Tuesday, November 17, 2009

India - Getting home - not quite as easy as getting there.

There are few pictures in this post - it was either too dark or too traumatic to even consider. At the final celebration dinner Raj had asked me what time we needed to get to the airport. Apparently it was around 45Km (30miles) from the hotel. We had a 4.30pm domestic flight to Bangalore. We were then staying in Bangalore overnight before catching Sunday's 7:50am BA flight back to London Heathrow. He suggested maybe 1pm - I though it would we better if we were picked up an hour earler. I had a rather large bike box to manoeuvre around and get checked in. I did point out that the bike box was rather large and that we would need a reasonably large Taxi.

Just before noon an Ambassador car arrived looking something like this.


To refresh your memories my Bike Box looked like this:


In addition we also have two large suitcases and my laptop bag and a camera. The stress of travel had finally broken the zips on Ben's trusty rucksack (which was well travelled). So he had to pack his rucksack into his case along with all the bits and pieces that were in it. We did not want to check in his rather large laptop though so I ended up putting it in my computer bag along with my laptop and the various travel documents. This meant that my larger camera and camera bag would have to be carried by Ben.

As I picked up my computer bag (well more yanked really) I suffered a (very) minor Intercostal muscle strain - I pulled a muscle slightly in my rib area. The last two weeks of cycling was taking its toll on my body - I would have to remember that I can't just drag suitcases, bike boxes and even computer bags around without thinking about the best way to lift them. Still at least I had Ben with me - who has spent the last few months lifting various vegetables and has developed a bit of extra muscle in the process.

After a few phone calls Raj turned up with Bob and Graham who were both going onto another cycle trip arranged by Bob in Laos. They had come to pick up their stuff and arrange their journeys to the airport later that afternoon. As time ticked by another car was arranged - a larger one. (A good job I had added an extra hour onto the timing.) Nothing turned up - apparently there was some sort of holdup back down the road. So we used Raj's small van - this one actually:


This was taken at the start of the ride - so is not actually at the Hotel in Fort Cochin - but it gives a good idea of the size. The Bike Box went on the top and our two large suitcases were put in the back and we set off - 30-40 minutes late. I hope the check-in process was going to be smoother than this. This is a picture of the Ballard Hotel taken from their website:

Ballard hotel.jpg

Then we set off - the map showing the way to the airport suggested, in my mind, a largish highway. How easy it is to get false impressions. The journey started ducking and diving around the back streets of Fort Cochin before we reached one of the large bridges across the river to Kochi where a lot of traffic tried to get across. In fact we seemed to be stuck in traffic for the entire journey to the airport. We arrived at 2pm instead of the 1pm I was hoping for.

We unloaded our bags said goodbye to the driver and walked towards the Airport Entrance - one bright spot Kingfisher porters came out to meet us and took charge of my Bike Box - they did not seem phased - phew. Because of recent concerns about attacks the security at Indian Airports is quite strict. We had to show our E-ticket paperwork and passports. (I know E-ticket paper work - an oxymoron). It was slightly complicated by the fact that we were both included on the document, whilst my name was at the top and there were a bunch of flights on there. After allowing the Guard to study it - if they turned to the next page I tactfully pointed out the relevant details and mentioned that we were father and son. That seemed to help. Why wait until they turn the page - well that page contained no information apart from all the general conditions and indicated that they were finding the dense paperwork not very user-friendly.

Once in we then had to go though another checkpoint to the Kingfisher Check-in area. Here the luggage we intended to check in was X-rayed before actually going to the check in desk. There was a bit of concern when my Bike box was wheeled along - but obviously the folks at DHB who make it had sized it to fit, just, Airport luggage X-ray machines. All our bags were then "sealed" and we went to the check in desk.

I am not sure why but when porters wheel my Bike Box along we seem to acquire a higher status as travellers. He took us to a desk and immediately pushed in front to two people queueing. This is a very un-British thing to do and I apologised immediately - but given what happened it was probably a good thing that we did not suffer further delay.

They weighed the bags and took them to the "air-side" of the counter. Then a whole bunch of people came over to look it over. Eventually it transpired that they were concerned about the size of the box as the plane was a small ATR turbo-prop plane. We were asked to sit nearby for 10 minutes whilst they checked. After 10 minutes we went back - glum faces - it would not fit. Our check-in lady then suggested we try another airline JetBlue to see whether they could take the Bike Box as cargo. This meant leaving the secure area and going to their Ticket desk - we got short shrift - they did not even seem to want to discuss it. We went back to our check-in lady via security - who scrutinised out documents afresh each time. This time she came with us to the JetBlue Ticket office. They wanted to send us off to their Cargo people but she discovered that there was not a flight on Saturday. By this time we we were getting pretty despondent.

We discussed what to do if we could not get the Bike Box sorted before our flight left - I suggested that Ben fly on without me and he might or might not see me at the BA check-in tomorrow. The downside of cheap tickets is that they were non-changeable/non-refundable. If I did not catch the flight I would lose my ticket and have to buy another one. Still that was easier for me than Ben and he had work to go to on the Monday.

At this point the Kingfisher Check-in lady suggested we sit for 10 minutes whilst they tried to work something out. A porter was sent to fetch us. They had worked out that my Bike Box could go on another Kingfisher flight from Kochi to Hyderabad and then from Hyderabad to Bangalore. It would arrive there at around 10pm that evening so in plenty of time for my 4.50am check in with BA the next day.

Two porters were dispatched to escort us and push the Bike Box back out through two security points up past the domestic and international terminals to Kingfisher's Cargo area. There was discussion about whether it needed to be X-rayed again because it had already been checked and a security sticker was in place. It did - but the machine looked smaller - oh dear we weren't going to fall at this hurdle? Actually the machine was the same size as the one in the Passenger terminal and the Box fitted. Then there was the necessary weighing and measurement to work out how much it was going to cost - 2002 rupees, a little less than £30. I filled in various forms - that do not really accommodate the Tourist traveller stuck trying to unexpectedly ship freight around. I had to make declarations and give a Business Address - all the while one particular gentleman was checking with Bangalore, helping me with paperwork whilst another tapped away on his calculator.

At this point I wondered whether I could pick it up early the next day rather than take it into Bangalore with me (and back) Phone calls were made - of course I could. They checked that their office would be open at 5am. They also gave me a phone number and suggested I ring the Kingfisher Bangalore Cargo area before setting out from the Hotel so the process could be stream-lined.

So I handed over the money - it was pre-paid and walked out to the general area in the Cargo hangar - but before leaving another form had to be filled in and I had to pay 61 rupees (90p) for the X-ray charge to Airport Administration. The Kingfisher Cargo gentleman who had been guiding me kindly paid the 1 rupee as I did not have any change and they all shook my hand and Ben and I headed back to the Passenger terminal with our two Porters. Once again back through two security checks - where we might have been strangers as we got exactly the same level of scrutiny as before. We got checked in, thanked everyone and waited for our flight to be called - phew that was a close call. I could now "forget" about the Bike Box for a few hours until the next day.

A big thank you to all the Kingfisher staff - we were flying on a budget airline - but they provided above and beyond a First-class service. I am going to email their Chairman to congratulate him on the quality of his staff.

Our flight was called and we got a bus from the terminal to the plane. I can see why the Box was going to be a tight fit. The passengers board at the back - and so does the cargo - on the opposite side of to the passenger door and the luggage then has to go though another small door into the hold. The plane itself was new and in excellent condition.

Very soon we were up into the air and despite it being a budget flight - an excellent and tasty snack of two Samosas and Chickpeas was delivered along with (in our case) water to drink. The stewardess was very pleasant and attentive - wow Kingfisher Airlines provide a service that is excellent regardless of the approach. (By the way our tickets were £19 each for around a 400mile journey/640Km). When the Stewardess saw Ben's long legs she offered to let him sit at the front where there was a little more leg room.

Once at Bangalore we collected our bags and before heading to get a taxi I checked at Information to find the cost - the answer was x rupees per kilometre, it took me several attempts at re-phrasing the question to find out how much in total the Taxi fare would cost - around 750 rupees - £10 for a 30mile/48 Km journey.

As we got to the Taxi queue - various Cab touts offered us taxis - but we followed the locals and got a proper Taxi. It took several attempts to get our large suitcases in the boot/trunk though. The journey started well - open roads, seat-belts, no horns beeping - things were looking less chaotic - but it went downhill from there. Our driver swerved off the highway onto a side road and then stopped for petrol/gas - a first for me in a taxi. Then once we were back on the highway we saw cars reversing in the slow lane - our driver pulled in and did the same. Ben and I both cringed in the back seat convinced we would get rear-ended and trying to avoid whiplash.

There was a traffic jam up ahead. Our journey then proceeded along all sorts of twists and turns though dark streets into better areas of town back onto dark streets. Our driver kept talking on his mobile phone and the Hotel name got mentioned once or twice - oh dear - he did not know where he was going. I had booked the hotel over the Internet and was now worried that it was such a dive it was not actually a well known taxi destination. Our driver was a manic beeper and at junctions would pull up on the left of the road with scooters trying to get the jump when the lights changed - he didn't.

Eventually when I had resigned myself to driving around Bangalore for ever we saw a more expensive hotel that I had considered booking but didn't when I realised how little time we were going to be staying. It was close to our hotel though. Then we saw a sign for the Royal Orchid and pulled up outside.

I prepared myself for a nasty taxi fare - which turned out to be 650 rupees - so not a rip-off after all. After going through the hotel security we checked in. They had our booking, I got a welcome letter. Ben and I were asked for our Business Cards. I carry a small number as it can be helpful at Immigration sometimes (especially in the US). But Ben was a bit bemused - "er I am a student". I arranged a car to take us to the airport the next day - 4.30am earlier than they suggested - but I did have a rendezvous with Kingfisher Cargo to worry about.

We then got escorted to our rooms - it had an inviting bed, bath, a big TV, free WiFi and there was a swimming pool in the hotel. Although we would be long gone before its 7am opening.. We dumped our stuff and went off to get something to eat.

The hotel had a buffet restaurant just round the corner - with a mainly Indian clientele - always a good sign. We were ushered to our seats and the waiter introduced himself. We told him who we were, what we did and what we had been doing. He was from Madurai - a great place spoiled by the weather was his view. He brought us two cold beers and chilled glasses. He also brought us some starters and as we wolfed them down some more. An interesting buffet restaurant - they just let us relax.

We then grazed the selection of food - I went for mainly Indian vegetarian - plus some lasagna - it looked so nice I broke the habit of a lifetime. The salad was fresh (had to get some vitamins) - it was a most relaxing place to end what had been a long and tiresome day.

The next morning, I rang the Bangalore Kingfisher Cargo people and then we checked out. I almost had enough cash to pay in Rupees but not quite so settled the bill with a credit card. Ben did mention that he had taken some Immodium - he was feeling a little unwell and since we had pretty much eaten the same food for the last two weeks warned me in case I too succumbed. He was carrying some Immodium supplies as well.

The journey back to the airport started well - the streets were empty, although we had a detour as the way onto the highway was closed. Pretty soon we were close. I asked the taxi driver if he could drop Ben at the passenger terminal and me at the Cargo terminal - but got a non-committal answer. A strange place sometimes the help is fantastic - sometimes crap!

We got out at the terminal and I was pointed down a road by a porter. So I left Ben with the bags and documentation, but no passport and wandered off. He of course was not feeling too good and had to convince the security people to let him in to use the Conveniences. He was then concerned he might have missed me. He also had to explain why he wanted to leave as well - to wait back outside for me.

I trekked up the road in the direction that had been pointed out - it was dark and every now and then asked the way - but got little help. I walked past one gatehouse and then thought I would ask them if they knew the way. It was the way into the compound containing several different Cargo operations. I then had to prove my identity - fortunately I did have my passport and then fill in a form - a bit tricky writing my vehicle registration number/licence plate since I walked there.

I found the Kingfisher place and had the good fortune to meat a chap who had friends in Newmarket (close to where I live) - he proceeded to help me with the paperwork and with visiting the various areas. Although I had pre-paid there was still a local Government Admin fee to be paid. A good job I had not used all my Indian money. We then went to collect the bike box and there it was waiting for me. They let me out of a side gate and I pushed the box (a good job it had wheels) back to the passenger Terminal. We got in through the first security check and as we walked down to the Check in area one of the BA staff came up and walked us there and ticked us off on his chart. It is always a good sign when you are expected.

They did weigh all the luggage - but as we were Business Class there were no extra charges and we went through security to the BA lounge. They were a little surprised that I was carrying two laptops - one gigantic and one tiny.

The flight home was smooth - the entertainment system worked and I watched Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Ben was still feeling rough so did not eat any of the food on the plane. One of our Stewardesses had seen my bike box when she got on the plane - so a good sign it was going to make it.

We landed around 30-40 minutes early and had to get a Bus from the plane to the terminal as soon as it moved off - Ben collapsed to his knees and broke out into a massive sweat he was struggling not to be sick. All the baggage turned up including my bike box from a door near the luggage ramp and we headed back to the Long Term Car Park and then home.

It was a sunny Sunday and the roads were not too busy, people were not beeping and there was lane discipline - what a nice change - in the intervening two weeks most of the leaves had dropped of the trees though. It was a great Cycle tour - but also nice to be home.

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