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         Volume 10 |Issue 33 | August 26, 2011 |


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Food for Thought

Travel Tales
Close Encounters of the Worst Kind

Farah Ghuznavi

Travel may broaden the mind, but it isn't always kind to the body. Not to mention one's mood! Okay, I'll admit it; I was grouchy. But so would you be if you'd just survived 16 hours of air travel, negotiated the rigours of Heathrow airport, and arrived, scrambling to make it on time, at your assigned meeting place in London - only to find that your friend had stood you up. I exhaled deeply, and ordered a large cappuccino and a fortifying chocolate croissant. Of course I knew that Katy probably had good reasons for being late. Perhaps the traffic had delayed her, or some last-minute crisis at the office, but at that moment I felt quite justified in my grumpiness; which, I might add, was not unrelated to the experience I had just been through…

Travelling on a well-respected Middle Eastern airline, I was fairly taken aback shortly after the journey was underway, when I discovered that the cabin staff seemed less than responsive to passengers' needs. The main cabin attendant, whom I will henceforth refer to as Lady Godzilla, was the leader of the pack; her sugar-coated Filipina exterior disguised a formidably prehistoric approach to customer service. For one thing, she spent a good chunk of the flight sleeping on the jump seat, strategically located behind the curtain at the front of the cabin. No, I'm not kidding - I wish I was.

The rest of her time was gainfully occupied, and divided equitably between informing passengers about what they could not have, and where they could not go. In addition to not being allowed to stand up unless they were going to the toilet, passengers apparently also couldn't ask for a bottle of water - or in the case of one of our number, some hot water to drink. Ironically enough, my neighbour who had requested the bottle of water had done so with the laudable aim of not bothering the cabin staff with repeated requests for water, since he was in the habit of consuming several litres whenever he travelled on long haul flights. Not that that would have carried any weight with Lady Godzilla. No doubt she felt that water deprivation would facilitate her goal of keeping us quite literally in our places by reducing the number of visits to the restroom per passenger.

She also made it quite clear that we could not move around in the cabin or lurk harmlessly in any of the standing areas. Initially, she explained that this was because the standing area was too near the firmly locked cockpit, and the middle-aged man, 10-year-old girl and I, who wanted to stand there for a few minutes, were obvious security risks. I would have respected this somewhat paranoid logic, if she hadn't extended her veto on movement to most other areas of the aircraft.

It is of course completely understandable that too many passengers cannot occupy the standing area at the front or back of the cabin simultaneously, but to be perfectly honest, most people I've met are generally quite happy to remain in their seats. On this occasion as well, there was no rush to occupy any of the small patches of standing room. In fact, there were only two or three of us who even attempted a gentle stroll - only to be sent brutally packing to our places. And in an age when we are continuously told that we should do various mini-exercises in our seats while in the air, and try to occasionally move around in the aircraft instead of remaining in our seats, it was the first (and hopefully, the last!) time that I have come across a cabin attendant who would not allow anyone even a couple of minutes' of standing time during the flight.

Attempting to rationalise Lady Godzilla's attitude, I wondered if perhaps she had heard about the internal flight in Bangladesh a few years ago, when some lunatic deshi passenger had actually tried to open the door in mid-air, and had to be forcibly restrained by cabin crew and fellow passengers. This is not an urban legend, by the way; I have a friend who was unfortunate enough to be on that flight. She's still recovering from the experience, and is oddly reluctant to take domestic flights these days unless absolutely necessary. On reflection though, I dismissed the possibility that someone like this stewardess had heard about such an incident on an obscure domestic airline in Bangladesh.

So having rejected that explanation, it was with bemusement that I noted Lady Godzilla's general tendency to respond in the negative to most requests. A fellow passenger who appeared to be equally struck by this charmless behaviour ventured to suggest to me that the cabin crew members were not in fact doing any of us a favour in responding to requests for water etc, since they were supposed to be there to serve passengers. I assured him that I understood and agreed with the point he was making. It was just that someone needed to tell them that!

As someone who has spent countless evenings serving customers in my mother's fair trade business, I have done my fair share of being on the receiving end of customer demands. And in all honesty, while the experience was not always pleasurable, it was invariably enlightening. Not to mention character building. It's amazing how differently people will behave with you depending on whether they think you are a "mere" salesperson, the daughter of the owner! You can always tell the genuinely decent people from the fact that their behaviour remains the same in both instances, but working as a service provider, the onus is always on you to behave well with customers. So in the final analysis, if you don't like dealing with people, you are probably better off not working in a service industry. Someone clearly needed to tell Lady Godzilla as much.

Of course, it's not as if the entire flight was without its charms. It's just that things seemed a little bit - I don't know – off…For example, I was amazed to discover that the plane had a number of common overhead screens which drops down to feature a pre-set series of programmes; I thought that this system had been phased out over a decade ago, but clearly I was wrong.

In our case, the aforementioned set programme included a particularly trashy Bollywood offering featuring Salman Khan, the steroid-stuffed inexplicable hero of so many Hindi films, with his imitable, girly dance style. I sat through it thinking about all the other Bollywood movies I would rather have been watching. That farce was followed by an even cheesier Tamil film about an honest cop, with well-oiled, impressively curly moustaches, who spent the better part of three hours combating a series of criminals and corrupt politicians. Perhaps you will understand the extent of my desperation, however, if I tell you that I watched almost the entire Tamil movie (yes, I'm admitting that in public - I need absolution for my sins)!

At one point in the journey, I was convinced I'd finally lost my mind, when I started hearing the sound of frogs making "ribbit" sounds and crickets chirping loudly, which did not in any way correspond to the antics on the delightful drop-down movie screens. This was followed by a series of barnyard animal noises, which finally tipped me off to what was happening, and I was deeply relieved to find out that the little boy sitting behind me had a particularly loud Fisher-Price thingamajig to keep him amused during the flight. Perhaps his parents had had advance warning about the Tamil film?!

In retrospect - having taken the time to reflect upon those bizarre events - I sat back in my comfortable chair in the London coffee bar, decided to put aside my grouchiness, and to instead be grateful for my deliverance from Lady Godzilla's whims. And with that thought, I stretched out my legs and began savouring the flaky pleasure of my croissant, as I inhaled the blessed fragrance of my frothy cappuccino in non-recirculated cabin air…


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