005 – In Transit – Rome
I’d specifically requested an aisle seat, but when I boarded I found my seat already occupied. An elderly and rather fleshy Italian couple had sat in the first two seats, leaving the window seat open. They had barricaded themselves in with mountains of carry-on bags and were giving the evil eye to anyone coming down the aisle who even glanced in their direction. They glared at me with undiluted hatred when I stopped beside them and compared my boarding pass with the posted seat numbers. I marvelled, not for the first time, at the raw emotions that air travel seemed to bring out in people.
If it weren’t for the deliberately placed luggage barrier and the malicious stare they continued to bombard me with, I would have let it go. I like aisle seats, but I wasn’t going to spark an episode of ‘air rage’ over it. But I decided there was no way I was going to be trapped in that window seat for 8 hours by these two evil creatures. I knew they would instantly fall asleep, and I’d be imprisoned unless I suddenly developed wings. I bit the bullet and pointed out that they were in my seat. Their eyes widened with fury, but thankfully they let it go and shifted over in a complex move that would have done an army division proud. When all the dust and luggage had settled, they found out that the entire back section of the jet was empty and they nearly trampled me in their eagerness to get there and set up a perimeter.
Then for the first time in my life I had 3 seats all to myself and when dinner was over and the movie boring me I stretched out and lay down. I hadn’t slept at all the night before my departure and I felt like an immense weight, a mountain, sinking, sinking and sinking. A deep pleasure rushed through me and I nearly moaned aloud. I knew I would never be able to sleep – I’ve never been able to sleep on anything moving – but to simply lie down and close my eyes was enough.
The Alitalia 747 was definitely an old war-horse and the crew were equally relaxed. Buttons didn’t work. The headphone connectors were bent and didn’t attach well enough to carry any sound. Dirt, dust and debris had accumulated in all the corners and edges. My safety pamphlet was glued together with what looked suspiciously like vomit. Take-off was delayed, as they had to replace a tire. But it got off the ground and flew at a steady 950 km/hr at an altitude of 10,000 meters. Seven hours and twenty-five minutes later, we touched down safely in Rome. It wasn’t a dramatic flight at all, but the passengers gave a spontaneous burst of applause when we hit the runway.
Geographically I was in Italy. I knew that because the signs were in Italian and the coffee shop wanted lira. But of course an airport is just an airport, and technically I was nowhere at all. Two tiny blue-haired American women in front of me twittered in protest when their espressos came to $8 US. Their friend in the States told them they could get espressos for $2 each in the airport. This statement only puzzled the poor man behind the counter. I don’t think he’d ever met the friend in question.
The departure gate for the next leg of my journey, from Rome to Addis, was dizzyingly difficult to find. After what seemed like miles of corridor and 3 X-ray security checks, I found myself in an area where they tucked all the strange and unusual flights. The waiting passengers made no sense to me at all. I was accustomed to flights in Asia, where all the passengers are of course Asian with a sprinkling of tourists. A flight into Korea is full of Koreans. A flight into Thailand is full of Thais. But looking around me, I saw no obvious Ethiopians. UN and NGO employees dominated, followed by businessmen and missionaries. I saw no tourists.
The flight was delayed and I had several hours to kill. I lay on the floor dozing. I started mixing the airport announcements into my dreams in improbable ways. My mind wandered uncontrollably, thinking about silly things. I watched a young European-looking couple busy eating fruit. They each had one strange round fruit with a reddish interior. They had a paper bag on the chair between them over which they hunched, spitting out seeds and pulp. I saw them from the back at first, and I thought they were weeping or praying. But they both had a big Swiss Army knife and were gouging at the fruit and then gnawing on it and then spitting. This went on for half an hour, and I reflected that I never really understood fruit people. Can any fruit taste so good as to justify so much effort? Or do they do it out of some notion that it’s good for them?
I was rescued from my version of deep thoughts when my flight finally started to board. This flight was also empty, and when the seatbelt sign was turned off all the passengers got up and moved to empty parts of the jet. I lay down across 5 empty seats and tried to get some rest. I was beginning my third night without sleep, and I was well and truly tired. The euphoria of departure was fading and being replaced by anticipation and a craving, desperate need for arrival.