Saturday, January 05, 2013

There and back again

The last day in Dushanbe was supposed to be a rest day, but the Dellas requested to visit an orphanage as their last part of the tour.  We headed out early in the morning, first stopping at the bustling Green Market to pick up some mandarinas (oranges) for the kiddies of the orphanages.  We were going to bring candy, but this was noted as being as much if not more of a treat for the kids of the orphanage.

Through the market lightly dusted in soft snow, we wandered.  We picked up the last of the dried fruit provisions to take home.  I got a half kilo of roasted apricot pits for my parents to try.  I also picked up some "rich man's raisins," which were golden, plump and juicy.

I popped out to take some pictures of the market covered in hoarfrost.  The marketeers were not the most conducive to pictures.  I took one shot of some stacked bread, and a woman whose stall it was went furiouso.  She demanded to see the picture to see if she was in it/  I pointed simply to the bread, but she wanted to see it.  When I showed her, and she saw her back (!) in the picture, she made me delete it.  Fine, you are ugly anyway.

We wandered through the hanging carcasses of meat kept cold by the winter weather, and the sacks of colored spices piled high unto the heavens.  The ladies got 5 kilos of mandarins for the orphans, so much that the boxes of oranges needed to be wheeled in a cart back through the market.  They also bought last supplies of pomegranates and jars of golden honey (honey laundering).

On the way out of the market, I grabbed us some hot, fried-dough delights stuffed with caramelized onions.  Yum.

We drove an hour or so outside the city to the orphanage.  We were greeted by some of the excited kids, and giant pictures of the president caring for all his children, even those most dispossessed.  Since it would have caused a stampede if we gave out the oranges at the show, we gave them to the staff to disburse at the lunch hall.  But I smuggled a few out to the kiddies who came to greet our arrival.

The orphanage was cold and dark.  It only had electricity for 2 hours in the morning, and 2 hours at night.  We walked through the hallway, under the president's watchful eye, and into the performance hall. Kids in wheelchairs and walkers filed their way in to the hall.  Many of the kids had down syndrome, or were suffering from polio or some other malady.  They were all hacking from the coal stoves used to keep their rooms warm.

But the kiddies were warm and wonderful, and loved the music.  The Dellas played, and the kiddies danced.  One little girl with down syndrome came over to Shelby's big bass, and was tapping on the instrument as she played.  I do-see-doed with a few of them, and we spun in circles around the auditorium.  The kiddies were beaming from the music and dance, it was a morning that the orphanage will not soon forget.

We drove our way back in to town, and had a last large wooden bowl of qurotob.  We had it at a place that was formerly the embassy's fav spot.  I kinda liked this one more.  The yogurt was a little less watery, and it had more salady stuff topping the dish.

The afternoon was spent with the Dellas doing some last shopping and packing.  We had dinner that night at Sandy the CAO's house for some homemade pizza and Xmas cheer.

We got back to the hotel, and everyone went to finish packing ahead of our 4am departure to the airport for the 6:45am flight to Istanbul.

I went to the front desk to pay for my hotel bill, but ran into a problem.  The front desk informed me that the credit card machine was down, and would not be back online until the morning.  Problem, because I didn't remotely have the cash to pay for my room for a week.  I told them that they should have informed me far earlier if there was a problem.  We callled Mahmud, our Embassy assistant, and after a while, worked out that the hotel would check us out, and we would transfer the money to them upon return to America.  Having the Embassy as a a guarantor was probably the only reason they were willing to let us go without paying.

I arose bleary eyed at 3:30am to start making our way back.  I made sure all the Dellas were up, and we were standing outside the elevator at 4am.  When the elevator opened, a German fellow walked out.  He asked if we were going to Istanbul, to which I said yes.  He said: flight's cancelled.  In shock, I simply deadpanned: "F-ck You."  A little taken back, he replied: "Not f-ck me...f-ck the airline."

I told the Dellas to hold tight, and I hopped the elevator down to reception.  Celia was standing there with her stuff.  I told her to brace herself.

At the front desk, the reception fellow informed me that he had told me such information the previous night.  You absolutely didn't, I replied.

Sure I did, he emphatically stated.

You didn't, I am in room 1106, and no one called me.

Oh, oops, I called 1006.  So sorry.

Not that it changed the situation.  We called Mahmud from the Embassy.  He got on the phone and started calling Turkish Airlines for more info.  The flight hadn't been cancelled, just indefinitely delayed due to bad weather coming out of Istanbul.  The best info we could get at present was that there would be more info the next morning.  I told the Dellas to go back to bed, and we would reassess in the morning.  Mahmud proceeded to call Turkish Airlines every hour on the hour until they finally told him, "Brother, get some rest.  We won't have any more info until the morning."

I woke up around 8:30am, and called Mahmud.  He came by at 9am, and we went over to the Turkish Airlines office, which happened conveniently to be located in our hotel.  The place was only slightly a bit of a zoo given all the people with flight issues because of the delayed flight and missed connections.  Dushanbe is not exactly a transit hub, and there are maybe 3 flights to Istanbul a week so we were slightly worried about getting out.

The Turkish Airlines attendant couldn't rebook us onward from Istanbul because her office didn't have access to all the flight info, and Turkish Airlines was only one leg of our journey.  She gave me forms that indicated we had missed our flights due to issues with Turkish Airlines' service.  Armed with this, we went up to inform the Dellas of the situation.

We went up to their apartment, and called them together.  I told them the situation, and with steely gaze I said to them: "Look, I promise I am going to get you all home.  I need you to trust me, and be patient, and I will get us through this."


As backup, I got on the phone with the travel agency that had booked our flights.  They were able to get us on backup flights out of Istanbul on United back to Boston and DC.  But I had one problem, Kimber and Shelby were going to miss their connecting flights in Boston to Nashville.  The agent couldn't change their final destination but said that the United counter in Istanbul should be able to change it without problems.

Finally, we got word that the Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul would be leaving at 2:30pm, so we packed up and headed on to the Dushanbe Airport.  We were met at the tiny little airport by the expediter, who helped us navigate through the chaos of the little, dilapidated airport.  It was a clusterf-ck given all the people who had their flight to Istanbul delayed.  But we worked our way through the smush of ticketing and the capriciousness of security.  The security wanted me to check the Della Mae banner I had been carrying for 6 weeks.  I explained that it was just a posted, and that I had been on 14 flights, and not one had made me check it, I wasn't going to do so on the last flight.  After about 10 minutes of disagreement, they finally let me go on.

Inside the little terminal, we killed time over balticas and jello cups of vodka as we made our own version of scattergories.  The smoking section was covered in plastic wrap, so men furtively smoked cigarettes in the bathroom stalls.  Absurdistan, how I will miss you.

Finally, we got on our flight and were off to Turkey.

On the long flight to Turkey, I kept mentioning to the Dellas that while it wasn't ideal, a night in Istanbul would be quite a treat.

We arrived to Istanbul to the chaos of too many missed connections and too much holiday travel.  I got in the snaking Turkish Airlines line, and twisted and turned for 40 minutes.  I was about to get to the front when I found out it was not likely a line to help me.  I went ahead anyway, given the time spent.  Sure enough, since Turkish Airlines wasn't our main carrier, they couldn't especially help there.  And since we weren't flying Turkish Airlines on, they did not want to give us a hotel voucher for our layover in Istanbul.  I needed to go inside the airport and deal with the United desk.

First, we had to get through passport control.  We paid our $20 for visas into Turkey, and got in the snaking line for passport control.  Apparently, the system was not quite working correctly.  And they were short-staffed to deal with the traveling hordes.  So we snaked around for another hour.  Over on the Turkish nationals side, a few fights and screaming matches broke out.  I love the Turks.

Finally, we got into Istanbul, a bit exhausted but okay.  We grabbed our luggage, and Courtney and I tried to go deal with our flights.  We stopped at the Duty Free for a shot of steely courage in the form of a chivas sample.  We realized we would all need to exit customs, so we rounded up the Dellas and passed into the airport.  They holed up in a cafe, and Courtney and I went upstairs to find the United desk.

As we were searching for the United counter, we passed the Turkmen bag ladies!!  These bag ladies had been introduced to us in legend from the travails of the Clinton Curtis Band.  They were lined up in their distinct Turkmen dress with bags upon bags of duty free booty.  Unbelievable.

To our dismay, Courtney and I found the United Airlines desk.  Closed.  And it would be that way until 4am.  My flight left at 5am, so I needed to get through security around 3am.  Not good at all.  Courtney and I passed a bit, trying to figure out what to do.  At the very least, we theoretically had some tickets rebooked by the travel agent I had spoken with earlier.  But I had no idea about getting my Nashville ladies home, or how to get them tickets, or if they were booked to Boston as originally slated.

After a lil deliberation and wandering around, we found the Turkish Airlines supervisor desk.  I went up to the corner and tried to explain as best I could what the problem was (no United) and tried to look pathetic enough as to deserve help from an airline that had only minor (although large given the delay) stake in our plight.  The kindly woman behind the counter got to work on it.  To explain who I was referring to and to which destination, I climbed on the conveyor belt to point out who was going to Beantown and who was trying to go to Nashville.  She poured over the keys for a solid 20 minutes, and was able to rebook us on flights out to Boston and DC.  But she said that unfortunately, because it wasn't their flights, she couldn't get the two Dellas to Nashville.  She didn't close the door completely though, she said to come back in 30 minutes.  It was about 9:30pm at this point.

I told the Dellas of where we stood. Next task was to see about our hotel. I went to check the Turkish Airlines hotel desk, but the long line made me realize that I would spend all night trying to get a hotel voucher for a 3 hour sojourn.  We discussed it, and decided we would rather just stay at the airport and see about getting into a first class lounge to rest.

At 10pm, I came back to a scene of people screaming and yelling about flight problems.  I watched one fellow start trying to upbraid a Turkish Airlines supervisor.  With a bat of her gorgeous green eyes, she curtly told him he had no idea what he was talking about, and to chill out.  I liked her style, and pegged her as someone I could deal with.  I waited patiently until I got to speak with her.

I explained our plight about our Turkish Airline delay and our plight with the United desk being closed.  At that moment, Shelby and Kimber walked over, so I started laying it on as thick as I could.  "These cultural ambassadoresses have spent the last six weeks playing music for refugees and orphans, and all they want is to go home for Christmas, please can you help them?"  Sara the supervisor smiled, and said she would see what she could do.

Over the next 30 minutes, I flirted without compare as to get the problem fixed. Shelby caught me batting my eyelashes at her, and laughed.  I said to Shelby that these eyelashes are going to get you home.

And then it worked.  She told me she would be able to route Shelby and Kimber directly back to Nashville via New York.  She had me come with her to the back office while she worked on the details.  I kept staring at a giant map of the world, laughing at how far we had come and how far we still had to go.  The process was taking a while because there were some systems problems, so she told me to come back in 30 minutes.

I joined the Dellas in the corner of the cafe that we occupied, and had some Turkish lentil soup with lemon and the tapoica delight that is salep.  30 minutes later I returned and still no resolution to the system issue, but the green-eyed supervisor assured me things were ok.  She also tried to convince me to stay in Istanbul longer, to which I was so burnt that I had to pass on such green-eyed hospitality and advances.

So I returned to our corner at the cafe shop, and killed time.  Around 1am, I returned to the office.  Sara the supervisor explained that the system was still having issues, but that everything would be ok and to come back an hour later.  So I spent another hour at the cafe, desperately trying to keep my weary eyes open.  A few of the Dellas had passed out on benches and face-down on tables.

At 2am, I returned again- only to find out that Sara had been pulled into a meeting.  Now I was starting to get worried.  But the other supervisors also said it was not a problem, and that we did indeed have our tickets but there were some issuing issues.  Part of the problem was that because we were out of the Turkish airlines system, the supervisors needed a private ticket office to issue our e-tickets and there was some issues at hand.  Time kept meandering on, and suddenly it was 3am and Celia, Courtney and I had to check for our flights but we still didn't have the tickets, and I didn't have e-tickets for Shelby and Kimber's flights to Nashville.  I couldn't leave Shelby and Kimber without tickets, so I was starting to wonder if I would be staying in Istanbul to make sure they got out.

I got the other supervisors moving, and one slight girl came with me from the supervisors desk to the ticket issuing desk.  Around 3:20am, the ticket issuing desk stopped pounding the keys, and printed out 2 e-tickets, one for me and one for Celia.  "This is it, no?" the woman behind the counter asked.  Now my patience started to slip.  No, we need 5 tickets not 2.  More shuttles back-and-forth to the supervisors desk, and time was slipping away.  At around 3:45am, Celia, Courtnet and my electronic tickets were printed.  I handed them their tickets and told them to go check in (at the Lufthansa desk across the terminal).  At 3:55am, Kimber and Shelby's electronic tickets were finally printed to Nashville.  They were going home, and so was I.

The Turkish Airlines staff now instructed me to run to the desk to make sure I got checked in.  Sara the supervisor had returned to wave goodbye.  Amazingly, after waiting around all night, I now had to run post-haste.  I barely got to say goodbye to Kimber, and I don't think I even got a chance to hug Shelby goodbye.

And then I realized that Courtney hadn't taken her carry-ons and guitar over to the check-in desk.  So now I had to run with all my stuff and all her stuff as well across the terminal to get to the desk before it closed on me.  The slight lil supervisor grabbed Courtney guitar and I grabbed all the rest and went huffing and puffing across the terminal.

I arrived to the Lufthansa desk to find a line, and realized I was fine.  Courtney hadn't realized we weren't going back and had not said goodbye to anyone.  We meandered our way through the line, and got to check in.  At check-in, the Lufthansa clerk gave my reservation a funny look.  "Mr. Rockower, we have two reservations for you, one of them is first class."  My eyelash-batting had not only gotten Kimber and Shelby new tickets to a new locale, but got me bumped up to first class on the leg to Frankfurt.  I tried to get Celia and Courtney bumped up as well but to no avail.  We dropped our stuff and hurried to security.

As we got to security, Courtney decided that she had to run to say goodbye.  She ran off, and Celia and I passed through security.  Once on the other side, I sent Celia on to the gate and I waited to make sure Courtney got through.  I figured we had a better chance of delaying the plane (if needed) if there were 2 of us being tardy.  Thankfully, she passed through security quickly and we huffed to the gate.

At the gate, my first class status let me board early with the instruments and carry them on.  First class got me a whole row to myself, and I promptly passed out.  I woke up just before arrival to Frankfurt, just in time for a hot towel and glass of fresh-squeezed oj.

In Frankfurt, we worked our way to the other terminal.  When we got to security, Courtney was informed that she had randomly been selected for additional security screening.  Then Celia was also informed that she had also been selected at random for additional screening.  Ah, amazing how visiting Pakistan ups the randomness.

Once through, we reconvened and tried to get into a first class lounge.  But alas, we could not even buy our way in, there was no such privileges at the Lufthansa lounge.  So instead, we found a place to take a shower for $8.  Well worth it.  As the Dellas showered, I chatted in Spanish to an elderly Italian woman from Sicily who worked at the shower depot.  Amazing how well we could communicate across Latin linguistics.  We talked about life in Germany and life in Italy, and the difficulties of both. As we were chatting, a co-worker of hers from Ethiopia stopped in to give her some coffee that he pulled out of his cart.  I jokingly asked if he had a cup for me, and he handed me a second cup to my surprise.  To his surprise, I thanked him in Amharic, and we both smiled big.

After a soul-cleansing shower, the Dellas and I regrouped at a cafe for breakfast.  We sat in the cafe, killing time over good bread and cheese and real bloooodi maris, as we tried to make sense of the crazy adventure that was, and the future to be.

Time to fly, and I bade Courtney and Celia goodbye as they boarded their flight back to Boston.  Since I was headed to Beantown, I said it was merely "ciao for now."

And thus Don Pablo Quijote had ridden through the path of all tilting windmills as he guided the Dulcinea Dellas across La Manchastan, and this PD knight errant had safely returned his charge on home from an amazing cultural diplomacy adventure without compare.

The End. 


John Brown said...

When is the book on your adventurestans coming out?

Paul Rockower said...

haha, right after the release of my book of Iraqi adventures. I need a sabbatical...