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People and Places

Tales from A trailing Wife - I wish it was not another SABENA

(Sabena = Such a bloody experience never again)

In my trailing spouse life I am on long haul flights more often than some people go to the movies. I feel a constant push and pull between wanting to be with loved ones and wanting to stay in one place and not pack another suitcase.

I ask myself why I dislike flying and travel so much? After all, many can only dream of the kind of opportunities I have had and continue to have. I used to love to travel, had a long bucket list of places to see. These days to have missed experiencing The Great Wall of China is just too bad.

It is not that I am scared of flying. I never worry about bad weather, depressed pilots, terrorists or mechanical failures. No, I’m just allergic to the whole process. The packing (I always pack too much), the check in (I am always far too early), the security (deep inside my bag there is always something forbidden I forgot I had), and heavy hand luggage (why is the overhead above my seat never available?) and last but not least, the transfers.

These days one saves on airfares by flying via some out of the way city. And yes, we do pay for our own flights. Only recently I realized some people assume that my husband’s company pays for all our airline tickets. They pay for a few, and they do spoil us with a Business Class fare into and out of the new assignment country, but with children and parents living on different continents it’s never enough. So needless to say, Cattle class it is when we go to North America via South Africa!

Just in case you do not feel sorry for me, let me share my pain with you. “Pain” you say “what pain?” Real pain, perhaps psychological due to my intensifying allergy to flying, but real to me. It starts with no sleep the night before. I have no idea why after 26 years of travelling I am starting to have travel anxiety and panic attacks, but I am. So even though I only need to leave the house by 10am, I am showered and ready by 4am. .

Heaving a heavy suitcase onto the check-in scale results in throbbing aching hands and a dull pain in my pelvic bone. I should be thankful that only one suitcase with a maximum weight of 23 kg is allowed. I used to have a baggage allowance of two 30 kg bags. Who needs weight training! And why do I always buy a bottle of something for a friend at duty free? It is heavy and worst of all much cheaper at the destination.

Have you noticed that airline seats are getting smaller? And harder! It is really criminal the amount of space we are now confined into for 9 to 13 hours. Maybe I have some midlife weight gain, but hey, I am not obese and have no problem buckling up. I am convinced that each time I get on a plane the seat is smaller than before.

Don’t you love the airline video with comfortable flying and body moving tips; e.g. ankle circulation. Hallo, excuse me, how am I supposed to lift or circle anything when the seat in front of me is nearly touching my chest! No wonder that six hours into the flight my ankles swell up and the real pain starts. My lower back is bombarded by tiny darts of pain. Deep inside the back of my thighs the veins in my legs throb.

I believe that I am the wrong height for these airline seats. No amount of wriggling or changing position alleviates the discomfort. My blood circulation is cut off at mid thigh. It is extremely painful and I am filled with fear of getting a blood clot every time I fly. I read the symptoms of deep vein thrombosis, which can lead to sudden demise. Usually I have at least half these symptoms. I have tried every remedy - not drinking a drop of alcohol, eating no carbs and keeping myself hydrated. It makes no difference; the pains are still there.

I never sleep on the plane. I could cry with envy as my fellow passengers manage to get some relief by sleeping. I wonder if I should take a sleeping pill. But the fear of death instilled in me by a doctor on one of my long haul flights prevents me ever going down that route. He said that a deep sleep in sitting position induced by a knock out drug is one of the worst things you can do and would definitely contribute to blood flow being cut off, which in turn could create all kinds of problems.

Also I have been told by my family and friends that I snore terribly. I have to admit it as I wake myself up with my own snoring. The minute I fall asleep my jaw drops and my mouth opens, producing not only snoring, but also a very dry throat and a lovely wet drool.

I don’t want to frighten some small child with my snores. But why care what total strangers think of me? Do I remember any fellow passengers who snored or drooled? I wish I could get rid of that angst and at least have an hour or two of sleep. Instead I watch all the movies available, and go to the bathroom at least four times an hour, just to have an excuse to move.

On the lucky occasions when the seat next to me is not occupied and I get to fuss without guilt in that tiny uncomfortable seat, things are not quite so bad. Yet my allergy to flying is intensifying and whenever I try to voice my apprehension to my *HH I get no sympathy, only: “Sit back and relax”.

I wrote this a few days before my departure last month, never imagining that the worst flight of my entire air travel history was waiting for me. From my aisle seat on the Cape Town to Dubai flight last week I spotted a very large young girl walking down the aisle. I felt sorry for her, as well as for anyone who had to sit next to her. As she squeezed herself along the aisle - yes these days not only the seats are narrow, the aisles are as well - I kept saying to myself “no way is she coming to you, don’t panic; it never has happened before so why now”.

But the young girl motioned that she was sitting next to me and I could not hide my dismay. She was at least 340lbs. It took her three attempts to push herself between the armrests. I squeezed myself back into my seat, navigating my right shoulder under her arm, engulfed by her on the right hand side. I wanted to cry. How was I going to manage? Squashed into the aisle, I was in danger of shoulder dislocation every time the drinks trolley passed.

A panic attack was building up. I wedged myself up and approached the young male flight attendant. He looked at me with apologetic eyes and mouthed, “I am so sorry, but the flight is full.” “Please, please find me another aisle seat; I will not make it and after this 9-hour flight I have another 13-hour flight to Houston!” He told me to wait until we were airborne to see what he could do for me.

I squeezed myself back into my seat, the armrest bruising my ribs. I could see the pity of other passengers breathing a sigh of relief that it was not them. I have not had so much eye contact on a plane in a long time. I took a deep breath and decided that I needed to think kind and positive thoughts; the poor girl must feel bad enough for her own discomfort. Luckily the young girl on her other side was tiny and could lean against the window. I smiled at her and said, “not to worry, I am going to move and you will be able to sit more comfortably”. She smiled back gratefully.

Offered another seat; at first I was elated. Although a middle seat, it was on the exit aisle. But when I tried to sit down it was another struggle. I had two big men beside me. One had very broad shoulders; the other was large and overflowed into my seat. But I had no option; he was half the size of the girl. Fast asleep, he hardly moved, but he smelt of alcohol, farted a lot and his breathing was so shallow and fast I thought he might have a heart attack any minute.

No matter how I positioned myself, we had full body contact all along my right side and my own body heaved up and down. Claustrophobia set in with a strong desire to just open that Exit Door and escape. Instead I stood most of the nine hours to Dubai and nobody dared ask me to sit down.

My *HH was waiting for me as I disembarked; took one look at me and offered me his Business Class seat to Houston. What a gentleman...

When I worked in the travel industry in the late 1980s, Sabena, the Belgian National Airline, which closed down in 2001, offered the cheapest return tickets between South Africa and Europe. Everyone complained about the lack of comfort. If only we had realized then what luxury travel that would be today

* HH Handsome Husband

Wednesday, 1 June 2016    Section: People and Places
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