We were sprawled on benches, chairs and countertops in a restaurant called Celebrations. There were fifteen of us from a half-dozen countries. Some had resigned themselves to fate and drifted into slumber, but it was a painful sleep. Their bodies were twisted and stuffed into agonizing positions to fit onto a bench or a chair. A few stalwarts, including myself, were drinking at the bar and getting angrier by the minute. We wanted blood. We wanted the blood of a man who promised us salvation and then ripped it away.
Our flight from London to Mumbai had been delayed when a passenger suffered a heart attack, forcing us to land in Budapest. For this reason, we arrived around midnight and missed our connection to Hong Kong. Jet Airways officials showed no sign of concern. They simply herded us into a restaurant and explained that there were no flights to Hong Kong until midnight tomorrow. We would have to wait in the airport for twenty-four hours, because Indian immigration would not grant us one-day visas to stay in a hotel. We would not receive any compensation. We would not even be allowed in the fancy lounge with the comfortable chairs and wireless Internet
Of course, it didn’t happen exactly like that. It wasn’t one swoop of bad news, but a long protracted drama in which we were kept in the dark as much as possible, until the gory truth had to be revealed. At first, we knew nothing. Then, the first rumors of the delay crept in. After that, we heard about the problems with immigration. We worked ourselves into frenzy, speculating on our future, until a customer service agent finally descended into the restaurant and delivered the news.
The crowd was rabid. The agent had the appearance of a human being, but her unflinching robotics made me question if she was perhaps a mirage. As she stood, reiterating her sentence, I snuck behind her and poked her gently in the fold of her bicep. Her flesh felt squishy and real, yet she didn’t react to my prodding.
After she departed, they fed us, but we continued to be charged mercilessly for beer. Then, around 6 a.m., those still awake began to buzz with the unmistakable hum of rumor. I poked my head into a group and found out there was a flight to Bangkok in two hours. You could go there and fly to Hong Kong, if you wanted. My cohort and I didn’t care about Hong Kong anymore. We had no business there. Bangkok would work fine.
I located the agent just outside of the restaurant, huddled conspiratorially with three or four other passengers. They weren’t friendly to my intrusion, as seats were limited, but after a bit of finagling I arranged two tickets. The agent left and said he would be back in an hour. We would be spared.
We went to the bar and toasted our good luck. We finished a round and nervously ordered another, followed by one more. Then, the terror struck. No one had wanted to comment on what was happening, as if pronouncing the obvious would make it more real, but finally an Englishman crumbled onto the bar, clasped his hands over his face and violently cursed the agent. “That prick; he’s not coming back,” he said.
We couldn’t find him; they wouldn’t let us past security. We wondered if he had done it just for the sick fun of watching us squirm. But it didn’t matter. It all quickly became a blur.
I slumped onto a couch and oscillated back and forth between consciousnesses like a pinball. The restaurant filled up and the bright lights and clatter of dishes and conversation made it impossible to sleep. I was kicked out of the VIP lounge twice, maybe three times. Finally, I broke down and handed over my credit card. The price didn’t matter; I just wanted one of those black leather recliners. I would have given my life for it. I had been debased beyond the point of recognition.
The Jet Airways officials returned to Celebrations restaurant around six p.m. the next day. They led us, like tranquilized dogs, through a maze of security checks and luggage claims before finally shoving us onto a plane. They are, by far, the coldest, most brutal individuals, I have ever encountered. It seems unfortunate that they have chosen the airline business as their base of operations. It would be much more appropriate if they were employed as enforcers in a Gestapo. I would prefer to be waterboarded and have my genitals mangled by electric shock than ever fly their airline again.
This is the first of a number of posts I’ll be writing about my travels in Asia. Check back for more articles or read my previous posts on West Africa.