Saturday, October 1, 2016

Eventful Travel Travails

here are travels that begin on a note that tell you to prepare for the worst. Of course, as a rational person you do not believe in omens, signs, or any such irrational nonsense. Till all such omens, signs, and irrational nonsense turns into events. Real events. That happen to you.

Earlier this year I had to travel to the United States on business. This meant traveling to several cities, taking several flights, with several layovers, meeting customers, the team, friends, family, and then flying back. In less than ten days, I had to transit via or fly-in to the airports at Washington DC, Newark, Chicago O'Hare, Milwaukee, Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco - basically an airport almost every day. With such a travel itinerary, the best you can hope for is an uneventful journey.
Sometimes it is bad to hope.

The Canary that Wouldn't Sing

The door handle of the VW Beetle (it was black on the car I had rented)
The first call of business was at San Antonio. I would need to come back to San Antonio the next week, and that was another story, but the first port of call was San Antonio. After twenty-four hours or so of traveling in cattle-class, eating as little food and as many fluids as possible (because it is more convenient to do the 'little' thing than the 'big' thing while traveling), all I had energy to do was to pick the car from the rental agency - a nice, canary-yellow, Beetle at that - and find my way to the hotel. After meetings the next day, I packed and was ready to leave for the airport the next morning. An early rise, an early breakfast, and I was in the parking lot, ready to drive the shiny, new Beetle rental car to the airport, and be on my way to San Francisco. Click - went the car remote to unlock the car.

I click, expecting to hear a reciprocal click that would be the unlocking of the car.
No click, no unlock.
I check the clicker.
I check the car.
I circumambulate the car, in an ancient pagan ritual, my nails digging deeper and deeper into the clicker. Again, the dead silence of the clicker greets me in return.
A lady walks by. "Is that your car?"
"Uh huh."
"Someone left the headlights on the last night. I think the battery's drained."
"Oh. Thank you ma'am."

So the remote clicker is not working. OK. No worry. What if I manually unlock the car and try the ignition? Perhaps the car's central locking takes its power from some other place than the battery. I take the key and insert it into the lock. Except there is no lock. There is a thick black plastic cover, similar to the handle, where the keyhole should have been.

Just the slightest bead of sweat has started to form.
On my forehead.
It's cold outside.

Never mind. There's still more than two hours for the flight. The drive to the airport is 15 minutes. A maximum of ten minutes to return the car. Ten minutes to get to the airport. Domestic flight. Lots of time. A quick dash inside to pull out the rental car agency's helpline. Lady answers that they can send a towtruck in about 40 minutes. There was a thunderstorm a couple of days before, so there are a lot of service calls to be attended to. I weigh my options. Agree. And start to wait.

Time is relative. It is neither your friend nor your relative when it comes to crunch situations.

A little over an hour left for the flight. Hope has started to recede, like my hair over the years. Only, hope has receded faster. I call the tow-truck person. He answers that he is on the way. I scout every incoming car, truck, pickup with increasing desperation. The guy arrived at about 6:50AM. Hope starts to unrecede. My hair does not. If he can get my car unlocked and jump-started, I can perhaps, still make it. I calculate the odds. We Indians invented math. But the only number flashing in my head at this point is zero - again, an Indian invention. My heart refuses to see what my brain is showing me.

The person pulls the truck over, gets out of the truck, with a case with him. It is a portable battery and jumper cables. He knows what he is doing, and he has done it hundreds of times before.
My heart floats.
It flits.
It almost flies. Before my flight does, I hope. The car battery's dead. My hope is taking a little longer.

He asks for my car keys. Which I gladly thrust into his hands. He clicks the remote. It doesn't do anything. Of course. He then takes the key and tries to insert it into the lock. Except there is no lock. There is a black plastic, similar to the handle, where the keyhole should have been.

Déjà vu.

He is puzzled.
I am panicky.
An old Hindi song starts to play inside my head.
On repeat.
Out of tune.
It's not even a song I like.

He goes around to the passenger side. Ditto.

He calls up his friend. His friend and he talk.

The clock ticks. In my head. The song plays. In my head. The number zero flashes, like a bright neon sign outside a 7-11 at night. In my head.

He hangs up. He takes a photo of the door handle and WhatsApps it to his friend. He calls back after a few minutes. The tow-truck person converses. He goes back to his toolkit and takes out a screwdriver. He inserts it to the side of the handle, and pulls. The black cap pops off, revealing a keyhole. We both exchange smiles. He inserts the key, unlocks the car, pops the hood, uses the jumper cable to jump-start the car.
We shake hands.
I could hug him.
But I have a flight to catch.
Or so I think.

I drive to the airport, as fast as respect for traffic rules will permit me. I pull into the rental car's parking lot. The fuel gauge reads full. Good. I get out of the car. Take my bags. And walk to the lobby where the bus is waiting. I am halfway there when the bus leaves. That is a sign.

I finally get to the airport. At the check-in kiosk, I swipe my card. It tells me my flight is closed. And asks me to see the ticketing agent. She is helpful enough to put me on the next flight out. It leaves in three hours. I will take that. I will take that.

This is only the first leg of my journey.

(... to be continued)

A Bridge Too Far

Flight of Dreams

Between the Rocky Mountains and a Hard Place

© 2016, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.