The plane half empty sat at the gate and looks like it will remain empty. That is a surprise. The hiss of air conditioning muffles mumbled voices up and down the isles. Exotic looking Saudi Arabian hostesses have already offered me a newspaper. My first reaction, no thank you, but I may be able to go and get one later. I have a connection in Riyadh to Chennai India from there to my destination Madurai.
I have always enjoyed airports it seems to me to be a show case for humanity, even more so than the central line in central London. Because everybody is dressed in their casual dress and today nobody is fighting for a seat. All nationalities parade through the perfumed air of duty free trying to lure them in one or two falling for its charms, the others heading for the coffee shops in the sprawling departure lounge. Modern Arab men in expensive shoes and sharp close cropped goatee beards, Indian women in saris, Africans in shiny suits and large shoes, eastern Europeans possibly Romanian women with tightly bound head scarves, a lone aging cowboy in long legged wranglers gathered around his ankles, a handle bar moustache and a large hat with a Montana crease, casual scruffy looking brits in baggy jeans and t shirts and the Japanese in their modified and mixed up European fashion statements looking remarkable and comic book. I sat and ate my peanut butter sandwiches and sipped my Starbucks Americano soaking up the air of expectation watching the nation’s parade by realizing my own excitement was rising now. I really am going off to India.
I timed it well today. DLR to Bank, Central line to Holborn. It was absolutely rammed packed. Then an unbroken line of people all the way from the Central to Piccadilly line which was again rammed. The District line not working again this morning. So like ants we had all walked around the rock that had fallen onto the path and at changed at Holborn.
At Green Park a young Indian guy had fallen onto the train with 2 huge suit cases, 1 medium case a ruck sack and a squash racket. His cases fell onto peoples legs and feet, instead of picking them up he was just spinning around falling onto people apologizing, the squash racket under his arm jabbing people in the back and whipping against arms. He was obviously going to Heathrow and he was Indian so I asked him where he was going too. It turned out that he was from Madurai, his family lived in Chennai. His flight was in 10 hours time but he thought it best to be there early. He was on his way home after studying tourism and management in Scotland in a place called St Andrews he was obviously from Indian money. We were both surprised when I told him where I was going. He said if you need to be met in Chennai I can arrange that for you.
“My friends will turn up with lots of alcohol and at least 6 women for you if you want me to make a call”
I absolutely cracked up laughing and signaled for him to stop as he reached for his mobile phone. He told me that I should stay in Chennai as there was everything a traveler would need there, clubs, fun and parties, in Madurai there was not so much just the temples. I told him that was exactly what I was going to see. He gave me a strange puzzled look.
“Ok, but you will have a good time in India” he said “There are no rules and you’ll be able to do what you want, everything is flexible there not like here”
I have to admit that I was a little cool with him partly because he dropped his case on my foot when he got on, but mainly because I could feel his panic and I was working hard not to let his prediction of the tube being late affect me. He had been eating a McDonalds at one point and the smell of it filled the carriage. My mouth watered reluctantly as the additives played unnatural havoc with my taste buds. Then at Ealing Broadway he stepped of the train to go and put the rubbish in a litter bin on the platform, I couldn’t believe it. He’d taken a step when the doors bleeped and he dived back onto the carriage all wide eyed. I burst out laughing
“You need to relax mate” I said still laughing?
“Don’t the trains wait fro you here” he asked incredulous
“No mate they don’t”
“What if I was to pull that red handle there?”
“Well the train would certainly stop, but then everybody on the carriage kills you” I nodded to the rest of the busy train “For making them late”
He gave me another strange long look and I looked back at him wondering what they had been teaching him up there in Scotland St Andrews.
“Tell me” he said is it true that people in England pay money to have their skin darkened.
“Yeah” I said, “I suppose they do”
“How strange” he said “people in my country pay to have it lightened”
Then he whipped out a tube of something called “skin light” that looked like it was just about squeezed empty and explained that this is what he uses on his skin. Then he brought out his ID card and said
“This is what I used to look like when we I arrived in Britain, which look do you prefer, do you think I look any different?
He certainly looked darker in the photograph, but I reckoned he was just sun starved from spending a snow bound winter up there in Scotland. I mischievously told him that I preferred him in the photograph.
“Really?” he said looking intensely at the photograph
Yeah, your colour will return once you get the sun back on you, you look a bit pale. I said.
He looked worried and I began to warm to him. At Bounds Green I got my pack on. He bet me the tube doors would open on his side. And gave me a whole science why based on the underground why as he piled up his cases completely blocking the door, I think he was just going to push them off onto the platform floor when the doors opened.
“You have to be fast here” he said. He was chaos personified.
He lost the bet and I was off like a thoroughbred. The pack I had is heavy but right then I was feeling strong, in fact I have trained all year 3 times a week at the gym and I cannot remember feeling fitter. As I weaved through the bags and trolleys of other travelers I noted the clouds of warm breath in the cold morning air. It would be a long time before I would see that again I thought.
Check in was easy. I arrived 2 hours before take off, there was no queue and a delightful lady greeted me at the desk. I asked if it would be ok to take my guitar on the plane, a few questions were asked amongst emirates staff and a girl at the other desk gave me the thumbs up but only if I played a song fro them now. I told the lady on the desk that it helped me pass the time when I was waiting for the connection. She lit up
“Oh how beautiful” she said in a wonderful thick Arabian accent. I have electric guitars, acoustic guitars and classical guitars. I know some chords but have never managed to get a hang of it” She said she wanted to pass them onto her sons so they would be able to play.
“Well” I said “All you need is a little time to sit with it and practice and it will come.
She looked at me smiled “Ah yes, time” she said “The time to sit, that would be good.”
She handed me my tickets. “Gate 23 it is not far at all” she said warmly. I reached over and shook her hand and said “Thank you”
I saw her eyes glitter as I did, there was warmth happening, I was getting excited now. I was actually going to India, I was allowing myself out. I was very calm but I was glowing and happy.
It is at times like these that I begin to like myself again. The better me begins to emerge again, the one who enjoys the manners I was brought up with and the effect they have on the world around me. The openness and the small connections that allow a little more light into the world, the trust in it and in myself, the expectations of all the good things and perhaps some rough that lye ahead. I have the time to see, the time to feel and I have time to smile and to love the journey that everybody is on.
As we sat on the runway and waited for take off the Prophet Mohammed blessed us before the start of our journey over the intercom. It was in Arabic so I didn’t understand a word but it sounded wonderful. I wished it had been translated; any blessing is a good thing.
Out the windows I noted England was still sleeping in its winter browns and greys. Then we were off, picking up speed and in a matter of seconds we were in the shroud of the low hanging clouds and gone, a few minutes more and dazzling warm sunlight penetrated the aircraft. Everyone I’m sure squinted as we just weren’t used to it. Then at 39000 feet the hostesses appeared with little cups of weak Arabic coffee and served us with clinical precision cool smiles and cool eyes. Later at the loo I noticed curtains drawn and prayer rug just visible underneath and the shadow of somebody doing their salutations. A large Arab lady sort of bounced from seat to seat up the aisle towards where I was stood. I watched as she accidently on purpose pushed the curtains disturbing who ever was in behind them for sure, so she could see under them. Then turned around and went the other way. A few moments later a young man with a long shirt, scull cap and beard peered out from behind I watched his gaze down the aisle towards the wobbling disappearing woman. I went back to my seat and watched Iron man II, a super glamorous violent film. I liked Robert Downey Junior & Mickey Rourke kept me watching. Scarlet Johansen is gorgeous. I thought my eyes were tired at first but then realized that the fuzzy patches on the film were in fact censored cleavages etc. Emirate airlines no alcohol and no cleavage, I didn’t mind about either.
Riyadh Airport is designed like a great mosque but not half as colourful. At first its tiered arched ceiling floors and walls looked coffee cream colour to me. But as the hours wore on it began to seem a little more like tobacco stained yellow. It appeared really huge because of the domed ceiling and seemed really strangely quiet. It took me a while to figure out there was no music. The guy announcing the flight departures was great when he came to English
I hope you have a great flight Or I hope you enjoy your day in a thick Arab accent. The thing was he seemed to really relish saying “have a lovely time” in English. The men in long flowing gowns a head scarves with the band made me blink. They’d lost my veggie food I didn’t really mind but then they found it the guy brought it across and seemed very pleased about it. I was pleased for him too he had pride in what he was doing. A guy had barked at him that he’d ordered the correct amount. I don’t think he was outraged for me he just wanted to bark at a little guy. I went back and shook his hand later. I then wandered off and found a quiet place to play my guitar. I was a little rusty so started quietly. It wasn’t long before 3 dark skinned Bangladeshi lads came up and sat down. They were on their way to Rome to work. A little later the cleaners came and sat a for while, They were soon followed by the army came to have a look, they were all beaming and smiling one guy asked in sign if I minded if he filmed me. I indicated not at all. It was fun it always is. Later as I wandered through the lounge a young open faced guy from Pakistan stopped me. He seemed to want to communicate something to me. It was about the guitar and the sound. I asked if he wanted to play he indicated he wanted me to play so I went to sit with him others gathered around. I stood up and shook their hands introducing myself as Michael from London then I played them “Time is Kind” They seemed to love it. It is a cracker though. The young guy who’d stopped me was a called Zahid and was a farmer from Islamabad & his friend was Byzan. Their long shirts clean crisp and ironed like we all do on a journey, all looking our relaxed best.
I’d sat later meditating opened my eyes to find a group of Pakistani elders sat opposite contemplating me. I just sat there and contemplated them, It was interesting just sat there in that empty great domed creamy room with nothing at all happening.
Later over at the gate I had been sat for not more that a few minutes when a man started shouting “Madras, boarding cards for Madras” everybody leapt up and formed two remarkable queues. One for women and one for me right away from one another. It was so strange to me. I watched a European couple queue together in the male queue. I would have done the same with Orsi. The plane is again empty and I have a whole row to myself. Managed a little sleep till Chennai/Madras then off the plane and into India.
Once through check out I found a trolly and just drifted out into the flow. I asked where the internal flights were and was told correctly they are called domestic and to just follow straight along there. And I was out. In no rush and now thoroughly alive and just deeply happy, though I was still in airport ville. There looked like a whole city had come to meet planes outside. I just floated along. Not sure who was doing what or why really. But people came out of the crowd and just nudged me along. It really was remarkable. I think they actually liked telling somebody what to do and I certainly didn’t mind a guiding hand, a man in a military uniform was checking internet print outs then letting everyone through. I went up to a counter to me told to go back and be scanned I’d walked right past it. It was sort of a large table/cuboard with a rollers that sort of snatched your bags and they were tied with apiece of strapping the other side by a guy sat on a stool. I am so sure that nobody looked at my stuff. Then check in and then sit and wait in the departure lounge. Two guys asked me for a song so I said sure. Nobody will mind he said and nobody did. It was lovely. I sat there amongst everybody singing away for anybody who wanted it.
A little later I began to get really tired somehow I ended upstairs in another departure lounge and it just so happened that my flight was moved to this lounge I hadn’t know and just ended up there. Really odd, I was loosing it, I just sat there and thought I’d better set the alarm for 20 minutes. Next thing I remember I was being woken by my name being boomed over the speakers.
Mr Michael Crudge could you please come to gate 7 and board your flight to Madurai. I woke as young woman nudged me, I was the only person left up there. I had set the clock for am not pm. Damn. I slept all the way to Madurai. Made it out of check out without further incident . Outside there was my name being held up by the cab I’d ordered before I’d left En gland I wasn’t really sure it would be there at all
Bags in the bag and we took off into I didn’t know where. But I remember me saying I wanted a culture shock, well this is where it happened. No matter what I had been told out India I was genuinely unprepared. All of a sudden there were great horned cows pulling carts, there were families of goats stood in the really mad busy road suckling their kids. The cabbie just drove straight around them honking his horn. It seemed a bit excessive at first. Cars and hundreds of motorbikes came from all directions and everybody was honking their horn. Not a crash helmet in sight and everybody in sandals. There were people weaving in and out of it all. Men in turbans all mixed up with football shirts and jeans and women in bright coloured saris carrying great bundles of fire wood on their heads, or sacks or baskets and pots. Busses and trucks dust and grind, faces up close to the window. I smiled at a few a few smiled back and then there was an elephant in between the row of ramshackle huts and sheds that lined the road selling I have no idea what. It was then that I got my shock. I felt my recoil and my double take when I saw the elephant. I have honestly never before seen anything like it. It was wonderful wonderful chaos . Cars missed us by milimeteres, I saw a sandaled foot of a tuk tuk driver extend and push another tuck tuk out of his way as he came up behind as we passed him he was just one leg in the cab. The whole place was just one mass movement but in a way I had never seen before. There was not an inch to spare.
It took maybe 15 minutes to get to the hotel residency. I was expected, the internet is an amazing thing isn’t it. I humped my bag in paid the taxi guy 400 rupees first and that was that, I landed. The desk guys seemed to reflect the outside world though this was air conditioned and they were in suits. One would be dealing with you he’d fade into the crowd of around 6 in the confined space behind the desk and then you’d be dealing with another guy. I was given my keys and taken up to the 5th floor in the lift. A guy dropped my bags and that was that base to first camp. I unpacked my stuff and arranged it, looked out the window. Checked the bath room the room was clean but a little crumbly and there I was but no way no was I was staying in today. It was around 2pm I was woozy tired but brushed my teeth, locked up and descended into the noise again. I wasn’t sure where but I was off out exploring.
“Sleep right now would be a waste of time” I said to nobody in particular though I have a strong feeling I was heard.