In my mind's eye, I foresee my next destinations as a starry eyed kid would envision his first prom date, sexy, mysterious, dreamy, and coupled with youthful vigor and scintillating companionship. The journey overseas to some foreign lands, though, is not always what we envision in our veiled anticipation of perfection. There is first the hardship of simply remaining seated for hours on end in a cramped airplane. Those on-plane videos warning passengers of the possibility of coming down with deep vein thrombosis always come to my mind, as I sit oddly in my seat flexing one calf muscle then the next, always remembering to extend the toes and arch the foot. Worse than the fear of blood clots, though, are the perils of bizarre seating companions with the Gods wreaking havoc on the odds of who will occupy the adjacent seat. I recall one journey I made to the Netherlands with my sister. On the way to Amsterdam, I was seated next to a man who weighed in at a hefty 400 pounds. Unfortunately, there was not much room for me to squeeze around him for bathroom breaks, and at one very turbulent moment, when attempting to crawl over his tray full of hot cheesy chicken lasagna, I unexpectedly landed butt down in his plastic tray of delectables. I had to do some emergency clothes shopping at my layover in Frankfurt. After spending a full ten days in Amsterdam and enjoying the tulips, hyacinths and daffodils, I happily boarded my plane home, only for my bliss to be dashed as I realized the same bestial man claimed the seat next to mine on my journey home. Oh what random luck was this! Which God was angry with me today?
Of course, the companion issue is one thing, but it is altogether different when a fellow passenger suffers a heart attack at 3200 feet. On one trip to London from Washington, DC, I was enjoying in flight entertainment videos, when suddenly, a flight attendant came whishing through the cabin. There was a cacophony coming from the seat behind mine. "Are there any doctors on board?", she screamed. There was a rush to find a bottle of digitalis pills, but the plane hit some unexpected turbulence and the bottle went rolling all the way back to the bathrooms at the end of the aisle, screeching to a halt as it hit a warm pile of vomit. It took a good 15 minutes or so to locate the medicine before the situation had been alleviated. The man recovered soon after an emergency landing in Iceland. Not on my itinerary, but a pleasant stop nonetheless.
Of course there are the notable Americans that one can meet on travel. So far, I have had to pleasure of meeting the real Colonel Sanders of fried chicken fame. He wore the white suit, boots, and hat and sported the distinguished white mustache, and thin black tie. He appeared exactly as he does on the bucket. I met the actors Sidney Poitier, Rex Harrison, and Food Channel Chef and TV Host of Restaurant Impossible, Robert Irvine. You never know who lurks behind or in front of you.
One of my worse memories was of a woman who lurked behind me on a flight leaving St. Louis, Missouri. I had stopped off at the St. Louis Bread Factory (predecessor of Panera), and purchased four large loaves of Asiago cheese bread to carry on the plane and bring home to my family. Little did I realize the cheese developed a pungent, fetid odor as it became warmed on the airplane floor mid flight. The aroma levitated and swirled around the woman behind my seat. It nauseated her, and caused her great gastric distress. Needless to explain further, It taught me to think long and hard before bringing home food souvenirs.
There was also that flight to Tangier. The usual seating arrangement on most planes accommodates a seating plan for three, but not for Royal Air Moroccan (names slightly altered to protect the guilty). This airline has decided that the most economical way to go is to simply throw up the arm rests separating the three seats in the cabin and squeeze in four individuals. In the blistering summer heat, such proximity to your fellow man was not welcome. As if that were not enough, some passengers were allowed to bring onboard burlap sacks containing baby goats and small pigs, some of which were allowed to wander after we had reached 8000 feet. This flight originated in Paris, and seemed to be normal in all other aspects. There were really no prior clues that the airline had abandoned all typical protocol. In fact, I believe they are now on that blacklist of airlines that are not allowed to land in major airports.
On a flight from Kansas City to Manhattan, Kansas, I booked a small Cessna for the hour- long romp through the skies to see my family one Christmas. I approached the counter at the Kansas City airport, and was greeted by a man in a suit who took my identification and gave me a boarding pass. He then asked me how much I weighed. A bit personal, I thought, but being a Midwesterner, I felt friendly too and went along with his query and gave him a fairly accurate number, give or take a pound or two for the ham sandwich I consumed at lunch. He then donned a hat and gloves and told me to follow him out on the tarmac. The counter attendant was in fact the pilot too! I boarded a miniscule plane and found that there were three other passengers who completely filled the back seat. The only place for me was in the co-pilot's seat. So, there I sat, next to the pilot, my own wheel in front of me. Coyotes chased our plane down the runway as we took off, and when we got hot mid-flight, we rolled our windows down for a breeze. It was one of the most unusual flight experiences I have had to date.
And then there are the scary passengers who sit next to us and wear camouflage cargo pants, and slowly break out into a sweat as others board the plane. As I saw this passenger's choice of pant style, I immediately recalled the man from Thailand who had been arrested a month ago. He had worn cargo pants because he was smuggling sedated baby monkeys inside his trousers. Wondering if this was a repeat performance or a copy cat smuggler, I watched him more carefully to see if his pockets moved. I was on a trip to the West Coast, and it was just after 9/11, so senses were heightened and fellow passengers were on the alert for anything unusual. Of course, as luck would have it, this strange man was seated right next to me. I heard fevered mutterings coming from him as the word "gun" was vocalized. A few minutes rolled by as I sat in agitation wondering how I would survive a six-hour flight with this individual. Suddenly seven crew members accompanied by two air marshals asked the man to vacate his seat and get off the plane. I was never so relieved. I never did see any monkeys.
Fear can grip many passengers, but none show their trepidation as much as the Ecuadorians. I took a quick hour-long flight from Quito to Guayaquil for a Spanish language program one summer. I was relaxing comfortably in my seat preparing to read a good Sidney Sheldon novel when I glanced over and spied a woman with her tray down, a real "no-no" when taking off. She had hastily set up several rosary beads complete with jeweled crucifix and began to fervently pray in muffled Spanish. She crossed herself and screamed out "Maria, Santa Maria!" as we lifted off. I wasn't even slightly afraid until I saw her display, only then realizing that the airline I was on might be somewhat disreputable. Perhaps she knew something I didn't.
No matter where I go, or for how long, I can always count on some kind of flight mishap as a precursor to the wondrous adventures which await me at my destination. I have long ago learned that the rings of Saturn are actually composed of lost airline luggage. Just remember those charming quips of advice that airline employees leave with the passengers as we prepare to disembark their craft . "Thank you for flying our airline. We hope you enjoyed giving us the business as much as we enjoyed taking you for a ride." "In the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, masks will descend from the ceiling. Stop screaming, grab the mask, and pull it over your face. If you have a small child traveling with you, secure your mask before assisting with theirs. If you are traveling with more than one small child, pick your favorite." Last but not least, as heard on Southwest Airlines just after a very hard landing in Salt Lake City: The flight attendant came on the intercom and said, "That was quite a bump, and I know what y'all are thinking. I'm here to tell you it wasn't the airline's fault, it wasn't the pilot's fault, it wasn't the flight attendant's fault, it was the asphalt."
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--' (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) `--yes, that's about the right distance--but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?' (Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.)