Thursday, August 23, 2007

Magic Bus

Rory Maclean’s book reads very well.

Each chapter has a well-rounded beginning and ending. One paragraph segues into another flawlessly. The chapter headings have a theme that’s just strong enough to add a bit of interest without overpowering the main text. And the metaphor is meticulously maintained from cover to cover.

The subject matter is highly fascinating in itself - “On the hippy trail from Istanbul to India”. It’s also well researched and perfectly presented. A bit of human interest here in the form of anecdote and quotation, a touch of humour there, a word portrait now and again. The emotional flourishes are added at precise intervals, with the lightest of touches.

Not once does the writing interfere with the reading – copywriting at its finest. The Magic Bus is the world’s best brochure.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Return IV – Aftermath

I came home, certainly. But my luggage took its time. Like all homecomings, you are happy to see them and then they promptly do something to piss you off. So Emirates, in its wisdom, decided to send my bags on a different flight. But then they were delivered to me, whole and unharmed, the very next day. So all was calm, all was bright, once again.

The powers that be in LAX or Charlotte left a note in one of my bags saying they had to examine the contents for my own safety. The examination was clearly rigorous. Several pairs of earrings dismantled themselves in shock and awe. A blusher brush cracked under the strain. An eye-shadow was beside itself.

No lasting damage, though. The earrings have been reassembled. Fridge-magnet-like things have been put up. Photos have been downloaded. Presents are being distributed.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Return III – 10 AM, Gatwick Airport

And soon after, I’m about to take off from London. Sitting in my Emirates plane, it feels like returning to the womb. They’ve just brought around the hot towels. My video menu is in front of me, I’ve picked my movie and plugged my headphones in, to start as soon as we’re airborne. Across the aisle, a smiling young Emirates man is gratifying two small children and their mother by handing out Emirates toys. Nobody’s scurrying around creating needless tension. No officious voice saying utterly useless things like: “Zone 1 passengers only, repeat Zone 1 and 2 passengers commence boarding after the termination of the pre-boarding at the door marked 3 at gate 3. Please have your boarding passes handy, Repeat, boarding cards only. Repeat boarding papers only. It should look like this.” No underlying anxiety on the faces of passengers. All is calm, all is bright.

Outside the window, London has a fine morning. Somewhere out there Parvez and Sumit are doing stuff, but I have no way of contacting them. Just numbers stored on a phone that doesn’t work here. It brings home to me that the office I’m returning to is a few colleagues less now, my life is some friends fewer. It brings to fruition the clouds that have hung over my head ever since I left, and I start to cry. With my general good fortune regarding seats, I have no fellow passenger. The two-seater by the window is all mine, so I’m free to weep in peace. I notice that the couple sitting diagonally across from me are looking like they want to be comforting. I give them a look that says: “Try it and I’ll give you something to cry about.” They get the message.

We’re taxiing for take-off now. I’ll be back, London. This may be where I belong.

They’re now handing out menus, so my first glimpse of the English Channel has serious competition. Lunch has smoked salmon and salad for appetiser, two choices of main course, cheesecake and chocolate for dessert. Afternoon tea features sandwiches, cake and scones with clotted cream. The tears seem to have dried up pretty quickly at the sight of “tender braised lamb with saffron rice and artichoke ragout.” If I seem hysterical, note that all I’ve had for dinner is fake coleslaw in a plastic cup, with fake vegetables in a fake meat sauce and a few slices of preservative bread.

I think I might relax my strict “water only” flying policy and have a glass of wine to celebrate the fact that there is food in the world again.

Unnumbered hours later (yes, the lunch was as good as the description), we seem to be almost there. 10 days earlier, I’d opened my eyes on my Chicago flight to see city lights below, and for a moment, in my half-awake state, I’d thought joyfully that it was Dubai. That was my usual two-week marker – I always get a pang of homesickness at this point, and it passes swiftly.

This time the lights below are really Dubai. I recognize things, pretend I don’t see my office tower and look at all the others with interest. I am delighted, relieved, even excited, to be back and yet there’s an underlying ambiguity that I have never felt before. I don’t know what to do with this new feeling. But I am suddenly overwhelmingly grateful to generous Buntoo for offering to pick me up.

We touch down. The local time is 8 pm. The outside temperature is 35 degrees in familiar Celsius. My e-gate card will get me out of the airport painlessly. I am home.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Return II – Hours later, Charlotte Airport

Charlotte again. I’d never heard of it until 10 days ago and now I can’t seem to step on a plane without ending up here. So I bought a fridge magnet to commemorate that. Looking at all the souvenirs, it seems to me like there’re lots of bears in Charlotte. I should look it up on Google.

A little before it’s time to leave, I get the feeling of something not done and soon realise what it is. So I go up to the gate and have an interesting conversation. “Hi ma’am, I’m goin to Gatwick? And I’m not a yew-ess residend? So I’m technically exidding the country? But nobody’s stamped my passport?” (foreign country + speak their language = communication). She turns to the guy next to her and tells him there’s someone who needs their passport stamped. He says: “Ma’am, go to D1, find the gray door and stand near it. Someone will approach you. I’ll call and let them know you’re coming.” I want to tell him I’m not looking to buy illegal substances, I just want a legal mark on my legal passport. But I go quietly, struggling to wipe the grin off my face and not quite succeeding, judging by the half-smiling looks I’m getting. As I approach D1, I realize there are hundreds of gray doors, The place is full of them. Nobody approaches me. I wander too far, have some hysterical moments because they’ve begun boarding now and find my way back to my gate.

I meet another man this time who escorts me to a gray door, finds someone to look at my passport and finds out that I don’t need a stamp for some reason. Mine not to question why, mine just to get on the plane. This time I have an aisle seat, because I realised on my first leg that a window is all very well on a short flight where you can avoid going to the loo, but what if you’re on a long flight, need to go and your neighbour’s sleeping?

Soon after sunrise, somewhere over the Atlantic. I slept quite soundly, all things considered. I’ll be in England soon, for the very first time. No more than an hour’s stopover, but still… London! I’m conscious of a curious lightness of being. I probe it for a bit and find the source – I’m out of US airspace and the paranoia force-field that is America’s version of bureaucracy. I didn’t know until I shed it that the burden of seven “special screening” security checks in three weeks was quite heavy. As were the constant disclaimers, legal notices, cautions, exceptions and health warnings that surround a chocolate – sorry, candy – bar, let alone something as horrifyingly, heart-thumpingly dangerous as a lighter. Such a beautiful country, pity about the government.

And this bloody airline. The food is so bad. I was forced to give it a second chance last night and it was execrable. How could it possibly have gotten worse? Now they’re bringing coffee and what they’re calling a sweet roll. Let’s see how badly they can screw that up. Ouch, no, no. I took a sip and bite and suddenly remembered that I don’t have to eat prison food anymore. In a little while, I’ll be on an Emirates flight. A proper breakfast for me to eat, real good coffee making lots of heat, my own headphones that are really free, a movie screen that’s just for me, cabin crew with a service ethic… oh wouldn’t it be loverly? The thought is comforting, especially now that I’m tired and emotional, heavy with many conflicting feelings about my holiday and my return. There’s a hole in the bucket, dear ‘liza.

A glimpse of green, light glinting off some cars on the M1 (or something) and then I land in London.

The Return I – 8:45 AM, LAX

Well technically, I’m on the tarmac, looking out at LAX from my miraculous window seat, but I did spend three hours in that damn airport to get here. I haven’t seen crowds or bad behaviour such as this even in Bangalore City Station. As for the announcements, I'm still not sure whether they were actually in any human tongue. The accents sounded like they would need surgery to fix.

Many of the people, though, were very familiar. The skin has that particular glow to it that says microdermabrasion, silk booster facials and vitamin injections. The hair has a healthy shine that comes from hair products about 75 times more expensive than Pantene. The jeans are frayed in that exact way that indicates they aren’t old, just cutting edge. There are also quite a few instances of killer heals, skintight shorts and carefully applied bronzer, 6 am notwithstanding. Hot pink laptop cases. Louis Vuitton luggage. Coach bags. Carry-ons that are unashamedly, fashionably bright gold. If the airport wasn’t so rundown and chaotic, it could have been Dubai. I ate breakfast in LAX, and don’t need to eat till I get to my first stop over, thereby foiling the evil airline poisoners.

I’m a bit lightheaded from lack of sleep, so everything around me is a sort of motion blur. My seat buddies aren’t helping. They struck up a conversation even before they sat down and haven’t stopped since. The first five minutes was credential establishment. Example: “Oh I love Spain”. “Yeah, I loved Spain. I’ve been back twice.” It’s amazing how saying you love something is a conversational weapon, even – or maybe especially – when you’re both loving the same thing. After “I loved my holiday more than yours”, they moved on to “My boat is older and more rugged than yours” and then “My craving for a motorcycle is greater than yours.” Just as they seemed to be stuck in stalemate, it emerged that Seat Buddy 1 is ex-army, so naturally Seat Buddy 2 conceded the manhood competition, and they’re now conversing normally about where they’re going and what they do. I, not being a man, have been spared. It was perfectly obvious from the first glance that the guy is ex-military (I noticed – and noted – him at the gate). But I’ve been released from the pressure of sitting next to someone so good-looking, since he turned out to be an idiot. Even if he wasn’t, I’m too sleepy to attempt being fascinating.

I think I’ll be asleep before we take off. I’ve forgotten where this plane is going. We change planes somewhere in the US before crossing the Atlantic, though the flight number remains the same. I believe that is what is meant by direct flight. I didn’t know till today that there’s a different between direct and nonstop. Maybe I should impart this fascinating bit of information to the hot soldier. Or maybe zzzzzzz scrrrr snort zzzzzz grunt zzzzz…

Love over gold

The foreign friend said "Sure, but I don't really know them. They're just cousins, so you know... not really family."

I was left thinking of a cousin I hadn't been in touch with for 10 years, but made a point of meeting on this trip, though it was not convenient or economical. She was equally happy that I did. Another, who I've never had a chance to get to know, took the time to do so now, over a whole day in Boston. A third cousin worked till three in the morning so she could spend the day with me. A fourth and a fifth are annoyed with me because I didn't go to see them - but I will be back to do so.

And I see most clearly the face of a sixth cousin, waiting at the airport in spite of having a two-day-old baby at home. This was so not a convenient time to have a house guest, but his smile was unshadowed by this concern. Because I was not a house guest, I was a cousin.

I think also of the warm welcome from a friend after 14 years, of another, who's suffering the burden of working from home while entertaining me for a whole week. And a third who crossed the line from friend to family a long time ago.

At the risk of sounding like Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show, it seems that every stop I've made was a blessing counted.

The large American deserves commendation for bringing this to my attention, because I can get a bit ungrateful and frazzled when I've spent too much time with people. Very ungrateful and frazzled, actually.

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