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20 December 2013

My First Air Travel Experience...

I still remember the first time that I flew in an Airline.
It was on 1st December, 2002.
I flew in the Singapore Airlines Flight from Bangalore to Changi Airport in Singapore and then boarded the connecting flight from Changi Airport to Pudong Airport in China.
I flew from Bangalore to Pudong with a stopover at Singapore, if you see what I mean.
Why does 1st December ring a bell? Why, it is my birthday !!!
My first ever flight was on my birthday. What are the chances?...
Technically my flight was to start from Bangalore at 23.50 Hours on the 30th of November, but you know how it is. An untraceable passenger here, a lost luggage there, a delayed pilot, delayed ATC clearance...
These things add on...
My flight started (I mean really started !!) at 00.10 Hours on 1st December. I saw it as a good omen that my first ever airline travel was on my birthday.
(I am not going to tell you which birthday, it was. No way...)
I remember being impressed with Changi Airport. Huge airport with millions of teeming passengers,some tired, some bleary eyed, some excited, some young couple oblivious of what is happening in the airport, holding hands and looking at each other with love and hope for the future in their eyes.
Like a kid in a Toy Store, I imbibed all of that. I was so very excited. I was having all these wonderful experiences in my life, sitting in one of the best airports in the world (in fact 'THE' best airport in the world that year) during my first ever air travel.
What more can you ask for?
Everything was new. A guy sitting in one of the corners sending email was new. A guy sitting on the ground,  with his laptop literally on his lap, working on a presentation while talking over his mobile phone was new, buying a MacD in the airport food court was new, seeing all those beautiful people, white, black and shades in between was new, all those gleaming Singapore Airline Aircrafts lined up in the departure gates was new...
Even walking from one end of the Changi Airport to the Other end was new...
Everything was new. And exciting...
I couldn't enjoy the 'newness' when on my onward journey. Since I had to change the planes at Changi, I was more worried about finding my departure gate. As soon as I got out of my Blr-Singapore Aircraft, I quickly rushed to my departure gate for the connecting flight, eventhough there was a 4 hour stopover at Changi. It was unfamiliar territory and I did not want to take any chances.
I was very impressed with the security at Changi Airport. On my return from my first overseas trip I wrote in my dairy, "One thing that impressed me at Changi was the non-invasive security that pervaded the airport. The airport was filled with a number of AK-47 wielding security guards, with no-nonsense look in their eyes. They don't intrude on you, they won't even look at you. But one look at them and you know that if you are into any mischief, you have had it".
The non-invasive security was such a contrast from what I saw in Bangalore Airport. More about it later in this post.
As a preparation for my first air travel, I purchased  my first ever mobile phone. It was a very low end version (Cheap, I mean) with a Hutch SIM Card. Those days, the rules regarding roaming was not as stringent as they are now. My SIM Card came attached with international roaming by default. 
Those days, if you are ready to pay, you get roaming with no questions asked and no papers to fill in. 
At Changi, from my departure gate, I made a call home. You can imagine my ecstasy when I heard my mother's voice on the phone. Here I was, sitting in an Airport across the Indian Ocean and talking to my mom in my mobile phone. I felt like I have arrived. Two years before, I would not have thought it possible.
And here I was, if you see what I mean.
I reached Pudong some time in the afternoon, Pudong time. The Pudong airport (also called 'Shanghai Airport', Shanghai is about 50 miles from Pudong and is connected by a high speed, 'Maglev' rail link) is a huge airport. It was  in the early stages of becoming the third busiest airport in the world by Cargo Traffic. The airport was very drab those days. I heard that later, the airport had been ranked better than Changi.
I couldn't enjoy the airport, because I was tensed up.
I was in China.
It was my first trip to a strange land, that too China. When it was decided that I will be travelling to China, my tried to instill some confidence in me. China was attempting to come out of their self imposed isolation and was trying to welcome foreign business to come an set shop in the country. 'Don't worry that you are going to China. That country is no longer communist. They are very business friendly. Only be careful not to do anything rash that will attract attention'.
Very comforting.
I was always on the lookout for a Policeman or other law enforcement agents to beckon me for checking. At the airport exit, my luggage was checked and one of the policemen called me out. I got a bit scared and acted as if I didn't see him calling me. Apparently he was not calling me because I came out of the airport unscathed.
My company assigned me an English Speaking Driver. He told me that his name is Pan. He told me his sad story. It seems he completed his masters in English Literature in 1975. Those were the days of cultural revolution and all the educated people were hounded out and denied job opportunities. Woebegone if you majored in English language !!.
Cultural revolution continued till about 90's. By that time Pan was already 40 without any skills or Jobs. He learned driving.
Infrastructure in China is awesome. The roads are wide with a lot of flyovers and connectivity and what not. Pudong is an industrial area and you can see all the multinationals having set shop there. On the way from airport to hotel, I saw offices of almost all the major Japanese Corporations.
After about 2 weeks in Pudong, I returned to India. One the return journey, I was much more confident and I had a stopover in Singapore and Changi airport arranged a Singapore visit for us. We deposited our passport at the airport, took the airport bus and spent about two hours in Singapore including an hour in Centosa Beach.
Then I was back in Bangalore Airport. Inefficiency and lack of professionalism every where.
The immigration officials were badly dressed, uncouth, did not speak proper English, harassed almost all the foreign nationals with stupid and intrusive questions ("Why are you here?", as if those visitors were a burden to India), the walls were dirty, the washrooms were leaking and stinking, computers and scanners were not working....
And then there were those customs officials. Oh, those ubiquitous Customs officials...
Every 10 meters there was a custom official, with greed writ large over their eyes, looking for a pray to latch on to. If you are a non-Indian and show your unfamiliarity with India, you are sure to be caught in their web and once you are there, you have to pay something to extricate yourselves out of that mess. It was nauseating, them looking at passengers with those greedy eyes...
Every passenger was a smuggler, was guilty, unless proven a regular visitor.
If the security at Changi was strong and non-intrusive, the Customs officials at Bangalore were Intrusive with a capital 'I'.
From a paradise that is Changi, I was back in hell that is Bangalore Airport, all in a span of about three hours...
Welcome to India...

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