Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fly, Little Bird, Fly!

By Supriya Savkoor
Arriving at London's Heathrow (Photo: Jnpet)
I don’t know about my favorite mode of transport, but hands down, my favorite place to be, in any city anywhere in the world, is…odd as it sounds….the airport. 

I know, I’m a freak, but think about it. People of all backgrounds and classes, many of whom may never meet in the outside world or even otherwise be in the same room with any of the people around them, rubbing elbows. All of them hustling and bustling through a little microcosm of the world, coming from who knows where, hopefully going somewhere special, and possibly starting a new life, a new venture, a new family. The anticipation of both departing and arriving, of the infinite opportunities and possibilities, experiences and sights and sounds…it all gives me a heady rush. I’ve had plenty of celebrity sightings at airports all over the world. (I once spent an afternoon watching Huey Lewis sign autographs, as we both waited for a flight out to Chicago during a blizzard.) Even those little blue lights glowing along airport runways give me a tiny thrill, somewhat bittersweet from leaving somewhere, maybe someone, behind, but mostly thrilling because of the delicious anticipation of both the known and the unknown.

There is something extremely magical about the entire experience, even in this day of having to wait out in the main terminal rather than right at the gate when welcoming your visitors, taking your shoes off through painfully long security lines, or throwing out tiny bottles of your favorite perfume because you forgot to leave them behind. arrhow how For me, there’s almost no better place to people watch, dream up stories, imagine distant lands, and live vicariously. Oh, and eavesdrop…but never mind that…

Bus terminals, train stations, cab stands—all of these provide a sliver of what an airport offers in ample supply, but for my money (well, okay, so it’s free to just hang out at any of these places if you’re not going anywhere), nothing beats the excitement of an airport.

Besides, you know that special moment in your life when you feel sort of like a rock star? My 15 minutes of fame, give or take 5 or 10 minutes, occurred at London’s Heathrow Airport in the early ’90s.

A few months out of college, I was still trying to find my way around the adult world. The American public had spent much of the year anxious about an imminent war in the Persian Gulf, which in turn had led to a deep national recession, which meant limited job opportunities for me and many other new grads. By the fall of 1990, I’d quit my first low-paying newspaper job and scraped together my tiny bundle of savings to take a long, relaxing trip to India, where I hoped to figure out my next career move.

I’d caught an Air India flight from New York to Bombay via London’s Heathrow, where I and hundreds of other hapless souls converged at our boarding gate and received some surprising news.

It was mid-October 1990, two months after Iraq had invaded Kuwait. Nearly half a million Kuwaitis and foreigners had fled the country, where Saddam Hussein’s forces were plundering the little nation’s wealth and committing all kinds of human rights violations. The Indian government had just begun an aggressive week-long campaign to airlift 150,000 Indian expats, once an affluent Kuwaiti minority and now left destitute after all their assets, from their property to their life savings, had been confiscated. It was all hands on deck, so to speak, and Air India was among those aiding the rescue effort.

The airline had already begun running emergency missions, diverting a number of its planes to the Middle East. On that particular autumn day, the plane that was to fly me and my few hundred co-passengers to Bombay was instead en route to Kuwait City. We were stuck in London for at least the next 24 hours, with the option to stay at a London hotel, our accommodations paid in full, if—get this—we surrendered our passports for those 24 hours to the attendant at the boarding gate. That meant allowing the airline officials to shuttle us to the hotel, get us checked in, and bring us back the next day, all but guaranteeing that we couldn't leave either the hotel or the airport of our own accord. As soon as he made the offer, as though it were some kind of race, the entire crowd rushed forward, passports extended. All except me.

From the back of the crowd, I asked what would happen if he loses one or more of our passports. What if we couldn't find him to get any information about it. If he would kindly give us his full name and contact information, just in case the new attendant can't find them. Where exactly did they plan to store our passports that night. Who would be accountable and responsible if our precious passports did get lost or stolen. And why, for goodness sakes, we couldn’t just TAKE our passports with us to the hotel since, after all, there was no logical reason for us to surrender them (except the whole visa thing, which seemed a minor technicality given the circumstances). Especially, since we'd be lost, literally, without them.

This, in case you’d forgotten where my little story was headed (ahem), was my rock star moment.

Hundreds of heads turned suddenly in my direction. My co-passengers who were ready to hand over their passports, no questions asked, peered up at me, their arms slowly retracting. (Why were they looking "up"? Was I standing on a chair? I can’t remember, but at that particular moment, I did sort of feel like Moses.) You don’t think it’s a good idea, the good-looking newlyweds, at least a decade older than me, asked in their prim European accents. What should we do instead, queried a rather classy elderly gentleman. As though I were their representative here. As though I had all the answers.

I shrugged. I don’t know what could happen, I told them, but I’m not taking any chances. If that guy loses my passport, it's obviously up to me to figure out how to get a new one, not him. I’d rather stay here at the airport all night, even if I have to sleep on one of these chairs.

All eyes turned back to the attendant, who was no longer smiling. In that case, he said, you’ll just have to wait it out at the airport. I can give you vouchers for two meals at one little restaurant that closes early tonight. Sorry, that’s the best I can do. There won't be any breakfast. Maybe some coffee. Anyone still want to go to the hotel?

Nope, everyoneeach and every one of those hundreds of folks waiting at the gate with medecided to hang back. We spent a safe, quiet, if uncomfortable, night at Heathrow. Instead of Bombay, we ended up in New Delhi, again in waiting mode for some 12 to 15 hours for another flight. All for a good cause, of course. 

I didn’t move any mountains or save any lives that weekend in London, but I did make a couple of new friends and, most of all, feel kind of grown up for the first time ever.

Not bad for being stuck at an airport, no? See what I mean about that sense of adventure?

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