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Polar Flight (India: Day Zero)

Started: 2010-03-10 07:56:06

Submitted: 2010-03-10 09:21:35

Visibility: World-readable

My alarm woke me up at 06:00 on Saturday, 6 March. I showered, ate breakfast, finished packing, took out the compost, and waited for my airport shuttle to pick me up between 07:35 and 07:50. The shuttle arrived a few minutes into the window and I tossed my backpack in the back and headed off to the airport.

The shuttle had one last stop after me, in Lafayette. As we drove down 287, I pulled out my iPod to listen to the beginning of my soundtrack for the expedition. (My soundtrack took me all the way to Guwahati by the time the shuttle reached the airport.) I checked into my flight and watched a toddler named Julian convince his just-barely-walking little sister to step up on the luggage scale. (According to the scale, she weighed fifteen pounds.) I didn't end up packing my luggage to be carry-on only, so I checked my Kelty daypack and carried on my Mountainsmith lumbar pack, each colored in slightly different shades of blue and gray.

As my plane took off from runway 8, I looked out the left window and saw, a mile or two from the end of the runway, the text "hi!" written in black (perhaps black plastic sheets) in an empty field. I was unable to restrain my laughter, and my seat-mate (perhaps worried that she was sitting next to a madman) asked what was so funny. This reminded me of an art project I've considered, which involves planting wildflowers or some specific plant in a specific pattern in an empty field near my house in order to make a picture visible from above in aerial photos of my neighborhood. (I haven't figured out how to execute the project without anyone noticing, which will probably keep the project on the back burner for the foreseeable future.)

While approaching Chicago, I spotted the airport itself out the left window as we flew past and looped back in another arrival queue.

I had a five-hour layover at Chicago before my flight to Delhi left at 19:15. (When I booked my flights, I had the option of a forty-five-minute layover or a five-hour layover. I didn't want to run the risk of missing my flight to Delhi, so I decided I'd rather wait longer than necessary than risk being delayed a day.) I wandered down to Concourse C, where United's jumbo jets were parked, to see if I recognized any of them as the first 777 I flew internationally in 1997. (I did not record the tail number, but I remembered the name as "Spirit of Adalyn". A Google search revealed the tail number as N780UA. I saw only one 777 parked at the gate, and its tail number did not match Adalyn's.) On my way back, I got some tea at a tea shop along the way and found a good place to sit and pay for wireless Internet access for some last-minute catching up with the outside world. I killed the rest of my layover with supper and a long visit to a bookstore, where I found a book of number-painting puzzles now going by the name hanjie.

As I was walking around the vicinity of my departure gate, waiting for my flight to arrive, I watched the jumbo jets arrive and spotted a United 777 taxiing towards the United gates. I waited for its tail number to be visible and positively identified the plane as N780UA, the Spirit of Adalyn, the first 777 I ever boarded and the plane that took me on my first international flight, to Frankfurt in the summer of 1997

I headed to my gate as my flight was preparing to board and found a gaggle of mostly Indians heading home, plus a school group or two. I waited for my seat to be called and headed down the jetway into the plane I would be sitting in for the next fifteen hours. I found my seat, stowed my small carry-on bag, and settled in.

We took off to the west, then turned north-east for some approximation. of the Great Circle Route to Delhi. I wasn't sure what my optimal sleep strategy for jet-lag was. If I tried to follow a normal Delhi sleep cycle, I would already be awake for tomorrow, and I'd land in Delhi, in the local evening, completely exhausted. If I tried to follow a normal Chicago sleep cycle, I would sleep almost until my flight landed in Delhi, and not be ready to go to bed that night. I decided to split the difference, and go to bed one-third of the way into my flight, sleep for one-third of the time, then be awake for the last one third.

(My sleep-cycle planning was somewhat complicated by the meal schedule on the flight. They decided to serve a main meal for "dinner" an hour or two after departure, and another main meal for "breakfast" an hour or two before landing (in the evening in Delhi).)

On most international flights I've flown, I'm used to getting the option between chicken or beef entrees, and having to call for a special vegetarian meal. On my flight to Delhi, there were two default options for the evening meal: chicken, or veg. For the "breakfast" meal, the options were Indian veg or an omelette.

I kept myself awake for an hour or two after the main cabin lights dimmed in my attempt to split the difference between my departure and arrival time zones. When I finally decided to sleep, I had to fight off a brief panic attack at the idea of spending the next ten hours on the airplane with no escape. I managed to sleep for five hours, waking up every hour or so to look out the window or adjust my position. I gazed at the frozen expanse of Greenland in the pre-dawn light and tried to make out details on the glaciers. We hit the northernmost point on the flight above an Arctic Ocean island administered by Norway, then turned gently south towards Delhi. We made European landfall on the northern expanse of Norway tear Tromso, over cloudy skies in daylight, then entered Russian airspace. I could see frozen Russian forests and a long river running through the countryside. I declared my sleep cycle complete and amused myself with the in-flight entertainment system while continuing to keep notes of our surroundings. We entered Kazakhstan as daylight faded; through the clouds I saw desert that wouldn't have looked out of place in Colorado or New Mexico. We skirted the Aral Sea into Uzbekistan and I saw farming villages with fields scattered around them like they were painted by giant paint brushes. The landscape looked nothing like the Cartesian ideal that is the American west. As it got dark, we crossed the border into Afghanistan and flew over Kabul, then into Pakistan. I saw tiny rural villages scattered around the landscape, lit by pale blue lights, and the occasional city. Lahore was spectacular. We descended into Delhi from the north-west and turned to land from the east. As we were on close final approach, I saw a giant statue of Shiva, that appeared to be thirty or forty feet tall, standing with a trident at a temple just outside the airport. As we touched down, my seat-mate briefly applauded, and I nodded: it had been a very long flight.