Discuss longhaul
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Travel is the most private of pleasures. There is no greater bore than the travel bore. We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen... (Vita Sackville West).

Monday, July 26, 2004

Today's blog is mostly about people rather than places and I don't know if it will be interesting or not to read. Just warning you in advance in case you can't be bothered to read on.

I got back last night from my first ever visit to India -Mumbai (Bombay), or more precisely, got back from my first ever visit to an Indian Hotel near Mumbai International Airport - as, most disappointingly - the hotel was all I saw of India.

In terms of time and sightseeing the trip was doomed from the off. Due to technical problems and air traffic control delays, I had been on duty for over six hours before we even got airborn at Heathrow. This cut quite a chunk off our time in Mumbai considering we only had one night there to start with. Then, to my dismay, it turned out that for once, BA had decided to put us up near the airport instead of in the city - no doubt a wise move on their part if they want their crews to arrive in time for the flights to leave on schedule. Although the airport is only 30km from Mumbai city, it takes between one and a half to two hours to make the journey, each way, due to the interminable traffic jams. This put paid to my fantasy of getting up early and taking a taxi into the city. The thought of a possible four hours total in a hot taxi and the stress of worrying about being back late for our pick-up time was enough to dissuade me from venturing out. Plus, there was a monsoon going on outside and the state of the pavements was unappealing. It was indeed a hideous waste of my first ever experience of India, for which I had been preparing with the usual references to the LPG and immersing myself in The Raj Quartet - which I highly recommend by the way.

However, even though I was trapped first for fifteen hours in a plane and then for roughly the same amount of time in a hotel, it was still an interesting trip in terms of people and stories. Most of the passengers were Indian rather than English, though a lot were probably British-Indian rather than Indian-Indian. They all became basically Indian en-mass. Considering we had a four hour delay on the ground and that there was no proper air-conditioning all that time, they were amazingly patient and good-humoured. (People usually are - it never fails to amaze me). It was so hot that one's underwear was soaking wet - that kind of discomfort.

During this time some strange things came to light. There was the woman who got on and immediately took me to one side to tell me "I have a bit of a problem", going on to inform me that she was travelling with her husband and step-daughter and that the step- daughter and she hated each other and had asked the travel agent to seat them separately but that they were all together in a three and could I move the step daughter? It turned out that they were all on their way to the step daughter's wedding in India and that certain upset would ensue should the two arch enemies find themselves in each others company for the duration of the journey.

Then there was the epileptic Indian girl from Birmingham who hated flying and confided that she was quite likely to go into a siezure during take-off due to fear. Her story became fleshed out during the flight as although she survived take-off seizure-free, she then began to feel unwell as time went on and came and sat in the galley with me. It turned out she was going to Mumbai to stay with relations and buy her wedding outfit - a blood red dress. She was stressed out about every aspect of her life: Her job - advocate for the mentally ill, her future husband - a bus driver from Brum, the cost of the wedding - £25,000, the amount of guests - 500 people all staring at her for hours on end, the flight, losing her hair due to the eplilespy drugs...the list went on. I hoped that by getting some of this off her chest she might calm down, but even though we tried sympathy, shoulder massage and strong tea, she did in the end throw up and succumbed to a minor seizure mid-flight, which is how I made the acquaintance of the doctor from Lincoln....

.....Who, was another British Indian who had practised as a GP in the aforementioned city for thirty years and found the people very hard to make friends with. "They are closed-in on themselves" he said. "They never open up to you and I have never been able to make friends with my neighbours. But it is not a skin-colour thing. It is in their genes my dear". Thus followed his pet philosophy to explain the differences in the native English population - all down to genetics. According to him a line runs across England from Preston to about York which you can trace back to historical events and series of invasions by Vikings and Romans, resulting in one type of Englisher north of the line and another type south of it. The northern type being more open and friendly than the southerner. We debated this, surely simplified thesis, at some length between dealing dealing with the epileptic Harmi.

I also met a charming Irishman called Declan - this time on the way back from Mumbai, who had boarded the flight in a state of near-dysentry. Poor man. He was obliged to give us a blow-by-blow account of what occured behind the toilet door so that we could decide which drugs, how many and in what order to administer them so as to stem the flow from both ends. It was pretty humiliating for the poor chap who went on to tell me that it was the culmination of a bad twelve months of his life. He had been diagnosed with a cancerous growth on his leg and was still in pain from the surgery and treatment and this trip to India had turned into quite a challenge as he was leading a group of colleagues - camera men and women doing a film about India. That morning he had received a telephone call saying that one of the party was going to be arrested on his arrival back into Dublin and that Declan was being charged with ensuring he made the return journey and was delivered into the hands of the law. As Declan was also sworn to secrecy and had not been able confide any of this to any of the colleagues - least of all the accused, it was quite important we managed to keep him well enough to accompany the criminal to his destination. Whatever the charge against him was it was obviously serious stuff - my best guess being child-pornography/paedophilia related crime.

These are only a few of the glimpses I got of strangers lives. We also had three Mumbai-based International Cabin Crew travelling with us each way. They were interesting because although very anglicised due to spending so much time amongst the rest of us, they are still rooted in their own culture and leading a very different life to us. BA provides them with beautiful saris and they look absolutely lovely in them - really glamorous and graceful. All of them must be from high caste families or they would never have been able to aspire to working in such a role. It is difficult to figure out why they want to do it as I can't believe they need the money as they are certainly wealthy anyway and most have husbands and children as well as maids at home. No doubt just being able to say that this is what you do counts as a huge staus symbol in India - flitting across to London several times a month and fraternising with the English, who however unlikely it may seem if you are reading this, the Indians of Mumbai still really seem to like.

It is a paradox though as to do the job they are sometimes required to serve people that in the rest of their Indian lives they would probably not deign to speak to. You can see it sometimes in their manner to the darker or poorer-looking passengers - not that we see any really poor Indians on board of course, as you have to be rich enough to buy the ticket at all. One of them, called Suchema, was really extremely nasty about her fellow countrymen. Having listened to me patiently explaining to this rather uppity Indian woman that if she really wanted to write and complain about our delay I could provide her with a comments card containg all the contact addresses etc even though BA would not regard her views as justifying any compensation in these circumstances, this was Suchema's reaction;

"You shouldn't encourage these people Vicky! They just get the idea they are more important than they really are. If you let them get big headed and complain, they think they are equal to you. Bloody shepherds! You should just tell them to Fuck Off!" - all of which I was half shocked, half entertained by. It was an insight into the Hindu mentality. But Suchema was a rather unique specimen. For a start she was stunningly sexy - no question about that and on her fingers she sported two massive diamond-encrusted rings worth, she said, several thousands of pounds each. Secondly she was actually divorced which surpised me as I thought that must be pretty rare amongst Indian Hindus but she said it is getting commoner all the time, though only for the higher castes I'll bet. Her parents were quite liberal minded about the divorce though they had taken some persuading about her new boyfriend who is a Glaswegian Catholic Indian. Still, she had convinced them that he was a good match and they had breathed a sigh of relief that at least he wasn't a Muslim which would just about have had them locking her up. She intended marrying this Glasgow Indian and going to live in Glasgow, but I could see that she was nothing but trouble with her outstanding looks and spoilt-brat manners and I wondered how long it would take this love struck but canny Scot to realise what he had let himself in for. (All Scots are canny - Indian or otherwise so I expect he will realise in the end).

This wasn't the end of my cultural immersion. At the hotel, which was truly sumptuous, even by five-star standards, the staff - mostly men, just couldn't do enough to please us. Without exception they were mortifyingly good-looking, charming and educated. Jude, if you are reading this, you'd have swooned and needed smelling salts and wafting with a fan most of the time. You better not go there. (Although, thinking about this, i could see them having a field day with swooning English lady. You needn't let on about being Welsh).

I had the humiliation of having some dhal delivered to my room by a tall, perfect-looking young Indian gentleman who was solicitous about my welfare down to the finest detail and conducted my dining arrangements with the care due to a minor royal whilst I hung about the corners of my room clad in nighty and dressing gown feeling like a white frumping gowk and smiling like a freak. Honestly, why can't hotels send a woman to women's rooms?

Even if you chanced to meet a hotel minion on the landing between the lift and your room, he would practically stand to attention and grin enthusiastically at you until you had allowed him to direct you to the correct corridor or carry your bag. But none of this seems servile. It is just exceptional manners and willingness to make conatct with foreign visitors. The Hindus of Mumbai I met seemed to relish all Englishness in all its forms. It was different to in Bangladesh where most people, although still exceptionally friendly and polite, were Muslim. The Indian Hindus seem more confident, a bit more westernised and a lot more happy. All this needs further investigation on future trips, but these are my first impressions.

Finally, Asha, who was customer service manager at the hotel and who came to check that I and my fellow crew member Suvi (half Finnish) were enjoying our dinner in the graceful surroundings of the hotel restuarant. She was practically angelic with beauty and presence - all dressed up in a yellow and gold sari with jewels on her forehead and perfect English. Suvi and I were indeed enjoing our Indian buffet and were rather cowed by this goddess-like being who had condescended to notice us. But, on hearing that we were British Airways cabin crew, the goddess clasped her hands together and cried "Oh! But I LOVE BRITISH AIRWAYS!!! It would be my DREAM COME TRUE to be BRITISH AIRWAYS CABIN CREW!!!! Please tell me if you think it is possible I could try and get a job with you! What qualifications do you need?"

I looked at Suvi and back at Asha, and just said "You've got them already" and indeed this vision of enthusiasm and beauty knocked spots off the two of us. We went on to try and explain that it wasn't what she thought it would be and that we were just considered complete nonentities by BA and everyone back in England and that we weren't at all rich or privileged and couldn't normally have sat in a restaurant like this every day of the week, but you could tell none of this sank in with Asha. We left her with our email addresses and various phone numbers for Recruitment. The world is completely unequal and at odds with itself from country to country and although there seemed to be genuine affection between the Indians and English we saw, there is still a gulf of comprehension to bridge. As I mentioned many paragraphs back, I am reading The Raj Quartet - set in 1942 mostly and as far as the various ways we all relate to each other go there look to be many parallels between then and now and I predict this will go on for another fifty years at least.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Caroline and Me
Caroline's Antique Shop
Pittenweem, Fife
I welcome myself back after quite an absence during which there was no public outcry at my retreat from the virtual world although one or two of you did say I should not give it up. Thank you, I accept these humble requests for further blogging as a beggar accepts crumbs from a rich man's table...

I've just returned from a trip to Denver, about more which later, but before that I was fortunate enough to have a week or so off work during which I made it up to Fife to see my friend Caroline who I first met on my St Kilda holiday back in 2000. As a couple of you also know Caroline and might be interested to see some photos, I will post a few pertaining to my trip on the blog. These days Caroline is running her own antique shop in Anstruther near St Andrews and living in an antique pile too - an old hunting lodge set in some trees up a completely unassuming track through a field of wheat. You'd never know it was there but it is quite a treasure and Caroline and her monumental amount of stuff have colonised a large room in it.

She introduced me to the realities of life as an antique dealer for the day which turned out to be like starring as a couple of contestants on the TV show Bargain Hunt. We trawled Fife in my Volvo looking for cheap junk/antique shops in the area and then Caroline proceeded to cherry-pick at their contents, haggling like mad and doing sweet old men out of supplements to their pensions no doubt. Oh but it's a cut throat world out there, believe me. With an eye for underpricing and a ruthlessness I didn't know she possessed, Caroline, by the end of an afternoon had filled my boot with figurines, jugs, books, pots and brass-wear, all destined to be spruced up and displayed to advantage in her, undoubtedly more stlyish premises further afield. This involved a lot of gentle deception and sometimes outright lying as she pretended all long she was collecting things to fill a new cottage she had bought and at no time owned up about being in the trade herself. Hopefully all the aging dealers we met wont decided to visit Anstruther for an afternoon out until she has re-sold all their choicest wares. It is livivng on the edge, really! For a day it was good fun though and we returned home like a couple of nasty old misers, rubbing our hands with glee.

The rest of the time I slept more than you would believe possible. Ten hours or more a night,night after night and even then I could have done with another week of the same. Hmmm...accumulated jet-lag or just a sluggish metabolism? Still, it was back to work on Friday and a quick jaunt to Denver Colorado.

Weirdly, Denver is built on a flat plateau but is a mile above sea level. The airport is in the middle of nowhere which for America is unusual enough, but even more peculiarly the whole design of the place throws a placatory nod to what was there before it arrived, that being a Native American burial ground. The roof of the terminal is made of canvas which has been poked up in many angled spikes which you soon realise are reminiscent of wigwams. Inside you are confronted with large black and white images of squaws, feathered headresses and ancient looking tribesmen called things like Thunder Thighs. I suppose it is an attempt to harness the heritage from a tourism point of view and apologise slightly for desecrating a place that was important to the former inhabitants. If I was a Plain's Indian it would make me hopping mad.

Officially designated a desert according to one airport employee, it didn't look much like one when we arrived. The sky was heavy with grey and black clouds and the rain tipped down with total conviction. I quite like a bit of rain and while we travelled across the plain to the city the weather raged around us and obscured the distant Rocky Mountains, a view of which I had been promised. In all directions there was just pale yellowing grassland with the occasional shrub. Gentle undulations led away to the horizon and apart from the road to and from Denver, it was a completely empty landscape. It felt like a moor or North Uist and could definitely contend for the world's biggest camping site ever. You could even feel that you were raised up somehow - not like being on flat land at sea-level. It was a lovely spacious and wild place and I would have loved to stick on my wellies and head off across all that nothingness away from my compatriots on the crew transport.

However, after twenty-five minutes we reached Denver which was much smaller than most of the other cities I've been to in The States. Only a handful of skyscrapers greeted from the CBD (Central Business District in case you are not familiar with this tag) instead of the usual forest. It didn't take long to get to the centre but it wasn't until the next day that I wandered around to take a look.

I had been warned that Colorado is the most generous of all the states in terms of its state benefit payments and that Denver is full of Vietnam veterans and limbless citizens aswell as homeless beggars and general weirdos. This turned out to be all too true. Nothing really redeems Denver City that I could see. The formal green area in front of the State Capitol Building, City Hall and Art Museum, although carefully manicured and litter-free is now the stamping ground of Denver's pan-handling community. Male drunks and disadvantaged Mexicans (or were they "Indians"?) lolled in the sun and homed in on likely looking targets like myself at all turns. You couldn't possibly have relaxed there yourself. Even at the busstops it seemed that the only people taking public transport were down-and-outs heading to or from the park. I attempted to sit on the edge of the scene to read but was intimidated enough to give up quite quickly.

Sixteenth Street was busy with shoppers. It is a long shopping street given over to pedestrians with money to burn and it was the only place with any life to it on a Saturday. The rest of the city centre becomes dead at the weekend as it is mostly office blocks. But even the shops here were third-rate. I don't like shopping at the best of times but it was the cheapest and tackiest stores which proliferated and hardly any of the better quality chains. All very uninspiring.

As the day wore on and the sun burned off the mist from yesterday's rain, the distant Rocky Mountains emerged from obscurity. They rise up from the plain like an immense and endless spine of grey-blue craggy peaks - alluring yet forbidding in one. I'm sure that once you get out of Denver, the natural wonders and the history of Collarado must be worth further investagtion. Certainly the British passengers coming home again were full of enthusiasm at the scenery of the Rockies and if I ever get longer than one night in the area I will certainly try and get a closer look at them.

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