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New York to India

A travel narrative



By Max Lent

"Come visit us in India."  Those were the words of my sister-in-law in the winter of 1998.  That is the kind of invitation one has to consider carefully, but not too carefully.  Think about it too long and a hundred sensible reasons not to go will come to mind.  Think about it too briefly and you can get into a lot of trouble.  We had said no to similar invitations from China, Indonesia, and Taiwan and regretted our decisions later.  This was the time.  Either we were going or going to admit that we were never going.  We accepted.

Expectations for India and Nepal 

The "Frommer's Guide to Nepal" described Nepalese as believing the whole world is a toilet.  Another author suggested that you are not ready for India until you are ready to walk out of your hotel and accept that a hundred people may be defecating in the street in front of you.  Then there are the images of Calcutta's poor begging and starving in the streets.  One travel story I recently read told of a perfectly good dinner being ruined by the discovery that a beggar died of starvation while watching the author and a friend relish a spectacular dinner through a restaurant window.  There are the images of disease.  My arms are perforated with needle punctures that will supposedly protect me from "known" diseases.  And there are the pills.  The preventative pills and the pills for things that can't be prevented.  Warnings of pickpockets and thieves come from friends, travel guides, and government agencies.  Some travel guides suggest that it takes a day for every time zone you pass through to overcome jet lag.  If that is true, I will experience jet lag for 10 and a half days after my arrival in New Delhi.  The 17 plus-hour plane ride has been described as torture; crowded, long, boring, and tiny seats.  These are just the highlights.

Friends were ready with horror stories when I told them where I was going.  One friend told me about a fellow executive who was sent by his company to Calcutta.  The executive told his spouse to wait for a call from him before purchasing an airline ticket.  The executive supposedly called home from the airport and told his spouse not to come. 

Rochester to New York City

The trip started with a bumpy, but pleasant flight in a small United Airlines shuttle plane from Rochester, NY to New York City.

When a trip really begins is relative.  Does a trip start when you decide to go on a trip or when you pack your suitcases, when you leave your house, when you arrive at an airport, when you board a plane, when you leave your country, or when you arrive in another country?  I’m pessimistic about when a trip begins.  There are so many things that can go wrong that I don’t feel safely launched into a new trip until I have passed a major boundary like seeing the shoreline of my home continent disappear as my plane heads out over an ocean.  When I am driving, I have cross a border into another state before I feel as though I have escaped.  At the point I feel safe in believing that a real trip has begun.

For me, traveling is a genetic trait passed on from my mother. I see life as a voyage interrupted by periods of the monotony of not traveling.  I'm nearly always ready to take off and go anywhere for nothing more than the pleasure of it.  The problem is that my boredom causes me to spend money as a kind of sublimation for lack of travel.  The result is that I spend less time traveling, become more bored, and spend more money that keeps me from traveling. 

Another perspective is that the trip started when Hilary Olsin-Windecker, my wife Tina's sister, invited us to visit her family in Indonesia more than a decade ago. For lack of money or time or both, we didn't go. Hilary also invited us to Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, and Taiwan. We wanted to say yes to every invitation, but couldn't. Or couldn't justify it. Those were bad decisions in retrospect.

Hilary's invitation for us to spend time with her family in India could be her last and ours.  Someday sounded more and more like never.  Never was not an acceptable option.

Tina, at my suggestion, researched the "New York Times Travel Section" for bargain fares.  I researched the Web.  Tina's fares were cheaper.  It was disappointing to me that I could not find better airfares on the Web than Tina could from a newspaper ad.  Nearly every time we have shopped for international or domestic airline tickets in the last couple of years, we found those advertised on the Web more expensive.  Additionally, the Web-software was impossible to use if we needed to do anything exceptional.  A real, human travel agent was our best resource.  Tina bought her ticket while I was still deciding.  Once I made up my mind her travel agent still had the best rates.  The price range for airfares from Rochester to India, in late 1998, ranged from a high of about $5,000 to a low of about $1,200.  Shopping matters.  The lowest rate I've seen was in 2001 and that fare was $785 from NYC to Bombay.

There were also hidden costs. Although the company I worked for was very kind to allow me to take the time off for this trip, not all of the time was paid vacation time. So, every day beyond my allotted vacation time cost me income while I was simultaneously paying out money to travel.  Also, the longer one is away from work the harder it is to fit in again.  Tina and I took a three month trip one summer.  I was consulting then.  When I returned I had no clients.  This time I would have a job when I returned, but the change rate in the telecommunications industry was so rapid that there was no real guarantee about what kind of situation I would find on my return.

New York to London

The crowd of travelers at the United/British Airways terminal at Kennedy Airport was wonderfully international. The languages and accents spoken, the clothes, the physiognomies, and the piercings were all distinctive and refreshingly different from what a traveler would see at the Rochester “International” Airport. 

Kenndy airport was in need of a major rehabilitation. The dingy lighting, shabby chairs, and worn out fixtures looked especially bad compared to Washington, DC's new National (I know it has another name) airport.  The layover was short and then it was time to board the international flight.

This crossing of the Atlantic was more pleasant than last summer's.  The United plane was much nicer and newer looking than the Continental plane we flew to London. The seats are still too small, but almost every other aspect is an improvement over the Continental flight.

The flight attendants earn their pay on United.  We were served free drinks, including liquor, every few minutes until dinner.

Dinner was exceptional for in-flight food. The food, according to the menu, was "designed by Sheila Lukins" a cookbook author.

The menu was:

"To Begin

Smoked shrimp served with celery salad.

Garden fresh salad with dressing of the day

Main Course

Braised horseradish beef brisket offered with mashed potatoes and creamed spinach

Savory farmhouse breast of chicken served with vegetable rice and southern green beans


Chocolate mousse cake

Not listed on the menu by served were a dinner roll, water, choice of drink, chocolate mint, cheddar cheese, cracker, and after dinner coffee.

The shrimp were small, but numerous.  I could not detect a smoke flavor or hardly any other flavor. The celery salad had good intentions, but it was very tired by the time it was served.

The garden fresh salad was like almost all "garden fresh salads."  It contained iceberg lettuce and came with a little container of very viscous and artificial tasting French dressing. At least it was cold,

The savory chicken was amazingly flavorful and tender.  The rice accompanying it was as good as one might expect from institutional food served at 30,000 feet.  The beans were very good, not overcooked or too raw.

The chocolate mousse cake should have been called something else.  Perhaps a name fitting a tiny piece of not very good cake with not very good frosting.

The outside air temperature was -78 degrees and we were flying at 33,000 feet.  The 3D color LCD display showed that we were over Limerick and that we are less than an hour from London.

I was starting to get tired and it was the start of a new day.  The rest of the day would be interesting in terms of being sleep deprived.  Yawn.


Hot croissant--similar to Pepperidge Farms.

Pineapple and orange chunks

Hard roll--a little tasteless brick

Jelly-anonymous red

Orange juice from concentrate--need I say more?

Coffee--Starbucks or tea

I was to get another breakfast on departure from London.

The night, all couple hours of it was bumpy; bumpy enough to make one, overly emotional woman, scream when we hit a hard bump.  Seeing how much the wings of the plane could flex without breaking was impressive.  It was hard to type during the turbulence, but not unbearably so.  The same woman, part of a trio of noisy women, later woke up a whole section of the plane with raucous laughter.  I saw this same group earlier in the terminal.  One of the women was pouring a fifth of booze into a partially empty cola bottle in preparation of boarding the plane.  Once they were on board they kept the flight attendants busy bringing them more hard liquor and bottles of wine.  These women were serious drinkers.  Their behavior was more what I would expect from crude rude men.  At least they were not as noisy as the group of drunken professional whistlers who whistled loudly from Iceland to Luxembourg on a flight years ago.  That was an unbearable flight.  The drunken women on this flight were just annoying.

My seatmate didn't say a word to me the whole flight.  I didn't know whether to take their behavior as an insult or a blessing.  I accepted blessing.

Shortly after the captain announced that we would soon be landing in London, the women on the plane began preparing themselves for the landing. Perfume and cologne odors permeated the plane.  Allergy sufferers were starting to sneeze and cough.  Cough.

I seem to attract people who like to fly with their seats fully reclined.  This is an interesting behavior.  My perception is that the recliners want to occupy as much territory as possible without caring whether they are being rude to the people sitting behind them.  If I am sitting in three across seating, invariably, someone will sit down in the seat ahead of mine and fully recline their seat for the entire flight.  This behavior is amazingly consistent.  I have seen passengers ahead of me try to eat meals, drink, type with a notebook computer, and read with their seats fully reclined.  Food spilling over their chests, dribbled drinks, and sore necks is not enough to encourage them to move their seats up a single notch.  Under these conditions, using a Palm  personal digital assistant (PDA) with an accessory keyboard is much more functional than a notebook computer.   

London to Delhi

“We are not in Kansas any more Toto.” 

If New York’s Kennedy airport had an international atmosphere, London’s Heathrow was downright foreign. Turbaned Sikhs were visible anywhere I looked.  Most were very handsome and well groomed. Regal looking compared to the Brits who were currently going through a fashion depression.  Anyone under 25 was sewing their bodies instead of their clothes.  Anyone over 30 was frumpy.

England’s poorly maintained infrastructure was evident at Heathrow.  Travelers arriving at the airport are shunted through corridors, past inspectors, and dumped into a large waiting room that was too small to comfortably seat the number of passengers stranded there waiting for their next flight. 

Airports all over the world demonstrate through their design that they have no understanding of the needs of their customers.  They expect passengers who may have been traveling around the clock for days to sit upright in uncomfortable benches or chairs for hours and sometimes days.  It’s like they expect travelers to conform to an advertising agency’s conception of the perfect traveler; a businessman waiting a few minutes between flights.  The reality is more like conditions of portrayed in archival images of Ellis Island.  Everyone is burdened with more belongings than they can carry comfortably to a restroom.  Most everyone is looking for an opportunity to lie down and stretch out after having been crammed into a tiny airline seat for hours and hours.  There were people of every age wondering around singly and in groups looking for a place to rest.  There were infirm people with varying degrees of impairment looking for restrooms, couches, and other services that they won’t easily find.  What is easy to find is overly priced gift shops and food areas.

Imagine what a consumer designed airport would look like.  There would be big comfortable Lazy Boy-like chairs and sofas everywhere.  Attendants would hand out blankets and pillows.  Some areas would be darkened and made quiet for travelers expecting to sleep more than a few hours.  Instead of having to listen for unintelligible speakers announce the arrivals and departures of planes, customers would have a beeper or Palm Pilot-like device that would vibrate or make a sound when their plane was ready for them to board.  Restroom stalls would be large enough for customers to take a luggage cart into.  Attendants would be there to help anyone who required help with their baggage or wheelchairs.  The airport would have a concierge desk open 24 hours a day.  The concierges would answer questions and help travelers solve any kind of problem.  Luggage would be shipped all the way through to a destination.  Having to wait for luggage more than once on a multi-leg flight is unacceptable.  Having to go through customs more than once is also unacceptable.

One of the problems I experienced was finding low fat and low cholesterol foods at any airport.  I don’t particularly like these kinds of foods, but I am required to eat them.  The best that I could find was toast and juice.

My flight was announced, but I almost missed it because I couldn't understand the announcement and the monitors were not at all clear about where I was supposed to go.

It shouldn't be so, but the comfort level of the plane I boarded was better than the terminal.  After taking off it was time for lunch.  Lunch was an indication that things were getting interesting.  It consisted of either Achar gosht or Paneer makhami palak with matar pulao, gobhi masala, channa dal and aloo lajawab and pistachio firni dessert. Sides included lime pickle, yogurt, and a beverage. 

The flight from London to Delhi was different from the previous two flights even though the airline was the same.  With each section of the flight, the experience became more foreign.  There were a large proportion of Indians wearing traditional clothing on this flight.  The non-Indian passengers on this flight looked and dressed differently than the passengers on the previous two flights.  International travelers have a look and a clothing style that separates them from domestic travelers.  I’m not sure that I can describe how they look different or what it is about their clothes, but there is a difference.  Perhaps, everyone I noticed had purchased their clothes from TravelSmith.

Lunch was served over Germany as we headed east toward Iran. The air temperature outside is -70 degrees at 33,000 feet. I mention this because climbers on Mount Everest are experiencing temperatures that are within a few degrees of what our plane is experiencing--an awesome thought.

Vienna was off to our right and Belgrade was just ahead on the left--cool.  The German Alps had snow on them and looked beautiful.  I would show you a photo, but my camera, which was in a carry-on bag got taken away from me and checked.  The decision was made arbitrarily.  A young woman counter attendant singled out my carry-on bag and said that it was too heavy.  Others before and after me had larger and heavier looking bags, but made it through.  Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose.  The Indians on the flight had multiple heavy shopping bags and boxes full of western goodies they were taking back to India.  If I had stuffed my camera bag into a shopping bag I would not have had a problem getting it on the plane.

Belgrade was starting to show up on our route map to our right.  Warsaw was off to our left and ahead. Istanbul was further ahead and to our right.

I've been awake for about 26 hours.  I'm getting a little punchy, but it’s not as bad as I expected.  Duh... I feel like I have been strapped in a 1960s' VW for more than 24 hours and served toy meals along the way.  Perhaps, I am becoming delusional.

Ankara Turkey was dead ahead across the Black Sea and just below us.  It is hard to imagine the scope of history, architecture, and culture that I passed over in the last few hours.

When I fly over U. S. cities or see farmhouses lit up at night I to imagine all of the possible lives being played out below.  When I fly over population centers I try to visualize a summary of the human condition below.  I wonder what all of those people are working towards and why.  From 10,000 feet they look like insects mindlessly working on a hive.  Is that all there is?  It is only at closer proximity that individual lives begin to emerge.  But even on the ground and in an airport, standing next to someone at a urinal, there is no connectivity.  About all one can discern, really, is that they are the same species and probably the same sex.  I wonder if some people can feel the "force."   And, if they do feel something, is it just their imagination?

I know enough about biology to be able to visualize a very broad range of life forms in an ecosystem.  In some cases I can visualize the relationships between the life forms and their life histories.  Sometimes I find this knowledge exciting to know. Other times, I feel as though I sense, but can't describe, something more.  I don't feel the same way about humans.  Perhaps I am too close to the subject.  Perhaps I should take a nap.

Greetings from the Middle East. We just flew over Tehran.  Now Iraq is off to our right and Afghanistan is ahead and to our left.  The Himalayas are just starting to show up on our location topographic map--big, really big.

The sound system on the United 767 and 777 planes is almost worthless.  Watching films is fun using the new 6"X4" color LCD screens, but dialog is completely lost.  Loud sections of films are very loud and soft sections are inaudible.  It's as though they used some kind of weird compression scheme that works the wrong way.  The result is a lack of sound definition so poor that the dialog of movies is only marginally understandable.

Night came and all became quiet in the cabin.  The cabin lights are off.  The soft glow of LCD panels illuminates mostly sleeping faces.  A few children occasionally cry.  The night was imposed by our geography and not by our biological clocks.  The experience must be similar to what astronauts orbiting the earth feel as they force themselves to take sleep periods.

There seemed to be a large number of  flu carriers onboard.  Coughing and sneezing noises spontaneously erupt from time to time.  A few of us walkers pace the isles.  Everyone else is either dazed, asleep or watching TV or both.  Only a little more than two hours remain before we land in Delhi. Whoopee!   

Whenever you are sitting in an airplane and hear someone with a viral infection sneeze or cough, you can count on experiencing the same virus with 48 to 72 hours.  Airplanes are disease factories.  There is no way to avoid the spread of contagion with so many people cramped into such a small space with existing recirculating air systems.  Add sleep deprivation, stress, and being exposed to unusual conditions and you’ve got a cold or flu.  My suggestion, which is grossly inadequate, is to consume vitamin C, Echinacea, Goldenseal, any other herbs that help prevent colds, in large quantities.  Airline induced colds were more of a health problem for me than foreign foods or water.  

Arriving the middle of the night in a foreign city after 24+ hours of sleep deprivation is a bizarre and mystical experience.  Nothing appears usual or looks normal.  Fear of the unknown and the expectancy of the exotic are stimulating and exhilarating even through blurry-eyed tiredness.   

My plane was an hour late.  That meant that my greeters would be picking me up in the middle of their night.  My tiredness would be transferred to them to bear.  While I sleep off my tiredness, fatigue, and jet lag, they went to work and explained the dark circles under their eyes to their fellow workers as the arrival of an international guest.  Everyone would understand.  From what I have heard, most international flights to Delhi arrive in the middle of the night.

Delhi looked from the air as though the city were either very smoggy or that there was a massive fire that created a massive cloud of smoke that hung over the city.  Later, I found out that it was smoke, smog, and fog.   The pollution was the result of massive numbers of very little fires--a few twigs of mostly sandalwood burning to heat a pot of tea or cook food.  In addition to the fires, Delhi has automobile, truck, and bus created air pollution.  As the plane approached the airport from miles out and thousands of feet elevation, I could smell sandalwood smoke in the cabin.  It gave me feeling that I was landing in a country that was one giant hippy head shop. 

The airport as seen from the Window of the plane, looked small and shabby.  The lights of the buildings and along the runway were a dim yellow in color.  This was partially due to the smog and smoke, but also because they were dim and yellow.  The airport lobby was grand in scale, but poorly maintained.  It had the look and lack of charm associated with a government office building or a run down hospital in a Third World country.  The terminal lights were that kind of low wattage bare bulb fluorescent that has a visual spectrum unknown to nature.  Everything looks ugly, dingy, and dirty under those lights.  I could have blinked and assumed that my eyes were seeing an airport in Mexico.  The floors were dirty, really dirty.  There was dust everywhere.  It was swept into piles here and there looking like it had been there for a long time.  I would later learn that there is so much pollution in Delhi that most people have given up striving for cleanliness in the American sense.  There was standing water near the luggage pickup area.  It looked like someone had started to mop the floor and only got as far as spreading water.  The tone of the airport was quiet.  People were speaking in whispers without necessity.

Being met at the airport by Tina and Hilary lifted my spirits dramatically.  There is something oddly lonely about arriving in any airport and not being greeted, especially when one is traveling alone.  Arriving in a foreign country intensifies the feeling of loneliness.  Hilary was waiting for me just past the customs inspection.  Tina was waiting with the driver. 

Oddly, visitors are not allowed in the Delhi airport.  Hilary was able to greet me because of her status of being a diplomat.  Other arriving passengers must find their friends and relatives on the other side of a tall chain link fence outside of the airport and on the other side of the taxi stand.  Seeing hundreds of people lined up and clinging to a chain link fence in a poorly lit area in the middle of the night had all of the charm and warmth of images from concentration camps.  Perhaps, it was the lack of greeters in the airport that made everyone act subdued and quiet. 

There were lots of small black cabs at the airport terminal exit.  Trying to walk through the crowd of cab drivers hawking their services was my first experience with Indian people.  Each of the cab drivers tried to attract my attention and my business.  Being tired and sleep deprived made the experience all the worse.   

Hilary’s driver was waiting for us and helped me put my suitcases in her Japanese minivan.  The drive into Delhi from the airport was a familiar Third World experience.  The streets were lined all kinds of delivery vehicles, parked for the night.  In addition to the wood smoke, the air smelled like diesel fuel and car exhaust. 

One of the first amazingly different things I noticed about about India was almost easy to miss.  Everyone we met spoke English.  Not having a language barrier makes travel much easier and reduces culture shock.

I was on the ground in India and speeding to my new temporary home.  As usual Tina and I had no concrete plans.  We would as we always did, wing it.

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