12 February 2010

In Old Blighty-The Arrival

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I have returned to flying duties after 3 years of punitive confinement behind a desk. I was to return to No 5 Squadron, on Fantasy Island, Labuan. Why that nickname? If there is anything you need in Labuan, the shortest route between need and fulfilment is via fantasy.

Returning to flying means making oneself current on weapons, jungle survival, dinghy drills and emergency handlings. This entails refresher courses in every field, beginning with a recourse to the Nuri, which I did in Butterworth air base beginning this year. That was a lonely trip away from the family for six weeks, relieved by weekend runs over 200 miles down home to KL and back up to Butterworth again at the latest hour safety would allow. Upon reporting in to No 5 Squadron in Labuan, the next item on currency to be renewed was the Helicopter Underwater Escape Training. I take to water with the buoyancy of granite, so that was another dreaded course I endured with many a rosary chant. The one currency course I did not dread was, without contest, the Helicopter Simulator course that I was scheduled for in Bournemouth, England.

Of course I was thrilled to go, as this was a trip to the home country of Tolkien, Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare. The few weeks preluding the course threatened this 'holiday' as Courses 14 to 20 for 2008 were shelved due to budgetary cuts. Thankfully, Course 13, which I was on, was undisturbed, or unnoticed by the government. I will never look upon that ominous number the same way again. Preliminary and final documentation was seen to, allowances secured and tickets confirmed. The company I would be travelling in left much to be desired, but we can't always choose our bedfellows on an air force trip, so roosting amongst turkeys would have to be put up with for now. I mean, these were guys who packed rations from home for consumption in England for goodness' sake! Whither fish and chips and all its artery-clogging joys?

The night before the flight, I had called my sister in law Sandy and her significant other, Nelson, out for a few pints of Strongbow cider, on a two-fold mission: first, to introduce them to the closest thing I can imagine to an Ent Draft, and second, to firmly register its taste before verifying it as inferior (one Irish chap in Labuan described Strongbow as horse-piss) to that which is brewed in Blighty. Nelson, who rather uncharacteristically to his ethnic flock, does not imbibe religiously, that night discovered the brew that he could put down without displeasure. Now I know what I can drink, he said, eyes sparkling with the supersaturated pint.

The journey began with a 14 hour flight straight to Heathrow were the simulator centre's duty driver would be waiting for us. Thank God for business class seats and stewardesses armed with plastic smiles and who adressed you generically as Major! The lead steward and I chatted for a while, first over the new helicopters the government had deigned to purchase for us after pilots had paid for them handsomely with their lives, and slowly crept on to agreeable pooh-poohing over all the ills afflicting the country we loved and the politicians we loathed. Good value, this fellow whom I shall assign the generically defining name: The Lead Steward.

We touched down at 1630 London time on the same date we left Kuala Lumpur (it's a flight direction thing) and true enough, there was John (really!), the duty driver, waiting with a placard with Major Jeffrey in big bold script on it. Oh, I have always wanted to see my name in print, and what a fitting beginning for such an event in the style of Love Actually. This was, after all, Heathrow. We were led to the parking lot, where John dutifully loaded our bags into the Peugeot MPV and set his GPS-enabled cellphone for the drive down to Bournemouth, about 150 miles south-west of London.

I was drinking in the sights on our drive, taking up the front passenger seat whilst my two course mates set the tone for the rest of the course duration by snoozing off at the rear seat. Trying to keep a coversation going with John was the verification of Newton's first law of motion. I had to stay awake, be absolutely touristy and snap photographs, and John was my only source of information on the subjects I was snapping. He pointed out that we were on the M5, and would have to go along the M3 for a while and then take what, the A34? These sounded like military codes, or the divisions within the Intelligence Corps. I wasn't logging this information down. I was too busy ogling the passing superbikes, trying to ignore the stab of longing and nostalgia, for superbikes were once my passion, one to which I think there is no return. Something must have shown on my face, or I must have let a sigh escape my lips, because John ended his traffic update with, "But we are very fortunate today as the traffic conditions are still free-flowing!"
An hour and a half later we arrived at Sandbanks, a little town near Poole, smack on the Banks peninsula. I noticed how similar this place was in architectural design to Stavanger , the little "kampong" up in Norway. Sea-side town, I guess. I targetted the Cafe Shore, speculating on whether the Ent Draft and Black Pudding would be available here. A little further and we came to Panaroma Road, turned into its bend and our townhouse sat tucked in on Brownsea Road. It was charming, with tongue-and-groove (not the procedure for a tryst) walls up to the roof on the outside and layers of insulation to the plaster on the inside.

Chris, our course coordinator, was waiting for us with a broad, yellow-toothed smile, which confirmed yet another familiar English trait, and I was beginning to feel like I had in fact not travelled far from Labuan, but only that the weather had suddenly chilled. Chris was a friendly chap, ever ready to accomodate our third-world queries and briefed us on the creature comforts of the house: hot running water, flat screen plasma telly, digital satellite receiver, dvd player, washing machine, dryer and full-specification kitchen. "It is the third most expensive real estate in all of Europe, you know," he advertised. We duly bid John and Chris goodbye, and recced the kitchen.

Our first meal in England, was ignobly, instant noodles. The draw towards something hot, spicy and completely meaningless (again, no links to a tryst) was hard to ignore. The evening wore on, and any meal, a hot bath and bed was an attractive proposition. However, there was the unpacking to do, prepping the next day's attire, investigating the workings of the hot water shower and seeing if any of the televisions in the bedrooms worked. As luck would have it, only the telly in my room didn't work. Oh, heck. My two coursemates, Azman and Wan had long surrendered to sleep, yet again. I normally do not envy them as I am known to drop off in an instant. However, these two chaps had bio-clocks that defied time zone hops.

I finally managed to pack in the noodles at 2100 Zulu time.That means ten o'clock in Sandbanks. However, I was not to see a single night of restful sleep all my days in England. This was my first severe tussle with jet lag, and I am still paying for it at time of writing.

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