Entry 1: personal space, trolleyed, a Yank called Hank.

personal space invaders

Flying to Delhi is a very gentle foretaste of actually being there.

Unlike, say, a New York flight where people sit quietly for the duration - but for the odd visit to the loo or vaguely yogic looking anti-DVT stretch - BA143 may as well have not had any seats. The second the seatbelt light went off - and, in most cases, long before, the passengers rose and started milling about, much as one might do in a marketplace or cocktail party. The few of us who were not Indian viewed the scene with some consternation and in many cases, discomfort. For the Indian concept of personal space is not a highly developed one. Thus, if someone wants to spend an hour chatting to his mate who is sitting across the aisle from you, he will think nothing of sitting on your armrest while he does so.

Our pilot was clearly something of a rookie on the Delhi run as he seemed genuinely surprised that nobody in his plane would sit down. First he asked nicely, then he asked again, voice grating with exasperation. Finally he made a couple of false turbulence warnings. All to no avail: I suspect that to get this lot to take their seats would have required a grenade-waving terrorist. And even then it would have been touch and go.

drinks, trolleyed

The chap next to me was an Anglo Indian called Ravi whose sole in-flight goal was to knock back as many Johnny Walker Miniatures as possible. I must admit, in my late teens and early twenties I used to occasionally think it would be fun to amortise the cost of my airline ticket with free booze. But this is the kind of thing you can only really do if you believe that getting drunk on a plane is worth a plane hangover. And anyone who does is a borderline alcoholic.

Despite his mission, Ravi was good company - well, initially at least. He was also full of sound advice, none of which I will ever forget. For, as he glugged his way through around a dozen miniatures - or 24 shots - he repeated this advice at least six or seven times, each iteration louder and more emphatic than its predecessor. Once he'd exceeded his air-rage limit and / or the stewardess's supply of miniatures he started getting stuck into a litre of duty free before, he finally, thankfully drank himself into oblivion. His last words (of which there were plenty) were a voluble discourse on how he never got drunk or suffered from hangovers.

With Ravi out of the picture - and his much-bruited hangover fighting abilities presumably being put through their paces - we settled down to a curry. Interestingly, this is probably the best of all airline foods: part of the reason that in-flight meals usually taste so crap is that your taste buds don't function very well at 35,000 ft. So you want bold, strident flavours - and if you ever see someone pretentiously fannying around with the wine they're served, you can be they're doing it for effect. On a plane you probably can't tell the difference between Petrus and Bull's Blood.


global village idiot

Delhi has a reputation for some of the world's worst air pollution; it has worked hard to achieve this. Even walking down the tube from plane to terminal you notice it: the air has a gritty quality. It doesn't quite leave you gasping for breath, but it makes your mouth and skin feel dirty. Picture yourself standing on a cliff-top in Scotland, breathing a wind washed by 3,000 miles of ocean. Now, imagine the exact opposite: that is what Delhi's atmosphere is like.

Down in customs and it was time to wait. There is nothing Indian officials like more than making you wait. It is said that the British gave the Indians bureaucracy. This is true, but it is only half the story. The Indians have made it their own. If you walk down any street in Delhi you will notice a huge number of rubber stamp shops, more than you could ever believe needed to exist to satisfy global demand. Prior to visiting India I had never given the rubber stamp industry much though, but in India rubber stamps are the new dot.coms. Indian bureaucrats, you see, actually enjoy triplicate.

Our time in the queue gave us the opportunity to meet Hank, one of those huge Americans, both tall and fat, at least 200 kilos of steak-plumped prime. Hank was also travelling and had already been on the go for a year and a half, with a further year ahead of him. A voluble but entirely unreflective fellow he was given to statements like: 'Well the Lord only gives you one life.' He also had the curious manner of describing everything exactly like a tourist brochure; as he spoke I could see white on turquoise type, gushing prose and photos of tropical idylls cunningly cropped to remove the building sites.

Hank's narrative was larded with meaningless superlatives. Two of his many must-sees were the world's highest altitude hot water geysers and the largest swimming pool in the western half of the southern hemisphere. Really? In keeping with this mindless precision, I was tempted to introduce myself as the world's wealthiest, most famous man called Rhymer Rigby Jr.

After Hank had finished an anecgloat describing his experiences on the world's tallest stratovolcano within viewing distance of both a long-runway airport and an opencast diamond mine or some such, I interjected with the lie that I was impressed with the length of his travels. Hank fixed me and replied weightily: 'Yeah, my wife tells me I should write a book about them.' I still congratulate myself on my self-control for not replying: 'Well I've only know you five minutes, and I'm telling you shouldn't.'

Still, Hank clearly wanted some response. Luckily, while I was dissembling like a bastard, Ravi pitched up. From the look of things he was both drunk and hung over. Nonetheless he was as chirpy as ever and, having caught the tail end of the last conversation asked Hank if he'd been keeping a journal in order to facilitate the book-writing process. The latter replied that he hadn't but he'd been videotaping everything and planned to write a book from viewing the tapes.

Perhaps mistaking our looks of astonishment for something more positive, Hank started chatting about the Everest Base Camp Trek, the next notch on his walking stick - and how his tour group were going to meet him shortly. And finally I understood why Hank's experiences all seemed to have been bought off the shelf - because they had. Here was a man who had been travelling for nearly two years entirely on organised tours. No wonder he didn't have anything to say about the people of the fabulous places he'd been. He'd never met any them. Rather he'd spent 24 months being driven around by guides in Toyota Land Cruisers and never so much as bought a train ticket for himself.

Twenty minutes earlier, I'd been vaguely humbled by Hank's traveller sang froid. Now I saw him for the lazy, bumptious box-ticker he was. After all, why leave America when the interiors of Hiltons the world over look the same? The queue moved forward and Hank picked up several thousand dollars worth of unnecessary kit, wheezing and sweating as from the effort. I grinned at the thought of the fat, fatuous bastard hauling his obese frame up to Everest Base camp. I'm sure it's only a matter of time, but, as of now, you cannot actually pay someone to carry you up.

February 18th, 2002