First Class Cold

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March 9th 2008
Published: May 28th 2008
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I first started feeling under the weather on my four hour bus journey from Boston to New York. First a cough, then three sneezes in a row, then a sudden urge to reach in my bag for a kleenex, stray napkin from Starbucks, anything to stop the drippy nose. A pill to stop a coming-on-fast headache. Pound, pound pound....This coming from someone who considers herself healthy and hardly ever comes down with anything. Well, this was definitely the start of something. Something lasting.

I spent the final hours that afternoon with my friend Karen at her New York apartment, packing (or stuffing is perhaps a more appropriate term) my rucksack with all the new purchases for Hands On and last minute Boston impulse buys (including Valentines candies I knew would be a hit with the volunteers already in Bangladesh!). All this while trying to will myself to get better soon, as I had a 14+ hour plane ride to catch in a few hours. The fact was, I once again was on a buddy pass (the same one as from Peru, just the next "leg" of the journey), which meant there was a good possibility I wouldn't even get on the flight to Mumbai, India. I left Karen's house in the late afternoon by subway, and one hour, four bags and $7.00 later, I arrived at JFK Airport. Fortunately check-in was fairly straightforward with no hassles this time, and I ended up with hours to kill waiting in the lounge for my flight. I soon discovered the flight was delayed an hour. I ate my sesame seed bagel "dinner " while I waited (on the off chance I didn't make the flight and couldn't get any food so late at night), read my book and blew my nose. I coughed and coughed and pretty soon people started moving away from me. I took that as a hint.

At the appropriate time for those flying stand by to check at the counter to see if space was available, I sauntered up to the lovely lady and flashed her a toothy smile. I asked if my name had cleared for a seat and with a grin back at me, she presented me with a boarding pass. I asked her nicely if she knew if this seat was a window and she stopped what she was doing and said, "No, honey, I am sorry, this is not a window seat." After a brief pause on her part and perhaps a slightly disappointed look on my face, she came back with a cheery "But it IS first class!" Hallelujah!!! Not only do I get a seat on this plane I actually get to fly to India in First Class (ok, so it is REALLY called Business Elite....all the same to me!). Nothing better than a long flight when one is not feeling well -- especially when one is not feeling well -- to be treated so kindly.

The seats were leather and spacious, and boy did they recline! Food was aplenty; so much so I could only finish half a glass of wine (out of only 6 wines, 2 champagnes and a port to choose from), three courses out of five, had zero room left for my cheese course (really nice FRENCH cheese, even), and barely finished the most delicious chocolate mousse I think I had ever had in my life (yes, and it was served ON AN AIRPLANE!). I put on my airplane socks, my eye patch, wrapped up in the provided airplane blanket (thicker and larger than the kind used in steerage) and went through just about every single cocktail napkin and tissue I could get my hands on. Despite the comfort of the near horizontal seat, my fast-progressing cold kept me up most of the night. It seemed, however, every time I stirred or sat up, a flight attendant was there, beside me, at my beck and call. Poor things, I think they were a bit worried about my crappy state!

We flew over the Atlantic, over Europe and the Middle East and straight into Mumbai. Collecting my bags at the carrousel was an experience to behold. Not only did the bags NOT decrease in number the longer I stood there, the "line" of passengers never went down either. Ok, so this was my very first experience with India, and though I know from talking with endless people about the country and the mobs of people everywhere, I never thought that in the middle of the night and clearly after 90% of the flight had collected their bags, there would still be so many people milling about the conveyor belt. As in most of Asia, especially South East Asia, if you don't push your way up to the front of a "line," you just get pushed backwards uncontrollably. It was nearly impossible when trying to get my luggage. Oh, well, eventually I spotted my things and a few guys helped haul them off the carrousel for me. My bags were intact but the rain cover on my rucksack was torn nearly the full length and the sleeping bag partially out of its stuff sack. Dandy.

Walking out of the airport posed no problems for me at all. People were pushing and shoving and carts were everywhere. Many people tried forcing their carts side by side in spaces made for half a cart. No one wanted to budge; they all wanted to be the first to leave the airport. This resulted in many altercations. Some airport official pointed at me and had me follow him awhile, then pointed me to the door leading to the fresh outside air (if you can call the air in Mumbai fresh), bypassing any customs inspection or x-ray machine that may have been in that vast room. I was glad to be out of that jumbled mess, but what lay ahead for me wasn't much better. Throngs of people were being kept at bay behind metal fences, all waiting for their loved ones to disembark their planes and hurry through the immigration procedure. I was looking for one man and only one man. Our plane was an hour late getting in, procuring my luggage took another 1/2 an hour, and getting to the outside took a bit of time as well. All this combined, I was afraid my hotel pickup wouldn't still be there waiting. He was. It took awhile to find him amongst the zillions of people waiting for their loved ones (and I feel pretty accurate with that number), the other cardboard signs with names written on them being held at various heights, and the random people reaching out to touch me as I slowly walked past. Finally, success. Weaving in and around the arbitrary goats and stray, malnourished dogs wandering along the parking lot feeding on random bits of rubbish, I was escorted to a little SUV of sorts, somewhere in the back 40. I felt I was transformed back to a 1930s movie with hundreds, thousands maybe, of little rounded yellow and black Fiat taxi cabs waiting for a midnight fare. As it was, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of them on the road as well, from the airport to the hotel, about 20 minutes' drive away, though probably only 7 KM.

Met my friend Emma (from the project in Pisco) at the hotel, stayed one night, and in between kleenex and lots of moist towelettes for my grungy hands, wandered aimlessly around the neighborhood the next day. We missed our night train by 4 minutes but were luckily able to exchange our tickets for 1/2 price, get new ones and catch the next train less than one hour later. We geared up for our 40 hour train trip across India from Mumbai to Calcutta, met our neighbors, two local Indian men, one local woman and her good-natured child, talked a bit, and then got ready for bed. We were in what is called a 3AC, basically meaning there are three beds facing three more in an open "compartment," in an air conditioned train carriage. The top two beds on both sides fold away for the day and everyone sits on the bottom two beds, which of course become two bench seats. Luggage can be stored and even locked under the seats. Clean (well, India clean!) linen and a blanket are provided for each bed, which proved to be just enough to satisfy the comfort level, even in an air con train in the middle of the night. It was a hard, long night, hacking, sneezing and going through boat loads of tissue.

The good thing about having a bad cold on a long distance train (especially if you have the top bunk, which luckily I did!) is one can just lie down the entire day and not have to feel guilty about doing nothing. So, that is exactly what I did. For the entire day two the only time I got out of bed was to head to the loo. Otherwise, I read, sniffled and slept. I never even had the energy to look outside and see India passing by. The morning of day three got us closer to our destination, and by early afternoon, we arrived in Calcutta. The three hearty train meals, chai (tea) and coffee we ordered on day two cost us a total of 100 Rupees each, which converts to just under 85 cents a meal (drinks included).

Left NYC on Jan 30, arrived in Mumbai nearly midnight on Jan 31, and by Feb 4 I was in Calcutta, on the other side of the massive country of India. I was pushing to get to Bangladesh to work yet another Hands On project, number 5 out of 6 to be exact. At the time of writing, I have been in the country and at the project for exactly a month. I plan to stay until the end of the deployment, which has been extended until the middle of April.


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