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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Flying with the 'shanti-shanti' crowd

I usually take the Thursday evening overnight flight from Mumbai to Tel Aviv at the end of my India trips.  However this time I was able to wrap up earlier in the week and return by the Monday evening overnight flight.

One would think that these two El Al flights - identical in time, duration and designation number - would be indistinguishable from one another.

One would be wrong.

The Thursday night El Al flight is filled with tired business travelers, many of whom arrived in India the same week on the Sunday night flight heading east.  I've come to recognize many of the 'regulars' on these two flights, and I've come to expect a quiet, commuter-like experience where the lights go out and everyone is asleep within minutes of the dinner and drink carts being locked back into their niches in the galley

However, the Monday evening overnight El Al flight from Mumbai to Tel Aviv is nothing like that.  Apparently this is the flight that the young Israeli back-packer set takes home at the end of their multi-months-long post army sojourns in India.  

They converge on the Mumbai airport from the mountains in the north of India... from the beaches of Goa... from any of the many ashrams that cater to the young Israelis who seek to recapture an inner peace/youth that was taken from them during their stressful army stints.

They arrive at the airport from their far-flung adventures attired uniformly (in their attempted non-conformity) in baggy cotton pants, sandals, loose tank tops and scarves, with their long unkempt hair (men and women alike) arranged in dreads or ponytails (kookoos) and wrapped in colorful cotton kerchiefs.  Strangely, they all seem to have lost or discarded their undergarments somewhere during their travels.

Most of these young travelers have expended their very last financial resources in reaching the airport, and the pre-boarding lounge is a hectic scene of pooling crumpled ten Rupee bills (worth about 20 U.S. cents each) to procure and share much needed nourishment and chai.  The musky scent of unwashed bodies in the lounge is augmented by the strong tang of 'burnt vegetation'; an indication that other resources were likely pooled and expended just prior to entering the airport.  Waste not, want not, I suppose.

When I described this crowd/scene to my family over breakfast yesterday, my teen-aged daughter nodded knowingly and said, "Oh, you mean the 'shanti-shanti' crowd", as if I should have known this term already.

'Shanti', it turns out, is the Sanskrit word for peace. It is often used in chanting and meditation, but it has apparently been informally absorbed into the Hebrew lexicon by the younger set as a short-hand description of anyone/anything affecting a mellow, peaceful and vaguely eastern manner and/or dress.

Once I had this working definition, I could see how my daughter had so easily pigeon-holed my fellow travelers.

Anyway, rather than going to sleep after the meal service had finished, the 'shanti-shanti' crowd began roving the plane in gregarious groups, reconnecting with friends, comparing travel stories and chasing down the harried flight attendants for any left-over meals and drinks.  Had I not been so tired it would have been mildly amusing to see many of them pretending to have forgotten the correct Hebrew words for things and 'casually' substituting the saffron and curry-flavored vocabulary they had studiously collected in their travels.

Luckily I had remembered to bring both my ear plugs and eye shades... and most important, had taken a couple of Benadryl tablets right before the flight (better by far than any of the prescription sleep aids for achieving maximum drowsiness with minimum risk of adverse interaction with the in-flight beverage service).

My last recollection of the flight was of a scruffy young couple making out noisily to my left, and a small group of what my generation would have called 'hippies' reminiscing loudly and exchanging email address over top of my head.  The next thing I was aware of was the soft kiss of the plane's wheels on the runway in Israel and the inevitable applause of the grateful Israelis; unabashedly happy to be home at last.

Note to self:  The Monday evening overnight El AL flight from Mumbai to Tel Aviv is only to be taken as a last resort. 

Posted by David Bogner on August 12, 2009 | Permalink

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Strangely, they all seem to have lost or discarded their undergarments somewhere during their travels.

Not that you were looking too closely, mind you.....

[ducks and runs!]

In all seriousness, you have done such a wonderful job describing the sound effects, the view, and the [ermmm] aroma I feel like I flew with you! :-)

Posted by: zahava | Aug 12, 2009 1:24:44 PM

zahava ... Honey... I wish I could say that it was only the young women's lack of underwear I noticed. My seat was the aisle seat on the right hand side of the centere section. To my distress, there was a tall, lanky young man standing next to my seat on the right, carrying on a hopeful (and it later turned out, sucessful) courtship of the young woman sitting to my left for the first 30 minutes of the flight. His amorous interest in this young woman was impossible to miss at a range of less than 8 inches from my face.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 12, 2009 2:31:34 PM

Think the Shanti avoid the Thurs flights,just as you avoid the Mon ones? I think the mix of the Shanti with the business comuters on Mon would make for some interesting scenes.

Posted by: ED | Aug 12, 2009 3:11:48 PM

Wow. Groooovy man. Real groovy. I'm glad you didn't harsh their mellow.

Posted by: Albert | Aug 12, 2009 4:11:38 PM

Reminds me of when my husband flew to America from Israel and was on a plane with 200 teenagers returning from the Mach Hach Ba'aretz Summer Program. The pilot threatened to stop the plane mid-flight and throw the kids overboard.

Posted by: Baila | Aug 12, 2009 5:53:57 PM

To Baila: LOL! My son went on Mach Hach many years ago. I can only imagine
To Trep: You know, there is a solution for all this travel agita. It's called Business Class....

Posted by: Marsha in Englewood | Aug 12, 2009 7:23:59 PM

I once flew from Israel to the states with a church group. For the first seven hours the lovely grandmother on my right thanked me: for letting her visit G-d's home, for giving her the chance to tell me how lucky I was to be chosen and asking me to participate in her in-flight bible study group.

And did I mention that she kept asking me if she could practice speaking Hebrew with me. She knew about eight words. For a short while I wondered if I was going to be arrested for responding to "Shalom and todah rabah" with a mighty blow to the head. What a painful experience.

Just one more reason why I have come to dislike flying.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 12, 2009 7:35:40 PM

David, I am very grateful that I have never had your experience with seat'mates'. It reminds me of Tolkien's line, "Do not come between a Nazgul and its prey." My strangest flight had a woman from Tennessee sitting next to me. She decided that it was a good time to 'visit,' i.e., to spend the long hours shmoozing about her life. I learned a great deal about her life, including that she sang in a bluegrass band and was a professional taster, and got zero sleep.

Posted by: Barzilai | Aug 12, 2009 8:29:28 PM

Welcome back to the dust bowl!

Posted by: QuietusLeo | Aug 12, 2009 9:55:51 PM

Solution to bothersome seatmates who want to chat. Learn a very long sentence in Icelandic and shrug shoulders. It works like a dream. NO ONE speaks Icelandic on long haul flights:-)

Posted by: Noa | Aug 12, 2009 10:09:20 PM

LOL! I think you should've introduced this post with a warning about reading while drinking...
:-)

Posted by: Mrs. S. | Aug 13, 2009 4:09:48 PM

"...in their attempted non-conformity"

How do you know they were attempting not to conform?

Posted by: Fred | Aug 14, 2009 12:11:41 AM

Considering the place I was staying in Delhi (Main Bazaar), the photo below of a hotel pool seems as disconnected from the Delhi I experienced. Since then I've been in Ladakh, which is probably the nearest place to heaven I've ever been (literally - at one point we were at 18,000 feet above sea level, and the rest of the time pretty high as well). Maybe next time you come, you could take some for a visit up here, David. Leave time for altitude sickness - no rush visits here... Anyway, tomorrow we're back to Delhi, hopefully to a slightly better hotel, just off the Main Bazaar. Who knows, we might even have hot water this time (just kidding - it's so hot, who needs hot water)

Posted by: Imshin | Aug 16, 2009 4:42:00 PM

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