From in-flight drama to Chennai’s culinary charm: A tale of unexpected twists in travel

Dec 04, 2023
Source: Getty Images.

“We need to return to the terminal immediately. There’s a rat on the plane. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Well, that’s a first.

My flight last week from Singapore to Chennai in India was aborted when one of the business class passengers spotted a rat running underneath his seat. Just to be clear, I wasn’t lucky enough to be in Business Class. I was sitting in Row 61 in Seat K.

I’ve had flights cancelled because of snow turning to ice; unruly passengers being asked to leave the plane; late arriving crews; and encroaching storms. But never in 45 years of flying internationally has the cause of the flight disruption been blamed on a rat.

Perhaps the rat stuck its tiny head out because it was looking for First Class. Perhaps it had mistakenly joined the flight from one of the food trolleys. Who knows! Surprisingly, the passengers were relaxed about the unexpected furry traveller. Most likely they were a little stunned by the rat announcement.

I thought the captain might have told us we were returning to the bay for operational issues, not to do a bit of rat catching. I half expected the crew to play Michael Jackson’s first solo hit Ben over the inflight sound system. That would have made my day.

It did make me think though, what’s the strangest reasons flights have been delayed or cancelled. After doing a bit of research I found some beauties.

In November 2021, a flight was delayed when the pilot realised he’d left his glasses on the previous flight. Someone was sent to retrieve them as quickly as possible, and the plane eventually took to the skies. In April 2022, a flight from Toronto in Canada to St John was delayed because of a “fish issue in the cargo hold”. Heaven knows what that means.

In Denver, on a Delta Airlines flight in 2020, a passenger changed his mind about flying just before leaving the plane pulled back from the gate. The person opened the exit door and bolted up the gangway to relative safety. Travel journalist Alyssa Haak tells the funny story about her flight from Fort Lauderdale being delayed because the pilots went missing. In fact they never showed up and new pilots had to be found.

And, while this is hard to believe it is true, a flight from Gatwick to Barbados was delayed for five hours when the crew realised that there wasn’t enough toilet paper on board. Why it took five hours to find a few extra rolls, no-one knows. Anyway, after our two-and-a-half hour delay, Singapore Airlines managed to find us an identical plane (so seats didn’t need to be changed) and we were back on board for the almost four-hour flight to Chennai.

It was my second trip to India. I didn’t really enjoy it when I visited back in 2016. I just wasn’t prepared. India slaps you in the face as soon as you step foot outside the airport terminal. The humidity, even in November which is one of the country’s cooler months, is confronting. Glasses steam instantly. Bodies perspire and shirts cling to the wet parts. It’s like standing in front of a hair dryer, turned to maximum, and aimed directly at your face.

The streets, while constantly being cleaned, are filled with people milling around store fronts and open air restaurants. It’s hard to work out why they are there. They appear to be just standing, waiting – for something. I hope it arrives one day. India is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It’s GDP currently sits around the 6 percent growth figure. Australia’s GDP growth rate is 3.62 percent. America’s GDP growth rate is 2.93 percent and the United Kingdom’s is 4.3 percent.

Yet for visitors like me on the surface it appears to be a third-world country, desperately trying to find the balance between five star luxury and abject poverty. India is home to 1,425,775,850 people making it the most populous country in the world. Mumbai, its biggest city, is home to more than 12.6 million people. Chennai, a coastal city on the southeast tip of the country, is small by comparison with just 4.3 million residents.

Chennai is not one of the country’s traditional tourism hotspots. It doesn’t have the Taj Mahal like Agra, the Red Fort like Delhi, or the Elephanta Caves of Navi Mumbai. What it does have though is good food. When I came in 2016 I was very conservative with my eating. I was afraid of what might happen if I ate like a local, so I pretty much just stuck to vegetables and fresh fruit.

After that trip when people would asked me about India – and they do ask, because I think most people are fascinated by India – I would describe it as a “once in a lifetime destination” because, to be honest, I had no plans to go back. But here I am. Back in India on a lightning work visit.

I thought about packing four tins of Baked Beans to get me through my four-day visit. Luckily I didn’t. Instead, armed with a far more adventurous outlook, I jumped in an indulged in the delights on Chennai’s cuisine. In 2015 National Geographic magazine named Chennai in its Top 10 Food Cities in the World.

Chennai is famous for its Kothu Parotta, it’s Nethili Fry, it’s Dosa and a plethora of super sweets dishes like Mysore Pak. The city smells of the spices and herbs that its residents consume on a daily basis. Sniff and you will catch the scent of turmeric, coriander, cumin, mustard seeds, red chillies and curry leaves.

Street vendors are swamped with customers as the piercing sun retreats and the darkness brings the city to life. Vendors who in the morning sold fresh coconuts, now sell ice cold beer. Chennai comes alive at night. It comes alive when its residents and guests eat. I’m glad I cast aside by fears and sampled this city’s culinary delights.

Chennai changed my view of India. It has turned me from a critic to a cheerleader.

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