Monday, October 30, Rodney and I went to Newark airport early, in anticipation of hosting a retreat that was a long time coming. For months, crazy-busy, we’d look at each other and say, “Hang on—in three weeks we’ll be in India.” India couldn’t come too soon. Anyway, we went to check in at a self-serve kiosk at Newark on October 30, and the machine flashed a message: Check with an agent. “Where are your visas?” the agent asked when he arrived. Visas?! What?! No one had said anything about visas. We went into panic mode: How were we going to get visas in the five hours before our flight took off? The government site was down, so I finally found an agency that specializes in expedited visas - they said they could get them for us later that day. We would miss our flight, but United said that they would put us on another one the next day.
Stunned, bruised, and feeling stupid, we headed back to our apartment to await our visas. Five hours came and went. The agency now promised they’d have the visas to us in 24 hours. We missed our next flight, and rescheduled for the following night. Finally, we got our visas, printed them, and headed to the airport 10 hours early, to make sure that we were good to go. All was finally flowing smoothly, as was the excitement of this retreat—the Ananda Hotel in Rishikesh, was like nowhere we would ever be able to stay if we weren’t teaching, and the participants were friends from around the globe (who we only got to see once a year).
We boarded the plane and had a pleasant 14-hour flight. The plane landed, and we entered immigration. When we got to the counter and handed the official our visas, he looked confused and kept checking the computer, our passports, and the visas. He wanted to know if we had two passports. While this was happening, I looked at my phone, and found an email from the visa agency: In bold letters it said, “Present this visa to immigration—not the other one.” I immediately showed the officer the new visa, but it was too late: They had decided that we were frauds. They told us to get on the same plane that we came over on and head back to New York. The new visa was legit, but they’d made up their minds.
Rodney refused to get on the plane home; he said he was worried about my health. I had had a recent seizure, and that sets the stage for more. Exhaustion, time change, and dehydration are a brutal trio as far as triggers go. United held the plane for 90 minutes while we were surrounded by intimidating military and immigration officers who kept trying to corral us onto the plane while telling us we would never be able to come back to India. Finally, an agreement was reached: Immigration would put us in a room for 24 hours, and we would take the same flight back to the States the next night.
We still hoped we could somehow convince them to let us get to our retreat—after all, we did, in fact, have the right documents. So they put us in a locked holding room called “the refusal room.” It was a cell without bars. There was a guard there around the clock, and we were under no circumstances allowed to leave. By now, it was about 1 a.m. in Delhi. Rodney doesn’t do well in enclosed places, and started to feel trapped. The inevitable disappointment of the retreat participants was weighing heavily. We started to call people in New York who might have connections in India.
In the morning, we started making calls to the Indian contacts we’d collected, and were blown away by the attention and support they gave us. Everyone understood the circumstances, spent an enormous amount of time on the phone, and even sent people to see us, but they were not allowed in. In the end, we were put on a flight back to the States.
I am on that plane now. We have been in the air for eight hours, and I have not stopped crying. I’m crying mainly because of the kindness that we were shown. The guard who gave us food was so gentle and sweet. He got excited whenever we asked for anything, and offered it to us with such purity and grace. The manager of the Ananda Hotel had come to greet us upon arrival with his best driver, and he’d waited for four hours. For the next 28 hours, he continued to offer any help he could. The retreat participants stayed in touch the whole time, reassuring us that they supported us no matter what the outcome. ...And then there was the United personnel who came into our room at 4 p.m., even though our flight wasn’t until midnight. These two men might have had angel wings on: They tried their hardest to see if there were any other options that could get us to our retreat, albeit three days late, at this point. They spent three hours talking to immigration, the bigwigs at United, and even the embassy.
These two men from United—Harpreet Singh and Mohit Dahiya—were almost as sad as we were. I don’t believe that I’ve ever met two more empathetic human beings in my life. Their patience, strength, ethics, professionalism, humanism, compassion, work ethic, and genuine concern for our wellbeing and happiness brought us to our knees. When we realized that there was no solution except to get back on the plane, I couldn’t contain my tears. They could not take me crying. They could not take it. Their mission was to dry my tears, and find some kind of a solution. They stayed with us for five hours just because they cared.
These were strangers who could have held a grudge after we inconvenienced them the night before by refusing to board. These same men got us our boarding passes and quietly said that they would try to get us three seats so that we could sleep. (At that point, we were going on 60 sleepless hours). They escorted us to a premium lounge with showers and food. We got on the plane and were given three seats in premium economy. Within minutes, the flight attendant brought us goody bags from first class. She said, “The United ground attendants want us to give this to you.”
So why am I crying? I’m crying because I have been so deeply touched by such decent, caring, and loving people. I’m crying because I want to be one of them. I’m crying because I’m rethinking my priorities. I’m crying because of all the times I didn’t have time to cry or didn’t have time to comfort others the way these people comforted us with their genuine human compassion.
I’m also crying over my mother’s death—I’m missing her tonight. I’m crying over the fact that my consoling of a friend who lost her baby was mainly by text message. I’m crying because all our kids are grown. I’m crying because I’ve been too busy to let friends and family know how grateful I am for them. I’m crying because of how fortunate we are and how often we complain. I am crying because we weren’t able to follow through with our agreement to teach this retreat. I’m crying because I feel like we’re being sent home on dishonorable discharge, rather than a feeling of a job well done.
But mainly I’m crying because these saints touched me so deeply that it ripped me apart. I’m crying because we are bombarded with hate and forget about the kind of love that we were shown today. Thank you to everyone that made me cry: I am grateful.
We’re getting ready to land. I have learned so many lessons this week and am attempting to learn them without judgment and guilt, and with the realization that I do the best I can at any given time. I have a lot to look at, work through, and let go.
India has always been a spiritual mecca. Who knew that you didn’t even have to leave the airport for one of the deepest and most profound spiritual teachings? I would love to hear any of your stories of how spiritual teachings have come to you in the most unusual package.
I also feel like I need to acknowledge a few other people that went above and beyond to come to our rescue: Hania El-Tamer - for stepping up and teaching yoga classes at the retreat, and being such a positive influence on the group. Michelle Adams - powerhouse student and friend—put us in touch with the Consulate of Public Affairs and the U.S. embassy in Delhi. Dr. Mathew Fink - the neurologist who dropped everything and wrote a letter explaining why I shouldn’t get on that plane. Robbie Stein - who happens to know everyone, and put us in touch with two people highly connected in India. Robbie’s friend Christopher - an art dealer between D.C. and India. John Nevado and his partner, Jalpa - who run the largest travel agency in India. Jalpa is a take-matters-in-her-own-hands kind of gal. Peggy Leder - who connected us with Sam, the owner of local Indian restaurant, who had family that may have been able to help. James Dragon - consulate of public affairs who we woke in the middle of the night. He also sent someone to hear us out, though they were not allowed access to us. Jessica - from the U.S. embassy with the patience of a saint, who we must have called 20 times. Adesha’s roommate Kanak - whose uncle is the retired Lieutenant General of the Indian military. He tried to send a corporal to see us, but immigration would not let him in. Melissa Ong - who was trying to get us entry to Singapore so that we might be able to fly back into India. Kartikay - the general manager of the Ananda Himalayan Hotel and Spa in Rishikesh, who spent hours calling people on our behalf, and spent five hours at the Delhi airport trying to get us out. Jill Heller and Valerie Yee - who were communicating with the participants constantly. United Airlines - The participants that kept our morale up. You, for listening.