Flying through the monsoon

We flew in bright sunshine at the usual cruising altitude of around 10 kilometers above sea level. Below us the unbroken sea of clouds was interrupted by infrequent towers of cumulonimbus anvils. The towers form as clouds condense into rain. The heat released as water changes from steam to liquid creates a local convection which churns up clouds into these anvils. In mid-August more of India should have had rains, so the scene outside my window told me that rainfall is spotty this year.

Then, as we approached Mumbai, the plane began to lose height. At an altitude of around 6 kilometers above sea level we began a dive into the monsoon clouds. I’ve not paid much attention to it before, but this time around I decided to take a time-lapse video, the one you see above. This condenses a little less than half an hour’s descent into two and a half minutes. I was astounded by the changes in the nature of the clouds as we ploughed through the turbulent layer. Not having paid attention, I’d thought of it always as a mass of grey churn. But now I saw that there is much more structure to it. Interesting.

Wind inside a letter box

I think of myself as rooted in one place: but with tap-roots, like a banyan tree’s, spreading out in different continents. When I came back to India, a late spring and early summer in Europe was for a long time an annual affair. Lately, it has been less frequent, as another root samples eastern Asia.

It was still dark as I checked in for my flight to Munich in the chaotic airport in Rome. After passing through the usual barriers to travel that you meet inside an airport, I found a last cup of espresso. This helped to shut out the commotion of early departures, and reach a quietness inside. I find it useful to reach a balance before very long flights. Once you are cocooned inside the zones which envelope a passenger, all you have is yourself. Restlessness will magnify as you cross continents; just as quietness can deepen.

Midsummer snow, alpine meadows and clouds from the air

Leaving Europe, I recall conversations with a grand-aunt in the last years of her life, as her world became smaller and smaller: from continents to a widely spread out family, eventually to a single town, and then just a house with a garden, before shrinking to a hospital bed. The first time The Family met her, she’d laid out a silver tea service for us. Eventually our talk veered to a trip from Oxford up to Sweden where she found the tea service and her life in design. As she spoke of ferries and the cold air of the Baltic on the deck, I was reminded of my own trips across the Baltic: the first view of Helsinki, as I sailed past Suomenlinna on a summer morning, and, another time, pulling slowly out of Stockholm’s harbour and its islands in the long sunset of another summer. When I showed my mother the photos from that voyage, she talked about a Swedish movie made before I was born. Now, as the sun rose over the Tyrolean Alps (featured photo, and the one just above), I remembered the joy in my grand-aunt’s voice.

Sunlight and clouds over a river in the Tyrolean Alps

This spring was wet, and early summer had been less than warm around the Alps. The news had been full of the danger of the Seine flooding the Louvre. The aerial view of the Alps was not as crisp as it can be. The snow had retreated to the highest peaks, leaving meadows green, as always. But a haze hung over everything. A bank of clouds flowed down a river valley at one place. Elsewhere the sun glinted off the braided channels of water. Could it be the river Inn? My mind was like a paper cup; memories tumbled blindly from me. Tiramisu in Pizzeria Due Furiosi in FrascatiThis year while travelling, I decided to be in constant contact with all my nieces. The youngest responded to my postings of odd locations around Portugal and Italy with complaints. Why no photos of the Coliseum? Not graffiti again! Is that collection of cubes really art? The only thing I ate that met with her approval was Tiramisu. I remembered this as I had my bland airlines breakfast.

In two hours I was in Munich. There was enough time to linger over a hefeweizen and a plate of weisswurst, before the long flight home, where the monsoon had set in.

Window dressing

Airplane cockpit windows being cleaned Aiport cockpit window blinds

Twice in the last two months I’ve paused while boarding a plane to look closely at the cockpit. Once the windows being cleaned with newspaper. The second time cockpit windows had newspapers taped up, presumably to keep out the glare of the sun. What would we do without print versions of newspapers!

And at least one of them is the pink paper: the stock market is flying high.

Flying near the Everest with a crappy camera

The great thing about Air India is that the Mumbai-Shanghai Dreamliner skirts the southern edge of the Himalayas at an altitude of 12 kilometers in the mid-morning. In October, when the skies over north India are crystal clear, you could have a great view of the high Himalayas from the flight. The names rolled off my tongue on the taxi to the airport: Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Manaslu, Shishapangma, Cho Oyu, Sagarmatha (Everest), Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga. They might appear in that order as I fly. The taxi driver looked in his mirror quizzically. I told him about the 8000 meter peaks. He seemed to understand; he said he is from near the foothills of the Himalyas.

The bad thing about Air India is that you can never predict what they are going to do. I’d booked myself an aisle seat on the port side, forward of the wing, on my flight out to China. My boarding pass specified a completely different row, one which turned out to be smack over the wing. This was a pity, but not as much as the fact that the gentleman two seats behind me plonked a huge suitcase on top of my backpack before I could take out my camera.

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So when we glided past the bulky silhouette of the Everest on the horizon all I had with me was a phone which specializes in taking fish-eye landscapes. I can’t make out whether I also got Cho Oyu in the photo. The sight of the mountains brought out the romantic in many of my fellow travellers. The aisles were suddenly crowded with people looking at the bulky shape of Everest. My neighbour was ecstatic. I must go to Nepal, said the young man to me in Hindi. We compared photos, and stared out of the small port at the mountains we drifted past. I told him about the 8000 meter peaks, the ones I know I will never reach, but which I dream of scaling. We talked about the continental collision which form these heights, and the movement which causes frequent earthquakes in the region.

The rest of the flight was, well, downhill. We flew into Burma, then over the rice fields of south eastern China to Shanghai. China is a thin spot in the global map of the internet. This time I was not surprised, merely inconvenienced. No blogging for a week, no maps, restricted mail. From the top of the highest mountains, back to reality. It hit hard a few days later, when the government of Nepal put new restrictions on who can climb the Everest. Most of the time I think the restrictions are good, but there are the Walter Mitty moments when I plant my feet on top of one of these peaks, and raise my rime-encrusted face to look at the dark blue sky.