Our flight was scheduled for 12:30, so the logical journey out to the airport coincided rather uncomfortably with rush hour. The first two tube trains to arrive at the (attractively old-world yet lethally small) single central platform of Clapham Common station were so rammed that we dared not board them with our luggage, but the third was merely uncomfortably intimate, and a couple of changes took us to Heathrow. Our ride for the first leg out to Delhi was an Air India 787, ever so slightly smoother and more organic-looking than the standard jetliner, its huge engine nacelles sporting the trademark shark-tooth edges. The interior was swish and advanced, in that clean white science-fiction style. I was assigned an aisle seat, but appropriated a window for takeoff; the plane was barely more than half full.
Shortly after takeoff, the windows all tinted themselves dark blue and the cabin lighting dimmed, giving the curious feeling of dusk at one in the afternoon. Caroline immediately curled up in her seat and dozed off. At around 2pm Zulu time the crew broke out the shrink-wrapped chicken curry; notwithstanding the uncomfortably contemporary use-by dates, it was delicious. A portly Sikh gentleman in the next aisle, more salt than pepper in his magnificent beard, asked one of the staff to take a photo of him tucking into his prepackaged dinner; why, I have no idea.
“We’re flying Air India the whole way, right?”
Between the warmth of the cabin, the low light and the white noise of the engines and air system quietly roaring all around, the plane had a soporific effect, and I claimed an unoccupied row of three seats and wrapped myself in one of the issue blankets, napping until a patch of turbulence over the eastern shore of the Black Sea woke me, upon which I plugged my laptop in and played some Civ.
“Welcome to Delhi. Local time is 1:01 AM, temperature is thirty degrees celsius.” Coming into Delhi at the witching hour was very curious; on the approach I could see suburb-sized islands of orange streetlight against a sea of utter black, most but not all of them linked by lit roads. I have no idea whether the black was greenery, open land, or whatever else. Must look that up on Google Maps when I have a decent connection. The seal where the passenger gantry met the hull wasn’t perfect and, passing from one sanitised, air-conditioned box of metal and glass to another, I caught a fleeting taste of Indian air.
Our Australian Working Holiday Visas were booked entirely online, with our passport number loaded into the database that connects all those fun futuristic passport scanner things. This worked fine at Heathrow, where they simply scanned the passport and let us through; unfortunately, they didn’t have a scanner at Delhi, and we spent ten or fifteen fairly tense minutes watching and waving various bits of visa documentation while a young Indian bloke frantically battered at his computer and talked into three different phones, a handful of other young Indian blokes lounged around doing nothing in particular, and the rather older section chief examined the differences between my old-style and Caroline’s new-style passport in a leisurely fashion, stroking his tache. But all came good and, clutching our biro-scribbled boarding passes, we passed through a touchy-feely security station and into the bowels of the terminal.
Indira Gandhi Airport is clean and modern, and, like airports everywhere, is like airports everywhere; long arrays of tumblehome windows look down onto the tarmac and the runway beyond, staff with downturned eyes and TEAM HOUSEKEEPING on their uniform jackets pick rubbish from the grubby carpets and semi-comfortable seats, the standard-issue array of duty-free cutpurses stand ready to sate a possibly imaginary demand for “luxury goods” twenty-four hours a day. A food court mezzanine held various sustenance outlets underneath a paisley-pattern hoarding backlit with shifting patterns of saffron and violet light; a cup of tea was 75 rupees, a chickenburger and chips 250. The McDonalds there had a plaque proudly proclaiming it a pork and beef free zone, and everything at the chicken joint next door was spicy, including the mayo and the fries. Over the course of the twelve-hour stopover, we went slowly insane.
“I wanted a biscuit, I didn’t want you to stick your fingers down my throat!”
“You bit me!”
“I thought you were a biscuit!”
Dawn came slowly and mistily over the tarmac, some huge broad-winged soaring bird circling slowly above the terminal and the rows of patiently waiting jetliners with their red-and-orange sunburst tails. The next plane was another 787, but it was filled to bursting, mostly tetchy old Indian babushkas who pushed, shoved, elbowed, thwacked you with blankets and at one point elbowed me in the side of the head. Between that and the staggeringly incompetent repeated boarding pass checking procedures, the next stage was far less congenial, but we were mostly too sleep-deprived to care. The plane flew to Melbourne (which we hadn’t quite realised was part of the plan), everyone got off and then about half of us got on again. The skyscraper-tips of the city’s CBD could be seen distantly above a couple of hangars. The plane rose a little after dawn, and flew for an hour above a vast rumpled landscape of dark green grassland, darker green forest, and steep-sided valleys still filled with low cloud; then at last, wearily, thirty-two hours after taking off, we arrived at Sydney.