Friday, May 29, 2009

Dallas Diaries, Part 1 - Blunders and Wonders

[Day 0 - 16th Saturday, 2009]
More packing. Looks like I purchased one cabin baggage trolley, which was of the same size of the one I already had.
I went for a haircut first thing in the morning. Possibly, this would be the last haircut for the next one month.
Then went around looking for sugar cubes. Looks like the vending machine in Dallas is one of the kind - drink it once, dont even think about it again type.

The cab to pick me up was booked at 330PM. But finally it arrived at 4PM and I was out of the home (after a series of packing-closing-opening-rechecking exercises, which my roomie can tell about better) by around 430PM.

At the Bangalore airport, the Jet Airways lady took my money and gave me false info - moey and upgrade to a first class flight (I thought, why not, also) and then she said the baggage will be collected from JFK and will be transferred to the AA bounded to DFW by them. On Clarification with Nishant, I got to know that it was wrong, and the baggage has to be collected from Jet Airways at the Point of Entry for me, that is JFK, and do the customs check before I can check it in to the AA airlines.

The flight from BIAL to MAA (Chennai) was on time. Flying premiere class for the first time. Everything has its first time, and looks like, my series of firsts just started there. Straight when I got in I was served with some mango juice, fresh, and not in a carton. Then I was given a fragrant cold towels (more about this later, too, which I confirmed was just a face wipe, looking at my nearest co-seater.

Menu was provided soon, and then came the food, served in a visually appealing platter. A sandwich, pieces of cake, sliced mangoes, apple and orange, with a cup for coffee. Food was tasty, so I started taking it slow. Before I finished everything and reached the cake, air hostess reached back asking if she can clear the tray. I nodded not thinking about it, and there it went off, my first first class meal, half unfinished. With a mixed feeling of guilt, I let it go.

I reached Chennai airport around 815PM. Chennai airport is a mess, this I have noticed on my last visit here, two days before, for the visa interview. I deplaned the exuberant and exotic Jet Airways Premiere class, thus. The privilege members were allowed to deplane first, and were picked up in a seperate bus - 8 folks in a bus, what a waste of fuel. I guess, economy and ecology is the last thing on the mind when you are in the "high" society!

I checked at the airport how to get to the international departure, and I was asked to take a separate gate outside the domestic arrival exit. I walked with my trolley and bag, and got my passport and boarding pass ready, just like a shield from the Indian red tag procedures. I walked past the domestic arrival exit, a hundred meters and saw a board - entry. I walked in, a security, like in the usual way checked my ticket and my photo ID - passport. Only after getting in I got to know that I had entered the international terminal, and passport was not checked as an ID purpose, but for the first time, the passport was used for its own, real good reason!

There were flocks of people, like sheeps. Most of them looked Tamilians (probably to Malaysia or Singapore) and a lot of Malayalees (to Dubai). There were bustles of people filling up some form, which I failed to understand what. I checked around for Jet Airways counter and no one was there. I found the nearest person with a Jet Airways print on the T-shirt and he said the counters will be open by 9.15PM, which was another good 15 minutes. So I waited. Finally two ladies, with laptops came and took up the post before entering the checkin counter, like the "kavada palakar". They took my boarding pass for MAA to JFK flight, which I got from BIAL. They verified the passport and ticket and asked me what reason I was flying, I said 'business'. She scanned my passport and sticked something on the back of my passport. Then I went ahead in the queue and got the emmigration clearance form (aha, now I know what these people were filling).

Pouring flesh and blood to the form was pretty straight forward, albeit I made some mistakes. Most of the DDMMYY entries had two boxes of larger size, which got me confused. So I went ahead and got another form. This one, I had a concern about my port of final destination whether to be written as JFK or DFW. Jet Airways crew said JFK, which made me even more confused. So called up Nishant, yet again, and he said it doesn't really matter. Finally, I wrote it as DFW (Dallas airport) and proceeded to the immigration clearance queue.

I landed in front of the immigration clearance officer, a lady. She scourged through my passport and visa, and asked me for what reason I was flying. I said business. She asked me what business. I said I am an engineer with Texas Instruments, and I am going there to attend customer meetings. Looks like she was not convinced. May be she was wondering, what a school kid was doing about business and that too customer meetings. She anyways asked me for my invitation letter. I had to unlock my briefcase and take all the documents and hand it over to her. She, finally stamped it, and still I guess, for her the suspicion had not gone away completely.

Next step. Customs declaration. I went to the customs officer and said that I have to declare stuff that I am carrying, and he said not needed. I said I have more than 20,000 rs worth of stuff, and he asked me what all, and I said laptop, camera, media player, headphones.. He said its all allowed. He even said there is a board outside immigration clearance which said these things are allowed, but I was wondering why it was not put at the customs facilitation desk. When I insisted, he said I have to produce the bills for the same. I had for the laptop and he said he needs customs clearance letter, which I did have, from my company. He said I just need to show the same letter at customs when I get back. What ever be the case he wouldn't just give me the certificate. I did clarify with Anand and Vibhore amidst and found out that infact they are entitled to give me the form and signed, and there was no clause about original bills anywhere in their website. Its all about how to get bribes at the customs while returning, I guess, was the deal.

So the round about way, I wanted to try once again. An hour after this initial "hungama" I went back to the customs facilitation counter, expecting that the previous officer would have been off duty and another chap would have come in. But, unsurprisingly, they were all birds of the same feather. I said that I read through the website and all, and still they were not giving me the letter. I asked what if i carry a second laptop (which is allowed by customs norms), they said I'll have to pay duty on it. What the f***K.

Finally I decided to chuck it, walk through the green line, undeclaring all items that I have. And see how it goes. Looks like, better option is to avoid chennai while returning and making it via Bangalore.

I was tired and sick of the fight with the customs folks. I waited in "thrishanku's heaven" for some time, after immigration, before security check for a while. I saw there was a Le Meridian in there, and could recognize a few faces in there, by the window as the same high society people who were there in the premiere class from BIAL to MAA. I moved on.

I was in the security queue, just like that . Queue was long enough, with the same flock of people that I saw at the entry to the international terminal. Security check was brief, as my friend said, they really don't care much about security till the point they can cash it in as bribes, is what I really felt.

The point beyond security check, I thought, would be better. Bad guess! It was just the same, dirty and crowded. I walked around book shops, where books were bounded by a rubber band across them, and a board haning from the roof, which said "No Free Reading". So I decided it was not an option to spend time. I gave into a seat and started battling the buttons with the PSP.

The departure was finally announced, initially asking people with disabilities and infants to board, which was (supposed to be) followed by calls for initial seat numbers and so on. What I heard finally was a boarding call for just everyone, and not just that, the queue was the same for another flight to Singapore. After the boarding check, queue parted into two, one going into the Singapore Airways bridge and one into the Jet Airways 9W 0226 to JFK via Brussels.

9W 0226 is an airbus 350-220, about which I had done a google before hand. It was a big flight. Two storied. I crossed through the luxurious busniess class, thinking when would be the the time I fly a busniess class in an international flight. Then comes the economy class, not much better than a bus full of people. With a 2-4-2 seat arrangement, it was fully packed. I even had trouble to find space to put my cabin baggage near me. Many were asked to deposit the bags far away from the seats. But luckily for me, it didn't come to that.

I reclined into my seat 27A, a window one. I waited for my co-passenger, hoping if not a good looking girl, never a snoring old man. But luckily or unluckily I didnt get both. Seat next to me was empty.

My seat was just behind the wing, the span of which amazed me. It seemed very delicate, rattling and shaking all the while during take off. Finally, the flight did take off.

The entertainment system in Jet Airways is good. I went through the movie guide and found movies like Benjamin Button, Reader and Milk among the list. I found Rock On and Fashion in the Bollywood movie lists.

A while after take off, refreshments were served. I ordered for an Italian pizza from the menu and a cognac with ice and soda as a drink. Finishing that, and asking and re-asking for a blinds, I finally got one. I watched Fashion the while I was eating and drinking, and then changed it to some music, hooked in my Bose headphone with its airplane dual jack pin. I really wanted to be awake when the plane really left India, and so me as well, for the first time.

It was flying over Karachi, and before I got to feel that, I slept off. When I woke up around 530AM, I was some where over Azerbaijan, after crossing over Dubai and Esfahan (Iran). I was awake for a while, and looked down at the blinking lights down below. Lights, unlike in Bangalore, and MAA, I found them to be very segregated and widely dispersed. Probably its the perspective, flying at 30000ft. I again fell asleep.

In a while I could see the Caucasus mountain range, cladded in snow, passing which we were over the Black Sea. I could see where the land ended, with a brief golden yellow line showing me the beaches, finally transitioning to the placid, deep, disinteresting blue of the Black Sea.

I got one of the cabin crew members to fix up my laptop charger so that I could do all this blogging and now I am flying over Bucharest, after getting to the land, after Black Sea, just after Constanta. I guess that's it for a while. I have a juice to finish, and a few movies to watch. I do feel bad of not having a tooth brush. Should I ask for it to the cabin crew, again?

At around 11AM (730AM Brussels) time, the flight landed in Brussels, after flying over Rome. The Belgian countryside is amazingly green. Just the view of the same, during landing made me love it so much, that I said, this is one place I want to live for some time in my life. While descending, instructions were given that everyone, even the ones to continue further to JFK, needs to deplane at Brussels. It also announced specialties of Brussels Airport. Looks like if Belgium is famous for chocolates, Brussels airport is the biggest chocolate seller in the whole of Belgium.

While getting down, I got acquainted with a fellow traveller, an Indian expat to the US. The security queue at Brussels was very long. You had to go through the whole deal of baggage scans, taking laptops out and so forth. Now, at the point when I was crossing the scanner, it didn't beep at all. A Belgian lady at the security started shouting around. I was surprised why. She asked me to collect my baggage and follow her. I did so. She got me to a man, a security personnel. He said this was a random pick for security check. How unsurprising. He checked me thoroughly, then asked me to open my baggage. He checked through everything and finally he kept them back in, in proper order (I don't think Indian version of the security wouldn't even think about it). He wished me a happy journey and I moved on.


Lounge at Brussels International Airport

The flight was in Brussels for 2 hours, approximately. I walked into the lounge of the airport - a big, and thoroughly clean one. Walking across a supermarket sort of store, I remembered about the toothbrush. I picked up one and a paste for some 10euros (600rs), and paid it by the company credit card. In between an old lady came and asked me if I speak Hindi, and I said yes. She wanted to buy a toy, and know if they shop accepts Indian Rupee. She wanted me to ask them in English and let her know. They said they do not. Then the old lady wanted to know the price in Canadian Dollars, and I got the information from the shopkeeper. But I could not convert 17 into Hindi. Fumbling, I said 'bees se teen kum'. The man next to me said, 'satrah'. The shopkeeper thanked me for the translation task and asked me to brush and go back to them, so that they can put it in a sealed envelope. I got back and waited at the 'side' of the counter, thinking they would just give me the cover for it, showing the Indian habit of jumping the queue. Then I realized, stood in line, and got my cover, and they sealed it inside, finally.

Another one hour of waiting at the airport, i thought of calling home, and finally thought not to do so, since it might be expensive. Finally, I got back into the flight, and we are now off into the air, another 7 hours flight. Now the flight is over London. Bright sunlight and I can not see anything on the ground.

After crossing over Ireland, it was all Atlantic ocean for a long time. Because of the radiant sun shining over my window, I had to keep the shades down. I finished watching a Tamil movie - 'Abhium Naanum' in between. After boarding from Brussels, there was someone in my next seat, a good looking girl. My lucky day?

New York

A view from JFK Airport

Just an hour before touching down at JFK, the breakfast (or lunch or even snacks depending on your time zone) was served. It was kebab, a pretty good one. My co-seater after the 6.5 hours of the 7 hours flight finally broke the ice. She asked me if NY was my final destination, and I said it was not. She was flying to LA. We talked quite a lot, and found out that she was a undergraduate student at UCI. She is an American born Gujrati, brought up in Coimbatore. Her name was Pooja. She even dropped me her email id. Upon exiting the aircraft we took the way out together. We walked out together quite a distance, and finally parted at the immigration clearance counter, where there were different lines for US citizens and visitors.

The immigration clearance was simple - the officer took my I94 form and stamped it for my entire 90 days, upon me answering that I am in the US for a business purpose.

I was supposed to meet Pooja at the baggage clearance counter. But she wasn't there. Looks like she had moved ahead for her next flight to CA, sooner. I walked out, took my bags, got a trolley paying it via AMEX. At the lounge, I met my cousin Varun. He looked no different than what he looked 1.5yrs back when he left for NY.

We both found our way out, and decided to take the air train out to the NY Subway station at Howard Beach. The air train was free for airport transit people. It was clean and well maintained. At Howard Beach, I finally touched a tarmac outside India. I took some photographs and then got a 20$ metro card for the subway transit. This was for 7$ to get out of the air train station, and another 5$ to board the train. The subway station was an okay one. Train was wretched. It was far worser than the Guwahati-Yashwantpur train I had travelled some time back. In the train there were huge and intimidating blacks, and two black girls playing all circuses. We went over a bridge that spanned over the sea, saw many housing lanes, and got back at one station. That station reminded me of the bleak, dirty, gloomy subway stations of NY depicted in Max Payne the game, and many a movies. I took some photographs of that anticlimactic incident.

Airtrain of NY

NY's subway

NY was cold. I had to wear my sweat shirt. Then we boarded the train again. At Howard Beach, we went out looking for food, but could not find and decent restaurant, other than a meek looking Chinese one, and a pub. So we decided to move on without taking any food.

A street at Queens, N Y

There, I said good bye to Varun, and boarded the air train once again, to terminal 8. While asking for the way to one person who looked very much Indian, I found out that he was in fact Spanish. Then I got into the right train and got down at the right terminal by around 3.30PM NY Time. I went to the reception, and asked how to change my Jet Airways issued boarding pass to a real boarding pass from AA. I was given the way to the counter, and I got it done, finally. Then again I went back to the reception, and asked where I should go next. She said the flight is at gate 1, and asked me to proceed to the security check.

In US, security check is very stringent. You have to even take off the shoe. I had put laptop, my jacket and shoes in one basket, and the security officer told me I have to put it back for check once again, keeping laptop in a separate tray. I did that, and finally I was inside the NY airport. I saw that there was no distinction between international and domestic terminals.

I walked around looking for Gate 1. Amidst got a coffee again on my AMEX card. I also bought a $10 t-shirt that said NY, just as a souvenir. I checked if my Clay connection was finally active, and was able to make a call to Praneeth. He said after me reaching the hotel, I can call him up, and go for a dinner together. Veera was there with him.

My flight to DFW (Dallas Fort Worth) is at NY time 6PM. It should reach Dallas in around 4.5 hours.

DFW Airport

I reached Dallas at 9.15PM Dallas (Central) Time. DFW Airport is big. It is the third busiest airport in the world. I had to wait for a long time to get my baggage. Finally, after walking around for a cab, I got one. The driver did not know the address of the hotel where I had to go, but he called up their number and got it clarified. That was a $50 ride.

Hilton Homewood at Markville

My accommodation was arranged in Hilton Homewood Suites. The hotel is good. It is full of people from my same office.

Room at Homewood Suites

The hotel room was exotic, more like a house with a drawing room-dining room-kitchen, a bedroom with an attached bath, and a changing room. It has all the necessities from TV, to refrigerator, to microwave to iron box!

I called up my friend Praneeth, as soon as I checked in the hotel. He came out to pick me up and we went out for the dinner together, and finally I got to travel in an Audi! The restaurant we went for dinner was a nice place. I ordered coffee and omlette. The omlette was so big that I couldn't finish it. It was omlette, filled with chicken and lot of vegetables. Praneeth, my friend, dropped me back at the hotel by around 12 in the night. Without much effort, and jet lag, I fell asleep, just like that.