After 8 1/2 hours crunched into a tourist seat that had carried me nonstop from London, I quickly discovered that the most comfortable spot for an all-night wait in the Delhi airport was the floor of the International Transit Lounge.
Particularly comfortable was the spot close to the television monitor announcing arrivals from Hong Kong and departures for Kuwait, at least after I wedged my duffle bag against the wall. The floor was simply more commodious than the alternative -- four rows of molded orange plastic seats.
The modern traveler wastes countless hours in airports like Chicago, Atlanta or London, where a change-of-planes visit is a blur of burgers and beer. On four occasions during two hiking trips to Nepal earlier in this decade, I spent long -- very long -- hours in the limbo of the Delhi Transit Lounge. And I can assure you: The midnight hours in the linoleum cocoon of the Delhi Transit Lounge are something quite different.
For example, there is the wildlife that is drawn to this oasis of fluorescent lights on a steamy Delhi night.
About 4 a.m. one October morning, I was half awake, resting against a wall. I had arrived from London a few hours earlier; it would be another four hours, at best, before my flight would leave for Katmandu.
Suddenly, crawling about my feet was the largest insect I had ever seen, a winged creature with a body at least three inches long. It looked like the offspring of a particularly ugly crab and a ferocious housefly.
I moved quickly. Don't be alarmed, I was told, it was harmless. Soon an attendant came along, carrying a broom and dustpan. After all, this was India, where life is sacred. He swept the creature into the pan, then dropped it into an ashtray next to one of the orange seats. The beast was still there, apparently quite contented, when my flight was called hours later.
The Transit Lounge is just what the name implies, a holding tank for travelers moving through Delhi from one foreign land to another. It is a room where I avoided the hassle of Indian customs and visas, as well as the long taxi ride into the city in the middle of the night.
Few images capture the reality of the Delhi Transit Lounge. Because of the disorientation of traveling halfway around the world, I always felt upon landing here as if I were in a rather shabby spaceship, lost somewhere in the blackness of space.
What with time zones and air speeds and European departure schedules set for the convenience of travelers in London or Paris, almost all flights into Delhi from Europe arrive between midnight and 5 a.m. Upon arrival, you are bused to an all-by-hand luggage claim service at the arrivals building, then escorted outside by armed guards to walk several dozen yards to the transit building and its lounge: a room 100 feet by 30 feet, painted in a color that must be called International Beige.
The only sign of food here is a "Juice Stand," which does not sell juice or food. During my first visit to the Transit Lounge, the Juice Stand operator did find a lone bottle of Rosy Pelican beer, which he sold me; beer was unavailable on subsequent visits.
The Transit Lounge also lacks what must be the most basic airport service, a ticket counter. An hour or two before a flight is scheduled to depart, an airline agent enters the lounge to inquire if anyone plans to fly on that flight. On my second Nepal-bound visit, I had been in the Transit Lounge about five hours when I spotted the agent for Royal Nepal Airlines. I rushed over to ask him for our boarding passes.
"I have 170 names and the plane carries 120 people," he explained. "And there are no spaces on any flight today or tomorrow, sir."
I said I did not understand; there must be a mistake. We would miss the start of our hike. I followed him. I pestered him. I kept asking him to look again. Suddenly, he turned and, without a word, handed me two boarding passes, then pointed toward a porter who would tag and take our luggage to the plane.
The porter directed us into "security," which involved a full-body frisk by army sergeants, plus a hand search of our carry-on luggage. And just as suddenly, we were aboard a Royal Nepal Airlines 727. The plane's speaker system was playing "We've Only Just Begun."
A month later, my son and I returned to the Transit Lounge, ready to head westward and home. We arrived at 9 p.m., with a 10-hour wait ahead of us.
Time crept. Midnight. 2 a.m. One of our fellow hikers left about 3 a.m. to fly home. Lucky fellow. An hour later, two others were summoned to their plane.
4:30. A mass of travelers, mostly Germans, wandered off a Lufthansa flight to Bangkok. They left within minutes. A Japan Air Lines flight came and went.
Shortly after 6 a.m., the human ticket counter arrived to check our tickets. This time, everything was okay. We checked our luggage and went through security.
Our Air India flight was announced. It was Nov. 25, a Thursday. It was Thanksgiving Day.
You bet it was. Harold H. Brayman is senior adviser to the Senate Committee on the Budget.