We sit alongside each other : an empty seat between us. And neither body spills over into it, which should give rise to a minor celebration on a long haul flight. But there is no celebration. In fact there is nothing; not a look, smile, nod, scowl, absolutely nothing. The empty seat is as solid a barrier as if there had been a body in it. Each of us is absorbed in our own worlds, our thoughts private creating this strange isolation in a plane so large and full.
It is a long flight, this flight ‘home’ . In a way it begins at 5.30am when I wake with the light in my room and go for a walk, because there will be sitting and sitting, effectively two days of sitting.
Then there is the packing. The usual struggle to get back into my bag the stuff I easily took out on arrival. Why doesn’t the same amount go back in? Every time!!! So I negotiate with myself – you’re coming back soon so leave this behind, and that, and it would be a good idea to leave these shoes too. (Which of course it wouldn’t as I will need to replace them at home 😜) but it’s all part of the long journey home.)
There are always people I didn’t get to see, the last minute phone calls- all somewhat unsatisfactory as I’m sort of half gone already; the private negotiation with my guilt about those not made; the rushed shopping for someone I had overlooked. The constant recalculation of how much time before I must leave going on in my head like a needle stuck on a long playing record.
There is the security of a ritual lunch out with two special special grannies. Conversation somewhat muted, as we go over the highlights of my visit; more effort than usual is required to fill the silences.
And suddenly time has run out and I must leave, lock the bag, throw it on the back seat – the car is never large enough for anything but a pair of runners to fit in the boot, regardless of the little drawing of 4 people, 2 bags on the computer screen when you book it.😂
Hugs and tears, each parting is more painful than the previous and I shut myself off from the figure still standing at the top of the driveway as I drive off.
Family and friends text and call all the way to the airport so my concentration is challenged and my heart is blessed.
Car drop off zones seem far more complex to access than car pick up zones, round here, switch lanes, to the far end. And then back again to the airport!!!
The bag next, wrapped in plastic so no one can open it. Not even me, at the other end 😜. It takes superhuman patience to cut open a bag wound in ‘African’ plastic after two days of travelling. Funny I never feel the need to do the plastic thing going into SA, but always do going into Oz, something about our customs people make me very nervous.
And then joy of joy; my most special friend is at the airport; this too is becoming a ritual. She stands with me as I check in, she smiles and distracts me as I hand in my phone card and effectively cut off ties. She joins me for a cup of tea as we talk and laugh and share and use up some of the three hours check in time. She always pays and I always let her. And then again, it’s time and I must leave again. We laugh and hug and pretend it’s not for long and I walk through the gate that marks the point of no return.
It’s a long flight this flight home.
My boarding card says gate A00, the gate is marked A0.
My boarding card says Johannesburg to Abu Dhabi, the sign at the gate shows flights going to 5 destinations, but not Abu Dhabi.
You will understand, if you have been following my journey, why I am very careful these days about times and gates 😜😜😜
So I check with the nice young man sitting next to me; he too is going to Abu Dhabi and is confused now that I point out the minor discrepancies between boarding passes and gates.
I look for an official – but we are sitting at gate A0 – the furthest gate of the airport and no official seems to venture that far😂😂.
The nice young man and I begin talking. We have an ‘airport conversation’ which is at the same time intimate and remote. He is visiting his sister in Sydney for her 40th birthday celebration. He rode the 97.4 bike ride yesterday. He works for Sandvik; he ran up the berg and has a nice t shirt to commemorate the race.
I’m about to learn about his ex wife and the work she does when an official arrives, asks for our boarding passes and moves us into two rows. We smile, we’ll finish our conversation shortly. We don’t. We don’t see one another again, despite being on the same plane for 23 hours. Such is the world of travel
Drinks are served by a friendly steward. Red wine alongside, Diet Coke for me (why did I ask for it, fizzy and unattractive) – surely I could have thought of a better companion to my dinner. Or perhaps it is exactly the right match for my dinner, for while the menu handed out earlier with such flamboyance describes a succulent lamb briyani, the reality is far from that . I wonder if the expensive tickets really do translate to excellent meals? I will never know.
We doze, my silent travelling companion and I. I wriggle, fiddle with the movies but can’t concentrate, put the flight path on and watch as I and the aeroplane on the screen move ;
Time since departure 20 mins
Time since departure 2 hours
Until 10 hours later I see
Time to destination 20 mins.
The a three hour wait and another 14 hour flight.
What’s with going home? The same flights – reversed I’ll admit, and transits tackled with So much more care. It is though, essentially the same.
So why is the trip home longer?
Is it the difference between looking back over something as against looking forward to something I wonder?
One way you can create; imagine a perfect reality.
The other way the reality is exposed to you. The joy, the pain, the fractures.
And there always is a fracture, sometimes appearing long after like a chip in the windscreen unnoticed till it shatters suddenly. Other times like a serpent trapped and lashing out in a frenzy to protect itself from what it sees as an enemy.
Sometimes we can mend; sometimes not.
Sometimes it has to do with living two different lives in two different places; sometimes not.
Sometimes it has to do with choices we make, sometimes not.
Is it the knowledge that I leave a ‘home’ troubled, groaning, needing willing hands , and I go to a ‘home’ where things are good and, out of sight, I can quickly forget about the poverty, corruption, pain and enormous beauty and potential I am leaving, that makes the trip feel so much longer?
Or is it simply I am flying into the sun, ever east, forward chasing the clock.
I doze as I sit in my seat, 34k, last row of the plane, second leg of the flight, listening to the cabin crew talking, digesting another largely indigestible meal advertised as lunch.
I ask myself why lunch and not dinner since the plane has been plunged into darkness; every blind pulled down, forcing us to pretend it’s night although the sun shines blindingly on the white clouds beyond the Perspex.
My flight path aeroplane shows 10 hours to go
It’s a long flight ‘home ‘