So there we both were at the packed departure lounge for Calcutta at Dubai Airport, spaced out and drained from the first leg and six-hour linger, having then searched for a wheelchair for less-mobile mum and now waiting for the first boarding announcement.
Usually the airline lets those in wheelchairs and carrying babies board first but a major hindrance had materialised: a large number of passengers had decided to not so much as queue before the gate as form an impenetrable crowd of bodies and baggage blocking the way for whoever was called first.
Now I could understand the thinking behind this behaviour if we were about to board a Ryanair short-hop with unallocated seating, when many flyers customarily want first dibs on seats to the extent that they'll start queuing long before boarding, and if you want to guarantee a seat next to your partner then you have join the line.
However, on a long-haul flight with pre-allocated seats, when they call you on incrementally in specific row sections, there is actually zero point in queuing early unless you somehow knew they were calling your seats first. Just standing blank-faced like cows waiting for milking, and then of course refusing to budge when the announcement arrives for rows A to C to please begin boarding.
easy boarding - not realistic
Naturally, those holding the correct tickets can’t get past the unmoving mass, some of whom at the front have the cheek to try walking through anyway, then look affronted when told it’s not their turn by the gate attendant.
And then, to make matters nicely worse, instead of sensibly rectifying the situation with a polite yet firm announcement for everyone to just back away from the gate until your section's been called, the airline then announces for rows D to G to begin boarding, after the previous rows have very visibly been unable to get through.
Hell breaks loose as a mini stampede piles through, Bengali curses and exclamations ringing out as people get shunted. All mum and I can do is hang back shaking our heads at the sheer needless idiocy of it all - I regret not recording the scene with my camera to create a realistic anti-advert for the airline and air travel in general.
flight welcome - not realistic
Once we’d finally scrambled onto the jumbo the bad luck continued. The only thing that had kept me alert and sane on the previous flight was the entertainment screen with games and movies on demand. On this one the screen was too small and hazy and you could only watch what they had chosen at the times they choose. Stuck with an obscure film I could barely see or hear on a much noisier flight, I wasn’t a happy camper.
The only thing that could alleviate the situation was a semi-decent in-flight meal as the extended wakefulness and previous missions had triggered some major rumbles. A dragged-out feed could also kill the best part of an hour too, but it would have to be something soft-ish as my swollen jaw couldn’t handle anything harder than a banana. At long last it arrived.
Lamb medallions - the airline version, ie. having sat around for so long their consistency was closer to pencil erasers than meat. Unable to chew them without wincing and clasping my face, that was the moment I hit rock bottom, 30,000 feet above the Arabian Sea. All my options had dried up. Nothing left could lighten my spirits while trapped in that seat – I couldn’t even drink alcohol as I was on so many antibiotics and feeling rough as fuck. I did try though, and funnily enough it didn’t help.
After managing to scrape together a mini-meal from the limp side vegetables, condiment sachets and mum's donations I had to ride out the rest of the flight playing a primitive version of Battleships on a tiny fuzzy screen that kept freezing, broken up only by an old Bollywood movie with no subtitles.
I spent the last two hours sat motionless with my eyes closed, praying for the release of sleep that wouldn’t arrive until we’d landed and made it out of the airport and back to the hotel. Needless to say that part didn’t go particularly smoothly either but that’s a different story to recount later, along with the more positive sides to India that weren’t mired in chaos.
In that first jerky hour-long cab ride through central Calcutta however, what should've been an entertaining eye-opening welcome to the city’s bustle seemed like the shrieking road to hell, a ceaseless barrage of noise, fumes and gridlock traffic, emaciated figures looming up at the window at every standstill, mutely begging us captive passengers for currency we didn’t yet possess.
It put things into perspective though – my immediate problems of oral pain, hunger and sleep deprivation would have receded by the next day, the jaw a little longer, although that would be superseded by the affliction cursing most Western visitors here, of which I won’t need to go into much detail in the next chapter.
My hardy mum also needed to dialyse every other day at local hospitals while experiencing the same, struggling with the nature of the beast of a modern-day urban India completely at odds with the more serene memories of her childhood here.
Kris Griffiths BBC link Kris Griffiths website