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SocietyFebruary 7, 2019

The gruelling journey of having to fly back home


In the latest instalment of her series on life as a NZ expat, Elle Hunt recounts the tedious minutiae of flying halfway across the world. 

Pull down your suitcase from on top of your wardrobe. Not the compact carry-on for long weekends on the continent, but the one that marks you out as high maintenance or a people smuggler on trips of fewer than 10 days or 10,000 miles. Fill it with clothes that you’d forgotten you owned: sleeveless tops, shorts, endless unlikely lengths of linen. Pack easily and efficiently, free from any doubt over conditions at your destination. Dig out your flip-flops, then silently correct yourself – jandals again, now.

Check-in online. Laboriously enter your passport number as though you’ve never seen it before. Pause on the page with the skull-and-crossbones symbol, your cursor hovering over the green button, and wonder if you didn’t absentmindedly pack aerosol spray paint, or any material capable of spontaneous combustion. Click the green button on the balance of probability.

Lug your suitcase onto the bus, then the Tube, then a different Tube. Grow old on the Piccadilly line as the train moves in and out of the fading light and Wifi signal. Feel your heart rate increase proportional to the length of every unexplained delay. Check your watch at each stop. Think about what you’d do if you missed your flight (fake having made it with old photos on Instagram, probably). At least you’d be too far away for your mother to murder you.

Feel yourself switch over to autopilot as you approach airport security, instinctively drawing to hand your laptop and the zip-loc of little bottles. Hope they let you keep your shoes on. Take your shoes off. Go through the scanner and realise that you were holding your breath when you exhale at the green light.

Unexpectedly spend 1.5 days of your holiday budget on moisturiser, alcohol and limited-edition Toblerone at duty-free. Loiter near the La Mer counter in case the salesperson should abandon their post long enough for you to slather yourself with testers; instead, make awkward eye contact with him through the fish tank. Head for your gate.

Kit out your seat pocket on the assumption that you will not stand up for the next 10 hours: water bottle, phone charger, all your new moisturisers, your friend’s new novel that you’ve really got to finish before you see her in two days, and the half-kilo of gossip magazines you’ll read instead. Take your seat, for now without neighbours. Feel your hopes rise with each passenger that passes by. Try, not quite successfully, to conceal your disappointment when someone stops with finality at your row. At least they don’t have a baby.

Remember, with searing clarity, what you forgot to pack and are now resolved to buy when you get there – if you get there. From now and for the foreseeable future (you can’t quite say with certainty how many hours), you’re in transit; arriving anywhere seems like a faint prospect. Out the window, you see that it’s snowing, and you think how surreal it is that you’ll soon be in 30-degree heat. Think of the sheer statistical unlikeliness of it all – air travel, time zones, human civilisation – again after takeoff, when you look down and see the disparate clusters of city lights you’ll soon be on the other side of the world from.

Insofar as it’s possible, detach your mind from your body. Don’t think of how long to go on this flight, or how long the next one is, or carbon emissions, or deep-vein thrombosis, or the story you read online about how sitting for long periods is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Attain a state somewhere between toughness and serenity, where your mind does not look beyond that which is immediately in front of you: the next episode, the next film, the next meal. Eventually, be led like cattle out to an anonymous airport terminal to wile away three, five, eight, nine hours there (attempting another raid on the La Mer counter) before boarding another identical plane and repeating earlier steps. Wonder, not for the first time, why you ever left and if this was the price of returning. Wonder if doing this journey with any regularity takes a lasting toll on the body. Conclude that it must. Think of the performance coaching of the Royal Marines: focus on the process, and the outcome becomes inevitable. Feel slightly abashed for comparing a long-haul flight to being in the Royal Marines.

Try to sleep, and sort of succeed. Dip into a shallow, semi-conscious state for 20 minutes, three hours, 50 seconds, for no time and all time. Be abruptly thrown out of it – by your neighbour going to the toilet, the baby across the aisle, or the person behind you who, you’re pretty sure, is quietly vomiting – and try to submerge again. Repeat. Be handed a tray of stodge in foil and feel grateful for it. When the drink cart comes, roll the die: all or nothing. Take a pill given to you by a friend left over from her poor period of mental health, pushing to one side the thought that – should it unexpectedly bring on a seizure or blindness – you’re not able to say what, exactly, it is. Fall back into your semi-fitful sleep.

Awake – against all odds – feeling refreshed. Allow yourself to check the map that (minutes or months ago, you couldn’t say) showed a circumnavigation to be completed, and be delighted: the plane skimming the surface of the globe is rounding in that familiar faraway island. Impossibly, you’ve nearly made it. Maybe you won’t even be jetlagged (you will be). Get handed an incoming passenger arrival card and reach for your pen in your seat pocket. Realise you forgot that too. Catch your neighbour’s eye with a look of something like triumph, and ask to borrow their pen. Hover it over the box that says returning resident, but cross the one next to “Visitor”. This time.

Keep going!