Thursday, March 10, 2005

4703 - Girl on Next Seat

-by Venkat
Yet another holiday season and yet another trip home, it is Chinese New Year (believe this is year 4703 by the Chinese calendar!!) the year of the Rooster. As usual, am a shade tardy in preparation, deciding whether to take a break now or later, given an almost festivity-less period back home in India.

During this period all Chinese visit their hometown to spend holidays with their kin and everything grinds to a halt, literally. As the ten-day holiday period approaches and people start going home I already start to feel the impending seclusion. The thought of talking to the walls and the wind tilts the scales in favor of a last minute decision to go home, though having to settle for “holiday” airfare (read High). Atleast flight services have increased quite a bit thanks to the new Guangzhou airport. So I get a decent connection, which would take me home in 9 hours - not bad compared to the detour via Hong Kong that took 4 hours more!

On the day of travel I prepare well, get up early, cook brunch, finish office work, pack, eat and wind up. This time around there is no time or mood for any shopping not even chocolates. I just pack in a few presents my friends have given and also little things I bought from my trip down under in November last. Then I flag down a taxi, dump my entire luggage and summon him to the bus station.

The driver starts, then suddenly changes his mind and asks me to disembark – something unusual in this friendly city. I dare to spit a mouthful in my broken Mandarin (Official Chinese). He begs pardon and mutters in Cantonese (Local Guangdong Chinese) that he is hungry and needs to go home for lunch. That’s the beauty of this city, people are either nice or professional or both. Where else can you get taxi at 70% fare after 11 PM or a driver who refunds part of the fare because he took a route without heeding your driving directions? Well one could write a book about the friendliness and hospitality of this city...

Anyway having been dumped, albeit politely, I take another taxi and this cabbie is curious to know why the earlier driver dumped me. I didn’t say people here are not inquisitive... in fact it’s this very innate quality that tempts them to taste anything that has life. As soon as we start to chat aimlessly we reach the bus station.

Lots of people are already waiting for the airport shuttle that arrives in the next 5 minutes. I rush past a long queue to board the bus. An elderly voice in English reminds me not to carry my small case on board. To my surprise he is this 60+ Chinese grandfather with his western looking toddler - no wonder he spoke English. Not the one to disrespect elders (yeah) I follow his instructions grudgingly and settle in a seat at the rear of the bus.

As bus commences its hour-long drive to the airport, I can see it's packed, given the season. A bunch of Cantonese speaking ladies at the back open their lunch boxes filling the entire bus with fine aroma. One can hardly sleep between their chatter and chomping. As I turn uneasily in my seat, there is this young lass in front clicking snaps of her drowsy boyfriend using her new mobile phone - love is indeed blind that one tends to admire yawning mouths and snoring noses in the midst of a crowded bus ride!

The shuttle reaches the airport well in time and I check in a full 3 hours ahead of scheduled departure! Am a bit nervous, as I cannot find my flight in the flight display system - only to know I was naïve to be looking at domestic departures - Phew! It is time now for immigration formalities and I realize my now common absent-mindedness has done its trick again. I have forgotten to carry a pen with me. At a distance I spot a “public use” pen near the immigration card vending machine.

I sprint to attain it first but a stout old European woman with her man manages to beat me to it. Now am left to witness the slow ritual of card filling by the old couple. They speak English mixed with German (or may be Austrian I cannot tell the difference). The man starts filling the form with his pen guiding the lady; the lady slowly starts copying the man’s form using the "public pen", the one I want. She questions her man a lot and goofs up a few times "Oops I cannot copy the gender. Scratch… Scratch… Scratch. Oops the date of birth is different from today. Scratch… Scratch...".

All this time am waiting awkwardly behind her, in a football referee pose, making sure I am the next one to grab that damn pen. As I see more people coming to fill the form, my heart beats "Hurry Up Grandma!". She turns suspiciously as if she heard my heart. I reply, "Sorry am just waiting for the pen" to which pat comes the relieved reply "Oh the pen!". She does not care less. I could have easily gone to the airport staff to beg for a pen but with time at my side today I decide to stay put.

Then the two get into a spat over whether their trip to Bangkok is for business or leisure – all just to tick one little square in the departure card – as if anyone in immigration gave a damn! Meanwhile two Chinese Men in Black approach us slowly probably wondering why is this little hup mang mang fellow (that’s black man in Cantonese) standing behind the wealthy looking white lady. Am sure they took me for a pickpocket. Soon enough the couple agree, much to the man’s disappointment, it is a business trip, the lady wins again.

Still it takes few more minutes for the lady to sign her name, admire it a bit and prop her signature with last minute touches as if she was Picasso. At last, the lady finishes her departure form – a collage of scribblings, one solid puzzle for any reader. She hands the pen back to me and says "Your Pen now!". "Thanks" I can see that the pen has been ripped apart from its holder stand probably in course of their argument.

As I start to fill my form the Men in Black who are within arm’s length now, change their minds about me and blurt a curt Happy New Year in English before walking away. Immigration/Security chores over, am in the boarding lounge a full 2 hours before departure. Only two others are around, a quaint looking girl in jeans and a plump Indian man going through his colorful print outs.

I decide to settle in a corner near the glass walls hoping to watch the apron activity on the tarmac. But nothing is happening there, so I stretch my legs over the small hand case, hug my backpack, lest it elope with someone else, and fall into a cosy sleep - for a while. The annoying PA system which was off when I dosed, wakes me up announcing the departure of a Malaysian Airlines flight on a nearby gate – not that I care. By this time my flight from Singapore has arrived and the lounge is a lot more crowded.

Few kids are skipping in front and running around merrily. There is this holiday couple necking right next to me as if it is freezing cold on that 27c afternoon. Plus the boarding bridge arms are obstructing my clear sightseeing of the apron. So I go two gates ahead for a clearer view of the apron and patiently watch the cleaning, loading, inspection and other activities on our flight’s aircraft as it prepares for take off. The baggage trucks pick four ULDs (large luggage trunks) from the rear of the arrival aircraft and go away for delivery, seemingly, only to return back after 15 minutes to carry three more ULDs from the front side of the aircraft which they had forgotten.

There is a little squabble among the loaders over who was responsible for the bungle. Am quite sure now my flight would be delayed. No wonder we wait for ages for our baggages to arrive at the carousels. In the midst, one baggage loader looking tired goes and squats on the aircraft’s front tire. As he awaits the next pickup cart, he is bored so he kicks and punches the plane tire a bit to see if it holds. Luckily the airline security inspection team is on ground by then and prevents any more innocent mischieves by this guy. My gazing is interrupted by the last boarding call and I make a final rush to the men’s before queuing to board.

Once on board am surprised to see that the pretty girl whom I saw first in the lounge is seated next to me on the window side with a seat between us. She seems to have a flu, coughs a bit and says “Hi”, with her lips, without any sound. I reciprocate and settle down with the latest edition of “Straits Times”. As I have not been reading daily newspapers of late, am amusing myself with stories about the Tennis history in Australia and the verbal scuffle between Singlish camp / So called Pure English camp in Singapore. Then the cartoons and sports section engross me.

As I browse through the less interesting sundry articles, I see, from my “side vision” that the pretty girl is moving her head sideways, restlessly, as if watching a ping pong match in front. The airhostess breaks into the scene with a "Hot Towels Please!" I mouth a "Thank You" and the pretty girl follows promptly as if seconding me.

I make a calculated guess that the pretty does not speak English. The plane is still on ground and the captain apologizes "This is a particularly busy season of the year so we are still waiting for a runway slot. Kindly bear with us we should be off in about 5 minutes". He is vainly absolving himself and his employer for any fault for the delay. Anyway his 5 minutes arrives after another 15-20 minutes and we are off the ground towards Singapore.

Soon after, the ladies serve food. I had argued with my friend and ordered a special AVML meal code telling her the airlines knew all about it. How I should have heeded her advice and ordered a more detailed meal request to satisfy my finicky taste buds. Anyway, forget brooding over spilt water; I get a mushroom filled oriental meal that I can hardly stomach. I munch on the insipid bread piece and continue my newspaper browsing.

Soon am left only with the mundane economics section so I turn to Kris World (the flight entertainment program) for some excitement. I decide to test my grey matter with the math puzzle! First/Second questions bingo, the third one is tougher and I seem to need a pen/paper to work out. I turn to our coughing beauty and ask her (in English, I did not want to utter something wrong in Mandarin!) for a pen. "No Sorry" two words come from her mouth as she inserts her hands into her bag almost as an after thought. Now am convinced she does not speak English. As if to disprove my thought she picks the newspaper I left and gazes at its parts/pictures for 30 seconds before giving up.

Soon her meal arrives and for the first time her face is lit up and she says "Um Goi Sai" (Thanks a lot in Cantonese) to the hostess. As she is finishing up lunch, I open my laptop to supplement my calculating abilities in a desperate attempt to prove my grey cells were agile still. With little more practical help (That means toss a coin when you are unsure of the answer – how the hell does one expect to answer questions about life history of mathematicians in a math puzzle?) I finish the innocuous test with 90% score. Not bad, I tell myself and the man on my right side grins slyly at my stupidity.

Soon my “left side vision” distracts me to the pretty “now uncomfortable” girl. I can guess she is unto something so I start a Mandarin conversation. She starts a topic and quickly reverts to the point – she has to answer nature’s call. I help clear our meal trays onto other empty seats (no the airhostesses don’t care when you finish eating, they will collect when they have the mood) and guide her to the WC, she is actually quite naïve than I expected. She is thankful and happy I could mumble in her tongue though all her talk is in Cantonese, which I do not speak.

Sensing ennui, I next switch to test my analytical skills and the very second question makes my head heavy. To cool it off, I start browsing recent trip snaps on my laptop. I could tell that our friend is stealthily gazing at those pictures, turning her head in a jerk whenever I turn towards her. Still am not able to have any meaningful conversation with her but curious what she was doing going to Singapore on New year’s eve when she should be traveling in the opposite direction.

Soon the pilot announces that we are approaching Singapore and our girl asks for a Singapore entry card. Same time she takes out an older card (filled by someone else in English) showing her details (she is just 19 and apparently a student from Guangdong and yes I can read her name). Her countenance conveys something queer. As soon as the plane touches ground, literally, she makes a few desperate phone calls in Cantonese and is almost the first to rush out of the plane.

I too nudge past the crowd in a valiant attempt to make my connection; my flight has arrived 45 minutes late. In the corridor I find her again leaning against the wall with a dull gaze, her heavy eyes wanting to ask something, her anxious looks along with her attractive disposition is endearing. She smiles at me and as I ponder to ask if I can be of help, she fiddles with her phone again. I have less than 30 minutes to make my next flight, I frantically run towards gate 50, which is in some obscure corner.

Next flight to Chennai is less crowded. I eagerly await my Indian vegetarian meal onboard. Am hungry after an early brunch and the unpalatable oriental meal in the afternoon. But then, as they often say, someone decides to dispose my wish. Three stewardesses enquire about my meal order, as if something exotic was on store, further kindling my gastric juices and Kou Shui (saliva in Mandarin). What am served is a shocker, a barely filled plate with rotten bread, cold main meal and some meat salad (Veg?)!

I complain to the airhostesses who go through their organizational red tape, even in Singapore airlines, before admitting the goof up. The top lady comes, apologizes and as a compensation offers me 2 breads from the “Business” class. Wow what an offer! Am already put off so I refuse her offer and the icecream that follows.

Strangely still in good spirits, I turn on the telly to watch ‘Alfie’. It’s an English movie about a British lad who comes to New York as a cabbie. He flirts around changing girlfriends at whim before being left ruing his chances as he tries to find a permanent partner. As the movie closes down, Kumbakarna (King of Sleep) invites me for dinner, which I accept gratefully. The ring of a Nokia phone interrupts our dinner and am back to my senses realizing the plane is once again on ground.

As I stretch sleepily to collect my bag stuffed in overheard storage am elbowed by a Gadothgaja (giant in Indian folklore) from behind who rushes in slam-dunk style to gather his bags. I politely stare at him thinking, "If we really played by NBA rules you would have gotten two personal fouls and me the opportunity to shoot your bags anywhere I please - twice". He seems to dismiss my presence, again head banging me on his reverse action as he retrieves his second bag.

Lack of good food and a low tempo push me towards irritation. So I drag my luggage intentionally scuffing his bulk as if to teach a lesson. It hardly has any impact on his buffalo skin. Not to be outdone I walk briskly staying in front of him always, ensuring he does not overtake me. I lead him by few meters going into the immigration queue, but his queue moves faster than mine. Darn! We meet again at the baggage x-ray machine and he sports a boyish smile.

My annoyance melts, "Forgive thee," I tell myself, show back my teeth and breeze through the customs. The prepaid taxi to home costs 10% more than last time but the old system of marking allotting license plate numbers in your bill is gone. Left to choose any waiting cabbie I settle for a sober looking guy.

The weather outside is nice and cool. Our ‘sober’ taxi driver is in mood for a dare devil race competing with the omnipresent water lorries (water supplying trucks). I chat up giving him directions in an attempt to calm him down a bit and figure out he is not a local. Am home soon to the surprise of folks– as usual they had no clue of my arrival. Am unwilling to unpack my bags (only I know there is nothing special in it!) but they insist.

Luckily the Kangaroo fur skin saves the night for me although there is obvious disappointment at my bag’s barrenness. A short chat over cup of hot milk makes up for everything and I start my sojourn with a sound sleep under the ceiling fan.

* Venkat can be reached at veevii a-t gmail dot com

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