From 30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean
No doubt I have been inordinately influenced by my recent reading of Geoff Dyer whose discourse on D.H. Lawrence’ travels and his own have made me reconsider and reflect upon my own unsettled nature and need to occasionally wander no matter how uncomfortable the whole enterprise may be.
I have spent days of my life preparing for this present five hour flight to and 10 day stay in Honolulu. Istopped buying fresh food days ago so nothing would go to waste while I was gone. I stopped cooking at least three days back so I wouldn’t have so much to wash up. I laundered sheets for the house sitter and changed my own so I would have a clean bed to which to return. I laid out clothes and saw immediately that my shorts were laughably boxy and much too large for my present body. And my tee shirts were spotted with paint and bleach blobs. And that my only sun dress, blue, and something a friend advised me to take knowing full well I don’t wear such things, was just plain odd. It looked good just once on a patio on the deck of a fancy hotel somewhere in southern Croatia….on the coast, of course. I posed against an array of outrageously large yachts. I looked good.
It was a multi-star hotel in which I was an imposter. So I vamped around the cocktail lounge in this blue sundress wearing oversized dark glasses and lots of makeup. I was attempting to disguise myself as a rich European. I was helplessly and obviously a poor excuse for an American. We were so out of place that my friend and I snuck into the breakfast room without paying and allowed young staff to bring us coffee and croissants in exchange for extravagant tips and a chance to practice English.
I still have the sundress but not the more glamorous gown I borrowed from a friend while in Huahine. Now THAT was a successful costume. I look busty and attractive in pictures taken as I called out like a siren to Greek sailors from my long ago past. That ship had sailed and that dress was a friend’s and she has, alas or fortunately, given it away.
So I’m stuck with the tee shirts, ugly shorts, and a flock of light weight harem style style pants from Forever 21. I am not Forever 21 so they fit me oddly…loose where they should cling and tight where they should flop.
Because preparation for flight is so unsettling, especially the bit about dressing for scanners, I now wear loose slip on shoes and no jewelry when I prepare for the airport ordeal. Everyone else on flights now dress like hobos or charwomen so what matter. I still make an effort, as my grandmother’s voice demands, but no one cares or looks or appreciates. I am small and polite and always try to “put my best foot forward” to represent, I suppose, breeding and taste. To assert that it is not all dead. To model some personal fantasy about decorum and glamour. Or just to be ready to be an ambassador of past America…an America long gone. I dodge into airport bathrooms to recheck my lipstick and fluff my hair. I am somebody, I tell myself. I have the credentials.
My great uncle flew the Pacific in a Pan Am China Clipper. I have his original certificate of flight attesting to the fact that he had crossed the equator. This was a big thing in his day. Sailors were paddled and dunked by King Neptune when their ships crossed that imaginary line. And my uncle was proud enough of this accomplishment to keep the proof.
My first flight to Hawaii was in 1962. I think that was on a Pan Am, too. I was on my way to Peace Corps training on the Big Island. And was with some dozen or so volunteers with whom I had rendezvoused in San Francisco. I wore a pleated skirt suit, blue and white and white pumps, all very appropriate for a middle-aged woman diplomat. I was, however, 19. I had a pair of Dior sunglasses I had found somewhere. Narrow lenses, black frames. The kind a French airline hostess might wear. And a nice haircut. In short, I was going for glamour even then, ready for an adventure that would buy me two years on the island of Borneo in a thatched government house surrounded by slit trenches in which hid Malay soldiers, Gurkhas, and Royal Marines all clutching Sten guns and long knives. I survived by reading a truckload of novels provided by the United States government and by listening to the early Beatles on a Phillips battery operated phonograph. I made barely adequate covers for my hideous Sarawak Government issue chairs and couches on a hand crank sewing machine. I traded my pleated skirt for big khaki jungle shorts, sarongs, and cheongsams. I wore army issue deep green jungle boots instead of high heels.
But the flight. The flight was divine. I felt like a movie star. Deborah Kerr. I was going to THE EAST on an aircraft whose staff served me Bloody Marys (the celery the best part) without asking for an ID and placed a plumeria lei around my neck. Only two years out of high school and I was on my way and could even smoke on the airplane if I chose to. No mother to avoid.
Today the pilot promises a wonderful flight. Babies whimper and play with tablets and pads. People sneeze and cough. There is barely enough room for my small body in the seat, let alone for anyone larger. There may be a snack available for sale…$8 for something called a cheese tray. I’m not certain for it is almost impossible to hear announcements. Some people cleverly have carried hamburgers and fries aboard…and the smell of the old grease nearly gags me.
Like Dyer, I am one of those who can barely wait for a trip to end even as I begin it. I count the days till I can be home again. I count my money too.
Like Dyer, I avoid my writing even though I call myself a writer. I fuss about my garden and wash my windows and flit from story to story as I struggle to produce an “antholooy” of “good” work. I anticipate the next trip only to know that it too will be just another opportunity to avoid important tasks and to count the days til I go home, to obsess about my money, to check for messages from friends who are always somewhere else.
I think all this counting of days started during the time I was in Borneo. I swore I wouldn’t quit . But how the gruesome months crawled by. The floods, the border war, the heat. When I returned to the scene of my imprisonment twenty years later, I burst into the teats. The oppressive humidity and heat and charm lacking village nearly smothered me and I wondered how “she” …my disassociated young self…could have lasted.
I could not bring myself at 20 (when I could have shopped at Forever 21) to say “this is hell.” I, therefore, missed a whole developmental period of my life by living isolated in this unforgiving, irredeemable, world of spirits and snakes, pepper and pineapple, bomohs and adat. How I sometimes writhed in a kind of confused late adolescent agony …stretched out on my rattan mats….while listening to Johnny Cash on the Phillips.
There were spiders as big as a dinner plate in my shower. And yet, I didn’t scream and demand to be put on the first plane back to the states.
Instead I became Nurse Nelly, a South Pacific heroine. I washed my hair, mounted my English bicycle, and rode forth to do my duty. Did I imagine a French planter might save me? Neither he nor she did. Instead I met Buntys and other other arrogant, racists English colonials and sweet talking Sarawakian politicians who wanted to take me as a second wife. And I learned to be alone and suffering and that that would have to do. I counted the days, the months and waited to return to the states…where I fared not much better as it turned out.
I didn’t have a home then. Now I do and I know better.
The inevitable carts filled with bottles and cans and tiny packets of nuts and dry as dust pretzels make their way down the aisles so narrow one must hope that the urge to use the toilet stalls does not hit. People are nice. The stewards are all American, fresh, mostly smiling, younger than those on many of my recent flights. They exude competence. I’d trust them to shove me down a slide into the ocean or lead me out of a smokey plane or navigate down a mountain. I think they are sensible even though I usually think of myself as the most sensible and reliable person in any crowd. “Self Reliance.” I read Thoreau and Emerson and Dickens before my trip to Borneo and I think about how those books influenced my “solid citizen” self—the one who was a great success living alone in Sarawak. Go to the woods. Yes. I smoked a lot and drank a lot. But I survived and did my job. I think about the influence my Baptist grandmother had…and the song, I would be True; nine years in 4-H clubs. “I pledge my hands, heart and whatnots for my club, my community and my country.” Who would not have fallen for the challenge, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” after those years of indoctrination. The competitions at the fair and at camp only fed the fervor to do right. How I longed to beat out Sara Starbuck of Bellbrook, Ohio for Camp Spirit and be surrounded by candle bearing junior campers during that last sacred ceremonial night of camp. We sang“Follow the Gleam”. We sang as if we too were crusaders. And in a way we were.
It all wove itself into the fiber of my already prepped genetic predisposition for adventure and heroics inherited from North European and Central Asian and Neanderthal hunters and early agriculturalists.
I’ve been hit by a flying ice cube and showered by a bottle of seltzer. No damage. Remember, I am nice so I smile at the stewards and try to look pleasant and harmless.
After all, I’ve survived much worse…flights that seemed doomed or on airlines barely held together in Sarawak, in China, in Mongolia.
But the maddest trip by far was one I took just a few years ago. We flew, a group of friends and I, from Seattle to some place in Turkey. Then we switched to Uzbek airlines for a ride to Tashkent. One friend lost or forgot or misplaced her carry on bag in that Turkish airport. She realized very quickly that it was gone but though we retraced our steps, it was never found. I had a spare camera, one I always brought along in those days. But that didn’t make up for whatever else was in the bag.
We arrived at the Tashkent Airport, exhausted from more than 24 hours en route and stood in a mob for perhaps two hours. After the flight time, who was counting? I might just as well have been stoned the way I felt…and would gladly have been if it wouldn’t have landed me in a jail. For the rest of my life. Though t=a prison might have been more accommodating than the airport. We had our visas but because there were no discernible lines in which to cue, it didn’t matter. I feared that all my medications would be confiscated and so had hidden extras (another jail-able offense no doubt) deep in the linings of my bags and had brought actual written prescriptions from my doctors. This was all a needless worry. Nobody really looked at anything.
When we were finally cleared for entry, we went to luggage claim and the real fun began. What passed for checked baggage in Turkey were very large packages swathed in sheets of plastic and bound up with at least ten rolls each of cello tape. They bulged at the edges and through the seams between tape and all resembled bales of cotton. One after another came tumbling through the chutes onto the moving pathways where dozens of Uzbeks crowded forward to snatch and tug and heave them off the carousel. (An apt name for the circus that was being performed before it.) Scissor and knives appeared and the tape and packing was removed and scattered about the floor. Appliances emerged from the bundles and towels and blenders and fans and air cons. A gang of short American women, not so spry as once they were, would not have a chance of collecting suitcases . At least not until the cello tape and assorted merchandise (brought in from Turkey being unavailable in Uzbekistan) had at least settled on the floor like the carnage after a battle.
It didn’t matter that we had to wait because our luggage didn’t appear. Well, mine did. But no one else’s. We waited for two or three more flights to arrive from Turkey. No suitcases. They did not make their way to us for five or six days. Our guide made calls, sent emails, inquired at various airport offices. But it was really a matter of waiting and hoping.
We shared clothes, at least with roommates. We wore the same thing for days. We washed out underwear. I say we because I felt that I had to seem deprived and joined the others in their impoverished state so though I wore clean underwear I did not lord about in crisp clean trousers and blouses. For the general good.
Bad luck was visited upon me at about the time the found suitcases arrived. We were out touring some dreadful park—one in which there was, as I recall, a notable architectural feature. (And there really were, all about the country, masterpieces of silk roads buildings and mosaics). Suddenly, my bowels turned..no warning..and I began to drip sweat and knew I had to find a latrine though I was wildly disoriented and desperately ill. I set off on my own realizing that only rudimentary French would get me past rows of vendors and park officials and to a toilette.
I paid a fee for use of the latrine and for a bit of paper. I ran to the end squat (and I’m a very good and practiced squatter) and let loose with the most most despicable pile of deep brown gravy consistency poo I had almost every seen. That it came out of my body horrified me. I wiped with that ineffective scrap of tissue I’d paid good money for and found a water hose with which to attempt a clean up but still…I left a mess on the floor and wondered about how much was on my clothes and shoes..
I started through the gate to find my group in what was now a clearly altered state. But no…I had to dash back. This time the attendant took pity and didn’t charge me. A slightly larger scrap of paper was given.
I finally felt well enough to find the group. My friends were huddled close into some crafts stall happily buying buying and chatting chatting. Meanwhile, I was certain I was dying. “I’m going back to the van,” I said. I’m not certain anyone noticed or heard.
Of course I went far past it but some Uzbek women saw me, associated me with the van, and led me there. I sat hallucinating, certain I was dying, willing my sphincter to behave to avoid an accident for perhaps an hour before my guide and friends returned.
I spent a couple of days in bed on a diet of dry white rice and tea. I continued that diet for several more days.
By contrast, when one of my friends contracted what was arguably the same disease, a doctor sat by her bed and she was rehydrated with an IV.
This my friends is what you get when you are reputed to be a survivor. I would have been better treated if I had relapsed in a puddle of my own shit and admitted that I just couldn’t handle one more moment of being strong.
Of course, there is always the problem of illness when traveling. Last year, I had bronchitis for at least two weeks on an otherwise wonderful Sicilian trip. In the Yucatan a few years ago I visited Chan Kom, the subject of Robert Redfield’s famous “Village That Chose Progress.” I happily drank from a gourd full of maize beer that was being passed around. Yes, I came home, barely, with shigella.
But in Borneo, when I was young and strong, I stayed healthy. I mourned my life, gritted my teeth, waited for the invasion but I did not get sick. Except for dengue fever.