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Landing in New Delhi

Started: 2015-12-30 19:31:37

Submitted: 2015-12-30 12:29:21

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator spends an entire calendar day in transit en route to India

I awoke on United flight 46 somewhere over the English Channel near the coast of Normandy. I watched the in-flight map as our aircraft flew over France, though I couldn't actually see France under the clouds outside of the window. The fancy 787 LCD-tinting windows reduced the morning sun's glare to a dull spot visible at the highest opacity, but it was still enough to illuminate the cabin more than a more-traditional fully-opaque window shade. (I did not specifically notice the 787's other signature feature, the higher cabin pressure and higher cabin humidity.)

We landed in Frankfurt around our timetabled arrival time of 11:50 local time. (I set my watch to Frankfurt time and didn't bother to check what time it was either back home or in India.) We disembarked and I led Calvin through the airport concourse in search of our departure gate. We walked past the departure gate for the Lufthansa direct flight back to Denver on our way to leave the secured area to catch the roof-top people-mover, which took us to concourse C on the same terminal. We went through security without formally entering Germany (or the EU or the Schengen Area). (I apparently still have enough German blood to pass for German, since the security officer who pulled my hand luggage out for a random trace scan asked if I spoke German or English.)

Lufthansa A380 at Frankfurt
Lufthansa A380 at Frankfurt

I found our gate, with a massive double-decker A380 operated by Lufthansa parked in front and hundreds of Indians milling about in the waiting area. I parked Calvin in front of the window and found food — a pretzel and orange juice for Calvin, a bagel and an Americano for me — and managed to use my chip card as a chip-and-signature card. (My new card allegedly has a PIN, but it's still supposed to be signature-preferred. The main advantage seems to be that I can in fact use the card at unattended kiosks where local credit card processing rules prohibit completing transactions without a PIN.)

Calvin looks at planes at Frankfurt International Airport
Calvin looks at planes at Frankfurt International Airport

We boarded the massive A380 and found our seats at the very back of the plane, in a cozy sub-cabin maybe ten rows long. I was impressed by the sheer bulk of the plane, and the fact that, on the lower deck, the walls were nearly vertical — since the widest part of the fuselage was somewhere around head-height, rather than lower as on a single-deck aircraft (whether narrow-body or wide-body). Calvin had a window seat, and I occupied the middle seat next to him. Our aisle seat was occupied by an older American man who had some trouble getting out of his seat when the seat in front of him was fully reclined — which proved somewhat problematic when Calvin decided, with minimal notice, that he needed to use the lavatory in the middle of the flight.

Lufthansa A380 at Frankfurt
Lufthansa A380 at Frankfurt

After spending an hour and a half on the ground in Germany, and another seven hours on Lufthansa flight 760, I felt my high school German starting to come back. I could remember enough to be dangerous, and pick up parts of the announcements ("Meinen Damen und Herren") — which started in German and were repeated in English and finally Hindi. The cabin crew in my section, though, were mostly Indian, and seemed more comfortable in English than German.

I noticed that our flight path took us further north than the Great Circle route between Frankfurt and Delhi so that we bypassed Ukrainian airspace entirely, cutting instead through Russia. No one — least of all an EU flagship carrier — felt like taking any chances in the skies above Ukraine again, and I wasn't about to complain.

I decided to go to try to sleep on the plane around the time the sky got dark outside, on the theory that we still could get a half-night's sleep before the plane landed in Delhi well after midnight. Calvin went to sleep without much fuss, and I settled in for a few hours of sleep before the cabin crew turned the lights back on two hours before landing to give us a snack (which I wasn't especially interested in eating) and generally disrupt any attempt I might have made at sleeping without really adding much value to my flight.

We landed in Delhi around our timetabled arrival time of 01:30 local time Monday morning. With his normal impeccable timing, as soon as we parked at the gate Calvin announced that he needed to go potty, and it seemed ill-advised to try to talk him into waiting (especially since he'd already had a minor accident disembarking from our flight to Houston — which I didn't fully realize until Frankfurt when I uncovered the true reason the faint scent of urine was following us around). I pointed him to the lavatories at the back of the plane, which worked fine, but delayed our disembarkation even further.

As we stepped off the plane I smelled the distinctive acrid, nostril-filling lung-clenching stench of Delhi — a million cooking fires burning wood or dung or whatever was handy plus a million diesel-burning trucks and buses without effective emissions controls, combined with gasoline-burning cars and rickshaws and other vehicles I can't even identify. It was not, by any stretch, a pleasant scent — but it was, in a weird way, comforting: I knew what Delhi smelled like, and it hadn't changed.

We were among the last people on the plane, and by the time we got to the electronic visa queue it was completely full — there was only one person behind us. The immigration officers did not seem to be processing arrivals very quickly, and the fingerprint-reading machines seemed temperamental, requiring multiple attempts to get all 10 fingers. (My hypothesis was that the machines required a light touch to get a good reading, and this seemed to work fine for me.)

Calvin and I were second-to-last in the e-visit queue. At length we had our passports stamped and we were admitted to the country for 30 days.

I told Calvin it was the middle of the night (in our new time zone — never mind that it was the middle of Sunday afternoon back home) and that we would be going to our hotel to sleep soon, and he asked why there were still so many people working at the airport in the middle of the night. I told him that the people were there for us, and other people who arrived on late flights.

I picked up my bag at baggage claim and discovered, to my dismay, that the telescoping handle would no longer retract, so I couldn't really use the handle at all. This being an Indian airport, though, I had had to trip over at least three luggage carts to even reach baggage claim, so there were several within arm's reach. I grabbed one and dropped my suitcase on it so I didn't have to hobble awkwardly around with it.

I emerged from the customs green lane and found the wall of drivers waiting to meet their parties. I found a driver with my name (as I'd requested from my hotel) who took my luggage cart and led us into the parking garage, where he picked up his Toyota Innova and drove us to Vivanta by Taj - Ambassador, in a leafy neighborhood of New Delhi. (For our initial stay in Delhi, Bethany and I wanted to stay in a nicer hotel to ease our way into India. We spent several times as much as we could have spent in a backpacker hovel in Paharganj, but we had a much nicer time.)

I checked into our hotel room and finally collapsed into bed at 03:30 local time. I was exhausted, but my body clock was still reasonably certain it was the middle of the afternoon back home. Calvin had trouble falling asleep, so I told him to try to pay more attention to the part of him that was tired, than to the part of him that thought it wasn't time to go to bed yet, and that seemed to work.