By Ismail Lagardien
I hate flying. I have read all the statistics about the probabilities of being killed in a car crash as opposed to a plane crash. I have read bumper-sticker psychologies about having “control issues” and about my “fear of dying”, and after all these years of flying I have learned some “tricks” about where to sit on a plane to avoid or minimise turbulence, what not to eat or drink in order to “make the flight more enjoyable”….
I hate flying. The pedant may say that it is not really rational, that it is a phobia, because flying cannot kill you. My response is this: I hate being in flight. Every time the plan engine splutters I think I am dying. Every time I hear an unfamiliar sound, or a slight jerk or shudder (it has been more than 30 years since I first flew across the Atlantic, I think I know what a smooth flight sounds or feels like) I think I am dying. So, I hate flying. None of the advice helps. Every time I fly, I tremble, sweat and curse in stoic silence.
Maybe there is some validity in the charge that I have “control issues”. Yes. I do have a huge problem with being strapped down, sealed in a tin can flung into the air and told everything will be alright. If planes are so safe why do they go through the routine – before every take-off – of telling us what to do in the case of “an emergency landing”. Maybe I am afraid of dying. Yes. I haven’t had a novel rejected yet, so I’m not ready to die. Besides, death is fine, but I don’t want to have someone dig through the collection of dirty pictures on my computer storage drives.
I’ve heard or read all the advice. Turbulence, forget about it, I have been told, it happens. Learn to deal with it. The best place to sit for a smoother ride, I am told, is over the wings (but that’s where most of the fuel is stored!); the safest place to sit is at the back, because that part more readly remains intact in the case of a collision with a mountain face, but it’s the worst place to sit because you feel every bump, and that’s where the toilets and kitchens are! I wouldn’t take a table in a restaurant next to the toilets or the kitchen; why would I do it in a cramp space where the crapper is next to the kitchen?). The front of the plane tends to be the most stable. Well, here’s the problem. That’s where the pilots sit. That’s where First Class is. I am not allowed to sit there. Oh, yeah, the cockpit and first class are also the first to hit the mountain. Someone once told me that a seat over the wings comes with a terrible view. Really? When I am strapped down in a seat, flung into the air, with a mouth-breathing travelling salesman sitting beside me telling me his life story, I am hardly concerned with beautiful sunsets or puffy clouds. I am thinking about throttling the travelling salesman. I’m thinking about dying! There is, of course, also, the “pre-flight” horror; an ordeal of epic proportions, which, in the grand scheme, is superseded only by the terror of the suburbs – if you know what I mean
From the minute I make the reservation to a week after flying, I go through an ordeal of fear, irritability, insomnia and sometimes very serious constipation. I am, at best, an irritable, irascible, snob (not the wealthy elitist kind) who hates people – I prefer ideas. I hate carrying heavy bags. I hate people wanting to help me carry my bags, and then hover around for a tip after they have just crushed my books or my laptop or, heaven forbid, my cameras. There is little glamourous or even exciting, to me at least, about international travel.
There is even less thrill in having to sit beside someone who, wearing a loud patterned shirt tucked into blue jeans with matching belt and shoes, a cell phone clipped into his belt (all very earnestly) telling you his life story and showing you pictures of his wife and children. Everyone always looks so happy in those pictures. Perfect, almost. They’re usually dressed in matching clothes with white sock and running shoes. Once, on a flight from Reykjavik to Minneapolis, I sat though a travelling salesman’s story of how much “bonus” he was expecting to “make” that year because he worked so hard. He explained that he was away from home “on average, I’d say, six days a week”, but had a week off “over fourth of July week and a week over Christmas”. His voice trailed off into the drone of jet engines. I caught up, again to hear the technical details of a new pressure hose he had bought to clean his “deck and drive”… that he wanted to buy a pontoon boat… that he made “the best bulgogi in the world”… [something about] “the good lord” and being ‘blessed”. He was a nice man. Nice people are why I wear dark glasses on long-distance flights. So I can either pretend to be asleep, or pretend that I am listening, or pretend to not notice when they give me a look that says: “Hey, we’re going to be sitting next to each other for seven hours, let’s be friends”. Headphones and sunglasses on flights are clear warning signs that say: “Don’t talk to me. Don’t even as ask how my day is going.” If the words “fuck off” mean anything to you, you will leave me the fuck alone – before I let it rip.
I can’t bear people constantly fidgeting and tugging at their clothes or their hair. I hate it when they imagine that being squashed together in a tin craft that is sent into the air is enough reason to tell me their life stories. The grating sensations start before check-in, when you have to lug heavy bags up and down stairs across platforms, in and out of elevators through revolving doors, up and down curbs. When your life revolves around books, your bags tend to be heavy. By the time you get to the check-in line you’re filled with bile. I can’t bear the tedium of standing in lines. I feel captive and exposed moving step-by-step, through the maze of ribbon that guides you this way, then that way, then back this way towards the person at check-in who, you always wish, had discretionary powers or sympathy. Standing in line, shuffling forward and backward, then sideways in the maze, there is always a woman wearing a floral shirt and very tight-fitting denim shorts (or a man wearing a Harley Davidson T-shirt with the words “the bitch fell off” written on the back) with running shoes and white socks (it’s always white socks) who imagines some solidarity in suffering from standing in line for what can take hours, and who would insist on telling you how funny it was that you always end up meeting, again, as the line ambles through the maze towards check-in. I say a silent prayer, each time I stand in the maze: Please god of the skies, don’t let this person be seated next to me. S/he would just try to consolidate to the imaginary solidarities we share….
Once you get to the front of the line there is trepidation, angst … you feel guilty for something you know you have not done; you don’t quite know what it is that you have not done, but you feel accused. The person at the check-in desk has been standing on his or her feet all day. Their haemorrhoids have been blazing and itching, in-grown toenails and fungi have been fucking with their feet, and through it all they have had to smile. They have had to take a toilet break to scratch the itches and dab their haemorrhoids, gently, with moistened toilet tissue, and apply shark oil. Back at the check-in desk, they take your passport. Look at the picture. Look at you. Then back at the picture. Standing before them, at their mercy, you feel guilty . You know your bags are too heavy. You know they’re going to charge you for excess baggage. You know they’re going to ask the size of the bag you’re carrying on. (Who keeps those kind of details around, anyway?)
Hate is a strong word, but I really do hate everything to do with international travel. I never fly when I can travel by surface. There really is nothing as stable, predictable and straightforward as a train ride. I have flown into airports in the remotest parts of the Africa; where the wrecks of previous attempted landings a reminders of what can go wrong. Competing with cows, dogs and people, I have bounced onto landing strips in Great Amazonia, after a fly-by of Angel Falls. I passed out from fear when our plane was fired at with SAM missiles over Angola. I passed out when a small plane landed in the sea at Santos Dumont Airport, while we were taxiing before take-off for New York City. Once, while flying over the Midwest of the US, I called my dear friend AGRB in South Africa and told him: “I am about to take a shit on this flight. Please, when they find my body with a toilet seat wrapped around my head, don’t tell them I died doing what I enjoyed most.” I really hate everything to do with flying.
Having said all that, travelling from South Africa by land or sea to hear the din of La Vucciria, catch the Arsenal at home or take a walk along the Arbat might take a while….