Nepali Times
Here And There
Cabbage class


Krabi, Thailand - Robert Louis Stevenson famously wrote that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive. Clearly, these are the words of a man who has never experienced the ordeal of air travel. Aside from the fervent wish that the plane lands and takes off safely, and stays aloft in between, where is the hope in air travel? Much of it seems designed to emphasise that the traveller is unimportant to the airline, the authorities who designed the airport, and the functionaries who regulate the flow of people from country to country.

The experience begins with the taxi ride from home, the insistence by all but the most humane of drivers that the metre is hopelessly out of date and airport runs always cost more, and you're leaving anyway, so dig deep and drop all your local currency into his willing palm. The departures area is next. Kathmandu isn't the worst of them, Delhi is, but Nepal doesn't compare too unfavourably. That long queue at the x-ray machine, the RNAC clerks who take forever to produce a boarding pass and the luggage man who attaches the tag and then insists on a gratuity to lug your bag two metres to the conveyor belt. Things aren't much better in London or New York where the queues for economy class check-in look suspiciously like bread lines in depression-era Oklahoma or the old Soviet Union.
And as for the experience after that, at least in Nepal there's nothing to tempt me to spend any money. I've already bankrupted myself to buy the ticket, I don't need to buy any pashmina shawls, malt whisky or sushi.

A departure lounge without a Body Shop, Harrods or booze vendor would suit me fine. None of this compares with the sheer agony of the flight itself. Again, I emphasise that, as a man of the people, I am talking about economy class travel. Those in the know refer to the seats in the back of the aircraft as cabbage class. They're not far wrong. The seats are too close together. Relaxation, let alone sleep, requires the assumption of a position that would challenge a contortionist. There is an eclectic assortment of music and speech on the in-flight audio network, but you can't hear it over the roar of the engines. And the movies can't be seen properly, either on the distant bulkhead screen or the silly little thing on the seat in front of you covered with greasy fingerprints because some genius of a designer decided that a touch tone control system would amuse passengers.

No point in mentioning the toilets as you can never get in to them anyway Probably just as well; most older aircraft have what's known as "gravity" flush system that seems to indicate that the plane was flying upside down when most people used the toilet. Then there's the landing, usually announced well after the aircraft has plummeted a few thousand metres amid strange roaring noises from the wings and general spillage of drinks. In Pakistan, the announcement is "God willing, we shall soon be landing." A friend wryly pointed out once that the event of landing itself was not where we needed the help of the almighty. It was in the manner of landing, preferably softly and right side-up.

The departure experience, right down to the rapacious crook who drives the taxi, is repeated faithfully upon arrival. Why are immigration officers always surly? Perhaps it's the constant procession of grumpy, uncomfortable passengers, fresh from cabbage class, and not looking forward to the fleecing they're about to get from the taxi driver. So, apologies to Mr Stevenson, travelling hopefully is not better than arriving: its impossible to do either with equanimity. Unless, of course, you pay the absurd sums required to fly club class where any liberal principles of equality are jettisoned as blithely as the contents of an aircraft septic tank. Next time, I'm going by ship, a trifle difficult from Nepal perhaps, but perhaps someone could dig us a canal from the Bay of Bengal.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)