“But why can our airports not be as good?”
The booming voice that emanated from the vicinity, starting this polite conversation, even before I had settled down in my seat, suddenly had a calming effect on me.
I had been overseas for almost two weeks and home-sickness had set in. I was looking forward to getting back. Though I had finally set-off for home, the changing of flights at a foreign airport, hopping onto an intra-airport train to switch terminals, with language-induced confusion over gates thrown in, had left my nerves jangled. I was so out of sorts that I wasn’t even sure if I had taken the right flight.
But as soon as I heard those calming words, I knew that I was on the right flight.
For the first time I looked at the burly person spilling out of the economy seat next to me. We were on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Delhi. I wondered if it was safe to argue, considering I was going to be sitting right next to him for the next five hours.
Throwing caution to the winds I defended. A few days outside the country will do that to you. You lose reason and become inclined to take risks disproportionate to return. Like defending your country in the face of huge odds like a muscular gentleman sitting in the economy seat right next to you. No reasonable person would dream of doing such a thing inside the country. “Have you travelled through the spanking new Terminal 3? It is as good as any in the world”, I offered.
He glared at me, sensing that the conversation was not going in the direction of a normal country-bashing duel whenever two faithfuls meet.
He raised his arm. It must have weighed as much as all of me. I braced for the blow.
But the blow did not come.
Like a nimble boxer, he had quickly changed tactics.
“I am coming from Manila”, he said waving his raised arm to the right and a bit to the back, as if asking me to look in the direction of the arm’s movement to catch a glimpse of the receding Manila skyline. From Kuala Lumpur.
“I see”, I said, and for good measure added “That’s great”, looking into the screen in front of me.
Even more silence.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked, unable to contain himself any longer.
“Singapore”, I said, still looking into the screen.
Before I knew it, he had worked his way through my family history, how I had found the hotel I stayed in while in Singapore and how much I had paid for it, did I pay for it or was it paid for by someone else, was it a personal trip or charged to a company account, was it money accounted for or “black”, quickly and efficiently moving on to my monthly income, how much did my house cost me and whether I paid taxes on time.
With each invasive query, I was getting more and more relaxed. After two weeks in unfamiliar surroundings, I could almost smell the smells of home. It was just like talking to a stranger on the street or an unsolicited sales caller on the phone. The many pleasant conversations I have had were ringing in my ears even as I was talking to the person seated next to me. How much did the car cost you? What is the mileage you get? Did you take a loan to buy it? Which Credit Card do you have? What is the Credit Limit on the Card?
I must have dozed off because I do not remember any conversation about my criminal record and sexual orientation and stayed dozed till the plane was about to land.
As soon as passengers knew it was not a crash landing, which was almost 3 milliseconds after the rear wheels touched down, there was a rush to retrieve hand-carried bags from the overhead compartments. It was a sad sight. It seemed that a few days spent overseas in orderly surroundings, even standing in queues at times, had dulled their reflexes. I cannot recollect a single domestic flight I have ever travelled on where it has taken more than 2 milliseconds for passengers to retrieve handbags from the time the rear wheels touch down on the tarmac.
As we reached the arrival hall, we found that there were no “arrival cards” that are mandatory to fill before approaching an immigration officer for immigration clearance. Yep, this was the place I had to reach.
After some time an officious looking person could be seen sauntering towards the place where people were waiting, with a gleeful look, waving a sheaf of papers. Someone in the crowd noticed him and shouted. Fearing a lifetime spent in the arrival hall of Delhi airport, the crowd surged towards him to catch one of the elusive pieces of paper and clear immigration.
Perhaps because I was not showing any anxiety for the paper, he thought that I did not need it and hence sought me out and handed them to me and, in a noble discharge of his duties, asked me to distribute them around to others. Not one to shirk responsibility in times of need, I quickly took the three copies I needed, and, drawing from my years of experience working in corporates, found another capable-looking person and asked him to distribute them around to others.
After clearing immigration, I walked over to one of the stores selling duty-free stuff, before collecting my checked-in bags. Here, the last strand of doubt was removed. I was well and truly home.
I could see at least 15 attendants in a shop barely a hundred square metres in size. As usual, standing around, chatting with each other, telling customers what they could read themselves. I was in my element here. I asked one of them to bring me a basket. Then I kept pointing at stuff I wanted and the person kept putting it in the basket and carrying it around for me. Just six hours back I had not thought twice before carrying a basket of chocolates weighing almost three kilos around myself. I was ashamed to even think about it. I hoped nobody I knew had seen my behaviour. What depths had I sunk to when I was overseas?
As I sat in the cab I breathed a sigh of relief. I had reached home. In fact, in some ways, I had touched down before the flight had even taken off, when I had heard the words “But why can our airports not be as good?”