Waiting To Exhale
How long has it been since you got the insane urge to strap yourself inside an airtight metal tube and project yourself at high speed across the skies? If you’re anything like me, you get this crazy urge despite the realization that flying is possibly the biggest gamble on your life that you could ever take. I know it’s not the riskiest form of transportation, but when things go wrong during air travel, they go catastrophically wrong. Let’s face it, there’s usually only one way out of a crashed plane, and that’s in a body bag. But for me the apprehension is a bit like a tooth that has just been pulled – after a few hours I forget the torture and give in to the allure of sugary foods once again.
Clearly our fascination with travel outshines not only the risk that it involves, but also the discomfort that it comes with. Even though it is supposed to be the fastest means of getting from one point to another, it is probably the most time consuming activity under the sun. To start off with you’re on somebody else’s schedule, which leaves you lingering aimlessly at airports thus defeating the whole purpose of zooming through the skies to save time. Thank God however, I’ve finally mangaged to come to a point where I do not resent delays. They just are and I’ve learnt to embrace them in a Zen kind of way.
But once on the plane, you have to relinquish all form of control and trust your life in the hands of complete strangers who every now and then grace us with an ominous and incomprehensible voice interrupting the in-flight movie; the ever decreasing legroom coops you up into a space small enough to make a contortionist develop claustrophobia. And, if you’re anything larger than a size six, your only option is not to exhale fully for the whole duration of the flight or else the little table will go crashing down on the knees of the poor passenger behind you. Then there’s the over-groomed air staff who manage to keep their lipsticks intact whilst remaining completely aloof about screeching children whose ear drums are about to bust? It must be a side effect of long stints at high altitude, stale-air and jet-lag that makes air staff so indifferent to all this. I on the otehr hand, am so prone to jet-lag that I get it even when we switch to summer saving mode!
Then there’s the flying solo issue. In the past, whenever I traveled alone, I suffered long hours of mind-numbing conversation with passengers sporting foul breath and disgusting BO. But all this did not go to waste, because during this time I learnt that some jobs are as boring as dry toast and that people can survive lives as uninteresting as paper bags. After hours of listening to the minutest details of dull existences I learnt the body language that clearly screams out ‘if you even try to talk to me, I swear I will open the window!’ This consists of burying my nose into a thick book and avoiding eye contact with the passengers next to me. Of course, you can just imagine how uncomfortable this can be if I’m unlucky enough to be in the middle seat with the revenue-maximizing legroom, but it’s still better than having to listen to a stranger talk about the his pet rabbit’s pooh!
I once traveled alone from New York to Ohio. The plane (if you can call it such) was one of those propeller thingies with twenty seats in all. The weather was awful with torrential rain and a wind that could have had us for dinner. The seat belt sign was never turned off and the turbulence was so severe that the crew decided not to serve any refreshments. To my right sat a guy desperate to strike up a conversation. Even though I could see (albeit from the corner of my eye) that he was my age and more than decent looking, I stuck to the rules and acted like I was deeply engrossed in my book. But an hour into the flight the weather got so bad that I could not make out the words I was so intently staring at. My stomach was threatening an uprising and my heart was pumping in my mouth. All of a sudden, the plane jerked out of control and lost what felt like a thousand meters in altitude, the book went flying and I instinctively grabbed on to the guy’s inner thigh. With an inimitable southern accent and a voice that would make a dead woman smile, he quirked ‘Easy honey, I hardly know you!’ and proceeded to holding my hand securely where it had accidentally landed.
After having sunk my nails so close to his family jewels, the least I could do was to talk to him for the rest of the flight. He turned out to be a very funny guy with whom I’m still in touch till this very day. Of course this was an exception to the rule and probably as rare as the flight attendant’s funny announcement at the end of the flight: ‘Thank you for flying with us today. We hope you enjoyed giving us the business as much as we enjoyed taking you for a ride. Please take care when opening the overhead compartments because, after a flight like that, we’re sure as hell everything HAS shifted’.
First published on The Sunday Times April 2008