"Ayubowan, welcome! Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I am your purser, thank you for flying Sri Lankan airlines. Please make yourselves comfortable and if you need anything, please ask one of my talented and capable crew members who will be happy to help you with warm smiles and kind words."
With this lovely introduction, my journey from Rome to Chennai, via Colombo began. Approximately 10 hours, almost 5,000 miles, and 7 time zones later I arrived to find Chennai as busy and hot as I remembered. However, the flights themselves were interesting enough (I think) to warrant their own post. So, I'll save my first impressions of Chennai for next time.
The purser's words proved correct as, after I had found my seat and stowed my bag in the overhead compartment, I watched the other passengers and crew prepare for our flight. Stewardesses in bright turquoise saris deftly wrestled bags, coats, and hats in successful games of overhead Tetris while quietly admonishing passengers to take their seats and turn off their mobile phones. Although the latter was less successful than the former. (For example, this was a conversation behind me while halfway down the runway: *Cell phone rings out a Hindi pop song* "Hi, where are you?" "Oh, just taking off, I should be there in 9 hours")
Settling into my slightly rickety seat with its extreme enthusiasm for lumbar support, I was reminded of a previous flight on Aeroflot where, upon landing, the backs of unoccupied seats fell forward leaving the cabin resembling a half finished game of Guess Who. Luckily, this proved to be an unfair comparison although the comfort level did not improve during the 8 and a half hours it took to reach Colombo.
|Flying over infamous cities|
Once everything was ready, we departed from Rome on a flight path that took us over the Mediterranean Sea, Middle East, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean. It was a bit surprising to see the names of cities that had held the world's attention during the Arab Spring and the more recent clashes in Syria and Libya as I had followed the news coming from them so vividly and yet never really stopped to consider how close they were. It is just so easy to think of it as "interesting news from somewhere else" rather than right on your doorstep, which, in Italy, is exactly where the fighting in Libya was.
Through my window I watched as the afternoon raced into evening and then into night, with each hour bringing us into a time zone further head. While I was at first sad that the flight would be overnight, as I feared this would mean there would be nothing to look at, this proved to be fortunate. The stars mirrored by the lights of cargo ships when the sky and sea would reach the same deep black colour between the bright lights of the Middle East's biggest cities was possibly one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. The cities themselves rise out of the darkness of the desert to fill the window with a yellow haze before disappearing into the night again. I hope that on my return flight I'll be able to compare the night and day versions of these famous places but I think the bright statement of "we're here and we're still awake" would be hard to beat, with their lights glittering like those on a Christmas tree.
In between pondering the views outside my window and listening to From Our Own Correspondent podcasts, I was treated to some nice, if slightly strange, food choices. As we left Rome at 15:30, we were given the menu for our flight. The options included the standard chicken or fish, with nods to both our departing and arriving locations through the additions of curry and pasta. For the dinner service, I chose the pasta which turned out to be little raviolis in a tomato sauce. Simple and tasty, I was very pleased. Although I decided to pass on the seafood salad (calamari, mussels, etc in a light oil and vinegar dressing), which seemed an unwise choice on a long haul flight.
|Not the most attractive picture...|
It was for the breakfast and snack services that things started to get interesting. The first snack was the standard "peanuts and soft drink" that all airlines offer. Except, these were not peanuts but rather deceptively spicy crackers. Delicious. I seriously considered wandering to the back to see if they had any extras but didn't want to appear greedy. Plus, my tongue was on fire and I was out of diet coke.
|Flight snack, drink and book|
Breakfast was served in between the cracker snack and the next one, at around 3 am Sri Lankan time. Even though I had read the menu, my sleep deprived brain had promptly forgotten the offerings. When asked "chicken or pasta?", I was distracted by the thought that neither of those were really breakfast foods and absent-mindedly chose the pasta. This was a poor choice. There is just something about a creamy salmon tagliatelle dish that doesn't appeal to my early morning appetite. I decided to make due with the roll and fruit cup while trying in vain to avoid smelling the salmon. An hour later, just as I had started to forget the strange breakfast I had been given, the stewardess came round with a basket. The lights in the cabin were still low to allow for sleep and I held out my hand, expecting a toilette. Instead I received an ice-cream bar. At 4 am. Did I think this was a very strange turn of events? Yes. Did I eat it? Of course. And it was actually very good, although I think it probably won't be my breakfast of choice any time soon.
Finally we arrived in Colombo where, disembarking from the plane, I was hit by what felt like a physical wall of heat and humidity. The landing announcement had informed us that the outside temperature was 26 degrees Celsius but had neglected to mention what must have been 100% humidity. After wandering the unair-conditioned concourse, I settled into my Chennai flight's gate and was pleasantly surprised to find the televisions showing what seemed like bizarre options given the setting. Neither screen held the typical news channel or music videos most often found in airports but instead one had Ohio State defeating Purdue in college basketball while the other replayed the Aston Villa /Fulham game. Again, strange, but it worked out well for me as they made the two hours wait fly by, which ws also helped along by the conversations around me.
Overheard while waiting at the gate:
Woman 1: "And do you have grandchildren?"
Woman 2: "Yes, two, both of my daughters."
Woman 1: *Wistfully* "Ah, yes, when you have daughters..."
Woman 2: "You get old faster!"
On the Chennai flight, my seat-mate was a little old lady travelling as part of a little old lady pilgrimage group to shrines around India. There were about thirty of them along with two handlers who made sure everyone's landing cards were filled out correctly and passports secure. The women were all very sweet and amused by their own lack of familiarity with the plane. For example, my seat-mate asked me how to undo her seatbelt, I opened the towelette package for the woman across the aisle and pointed out how the tray table worked to the women behind me. Instead of feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable in the unfamiliar setting, they all laughed and joked about their difficulties. I thought it was a good example for the uncertainties and awkward missteps I'll no doubt face here in Chennai. I plan to follow their lead with a smile and a laugh.
Finally, we landed in Chennai where I zipped through passport control, grabbed my bags and was whisked off to our friends' apartment. After a three hour nap and a shower, I am finally feeling semi-human again and starting to get very nervous/excited about meeting my NGO mentor and seeing the offices for the first time tomorrow. However, I will add one last thing about the flight: I have never, in my twenty-six years of bouncing from place to place, seen so much luggage come off one plane. The conveyor belt was transformed into an endless sea of suitcases in every size and colour, huge cardboard boxes with their owner's names and addresses written on every side, and plastic bags with unknown contents. It was absolutely astounding and I'm not entirely convinced that load conformed to the established laws of physics.
|Six months worth of clothing|
|Six months of clothing in the suitcase|
All in all, it was an easy and stress-free trip and a very nice start to this crazy adventure.