Thursday, April 06, 2006

Let's go fly a kite, up to the highest height..........

Warning: A long post – so look away now if you have no patience!

I’ve never had an uninteresting trip on a plane. In my minds eye planes are one of the most wonderful inventions. Huge steel birds to take travellers from city to city, country to country, over the seas, through storms and clear blue skies. I don’t particularly like flying but I love the idea of planes.

The day after I wrote my tiger cub post I left for India. The plan was to surprise my mother for her birthday and then go and surprise the mum-in-law for her birthday the following week. With such short notice and to minimise the possibility of word getting to my mum I told only my dad (in Delhi), one of my brother-in-laws (in Mumbai) and my dad-in-law (in Calcutta). Risky proposition and some people needed serious bribing to keep the secret!

Anyway, BA reasonable ticket on short notice zindabaad and I was booked on a plane Delhi-bound. Full of funny people. As usual.

And of course a cheap weekday ticket means that nothing will ever be on time. Arriving early in pouring rain was at my own peril I realise while sitting along with 900 other disgruntled passengers, many of whom had bawling children under 2. Those children not bawling are attempting to destroy other peoples hand baggage, run a mini-marathon among the obstacle course of legs the standing crowd offered and draw pictures on the glass windows with spit while pointing out and repeating “plane plane plane” without coming up for breath. All while their parents feign ignorance and sit far behind making friends with other passengers. By the scheduled time of departure boarding has not even begun. The unclear announcement on the intercom informs us that the crew is stuck in traffic and is yet to arrive and take up their posts. This of course is the wrong thing to say to a hall full of people who HAD arrived on time, in the pouring rain, probably on the same roads (especially since terminal 4 at Heathrow had no tube connection). Small skirmishes with gate staff are defused by the more peaceful travellers and an American man seated in front of a spit covered window finally erupts at the crowd demanding that the mother of the 2 year old jumping over his knees be handled better. This begins another inane conversation on how Americans ‘don’t love children, use too much discipline, should let them be etc’. All this excitement is brought to a quick halt by the announcement to board as the crew have arrived.

Not that it meant we were leaving. Once seated we wait another hour because fresh glasses for the business class passengers had not been delivered (boohoo for them). We wait patiently, twiddling our thumbs and drinking juice from disposable plastic. Take off is over an hour and a half late.

Travelling by cattle class to India is never easy because the plane is packed to the rafters but the mix of people also mean there is never a dull moment. Going to Delhi means that a large part of the passengers is originally from and headed to the mighty Punjab. In pre-checking in I opted for a window seat thinking I would be able to sleep in peace. The two seats next to me are taken by the time I arrived at my row. The middle seat has an old lady who probably needed wheelchair assistance to get there and the aisle seat had her obviously doting son. With about 5 inches of space in which to ‘comfortably’ squash your knees I climb over the poor old lady. Once seated and strapped in I realise that she has turned to me and is whispering something. Out of an ingrained respect for elders I attempt to listen and it turns out she is repeating this phrase: “Mein tumhe maaroo?” (in english: Should I hit you?). Not sure how to respond I turn to the window and proceeded to look at the ant-like people below load luggage. I pray they don’t lose mine. Her son leans over, catches her hands gently and says to me: “Mind mat karma, ise ‘Dementitis’ hai” (in English: please don’t mind, she has dementia). It’s the use of the word ‘dementitis’ in place of dementia that almost had me in splits of laughter. Maybe he was trying to make it sound more official?! Anyway, I ask him if they wanted to exchange so she could be more comfortable (leaning against the window with a pillow under your head is the most comfortable way or rather the only way besides paying thousands of £ for business class of making 9 hours whiz by) and he declines leaving me trapped near the window forever. He holds his mothers hands gently and talks to her continuously. I cannot tell if she understands because for much of the flight she keep murmuring/ muttering and gesturing, trying to reach for my book and bag.

Lunch time and two sweet old ladies in the middle bank of seats refuse the food claiming they had bought their own as airline food did not suit them. So while the smell of gobhi parathas and mango pickle from a round tin waft around everyone looks on greedily while being served airplane trays of c**p. After an awful lunch of cardboard masquerading as an asian vegetarian meal, everyone in my row (and the plane actually) stands up, almost simultaneously, to queue for the loo. I take this as my chance to escape and unhinge my cramped knees from under my chin. I wander to the galley at back of the plane where there is a bit of place to stand and stretch. Only to find it was occupied by 40 other people wanting to do the same. After a time the loo queues diminish and synchronised snoring begins as people tuck themselves in for a doze in front of the dilated pixel mini-screen movies. I continue to stand at the back and am soon embroiled in a conversation with two gentlemen that went something like this:

Man1 (to both of us): Aap kahan jaa rahen hain? (in english: where are you going?)
Man2 (instant response): Harcot (I think that’s the name of the place although I can’t be sure)
Me (after a confused minute): This plane goes to Delhi
Man1: No madam I meant after arriving in Delhi
Man2: Where are you from in Punjab
Me: I’m not. I’m going to Delhi. I’m not from Punjab
Man1: Madam, aap touring karne jaa rahe hain? (in english: are you going on tour – I think he meant holiday)
Me: Yes, to my parents in Delhi
Man2: So you are from UK. Got passport?
Me: Yes from London. No passport (thinking I should have added that it was none of his blooming business, but so relieved to be standing that I thought it better to be amiable)
Man2: I am going my sisters daughters wedding. Long journey no. Birmingham to London to Delhi to Harcot. In Sumo, very fast. All direct direct no stopping.
Man1: I’m going to Jalandhar visit my family. Taking my family.
Man2: Me too. Whole family. And my parents. So you are from UK. Got passport?
Man1: yes yes many many years now. Settled in Newcastle with business.
Man2: Madam, why no passport?
Me: Ok then, bye (quick scoot away)

Back at my row the old lady is in my seat and her son is in the middle. So I am free to move around, extend my legs into the aisle. The old lady has fallen asleep and this gives her son the opportunity to down 4 beers and tell me his life story. He immigrated from Punjab to a small village just outside Milan in Italy about 13 years ago and is now successfully running a chain (read two) Indian restaurants. He’s become an Italian citizen and brought over his wife, 4 kids and mother and converted them to ‘Italian-ism’ as well. Now that his mothers’ condition has deteriorated he was taking her back to Punjab to stay with his brother and his family. Better than an old peoples home in Italy is his rationale. I also learn that I could not follow most of what the old lady was whispering because she is fluent in Italian. I also learn that his whole family had changed their surnames to an Italian sounding one – Pissarro – not realising it's a French artists name Camille Pissarro.

Little children with no clue of time zone or what to do with their bottled up energy run up and down the aisles, followed by vaguely concerned parents. Often a child stop and stares at a startled passenger, drops a toffee in someone’s hand and demands it back instantly. All the little kids seem to smile a lot and want to shake hands with absolute strangers. Innocence that many sleepy (read drunk) passengers seem unwilling to welcome. The poor harassed parents looked like they could do with a few drinks or winks of sleep.

The low resolution movie finishes and disembarkation cards get distributed. I seem to be one of only 5 people in cattle class who need the landing card for Indians. Three fourths of Punjab seems to hold that all-important red passport that classifies them as foreigners in their own country. A very young and beautiful sardarni mother in the seat across the aisle from me manages to put her bawling 2 year old to sleep after 7 hours of lung strengthening exercises. She fills in her form. Italian Punjabi next to me gives me his card to check (Why me? Do I look like someone in charge?). Sardarni aunty leans across and asks me if she should return the form to the steward. I assure her that it needs to be presented when she reaches immigration. Unbelievingly she asks the guy in the seat in front of me and when he confirms the same she looks disgusted and proceeds to ring the bell for the steward. When he arrives and assures her that we know what we are talking about she asks him to re-check it and gets very agitated when he refuses to take back the form from her. I think it’s the late hour, the constant yelling of her child and sleep deprivation that make her a disbeliever. After being convinced by a number of passengers that the immigration official would indeed want her form she proceeds to wake up her just fallen asleep child menace to get him ‘raady’ for ‘meeting his dada-dadi’.

Thankfully we land at Delhi just (and I do jest) 10 hours and 20 minutes after leaving the pouring rain grey skies of London. The only problem being we land in pouring rain and oppressing humidity. I don’t care. Immigration is shockingly quick seeing as half of Punjab is in the queue for foreign nationals. The Pissarro’s smile and Sardarni aunty scowls at me while dragging her kid through the snaking foreign nationals line. Man1 & 2 seem to have introduced their families to each other and a group of about 8 people are huddled into a loud group while an irritated immigrations official tries to get them to form a queue. How quickly the British queuing instinct disappeared! Or maybe it’s something you are born with, not something gifted with the red passport.

Suitcase arrives undamaged, I smile at customs officials and lug my way past the foreign exchange and taxi cab counters. Through the sea of people I see my dad, still in a tie at 3am having told my mum he needs to pick up a delegation to do with work. Home sweet home.

Never a dull moment or an iota of sleep - what a flight!

It’s all worth it when I see my moms jaw drop to her knees at 3.30am, woken by the opening door.

One happy birthday surprise all wrapped up.


  1. ok...i read it...thanx for making my lunch hour disappear...i hate going to lunch...

    btw...story told like a true traveller...very nice.

  2. Bad experience, good story. Needs a bit of sub-editing.

    More, please?


  3. Nice to see you back 30in2005, looks like its the season for UK bloggers to be heading to India on holidays. Apart from me that is :( Looking fwd to reading more on your trip

  4. Ghost Particle, Yes it was a rather long post - can see where lunch break might get eaten up! And thank you, I am to be a true traveller.

    JAP, I wouldn't say bad experience. I'd probably use the american term 'interesting'! As for sub editing that's why the warning of a long post. I was posting after so long that I had to get it all out in one go. Sorry!
    More on my bharat darshan soon...

    Wicked angel, Feels good to be back - I've been procrastinating too long. More sooner rather than later I promise.

  5. that was a hilarious account of what any passenger on any airline experiences - worse r the flights from India to US - which take almost 19-20 hrs!!!

  6. Anonymous1:33 AM

    hi! great to see u back! like the 'ressurection!' . Can understand the long post. am surprised more and longer ones haven't followed.... ;)
    good luck and MAY THE NET BE WITH YOU

  7. Anonymous7:35 AM

    Interesting...Never realised that "got a passport" translated to "got a british passport" was wondering why they thought you got on a plane without a passport!!! 40in2006

  8. Lol.. That was awesome. You just summed up what every other average sensible person (including me I think) would go through.

    Ahhh.. it's always fun to fly home in a flight filled with desis. It's just fun.

    You sure are back with a vengance. Now for some more posts.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Notice: This account has become inactive.
    550 5.1.1 <>... User unknown

    You should change that you know.

  11. Swathi, Can't imagine travel between america and India on a yearly basis. Just the once that I did do it was enough to put me off!! Brave brave traveller you..

    T, I hope the new job means that the net will be with YOU. Send me some email gurl!

    40in2006, Yes in this context - on a flight from UK to India - that is what "got passport" meant. Wonder how the conversation would go with Indians coming from America?!

    Me, yes Indians are quirky and friendly - overly so on flights. Always makes for intersting journeys. And the email account is active. Hows Malta or imminent move - I can't tell which?

  12. Imminent Move. June 2nd i'm flying outta here.

  13. Anonymous1:46 AM

    first read of your blog, really good story and sounds so true and down to the point.