Monday, April 13, 2009

Pappu ka Amrica Safar...Part 1(Chala pappu Amrica ...On the Way to Uncle Sam's Country)

Well in this post I am recording my first overseas visit. This is the visit to Greenville, South Carolina, US for my current project. Let me start from Visa process, well I had be on business visit(for a period of six weeks) so the Visa guys in my office asked for the documents and it was then discovered that my passport was expiring soon. Actually to get a US business visa you need the passport to be valid at least 6 months from the date of anticipated travel. I was one step behind and I needed to renew my passport. The renewal of the passport is itself a story which can become a separate post altogether. Omiting that part I got my passport ready after which I got my schedule to visit the US consulate office in Chennai.

I was briefed by the Visa team in my office about the Visa interview etc. And then I proceeded to get my Visa in Chennai and Thank God the whole process went uneventful and smooth !!! So the first step was done I had Visa for US now I had to shop some essentials and warm clothes as it was winter and Greenville was supposed be cold. The shopping part was mostly done by my parents with some contribution from me as well. Now we had everything shopped from sweaters/jackets to underwear to rice to medicines to some basic masalas almost everything was done. It was time for packing here again my parents chipped in with their years of travelling experience. So i was all set to travel with all my bags packed and all documents, dollars(this was first time I had any other currency other than INR :) in my wallet) everything in place.

The flight was at 3.30 AM but I was to be at airport minimum 3 hours ahead and this being my first international travel I didn't want to miss the flight so got the cab booked for 10.30 Pm. The cab reached airport by 11.30 and as that was post 26/11 so there was great amount of checking and frisking near the airport. Actually it looked like war zone with paramilitary forces posted in sandbag covered bunker and automatics weapons etc. As I reached almost 4 hrs before the flight I was not allowed into the airport for security reasons. Though I was a little irritated but as it was for our security I waited outside and must say was feeling sleepy. But had to be awake as i was travelling alone I had no one to look after the luggage. Around midnight I got into the airport and while check-in the Lufthansa guy asked for window or aisle seat but I was too engrossed in filling the immigration form that he did his own selection :(. Next was the passing through the Indian immigration. The guy on counter seemed to be pretty cheerful he greeted with a smile and asked routine questions and stamped the passport. Then after the security clearance I was waiting for the Flight to Frankfurt. Let me mention here I was flying from Bangalore to Frankfurt then from there to Chicago and from Chicago to Greenville my final destination. I was really excited that I will be actually boarding an international flight and my heart was pounding in anticipation of finally getting to see some foreign(German) air hostesses. Likewise the crew first boarded the flight with a few pretty air hostesses. Once again I was lost in thoughts trying to figure which one will be serving in my seating area. Then they announced the boarding of my flight it was first the First class/Business class passengers then we the Economy class. Now it was time to come face to face with the air hostesses(aha..) but to my disappointment a little plump lady was welcoming at the gate. Anyway I had the whole journey ahead so went searching for seat found it to be an aisle one. I was cursing myself for not having opted for the window seat it was the first overseas travel and had to be by window seat to see beautiful sights below from the window.

Anyway opportunity once missed is gone forever so i settled into my seat and as usual people were coming in and no good air hostesses around i was hoping at least some nice(beautiful European or American) co-passenger would take the seat beside me. It was only a hope a damn hope which got turned down as a old guy and his old wife stood in front of me looking for the
seats next to me. With the air hostesses not being to my expectation, I was wondering what happened to the beautiful ones that had boarded.... maybe they were serving the First Class/Business Class after all they pay more fares don't they.

After the standard procedures the plane took off and pappu was finally off to America.The captain welcomed us and announced that the flight will take about 7 hrs to reach Frankfurt. The chief of the cabin crew announced that a small snack followed by a dinner and finally a breakfast will be served. Dinner in morning sounded very funny but I must say fun had just begun as I was travelling back in time. They put on the entertainment programme on tv but didnot give any headphones so i was trying to lip read the actors in the movie. Soon after 'dinner' most people went to sleep but my body was revolting as it was time to 'wake-up' back home and so i was wide awake trying entertain myself with lip reading the TV. BTW this was turning out to be a very long day for me as it was a working day so I had been to office by day and travelling by night. It was still around five and half hours to destination so i tried to sleep. I woke up and it was just an hour or so i had slept. It was really disgusting as the TV was showing just information about cruise altitude,outside temperature, time at destination etc...sometimes it was changing to a map showing the flight path and to add to it most of the passengers were snoring. Out of boredom i guess i started dozing off, this way i spent another hour or so. By now the old guy next to me starting speaking to me as he was also not able to sleep... atleast I found some company. I came to know that he's a German and had retired from his job as a government servant and was in India as a part some NGO to do some voluntary work. He and his wife go around the Third world coutries doing this social service. It was good to know that he liked India and its peculiarities. Once the breakfast was over we were ready for landing in Frankfurt. Thank God finally the first lap of the journey was ending. I walked down the steps of the aircraft and for the first time I saw the huge plane that had flown us from Bangalore to Frankfurt. The outside temperature was -3C and for the first time in my life I understood what it feels when you walk in sub-zero temperatures. The walk from the plane to bus was truly 'chilling', I almost ran to avoid freezing.
Frankfurt International Airport is really big and I had to walk miles (not really but it was about 3-4 Kms) before I reached the terminal for Flight to Chicago. Here I cleared the German immigration, the guy at the counter looked like a desi. Then there was security clearance after which I was at the gate where the actual flight was to leave for Chicago. All this walking and excitement of immigration, security check etc made me feel hungry. It must have been lunch time in India but in Germany it was morning. There were some food stalls at the gate but they charged in Euros and I was having Dollars & INR then I searched my backpack found 2 apples and Britania Cream Cracker biscuits packed by Mom. It was good enough for me. The waiting here was about 3 hrs but the transit to this gate took about an hour so I was to wait for two more hours. While waiting at the gate I was watching many desis/videshis some waiting like me, some sleeping, some chatting, One Mongolian lady, don't know whether Chinese or Japanese was clicking pics of her kids and herself and I was missing my camera which was packed in checked-in luggage. There were glass panels and you could see the activity outside like it happens in most of the airports in India also. Then came the giant aeroplane.... my god it was really huge, huge wings, large engines it was awesome. In the morning I could not see the whole plane but now whole of it was in front of me, this was Airbus A-320 I think the morning one was a Boeing. After it docked the ground staff started their work the huge engine blades looked majestic. This was the craft which would take me to US.

Once again I boarded my second plane of the day but this time airhostess at the gate was better and I felt maybe this could be my day. On entering the Economy Class section I saw the airhostesses were better and seats were nicer and they had personal TV screens I was overwhelmed. well well I probably will not have to lip read this time :).As I put my luggage in the compartment above I heard a sweet voice from behind "Excuse me Can you help me please" i turned I saw a beautiful girl asking for help with her heavy bag. I immediately picked up the bag stowed it into the compartment above with a smiling face. She thanked me for it. I was thanking the stars that finally I would have a good company and she sat on the seat across the aisle. I was contemplating on the prospects of starting a conversation etc. etc.... But as they say you cannot have all good things together, she seemed to have sat on the wrong seat and she moved to a seat two rows in the front :( :'( . The captain of the flight announced that it'll take about eight and half hours to reach Chicago. i thought this would be a longgggggg... flight and the flight would be across the Atlantic. As the airhostess gave the headphone I started the programmes in the personal tv. It had English movies, English music videos, Tamil movies, Hindi movies, Tamil and Hindi videos among host of other things. While browsing through the movies I could not find anything worth watching and after weighing different options I went for a Tamil movie "Yaaradi Nee Mohini" with English sub-titles. The lead actors were Nayanthara and Dhanush, it was a nice movie. Then I watched "Wall-e". In between meals were coming and I was walking upto the airhostess station for a drink or two in all the journey went well. As for that girl the seat beside her was empty and she made a cosy bed with the two seats and was mostly sleeping. Till then it was almost 17 hours I was travelling and my watch was still tuned to German time which I adjusted in Frankfurt to keep track of the local time. I again changed the time to Chicago time. In India it was late evening by then, in Frankfurt it was late afternoon but in Chicago it only about noon. In about an hour we were landing at Chicago before landing the cabin crew distributed the I-94 and customs declaration forms which were to be filled by non-immigrant visa holders entering US. I goofed a couple of times while filling the form and then could finally fill it correctly. After getting down from the plane I was directed to the US immigrant services. Naturally I was little nervous after all first international travel. I was waiting in queue for my turn and the lady before me seemed to be Spanish or French and the officer had tough time instructing her for the biometric verification process. When my turn came the officer greeted me asked very routine questions like why you are in US, which company you work for and how long are you going to stay etc. Then he asked me to stand in front of a webcam so that he can take a picture, probably i was pretty serious he said "A smile would be appreciated sir, it'll look good on our records" and I smiled, he clicked a picture and returned my passport after stamping the duration of stay. The guy seemed to be having a good sense of humour. Now I was to take my checked-in luggage so I was eagerly waiting for my luggage to appear. A number of luggage misplace stories were doing rounds in my head but finally both the bags appeared. I passed the customs and was to re-checkin the luggage and the lady near the conveyor said something i couldn't understand it was my first direct contact with typical US accent. Then she said "Hey man leave the trolley and go that way" is what I could gather ;) . If Frankfurt Airport was big Chicago O'Hare Intl Airport was huge you need to take a train to go from one terminal to other. Ultimately Pappu was in Uncle Sam's Country but still far away from my final destination.

In train I could see snow outside, this was my first live view of snow, the snow covered cars etc looked great. After reaching the domestic terminal I had to pass through security check where you have to take off your shoes and belts. Here I had to board a United Airlines flight to Greenville which was about 5 hours later so I had about 4 hours to spend. On reaching the right gate for the Greenville flight, hunger and thirst gripped me so I was looking for food and water, after searching I found fruits were the best option as I was not aware of the stuff being served in the different food stores there. As I was waiting I was seeing around watching the people of 'US'. A desi family was also waiting for a different flight, it was a typical Desi family with husband, wife, kids and mother-in-law. The entire family were speaking in accent except the mother-in-law. The adults were constantly arguing about something and they were speaking Sindhi I felt. One of the American Lady passengers asked the kids whether they were triplets one of the kids replied two of them were twins and he was separate and older than them. Meanwhile people were coming and waiting for sometime then boarding their planes and new set of people were coming it was looking like a busy railway station only more modern and clean. Finally Fatigue had started to seep in as it was almost 24 hrs since I had set out and it was actually time to sleep back home but here it was broad daylight. At this juncture a Mongolian woman started enquiring about the Greenville flight which was supposedly delayed by 30 minutes it was for the first time I heard someone asking about Greenville flight. Naturally I started to speak with her and came to know that she was from Philippines and coming to US to visit her relative who lives in Greenville. Meanwhile she told since we have some time for the flight why not go for walk and see around the airport and we started walking. This was her first US visit as well. We returned after a while and saw nothing written in displays for the Greenville flight. On enquiring we learnt that the gate for Greenville flight had been changed and we rushed to the new gate. It was already dark outside and while boarding the flight I once again faced the cold and wind it was freezing in Chicago as well. When I saw the aircraft I was suprised by the size it was tiny even compared to the low cost carrier Air Deccan plane, inside they had only 2+1 seating arrangement and in luggage compartment I couldnot fit my backpack and I was told to stash it under the seat. The airhostess a fat old lady confirmed that this flight was going to Greenville because another flight to Charlotte was being boarded beside simultaneously. Finally the plane took and while plane was taking to sky I could see why Chicago was on of the busiest airports in the world. There were so many aircrafts taking-off and landing simultaneously.

The flight from Chicago to Greenville was 1 hr 10 mins... in flight they serve soft beverages. Once I landed in Greenville I was extremely tired and was eagerly wanting to reach the hotel. Our onsite Transition Manager Kevin was there to recieve me at the airport. When I went to take my baggages I found the bigger bag's trolley was broken and the handle damaged. Kevin told that we can complain with the airlines and we'll get a new bag or compensation but i don't know why I was not in mood to wait anymore i said its ok we'll move. We reached his car and after loading the luggage in car-booty I started moving towards the left side of the car and was reminded that I ought to be on the other side as its 'US'. My first adaption US environment was vehicles there are left-hand driven. The moment car started moving onto road it was more confusing as vehicle were plying on the opposite side road as compared to India. Kevin was telling me about Greenville and we reached the hotel. In US to check-in to hotel you have to swipe your credit/debit card which will be charged once you finally check-out of the hotel.

Somewhere I had read America runs on plastic money I got a taste of it but my cards were not working due to some reason so Kevin swiped his card and told that if we can fix my cards then it'll be charged to my card. Finally I moved into the hotel room and quickly made a call home to inform about me safely reaching. I was not very sure about time and day back in India because in US it was still the same day 10th Dec 2008, 9 PM after 27-28 hrs.
This is the end of the first part of the series in my next part I'll talk about my stay in Greenville, South Carolina...
to be continued....

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