Travel tales


Taipei welcomes me with an ice pick in the eye. It’s not a real ice pick, which is worse since I can’t pull it out. I sit patiently and hope it will vanish as quickly as it appeared. I am in a transit area, waiting for the final leg of my flight to Shanghai. I have just got off an all-night flight from San Francisco.  I hold my head down and bury my face in my hands. I hope this helps. It doesn’t. Time ticks away slowly. It’s cloudy and rainy outside. But it’s also sticky, sickly warm.

The airport has that sweet yet repulsive odor of mold. Above me, a vent spews chilled air in the airport’s ongoing battle against Taiwan’s warm, moist summer. The bare, florescent lighting doesn’t help my condition, either. Flight announcements repeat endlessly in Chinese. They sound like recordings of a three-legged cat sauntering across a pipe organ that’s seen better days. My fatigue-addled brain feverishly searches for meaning, translating the Chinese sounds in one announcements as “Special K.” I know that “Special K” is never really mentioned, but my brain tells me it’s there each time the recording plays, which is over and over and over and over. I then hear the same announcement in Japanese, and then in English. But only the Chinese one announces “Special K.” The ice pick digs deeper into my grey matter. I go Zen and try to think of nothing, that fails. I try to think of the sound of a softly flowing stream. It doesn’t help. I curl up, as best I can, in the oddly fashionable, oddly uncomfortable waiting-room seat.

I hope for relief. But there is none. The customer-service agents announce that we will soon be boarding. First on, people in need of special assistance and those with small children. The first- and business-class passengers —  the airline aristocracy — are visibly irked, but they discover the last drags of sympathy in their carbon-black hearts and acquiesce. For their generosity, they are boarded next. I’m surprised airlines personnel don’t carry them on board. Finally, the rest of us are boarded like cheap cattle.

My seat is far in the back. I sit down and remember reading that slave ships provided more space for their human cargo then airlines do theirs. The thought sends the ice pick spinning.
Maybe I’m dehydrated, I think. I flail my arms until I get the attention of the busy flight attendant. I ask for some water. A few moments later I receive a swallow of tepid water in what looks like a little white paper hat for a Barbie doll. It doesn’t help.

My arms are jammed to my side in an invisible straight jacket of courtesy. If I relax my left arm, it rubs against a stone-faced Asian man. If I relax my right arm, it is battered by the bony flight attendant as she passes by. The pain in my eye and head increases, and I begin to sweat until I’m drenched.

I know that we will have to be at 10,000 feet before I can get up and over to the toilet without a beat down by the attendants. As a precaution I check the seat pocket and find the barf bag. It’s waxy, non-descript and the only paper product without ads printed on it.

I’ve never thrown up in-flight before. If it happens, I wonder if there’ll be a chain reaction. Will I detonate a massive puke chain reaction? I imagine a sour fountain of half-digested breakfasts from around the world overwhelming the barf bags and spilling over like polychromatic lava, warm not hot. I feel my body begin its pre-purge autonomic preparations.

Finally, the captain announces that we have reached 10,000 feet. I stand up and move to the back where the bathrooms are. They are both occupied. Have people been in there all this time? Are they selling those as seats? Is there a bathroom class? The thoughts swirl around in my head and nausea blossoms within me like a dark, foreboding storm. The flight attendant sees that even for a white guy, I’m really white, and She quickly points me to the front where there are four more bathrooms. As the aircraft is still climbing, I begin my own ascent, fighting the g-forces and inadvertently striking passengers as I hastily make my way towards the front. They say nothing, but I sense their eyes drilling me from behind. This is no time for apologies. Would they prefer an acidic shampoo?

I reach the toilet and open the door to a beautiful sight of stainless steel. I close the door, lift the lid and release my payload. As I un-swallow, I experience the sour shadow of my consumption for the last 24 hours. The ghost of orange juice past is particularly nasty.

Still cold from sweat, I’m relieved and happy. I straighten my shirt and rinse out my mouth. I wipe the perspiration from my face. The ice pick is gone. I walk back to my seat, managing to strike a few passengers as I make my way down the narrow aisle. The remainder of the flight is smooth and happy. I am full of sparkling anticipation for my final stop: Shanghai.


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