Leaving on a jet plane
Constancy has a sadistic way of changing, constantly.
Life changing things happen to all sorts of people, all the time. Things that made me not want to get out of bed, things that kept me from going to bed in the first place.
Don’t think for a minute that I use the words ‘life changing’ loosely. You don’t expect to pack your bags and move thousands of miles away without making some hard and demanding decisions. Moving so far away from home, away from your well settled life. You can’t just close out a bunch of close relationships quickly and cleanly. Leaving behind the false hope of meeting again soon, only to linger on for moments in a tight embrace, spouting long goodbyes that last a few seconds. Goodbyes that somehow gave this move a fleeting sense of permanency.
On a stormy night nearing the end of July, I moved to this strange country. You might argue that The United States of America is in no way a strange country and that thousands, if not millions of people make this journey to and from its golden shores, every single day. Strange, in this context, a mere substitute for its synonym, ‘unfamiliar’.
It was, I agree, an opportunity of a lifetime. An opportunity to break away from my small, comfortable cocoon in the warm climes of the city that never slept and fly across the seven seas in the discovery of a new culture. I could imagine myself in the shoes of Columbus, an Indian man in search of a fresh new start, who looked west toward a land that many fabled to provide good fortunes. It was a chance to meet people I’ve been talking to over the phone for the past several years, knowing every inflection in their tone of voice by heart but never knowing what they looked like. It was a sweet pretext to travel the world to get to know and mingle with a plethora of cultures, a diverse people of varied languages and cuisines.
But you see, dear diary, you cannot imagine what a single man, hailing from a tropical metropolis in Western India has to go through to embark upon such an epic journey. Let’s face it, I was quite likable back home, and the displays of affection from family and friends made every rational thought popping up in my head jump through every hoop imaginable.
You can’t overlook the emphasis on the word, single. There is an unwritten rule in Indian households that until a son gets married, his mom is the only woman in his life. Things may or may not change post marriage, but until that fateful day arrives, he is solely his mother’s property. In my first week of arriving here, I got into an awkward conversation with an aunt and the first question she asked me was, ‘How did your mom let you get away with being single?’
I wanted to explain my situation, but decided not to. How could I tell her that my last days at home were spent getting a series of lectures on the do’s and don’ts of living in a foreign country? How could I disclose that I’d been negotiating with my mom and dad, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters? Only with the sole objective of giving them a sliver of comfort, coping with the thought of letting me go? That I’ve had to make assurances, promises, and commitments that I wouldn’t get involved in any funny business. You may be twenty-eight, and you might have been a responsible for the past ten years, but your parents don’t trust you with any new found independence. How could I begin to describe their lackluster eyes and long goodbyes? That made me feel like I’m going to see them for the last time before going to the front lines to fight the next world war? There was my thought process too. Why was I leaving behind a lifetime of history and familiarity? Why was I giving up my support structure and the comforts of my warm, comfortable bed to sleep alone on hard floors and reused mattresses in an alien environment? Why was I leaving behind a crowded, fast-paced life in the hot-and-humid oasis called Mumbai and moving to a slow and spacious, soon-to-be-a-frigid American suburb, where time stood still for as long as it could?
It was time, dear diary, to allay all those fears and put those anxious thoughts behind me. I stared through the open glass panes of Mumbai’s posh and crowded Terminal 2 airport at my family, my eyes moist and heart heavy after the recently concluded finally-final goodbye just a few minutes back. As I proceeded towards the check in and henceforth to customs, I waddled about the commercial expanse of the airport, browsing through useless paraphernalia tourists found interesting. Like an obedient student, I had followed the airline instructions and come in well before the two hour stipulation that most airlines require their passengers to report in. It also meant that I had that much more time to kill in the company of fellow strangers partaking in their journeys.
The airport is a mystical place. There are different boarding gates to find, and escalators and conveyor belts to navigate the concrete maze. The seats littered with sleepy, irritated, shifty-eyed passengers carrying over packed luggage in one arm and noisy children in the other. Each one was silently praying that the locks will hold or won’t break apart, that the children will behave and that they would have the honorable occasion of meeting their baggage at their final destination. None of which had any guarantees.
It might be amusing to note that the last meal I had while on Indian soil was a spicy chicken burger from KFC at two AM. I knew my staple diet from now on would consist of burgers, fries, pizzas, and sandwiches, but I couldn’t resist the warm and tantalizing smell of fried chicken wafting over in my direction. Its distinctive Indianized flavor trumped its American counterpart. The soft and juicy center of a crispy, deep-fried piece of chicken reminded me of a little piece of heaven. My country, my home, whose vestige I would be carrying in the garlicky aftertaste on my breath.
I braced myself for my twenty-three hour long journey. In twenty-three hours, I would have the benefit of checking out four and a half airports, their customs and security checks, and their myriad and enigmatic baggage claim procedures. New York’s JFK counts as one and a half Airport, only due to its sheer size and volume of people it serves daily. Not to mention that I had to fly onwards to Suburbia from its domestic terminal. This monumental journey would require me to fly in three different aircrafts, two jumbo jets and a tiny aircraft that looked like a fountain pen with wings. I would have to deal with annoying passengers who took the window seat and had to pee a lot. Helpful flight attendants whose personal goal was to feed their famished passengers every five minutes And airline staff and crew that dealt with managing frantic, overlapping layovers as inconsequentially as one would scratch an itch.
I never knew I could sleep sitting down in an uncomfortable economy class chair that had a stuck seatbelt. International flights at least provide headgear and eyewear and ear plugs to make it less painful, and regardless of all those luxuries I was able to get some shut-eye. At least until someone who needed to use the restroom kept brushing my arm every time they passed by. The sun rose in the European skies as I woke up to the smell of fresh eggs and coffee, and in a few hours’ time I would be repeating my ordeal at another airport. I looked into the eyes of the flight attendant who placed a warm hand on my shoulder, grinning as she served me my wake-up juice. With the brown elixir flowing through my body as the blood rushing through my veins, I sat as we descended into London Heathrow.
The English surely are a warm bunch of people, but moving across their airport is as twisted and confusing as navigating multiple layers of purgatory. Stepping out at London Heathrow and finding your next destination is like following the yellow brick road from the Wizard of Oz, across twists and turns and stairs and descents only following the specific colored signs. Getting out of one flight and into another, I might have walked close to three miles.
I must observe that security at airports has reached a completely new level of paranoia. There are reasons to do this that are entirely justified, but now the rules of the game have completely changed. It’s no longer enough to prove who you are and that you’re not carrying the usual stuff such as matches, cigarette lighters, knives, guns, explosives, inflammable liquids, drugs and miscellaneous weaponry. You now also have to account for uncharged laptops, half-used perfume and shampoo bottles containing unimaginable amounts of liquid, and prove that you aren’t trafficking seeds or fresh fruits as part of your luggage. Not to mention the frisking, probing and disrobing at every checkpoint, something that is easily doable and diligently by an X-ray scanner and metal detector. However, for my safety and yours, these checks are deemed necessary.
Finally, after hours of waiting and walking, I boarded a transatlantic flight destined for my new home country. Thankfully a shorter trip, loaded with in-flight entertainment and free booze. I found a delightful selection of movies and songs to keep me busy while the plane took off and landed hours later in the Yankee heartland.
They say that New York is the melting pot of humanity and that you could find a person of every race and culture just by standing in the middle of Time Square. I’d say you can experience the same standing in the immigration queue at JFK, probably the largest airport I’ve ever seen. Volunteers and security staff, making sure that everyone gets to a checkpoint with the shortest wait time possible, managed the never-ending queues ever so efficiently. I answered the immigration officer’s standard set of questions, was stamped in and officially welcomed into the United States of America. A different pride swelled in my heart as I looked at the star spangled banner spread across the far wall, and I immediately felt a false sense of belonging. Maybe too early to tell, but I had arrived.
As I reached out to the console to input five dollars for a trolley, a volunteer came rushing to my aid. He lined up my two suitcases back to back, aligned their handles together, and taught me how to wheel them along. That street-smart attendant just saved me six dollars. I thanked him profusely for it was truly a valuable lesson, I would have to lug those two bags the entire stretch of the airport across terminals before I checked them in for my next flight. Only in New York could they come up with such a pragmatic solution for a possibly mundane problem.
I was now sixteen hours into my journey. Completely exhausted, carrying the smell of two different continents, I decided it was best if I changed my shirt. I found an empty stall and went ahead with my business, freshening up but only slightly. I walked out and exchanged my remaining Indian currency for some meager change, picked up some souvenirs from the gift shop, and settled down in a recess in front of the food court. The smell of food tempted me, and there were many options to choose from, and I zeroed in on Wendy’s where the pictures of burgers looked incredibly delicious.
Fast food menus in the United States are misleading. A triple layered bacon cheeseburger is primarily a beef burger embellished with the paraphernalia mentioned above. For a non-beef eater such as myself, I found out the hard way. I would soon learn to appreciate the taste of beef, only because the exchange rate in my country versus the dollar is abysmal, and I had spent eleven bucks on a meal I couldn’t eat. I chewed on the food that I drowned with generous gulps of soda.
It was now time to board my final flight that would bring me to the town that would be my home for a while. I dragged my tired arms and sleepy body into the next aircraft, sat my butt down in the narrow chair, buckled up and collapsed in the arms of sweet slumber. The short hour and a half flight concluded quickly, and I was here before I knew it.
As the sun went down over one continent and rose above another, I sat in a vacant chair at another airport awaiting my pickup. I now have a new life, a blank slate, a different view outside my window for days to come.
A fresh start.
© 2015 Mihir Kamat