Saturday, July 21, 2012

The First Flight

My mom never fails to remind me of what a traveler baby I was the first few months of my life. I was born in Mumbai, then after a brief brush with the royal treatment that only the first-baby-in-the-family gets, I was flown back to (then) Madras, to where dad and mom had set up home.  I remember everybody coming up to me and going “Ooh what a lovely, beautiful baby! She is the prettiest baby we have ever seen!”. So I really have no recollection of my first flight.

But that was the first of many flying experiences- which I would describe as either memorable or hilarious or at times- even insightful.
The only time I remember flying a non-low-cost airline was when we, as a family flew Indian Airlines, from Mumbai to Chennai, again. I was six and I learnt that whenever I am given a choice between vegetarian and non-vegetarian, I ought to choose non vegetarian because one simply cannot go wrong with that. I had my first taste of bacon and sausages and I shamelessly scooped extra chocolates with both my tiny palms. Oh and I also remember (shamelessly, again) I smuggled wet, scented tissues and flaunted them at school.

I miss that. Sigh.

But now, with the advent of low cost fliers, I see a noticeable shift in my interest: from food to people. Conversing with fellow passengers, empty stomached, with a very Indian ‘Who pays 200 bucks for a sandwich, say?’ mindset keeps me very content indeed.

Long flying hours can actually be fun. And outrageous. Once I had a co passenger who wanted my window seat. I usually be nice and give in- but this man was oh-so-rude! So I smiled politely and said no. Then he wouldn’t let me enjoy the view, and what followed was the most oh-my-God-is-this-even-allowed sort of conversation that I have had all my life. Seriously- where else can people get away with asking you how much money you make an hour, (and then doing some mental arithmetic, and going- OH! SO MUCH IN A YEAR?!) So I played along. When he disembarked, he said, ‘Bye Veronica, please say hi to Shaid Kapoor when you meet him for your Yoga classes!” There was this one other medical student, who was regaling me with operation theatre stories, and talking about cancer cells and paper presentations and saving lives..I started feeling very very tiny after that. And oh, one other time, there was this nice gentleman who was the marketing head of an auto-parts manufacturing firm, who gave me a lot of free gyan and who I happily shocked with my opinion about corporate ethics and the like, we ended up having a good laugh over it. Oh, and the last time I flew from Delhi to Chennai, my seat was right next to this really cute guy, with who I was exchanging ‘the smile’, and down swooped the parental protection cops. The hilarity of the situation was my mother fussing around and successfully squeezing in between dream-boy and me, and me sitting aisle-side, stifling giggles.

It is such a shame to fall asleep in transit when there is so much to look around at. Looking outside the window is one thing, but when I tire of that I start people-watching. I try to see who are first time fliers (very self conscious, everything interests them, they read the briefing booklet from end to end and don’t miss a word that the airhostess says during the briefing talk) and how very snotty the air hostesses can get (strained, plastic smiles, eye-rolling, repeatedly ignoring requests- and things only get worse when there is a steward on board. Then all the passengers start doing the eye rolling). I see so much love, in the air, in the air. Intentional pun. I remember this very young couple with baby that would have been just about a few months old. The mother kept feeding her, and after a while the baby got bored, I guess, so she started bawling her lungs out and the mom was simply too tired to calm her down. The father gave the mother this smile, picked the baby, and walked the length of the aisle- to and fro, to and fro till the baby fell asleep in his arms. 

But my most memorable experience in a flight? That would be when this old aunty came up and struck a conversation with me at the Chennai airport’s loo. She wanted to know if I was flying to Pune, I said yes. We were trying to understand each other with the little English that she knew and the scanty Marathi that I knew. But the message being conveyed, she stuck by my side and simply wouldn’t let go. We made no conversation. We would simply exchange smiles. I was going to meet a very special friend after many months, and my best friend who had moved to Pune a while back- I was exuberant and bouncy. This lady’s resigned quietness once even made me feel guilty that I was this happy. Still, I was brought up to be nice, so I carried her hand luggage, and she had missed a tag, so I got one for her, helped her up the stairs, navigated though the mindless crowd milling about the aisle, jostling for luggage space, and finally found her seat and sat her there. I was ashamed to feel relieved and was going to seat myself- a few rows away, when she tapped my elbow. When I turned around, this frail lady, who I was unwillingly helping, hugged me tight- there, for all to see, and she kissed my forehead and it felt like somebody had poured warm honey all over me. The goosebumps wouldn’t go.

Every journey comes with a free lesson about something new. Makes you a little wiser, or a little more humble, or teaches you a new flirty trick, or a new way to do up your hair or your scarf, or- even, what not  to do when there might be people looking at you. Every journey is an experience. And though I might have been too young to miss the one that came with the first flight- I'm grateful to have had many, many more, to make up for it!

PS- This post is an entry for an Air Asia contest which asked for entries about one's First Flight Experience. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Scaling New Heights!

A friend, who doubles as my trekking partner and fellow gourmet-experiment enthusiast, was taking me to lunch. As we were digging into some authentic Korean food, we got talking about the two years that had just gone by. Two years in the corporate world, two years of financial freedom, two years of responsible work. But the first thing that flitted across minds when we looked back on these two years? Not achievements, not promotions, not the new car or the now bike that we had purchased, not the parties, not the laughter, not the sorrows- none of all these. We both zeroed in on a memory which was so vivid, it amazed us, considering the time that had lapsed since the experience.

In May 2011, we had gone to the mountains for two weeks. It was a small group, totaling 7 friends. We reached Manali, and we trekked along, and up the snowcapped peaks for 4 days and nights. Everyday, we would start walking when the sun rose, with our backpacks and gear, halting for food that our guides would prepare in a jiffy. We would experience, alternatively, spurts of energy and emotional and physical drain. As we gained altitude, we had trouble breathing. The winds became chillier, and we saw only one colour- the white of the snow, all around us. The view, on the positive side, became progressively breathtaking. We stopped talking to one another while we walked, because talking tired us. I remember, I even stopped thinking. My mind was blank, and all I did was soak up the scene around me. The final test of our endurance sprang upon us on the last evening of the- expedition, if I may call it that.

Our guide told us that we were to scale one peak, which we could see from our campsite. It was a known trail, he told us. But, it was relatively difficult too, we were warned. None the less, we had come this far, we might as well scale the peak, we decided.  Our guide was as agile as a monkey. One moment he would be alongside us. The next, he would be ten metres higher up. After trekking for a little over an hour, we were daunted by the seeming impossibility of the mission. But we were stranded. We could not separate from the group and go back to the camp site, for fear of getting lost in the jungles. We had only once choice and that was to keep following our guide, who, while we were looking around helplessly, had scaled another hundred metres, and was hollering at us from above, playfully throwing snow balls at us to catch our attention. The fact about snow is- it is not a nice thing at all. It is wet, slippery, and the sort of article that must be restricted to nightmares. I lost count of the number of times I fell flat on my face, (trying) walking on the snow.

Then came the part where, we were on all fours, trying to keep up with the group. It is the sort of scene that one sees in the movies, only, over here, it was for real. I will never forget the fear I felt, when I looked down, and realized that one small misstep would mean me rolling down into non-existence. Every single step was an effort. And every metre gained brought a hundred more into sight, which we couldn’t see from our original vantage point. I remembered vividly all that things that I had not done, all the things that I so badly wanted to achieve- I had not seen Paris yet, I had not made peace with a friend I had a fall out with, I had not told my family how much I loved them, I was not even married! There were so many things I wanted to do, and I was talking to God, telling him to please, please see me through this. Our guide had not forecasted any snowstorm, but the clouds were darkening. Finally he came down, and helped us off our backpacks, and with the load lessened, we were able to scramble up relatively faster. As we reached the summit, I had so many thoughts buzzing through my head. The peak- was not a peak, to my surprise. It was flat land. I was looking at all my friends with this blank look, slowly registering the fact that we made it! And as the sharp hail hit us, I felt pain and felt more alive than I did in all my life. And then I burst into tears.

 As we relived this, during our lunch, we realized how much learning we got out of that trek, than anything else. We were pushed to the extremities of our emotional and physical endurance levels, so much that trivialities at work and troubles at home are not so hard to wrestle. Though it might be an overstatement, life, post that trek, seems like rebirth.

They say, live each day, like it is your last day on earth. The idea is too big to comprehend, for most of us. It needs more than just imagination to live each day like it is your last- it needs a life changing experience. And something like this has taught me how seemingly big things- like ego- matter so little, and how seemingly small things, like a hug, a kind word, or being generous with the three magical words – ‘I love you’ can mean so much. Perspectives change, priorities change, for good.

So said Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.-  “A mind that is stretched by a new experience, can never go back to its old dimensions.”

God bless.

*Picture-from the internet