The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 23, 2001

The triumphs, travails and tales of travel

In the monuments of Paris, past, present and future coalesce
In the monuments of Paris, past, present and future coalesce

TRAVEL teaches in its own way. It is a way of learning, education and entertainment. Since the dawn of civilisation, man has been a traveller, a nomad with the spirit of a wanderer taking him places. Traversing through the corridors of time and history, man evolved the concept of family, community. There were human settlements, yet, man’s wont to soar high and away, his quest to explore, experiment and experience remains unquenched. Migration, perhaps, is a part and form of that process, searching and surging to better pastures for better prospects and prosperity.

Biographies, travelogues and travellers’ tales have fascinated man. Men recording their sojourns have preserved the past for posterity. Men have endeavoured to put meat on the bones of history, bringing to life events enabling fellow humans shape their destiny. Such flights of imagination crossed my mind as I sat in the lounge of the IGI Airport, in the wee hours on a hot, humid day waiting to catch the 6.30 am flight to Paris via Amman.

Security and airport authority regulations require check-in much ahead of the scheduled flight time. Given India’s positioning, those who fly out or fly in do so at unearthly hours. Having completed all formalities by 4.30 am, there I was slouching in an uncomfortable chair like the proverbial sitting duck.

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The magic that is Malaysia
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That is the time when one can neither sleep nor keep awake. Hands of the watch seemingly move at a slow, leisurely pace. Out of sync with the rapidly changing ‘departure’ and ‘arrival’ information racing across the TV screens! The eyes, half-closed, half-open, keep reverting to the dancing flight names, numbers and timings. Each time I looked up, ‘delayed’ sign of my flight stared me straight in the eye. Mockingly. I found myself stranded (quarantined?) at our own airport. How much can one browse through a book or magazine? How many coffee or tea cups can one empty? What conversation can one strike with a fellow traveller?

We finally took off at 8.30 am, two hours behind schedule. Add to these torturing hours, the earlier sleepless night and early check-in. To top it all, not a word of explanation or apology on the delayed departure from the airlines Captain when she ‘welcomed’ us aboard in Arabic.

Adjusting the seat belt and flexing the toe muscles, I tried to concentrate on the positive aspects of travel I was mulling over in the waiting lounge. The boring wait had temporarily torn apart the charm of travel. Now, finally air-borne, the nervous anxiety of once again travelling to different lands, places and people gripped me as did the sense of later sharing the travel tales, triumphs and travails, resuscitating the traveller’s spirit in me.

Paris is a fantastic puzzle of dream and reality
Paris is a fantastic puzzle of dream and reality

It was past mid-day when we touched down at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport. From the air, the place looked like an Air Force forward base in the middle of nowhere with wide, vast stretches of wilderness around. Small patches of green shrubs dotting the expanse swayed in the gentle afternoon breeze. Unlike other international airports, one did not see any habitation or urban conglomeration around the place.

At the compact airport with bright duty-free shops, finding one’s way from one terminal to another was quiet an ordeal. What to say of Arabic, it was difficult to understand even the way English was spoken, given the accent and the way officials responded.

Once at the assigned terminal, more hassles awaited me. The bearded, stocky official spoke curtly. He was more keen to know how much money I was carrying. While he allowed other passengers to proceed and stamped their passports, he held back my passport asking me to wait. He had stubborn, steely looks. He entertained no questions. It was a long wait. The time clicked by for the flight to take off. My eyes were transfixed at the Jordanian official. He had detained passports of two more passengers, one from Bangladesh.

It was barely five minutes before the final call to board was announced, when the official scurried away, disappearing somewhere inside curtained rooms, returning with photocopies of our passports, handing over the original to us. "Have a nice journey". I felt like screaming, "Nice journey, my foot". He had turned the nice part nasty. What a treatment to a transit passenger in Jordan! I sighed.

The first lesson: take a direct flight to the destination, preferably non-stop if possible. Or settle for a stop-over at an airport where civility and courtesy are still practiced. (The return experience, at night, was no better at Queen Alia, where having stood for half-an-hour in a haphazard, multi-line queue we were told to move to another counter making way for the jostling, shouting Tamilians scrambling to catch a flight to Colombo. This was a day after LTTE had attacked the airport.)

The flight touched down at Orly late afternoon on a day when sun and clouds were trying to be one up on the other. A pleasant breeze outside took away the fatigue, more mental, less physical. Before driving into Paris, let me share another experience. At the airport, there was no problem to find the exit. I was following the "sortie" sign. My host, a diplomat in the Indian Embassy, had sent me an e-mail on some common French words and vocabulary, explaining their meaning. Immigration check-in was smooth and quick.

The Seine river is the lifeline of Paris.
The Seine river is the lifeline of Paris.

As I wheeled the trolley with a measured pace absorbing the ambience of Orly, a French officer motioned me to a side room, asking me to open the suitcase. Unlike the man at Amman, this chap at least wore a smile. I offered him the key. He fidgeted and asked me to open the suitcase, "You speak French"? "No", I nodded as I opened the small-little lock holding out my passport he had demanded. "How much money"? he asked while rummaging through the contents. "It is mentioned in the passport. It is in traveller’s cheques". He seemed satisfied. Thanking and apologising, at the same time, he helped me re-zip the suitcase. I pocketed the lock and key. Did my appearance in a turban have to do anything for such encounters?

The warm welcome by Wing Commander, B P S Cheema, and his wife, Anita, warmed the cockles making me forget (temporarily) the chilling flight experiences, including difficult-to-gulp vegetarian food of un-peeled, boiled potatoes and steamed rice the airlines served. They identified the landmarks as we drove into Paris. Across the Seine, through several long, well-lit tunnels, past the Eiffel Tower. Paris’ avenues, garden and park walkways are all lined with ram-rod straight Mulberry trees. Their canopies have been pruned and trained symmetrically into rectangular shapes with the same dimensions.

Despite the sameness of the architecture of the buildings (each owner is supposed to clean up the exterior once every seven years), the city with geometrically designed straight roads does not appear monotonous. Its side-walks are wider than some of the roads. Each road, in each locality, acquires a new name at every turn. Both sides of these roads, I later discovered, remained lined and occupied by parked cars, day-in and day-out. There are, perhaps, more parked cars (a variety of makes, shapes and brands, including the ‘Mini car’ and ‘Smart car’ making waves) than ones running on the roads, criss-crossed by zooming and roaring heavy two-wheelers (mostly motor-bikes) reminiscent of fighter jets take-off.

Paris is a fantastic puzzle of dreams and reality where inadequacy of the knowledge of English, the international link-language, becomes pronounced because Parisians, even if they know English, prefer to speak French. During the course of my stay in Paris, I noticed this trait of the French. I also picked up small bits and crumbs of human-interest information about Parisian society as also about the Indians settled there. Here are some briefs samples and home- truths. In Paris there are 135-odd Indian restaurants run by Indians. There are about 250 Indian families. There have been nearly 30-odd Indian-French marriages as well. Some families, like that of Prem Puri and Shashi have been in Paris for the past 30 years or so. Prem is with the IBM. He talks proudly of how well- settled Punjabis are in Europe. However, he sighs deeply talking of the plight and pathetic life Punjabi youth here lead. once they have illegally made their way to Paris and other European destinations, courtesy cunning travel agents.

Most of the Punjabis I met, get nostalgic about "home". They visit their "roots" religiously every year, at least twice, to be with their aging parents and other members of the family. Several Punjabis, like Ajay Malik, settled in Geneva for over two decades, were frank in expressing their opinion on how India is shaping up, administratively and politically. Economic growth and absence of basic civic amenities and scarcity of water and power scares them. A majority of them are disappointed by their experience of interacting with the bureaucracy back home when they wanted to establish a set-up in the field of computers and software in Punjab. Besides corruption and a slow decision-making process,they say:"The government web sites are seldom updated. It is difficult to open several of these to get more details and information. It is frustrating the way files move. The mind-set is too obvious. Mind-change is slower".

The exchange on men and matters took place at a social gathering of a dozen-odd Punjabis at Puris. To change the sombre mood and morph sighs into smiles, it were the Sikh jokes and antics of "Santa Singh and Banta Singh" that came in handy to enliven the evening. That was also the National Day of France, July 14. It had rained heavily in the day, casting a grey shadow over the Parade at Champs-Elysees leading to cancellation of the display of the air show. Yet thousands of Parisians and tourists had braved the showers to watch the French show-case their country and participate in the festivities. The occasion was a reminder of our own Republic Day, January 26, regalia at New Delhi.

Incidentally, Puris’ apartment at Port Maillot gives a panoramic view of Paris. The night-view is beautiful. Memories of having watched the breath-taking, multi-million Francs fire-works at the Eiffel Tower that night from their balcony, are still etched on mind’s membrane. It was simply bewitching, unbelievable! The reflections of that half-an-hour show-a display of spectacular colours and patterns that lit up the night sky, literally illuminating it again and again up above the "City of lights", remain fresh and unforgettable.

Here is an aside. A word about Le Marches. This is one place where one gets everything from lingerie to lady’s fingers, fruits and vegetables and meat. These Marches are like our Apni Mandi, they are held every Wednesday and Saturday in different parts of Paris at assigned places. These are typical rehri-markets. The prices of bright, shiny fruits and vegetables are displayed on slates. The sellers hawk their stocks offering samples to taste, just as one sees happening in our own Subzi mandi. Bargaining is there. No haggling or arguing. A majority of supplies comes from Africa.

To see Paris, one needs a strong pair of legs, a comfortable pair of shoes and art of map-reading. Only those willing to walk know how to see Paris. Superlatives come tumbling out when it comes to describing Paris, which is a place with poise, passion, pace, prejudice. Paris boasts of over 300 places of interest. Monuments to museums. Art, culture and fashion shows to science galleries. Parks and gardens with exquisite statues are mirrors of time: past, present and future. Take you around later.