In the simplest of ways, I find my conversations at Gate 7A shedding new light on humanity.
Every person with a boarding pass is about to enter a disaster zone. Some because they have loved ones who lost everything; others because they feel compelled to help.
I meet Nepalese passengers returning home to families who are suffering. I meet British firefighters and Indian doctors who are offering aid. And, I speak with the head of the airline that is flying everyone in. He is going to Kathmandu to support his Nepalese staff, who, despite their own troubles, have been working nonstop to get flights in and out of their earthquake-ravaged country.
Normally this part of the New Delhi airport, just a short walk from upscale, duty-free shops selling Gucci and Hermes, is filled with commuters and tourists. From here, Spice Jet flies passengers to the Nepalese capital twice a day. The low-cost Indian airline came within days of bankruptcy back in December. Now, after the disaster, it has added an extra flight every day to Kathmandu, one that is essentially free to those in need.
Traveling to Kathmandu has been difficult since the earth shook. Getting there by road through the Himalayas is arduous and long. The airport is small and not equipped to handle all the extra military and relief flights that have been landing. Often flights have to circle for an hour or more; some are forced back to their points of origin.
That spells frustration for everyone.
“I am very anxious to get home,” says Pratik Pandey, 24, who is training to become a certified accountant in Bangalore, India.
Pandey is wearing a dhaka topi, a traditional Nepalese cap with a small Nepalese flag pinned to it. He tells me there is nothing left of the house he grew up in. His parents, sisters and grandparents are sleeping under the stars. They do not have tents.
“They lost everything,” he says, clutching his boarding pass. “I am the only son. I have to help them.”
At the appointed boarding time, Spice Jet announces a delay, the kind that would draw moans and groans at any airport. But here, on this day, there is silence. Everyone knows what the airline is up against, why Flight SG045 cannot leave on time.
For Keith Bellamy, 45, a firefighter from Hampshire, England, the wait means lost time to do his job. He and about 20 of his compatriots volunteered to be part of the UK International Search and Rescue. Bellamy has been to earthquake zones in Indonesia, Iran, New Zealand and Haiti.
Every situation is different, he says, but he, at least, has an idea of what to expect. He was notified at home a few hours after the quake struck and was on a plane from London to Delhi by Sunday evening. But his team got stuck in Delhi and lost one whole day. Critical hours lost in scouring the rubble.
“The frustration levels increase because of the waiting,” he says. “We can’t do our jobs until we get there.”
Bellamy’s wife gets worried every time he deploys to risky places. But he says she knows why he does it.
“And what is that reason?” I ask him.
“I would hope someone would do it for me if I were in this position,” he says.
Spice Jet’s Chief Operating Officer, Sanjiv Kapoor, is pacing the gate with the general manager of corporate affairs, Ajay Jasra. They are both trying to figure out how to get donations and supplies to Kathmandu.
The next day, they are expecting a shipment of 70,000 theplas, a flatbread from the Indian state of Gujarat that has a long shelf life because of the way it’s made.
Sonal Shah, a work-at-home mom in Mumbai, tells me by phone that the initiative was started by two women who saw a viral message about the need for food in Nepal. She said women all over Mumbai are taking a half hour out of their day to make theplas, which contain spices and fenugreek.
“We Gujaratis carry this bread with us whenever we travel,” she says. “We were overwhelmed by the response we got.”
Jasra says he’s never had to transport theplas before, let alone 70,000 of them. But he intends to make sure they get on a plane.
The first couple of days, the flights coming back from Nepal were full of tourists and foreign workers desperate to escape the disaster zone. Now, Kapoor says, the flights the other way are also packed as more relief and rescue workers, medical teams and journalists have had a chance to make it to Delhi.
“People like you,” he says.
Kapoor tells me he has to be careful; that he learned valuable lessons in last year’s flooding in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. There are many people who want to send in boxes of relief materials as cargo, but then there is no one to distribute them on the other side.
Kapoor has ordered his staff not to charge for excess baggage for people carrying supplies with them. People such as Dr. Anita David.
David works with Joyce Meyer Ministries in Hyderabad, in southern India. She’s flying in first aid supplies, and she headed to Delhi not knowing how she would get her staff to Nepal. But she was grateful to Spice Jet.
Nearby David are a group of three turbaned men and a woman belonging to the nonprofit United Sikhs. One, Aman Jot Singh, wears a T-shirt with all sorts of messages, including “selfless service,” “civil rights” and “ending prejudice.”
The four are from various parts of India. I ask them why they chose to go to Nepal.
“Sikihism is about community and charity,” says Komal Singh, 26, a political science Ph.D. student in Delhi.
Gate 7A begins to swing into action as boarding is finally announced.
Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” is playing as the passengers collect their things and form a long line. I can see a Nepalese woman who is fighting hard not to cry. She tells me her family, too, has lost everything. Not everyone has been accounted for.
“Have a nice flight,” the gate agent says.
How can she?
Kapoor, the airline COO, learns on the jetway that the flight will be further delayed. He immediately begins making calls to see whether Indian authorities will relax their rules and let passengers deplane so they won’t have to sit in crammed rows for hours. He knows his passengers are already making a difficult journey home. He does not want to add to their misery.
I meet Jocelyn Ortiz, 26, of New York. Her skin is sun-kissed from her monthlong tour of India. When a tsunami inflicted mass suffering in the Philippines, she wanted to go but never did. In India, she thought she would not miss out on a chance to help. So she boarded Flight SG045.
“Who are you with?” I ask.
“No one,” she says. “I’m just going to help in any way I can.”
“Where will you stay?”
“I don’t know yet.”
I admire her courage. She could easily have kept vacationing.
Neil Young is singing “Heart of Gold.”
Once in the air, the ride is bumpy and everyone struggles with their cups of masala noodles and lychee juice that Kapoor ordered for the passengers. You never know when you might be able to eat again in a disaster area.
The captain announces our descent into Kathmandu, and when the flight finally lands, there are tears. It reminds me of a chartered flight I once took from Miami to Havana. Cubans on that plane strained to see the land they had left behind decades ago. They cheered when they touched Cuban soil again for the first time in years. And they cried at the prospect of seeing loved ones they had been separated from for so long.
Those were tears of joy. But tonight, I see only sorrow.
The sorrow of a journey that has few good endings in store.
For many of the Nepalese on this flight, there is certainly heartbreak ahead. Of seeing their homes, their city, their country destroyed. The rescuers and aid workers will brace themselves to assist people in dire need.
I know I will see the worst of human suffering again, like in Haiti in 2010.
With that thought, I enter the arrival hall, which is now as stressed as the departure gates. In the chaos of thousands of people trying to retrieve huge amounts of luggage and supplies at the same time, I see the Nepalese woman from my plane who was fighting tears. She cannot hold back anymore. Her cheeks are stained by black eyeliner.
For a moment, I think I will ask her name and speak with her again. But I walk the other way to get a baggage cart. And by the time I return, she is gone – and I am left only to imagine what lies in store for her and all those I met at Gate 7A.