dancing beneath the diamond sky

And we'll dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free Silhouetted by the sea Circled by the circus sands With all memory & fate Driven deep beneath the waves Let me forget about today until tomorrow... Hey Mr Tambourine Man play a song for me...

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

In Airport Limbo

At Kuwait International Airport, God only knows what time.

My India trip has just started, and its been rocky and smooth alternately.

Getting to the airport from home was a hassle beyond imagination. All New Yorkers are, I imagine, just beginning to comprehend over the last 2 days, the full extent of our dependence on the subway. Those MTA veins spreading out unseen under the earth are the city's life support system; silent, tireless engines powering the city-that-never-sleeps. In any case, after a whole day of perplexed non-action and confusion, New Yorkers were back to business on Wednesday, and life started assuming some semblance of normality again (whatever semblances it can achieve, given that the unthinkable has happened. ) Brooklyn Bridge was packed with bikers and walkers braving it in the cold to workplaces in Manhattan. The sidewalks and pavements were spilling over with people, in a crush worthy only of Pondy Bazaar. Cyclists and skateboarders were letting it rip in the middle of all the traffic. Restaurants slowly started opening up and supermarket registers started ringing. This is testament to the enormous resilience of this city and of the people who live in it - New York City stopped, shifted and shuddered for a brief minute; and then moved on to find itself a new equilibrium.

Anyway, it took me a grand total of about three and a half hours to get to JFK. I first hopped onto the free Columbia shuttle that left from 116th and Amsterdam & hopped off at Penn Station. At Penn Station there was a mass of humanity trying to get into the LIRR station, and riot police everywhere trying to control the crowds and direct the people into orderly lines. After about thirty minutes, I had managed to get into the station and buy myself a ticket. I got off the LIRR at Jamaica and then got onto the AirTrain and finally arrived at Kennedy Airport, about three hours and fifteen minutes after I had started. The only thought in my head was finding an empty seat somewhere and crashing. I hadnt even got onto the plane and I was exhausted already !

But coming to think of it, this trek to the airport sounds difficult only by smooth American standards. I've had journeys much worse (or much more colourful, if you want to think of it that way.) One that immediately pops to mind is one time I came home from Madras without any train reservations, in the peak holiday season. I first got to Central Station in Madras, and bought myself a ticket on a train headed for Coimbatore. At Coimbatore I got off (I think I had 1 big suitcase) and was just standing around on the platform, contemplating my options. The idea of lugging the big suitcase all the way up and down several platform stairways to the ticketing booth was not sounding very appealing at that point. I turned around and saw a train taking off on the platform right next to me, the one opposite to the one on which I had got off. A guy was hanging off the steps of this departing train and I just asked him on a silly whim, "do you know if this train goes to Trichur... ?". And he said it didnt go to Trichur but it went to Thevara Junction, very close to Trichur ! I had to think very little to grab my box and jump onto the moving train, observing idly to myself that I had just committed my first violation of law on Indian soil, for traveling ticketless. I realized later that I had no concrete plan as to what I would do or say when the ticket inspector came. I just hung around guiltily on this train till it got to the station I was looking for, and miraculously a ticket inspector hadnt come around until then. As I as hauling my box close to the entrance and getting ready to leave, the guy who I had seen initially winked at me and said that the ticket inspector never came around on this train in the afternoon and so it was a veritable free-for-all for bums, urchins, and idle youth who were either too broke or too lazy to buy themselves a ticket !!!! I laughed and made a mental note to donate the price of the ticket to the Railway Widows Welfare Fund, or closest equivalent.

Now at Thevara Junction I got off (again, at Platform number 12 ) and frustratingly enough, was faced again with the prospect of lugging my suitcase all the way over to the information booth to find out about a train to Trichur. Given that similar technique had already proven itself effective, I found a bajji-wala on the platform and asked him if he knew what train left for Trichur when. He pointed to a train lying just 1 platform away and said it would begin moving for Trichur in 5 minutes. I swore loudly and furiously. I didnt have enough time to run (suitcase in tow) to the ticket booth and hence my only option was to travel ticketless, again. I then realized that my nerve had failed me and I was suddenly too afraid to get into another train without a ticket. (I felt that I had gotten lucky once already; to try the ticketless stunt a second time in the same day I felt, would be pushing my luck a little bit. Surely the benevolent god of ticket inspectors who was watching me from above wouldnt be that kind. ) And then, right on time, brainwave arrives. I turned around to my bajji-bonda-wala and offered him a handsome salary of 5 bucks for making a dash to the ticket booth and buying me a ticket for this train. He was first startled and then thoughtful. He declined kindly, saying that the opportunity cost of missing out on potential bajji sales in that 5 minutes was too high. I countered, saying that I was more than willing to watch his bajji business in the time being and that it wasnt too much of a stretch for me to quote a price and take money from customers while he was away; given that his entire product line consisted only of pazha-bajji for 2 rupees and bonda for 1.50. He wasnt entirely convinced, but he went anyway. And so commenced my brief career selling bajjis on a platform in a station in the middle of nowhere (I made some handsome sales, too. I guess a lot of people were just very curious at the sight of a young girl with a Discman on her hip and a bajji tray tucked into her arm.) And so my saviour came back a few minutes later; I paid him his 5 bucks gratefully and bought some bondas from him as well (I hadnt eaten anything all day; just as well.) and so what better example of a win-win transaction ? I walked grandly into the train , basking in the warm glow of being a decent, law-abiding citizen. And on to Trichur, finally, thank god.

So anyway...right now I'm sitting at a cafe booth in Kuwait International Airport, on my way home (finally, finally) from New York City to India. I realized that this routing is very convenient for me; just 1 long-haul flight straight from JFK to Kuwait for 16 hours and then the short hop from Kuwait to Cochin directly; without that nerve-wrecking, squirming wait at Bombay airport. Initially when I got onto the flight and realized it was 16 hours long, I felt a stab of dismay; but it turned out to be unnecessary. I ended up sleeping for approximately 15 hours and 30 minutes. The remaining 30 minutes that I was awake consisted of time when I woke up briefly from my slumber, throat parched, stumbled into the galley, accosted a stewardess, glugged down a whole gallon of pineapple juice straight from the carton, and stumbled back into my seat and into oblivion again. I have to thank appa again for gifting me his can-sleep-anywhere-on-anything genes; sometimes it can be a bit of a pain (like the many times on the subway when I've missed the 116th and Broadway stop entirely; or on the 47B from Anna Nagar when Vani Mahal stop has chugged by and I'm snoring soundly.) but mostly it is a blessing, and a skill that I think is much more useful than being able to solve multi-generation dynamic moral hazard models with sequential investments and double marginalization of rents.

This airport is a bit strange; it looks somewhat like a warehouse, with tall asbestos-like ceilings and industrial lighting. I went into a restroom, contemplated it for awhile and left, because there was water on the floor everywhere and no water coming out of any of the sinks. I then walked into this cafe and ordered (without thinking) an "american coffee" from the selections on the board, and then felt deeply embarassed about the choice, for some reason that I'm still trying to figure out.

I've run out of things to say (a rare occurrence, as most people who know me would attest.), but I'll just stop with the observation that the last few days in Columbia have been great. Even though I was on some strange adrenaline high (at the prospect of going to India, I can imagine) and so didnt sleep really for about a week, the last few days meeting up with friends and saying goodbyes was very sweet, especially since I hadnt seen most of these people for a couple of weeks as everyone was busy battling it out with their respective exam schedules. Even though I would die rather than admit this anytime in the middle of the semester, life at Columbia does have its little perks and the people in my Columbia world have become an important part of my life, with their warts and all. It really hit me a couple of times over the last few days, when I realized that many of the people I would not see again; the ones who I had entered Columbia with in the fall of 2004 who were graduating and leaving with a Masters degree. Well, as always, the next semester will bring with it new people, new bosses, new classmates, a new dynamic, yet another episode of this fluid, ever-changing grad life. Oh, well. I'm being maudlin and I'm sure the holiday season is to blame. So before I say anything that I really end up regretting in my saner moments, I'll sign off . And of course, fa-la-la-la-laa-la-la-la-la.

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