Outside In

Published on April 25th, 2013

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Window seat, please…

Always ask for the window seat in a plane. How else will you learn about geography, perspective, and the lightness of being?
by Shweyta Mudgal

Inspected closely enough, you will see that the simple question, “How was your flight?” is actually a loaded one.

When someone asks you this question, they are really asking you about the smoothness of your flight, hoping for your sake it wasn’t turbulent, bumpy or rough. They hope to hear about its ‘on time-ness’ – whether you took off and landed as per schedule. They look forward to hearing that your landing wasn’t a shaky one. They hope that you were looked after well while on board. They want to enquire of your comfort or discomfort of being squashed in a tiny seat for an extended period of time and if the meals, if served at all, were tolerable.

This simple question – “How was your flight?” has additional connotations post 9-11. Such as, “Were the security lines too long? Did your razors get confiscated? Did you have to go through the X-Ray body scan and get swabbed all over? And did all of the above, help in scaring you enough, to get on a plane?”

What no one really means when they are asking you the question, “How was your flight?” is, how was the view from up there? Did you take some time out, to look outside the window and peer down on the earth below? Did you de-stress and distance yourself from all your troubles by gazing out of your window and try to lose yourself amidst the clouds enveloping you? Did you feel a sense of adventure in soaring high up in the atmosphere, 36,000 feet above Earth? What did it really feel like, to travel at more than half the speed of sound? To launch yourself with so many others into the air and glide up there, chasing or escaping the sun? Did you feel a sense of wonder, that you were flying?

Flying has become routine for a lot of us; a mandatory aspect of work-life for some, a preferred mode of speedy travel to save time for others. To a majority of people, there exists no flair in flying anymore. Its novelty has ceased. Except for a select few – for whom every flight still brings much excitement and quite literally is ‘a lot to look forward to’. These are the window-fliers – people who enjoy seating themselves next to airplane windows, by choice, every single time.

I am a window-flier. I’ve been one all my life. The kinds that go – “Window seat, please,” when faced with the “Window or aisle?” question at an airline check-in counter. Because the airplane window seat is a very powerful thing!

It is my perch, my happy place, my zen spot when on a plane. It’s where I like to go and settle down once I am on board. To see the rest of the world go about its business, while I am comfortably strapped in. It is my ideal vantage point which lets me pick my preferred state of being – actively participative or passively reflective. It is the moment that keeps me honest, helping to reduce myself into being entirely insignificant, gaining a new perspective on the larger scheme of things. Where my chain of thought that starts with an ephemeral, “Did I remember to pack those shoes?” quickly transcends into, “Wow! Look at how beautiful our planet looks from here.” Does anything else then really matter?

Cloud and smoke formations form a constant foreground against an ever-changing backdrop of massive majestic mountain ranges, furry green forests, vast expanses of farmlands, the deep blue ocean and figure-grounds of captivating cityscapes to name a few. One experiences a virtual illusion – that of the lightness of being, only comparable to when one is submerged in water. Depending on the time of travel and the subsequent pattern and provision of light, one sees cities in a new light. On account of their lit-up glow, cities trump over nature when it comes to offering nighttime views. The true potential of flying over landscapes and cityscapes is achieved when one still goes to a place without actually going to it; by merely transporting oneself into it quite easily by virtue of purely flying over it.

Window seats also offer free lessons in geography. To experience the unfolding of what are otherwise 2-D and/or interactive images and maps below you in realtime, is a practical feeling like none other. Why else do you find kids with noses pressed against the aircraft windows?

The window seat is to many like me, the best part of flying. Over the years, I have been learning a lot sitting on it. My only qualms about it are its inability to provide me with an overall sensory experience; since it is sight-exclusive and devoid of sounds and/or smells. Its largely monotonous views stretched over relatively longer periods of time create a classic case of contradiction – making the window flier who is physically looking out, to introspectively look in.

Unlike their counterparts in buses, trains, cars etc, airplane windows do not engage the outside in a more direct, tangible sort of a way. They limitedly bring the outside in, without giving up much of the inside out. Yet, they are moving windows of the highest order, perhaps the only ones with dynamic 3-D views, that vary from patchy collages to endless coastlines and from nature-made wonders to man-made marvels. And often, they present to us, newer perspectives with which to view our older associations – by taking us outside and atop our cities to show us how much we really love living in them (see aerial view of Manhattan on right). How else can one explain the warmth one feels on seeing the fuzzy faint lines of one’s city appear clearer and sharper from under the clouds? On knowing that after however long or short that separation may have been, one has finally come home?

No wonder then, that a few airlines have started charging extra for some window seats. After all, the view up for grabs is of the greatest show on Earth, of the Earth and by the Earth too! We are  just lucky viewers who get an encore performance each time we fly. So take my word and ask for that window seat the next time you fly. Then, pun-nily enough, I am sure you’ll agree with my ‘point of view’!

A Mumbaikar by birth and a New Yorker by choice, recently-turned global nomad Shweyta Mudgal is currently based out of Singapore. An airport designer by day, she moonlights as a writer. ‘Outside In’ is a weekly series of expat diaries, reflecting her perspective of life and travel, from the outside-in. She blogs at www.shweyta.blogspot.com and hopes she’s managed to convert at least a few of her present aisle-seater readers into window-fliers of the future.

(Pictures courtesy Khyati Dodhia (Mumbai aerial shot), Sergei Semonov (Manhattan aerial shot), greyhousereddog.blogspot.com)

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