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The Blog of Photographer Steven Gray

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India, Day 2 - The lonely way to travel.

I have a love/hate relationship with transatlantic air travel. I like having nine hours to relax, but I dislike doing it in a metal tube filled with recycled air.

I like movies, but I dislike four-inch screens.

I enjoy conversations with new people, but planes always carry the threat of a seatmate whose bulk occupies both his own seat and part of mine.  Worse yet, I've previously been caught next to talkative sad sacks, and with nowhere to run or hide, they depressed me with their life stories for hours at a time.

All that said, I generally enjoy the experience of air travel, even flying coach. Even at its worst, flying gives me dedicated time to catch up on some reading.  Post-college, reading has taken on a new significance, because I finally have the luxury of choosing my own books.  Based on the recommendation of a friend, I chose to bring a book on the trip that was very, very specialShantaram, by Gregory David Roberts.  Set in India during the 1980s, there was little difference between what was on the pages and what I saw firsthand in India every time I put the book down.  If you have not read it, I highly recommend that you do so, sooner rather than later.

Aside from a reading and some intermittent movie-watching, my flight from Miami to London was uneventful.  I managed to sleep a little bit as well, which always helps kill time.  Someday I'll learn to take some Tylenol PM every time I fly, so I can just go right to sleep and be blissfully unaware of the passing time.  After nine hours, I touched down in London early in the morning and was met by a familiar sign.

As I entered the terminal, following the familiar path through the "B Gates" in the international terminal, I grinned for a couple of reasons.  The first reason was the knowledge that I would be returning to Britain at the end of my trip, and for the first time, I would actually get out of the airport and see England itself.  As many times as I had connected through Heathrow, I had never actually set foot on English soil.

My second reason for grinning was the sight of several information screens held hostage by my old arch-nemesis, the Blue Screen of Death.  I had no idea the old blue screen still afflicted modern computer systems, much less in airport terminal displays, but there it was, big as life.

As I said, it was early.  Early enough to eat breakfast, although my body clock was so confuzzled by the time change that I might have actually been craving lunch or dinner.  This is one point of my travel recaps that will remain problematic.  On a good day, I am hopeless at processing numbers.  Dramatic time changes and long flights exacerbate this weakness and make it even harder for me to remember details that aren't logged in my journal or with photographs.  Details like exact times.

Where was I?  Oh yes, breakfast.  Or, "brekkie," as they say in the UK.  I love that term.  "Brekkie."  Fun to say.

One of my favorite things about England is, honestly, the food.  I don't know why England's traditional fare has been the black sheep of world cuisine for so long, because I find it delicious.  Traditional British food is certainly simpler and less magazine-ready than, say, French or Italian cuisine, but that is actually what I love most about it.  There's been a renaissance in British cooking in recent years, and top-tier gastronomy is dramatically changing the modern opinions regarding British cuisine, but I will always be a fan of the classics.  From the delicacies and to the pub grub, it is simple, hearty fare, always savory and always satisfying.  Especially the traditional English breakfast.  Eggs, sausage, bacon, beans, tomato and potatoes.  I can't think of a more comforting eating experience.

Breakfast moved to the top of my action list, I entered Giraffe, had my brekkie (I love that word) and a cup of good coffee.  The repast over, I sat in the atrium of the terminal with my journal and wrote.  As I got still and focused on the blank page, I became aware of an odd feeling.  The last two times I had flown--including the last time I had gone through Heathrow--I had been with friends.  I was retracing the same path to India, but I was doing it alone.

Alone.  That's a naughty word when you're traveling.  I've traveled alone plenty of times, and had fun doing it, but after several trips in a row with other people, I missed the company.  I missed them badly, in fact.  I have to confess that my trips to India aren't just mission trips.  Selfishly, I look forward to the chance to spend ten days at close quarters with good friends from another state who I don't see at any other time during the year.  And now I was doing the India thing again, but they weren't there with me.  In the film The Third Man, Orson Welles' character, a sociopathic gangster, says from atop a ferris wheel: "Don't be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?"  In that moment, tired and listless and with no one to talk to, I felt like a dot.

This was the first of several such moments that I had during the course of my journey.  When I was actually in India, I returned to several places where I had served on earlier trips.  Coming back was strange, because the paradigms were so drastically different.  Whereas the first time I went to this or that place, I was with friends, and often arrived there after a bus ride filled with conversation, laugher and even the occasional song.  On this trip, however, I visited these places as the "silent partner" of various hosts, with almost every word out of my mouth requiring translation into Hindi or a local language before they could be understood.  Having such strong memories so far from home, and even in a place like Heathrow, was a new and surreal experience, made slightly depressing by the removal of all the familiar and positive emotional associations.  It almost felt like I had lost something, or someone.

In this incredibly positive state of mind (irony alert!), I sat in Heathrow and journaled my thoughts onto paper.  My plane left in the late afternoon, and before departure, I also translated my mild sadness into a bit of emotional eating by buying a cappuccino and a bar of dark chocolate for an early dinner--my last Western indulgence before committing myself to India for six weeks.  That decision has not gone down in the annals of "Steven's Personal Best;" to the contrary, the assault of milk and sugar on my stomach, unaccompanied by any other solid food, made the flight uncomfortable and set me up for a very tired landing in India.

My re-entry into Incredible India will be covered later this week.  I am slowly realizing that my writing consecutive entries as long-form narratives is a little too time-consuming, so you may look forward to shorter but more frequent entries in coming weeks.  Stay tuned!