“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.” The clear voice over the broadcast wakes me from my uneasy slumber. “We have been very fortunate with good strong tail winds all the way across the Pond and are ahead of schedule. We hope to be landing in fifteen minutes but as you know, sometimes Heathrow has a mind of its own …”
Heathrow has a mind of its own. It is another forty minutes before we can land and with a connecting flight in less than forty five, I am running willy-nilly through the concourse hoping the gates will still be open. I make it through security after what seems an interminably long wait and finally arrive at gate number eight to see that they are still boarding. Thank God for small mercies.
British Airways direct from London to Delhi, the flight is full of Indians. Parents, wives, sisters, nieces and nephews in tow. The whole nine yards. In front of me in queue, is a young man – smart and responsive and obviously of Indian descent. But I can tell from the CVS envelope stuck in his backpack’s net pocket that he is coming from the US. Probably bunch of malaria pills and hand sanitizers I think. I am too relieved to have made my connection to think anymore about anything else.
Transit in Delhi again. Always a unique experience. The entrance to the transit lounge is guarded by stern-eyed policemen who look like they would shoot you sooner than let you inside. The exits to the runways are however, open and unattended. So theoretically, one could if one wanted, instead of going to the lounge go out on the runway and hop into the cargo hatch of any one of the half-a-dozen planes parked outside and cop a free ride to the Bahamas or some such place. But I have parcels to deliver back home so I loiter outside the transit lounge until one of those floor attendants comes, checks my itinerary and escorts me inside.
I see the CVS guy immediately. He is standing in the middle of the lounge, looking a bit lost and confused. I am smug in my familiarity with the place until my lady in waiting asks me to go and stand with him. “Why?” I ask. “Sir, please wait there, I will be right back” so says she as she walks away with my ticket, passport et.al. And this is how I meet Abhi.
Abhi is from Houston, Texas on his way to Nepal. He is American by birth. His parent immigrated to the US from Gujarat in the sixties and he was born in Maryland. He is twenty-something, clean cut and slight but with a heavy Texas accent. Like millions of young people around the world, Abhi wants to be an astronaut. Difference is that he is much closer to this dream than most others.
You see Abhi works for NASA. He has been working for NASA for four years now. Abhi has a degree in Aeronautical Engineering with an MS in Aerospace Engineering for good measure. He has recently taken a two-year break from NASA to obtain a PhD. in Geophysics and it has been six months since he rejoined. He says “I am in training now”. “So I hear there are a lot of Indians at NASA?” I ask. He thinks for a while – “Not really, I would say about five percent maybe” he says. “Suni Williams, she is currently up with the Apollo mission, she is also of Indian descent. I trained with her” he says adding “but it is just a job like any other”.
Abhi is coming to Nepal to attend his brother’s marriage. This is only his second time to this part of the world. Earlier, while still a student, he had come to Gujarat with his parents for two months. His brother and rest of his family are already in Kathmandu. The bride is a Nepali girl his brother met while studying medicine in Texas. Abhi hopes to marry someday soon too.
“I am ashamed that I do not know much about my culture and history” he says. “I want to marry someone from India or Nepal so that at least my kids will know their roots and I can brush up my language skills” he says. I am surprised by this candor but I guess that is the advantage of being just traveling acquaintances. Or maybe it was his jetlag catching up with him. “And if I can marry in Nepal then I can come back often to hike and climb” he adds. “You can come back even if you don’t” I try to assure him. “Yeah,” he says “but it would be better.” I have to agree.
“Nepal, I hear, is a very beautiful place and I am very excited to be going” he says “but I will only be staying for a week before heading back to Houston, couldn’t get much leave”. I was hoping to invite him to one of our weekly hikes but I then let it drop.
“I am sure I will be back” he says “but not this year – this year, I plan to go to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro while the snows still remain. The scientists say that there won’t be any snow on Mount Kilimanjaro after a few years due to global warming”. Aha! I knew that one courtesy of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Thanks Al Gore, sir.
“But I definitely will be back” Abhi says and I am suddenly reminded of Josh. Full circle.