With the great pandemic shutdown, most people are not travelling. I mean people who just pack up and go whenever and wherever they fancy if they get a chance and I am glad for that.
The truth is, I dread traveling. One of my astrologer friends had once told me, after a good look at my palm, and making strange marks on a piece of paper with his cheap econo ball pen, that the planet Mars was not favourable to me. So I should be careful with transport and travels. Even though Mars was the god of war in ancient Rome, I really don't remember now how he had anything to do with travels. I have no clue either why the red planet would be so vindictive to me of all the six billion people on earth when I have not done anything to it except maybe look at it with a telescope a couple of times.
But there it was. A pronouncement by the self-proclaimed astrologer, be careful or else!
Of course I laughed it off at the time. But soon his warning started to take different shapes and situations. You see, traveling is not just buying a ticket, hop on a bus or plane or whatever and take a nap in a comfortable seat and get off when you reach your destination. Travels are designed with a torture device of sorts, something called a co-traveler.
Take this guy who sat next to me on my way to Jashore once. He had the window seat and I, the aisle. I like to keep to myself on my journeys. I read a book or a magazine or just take in the scene as the bus speeds on the highway. Or just pretend to sleep.
But this guy was a jovial, friendly one. A bane to me. He had marked me even before I was on the bus. He just sidled up to me and wanted to know where I was from, and, yes, you guessed it, where I was going. I tried to look as disinterested as I could and answered in monosyllables. But his face brightened up when he discovered we were going to the same place, and joy of joys, on the same bus.
I moved away from his otherworldly happy existence and got on the bus to make myself comfortable. But what was this! He was my companion! He was happily occupying the seat next to mine and beckoned at me as if I was his long lost brother. I looked around helplessly but all the other seats were taken.
I sat down with a sigh. He immediately demanded the newspaper I had and started to read it with a lot of interest. "Good!" I thought. At least he won't bother me. But was I wrong!
Bother me he did. First, he just opened the pages wide. If you open a broadsheet wide, it takes a lot of space to your right and left. But it didn't bother him at all that it was bothering me, that he was encroaching in my personal bubble. I had to keep my head leaned to one side to avoid the annoying touch of the newsprint to my face trying to think of happy thoughts. But there were none. Only horror movie scenes flashed across my mind involving choking or even axes. I am a peaceful man, normally. But at that moment, peace was the farthest thing from my mind.
As the bus crossed the Padma on the ferry, my "friend" started a conversation on the varieties of fish available in the rivers and canals of the country. Then with a sly smile, he asked me a riddle.
"Tell me, which one is the tastiest fish of them all?"
I had no clue. As he waited with slightly arched eyebrows and narrowed eyes, I expressed my ignorance.
He let out a satisfied laughter and told me a name that I had never heard before in my life. But he was not satisfied with that. He went on to comment on the ignorance of the "city-bred" educated people and how they hardly had any knowledge of their country.
I nodded to show my agreement and to encourage him to drop the topic. He then brought out his stash of well-made paans and pushed a couple of them in his mouth and proceeded to chew them with evident satisfaction.
I thought that was the end. But my "god of travels" Mars was not yet happy with my punishment. I bitterly regretted not listening to my friend's advice of getting a ruby on a gold ring to pacify Mars.
For the next few hundred kilometres the man talked to me incessantly. Every so often he would stop and a hope rose in my chest that maybe it was the end. But alas! He would suddenly chuckle as if he had remembered something really funny and then would start talking again.
There was nothing under the sun that he did not know about. His topics ranged from politics, economy, business, corruption of the government, marriage customs in different regions, and more.
I believe I had attained zen that day. Buddha would have been proud of me.
Mars has not been kind to me on Airplane trips either. Once on a transatlantic trip to New York on American Airlines I was feeling pretty happy that everything was going well. So far. The aircraft was the Boeing 757, the latest design twin engine model. Yes, I read the safety card stashed into the seat pockets to scope out the exits early in case I need them. We took off from London Heathrow for JFK. The plane had just overflew Cork, the Irish landmark that all transatlantic flights do on this route. The actual flight over the sea had started. About fifteen minutes had passed. I could see the blue water of the Atlantic below and imagined seeing a ship or two even. The crew were getting ready to serve whatever grub they had to us cattle class passengers.
Suddenly the lights inside the cabin flickered and went out. "What did I do this time, Mars!" I groaned inside as the dim emergency lights came on.
Suddenly a gruff voice came on the PA, it was the captain, the voice claimed. Now, I have never heard an airline pilot who spoke intelligibly and this one was no exception.
I suspect he may have been woken from a slumber and pushed into the cockpit: "Here you go, make a quick trip to New York."
Surely he was feeling bewildered, trying to make sense of what he was doing in the middle of all those gauges and dials in the middle of the night in an aluminium can hurtling 500+ miles per hour at 35-thousand feet up in the air.
But there he was with his US accent, half of which was indecipherable to me. All I could make out was the airplane electrical system had developed a fault.
Wouldn't you know it! Even then, with my heart in my mouth, I smiled bitterly at Mars. No, he is not the god who has authority over electricity. It is Zeus. You know with lightning in his hands, hiding behind the clouds Zeus AKA Jupiter.
"Take that Mars!" I thought. I don't care even if I die in the crash. You didn't get me in the end. Or did he? It is the airplane that was going down in the cold Atlantic. So they had a merger against me, Mars and Zeus with Neptune thrown in for good measure. I wasn't sure if I should feel important or scared. I decided to be scared.
But then the voice "reassured" us. "Our electrical system has failed but our engines are ok, so don't worry," the voice said, or at least that's what I thought he said. The Boeing 757 is a twin engine long haul aircraft instead of the usually more reassuring four-engined ones. So if one engine now develops a fault we are going to fly on one lone engine, is all I could think about.
"Ha ha," I thought. But no. My punishment for traveling was not over yet.
It was summer, the height of transatlantic travels and the flight was full to the gills. Most were teenagers filling all the seats, conversing loudly and excitedly. No, the smartphone was yet to come so you can guess it was before 2007 and people actually talked with each other. In this case they were talking like teenagers do. At the top of their voices. "That's ok," I thought. I shall shove the earphones in and listen to some music in high volume. But what is this! There were no earphones in the seat pocket as they do normally.
I managed to flag down a crew and sheepishly asked her, "Can I have a pair of earphones please?" "Yes sir, that shall be $4," she replied gruffly.
I thought I had heard wrong or maybe I could not state my need clearly enough. So I repeated my request with more clear enunciation. I was just making sure I didn't sound like I wanted roasted lamb when all I wanted was toast and jam.
"Yes sir, I heard you," she was clearly annoyed with me now. "That shall be $4."
I fished out a $5 bill from my wallet and handed it to her expecting a superior audio experience from this "not for free" earphones. But they were the same cheaply made toylike plastic pipe earphones they always handed out with the amenities in other airlines and thrown out at the end of the flight. In other words, the cheapo disposable ones. For free. But this was American Airlines, so they were different. They were determined to show me America means business, in all forms and matters.
I tried to listen to the tinny music with those. The audio quality was no better than the matchbox telephones we used to make in our childhood. But I had already paid for them. There was no return policy as far as I could say. I sighed and settled down for the long-haul flight of six hours.
Have you noticed that you feel hungry when you are flying? Yes, I was hungry too. But there was no sign that they would serve me any even though I could see other passengers were being served. Even my next seat person was served a tray of food but nothing for me. I couldn't remember if I had opted for "Fasting" when selecting the food choice while booking the flight. So once again I gathered up enough courage and feebly called at one of the cabin crew and asked if I could get something, anything, to eat.
The grandmotherly lady smiled sweetly at me and said, "We have run out of food, sir!"
"You have what!" is all I could manage. Now you may not believe me. I would not believe me either if I were you but that's what happened to me.
Years later I asked one of my friends, who was a big shot in Biman and oversaw the food kitchen and flight catering of many airlines, if this was possible to have happened.
He said that was quite possible if many passengers booked at the last minute. As the flight kitchens prepare the food 24 hours prior to the flight, they can't load the food for passengers who booked less than 24 hours ago. Even then, he said, the rule of thumb in airline business was: number of passengers = number of meals + extra 10 percent.
So it was a combination of many variables or maybe all those teenagers suddenly decided to cross the pond that very morning and spend their summer in NY. If the passengers appear at the airport and buy the ticket there a few hours before the takeoff then it could happen.
"You were just unlucky," he chuckled. I was not amused.
So anyway, I pleaded with her for anything. "Look, I can't fly six hours without food." I was expecting her to ask for money now. But she said, "Let me see what I can do" and disappeared to the galley at the back.
After I had given up all hope, she appeared again holding a cello-wrapped white bread sandwich. Yeah, you heard it right. I was served a piece of white bread with some mystery stuffing on a transatlantic flight in American Airlines. It has been many years but I haven't forgotten it.
There is a reason I hate traveling. And Mars! I shall settle my score with you one day. But first I have to figure out how.