Recently I flew to Sweden unaccompanied. I’m not a nervous flyer. In fact, by the time I’ve found my seat and am safely buckled in and people start handing out little lemon-scented serviettes is when I start relaxing because I know I am where I’m supposed to be and from here on it’s all in the capable hands of Captain van Breda. It’s the hours leading up to that part that take years off my life. I’m racked by two irrational fears: one, that somehow the backpack which is tightly fastened to my body and also the handbag containing the 34 bits of paper you apparently still need to fly anywhere will somehow cease to be and I’ll be standing in Terminal 3 with no documentation, destined to eat at McDonalds for the rest of my life like Tom Hanks.
And the other is that I’ll bide my time in a long queue and then arrive at my gate and the man who holds your boarding pass under that machine thing will say no, you can’t get on. This is not your plane. This plane flies to Cambodia. Your Cape Town home plane to your bed and your children took off 20 minutes ago from a terminal 10km away, so even if you had rollerblades you’d still be stuffed. So I walk around clutching my backpack which (as I pointed out) is quite unnecessary since it is attached to me by straps and gripping my handbag tightly to my chest while I compulsively check the TV monitor to make sure I’m really, really in the right place. Then when I find my gate I position myself inches away from another monitor showing my flight details and I remain glued to it, now and again averting my eyes to nervously accost strangers and random airport staff and ask them if this plane is, indeed, bound for my destination.
None of this is an exaggeration, you can ask my husband. So it’s a happiness when I find myself, shoes off and backpack safely stowed in the overhead locker, with nothing left to worry about but the announcements interrupting my movie and that there won’t be enough food. When I fly with my children the latter part is sorted. Both get bad motion sickness and spend the entire flight dry-heaving into a bag like that scene from Dumb and Dumber, leaving me with the chicken, beef and vegetarian pasta and all the tiny cheeses and crackers and salad dressings and it’s like an aeroplane party for one. When I fly alone I have nothing but what they give me and even when I eat all the condiments including the salt and pepper I’m still hungry.
On this particular flight I sat next to a waifish Japanese woman (is there any other kind?) who could have been 17 or 40. Like other Japanese travellers I’ve observed, she seemed to have a low opinion of Western food and (unlike me) zero interest in anything the nice Emirates ladies conjured from the happy recesses of their mobile kitchens. Instead, she took out her own box which contained an array of things chopped into microscopic morsels. These, with the help of tiny toothpick chopsticks, she dipped into a thimbleful of soy sauce and ate daintily before settling down for a snooze, leaving her hot little box of lamb Rogan Josh wastefully unattended. I eyed it greedily while licking the last, remaining grains of basmati rice from my tin-foil lid and while I wanted it desperately I knew that stealing it from under her nose would be risky and that she’d probably notice. Her bread roll, on the other hand, was another story and mere inches from my hand. Plus, I still had butter left. This theft, I figured (four bottles of aeroplane Chenin in) I could get away with. I watched her closely. Her eyes were tightly shut, her breathing even and a tiny trickle of soy-scented spit hovered at the corner of her mouth.
Eyeing my prey, and with the stealth of a ninja, I leant over three inches and quietly helped myself to the small, cold, cellophane-wrapped package. Only, my enemy move seemed to stir some latent Samurai survival instincts and instantly her eyes snapped open and she snatched her roll back and glared at me in understandable outrage. To say that I felt ashamed would be putting it mildly. She proceeded to re-organise her little tray so that the roll was as far away from me as possible while I apologised profusely and did that pray bow thing and said konichiwa several times in the most remorseful tone I could muster, but she wasn’t having any of it. To hide my deep humiliation at the whole of row 57 knowing I was nothing but a common thief I took out my phone and pretended to have a long, casual conversation even though everyone knows you can’t even do that on planes.
And I was very relieved when at last the captain announced that we were descending into Dubai airport and I could slink away and never see these people again and be left alone in my shame and the thermal pyjamas which seemed a good idea at the time but here in the desert were itchy and hot as the hinges of hell. Also, the water the red-lipped ladies neglected to bring me even though I pressed my little bell like I had Tourettes syndrome (they probably heard I was a criminal and were warned to stay away) was becoming a thing of increasing urgency as the many plastic cups of wine I’d merrily imbued began to make themselves felt in my temples. Only you can’t drink the water in Dubai because it’s wee and what South African carries a Euro – certainly not this one – so I couldn’t even purchase a Voss to wash down my Gen-Payne.
I learnt some valuable lessons on this journey: just because the booze is free does not mean you have to turn your tray table into a mini wine bar; it’s not right to steal from people even when it feels justified in the moment; and lastly, that I need to spend less time watching My 600 Pound Life and more listening to Sogyal Rinpoche reminding me not to act like a crazy person every minute of every day.