Anatomy of a disastrous Indian vacation, part 1

I just came back from a vacation. Make that a typically Indian, ridiculously, disastrously, catastrophically, wtfically craptacular vacation. A vacation brokered and broken by Kingfisher and Spicejet. In the words of Maddox, if foggy Himalayan hill-stations and fresh mountain air were the twin towers of enjoyable vacations, Kingfisher and Spicejet would be the two planes that crash into them.

Stop.

No wait. Make that, in the words of the legendary Goundamani, “Staaap”.

I just realized that angry ranting always leaves a bad aftertaste, much like payasam that has “caught the bottom” of the cooking vessel. So I am going to describe my vacation in the cheeriest possible way.

It began, like most vacations do, with a Wikitravel search for laid-back, formerly colonial, Himalayan hang-outs and that was when I chanced upon Darjeeling. Finding out that it is now a hotspot for Gorkhaland agitations and has generally become tourist unfriendly over the last decade or so,  I chose it with no further hesitation. I like places that other tourists don’t frequent because I would not want to get in the way of the average tourist tossing his empty Lays Tomato Chilli bag and Mirinda PET bottle into the verdant woods. It would have been rude to be a spoil sport and not participate in this great Indian tourist pastime.

Once the destination was selected, I had to find find some means of transportation to get there, and it seemed like “air” would be a good choice to traverse the 1741 km (1082 miles if your persuasion is distinctly un-metric and 5.64219187 × 10-11 parsecs if your sense of scale is astronomical). Kingfisher promised me that I would fly the “good times”, and that sounded so positive. After all, who would not want to fly the “good times”. The Government of India did seem to insist that Rs. 8000 (out of Rs 11,000) are required as taxes to maintain the excellent, world-class spaceports of Chennai and Kolkata and  the Galactic Headquarters at Bagdogra. I paid up with no hesitation and with full trust in our good government to make those taxes pay for a smooth airport experience.

We reached Kolkata with no incident, and soon enough it was time to board our “good times” flight to Bagdogra, the nearest airport from Darjeeling. As the printed departure time came, had some coffee, made small talk, and went on its way, I started to worry a bit. I walked over to a Kingfisher representative and asked her if we were going to fly the good times to Bagdogra.

She said – “Umm..Er”

I immediately scaled down my expectations – “I don’t necessarily have to fly the ‘good’ times. Just flying the ‘sort-of-ok’ times would be ok as well”

She said – “Er..Umm..Sir, we are yet to announce the departure”

I reassured her that the lack of a departure announcement over the PA system had made that point rather clear, but was there any intention of making said announcement at some point in the near future?

She reassured me that Kingfisher always “intends” to make departure announcements, but those intentions are often tempered by factors such as fog in Bagdogra.

“Aah. I understand perfectly ma’am. Crashing the aircraft because of low visibility would definitely not qualify as flying the “good times”.

So I went back with the satisfaction of knowing that Kingfisher did not consider a crashed landing in Bagdogra to qualify as a “good time”. But soon enough, as the departure time on our boarding cards had generally left the outer boundaries of the Oort cometary cloud, several passengers seemed concerned about this gross deviation from printed reality. And that was when Kingfisher airlines, being the excellent customer-centric organization they are, decided to compensate us with an afternoon tour into a parallel universe. Let me explain that with a diagram.

paralleluniv

It was a dizzy ride so far, but clearly some of the passengers seemed to sour at this point. Perhaps the relativistic effects of cavorting through  parallel, and highly improbable, I might add, universes had something to do with it. They were starting to get agitated, and soon enough, Kingfisher had to tell us that the joyride was over and that they were depositing us back into the real world, back where Flight 4549 from Kolkata to Bagdogra stood cancelled, and passengers were back on the tarmac with vacation plans that would not go for $0.01 on ebay for the paper they were printed on.

I had enjoyed my ride through the parallel universe, and was disappointed that it had to end. But not for long. Some of the Bengali gentlemen on the tarmac were determined to keep spirits (not of the Kingfisher type though) high and decided to put on a skit for all of us. They called it “The Fundamental Right to Fly (and keeping it open)” and it went thus:

Angry Bengali Gentlemen: You cannot cancel the flight like this.

Kingfisher rep: But sir. Fog..

Angry Bengali Gentlemen: You are violating my right as a passenger.

(Repeat ad infinitum)

Wonderful stuff, although it did become a tad repetitive after a while. But they quickly invented a new script. This one was called “I am the Bagdogra Weather expert, not the Met dept” and it went this way:

Angry Bengali Weather Expert: This is bullsheet. Tottal Bullsheet. There is no fog in Bagdogra. I just called my friend there. The skies are totally clear. You people are totally lying.

Kingfisher rep: But sir. We have not got clearance to take off.

Angry Bengali Weather Expert: What clearance. What fog? You people are taking us for a ride or what?

Oh well. I wish they were indeed taking us for a ride, but the plane was stubbornly switched off and wasn’t going anywhere. But nevertheless, other folks got into the skit mood, and we had the pleasure of watching several other ad-hoc masterpieces that were enacted on the tarmac of the Kolkata airport that day. The best of them were:

  • I have called the TV Media, and they will be here any moment. We are going to embarrass Kingfisher in the media”
  • “The Kolkata Tarmac Sit-Down Dharna”
  • “Ratan Tata was first, Vijay Mallya will follow him (out of Bengal, i.e.)”

It was lovely vintage Kolkata stuff. I might not have been “flying” the good times, but I was sure “having” the good times. I thanked Kingfisher heartily for their excellent alternative, albeit non-flying, entertainment options, unlike the dull and dreary Indian Airlines and Jet Airways, which oh-so-boringly announce flight cancellations well ahead of time and deprive passengers of an opportunity to experience parallel universes.

KF also graciously offered us two choices once the tarmac skit festival was over.

1. Take the next day’s flight – An excellent option, but just to be sure, I asked them the probability of the flight taking off the next day, and the rep cheekily informed me that since the collective energy (decibel volume) of the Bengalis demanding to know this answer was so high that it made the actual calculation of the next day’s flight’s position very inaccurate because of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle.

2. Cancel the flight and make alternative arrangements to Darjeeling – An ever better option, but of course, with one catch. KF temporarily arranged to reprint a custom new edition of the Oxford dictionary with a radically altered defintion of the word “Cancel”. Apparently, “Cancel” was now recursively redefined as “Handing over a piece of paper with instructions on how to cancel from yatra.com”. Heady stuff it was.

So option 2 it was, and we made some enquiries on alternative modes of transport from Kolkata to Darjeeling, and since train reservations had become full by the end of the Pliestocene, our options were limited to “Bus” and um..”Bus”. So we went down to the main bus stand in Esplanade and were immediately mobbed by touts. It turns out the the tout to bus ratio in Kolkata approaches infinity on days of flight cancellations. We settled on a particularly sprightly young L’arrangeur de bus who assured that it was a cushioned, breezy 12 hour overnight ride from Kolkata to Siliguri, from where Darjeeling was just a stone’s throw away (provided of course that stone = 3 hours and throw = taxi). We were also promised by our hyperactive tout that our bus was a state-of-the-art Volvo.

It turned out to be a State-of-the-Jamshedpur Tata and the journey took 19 hours.

The rest, in part 2.