Published in Lifestyle + Travel, November/December 2006
Frequent Flyer on Maximum Alert
I am at Chennai Airport. It is the night after the Heathrow Airport bomb scare and its total mayhem. Check Point Charlie meets The Poseidon Adventure! Frequent fliers should know that, since the advent of bren-gun patrols in shopping arcades, Indian airport security forces have mobilized themselves into para-military units, modeled loosely on the K.G.B. Backs of boarding passes are scrutinized for Vegemite stains with Mossad-like intensity. Post metal- detector frisks are robust and manly, unlike the scatty knob-swipers at Changi Airport security checks: “Hey, Sharma, go easy – I plan to reproduce!!
At the bigger Indian Airports the curbside to fuselage door experience is like an obstacle course; in a perfect world, frequent fliers would get certificates of completion as they board the plane.
Tonight the obstacle course starts on arrival at the airport drop off. I am pressed into a kerbside corale, sheep-dip style, squeezed between a nervous Auroville hippy bound for Heathrow, on BA, and a German businessman, bound for Frankfurt on Lufthansa. “Just when we’d learned to travel light,” the hippy complains, “they take our wheels, man,” A Sahara Air pilot is waving furiously. His flight leaves in twenty minutes: he is ignored by security and almost trampled underfoot by a congo-line of maids from Colombo – long pleated skirts packed together like centipede legs, the congo-line weaves around the airport’s apron. Everywhere are Indian passengers with very extended families moving 500 kilos or so of white goods from one continent to another.
Inside the terminal the walls are awash with white noise and betel nut expectorant. The Singapore Airlines counters are in the furtherest area. The well-fed Chinese station manager beams calm vibes as one approaches his corner of calm. After completing formalities (30 minutes) I take comfort in a vegetable pattie in the lounge. Five immaculately tailored barmen are observing the boisterous behaviour of some English ‘Hoorays’ at the bar. Watching Yorkshire men get quickly drunk is second only to cricket as a spectator sport at Indian airports.
Finally on board I sink into my super size seat with a huge sigh of relief: this is the home stretch of a fortnight’s flying that’s taken me to South China, Eastern India and Western Australia. A glass of low-fat milk appears with some Duchy of Cornwall shortbreads. It’s midnight. I dunk the shortbread deep into the glass and then close my eyes. I remember flights past ……..
26 th July 2006: Sanya, Hainan to Quandong: BRAVE NEW WORLD Tourism
If Hainan is China’s answer to Hawaii, then Sanya Airport is Hainan’s answer to North Korea. The stiff phalanx of floral sofa seats in the business class lounge have not been moved since Mao’s visit in 1967. One senses dread as one hovers around the breakfast bar: one false move, like popping the Fruit Loop bag, and the courtesy hostess would bring you down. “Boarding now” is not an invitation, it’s an order. One is marched, goose-step style, to the waiting bus, which is full of Chinese tourists in Hawaiian shirts screaming at each other. The bus to the plane is new and the air conditioning is on full. As is the volume on all the passengers. It’s like “Gidget in Taiwan Parliament,” on wheels. The din does not quell inside the plane. No amount of soothing New Age New Asia music – a Sanya staple – can quell the masses.
After a few minutes I realize it’s the same music that was playing poolside at the jovial-witness Sanya Hilton and at the “Small Fishes Lovingly Kiss Your Dead Skin” Springs down the road.
The plane is newly leased from Aeroflot. Mercifully a tall hostess with a gymnast’s body soon pulls the thick apricot chintz curtain shut and I can race to the toilet to steal the moisturizer. It’s a coconut oil-based hand cream in an alarming tube. The cream is thick and ungiving. In my wayward youth I used to steal perfume on planes by stuffing ear plugs in the hole but one day the contents spilled out and erased the ink on an on-going boarding pass. I had to fess up when I went to the SQ transit counter. They laughed – they are now trained to laugh at in-flight kleptomaniacs – and I asked, “Do you ever cross-checks perfume thefts with passenger lists.”
The China Southern in-flight meal is a delicious regional treat: the lightest melt-in your mouth cup-cake is served with dried fish wool and green tea. I have seconds.
On arrival at Quandong’s crisp new airport – a temple to stainless steel in the tradition of the Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur airports – the luggage comes through quickly. I marvel at the striking flower displays in the arrival hall – scarlet roses with wild ivy in giant chrome tubs – that are modern, distinctly Chinese, and a perfect counter-point to the industrial architecture. The rest of the airport – vast and unrelenting – is devoid of any cultural reference save for hundreds of national flags, from other peoples’ nations, which serve only to obscure the pale aqua signage.
I long for Changi with its friendly, homey atmosphere, and idiot-proof signage.
27 th July 2006: Broome to Perth, QANTAS, Economy Class
I have recently been downgraded from One World Platinum to One World Gold. It’s a terrible thing to happen to a frequent flier late in life as one’s peers are ever so competitive: men have tier-status tags dangling from their Tumi bags, as they once had scout badges riding high on their shoulders.
One World Gold still allows one to use the Qantas business class lounge even when flying economy – which at Broome airport means some air-conditioning away from the scent of the beer in the charming little airport’s main departure area. The lounge was up a steep flight of wooden stairs: I opened the door to find a tray of fruit cake, some tea bags and sixteen of my countrymen in a vegetative state watching footie on the telly.
I had been rearranging Buddha statues at the heavenly Cable Beach Hotel in Broome. Broome is a real frontier town – and it sure is reflected in the demographic/ demonic/alcoholic break-down on the plane.
At check-in, I had forgotten to ask fo a seat vacant net to me – as generation X.X.L. frequent fliers are allowed to – so I boarded the plane last. Three seats in the front were vacant in the economy section, mercifully. I plocked myself down, exhausted from the heat, the fruit cake and the Aussie rules. Suddenly a lady appeared, in animal print leggings.
“You’re supposed to be in 6E,” she growled. “These are my seats.” (Was she a stalker?).
“All three,” I enquired meekly (By this time a small crowd has gathered).
“Look, I work at the airport, see, and you can sit here but I just want you to know that they’re all my seats.”
I know better than to take on a Qantas staff member in full territorial swing but I did saunter forward to galley after take-off to complain.
“You know, if it wasn’t for us frequent fliers,” I complained, “she wouldn’t have a job!”
“That’s why they call us Q.A.N.T.A.S., dear” he hissed, “Queer and nasty, try another service,” He went back to his Bali Real Estate portfolio as the food trolley careened off down the aisle.
Made Wijaya is the nom de plume of Bali-based Australian writer and landscape designer Michael White.
Travel Tips :
If traveling on business to Chennai pay the extra marginal to get into first class on the flight to Singapore. Get a free bottle of Bulgari perfume and a very decent three hours sleep. Business class on the India bound SR777s is configured like a night bus to Lhasa these days, and full of the wi-fi enabled squawking like peacocks.
Made Wijaya is a Bali-based writer and landscape designer. His popular column Stranger in Paradise (founded in 1979) is syndicated in various Asian newspapers and magazines. He travels extensively.