Brown carpets and rotating Y-fronts

Arrival in India 13-03-11:

An airport is an airport is an airport. And Delhi airport is an airport. There’s a starbucks, a Thomas Cooks, an M&S and a WH smith. There are big empty spaces and lots and lots of browny orange carpets. To be fair though there were a couple of things about the place that appeared to be intrinsically Indian. The curry we had for breakfast was very good and there were scattered life size statues of elephants in the foyer. The way everything was run was incredibly labour intensive, in a way we rarely see in Europe any more. People standing by the conveyor belt making sure all the luggage was going round properly, people who stand at the queues for check in to tell you which queue to join or which counter was free and guards at the main entrance to the airport, signing you in and blocking your way if you don’t have a ticket or if you were too early for your flight. So yes, an airport is an airport is an airport, but in Delhi there were many things to subtly remind you that you are in India.

Unlike Leh airport where subtlety was nonexistent. There was absolutely no doubt that we were in India. It was there that we truly felt our journey (I won’t say holiday – we are here for work after all) had begun. It had been a 5 hour wait in Delhi airport and we boarded the flight to Leh at about 6am. It was packed with large families of Nepalese and Tibetan origin struggling under their mounds of hand luggage. The plane took off as the sun came up and almost immediately we were over the mountains, Mount Everest on the horizon. Yes, Mount Everest, proudly taller than everything else, glowing in the morning light. I have seen Mont Blanc try something similar. In fact I have seen the Alps glow in the morning sun, trying to act as if they too are proud, majestic mountains. But once you have flown over the Himalayas the Alps become mere hills. It’s not just a question of height (I mean this is relative when you are peering out of an airplane window – 3000 metres, 5000 metres, all the same really) but more a question of mass, of presence, of wilderness. Miles and miles of peaks, very few valleys, huge glaciers and virgin snow like you’ve never seen. They are frightening. You look at the Alps and you admire their beauty, you try and imagine what it would be like to be down there. You may even see yourself somehow making it down into the valley to the nearest village at the end of the day if for some reason you did end up on a peak. But when you look out onto the Himalayas you know you would die. Very quickly. And yet the beauty…oh what beauty.

And then all too soon the descent begins. Too soon because you realise you have not managed to sleep and you are going to have to stay awake all day now. Too soon because you realize you are still in a T-shirt and your old worn fleece is all you have with you in your hand luggage and the pilot has announced it is minus seven on the ground. And then you see that the few other tourists there are pulling layer after layer of expensive North Face gear out of their bags and doing up their four season heavy hiking boots. I want to laugh at them, but decide I’d better wait and see exactly how cold it is going to be.

The descent is one of the most spectacular I have been on. The wings look like they are grazing the sides of the mountains and the plane lands hard and fast on a runway that you swear has no right to exist there. Then we are there and the doors are open, and I wait for the blast of cold air and the nausea from the altitude sickness. It doesn’t come. We wait on the tarmac for the bus to the terminal, for the cold to hit us and the frostbite to kick in, but it doesn’t – it just doesn’t feel cold. I mean if we’d stood there for a few hours it would have become cold, but then and there it was fine. Extremely dry, but fine. The sun was blazing and all was good.

Apart from the fact I was starting to feel like I had spent the night partying, was coming down very quickly, and yet knew I had to go to work and hold it together for the next eight hours. Oh, and the altitude was slowly but surely beginning to kick in.

Walking into the arrivals room was wonderful, crowds of people, a rickety old conveyor belt that shook and wobbled like one of those roller coasters for toddlers at a temporary fun fair. The people loading it were clearly visible on the other side of a piece of a thin, cracked glass while half of the obligatory plastic flaps were missing. The bags took about half a minute to do a full circuit. I know because I watched a dark blue pare of Y-fronts (clean, I think) go round a number of times. Closely followed by a spoon.

I was happy – surreal was good. Surreal would fit nicely into the world my oxygen starved brain was rapidly creating for me.

We finally we left the airport, weaving slightly from side to side, having filled in a form that should have taken two minutes to do but took five because my brain just wasn’t working at all.

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