I was right about some things in the previously imaginary journal for this day, posted on 11 April 2012.
My son did choose to stay at home and my gorgeous husband did get me to the airport in plenty of time to comfortably check in for my 22:00 flight to Delhi – the first leg of my expedition to Bardia, Nepal in search of wild elephants.
But life is always SO much more colourful than anything I can imagine!
A calm embrace
Armed by my ‘reality check’ I had slotted in the goodbyes to my parents the day before and was able to spend the day ensuring that I avoided last-minute panic – even treating myself to a full body massage at the newly opened Annapurna Sanctuary Day Spa in Olney.
My OH and I said our goodbyes by the car at the airport drop-off. Calm and caring, his hug transferred the love and approval I needed to know I could go and enjoy the next few weeks guilt free. So I trotted off to the check in desk, my luggage stuffed to the nines with empty sample tubes and kitchen towel as well as a few spare pairs of socks. I allowed myself one quick peek backwards at my beloved man before taking a deep breath and stepping my ‘best foot forward’ towards my great elephant adventure.
Little did I know that all my wildest imaginings of potential disaster were almost about to be trumped by life.
Virgin on disaster
Check in went smoothly and, as I was relatively early, I got through security with relative speed and ease. A quick cup of tea to while away an hour or so and, seeing the gate number pop up on the departures screen I casually hoisted my backpack, laden with photography and videography technology, onto my shoulders and strolled to meet my aeroplane.
There was a short queue at the gate as passengers had their passports and visas checked. I arrived at the front of the queue and handed over my papers confidently.
“Where is your visa?” asked the smartly dressed Virgin hostess.
“It’s just here,” I said, flicking to the right page in my passport.
“No,” she said. “That’s your visa for Nepal. Where’s your transit visa for India?”
“What?” I asked. “I’m not staying in India. I’m just passing through.”
“I understand that,”she said. “But you still need a transit visa unless your bags are checked all the way through. Because you booked your flights with two different airlines [Virgin and Jet Airways via Expedia] you would have to collect your bags at Delhi and check in again for your onward flight. This means you would need to officially ‘land’ in India and for that you need a transit visa.”
“Oh,” I said, heart beginning the thump. “So, where can I buy a transit visa?”
“From the Indian embassy in London,” she explained. “The process takes several weeks at least and costs around £60. In the meantime, you cannot board this flight. We will have to unload your luggage.”
At this point I began to thank every cell in my soul for the massage I’d had earlier. I firmly believe that without it my head might have exploded there and then. Instead I asked to speak to a manager.
“I’m sorry madam there is nothing we can do,” said the Virgin manager firmly.
“Yes there is,” I replied. “It is too important that I get on this plane. I know you can do something.”
“Your contract with Virgin ends upon your arrival at Delhi,” he said. “There is nothing we can do for you. We cannot let you board this flight.”
“How can I extend that contract?” I asked calmly.
“You can’t,” he said.
“You can fix this,” I said even more calmly. “You are Virgin Airlines. I know you can fix this.”
The manager turned and instructed his colleague to have my luggage removed from the plane. He then took my passport and went to stand behind the counter leaving me sitting forlornly on the end seat trying desperately to plead with him from a distance. But he was busy doing things and I couldn’t catch his eye.
My foot began to thump up and down in anguish. What would I do if I really couldn’t get on this flight? I couldn’t even imagine it. I was suspended in a cloud of disbelief. My eyes followed the flourescent orange tags I had attached to my bag as the Virgin junior administrator dragged it across the floor to the counter and dumped in unceremoniously at his manager’s feet.
My God! They’ve taken my luggage off the flight! Am I really not going to get to board? Is this really happening?
I began a quietly manic count in my head to maintain my sanity and kept smiling as sweetly as I could in the direction of the small crowd of Virgin officials now gathering at the desk. They were furiously doing something and I heard vague arguments about flight delays. The lounge emptied as every other passenger got aboard the plane. After what felt like forever, the manager raised his hand and waved me to come over.
“It wasn’t easy but I have been able to rewrite your luggage tag. Your bag will now be checked through to Nepal. You may board the flight now,” he said.
In my head I fell to my knees and kissed the man’s feet. In reality I stepped forward to shake his hand gratefully and thanked him before asking for my passport, turning tail and almost running to the open door of the boarding tunnel before they changed their minds.
A few minutes later I was tucked up in one of the rear seats of Virgin flight VS300 from Heathrow to Delhi, thanking every deity I could think of and swearing that, when I returned, I would write a blog to let the whole world know that Virgin had been prepared to go outside of its contractual obligations to get me on my flight.
Thank you Virgin Atlantic.
Lesson No. 1: ALWAYS book onward flights through a single agency