Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mid-air musings

At 38,000 feet above the earth, flying away from the setting sun and losing time with every minute flown, Brazil is a random patchwork of jewelled lights in the gathering dark. Over my left shoulder the plane’s wing cuts through the last glow of sunset on the fleeing horizon. The dimpled stewardess takes a minute to check with the flight deck, then tells me we should land in another 40 minutes. Not that it makes a huge difference – we have four hours to kill in Sao Paulo before our connection to Heathrow. One compadre will peel off to JFK – he has ten hours between flights and I’ve been telling him to spend the time riding the buses up and down Manhattan – leaving two of us to fly across the Atlantic. Landfall over Dakar, then north over the Sahara in daytime. That should be some view.

It’s been a little like “ten little Indians” from Buenos Aires onwards. S* had to fly back to Calcutta to meet a buyer. B* stayed back in Lima for another day, he was doing good business and anyway he had an appointment in Belem. N* will fly back via New York because he doesn’t have a UK visa. And my boss will stop off in London, leaving me alone on my side of the cabin to fly the last leg to Calcutta via Delhi. Can I collect and stow my luggage, check in and make a flying visit to Piccadilly on a late summer afternoon, all in six and a half hours? I’m risk averse, but the idea is tempting.

In my ears, Katra katra gives way to Khali haath sham aayi. Voices from home, and the yearning for my own armchair and a small wriggling armful welcoming Papa home becomes an almost physical sensation. Another 36 hours or so, and I’ll be sipping my Arabica as a familiar voice grumbles happily at me from across a glass-topped table. The captain’s voice comes over the PA and the A-320 begins the long slide down the sky to Sao Paulo. My ears pop. Time to shut down and pack up, but I can stay with Kishore on the headphones. As the plane loses height, the lights of each city sliding under the wing become clearer, brighter. City grids and highways appear, then tiny specks of headlights. The spangles remind me, Pujo is 3 weeks away. I’m headed home. Mmmm.

This daytime flight over the breadth of the continent has been rewarding. Minutes after the captain announced that we’d be skirting La Paz, a huge expanse of water appeared somewhere off to port. If it stays in view from 38,000 feet for over 10 minutes at 900 knots, it’s enormous. Lake Titicaca, on the border between Peru and Bolivia. Two weeks ago in Bangalore, a friend told me that Bolivia, a land-locked nation, has a navy – a bunch of coast guard cutters on Lake Titicaca. I looked close, even used my camera zoom, but couldn’t see any of them. (Like Spike Milligan, who, when he boarded the train to boot camp in 1940, was handed a picture of Hitler captioned “This is your enemy” – “I searched the whole train but couldn’t find him”)

Earlier, somewhere in the Peruvian Andes, I saw a strange barren plateau. Flat for miles and miles without a trace of habitation, then suddenly the edge crumbled into precipitous ridges and canyons. A very high plateau, because the rim was dusted with snow. It looked like a coffee truffle cake with a bite taken out of the middle, the striation of millennia showing in the canyon sides like a cross section of chocolate layers. And yes, the icing on the edges.

Checking in at Heathrow, I was served by a fragile blonde with a German-Polish name tag. She was quick, helpful, positive. He was at the next counter, manned by a person with a sandalwood dot on his forehead and a bad-tempered mouth. Neither man was happy. I told him he should have flown Jet. He said no, Air India is more Indian than Jet. Say what? I shrugged and went off to find the lounge. (And abandoned my plans for going into town – everybody warned me about Friday evening traffic)

Later, in the lounge, we got to talking. When he introduced himself I was sure I had heard the name before. He told me the real reason for the Air India booking. His wife and he never took the same flight, and this time it had been her turn to fly Jet. I googled him. He’s into steel and distilleries, his father-in-law was a well-known Chief Minister and his firm had been named in a land and loan scam in Madhya Pradesh. But he was pleasant, polite, well-spoken. A good public school does have its plus points. When we taxied for take-off, he peered through from First Class and waved. I went up the aisle and peeked into his section. He was seated cross-legged, rocking a little, reading the Hanuman Chalisa. Fear of flying. What can I say, in the light of the Air France crash in July even I had been a little apprehensive about the long haul over the Atlantic.

Day 2, 11 a.m. Lima time. The stewardess serves me a second cup of coffee, no breakfast, thank you. We’re just over an hour from Delhi. Earlier, the mud-brown dirt-pile hills of eastern Iran and Afghanistan looked like a child’s tracks on a beach. I’ve learnt, though, that even if it looks barren from the sky, greenery is visible when one goes down below 20,000 or so. As I look out of the porthole, the hills have vanished and we’re flying over One Big River, tributaries meandering around it like baby snakes around a Big Mama Python. The fields on either side are big, straight-edged. Given the location, this can only be the Indus.

The next time I look down, we seem to be flying over a cloud-field. No wait, is that the sea? Are we flying south of Karachi? Then a speck of human habitation comes into view, a straight line cuts across the picture, and it all comes into focus. Those aren’t waves, they’re sand dunes. We’re over the Great Rajasthan Desert. It seems to go on and on, but that’s because I keep looking. Gradually the patches of green multiply, run together. As we continue towards Delhi, a flotilla of tiny white puffy clouds takes position over the Punjab, their shadows marking a grid over the checkerboard of fields below.

The captain’s Aussie accent comes over the PA. Half an hour to Delhi, and after that only one more airport and one more flight before I reach home.


Phantasmagoria said...

Am EXHAUSTED. But wanted to say glad to see you posting again. (Promise to read later).

Capt Tom Bunn LCSW said...

Lots of good reading to help you deal with fear of flying at

Lazyani said...

Wow, that was some travelling. Hope that by now you are amply rested at your home and have had time to refresh your energies.

Nothing really beats coming back home after a gruelling, long tour.

Rimi said...

A whopper of a flying schedule. All *i'm* looking at is 24.5 hours of flying plus transit.

But I must admit the Atlantic scares me. Last time I flew over it I sat in my seat with my teeth on edge and hands fisted for almost six hours. Gave me a pounding hedache, it did. That's another reason I want to move to West Europe or come back home. I want no truck with huge stretches of oceans.

And finally, you can see things from up above? All I see is clouds and the occasional snow-capped peak.

Unknown said...

Good to see you posting :)

Narcoleptic said...

Pujo. Mmmm. That word stood out the most!
I live outside of home (Calcutta), haven't been to Calcutta in over 2 years, but I am sure things will be grossly the same no matter when I go back there.
Always great to read your stuff.

km said...

A good public school does have its plus points.


(Can't wait to read your Pujo posts...consider yourself forewarned.)

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Ph, promises, promises.

Tom Bunn, put it in your oven. I do so hate plugs in the comments section.

Ani, you said it.

Rimi, 9 hrs to London, 6 to NYC, ONE to Boston - doesn't add up to 24.5. And yes, I can not only SEE but also PHOTOGRAPH stuff in-flight.

E Lungs, good to see you commenting. Even if it's a non-comment.

Narco, grossly the same? Grossly worse, alas.

KM, Pujo posts? Haven't done those for a couple of years, but your wish is my command.