I hang up my phone in amusement. My ride was still at home, in a half-sleep stupor but awake enough to brush away my insistence to take a cab. I didn’t mind hanging around for a while. The arrival section of the airport is a lovely place to people watch and I’m usually in such a hurry to leave that I pay little attention to my surroundings. I settle down in a corner, with my luggage at my feet and a book on my lap so that I don’t feel too awkward.
The duration of the flight is visible on some passenger’s faces as they make their way past me. The long haul flyers have pained looks on their faces as they lug around their screaming children and attempt to balance hand luggage, infant, headache and trolley. Too tired to muster a thank you to the cleaning lady who helps them with the trolley, they don’t walk; instead they flop with fatigue towards the luggage belt.
I spot pockets of women wearing abayas but minus their head scarves. My curiosity is piqued. This is rare. The abaya is always, always accompanied by some form of head covering. I suddenly realize that the Middle Eastern flights must have landed and these must be housemaids returning home. Having landed in Katunayake, they had clearly discarded the head covering which is compulsory for women in the Middle East.
There are certain staple characters at every airport and as I sat there, I spot a few. There is the Frequent Flyer. Usually a business man/woman, impeccably attired – not too casual, not too formal – completely at home in the airport, equipped with a enviable mastery of being able to stuff a week’s worth of clothes and necessities in a smart, medium-sized travel bag. I say, enviable because I’m usually the Overweight Passenger (luggage weight, not body weight. I feel it necessary to clarify this) who resolutely attempts to get the poker-faced flight official to wave the few excess kilos away. I’m not proud of it but I’ve reluctantly come to terms with the fact that I will never be able to travel light.
Then there is the Well Dressed Woman. You know the kind. The WDW is a rare species which steps in and out of the flight flawlessly attired, lipstick immaculate and hair in place. While the rest of the populace attempt to smoothen their plane hair (twice removed cousin of helmet hair) and crumpled clothes, she breezes through the airport in 6-inch heels without a trace of the flight visible on her demeanour.
There is the foreigner who has arrived to ‘find herself’ and immerse herself in the Exotic Orient. Harem pants, beads, tattered backpack and a Lonely Planet guide are key indicators. There is also the Elderly Traveller with a perpetual look of bewilderment, determinedly clutching onto their baggage and passport lest someone runs away with it. Every flight is a new adventure and the ET is usually the only person who pays close attention to the emergency rules announced at the beginning of a flight.
There is always a tourist in every airport. The Tourist travels in packs or clusters of 5 or less. The more obvious Tourist is usually found with a fanny pack and sports shoes. The clusters are loud groups which congregate at the airport, cracking jokes among their peers, crumpled printed itineraries stored in their bag.
I hear someone call my name and I look up in surprise. There’s a face looking down at me expectantly and I find myself in a SSM (Small Social Pickle). I know I know this person but I can’t remember how or where I know him from or what his name is. One of the things which strike me as I struggle to place him is that he has a kind, sympathetic face and I experience a strange déjà vu feeling of having this thought before, when I first met him years ago.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” Clearly I’m more transparent than I realize. He remembers my name and so I’m forced to lie to save face. Of course, I do, I reply. He’s nice enough not to call my bluff and after some cursory small talk, he leaves and I return to pretending to read.
The Duty-Free heavy weights are making their way. A mother-son pair emerges from the lift. The mother is beaming and there is a proud (but not in an arrogant way) tilt in the son’s chin as he pushes a fridge on a trolley. A gift for his mother maybe? As I sit there, the flight crew of various airlines pass by frequently. I keep a lookout for familiar faces – a few friends work in the industry– but don’t spot any. There was a time when the travel perks of being a part of an airline had a strange fascination for me (and seemed worth the toil and flak I’ve seen cabin crew put up with). I was younger then and the attraction of a new country every week was extremely alluring.
There’s a man hunting for a pen to fill out the declaration forms for his brand new LED TV. He’s approached four people by now and the frustration on his face is apparent. He’s yet to ask me, strangely. I’m afraid my Alone Face is also my Leave Me Alone Face – a Delhi survival mechanism I have unconsciously adopted – and I probably don’t look very inviting or pen-friendly. I take out a pen from my backpack and signal him over. His furrowed face breaks out into a grin and he heads over to the other side of the lounge to fill out the paperwork.
My phone rings. My ride is here. I’ve only read 6 pages of my book. As I clumsily get my belongings together, I realize that I’m exhausted. The frantic dash during a brief transit was finally taking its toll. It feels good to be back. I wish I remembered that guy’s name though.