In Pakistan it is said that PIA – the initials of the national airline – stand either for “Perhaps I’ll arrive” or “Please Inform Allah.” We went one better than that and traveled by Aeroflot. This was in the first flush of post Soviet gangster capitalism in which life expectancy in Russia was falling to 57 (for men) and Aeroflot’s aircraft were falling out of the sky almost as rapidly.
“Vy did you come so late?” huffed a squat, fierce eyed Aeroflot official, who looked like she was taking a break from putting shots for the Red Army; her eyes arched and nose quivering. “Traffic” we lied smoothly, so as not to slow ourselves down even more and satisfy a giant ego in a tiny uniform.
Russian pilots wear enormous hats to show how important they are.
The inside of the airport looked like a 1930s cinema with no screen. The plane itself was comfortingly big and looked sturdy and no nonsense. Decorated throughout in brown formica. Style by committee. Worn, carpet backed seats had seat numbers on the backs. That meant that most of the first time Aeroflot travelers used to western airlines sat in the seat behind the one they were meant to be in; leading to a lot of confusion and flustered hostesses; exasperated beyond measure because this happened so often and they didn’t seem to have worked out why.
In 1992 Aeroflot found it hard to cope with vegetarians. The iron trolleys clunked down the aisles like a convoy of T72s, pushed by a hostess who looked like Meryl Streep with a sneer. We asked for vegetarian meals and she looked startled and disgruntled – as though this was the final straw. She pulled out a napkin with a list of seat numbers, waved it under our noses and muttered – “I only haf TEN meals – you are not HERE” and that – as far as she was concerned – was that. We explained that we had definitely booked them and her colleague – a plump baby faced guy with a gentle demeanor under a pile of curly blond hair leaned over coaxingly – “Vould you like Feesh?” – presumably on the basis that meat is murder but fish is justifiable homicide. Puzzled that we wouldn’t, he wandered away promising to try to sort something out in the fullness of time, with a Micawber like faith that something would turn up. Wandering back later in his amiable way – possibly having put this problem into the “leave them long enough and they’ll put up with it” box – we asked him again. He frowned, remembered vaguely, waved a finger to denote that all things come to those who wait and drifted off to the galley – where one unclaimed veggie meal sat resplendent in green eco tinfoil. He presented it to us with the graceful apology of one of nature’s gentlemen and we shared it.
It turned out quite tasty, despite the rather grey appearance of the baby sweetcorn. Everything was enhanced – potentially- by Aeroflot mustard. This stuff was a real nose blaster – a coarse oral dynamite that exploded its way from the taste buds to tingling nasal extremities with a terrifyingly rapid inevitability; making each mouthful an exciting and dangerous challenge. Very good for colds. Highly recommended.
Midnight. Minus 8 degrees. Misty. A few pale lights. Heavy snow. An articulated truck with a bus on the back drove emptily by. A hyper modern terminal needing a good clean. Tall brown columns holding up the roof looked like giant toilet roll tubes. Hard face guards in furry hats.
A shuttered enclave of feverish capitalism in a cold climate; a toehold of speculative trading – a levis shop, duty free booze and perfumes, and the heart of the place, a brightly signposted “Irish Bar”, a replica Dublin pub complete with Guinness and Shamrocks, shiny wooden bar and beer pumps but neither soul nor craic and, of course, closed.
A seed of the reborn Russian spiv imperialism that was the best that Yeltsin and Gaidar could offer was embodied in the flinty faced woman at the all night hard currency cafe who asked for £1.70 for a (disgustingly watery) cup of instant coffee (6 times what you’d have paid for it in London at the time) then offered to pour it into two glasses so we wouldn’t steal the cup in revenge.
People were sleeping in doorways all round the terminal. An island of souls in transit from here to there or back again, never making contact with the Russia outside this oddly dispiriting bubble of a place.
The toilets had neither seats nor paper. Graffitti in English read – “This toilet is made of total crap”.
Outside, in a flurry of light winter snowdrifts and eddies and shifting air currents, snow was softly, gently burying newly arrived aircraft and the runway in thick drifts like icing on a wedding cake.
Inside, a leading member of the SWP and his partner drifted past with incongruous familiarity amid fierce denunciation of someone’s deviations – “and that article he wrote was disgusting!”
On to Karachi
Before we could get into the air again they had to blast the snow off the wings, and they did. This had settled several inches thick and they had to use a hose on a mobile gantry. Completely routine. Going on all over the airport with a calm efficiency. In a climate like that, all engineering had to be seriously heavy duty and watching it work was a wonder.
On the plane, the hostesses had their own solution to the usual seat confusion. “Sit where you like – its free seats.”
Opposite us, a thick set blond youth was fidgety with exhaustion. He kept putting his feet up onto the seat in front – forcing it sharply forwards so the bloke sitting in it got upset, turned round a swore at him. So, he tried plan B and laid down in the aisle, forcing people to step over him. After enough of them had stepped on him instead, he tried Plan C, leaning his head awkwardly onto his food tray; causing the bloke in front to recline his seat and squash him. So, he sat up and pushed back and the bloke in front turned round and hit him. We wondered whether he was on something.
We dozed fitfully though the early hours until woken by a flood of white light through all the windows. It was like light from another dimension. Not the soft, washed out water colour light back home, it was a light so bright it was almost an assault; so many stages higher on the path to heaven.
Down below, the pock marked desert; a baked and crumbling moon landscape, brown and khaki, utterly arid, breaking into the jumbled sprawl of Karachi – shanty town shoved against shanty town, punctuated by clusters of higher flats and offices, all bleached white in the light and crushed up together with more shanties squeezed into every available space.