There are several philosophical sayings about journeys and travel. Some tell you the destination is the main thing. Most however will talk about the journey itself being the joy of the experience. The destination is a small lollipop at the end of this massive voyage of discovery that is getting onto a plane or a train or a bus.
I should add ship, but I have not really travelled that much by ship and have probably therefore lost all credibility as an ancient mariner. That is, I am ancient but I am not a mariner and I have never met an albatross. Though for my sins I studied that poem and thus had to read it endless number of times. You might argue that Coleridge was right and by his glittering eye he hath my will.
Or you might — I think rightly — argue that whatever Coleridge was taking when he wrote Kublai Khan was far more fun.
Why am I talking about Coleridge. Because there is nothing really poetic about the nitty-gritty of long-distance air travel. There is romance, possibly, but only if you are rich. By which I really mean there isn’t, because aren’t the really rich permanently blasé?
Either way, rich or not so rich, you still have to negotiate that weird light that airports fill themselves with, second only to the weird light of hospitals.
The intent is to disorient you. So that you will really believe that the bizarre meal you’ve been given at 4.30 in the morning is dinner and so on. Or that some weird tomatoes wrapped in a lattice pastry is a sandwich. It doesn’t matter. Things are what they tell you they are.
If you are like me, then you are paranoid about every travel detail. Will my phone work so I can scan the barcode on my ticket or will it suddenly collapse just as I’m trying to show it to the security guard? Why didn’t I spend that extra half hour getting a print out? Is arriving three and a half hours earlier for an international flight all right or should I have arrived five hours earlier? Suppose some strange thing happens to the configuration of the aeroplane just before I board and my precious window seat becomes a window?
Why such absurd fears?
Obviously, I have to blame my upbringing. My father was obsessed with leaving for Howrah Station hours before our train was supposed to leave. This was understandable as anyone who had any relationship with Calcutta in the 1960s and 1970s knows. The traffic was so unpredictable that the last 15 minutes of the journey could take six hours. We usually sat on a dirty platform for at least six hours before our train was due to depart.
The other fears come from the Indian Railways where seats which we thought were together or in one compartment suddenly spread mysteriously all over the train. And the first hour was spent “adjusting” with fellow passengers and waiting with utter fear for the arrival of the all-powerful “TT”. My maternal grandmother was a champion at dealing with such situations. And also, a champion at never being on time, and then of threatening the guard with pulling the emergency brake of a standing train in case he let the train go before she and her 800 “potla-potlis” were properly stacked and distributed. I kid you not.
There is an upside of course. And that’s the people you meet. Like the young man next to me who I gently reprimanded for sticking his elbows into me and manspreading. A couple of hours later, he very sweetly offered me some peanuts from his own stock.
Or the passenger in First Class in a Jet Airways Delhi to London flight. All right, this is not about a nice person but it is about schadenfreude, the best human emotion (and word) of all. We were in business class – one of those anomalies of fate – and we had just landed at Heathrow. Suddenly, a woman ran through from First to Business and beyond shouting that her husband had been robbed.
Then, an ominous announcement. The police were about to board the plane and no one could disembark. So, we hung around, wondering. Looking at each other suspiciously. Two enormous police officers entered the plane, went straight into first class and the rest of us were allowed to go! Yahoo! Some rich person was caught for doing what rich people do!
This was also the same flight where the wonderful cabin crew held a little party for our 80-yea-old father, because he told them that his daughters were taking him on a holiday and the crew was really touched by that. Happy? See, that was a sweet story. They sang a “Happy Holidays” song and gave us cake and drinks in the galley. That made up for those particular members of the cabin crew who never give you something as simple as water when you ask for it but suck up to some other constantly demanding passenger who is obviously more important than you.
I grant you, it’s a thankless job. People are horrific when they travel and the entitled are worse. They can’t stand in queues, they wear the most remarkable clothes — purple plush pajama suits was the outstanding fashion trend out of Delhi in December 2022, they demand silly privileges. The right royal mess of security checks at an Indian airport is not helped by those who somehow think no other travelling shark will notice them sneaking past. Plus the sorry sight of men trying to walk past metal detector checks hoping their trousers won’t collapse on them before they reach their belts. Belts are some sort of security hazard for these five minutes of an entire plane journey. But are not hazards actually in the plane.
Of course, in today’s world, you have to be grateful that no young male passenger decides to urinate on you, an older female, mid-flight. Or that no young bright politician opens the emergency exit by “mistake”.
Bon voyage, eh?...