I was born to be in transit. My first international flight was when I was still a chubby baby just ten months old. One of my dad’s favorite tales is: “We used to strap you to the little table in the cockpit of the little cargo plane. Somebody once said there isn’t really an oxygen mask for this baby if something happens but we waived it off, if the plane crashes it’s, the entire family is together at least.”
I love our third world resilience and faith.
My father looks so handsome in his pilot uniform. Handsome isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind when one looks at my dad (even though he begs to differ, bringing out pictures from the 70s when he had sideburns and wore flared pants) and now that he is past 60, he looks smaller and frailer. But in his uniform, with the smart black cap and golden epaulets, he looked taller, more dignified, in control.
He always does things a little faster than the average person, as if in his world a minute consists of 40 seconds instead of 60 – I could never keep pace with him when we went around the world, ticking off the most public monuments in any city. We always had a backup plan in case someone got lost – meet under the green cuckoo clock at 5 pm.
Planes will always be a part of my heritage. Much to my father’s disappointment, my knowledge is really limited to the difference between an Airbus 300 and Boeing 747 but travelling is a legacy.
Tickets were cheap, hotels came free to captains and so my entire family would cram in one nice room or locate cities where family or friends live.
Followed the small kangaroos as they leaped across the park, jogging around the little poop left behind as they hopped away, and the Great Ocean Road – Australia was cold, and the children were adorable with fat, ruddy cheeks, the terrain was beautiful; South Africa was too, but in a more rudimentary, closer to nature way, the fattened Table Top mountain where a man killed himself by jumping off the cable car, and Cape Town where we tiptoed to the edge of the world, where the Indian Ocean merges with the Atlantic, and the blues and green spill into each other.
The hot, humidity of Colombo, and the dense green foliage that was so bright it seemed to bleed color onto the roads and houses it touched, the smaller, dark people who loved Zainab so much, and the elephants that played on command, akin to our monkey and goat shows on the beach. The stinky Floating Market in Bangkok, and the ducks and the fire-colored goldfish from the hotel. I remember my older sister who wore shirts that were meant for large boys because that was what mum made her wear in those days, and I remember her shooting hoops in the sprawling green grounds of the hotel.
I remember the pyramids and how anticlimactic it was to be in front of them in the hot, dusty desert, as if we were still looking at a TV screen or a postcard, but the Sphinx was cooler and it spoke to us in a deep rumbling artificial voice while strobes of yellow, green and pink light flashed around the dark sky at night. The beautiful curly-haired men of Egypt who hit on all of us, from my mom to my little sister and the beautiful, large horses that were so majestic I was scared to touch their shining necks.
I miss travelling with family and friends. The stress goes down exponentially, annoying things like taking off your jacket-shoes-laptop-liquids-pins at the scanner become less annoying and you can go to the bathroom without having to drag all your bags into a tiny cubicle, trying to convince yourself that your camera bag didn’t really touch the toilet seat.
Airports are also great places for people watching, and can almost always make you feel lonely when you see tears and smiles and hugs and kisses showered and shared all around you, amidst helium balloons and fake flowers.
I missed my sisters when I boarded the plane to New York last week. One of three sisters was sitting next to me. They all wore glasses and every now and then pulled down their jacket hoods. They looked so alike that they reminded of those Russian dolls that stand inside one another, identical save for the size.
Airplanes are also great places for people watching. The three sisters slept a lot, didn’t eat any of the plentiful food offered by PIA first class, and were apparently quite perturbed by the many crying babies in the vicinity. Every time they were simultaneously awake they complained loudly about punching babies and ‘IT’ kids (the social worker in me was screaming in protest but I remained quiet) as if they had a soundproof wall keeping their barbs in – or maybe they thought others couldn’t understand snotty words of English.
Then there was the frightening female version of Hulk who was sitting in the middle of her two fair kids, a boy of around eight and a younger girl of say 4. Unfortunately, two of their seats were not reclining as business class seats are supposed to recline and turn into semi-beds. That woman had elderly distinguished stewards on their backs, reaching into the murky, crumb-infested crevices beneath the chairs to fix them and when that didn’t work, they apologized while bowing low enough so as to not look her in the eyes and turn to stone. Every time her children did something that all annoying children so, she would SCREAM out, loud enough to make everyone nearby feel extremely uncomfortable. If shouting could leave imprints on a wall, her voice would have blown bricks into smithereens.
Man, she must hate her kids, I thought but then once, during the night when everyone had turned into little caterpillars with their blankets wrapped around them like larvae, I saw the four-year-old wake up, poke her mother who opened her eyes, smiled and opened her arms welcomingly, making room for her child to cuddle with her.
I have a bad memory so all these images I want to create into stories simply disappear, like Magic Pop on your tongue, but there are some I remember from the plane – the woman in a hijab with a cute baby, who is doing her PhD in communication design and plans to head back to Pakistan. And the young man who patiently helped his shrunken, smiley grandmother up and down the aisles, taking her to the bathroom several times on the 18 hour journey. And I will remember the wizardly old man who carried a tired infant in his arms so that the mother could get a few seconds of respite…
I hope they all had people waiting for them at their varying final destinations, with or without the balloons.