Monday, March 21, 2016

The Flight Home

Our wake-up call came at 2:30 a.m., Saigon time. 

Instructions were to put bags outside the door by 2:45 and board the bus for the airport at 3:00 for the 5:35 a.m. United Airlines flight to Hong Kong, to be followed by a 14.5-hour trip to Chicago, a four-hour layover, and a last leg getting us back home to Indianapolis. The 23+ hour ordeal would be the customary penalty for a vacation halfway around the world—this time an enlightening journey through Vietnam and Cambodia.

We had traveled in comfort—indeed often luxurious comfort—as promised by our Viking Cruise hosts, ticking off the ancient Khmer temples of Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom, Banteay Srei, and Angkor Wat from our bucket list. Comfort would cease, however, once we boarded the Boeing 777 in Hong Kong for the long haul to O’Hare. This equipment’s engineering claim-to-fame seemed to be packing the maximum number of passengers into the smallest possible space--a three by three by three seat configuration with just enough aisle space between for a skinny person to pass through. With David by my side on the aisle seat, I donned my compression socks and hunkered down with a cozy Maeve Binchy novel to ride it out.
Once we were airborne, the flight attendants came around offering a drink of juice or water and a bag of Asian rice snacks to get us off to a comfortable start. I accepted a glass of water, grateful to be able to quench my thirst. 

Occupying the middle seat on an airplane is its own special type of hell. There’s no crossing your legs without bumping people both right and left, and you’re guaranteed to inconvenience your neighbor any time Nature calls you to the lavatory. I thought about making a pit stop before any more serving carts blocked the aisle, but just then the ride got a bit bumpy and the captain turned on the fasten seat belt sign. So it was no go.

Timing of the flight was such that our first meal service would be lunch. Under the slightly turbulent conditions, there came a cart carrying trays with a choice of two hot entrees. I selected the cheesy penne with tomato sauce, freed a fork from its plastic wrapping, and tucked into the side of quinoa salad in its tiny rectangular dish. The drink cart was following at some distance behind, and I saw they had red wine. Perfect to wash down the pasta, I thought.

The violent turbulence began the moment I peeled the foil off my entree. Holy cow! It was lurching to the right and lurching to the left, interspersed with moments of sheer weightlessness. Looking for some explanation for the upheaval, I consulted the flight map. It showed our position east of Beijing, skirting the edge of the Japanese islands. No help there, so I refocused on my meal. I gripped the bouncing hot dish near my mouth to make sure the food went into my mouth and not my cheek. The pasta wasn’t bad, but I was looking forward to the red wine to make it even more tolerable. A drink cart was almost here, a mere two rows ahead on my left, as we continued to careen through the angry currents.

Abruptly the beverage service came to a halt. Carts were withdrawn and parked behind the bulkheads by the lavatories, and flight attendants were ordered to sit down. The violent bumping continued unabated as we did our best to finish our meals. It went on and on and on.

Pretty soon passengers who had already been served their drinks were ready for bathroom breaks. Several rose to go despite the seat belt sign and were sent back to their seats by an agitated announcement over the loudspeaker. I heard coughing from various quarters and wondered when the first of us would begin to lose our lunches.

Mind you, I was just two days out from a bout of Ho Chi Minh’s Revenge, which had me running at both ends for twelve hours and projectile vomiting right outside the ship’s dining hall door on my first attempt at a meal afterward. Counting on my stomach to remain sound on this occasion, I fumbled absently through the seat back materials in hopes of locating a barf bag, just in case. Encumbered as I was with headphones, blanket, pillow, Binchy novel, and my tray of lunch debris, I found none.

As the vigorous buffeting continued, I began to feel fuzzy headed and flushed, not to mention I still had to pee. Presently an announcement came over the loudspeaker (in the customary English, Mandarin, and Cantonese) explaining that beverage service had been halted due to turbulence but would resume as soon as the turbulence ended. By now I was less interested in red wine than in some explanation of what was going on outside. The violence had gone on now for at least a half-hour, and Uncle Ho was threatening to wreak vengeance again on my poor stomach. I pictured a nightmare scenario coming on—desperate passengers rising up en masse to take the lavatories, others puking their guts out over the debris on their tray tables, horrified flight attendants hiding in the galleys, me peeing my pants.

Just then, all was suddenly quiet. A few more bumps came, but an ever more certain calm ensued. My digestive system experienced palpable relief. The flight attendants regrouped. Beverage service resumed. I gratefully accepted a soothing diet Coke—no red wine for me today, thank you. My chance for a bathroom break came and I took it, extricating myself from the middle seat by means of a complex set of handoffs of two sets of finished lunch trays between me and Dave, both getting out and climbing back in. A little carton of vanilla ice cream and wooden paddle ended the meal with a sweet touch. I felt lucky to have survived lunch with my dignity intact.

Calm restored, the hours ground on as we passed over the Aleutian Islands, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Minnesota, making a beeline for Chicago. There was time for a long nap with my head against the seatback in front of me, time for an in-flight movie, and time for me to finish my novel.

It was smooth sailing from then on, and a welcome chance to savor the pull of home. 

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