[Editor’s Note – This happened just yesterday. It is breaking the chronology of my usual posts, but it had to be said. For humanity.]
An Open Letter to the Man in Seat 13A on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 689 from Delhi to Addis Ababa, September 11th, 2012:
I’m sorry. You must have assumed that when you booked a window seat on 3AM flight, you would be able to sleep peacefully without any major disturbances. Perhaps, since you were dressed in a business casual leisure suit, you thought surely this could be your lucky day and a beautiful African woman would grace the seat next to you. Maybe when it reached 15 minutes after boarding closed you assumed you had the row all to yourself. When you saw a haggard, sweaty, possibly sick white boy stampede onto the plane, obliviously swinging his backpack into unsuspecting passengers faces, you must have thought that he would surely sit somewhere else. I’m so sorry I had 13C, the aisle seat, trapping you into 13A.
But you couldn’t understand the day I had!
If only you had maybe the stench would have been slightly more bearable. I’m sure you just want to forget about the horrible experience, but I need you to know, to understand that I did not mean my use of the provided barf bag as an act of terrorism, but out of necessity and out of triumph.
That morning I boarded a bus in Jodhpur at 10AM. The bus was to arrive in Jaipur at 4:30PM. From there, I had a 6:00PM bus to Delhi to arrive at 12:30AM with plenty of time to make my 3:00AM flight and make the 600km journey. You, sir, traveled to India. You know that hot water is a scarce commodity, even in hotels. When I asked at the hotel if they had hot water, the manager replied, “No need! It’s so hot here, who wants a hot shower?” I did. But instead of braving a dirty and cold shower, I decided one night of no shower wasn’t the end of the world.
I got to the Jodhpur bus stand at 9:45AM, dutifully early. Apparently, this was just a way station. The bus was on the outskirts of town. I hopped on to a tuk-tuk with a few other locals and we all rode to the bus. I snuggled into my sleeper berth, above the regular seats, spread out my silk sleep sack, and drifted in and out of sleep. It goes without saying that instead of air conditioning, we opened the windows to create a cross-breeze, circulating the sweaty bus air.
Around 3PM I fell asleep to wake up at 5:30PM. We were running late. It was raining. Jaipur was a mess. By 6:30PM, it was dark, I had missed my bus to Delhi, the roads were flooded and traffic was at an all time high. I sprinted through the bus station, trying to figure out if any bus could get me to Delhi in time. Clearly, the answer was no. One enterprising young man saw my stress and I asked if I wanted to book a private car for very cheap. Wild with desperation, I followed him. He said that we would be in Delhi by midnight, 12:30 at the latest.
Most of my next hour was spent arguing with him about prices. He said 6,000 rupees ($120). I got him down to 5,500 rupees (not a big win, but I took it). 5 minutes later, he didn’t have a small car, only a big car – he would have to charge more. We fought. I won. Once in the car, he wanted to take me to see the sights of Jaipur, for only 1,000 rupees extra. I tried to make him understand the urgency. We fought. I won. Then, the driver needed to turn on the A/C to help clear up the windshield – he would have to charge 600 rupees more. We fought. I won. The rain stopped an hour later.
Around 10:00PM, the driver said he needed dinner. I could scarcely deny him dinner. I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours myself. I agreed and he pulled over to the tiniest, most ramshackle restaurant ever to exist. I have been to many tiny gross restaurants in India, but this was the worst. Lit by only 2 lightbulbs, the outdoor seating was infested by grasshoppers and drunk Indian men. We quietly ate our butter chicken curries and left surprisingly quickly.
I then made a fatal flaw – I took my malaria medicine. Sometimes, after you take the malarone, you get a little stomachache. It’s nothing crippling, it’s nothing that really even affects your evening. It’s just a stomachache. No sooner had I taken the pill, traffic appeared. Stating the obvious, the driver turned back and said, “Sorry. Bad traffic.” I lifted my head nobly and with all of the tenderness I could muster said, “That’s okay. All we can do is keep going.” The driver responded, “Okay. Thank you.” Feeling that the driver did not truly get my moment of humility, I grumpily, drifted off to sleep in the backseat.
I was rudely awoken. It was 2:05AM and we were pulling up to the airport. Shit. An hour and a half after I thought I would be there. I gathered my things, shoved some rupees at the driver and sprinted into the terminal. Ethiopian Airlines didn’t have a sign, after a lot of crazed asking a security guard said, “Flight closed.” CLOSED?!?!?! It was almost an hour before take off! How could it be closed. Well, Ethiopian Airlines closes check-in a full hour before take off.
I ran up to the desk where the Ethiopian Airline staff was chatting happily. Frazzled, I threw aside the nylon lines and stampeded up front, pleading with the staff. When the supervisor came up, the conversation went something like this.
Helpful Man Behind the Desk: [*unintelligible Hindi*]Addis Ababa [*unintelligible Hindi*] American [*unintelligible Hindi*]
Possible Translation – “This American needs to get on the flight to Addis Ababa.”
Angry Supervisor Lady: [*unintelligible Hindi*] American!
Probable Translation – “Who the fuck cares if he’s American!?”
Helpful Man: [*unintelligible Hindi*] Jodhpur [*unintelligible Hindi*]?
Possible Translation – “He came from Jodhpur today.
Angry Supervisor: JODHPUR! [*unintelligible Hindi*] Jodhpur[*unintelligible Hindi*] Delhi?!?
Possible Translation – “JODHPUR! How on earth did he make it from Jodhpur to Delhi today?!?
She then pushed him aside and started processing my tickets. It was now 2:20 AM. She handed me my boarding pass and then all of the Ethiopian Airlines staff worked together to get me on the plane. It was truly an act of international unity. Indian workers, for Ethiopian Airlines, helping a poor American, get to Tanzania. It would have brought a tear to my eye had I not been sprinting with a staff member to immigration.
I respectfully got into line behind everyone and started asking every single person in line, “Excuse me. My flight leaves very soon. Can I go ahead of you?” After the first few yesses, one guy in the back shouted, “JUST GO TO THE FRONT!” I followed his advice and barged up to the front.
Then, something horrible happened. Good sir, if you’ve ever seen the American movie Love Actually, you will remember a comic scene in which someone takes 5 minutes to wrap a gift. I had that man as my immigrations officer. He deliberately checked, double checked and triple checked my forms, my passport, and my US visa before entering a single digit into the computer. 4 minutes in, 2 people in the kiosk next to me had been whisked through and my officer turned to me and says, “Just a moment. I need a drink of water.” He fumbled for his water bottle, and then, ever a deliberate person, he grabs it with both hands and drinks for approximately 30 seconds. He pauses, then drinks for another 30 seconds. After 3 more minutes of deliberation, he lets me through.
Another Ethiopian Airlines representative speeds me through security when I’m met with a third Ethiopian Airlines lady. The time now is 2:28AM. She says, “Okay. I will show you how to get to your gate, but you must run.” I nod and start walking and when we reach the main concourse, she points out a miniscule sign about 3 football fields away and says to turn left there and run to the end. “And remember – don’t stop running. They stop boarding at 2:30.”
It has been a long time since I have run that fast. I have only a couple times run that fast through an airport. Never with a 35-pound backpack and never while already having a stomachache. I ran and ran and ran, dodging passersby, pushing aside those opting to stand on the moving walkways. Airports have taught me that you’re always the last gate, and indeed I was. When I got there, 4 minutes of SPRINTING later, I began to shout “HOLD THE DOOR!” Sure enough, the angry supervisor lady was there and said, “I knew you would come.” They let me on. I felt relief – or was it vomit? Never mind. I was on.
This, sir, is where you come up. I stumbled through the jetway and found my seat, to exhausted to be aware of my surroundings. I found a spot for my overstuffed backpack in the overhead compartment and collapsed in my seat. I couldn’t breathe. Panting, I assumed the fetal position and asked the stewardess for a cup of water, which she spilled on me by accident. With another cup of water, I drank small sips, finished the glass, and then reached for the barf bag. I spent the whole time of taxi-ing and takeoff dry heaving into it. It wasn’t dignified, but I was on the plane! I fell asleep about 5 minutes later, trapping you into the window seat, cornered by my stench. When I awoke to the darkness some hours later, I saw you were leaning face first into the window, cloth over your nose and mouth, clearly avoiding the aroma I was exuding.
After landing in Addis Ababa, I had a 4 hour layover, and certainly scared off other people there too. On the 2 hour flight to Kilimanjaro, I could not have been a welcome sight to the woman in 18J. When I got to my hotel, the hot shower was beyond. Just beyond.
So sir, I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you. Thank you for not shouting at me. The disgusting combination of sweat, vomit, and body odor is certainly not something you expected from an American, but alas. We all have our trials, and mine was getting on that flight.