(A travelogue in many parts--I promise--written without any restraint at all. Truthful mostly.)
Trained by years of three-hour long summer vacation flights across the Arabian Sea, I am not one to dawdle with drinks and dinner inside an airplane cabin.
When you flew the dreaded Gulf Air connection between Abu Dhabi and Bombay your whole strategy was about speed and accuracy. Drink your first Johnnie Walker miniature too slowly and you were doomed. By the time the drinks trolley made its circuit and came back the only spirits left would be cans of lukewarm Heineken from within the bowels of the trolley and a couple of mini-bottles of white wine from great wine producing nations such as Turkey and Paraguay:
"This exquisite wine, also available in distinctive looking tetrapak boxes, is fruity with echoes of berry that give way to an after taste of burnt toast followed by full-bodied projectile throwing up."
This was because two rows behind you sat bachelor boys Anto, Johnny and their friend Anto Johnny. All of them veteran Gulf Air flyers, who, over many years of annual leave trips, had perfected the art of hitting the drinks trolley harder and faster than a majestic Venkatesh Prasad cover drive crashing straight back into his stumps.
Miniature bottles of whisky, which Malayalis frown upon as a matter of principal, were thrown back by Anto and company two at a time in rapid-fire succession. Sometimes even before the stewardess has turned back with plastic glasses and peanuts. While the hapless crew-member shuttled between seat and trolley, a few bottles were stealthily slipped into pockets for the drive home from the airport. By the time Anto reached home in Chalakudy he was very, very happy and enveloped in a mixed mist of Johnnie Walker and Brut pour homme.
So you can imagine my chagrin when the cabin crew of my Delhi-Dubai Emirates flight not only kept all of us well nourished with many assorted beverages--"We only have Absolut vodka sir. Will that do?" "Alas! I will manage somehow. GLUG."--but I was also among the first few people in Economy Class to be served dinner.
This may sound very grand and all, this being served before everyone else. However two things can make this very uncomfortable.
First of all you must realise that Economy Class travel is one of the great social levellers of the modern world. No matter what you are in the world outside--consultant, journalist, social media evangelist or investment wanker--if your boarding pass says Economy you have been grouped up with everyone else sitting around. So what you if you have a Blackberry and a tiny, almost pointless laptop? Since you clearly can't afford Business or First shut the eff up and eat cold butter and drink warm beer like everyone else bro.
But this forced social homogenity also means that any preferential treatment by the cabin crew causes cabin-wide consternation.
"What did that boy just get? A coloring book! I want one immediately!" "But darling you are 34!" "So what stupid man. We are entitled to everything they are... Look someone's getting an extra BLANKET now!" "Oh please be mature woman and pilfer the cutlery like we planned."
(I won't tell you exactly who but one of my relatives is an expert at pilfering things from an airplane. When people visit for dinner parties she tells them that the cutlery, dining set, toilet paper, moisturizer and most of the sofa cushions were gifted to us by someone "high up in Cathay Pacific who get these things for free during Diwali.")
So in all things Economy class passengers must be treated alike. Anything less could lead to revolt, uprising and eventually the guillotine. So when the stewardess placed dinner before me many a malicious eyebrow was raised. Apparently Emirates had actually taken the meal preference I had entered online seriously. And they brought me my seafood special before the regular meal trolley made its rounds.
Excellent customer service, but the craning necks and irate whispering was disconcerting. I waited for everyone else to be served before launching into an excellent prawn cocktail appetiser and salmon fillet main course. Most excellent.
Adding to my difficulties was the second factor: the pregnant German woman sitting across the aisle on my left. This big-boned frau was in that stage of pregnancy that medical professionals call "Feed or avoid".
She polished off her meal tray in seconds, bread roll and all. And then, after shifting around in her seat for comfort, demolished her husband's meal tray as well. Utterly unsatisfied she then turned around and glared. At my food. Incessantly. Not a prawn went from bowl to my mouth unobserved. My engagement with the fillet and her keen observation of the same was a remarkable case study in my hand-her eye coordination.
When she finally realized I had a different meal she summoned a stewardess demanding an explanation. Which was promptly offered in the form of a third defenceless meal tray. I quickly finished dinner while Mother Germany was distracted.
The missus, meanwhile, was having her own set of problems with another German who sat next to her. This gentleman was a standard issue Lonely Planet traveller perhaps en route to a connecting flight back home from Dubai. A nice short, stout fellow who spent the entire flight reading a German book.
Not that the missus did not try to quash his attempts to do this. First she dropped half lemon welcome drink in his lap. He laughed it off. And then, during the beverage service, most of a glass of orange juice fell over as well. He smiled and she apologised profusely. The glass of water she tipped over during dinner did not amuse him one bit. And then, in a stunning last act, the missus let go of the inflight entertainment system remote control which snapped back on its spring-loaded cord, whipped across the meal tray and leg-glanced the chocolate pudding over and onto his foot. He was enraged and looked this close to invading Poland as is the way of his people when pissed.
Needless to say she remained motionless for the rest of the trip while I sat back and enjoyed an in-flight entertainment system that, for once , was not programmed in Fortran.
And as I sit in the cabin watching grim, grey televised interpretations of Kurt Wallander novels with Kenneth Branagh playing the title role, let me tell you a little about the fortnight's worth of travelling and sight-seeing that lay ahead.
The missus and I had cherished plans of a fortnight in South Africa for a couple of years. What with the brother-in-law having moved to Johannesburg a long time ago. Also Bill, as we shall henceforth call him, had this great Punjabi need to take me there all expenses paid and treat me like a king. Who am I to say no.
Alas just when it looked like the missus and I had managed to wheedle out some leave time together to pay him a visit the global economy crashed. Bill's employers were not immune to the meltdown that hit the banks. And after weeks of turmoil and tension he was finally asked to suddenly move permanently to London. Off went Bill to a cozy two-bedroom two-bath place in Islington, just a few minutes walk from Arsenal football club's Emirates Stadium and around the corner from Holloway Road tube station.
Weeks later when we found that Emirates was giving away Delhi-London-via-Dubai return tickets at around Rs23,000 per person after tax we did not hesitate. Tickets were booked and Bill was immediately asked to set aside a sizeable portion of his 2008 bonus. Bill, dear loving Bill, did even better. He booked tickets for a football match, a West End musical, and even arranged for a local SIM and mobile phone.
(Remind me later to tell you why and how you boys must marry into a Punjabi family only.)
Later after some group gmailing the two week long trip became much more exciting. Since we'd be landing just before the long Easter weekend the first item on our agenda would be a three-day road-trip across Scotland. Edinburgh and Inverness would be the highlights. And joining us, yay!, would be a jolly group of eight friends, all bankers in London. None of them, let me assure you, had anything at all to do with CDOs, CMOs and sub-prime mortgages. I don't mix with those types anymore.
So where was I? Ah yes watching Kenneth Branagh as Wallander on the Emirates inflight entertainment thingie. Before the flight I had no idea that Henning Mankell's Wallander books had been made into a TV series. If you are one of the few people I haven't already forced to read Scandinavian crime fiction then I implore you to do so. Mankell is most good. But my favourites are the ten books of the Martin Beck series written by Sjowall and Wahloo. The husband-wife team produced delightful crime novels all set in the Sweden of the sixties. The books are all very grim with short days, long nights, grumpy people and overcast skies. Still they manage to be funny and utterly enthralling.
After one and a half episodes of Wallander I began to drop of to sleep and so switched the channel to audio tracks of Seinfeld stand-up. I had heard every single one before. Perfect background chatter, then, to fall asleep to.
The changeover in Dubai was smooth as butter. We deplaned, ran our shoes, belts and bags through an X-ray, did a quick circuit of a huge, shiny and impersonal Duty Free section before swiftly boarding the connecting flight to Heathrow.
A splinter of nostalgia shot through me as I picked up a copy of the Gulf News from a trolley outside the plane door. (NRIs nod in understanding please.)
And then in just a few minutes we were inside, the doors were pulled shut and I continued watching Wallander where I had left it off before.
Now I will spare you detailed narration of six hours of flight travel as I have to run right now. I just turned thirty years old a few moments ago and I am celebrating by cracking open a packet of Lindt dark chocolate to celebrate with the missus.
Do return in a day or to when we will continue on into Scotland and talk about the most complicated problem tourists face when they fly to the UK. Exactly... the Mensa puzzle device that operates the shower in hotel bathrooms.
Till then, as they say in the United Kingdom, ciao!
(By the way the people at GiveIndia do good work. Check them out. Click below. Go on.)