I have always loved airports. There is something about them. The rush of traveling, sipping on overpriced coffee and buying unwanted books! It’s been over 32 years and I have spent more than half my life passing through airports. To this day nothing compares to the joy of packing my bags, locking my home, saying goodbye to my cats and disappearing for a while. I need to get away often to stay sane. The need to travel is in my blood now. Too late to change!!

My eldest Masi was appalled, that my dad had actually consented his youngest to fly off and live in Hong Kong by herself. It was right after my 17th birthday I had received a letter of appointment from Cathay Pacific stating that I had been hired. With big sobs Masi had filled the oversized suitcase with theplas, gathiyas and a Prestige pressure cooker. The thought of a young girl living in a foreign country was unacceptable, just like eating stale dhoklas. 100 dollars were purchased and were given to me with an advice to guard them with my life. And off I went and returned many years later a changed person.

To this day I thank my parents who allowed me to dump formal education in return for life experiences. I became street smart, learnt how to survive with little or no money in unknown lands, learnt to cook, change a light bulb, fix the flush and acquired life skills that saw me through some rough waters.

The first international airport I took off from was Mumbai. That old airport was small, smelly and full of crooks. But in the excitement of traveling on my first international flight, everything was overlooked. I was in awe of the airport and the flight itself. Boeing 747 looked bigger than it actually was to my innocent eyes, and the airline food tasted delicious.

Landing at Hong Kong airport was equally dramatic. The old Kai Tak airport was located in the middle of the Kowloon city and if landing from the city side the pilot had to tilt and fly the aircraft between buildings. Grown on staple dose of Bollywood, I had never seen a stunt like that in real life and it filled my senses with joy when I experienced it. Since then I have been to numerous airports; old and new, big and small, dull and shiny. But the joy of landing in that old airport in Hong Kong is one my favourite memories.

These days’ airports are not what they used to be. You have wifi, coffee shops, and lovely shopping. But in the 90’s there was none of that. There was duty free shopping but choices were limited. The custom officers in Mumbai used to be vigilant like hawks whenever I returned home for breaks; staring at x-ray machines in a hope of finding something that they can either keep or I would be willing to shell out a lot of money for. It was not easy to find fancy things in India during those years. Even a can of coke was very expensive.

Heathrow was tolerable back then and Bangkok airport was full of cheap shopping that never survived more than a week of use. People were friendly at African airports and the American airports were very dull back then and remain so even now.

I remember once when we were scheduled to fly to Bahrain and then the flight was diverted to Dubai due to the gulf war. We were docked at the airport for hours before we could take off. The airport was small and full of shops selling gold. I was surprised to have found a small restaurant in the departure lounge that served biryani. Not knowing at that point that half of Kerala lived in Dubai 🙂

On the other hand the airport at Zurich was always fun to visit. Cuckoo clocks displayed everywhere and delicious chocolates to eat! Even back then it looked very organized and synchronised. Frankfurt airport always seemed very serious just like the Germans that we worked with. In comparison to these two airports, the old Rome airport was more like a circus. Every immigration officer flirted with you and all men were out to charm you and tell you how beautiful you were. Paris airport was always on strike and I spent weeks lazing in hotels waiting to fly back home.

Japanese airports were just outstanding for being so damn organized. Whether it was Narita, Osaka, Nagoya or Fukuoka. All airports had discipline and people waiting patiently in a queue for everything. This concept was alien to me coming from Mumbai that is chaos personified.

Now of course things have changed. Airports are as good as a luxury hotels with everything from cinema to massages available at your fingertips. You can buy Jimmy Choo shoes and Rolex with same ease that you buy your Starbucks sandwich. Coffee is still over priced but now you can eat dim sums while sipping on wine as you wait for your flight. The whole experience is far more enjoyable, interactive and fun.

But if you look at airports closely, you will realise that they very much depict life; you are either arriving, in transit or departing!

Life through airports 2

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Shivani Adalja

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