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The First 50 Hours (part I)
April 17, 2017
After stuffing some 25 pounds of water purification tablets, charcoal pills, scarves, Deet, almonds, m&ms and one $9 engagement ring from Walmart into my blue hiking backpack from elementary school, I got to Montreal.
Easter day the airport was milling with characters in huge bunny-suits, and the shrink wrap for my backpack was bubblegum pink but outside a small flood was storming at the windows. Standing in line to get my boarding pass (which had led to nothing but "error" signs after trying to access it online, through the airline's app, and a kiosk) I glumly wondered if the universe was trying to tell me that this trip was a bad idea. After getting the boarding passes for as far as New Delhi two other issues became apparent: 1) my backpack was stuffed to bursting and definitely enough oversize to risk gate checking, and 2) the two-and-a-half-foot long "flashlight" (metal bat) was not going to convince any TSA agent it was intended to be a harmless light source.
After 20 minutes on the floor in front of security repacking my bag I had my day pack crammed with enough snacks to last a day in Indian airports plus a change of clothes and my computer, and my backpack was safe to be checked. I sent it off to be sucked into the ether of airport bag-checking, and as it disappeared behind a large rubber flap the agent at the desk clucked,
"So you'll be able to pick that up in Chennai."
My hands went cold.
"No, no, I need to get to Madurai, that bag needs to get to Madurai."
She tried to explain why this was impossible through a thick french accent and I eventually understood that because Chennai was the last international airport in my route, I would need to go through customs here, which would require getting my bag, and rechecking it. The only trouble was, my Chennai connection was already my tightest one--with only 2 hours layover, not much time to retrieve my bag, go through customs, get through security, recheck my bag, and make my flight.
Hesitant to go through security with still a few hours before my plane left for Heathrow, I looked up "Chennai airport" to see if another flight to Madurai would take place before too late, and if not, if there might be a hotel in the airport. Unfortunately I never got that far. The top three results all told the same story: "High security alert at Chennai airport after hijacking threat."
I looked out at the storm beyond the windows and reconsidered my universe-warning theory.
By this time my bag was probably half way across the tarmac and no matter the situation in Chennai airport (which I wouldn't be dealing with until Tuesday), my time to get through security was running out.
It is very difficult to keep a straight perspective on convoluted, time constrained problems when there is a massive emotional component. Truth be told, the prospect of 5 weeks in India as an unaccompanied 18 year old female terrified me, and exhilarated me, and brought no clear feeling at all. But watching the clock and failing to get in touch with the emergency contact for the agency responsible for my booking through Chennai, I decided to go--I had no time now, but I'd have 13 hours in the comfort of Heathrow airport tomorrow to figure everything out.
As soon as I had buckled everything back on after security, my father was out of sight, the airport spread itself out for me just as it had nine months ago when I left for a backpacking trip around Europe. Suddenly I could breathe. Suddenly I felt in control, acutely aware of my belongings and the next several events to deal with. Traveling by myself is a completely different animal than considering a trip along with a dozen well-meaning adults.
I called my mother to inform her of my dilemma, and she gave me her permission to pull out of the trip altogether. She got in touch with half a dozen English friends to host me, and seemed to have fully accepted an alternate plan in just a few minutes. Had we discussed this plan a month ago, even yesterday, I would have been hugely relieved to intern in London. Perhaps if some alternate plan were fully formed and plausible I would have been more swayed, but I felt my bag, heavy with water purification tablets and charcoal pills, enough gorp to last several weeks, and I realized not just how much work had gone into preparing for India, and not just how obligated I felt to uphold my Senior Project, but how much I wanted to go. And not just to go, but to see it. To hear it. To know what Madurai felt like after months of picturing it and to know that I could handle it, after months of anxious anticipation.
I swallowed a tablet of melatonin to take advantage of every minute of the 6.5 hour night to England and before I had fully acknowledged that I was leaving home for five weeks, I was getting lost in the streaks of rain across the ovular window.