I’m not a good flyer. I was once. For about an hour. And then it was downhill for the next sixteen years. That first trip interstate, the first leg of a European holiday with my parents, I spent most of the time with my face pressed up against the window, rapt in joy. Wow, I’m flying. I’ll be damned.
Fifteen hours and two stop overs into my journey I was literally crying with frustration. ‘I want to get off now’, I sobbed to my mother like a baby. I was twenty years old.
What I haven’t been able to get my head around is why is it so awful, torturous and vile to sit in a chair for a long time? It shouldn’t be that bad right? Ok, the food wouldn’t be out of place in a public hospital, and the earphones give me a headache. But, essentially, I’m sitting in a chair and watching movies. On the day I was due to fly to Brazil – Brazil – I woke up, sighed dramatically and frowned – ‘I have to get on a plane today’, I thought. That’s not right.
It’s possible that this frame of mind has attracted a little bad luck. From Vancouver to Toronto I sat next to a morbidly obese fellow who didn’t actually fit in his chair. I offered to raise the arm rest so he would be more comfortable. A mistake, in hindsight.
On the way to Santiago I developed a migraine and spent half the journey throwing up in the toilet. There’s something especially demoralising about throwing up in an airplane toilet. The attendant kindly offered me some Panadol – like throwing a glass of water at a burning building.
Then there are the interesting strangers you’re forced spend a surprising amount of time with. There was the elderly Polish lady who’s conversational opening gambit was, ‘My husband should be sitting where you are right now. But he died six months ago’. Then the American father and daughter who asked for my help with the Customs declaration – should he declare his firearms or not? One poor young woman totally lost the plot. Behind me I heard, ‘right, that’s it, I’m getting off right now’. Then she was stomping down the aisle and rattling the exit door while we were somewhere high over the Pacific. She was tackled to the ground and watched like a hawk after that. Scary. But it was hard not to sympathise.
But quite apart from the frustration and irritation of long bouts of chair sitting, there’s also my fear of plunging to my death in a horrible high speed collision with the ground.
Every flight makes me jittery and slightly unhinged, but my most harrowing experience was on a 60 seater from New York to Montreal. My nerves were already frayed after a long delay. The wind was howling outside. It felt cyclonic to me. As I boarded and settled into my seat, way in the back of the plane, I could see some serious conversations going on down the front but I couldn’t hear what they’re saying. Then the attendant called our attention – the plane was overweight. Four people needed to get off before we could leave. There was an uncomfortable silence as everyone seemed to have the same thought – the attendant was the size of at least two and a half adults and posed her own occupational health and safety issues.
I thought to myself, ‘If I get off this plane now, I’m pretty sure I’ll never get on another one ever again’. I just had to bite down on something hard and sit tight. Besides, I was frozen with fear. It was unlikely I would’ve been capable of coordinated movement anyway. Four intelligent people eventually did volunteer to take the next flight and the door was shut tight behind them. Then the attendant made another announcement. Without any preamble and with a very serious tone, she told us that, due to windy and unstable conditions, we would undoubtedly experience severe turbulence. She would not be able to provide any service during the short flight because it was too unsafe.
What little blood I had left in my face drained away. The woman next to me said casually to her friend, ‘Hey, I just read that most plane crashes are due to being overweight or bad weather’. Her friend raised her eyebrows and nodded, then went back to reading her magazine. I started hyperventilating and, for the first time in a long time, prayed to the Lord.
I checked and rechecked my seatbelt a thousand times as we ambled clumsily down the runway like a newborn giraffe. Not that my belt would’ve been much help if we did have some sort of lightening induced midair combustion. The sound was incredible, the dips and wobbles stomach churning. I spent that short flight wound up, clamped to my seat, and muttering under my breath. I couldn’t understand why other people were eating snacks and reading the newspaper so casually when imminent death was so close. Even after we came to a screeching halt on the runway in Montreal I was still in the brace position.
Obviously I survived that flight. It took a few days for all the muscles in my body to unclench again but I made it. And clearly I haven’t given up travelling, I’ve just learnt one valuable lesson: always carry sleeping tablets.