There was a time I travelled often. I still travel, but off and on. Earlier, I travelled regularly, frequently, and far and wide. Aircrafts felt like taxis and airports were very nearly home. I saw wonderful things: the placid Periyar lake in India’s Kerala, the glorious sunset on St Mark’s square in Venice, the old opera house near Lake Constance in Germany.
I remember I used to prefer the window seat, for it offered a better view after take-off and before landing. I knew the exact aircraft I was flying; I tried their drink and sampled their food; I talked to the airline staff. That tells you how much I cared for taking in every bit of my travel experience.
And there was a lot of experience, varied and even wild, to take in.
A tall woman from Boston with a fetching page-boy haircut sat next to me and devoted herself to a book on Tibetan Buddhism by Chogyam Trumpa. After two vodka-on-rocks she confided to me that she was the Panchen Lama, on her way to meet the Dalai Lama. When I expressed surprise that we were headed to Tokyo, and not Delhi, where the Buddhist leader resided in Dharamsala, she whispered, over a third vodka, that I didn’t understand that location did not matter in spiritual matters. The conversation went downhill as she ordered the fourth.
The spirited young Indian entrepreneur, 31, from Dubai was memorable despite our briefest encounter. He barely took his seat before he drew the attention of the nearest flight attendant and demanded two whiskies. At first, she said he would have to wait for mealtime, then placated him and brought two small bottles, urging him to tarry until the takeoff.
He guzzled both instantly, iceless and waterless, then became more importunate in demanding replenishment. Assuming a fellow Indian to be a sympathetic listener, he told me he knew how to deal with unobliging females and strode truculently to the attendants’ corner with a can-do face. Next there was a scuffle, burly guards appeared, and the enterprising entrepreneur was summarily escorted out.
Then there was the sedate young couple from Amsterdam who took the next two seats and started smooching barely after the plane was airborne. The dinner service interrupted them, but they resumed as soon as it was over. As the lights dimmed, he went down on her; she dutifully returned the favour and then climbed on him and continued a long, energetic trajectory to mutual satisfaction. My presence within inches was no bar, and my sleeping pills were unavailing against their gentle shrieks.
Perhaps there is something in the experience of being up in the air, far from land and water, away from things and people they know, that make people act so different in a plane. They feel detached not only from their accustomed world, but also its conventions and restraints. They talk freely with the stranger next to them, in the seat or the washroom line. They strike friendships, even romances. I have seen reclusive colleagues meet the love of their life on an aircraft and adventurous friends make passes at comely flight attendants.
My Reuters friend, Jagjit, while trying to unload his heavy photographic equipment from an overhead bin, fell clumsily but with uncanny accuracy in the lap of an orthopedic surgeon in an aisle seat. He broke his wrist. She not only treated him during the flight and later in town but continues to take care of him now as his wife.
Personally, I have met an extraordinary set of fellow passengers. Besides innumerable tourists and business travelers I have encountered: a doll designer, who assesses international trends and designs new dolls, that are then manufactured in millions in Hong Kong; an armament salesman, who would not name his illustrious clients but named scores of cities in obscure islands I have never heard of; and a smell specialist, who advises major food companies on chemical smells that are artfully blended with a variety of food, to make them appetizing to consumers before they have tasted it. Several of them still remain my friends, even when I have scant interest in their products.
I don’t travel as much these days. When I do, I pay much less attention to the plane and its cuisine, even its new design. But I never fail to enjoy the growing variety of people who now grace the seat next to me and often amaze me with the curious and outrageous things they do, freed from earth-bound links.
The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]