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Riders on the storm

by | Apr 7, 2019 | Uncategorized | 3 comments

So here’s a fun story from the road…

The reason why posts have been relatively short and infrequent of late is because, of course, I have been on the road for the last couple of weeks, in the middle of Goathumperstan. Pictures and commentary from the trip will follow, eventually, whenever I find the time to sit my ass down and actually write it all out, but in the meantime, here is the story about how I went on a massive detour on my way back.

As of this writing, I am sitting in a (really very nice) hotel room in Rangoon, or Yangon, or whatever the heck the city is called at this point in time. Like a lot of former British colonies, the Burmese keep changing their names for things. Heck, the name of the country changed from “Burma” to “Myanmar”, but for some reason the people still call themselves “Burmese”, not “Myanmarese”.

I don’t pretend to understand it. The whole “let’s rename things away from what the Pommie Bastards” thing kind of gets my goat, but that is because, rather unusually for someone of my ethnicity and background, I actually rather like the British.

I do understand, quite well, how I ended up here.

You see, Rangoon – I’m sticking with the old names for this article because I don’t have the time or patience for folly in this regard – is over a thousand kilometres away from where I’m supposed to be right now.

So there I was, sitting on a flight full of UIFs from the UAE to the old country, and we were coming up to the tail end of our journey. We were about an hour out when the captain of the plane got on the horn and announced that the weather around our destination was, and I quote, “a bit rough”.

That was, in retrospect, perhaps one of the best bits of veddy British understatement that I have heard in a very long time.

You see, around about this time of year – late March to mid-May – there are massive nor’easters that blow in from the Bay of Bengal and make life quite miserable, in an already not terribly fun part of the world as far as weather is concerned. The winds gust in at 60Kph or more, with torrential rains and extremely powerful lightning storms.

The ONLY saving grace of these storms is that they blast in quickly, rage for an hour or two, and then move on. But they leave behind considerable damage and destruction on occasion, and even when they do not, they still result in significant flooding and serious loads on the infrastructure in a part of the world where reliable electricity, good quality roads, decent stable internet, and emergency services are all a bit stretched to begin with.

It goes without saying that flying through such madness is not only dangerous, it is downright stupid. Even flying into the edge of such a storm is quite dangerous to both aircraft and passengers.

We, of course, ended up skirting around the edge of that storm for quite a while. That was easily the most unpleasant experience that I have ever had in nearly 30 years of flying.

For over an hour, we bumped and jumped and dropped and jolted around in our seats as the flight crew and captain struggled mightily to keep the aircraft straight and level. It was a truly miserable experience and one that I am in no hurry to repeat ever again.

The ride was bad enough, but the flight tracker showed something rather odd. Instead of circling around the target city, we were actually moving farther away from it – looping around the north of the city, then turning south, and then heading due east for a bit.

This did not make terribly much sense, until the captain got on the horn again and told us that the weather was, in fact, really bad, and we were being diverted to another nearby city.

That kind of set the tone of things to come, really.

The first diversion city either was not suitable for landing a bird the size of a Boeing 777, or rejected requests for an emergency landing because they had their own shit to deal with. (I’m guessing it was the latter problem.) So we ended up cruising all the way out to Rangoon instead.

This, in and of itself, was not a particularly terrible development. What followed afterwards, though, was 8 hours of quite acute and prolonged misery for all concerned.

We landed at about 10pm Rangoon time, which sits at GMT+6.5. For the next two hours, we sat around in a central departure hall waiting for someone from the airline to come by and tell us what the heck was going on. No such person arrived, so folks were left to fend for themselves. This was particularly bad for families traveling with young children, of which there were quite a few on the flight.

The airport staff came by with water, but didn’t bother handing out bottles, and only installed new big water containers for the one dispenser in the lounge area. There were a number of thirsty mosquitoes flying around inside the airport, just to add a bit of colour and liveliness to proceedings, but of actual airline ground staff, there were none to be seen anywhere.

Eventually, someone did show up, at around midnight, to tell us that the airplane was being checked for a technical fault by engineering crews – which didn’t surprise me terribly much. Blasting through a lightning storm in a pressurised metal tube packed with sophisticated electronics is not particularly good for humans or aircraft.

Things went progressively downhill from there.

The ground staff didn’t use the intercom to inform anyone of what was going on. Instead, they stood behind a desk and tried to handle the big mobs of people who inevitably came over demanding to know what the hell was going on, often quite angrily. The anger on the part of the passengers was entirely understandable. People were tired, hungry, thirsty, and frustrated with the near-total lack of communications and information from those in the know.

Eventually the airline staff managed to sort out arse from elbow enough to bother to inform us that the flight back to our original destination city had been cancelled. The plan was now to get everyone through Burmese immigration with strictly temporary emergency visas, into buses to a hotel nearby, get everyone fed and watered, and then sort out a return flight late on Sunday (i.e. today).

Now this is where the “ugly” part of the moniker “Ugly Indian Flyer” comes in.

It is difficult to think of a group of people less pleasant to travel with than Indians. Arabs certainly come pretty close, in my long and mostly very unpleasant experiences with the New York-Dubai sector of long-haul travel. (With respect to such flights, here is a Didact Travel Tip – AVOID.) Indians in large numbers tend to be rude, pushy, unpleasant, demanding, loud, obnoxious, talkative, and generally quite boorish.

This is really quite weird on their part, given that individual Indians are really quite pleasant and decent, and actually very welcoming of foreigners most of the time (provided said foreigners are strictly there as tourists). Something happens to them when they travel, though, and they become quite annoying, especially when things start going wrong.

It is as if they all suddenly believe that what they, whether as individuals or families, are going through, is a uniquely horrible experience and that nobody else has ever had to deal with such unpleasantness.

Here is a perfect example of Indian behaviour when things go bad. The Burmese ground staff had brought over big 12-bottle packs of water for people to take. They didn’t bother to distribute them but instead simply put them in a big pile over by the information desk. That was their fault, certainly.

However, when a whole mob of about 50 Indians gathered around the information desk simply to howl at and berate the one diminutive Asian lady standing there, doing her level best to try to call people and get things organised, another few dozen people clustered around that mob and constantly passed complaints and comments among each other about how the ground staff were totally incompetent, how they were traveling with small children who were hungry and thirsty and tired, and how the ground staff were not communicating at all with them.

Apparently nobody bothered to notice the fact that only about 10 feet away were a whole stack of untouched water bottles, specifically for the passengers. Nor did anyone deign to walk over, grab some water bottles, and start distributing them to women and children. And it did not occur to anyone there to go over to the ground staff and actually tell them, firmly but politely, to start communicating via the intercom so that everyone could hear and understand what was going on.

Bottom line: Indians are great at causing chaos and bitching about how bad things are, but when rubber meets road, they aren’t terribly good at actually doing anything about it.

There is areason, after all, why India’s streets are filthy and disgusting. It is because Indians do not have the mindset of self-improvement, self-discipline, aesthetic appreciation, and regard for overall cleanliness that, say, the Japanese or Western Europeans do.

At any rate, after considerable unpleasantness and what looked to be a near-riot for a while, we got down to the immigration hall at around 3.30am. By this time, tempers were short, emotions were high, and people were seriously pissed off. The last thing that anyone wanted or needed was more queueing.

That, of course, was precisely what we got.

The Burmese authorities divided us up into two lines. One line was to drop off the passports with the Visa-On-Arrival desk. Once this was done, we then went to the second line, to pick up our passports after a Burmese visa stamp was pasted into each one.

However, the Burmese had apparently never dealt with a situation involving 350 or so visas that needed to be issued. They did not have an efficient system in place to figure out how to manage the load. They didn’t go alphabetically or by numbers or anything like that. They simply formed up big mob, got the passports one by one, and issued the stamps one by one.

As you can imagine, this took an absurdly long time. Over an hour later, people were still getting their passports, which were handed back quite randomly.

So we got through that queue – this was at about 4.30am – and then straight into another queue, to get actual admittance into Burma.

By this time my temper had, of course, gone straight into a clogged shitter. I found my bag, picked it up, and joined yet another queue to wait for a bus to arrive to get us to the hotel.

I should mention, of course, that there were quite a few mosquitoes flying around. They must have thought that God had answered their prayers by delivering a literal moving buffet for them. I can’t say I blame them for thinking that way – though it gave me considerable pleasure to squish a few of them for their temerity in trying to bite me.

I really hate mosquitoes.

Anyway, we finally piled into various buses and bumped and jostled our way over to the nearest big business hotel – which, as it turns out, is really quite a nice one. In this respect, at least, the otherwise almost completely incompetent airline ground staff actually managed things quite well.

So, after elbowing my way through another mob of Indians in order to get my room key, I stopped by the restaurant and ate some food. Well, when I say, “ate”, I mean, “wolfed down an enormous amount of eggs, meat, fat, and some bread at speeds that would make the old ladies at your church clutch their rosaries in horror”. I was honestly hungry enough to eat a shark without bothering to skin it first.

I then got up to my room, closed the blinds, and crashed for the next 5 hours.

Now that I am somewhat more lucid and in a considerably better frame of mind, I have time to reflect on the experience, and I would say that there are some lessons to learn from the whole thing.

The first lesson is one that I will be forced to learn many times, simply out of sheer necessity: DO NOT TRAVEL WITH LARGE NUMBERS OF INDIANS. Look, just trust me on this one, you’ll be better off for it, by far, if you avoid going anywhere near the subcontinent. Just don’t do it, man. Go to Thailand or Singapore or Indonesia instead.

The second lesson to learn is that different cultures handle such emergencies very differently.

Many years ago I had a similar experience with a flight from India to Singapore that was delayed by 3 hours due to bad weather. I was traveling with my family back then. We missed our connecting flight to Sydney, asked to be booked onto another one, and ended up missing that too because it literally just taxied out of the gate as we got there.

So the airport authorities booked us into a very nice hotel not far from Singapore’s Changi Airport at the time, and – some minor misadventures in getting there notwithstanding – we spent the rest of the day in considerable comfort, getting some much-needed R&R before taking a later evening flight to Sydney instead.

Now, that was a much smaller-scale emergency than what we went through last night. But there is no doubt in my mind that the Singaporean airline and airport authorities would have handled things swiftly, professionally, and very efficiently.

By contrast, dealing with diversions and cancellations in other parts of Asia is pure misery. Other cultures just don’t deal with emergencies very well, and you will see this in places like Burma or India very clearly.

(You will see it even more clearly in the USA, by the way. Don’t even get me started on how horrible Continental was at this sort of thing, back in the days before its merger with United. Domestic air travel in the USA is my idea of torture, actually.)

The third, and by far most important, lesson to learn here is that when things like this happen, you simply have to be willing to let go of control for a while.

In spite of all of the misery that I had to endure, I didn’t lose my temper with the airline ground staff. Yes, I spoke to them in pretty blunt tones, and I got quite snappish with one lady at the airport exit as we were boarding the bus when she pestered me about my paper boarding pass, but I knew that they were doing the best that they could in a bad situation, and generally tried to treat them respectfully.

My fellow passengers cannot claim to have done the same.

Many of them were outright abusive with people who were honestly just trying to help them. Most of them did not bother helping their fellows but instead concentrated on bitching and moaning about their own situations. That, by the way, is the classic sign of a low-trust, low-cohesion culture that does not play well with others.

Throughout it all, I tried to maintain a sense of humour and levity. I was in constant contact with my folks back home, and they were actually more upset about the whole thing than I was.

I simply recognised that in such situations, there is literally nothing that you can do but soldier on through the grinding misery. It is not fun, it is not easy, and I am certainly no paragon of patience, humour, temperance, or tolerance; I have absolutely zero respect for stupid people and get irritated very easily by large groups of them. But, there is nothing to be done in such situations other than to grit your teeth and get on with things.

After all, it wasn’t like there was another bus out of Rangoon to catch.

So there you have it – my travel horror story from the past 24 hours, which actually wasn’t really all that horrifying and will, I hope, prove to have a happy ending sooner rather than later. By the time you read this, I should be back in the old country, back at home, and traveling happily through the Land of Nod, catching up on some very badly needed sleep.

Just goes to show, I suppose, that the old Chinese phrase, “May it be your fate to live in interesting times”, is actually a curse, not a compliment.

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  1. Anonymous

    I've learned quite a bit about handling such episodes in my travelling days. You have a choice; shrug your shoulders, queue up, and endure , or take matters into your own hands. One thing that is nice in the continental US is good cell service, ubiquitous travel and hotel options, and apps.

    I've had my airline app chime flight changes, and generally I can get on it and reschedule. So my patience to deal with an airline shitshow is inversely proportional to the size of the issue and size of the lines of the wretched I'll have to deal with. I learned this from my road warrior sister in law when coming back from the Caribbean.

    There was some issue with the plane, so we were jettisoned off it, and sent out. My app kept chiming new departure times "Now 11PM" "Now 1AM" "Now 3AM". There were two huge lines, standing around, with the gate agents in perma-huddle mode. My brother in law went up to the huddle and asked what the deal was in an epic line – "Are we really leaving at 3am, or do you guys just don't know what to do?"

    So he returns and tells us they are lining up hotel rooms and transportation. His wife picks up the mobile, gets two rooms using points, at the closest hotel and we leave the melee and hail a cab. Three hours later, as we're eating in the hotel restaurant, the wretched start pouring in.

    So my decision point these days is whether or not to score a hotel on my own. Last time it happened to me, I stuck around for the voucher and immediately hailed a cab. I finished checking in and has headed to the bar when the bus pulled up.

    But the big problem here, the one they get universally wrong – is fail to communicate. All it takes is getting on the PA and keeping the throngs informed. That's step #1 to avoid the riot. I suppose that depends on the airline.

    The funniest one that happened to me was flying out of LAX, the plane was there, but there wasn't any momentum towards boarding. They made a few announcements that they were still readying the plane. The final announcement, just before boarding, they apologized for the huge delay, someone had vomited all over the back of the plane, and they were delayed by the cleanup.

    I turned to my new buddy sitting next to me and said "That's a damn good excuse. Who'll argue with that?"

    • Didact

      I've learned quite a bit about handling such episodes in my travelling days. You have a choice; shrug your shoulders, queue up, and endure , or take matters into your own hands. One thing that is nice in the continental US is good cell service, ubiquitous travel and hotel options, and apps.

      This is very true. In my case this past weekend, I was unable to do this for two reasons. First, it was 2am when the flight was cancelled, and second, I was in a completely foreign country where pretty much everything had shut down for the night, and internet and telecoms services were spotty, to say the least.

      It all turned out fine in the end, though. The stay at the 5-star business hotel certainly worked out quite nicely. I could not have done better than that on my own – and it was all free, mind.

      The funniest one that happened to me was flying out of LAX, the plane was there, but there wasn't any momentum towards boarding. They made a few announcements that they were still readying the plane. The final announcement, just before boarding, they apologized for the huge delay, someone had vomited all over the back of the plane, and they were delayed by the cleanup.

      I turned to my new buddy sitting next to me and said "That's a damn good excuse. Who'll argue with that?"

      Oh that's funny. There is literally no way to quarrel with the airline taking as much time as humanly possible to clean that mess up.

  2. Anonymous

    Oh, it gets better.

    I went back to use the head, but they were occupied. And it still smelled of vomit. So I chatted with the cute asian stewardess.

    "Wow! you weren't kidding. I thought that was just a great story to calm us all down"

    No, she says, some idiot had been drinking in the airport, came onto the plane with a bag of McDonalds. He proceeded to stuff his face and keep drinking. Somewhere along the line, he had to puke. So he ran to the back of the plane to hit the restrooms. Didn't make it. Projectile vomited all over the back of the plane.

    "I don't understand why someone would drink like that and get on a plane" she said.

    "Or forget that there's a barf bag for that kind of thing", I said.


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