in sight. After a few seconds which felt like ages, a car came by. We ran towards the driver, asking frantically for a cab. The driver informs us that it being really early morning on a Sunday, there wouldn’t be one for several hours. That’s all we needed to hear. Sprint back towards the entrance, down the stairs, through the ticket counters, bang. Stop. We couldn’t go through. Our tickets won’t work. Not again! We just bought them today. And the ticket counter had its shutters down. Deep breaths.

Marmik jumped on top of the machine using it for support, squeezed his thin frame through between the gates and got to the other side. I couldn’t squeeze my thin frame through obviously. But I could jump over it. Seemed manageable. I went halfway there and was struggling with the foothold for support to reach the top and jump over, when a man walked in to pass through the gates. I quickly jumped down and decided to tailgate on him giving him a uncomfortable smile and continued sprinting toward the platform. Up the stairs and onto the platform. Too much running for one day I thought. Need to do something about my diminishing stamina. Checked the indicators. 1 minute for our train! Catch up on our breath. Some more running after the break.

The train finally arrived and we jumped in. Next stop got off and waited again for the right train. The clock was ticking. Phones were ringing. The rest had already checked in. One excess bag was to be checked in by us. The check in counter was informed to expect two pax anytime. Everybody was on standby!

The train moved into the station at the airport finally. We were already at the door ready to make a run for it. We had already checked on the terminal details, figured out how to get there from the station thanks to a detailed diagram in the train. The moment the train stopped, and the doors opened, we jumped, and ran for our lives. Down the platform, up the stairs, into the airport, checked for the signages, ran again, went up the stairs and then reached the entry barriers – the ticket validating machines. We stood in the line, punched our tickets. Not valid. We just bought these today for 18 euros each. Why the hell wont they work. Is it because we punched them when we exited the previous station looking for a cab. Luckily there were many in line and no authorities around. But you really can’t demonstrate your acrobatic skills in a crowded international airport so we didn’t bother jumping over it again. So we both tailgated. The other passengers were only too happy to allow us to do that. We crossed the gates, and kept running towards the sacred check-in counter for sometime till we saw Kaushal frantically waving at us from the point we needed to reach…2 hrs. back actually.

Did we really make it? Unbelievable. The world seemed to be plotting against us.

We checked in, rushed to the security gates, who stalled us ‘cause we had to remove our belts, shoes, wallets, keys and all items from the pockets. Was quiet painful, since the duty free was just behind it and there was so much we still needed to do. Finally cleared the security when I was asked to step aside. My haversack was handed to a counter officer. I wondered what now? I was asked to open the bag and display the items, which revealed a liqueur bottle I had picked up at a supermarket opposite our hotel. Fancy bottle, tall slim, blue and contained caramel liqueur. Perfect for my bar. I had also picked up 5 wine bottles which Pooja had safely packed into the suitcases which were checked in. but this one was expensive and I did not want to take any chances. So I decided to play caretaker myself and safely packed it into my haversack. The authorities informed me that I couldn’t carry liquid on the flight. I argued that we do it all the time when we purchase alcohol from the duty free. But the rule is that duty free bottles come sealed in duty free bags and only those are allowed as hand baggage. So I had to either dump the bottle or check in my haversack. I decided to push my luck. I decided to check it in. My wife and friends were bewildered. I could see the last ounce of patience being exhausted from their gasps and frowns. No point advising me to do otherwise. I had made up my mind.
I went out through the side gate and back to the lady who had checked me in earlier, since I only wanted to check in the haversack and take another baggage tag and I thought she would do it faster having issued my boarding pass and all. But there was another person before me. And this guy had a cat in a cage which he wanted to check-in. For some reason, he was not being allowed to and then followed a long argument in French between the two. I only watched in amusement. Now I had exhausted my last ounce of patience! After the 10 minute ordeal, the man withdrew his cage and walked away. My turn. I explained the problem and she asked me to put the bag on the conveyor beside her for weight. It seemed fine. She punched some keys for the baggage tag print-out. Any moment now. She looked at the printer for the progress. Nothing. The printer was stuck. At that very moment among all the moments, the printer was to run out of paper now. Right now. When the only time I wouldn’t want it to. She pushed her chair back, came towards me, unlocked the door which to my surprise was the frontage of the counter. Removed paper rolls, went back to her desk, inserted the paper in the printer, and finally printed my baggage tag.

I went back to the security gates, removed my wares all over again, got frisked all over again. Went through the security scanner. Beep. What now? I just went through this 10 mins back. It was all fine then. What now? They asked me to remove everything and anything from my pockets which would have caused the beep. Nothing. I checked and rechecked. Nothing. I was made to turn back and go through it again. Beep. They realized that it was because of all the zippers in my cargo pants. A stern brow informed me that these are travel unfriendly pants. I acknowledged.

Finally I was through security. We were grossly delayed. Some 10 mins to take off. Hello. What about duty free shopping? I had 6 or 8 bottles and 4 cartons to still pick up. Marmik was already there and he had finished buying a Glenfiddich 12 years someone was to pay him for. I was gonna push it. I thought maybe I could flash through the duty free and finish it off. I entered the duty free when there were frantic calls for boarding. I scanned through the items. Picked up a 3 carton pack of Marlboro Gold. But there was a line at the billing counter. I didn’t have the time. So I dumped it and went straight for the flight. Resigned to the fact that I now had to do this in Amsterdam airport and quickly since we only had a one hour stopover and 30 of those precious minutes would be consumed disembarking this flight and boarding the flight to Mumbai. Considering I knew what I wanted, I always know what I want from the duty free, it seemed manageable.

It was a 2 hour flight to Amsterdam. I was already finalizing my duty free shopping list. 15 mins is all I should take. On landing at Schipol I headed straight for the Liquor section. Scanned for any interesting items. Kaushal directed me to the Ed Hardy vodka bottles and told me to come quickly to the departure gates where he was heading. The ed hardy bottle looked fab. Another showpiece on my bar. Definitely a pick. Then there was some single malt and some Absolut flavours I needed to replenish my depleting stock. Picked those as well. And had to get one bottle for dad. Done. Enter Pooja. Frowns. 8 bottles in the bag. What are you thinking? Please return 4. Bombay customs will not allow this to go through. We already had 6 bottles in the baggage. And considering there were 6 of us, we could only carry twelve toto. Marmik had already picked up one. Kinjal had 1. Kaushal was not taking any.. so we could buy only 4. After the events of the day so far, and considering that she did have a point, I gave up. Returned 4 bottles. Billed the remaining 4. While we were doing all this we didn’t realize that the flight was already boarding. In fact now they were closing boarding. We were delayed for this flight too.

The last lap.
We sprinted towards the terminal. Up the stairs, down the stairs, down the lobby, ran on the escalators, ran, ran and ran again. The terminal was really far. We would have surely started earlier had we known. Or maybe we wouldn’t. we are quite incorrigible that way. A little too much when I think back. Luckily immigration was a short line and we went quickly through it. At the entrance of the departure terminals a lady in the KLM uniform stopped us. Asked if we were Nandi and Mehtas. We nodded. She complained that the flight was gonna take off without us if we didn’t show up for another minute. We filed behind her in embarrassment but thanking our stars. At the departure terminal, the crew was frowning. They still had to go through with their SOPs and the entire interrogation ordeal which is a 10 minute process. But, now they were taking time. So technically they were delaying the flight. Not us. We were at least assured that its not taking off without us. A sense of Eureka prevailed. I actually pulled this off. Once they were satisfied we were not terrorists and were not carrying bombs, they let us through baggage screening. One of the security guys behind the counter picked up Marmik’s duty free bag which had the Glenfiddich he had bought from the Paris Duty Free. He whispered to a colleague and turned around to inform Marmik that this will not be allowed on board. Why??? It was a duty free bag and was sealed. ‘cause its an American airline and only sealed duty free bags from the last airport of departure are allowed as hand baggage. So Schipol sealed duty free bags can go through but not any other airport’s including Paris even though this was a transit flight.
We were helpless. Can’t check this in surely. Marmik had to dump it. 25$ down the drain. He wouldn’t get paid for what he didn’t get.

My duty free bags did not meet the same fate. Fortunately.

We went to our seats and only rested after receiving some well deserved scorns from Kaushal and wife for overdoing it today, we were finally taking off for Mumbai. They didn’t seem to fathom why buying alcohol was so important that one could delay or even miss an international flight. I didn’t offer any excuses. There were none. For some reason I feel compelled to stick to the plan, that's the bare minimum. Anything we do beyond the plan is only gratis. And duty free shopping was part of the bare minimum to-do, have-to-do plan.

Slumped on my seat, exhausted and exasperated I was going over the events of the morning, it was only 11 am then. That’s when it hit me. If I had made it to Paris airport on time with enough time for Duty Free Shopping, I would have bought everything I wanted from Paris. And that wouldn’t have been allowed on board this flight. I would have to dump them. No refunds. No alcohol. And, I wouldn’t have shopped in Amsterdam. And because I would realize that I have to dump them just before entering the aircraft, it wouldn’t give me any time to even go back and buy them all over again from the Amsterdam Duty Free. And I also would have spent all my money by then anyways. So shopping at the Amsterdam Duty Free actually saved all my bottles and substantial euros! And I wouldn’t have shopped in Amsterdam if we had reached Pairs airport on time. Even 10 mins at the Paris Duty Free would have been sufficient for me to finish my shopping. Looking back, I realized that if any one event, any one of those innumerable events was not to occur, I would have got 10 mins at Paris Duty Free.

Like they say….Its all for the best!