“How long does it take to get to the airport, driver?”
“Two hours if traffic jam. Light traffic is less, about one hour,” he said.
Leaving the team house at 6:50am, we arrived at 7:15am. And he wasn’t speeding.
The security check involved loading my suitcase and carry-on bag onto the rollers to go through the Xray scanner. As they disappeared behind the rubber flaps, I noticed I was still carrying my wallet. This contained my passport, boarding card, foreign money, credit cards, house key, driving licence and other essentials. I glanced over to the security guard and asked what to do with my wallet. I motioned throwing the wallet onto the conveyor belt and he nodded. So I did.
Then I realised I still had my mp3 player, my mobile phone, a camera on my belt and my watch. I pointed at this, but another guard just waved me through the metal detector. It beeped frantically and the guard gave me a cursory rub down before waving me through. My suitcase and carry-on bag had already slid down the rollers after being scanned, but there was a lady’s handbag there. I picked it up and shouted to a woman who had just left. She shook her head but another lady came running over to take it from me.
I glanced over to the Xray scanner as my wallet appeared through the rubber strips. It looked thin enough to slip down into the gap between the rollers, so I lunged at it. At that precise moment, the security guard decided to have another close look at a piece of luggage in the scanner. He put the conveyor belt into reverse and my wallet went back into the machine before I could grab it.
The security guards saw this and tried hard to stop themselves from laughing. The wallet returned to view and I picked it up. The guards called me over and thanked me for helping the lady with her forgotten handbag. I suppose technically I should have called them. Perhaps they thought it unseemly to speak to an unknown woman. I doubt they would have blown it up in a controlled explosion.
My colleague managed to pass through the emigration formalities without too much difficulty, in spite of having overstayed his visa. He offered to pay a fine, but the officer just waved him through.
Bangladeshis have a sweet tooth, as well as a sweet disposition; most of the shops in the departure lounge were selling pastries and cakes.
There were some shops where you could buy liquor. Judging by the dust, many of the bottles on display had been on the shelves for years. The foil cap and seal on a $80 bottle of cognac was so distressed that it looked like it might have been tampered with. A bottle of sparkling wine was dirty, with the bare cork showing; it had probably lost its fizz. Unsurprisingly, not many people were buying booze at 8am.
An enthusiastic leather goods salesman tried to sell me a belt. Last year, I lost a lot of weight in Delhi so I had an extra hole punched into my belt. The excess tongue of the belt flaps out from my side. The belt he tried to sell me was called CROSS. The sales assistant got excited when I got out my wallet, but instead of showing him dollars, I showed him my name (“Ki Naam”) on the boarding card. He said, “Bangladesh Biman?”
“No, my name is CROSS. Like the brand of the belt. How much is it? I quite fancy having a personalised belt buckle,” I said.
“Only £25, sir.”
I decided I didn’t fancy having a personalised belt that much. I opened my laptop and began writing this blog. Time 8:29am.
Bangladesh Biman Flight BG 088 was scheduled to leave at 10:20am. At 9:45am, the departure notice board directed us to gate 9, but there was no one there when I arrived. The staff turned up at 10am and we all filed through into the holding pen by the gate. A tall American man guided me to the seats at the far end, away from the raucous Bangladeshi soap opera on the TV. At 10:20am, he said that the last time he had taken this flight, it had been cancelled without warning at the last minute. “So for that reason, I took out flight insurance this time,” he said. When I looked worried, he reassured me by saying that the authorities would not have taken our luggage if the flight was likely to be cancelled. “Bangladesh,” he sighed.
At 10:40am I went to the security desk to ask for information about the flight. “It is on time,” said a man in a high visibility vest. “It has arrived. It is on the apron.” He fluttered his hands in the general direction of the planes outside. There were no planes displaying Bangladesh Biman livery. I returned to my seat. The textile machine manufacturer from South Carolina said that being twenty minutes late was actually considered to be on time in Bangladesh.
Ten minutes later, there was a flurry of activity and we were ushered down the stairs to board an ancient bus. The seats were fixed around the periphery, providing more room for travellers to be packed inside, standing. Some men had spread their buttocks over two seats and did not wish to make room for anyone who needed to sit down.
The driver had some trouble getting the bus to start. He kept turning the ignition key until the glow plugs warmed up and the diesel engine wheezed into life. But it didn’t sound healthy. The driver had to keep his foot on the accelerator to prevent the engine from stalling. He eased it into a gear (probably third, I’d guess) and slowly let out the clutch. The bus lurched forward, as the driver slipped the clutch and kept the revs up.
We drove in front of the terminal buildings, past the parked aeroplanes. We drove past a wide array of broken pallets, loaded with cardboard boxes wrapped in sheets of plastic. The wind had torn the sheeting ragged. I was not sure if this was the normal holding area for air freight, or whether it was where stuff had been lost and abandoned. The bus turned onto the tarmac apron and stopped outside our plane, about a kilometre away from Gate Nine.
On boarding, I noticed that the plane looked the worse for wear. I had requested a window seat so I could take pictures. Just as I was getting comfortable, a Bangladeshi man rudely told me to get out of his seat. He said he always has a window seat, “8C is window.” I explained that my seat, 8A, would normally be the window seat. He was furious when more well-mannered Bangladeshis in the surrounding seats told him he was wrong. Then he changed tack and claimed that he had a boarding pass for seat 8A. I showed him my stub, suggesting it might be double booked. He checked his boarding pass and harrumphed, flopping down in the aisle seat in a fit of pique.
After takeoff, the antimacassar piece of tissue paper on the headrest of my seat fell off. When I tried to replace it, the whole head rest came away in my hands. I managed to fit the bolt protruding from the back of the head rest into the hole in the seat, but it remained wobbly for the rest of the flight.
The flight attendants served us a curry with a bottle of Seven Up. The foldaway tray was so tilted that it threatened to spill lunch into my lap. The passenger in seat 8B was engrossed in watching a film he had uploaded to his iPad. He tried eating his meal with the tablet balanced against the seat in front. After Denzil Washington dispatched a villain in a startling manner, the passenger jumped, knocking the tablet off the tray table. I retrieved it for him (only fair, as I was also sneakily watching the film) and luckily the screen was intact. That would teach him to watch movies while eating.
The Thai/Myanmar border area from 35,000 feet
As we crossed over into Thai airspace, the captain turned on the fasten seat belt sign and explained that he was expecting turbulence. He manoeuvred the plane between some impressive cumulo-nimbus cloud formations. We hit a low pressure air pocket and the plane abruptly dropped about a hundred feet. Several Bangladeshi ladies screamed in fear. Several began repeatedly chanting the name of God. We descended, flying out over the Gulf of Siam and turned to make our approach into Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. We landed smoothly, but no one clapped.