Aasha Mehreen Amin
Isn't it amazing that no matter how much you travel, even if it's to the same old city again and again, there is always a strange experience that awaits you? The people you meet, the bizarre scenes you witness, the awkward moments, the mini-disasters all add to the wonderfully unpredictable saga of travel.
One of the unexpected discoveries I have made recently is the overwhelming contrast of travelling economy with first class. Unable to find a seat in the prescribed airlines on a particular date, my travel agent has the brilliant idea of upgrading me to first class, much to my sheer delight. It has been quite a while since such a blessing had been bestowed upon me and most of my travel experiences recently have been in good old, wholesome yet claustrophobic, economy.
The first taste of this elevated status is a boarding pass that takes me to the business class lounge at ZIA. At first this haloed place looks pretty straightforward. “You can have some snacks from the buffet”, delicately informs the uniformed attendant. Sure enough in the middle of the lounge is a table-clothed buffet table holding all sorts of goodies on silver trays. I take a few of the tiny snacks, mini cheese sandwiches, minute croissants and miniscule pastries. I can't help wondering though: Why is it that buffets have such a wide variety of pretty-looking things so alluringly arranged, but taste basically like one thing --mud? The flight is still a good two hours away so I spend the time checking out my fellow mates--n elegant blond woman, clearly bored out of her mind as she watches an eighties flick on some movie channel while taking off and putting on her golden sandals, a Chinese gentleman who sleeps throughout the entire waiting period but miraculously wakes up just as the attendant is about to call him, a group of disgustingly enthusiastic Taiwanese unashamedly awake at three in the morning and with the audacity to laugh and joke until the very last moment before embarkation, the glamorous Oriental (could be Chinese or Thai or Taiwanese) consultant who loses no time in giving the finishing touch to her presentation on her slick Apple laptop and finally the typical expensively suited salt n' peppered, Indian boarding school-educated Bangladeshi businessman who drinks cups of Earl Grey while browsing through the newspapers he hardly ever has time to read. It takes considerable self restraint to tear my eyes away from all these glamorous characters and pretend to read my book.
Getting on the plane is like being taken into a cosy bedroom. The leg space is decadently wide, the smiles enchanting, it even smells upgraded! Like a country bumpkin in a city mall, I flounder about, trying to figure out the workings of the B-class seat. There are at least five or six switches to contort the occupant into any shape or size they want. I begin to play with the switches like a maniacal toddler, trying almost all the combinations, except the right one. Mortified, I end up with my feet dangling ensuring maximum water retention and the back of the seat prodding into my back like a mugger's gun. In this strange position, I also have to accommodate my handbag (never let go of that) and a
water bottle (just in case). Note to self: Make sure the cap is screwed you dingbat or you'll soak the darn chair!
Then there's the ubiquitous pillow that they insist on giving. What does one do with it? I put it on my stomach and then the blanket over it as it is freezing cold. But this makes me look at least seven-months expectant so pillow goes on top of blanket and 'must-read' book on top of pillow. Then in a series of actions, the sultry stewardesses in exotic dresses that cling perfectly to their coke bottle figures hand out hot towels, guava or orange juice and the much awaited earphones.
The solicitous stewardesses constantly ask what one needs, never forgetting to smile brilliantly. She even indulgently says “don't worry about it at all”, when I confess to her later while leaving the plane, that I have soaked the entire seat with water from the leaking water bottle.
Just as one is settling down with all the paraphernalia the hard part comes--the food. After the Sattay served on trolleys, comes another appetiser-tamarind and mango salad in a luscious capsicum. I would have liked to eat the whole thing but propriety prevails and instead I fork out the contents neatly, slice it up and sample what must be a mouth-watering delicacy. It tastes like mud. I then notice a suspicious looking creamy sauce in a little container which had come with the appetiser. Maybe it's a generous helping of salad dressing I surmise. I am about to pour the whole thing onto the capsicum delight when the bits of saffron in the liquid stop me. I am profoundly suspicious. Leave the yellow gravy I tell myself. Finally, I muster enough courage to ask one of the honey-toned stewardesses: What is this please? “It's a dessert ma'm, it's vegetarian”, she says huskily. Yippee and Relief.
There is of course more to come--lamb curry, mixed vegetables, chicken curry and paratha, which I think the cook forgot to fry after swathing it in oil. The mud meal, however, is served with such aplomb, such charming warmth that one almost forgets its insipidness and instead revels in the pampering.
The meal over, the lights are dimmed and the cabin is full of sleeping men on their reclining chair-beds. One is snoring to glory. I try to sleep too but who can resist a Hollywood flick with Nicole Kidman?
We arrive at Kuala Lumpur airport in the wee hours of the morning but it could be the middle of the day here in this gigantic shopping mall. I am about to faint with exhaustion' so quickly lug myself to the airport hotel that the airlines had so kindly provided- for the twelve hour wait until my next flight. Airport hotels are a Godsend. You don't have to run around like a headless chicken, dragging your feet to every duty-free shop while becoming numb from head to toe.
Airport hotels are weird though. I've been to three in three different countries and the feeling is almost identical. There is a heavy door, like you are entering a bank vault; the room has all the basics bed, television, clean bathroom, sometimes they even have a toothpaste kit (how thoughtful). BUT, one is in a virtual prison. THERE ARE NO WINDOWS! When you try to draw the curtains your hands will find only concrete. This rather rude but possibly necessary measure is to avoid people from defecting through the window.
But if the feeling of dread can be shed, you could actually enjoy this deluxe prison: soaking endlessly in a hot tub (remember it is Siberia from airport-to plane-to airport) and then fall into a dead stupor under the warm blankets. Who needs MTV, who needs visual relief? Just to be able to bathe and lie perfectly horizontal for a few precious hours, instead of the lop-sided dozing on airport lounges or staring at equally exhausted fellow passengers is enough to feel eternally grateful.
A new challenge comes up when it is time to get a meal voucher from an elusive place called the 'Transfer Desk'. Every smiling official at some desk or the other informs that the transfer desk is 'right around the corner'. I am going in circles, passing by all kinds of temptations: bookshops, young men offering strips to smell the latest fragrance and deadly chocolate stores offering every conceivable kind of chocolate…Focus I tell myself: meal coupon.
Finally I find the 'transfer desk' like a hidden land in a different dimension only to be informed: “Sorry Ma'm you are not entitled to any meal”. Some fool has mistakenly crossed out all the meals in my ticket and then put a barely visible tick mark next to one of them. I know my rights and so haughtily demand that they contact the airlines and ask them if a twelve-hour wait did or did not 'entitle' me to a meal. Of course I win.
Emboldened by my latest weapon--a meal coupon, I embark upon another journey- the quest for a satisfactory meal. Italian, Chinese, Malaysian so many choices of cuisine await. In the end it is the red-yellow-white and blue logo of Capitalism -Burger King- that lures me. I know that there is still a long way to go before my final destination. For now, however a Whopper, fries and soda constitute my semi-blissful state.
To be continued…
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