Sunday, April 30, 2006


JAP's post today about wierdos at Delhi Airport made me think of my own memories of IGI Domestic Terminal A. I've spent more time than I care to remember in that terminal - for close to two years I was on the Consultant Travel Plan (aka 'take two flights and call me on Monday morning') - first flight out Saturday morning to Delhi, last flight in Sunday night back to Bombay. When you get to the point where you meet the gentlemen with the henna-ed hair and the walkie-talkie who manages boarding gates at IGI more often than you do your closest friends, you know you have lifestyle issues.

At any rate: Delhi Airport. The thing I hate about Delhi Airport (other than its tendency to get all mystical and coy and hide itself behind veils of smog just when you have an urgent meeting to make) is its complete lack of decent book stores. My memories of airports, much like my memories of cities in general, consist mostly of the books I buy there. So Heathrow is forever linked in my head to a copy of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and Chennai airport (which I've visited all of twice) is the source of my collected short stories of Saul Bellow. And Bombay, of course, has Arjandas Gangadas [1], which is where pretty much my entire Robert Jordan collection, as well as a good number of my Calvinos come from.

This may seem like a pedantic quibble (I can see Veena preparing to shout 'book snob'!) but the thing is, having a good bookstore in an airport is a real help. To begin with, it gives you something useful and amusing to do while you wait for your flight to be announced. Second, it means that every time your flight gets delayed and you realise that you've already read two of the three books you're carrying and have kind of lost enthusiasm for the third, you've got back up. A good bookshop is like a boredom first aid kit - no airport should be without one.

For me personally, Arjandas and co. were particularly important because with the crazy hours I was working I almost never had time to actually make it to a bookstore. I mean I'd go to stuff like the Strand Book Sale, but just regular in-flight reading was a problem. There were weeks when I actually had to dip into the dozens of unread books I had sitting at home in order to fortify myself for a flight (oh horrors!). So that tiny little bookstore [2] in Bombay was my only real opportunity to get in half an hour's worth of book-browsing (plus how can you not love a bookstore that's open at 6 am in the morning?).

Delhi, to the best of my knowledge, has nothing similar. The one time I made the mistake of wandering into the 'bookshop' at Delhi airport, the only things I managed to find were a) a whole bunch of guidebooks on India, b) a bunch of Kushwant Singh joke books c) the latest Sidney Sheldon and d) children's colouring books. I've seen more variety on the pavements of CP.

The one thing Delhi Airport does have in its favour (as JAP points out) is the Cafe Coffee Day [3]. An authentic caffeine source is obviously a major plus for any airport. The trouble is that I don't actually like the airport Cafe Coffee Day outlet. For one thing it's always understaffed (I should say that everything that follows is based largely on my experience from two years ago - things may have changed since - though my experience with the one time I passed through Delhi Airport this January suggests they haven't). Apparently the people who staff this outlet have never figured out that airport outlets may actually need to have different timings from regular cafes. So if you catch one of the early morning flights out of the airport, you'll always find one sleepy looking guy behind the counter who's always surprised to see the number of people who start queuing up for coffee around 6:30 am. Who knew that all these people were going to show up at the airport that early in the morning? What in earth could have motivated them? [4]

My bigger complaint against the outlet, though, is their complete inability to get their heads around the concept of a double espresso. Here's how the drill goes. You walk up to the counter. You ask for a double espresso. The guy behind the counter instantly goes into his clockwork spiel about how espresso is extra-strong black coffee. You give him the look that says he's such a low form of life you don't know why you're still wasting time talking to him. You say, yes, I know that, that's why I want it. He looks disbelieving. He says "Are you sure, sir?", like you'd just asked him to perform an abortion. "Yes, I'm sure", you say, in as loud and distinct a voice as possible (wondering if there's a consent form somewhere you have to sign), "and could you make it a double".

The guy turns around, stares at the board. Then informs you that they don't serve double espresso. You tell him yes, you know that, but they serve single espressos don't they - all he has to do is put two single espressos in a cup. He shakes his head violently. He has limits, he seems to say, he's prepared to be kind to you, but there is an ethical line he will not cross. Putting two shots of an espresso in a single cup is practically illegal - he could lose his license to dish out coffee from an airport kiosk for something like that.

You try reasoning with him. They do extra shots of espresso, don't they, how about if he gives you an espresso, with a shot of espresso added to it? He thinks about this for a minute, then his moral compass swings back firmly to No. He can't do that either. By this time you're beginning to lose your temper. Just for the heck of it you ask for THREE single espressos. He looks a little worried at this, but can't see a way to refuse. He places the three espressos on the counter, each one accompanied by about four sachets of sugar and a cup of water - as if espresso was some kind of dire medicine. Or hemlock. You brush these aside. Then, still standing at the counter, and with visible contempt, you pour all three shots of espresso into a single cup, drain it to the bottom in a single go, slam the cup back on the counter, and walk away.

And the next time you're at that counter, you just order a latte, because you don't have the strength to go through that all over again.

So much for Cafe Coffee Day [4]. The real source of amusement at Delhi Airport (especially if you're interested in watching wie..., errr, studying human nature) is the whole identifying baggage thing. Why they actually make you go through this is beyond me, but on any given day there'll always be at least 10% of the people around who will not be familiar with this arcane custom [5]. And it's always fun to watch them make the discovery, which usually happens just as their plane is boarding, meaning that every now and then the relative calm of the airport security area is broken by the urgent cries of uncle-jis leaping bravely into action, leaving their wives at the boarding gate with clear instructions not to let the flight take off without them (as though otherwise she would just have sauntered on to the plane and not noticed that her husband wasn't with her; oh, and presumably on the assumption that the sheer bulk of her presence at the boarding gate will keep the plane from taking off) and running as fast as their pot-bellied bodies will allow to go identify their luggage (as I understand it, there's now a movement to make the 126 metre Delhi Airport Baggage Identification Dash a formal Olympic Event). It's annoying if you happen to be on the same flight as them, but otherwise it's most entertaining.


[1] I think that's the name, though I'm not sure. I've always thought of it as 'that little bookshop' in Bombay airport.

[2] If you've never been there - it really is microscopic - if you're lucky and there's no one else in there, you might just about be able to breathe, but that's about it. That's by normal human standards, of course, by Bombay standards it's a massive block of real estate practically wasted

[3] Though the Bombay airport terminal does have a Cadbury's vending machine, stocked full of delicious chocolate. That machine's a real technical marvel by the way. I, in my ignorance, once tried getting a bar of Temptations out of it by actually inserting money in the slot and pressing a button to specify my selection. Fortunately, I was stopped from doing this by an irate attendant who came charging up behind me and demanded to know what I wanted and what I thought I was doing. After he'd calmed down a bit and realised that I was a bona fide customer and not some Luddite out to destroy all the machines of the world, he then proceeded to show me how the machine really worked. He took my notes from me, counted them, slipped them into his cash box, then proceeded to open the front of the vending machine, calmly pick out the chocolate I wanted by hand, give it to me, count out my change and hand that back as well, and wish me a good day. By the time I moved to the US I'd got so used to this procedure that the first time I tried getting Sprite out of a vending machine here, I just stood pointedly in front of the machine and waited for the attendant to come by and serve me.

[4] For more griping about this Cafe Coffee Day outlet and its clientele (and Delhi Airport in general), see my post here

[5] Again, for those of you not familiar with this - Delhi Airport requires you to go 'identify' your checked in baggage before you board the flight. This means that while you're traipsing your way through the security checkpoint, your bags have taken the low road and made their way to a little holding area off to the side, where they're waiting anxiously for you to come and claim them for your own. The actual identification process is supposed to consist (as I understand it) of the attendant actually matching your baggage tag to the one on your bag, thus confirming that you are actually boarding the flight along with your bag (though in an age of suicide bombers, I'm not sure how much security that guarantees) but in my experience it usually consists of you pointing to your bag and some guy with a sketch pen making a mark on it. I personally have twice accidentally identified other people's bags for them (you know - you point to your bag and the guy makes a mark on the one next to it and then you say no, no, not that one, THAT one, and he obediently marks your bag as well, but the first bag has been tagged now and will get put on the plane anyway). In theory, however, bags that don't get identified don't get put on the plane - meaning that if it is your first time flying through Delhi Airport, and you're not the kind of person who speaks Klingon and can therefore actually understand the announcements over the loudspeaker, you're almost certain to have that panicked moment where you go running to the holding area to make sure that you're not leaving your bags behind.


pointblank said...

Very true, about the bookstore at Bombay airport. But apparently the baggage process at Delhi airport is no longer mandatory. The last time I was at the domestic terminal was in January. Though they still practiced the procedure, it was largely restricted to the people who already knew about its existence. There were no announcements and panic-striken moments (due to this annoying procedure. There were, of course, other reasons which made them panic).
And about the 'triple espresso', did you ACTUALLY do that?

confused said...

Yo Pointblank is right. Its no longer mandatory.

And of course nice piece and all that.


But with Airport privatization, we might actually have good bookshops.

Hopefully, No?

Falstaff said...

pointblank / confused: wait. You mean they have a whole system where you can go and identify your bag, etc. but if you don't they'll load it onto the plane anyway??!! So the whole system now exists to give you the OPPORTUNITY of being more hassled?

pointblank: about the triple espresso. Depends on what you mean by that? Did I order a double espresso. yes. did I get pissed off because the guy wouldn't give me one. yes. did I finally order three espressos and make myself a triple espresso at the counter? yes. did I drink it down in one gulp? no. But it makes a good story, no?

scout said...

I couldn't stop laughing for the better part of this post... this is brilliant :D... but I do beg to differ... IG International airport at least, is way, way, way better than Mumbai's Shivaji which just looks like an interstate bus terminal.

Just so you know, the bias comes from the fact that I'm a Delhi girl. :D

pointblank said...

Falstaff, yeah you put it in the best way possible. They give you the opportunity of being more hassled. And yeah, it definitely makes for a good story.

Confused, yeah we can expect better bookshops and more with the privatization, but don't hold your breath. We all know the pace with which things happen there.

Scout, I know for a fact that for the past one year, Shivaji has been in the process of rennovation. I was there in August 05 and then in January 06. On both ocassions, the main entrance was blocked due to construction. Not that it made the experience any better. If at all, it was more people and lesser space. I'll be there later this month again. Hopefully, this time, it would be something to remember.

nitpick said...

umm..can't resist any more - it is WEIRD and not WIERD :(

dazedandconfused said...

The first time I heard these baggage identification announcements, I assumed it was meant for some strange people and their stranger (is that a word?!) baggages and didn't bother.

Thankfully one of the staff climbed into the plane, identified me, gave me a glare and asked me to confirm what my baggage looked like.

I have since become an excellent baggage identifier (is that a word?!)

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