Hug the Circle
I write this just 12 kms from the North Pole. Vertically, that is--from a flight taking what’s fondly called Santa’s short-cut. Like many flights from Asia to the Americas, this one is flying over the North Pole, thereby reducing the journey distance and time by 30 per cent. Over the last few years, regulations have been eased to allow more polar flights. So airlines are all going for ‘Great Circle’ routes (the shortest routes between two points on a sphere), adjusting for jetstreams and weather conditions. The polar region is not new to aviation. During the 1950-60s, western airlines routed flights above Alaska and Japan to avoid the airspace over communist bloc countries. The Cold War was on. There was the fear of planes being shot down by Soviet missiles. All through those years, that fear existed and was kept alive by propaganda from both sides of the divide. It provided the raw material for so many espionage thriller writers of those times.
The time is 10:45 am a few hundred kilometres from my present position. I would believe it is the same here. But there’s no time zone on the North Pole: all longitudes converge to a point here. The sun rises and sets only once a year. The sky is clear. And still. And, except for the faint starlight, pitch dark. Outside the plane, the temperature is minus 70 degrees centigrade. Below, on the ground, it’s minus 30 degrees centigrade now, and the day’s maximum there was minus 24 degrees centigrade. Inside the plane, it’s 24 degrees centigrade. What better way of enlivening the contrast (and impressing my mother) than by taking a morning bath despite the cold weather! I go to the plane’s spa and take a shower. Never felt more excited than while having a bath so close to the North Pole. I think I’ll write to the Guinness Book of World Records and stake a claim: first man to take a shower on top of the North Pole.
History, geography, silence
The signal strength icon on my phone flares at full mast. It semaphores the power of satellite communication. Geostationary satellites positioned 36,000 kms above the earth and coordinated into clusters keep the On Air network pulsing in an aircraft zipping at 800 kmph some 35,000 feet up in the air. I am reminded of the Iridium satellite phone ad of about a decade ago with the tagline ‘Geography is History’. The product never took off, the company shares sank, but the tagline endures as a catchphrase. I am tempted to set my Facebook status to ‘On top of North Pole’. I desist. I savour my moments over the North Pole.
The route display screen in front of my seat has the North Pole right in the centre and around that point are spread the continents. On the left of the display is the ‘eastern’ world: Beijing, Bangkok, Calcutta and Bangalore are marked out as points. Dubai shows up, and so does Baghdad. London is right up on the display. On the right, Boston, Chicago and Dallas show up. From this vantage, many places look equidistant: Calcutta seems just as close as Chicago, Delhi just as far as Dallas. Lighting up on the flight path, though, are Resolute Bay, the River Clyde, Kugluktuk, Kugaaruk Gjoa Haven, Cape Dorset and Coral Harbour. Coming up ahead is Greenland. The route appears like a straight line. On maps using another projection, the route would appear like an upturned ‘U’, going straight up north, turning at the pole and heading southward towards America.
I cannot help thinking of Rudyard Kipling’s never-the-twain refrain about East and West. Because Asia appears to the left of the display (the conventional West side of maps) and America to the right (the conventional East side). Alaska appears at the conventional ‘South’. I want to tell Mr Kipling to come and take a look. I want to tell him that it’s all a matter of what frames of reference you are using. Borders, languages, religions and other divisors of humanity seem irrelevant. From up here, the world looks united and it looks beautiful. The stars are shining above it. There’s one hanging like a diamond. It’s right outside my window.
A while later, I ask the plane attendant for breakfast. I am hoping my vegetarian meal request is honoured. And lo, idli it is. With upma. And chutney. A breakfast of idli and upma atop the North Pole—but with no filter coffee to complete the south Indian standard, though. I have to settle for cappuccino. Just this one blip on this dark and perfect morning on top of the North Pole.
Many people believe the North Pole is where Santa Claus lives. Keeping in mind his ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ call, the Canadian postal department has assigned the North Pole the postal code HOH OHO.
Deepak Sapra is based in Hyderabad and works in the pharma sector; E-mail your diarist: deepak.sapra [AT] gmail [DOT] com