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April 14, 2005

Back to the Beginning

        Perhaps the funniest thing about cabin-society is that although we are aware we are existing in a realm far from normal, we are in fact thirty thousand feet in the air, we all pretend that we are doing something entirely normal and expected, merely catching a movie and eating out.  Obviously we’re all awake but will be sleeping soon, so of course we need an evening meal served, never mind that it’s one o’clock in the morning.  As the cabin staff do their best to serve the quickest dinner to 400 people in the same room ever on record, the passengers feign an aroused appetite in an attempt to show appreciation for the staff’s efforts.  Before you can say “How do I get this stupid tray to come down” or “Can someone open this terrorist-proof plastic packet so I can get my friggin’ cutlery out!” or “Why the hell is my tray so friggin’ smooth my meal keeps sliding off it into my lap!” you’ve had an entrée of garden salad with Italian dressing, a main of chicken with mango sauce and fancy potatoes, pavlova for desert and two glasses of wine while polishing off some bread and sharp cheddar.  Suddenly you realize that this was all a devious plan concocted by the cabin staff to keep your mouths full long enough that your stomach signals your brain to initiate falling-asleep-sequence, transforming 400 unsettled people asking how many hours the flight will be and how to get the left earpiece of their headphones working into 400 slightly open snoring mouths, 100 of these snoring heavily, but most importantly none asking any more stupid questions.  This leaves the cabin crew free to disappear behind those tiny curtains where they shrink to tiny size and meet in a tiny secret room beneath the cabin, drinking tiny bottles of liquor all night.

        After you’ve woken up from a neck so stiff you swear you’re going to need a neck-brace, stumbled to the tiny little bathroom twice, alternated between tucking your legs up under you on the seat and stretching them out under the seat in front of you a dozen times and woken yourself up gagging on your own desert-dry throat a thousand times, the full cabin lights (including a couple of spotlights they save just for this moment) are blasted on, trained for your tender pupils, and the cabin crew, in perfect appearance no less, greet each of you with a cheery, yet forgiving of your sluggishness, “Good morning!”  Naturally the instinctive response is to scream at their pristine perkiness “How can it even be MORNING when the sunrise is taking two hours because we’re chasing the sun on its cursed path across the sky thirty thousand feet in the air YOU FREAK!!”  But of course we smile politely, wiping our chins and stretching our necks, knowing that anyone having survived the last six hours and surfaced looking as they do must be in possession of some kind of superhuman powers, and it would be in our best interests, at thirty thousand feet, to obey the masters of the cabin politely.
        I looked over to see Jeremy looking just as fresh as I, gazing bewildered about the cabin.
        “Did you sleep?”
        “Not really.  You?”
        “No, not really.”  Much as would be expected.
        Through the window I saw the night sky, though I could see the other side of the aircraft being bathed in the “morning” light.  Out the window something flashed and, hoping that it wasn’t the tip of the wing retiring mid-flight, I stared intently until I saw more lightning flash through the clouds just below us.  It’s amazing watching an electrical storm from above as the event shifts from a display of sheer power stretched across the infinite expanse of sky to a merely playful game of tag between the clouds. 
        A tail wind brought forward our landing time in Phuket, an island in the south of Thailand at which we were to wait in transit for the connecting flight to Bangkok.  Breakfast was served and removed rapidly and suddenly we were again being asked to lock our trays and move our seats to the upright position.  As the island rushed towards us I tried to imagine what it must have been like when, four months earlier, an enormous mass of water was displaced and rushed at high speeds, just like me in the airplane, towards the same island.  I scanned the land looking for signs of the tsunami but saw nothing clearly recognizable.  As the wheels touched ground I wondered what events this airport had seen since December 2004. 
        “Passengers in transit to Bangkok, please take all your belongings with you and proceed to the transit lounge.”
        As we patiently filed out of the aircraft it hit me that I had fallen asleep in Australia, and woken up in Thailand.  The ease with which we travel nowadays is unbelievable, regardless of the quality of airline meals; so far as I’m concerned, if I find myself with ten fingers and ten toes standing at my desired destination, the flight was a roaring success.  We ventured through the worm-hole again and emerged in the warm humidity of Phuket airport at 6:30am.  The transit lounge was half full with Thai and foreign travelers, circumferenced by gift shops and snack shops.
        My curiosity got too much of me and I dragged Jeremy over to the snack shop.  As we wandered through the aisles we laughed at the things so strange yet familiar, the tiny little cans of lychee juice and bottles of Thai Red Bull, the family pack of dried squid, packs of Oreos and Tim Tams, tiny little hot dogs in buns which come in plastic packets, clear plastic bottles of drinking water, Chang and Singha beers, tins of nuts, sweet breads wrapped around shredded pork and dried prawns.  It felt like last week that I was cracking open a can of mango juice and picking the weirdness out of the bread buns.  But the cementing of my feeling of being “in Thailand” came when I walked into the airport bathrooms and smelled that unmistakable not-far-from-the-sewage smell of Thai water.  The sign “Please do not stand on toilet seat” above a western toilet.  The old lady in front of me in the line gesturing for me to go before her.  It was definitely a very familiar feeling.

        Our connection to Bangkok left right on time.  I looked across at Jeremy and took his hand.
        “Last time we were in Bangkok you put me in a taxi and I cried all the way to the airport.”
        He smiled, and we took a moment to appreciate all that had passed since we were both last in this part of the world.  It had only been 3 years and 3 months since we parted on Khao San Road, me on my way back to London and Jeremy on his way to Laos and Cambodia, and since then we had fallen in love in California, moved to Washington D.C., married in Connecticut, waded our way through the INS system and built a life in the nation’s capital before packing up and selling everything, spending 3 months living with Jeremy’s parents and 4 months living with mine in Australia to get right back where we started from.  And here we were again in Bangkok to pick up where we’d left off after a brief interruption to our adventures.
        As the plane touched down we could see that Bangkok had already reached bread-baking temperatures.  The haze of heat and pollution covered the city in a shimmer which looked dirty and uncomfortable.  We taxied by three men enjoying a round of golf on a course which actually met the taxi-way.  The aircraft came to a stop in front of four buses on the tarmac – no worm-hole this time.  As the cabin crew thanked us for traveling Thai Airways we gathered our hand-luggage and filed like sheep off the aircraft and into the thick wall of Bangkok summer heat. 
        “Passengers from Australia this bus please!” 
        The handrail was slick from humidity and I could feel my body instantly covered in a film of sweat.  Yum.
        The bus sped away from the plane, who I was very grateful to for delivering us in one piece, and we quickly found ourselves standing in front of an immigration desk in the decorated-when-very-brown-was-very-“in” Bangkok International Airport.  Beside us were a couple of men coming from one of those middle-eastern countries where the men wear long white “dresses” with a cloth covering their head jammed on by a length of round “rope”.  As the immigration official stamped our passports and we headed on for Baggage Claim I told Jeremy the story of the time I left Karen standing in this same airport for an hour after waiting for her at the wrong terminal.  We collected our luggage and as we pushed our trolley through customs, which involved… absolutely nothing actually, I spared a thought for Schapelle Corby, in whose shoes I could have been in an instant.  Jeremy looked over at me incredulously.  I mean, someone could have at least pretended to care that we were passing through customs. 
        We emerged from the airport procedures to the usual crowd of limousine touts calling “Taxi, taxi!”
        “No limousine thankyou.”  Their enthusiasm disappeared in an instant and I was forgotten before I had passed them by.
        As we stood in line for a money changer there was a small crowd to our left of men wearing the long white dresses gathered around two wheelchairs inhabiting two women, I assumed, in full long black burka and black face mask.  It was like a scene from Star Trek crossed with a Michael Jackson party, to be as politically incorrect as I can possibly be.  The men seemed to be standing back from the women, though the women seemed to be barking orders, or at least opinions, at them.  I try not to pass judgement on people I come across who are different in appearance to that which I’m familiar with, but there was something decidedly other-worldly about these women.  As the money-changer handed me my notes I turned to find Jeremy speaking with one of the men.
        “Nevermind, don’t worry about it.  It was just a question.”
        Oh shit, what has he gotten himself into.  The Arabic man is not letting it go.
        “Why do you ask?  What do you want?”
        “Nothing, it’s fine, don’t worry about it.”
        “Where are you from?”  He smiled at Jeremy – a good sign.
        “America.  And you?”
        “Ohio.”  He smiled very broadly at him now and seemed to be daring Jeremy to call him a liar.
        I called out Jeremy’s exit cue, “Come on, we have to go!”  He met me and we headed towards the exit.
        “What did you ask him?”
        “I just asked him what the masks were for.”
        I look at him in disbelief.  “You can’t ask them that!”   
        Jeremy met me without pause, “They’re the ones we should ask.”
        As the exit doors slid open before us, realization washed over me with the thick humidity we were stepping into, and I stood corrected.


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