Saturday, April 26, 2003

:: Fear of flying ::

No, I’m not actually afraid of flying. In fact, I was really looking forward to this trip, not the least because it offers me a chance to get a way from the almost unbearable heat of summer in Manila (is it just me or is it getting hotter each summer?). But I dreaded the thought of a flight lasting more than 24 hours from the time I boarded the plane in Manila to the time I got off the plane in Madrid.

I haven’t been blessed with the gift of being able to sleep soundly on planes or buses. Although I learned, from my med school days, how to fall asleep just about anywhere, and have actually done so (including falling asleep in front of a friend with whom I was having a conversation), the most sleep I would get on a bus or plane would be 15 or 30 minutes a stretch, at most, before waking up. I guess it has to do with a combination of factors—the cramped space (never had the bucks nor the luck to even try business class), the constant drone of the engine, the little jerks of the plane as it encounters air pockets, etc. The fact that this particular flight, via Thai Airways, entailed a seven-hour stopover in Bangkok International Airport didn’t help things any.

Just about the only thing I looked forward to on this flight was the possibility of a half-empty flight because of the SARS scare and the chance to hunt down an empty row where I could lie down and try to get some sleep. Alas, it was not to be. I asked, in a cheerful tone, the lady at the check-in counter if the flight was full, as there were few other passengers checking in. To my horror, she said “Yes, it’s a full flight.” I hadn’t counted on the canonization of Fr. Pedro Poveda, founder of the Instituto Teresiana, on May 4, in Madrid, which drew a large group of pilgrims from the Philippines, a large number of whom were on the same flight. They were identified by large yellow IDs hanging around their necks by a bright yellow strap with the word “Poveda” printed all over it.

The flight itself was uneventful. They showed “Swept Away,” a forgettable film starring Madonna.

The wait in Bangkok airport was tiring, as just about the only thing you could do there was to sit down, and you could only do so much of that. I missed the amenities of Changi Airport, with its large transit area, full of televisions where you could watch a sports game, or the news, or a movie; the area where they provided free Internet connections if you had your own laptop or PDA; and the quiet nook with dim lights and reclining seats where you could catch up on sleep (and risk missing your connecting flight, as a bonus).

I had armed myself for this long wait, loading up my PDA with interesting articles that I had found on the Internet over the last few days but didn’t have the time to read, as well as a couple of free e-books (Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow, and Microserfs, by Douglas Coupland, as it originally appeared in WIRED Magazine in 1994). I had also brought along a couple of traditional books: The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (signed by the author), and Anything Considered, by Peter Mayle. I also brought along a DVD copy of Matrix to play on the laptop in case things got really boring, as they did.

I spent the first couple of hours just walking around, exercising my legs, window-shopping at the different duty free stores, and observing the people. I envied the amount of people traffic that I saw at Bangkok International Airport. It was swarming with people of all shapes and sizes and languages... and smells. To think that it was a relatively thin crowd as the SARS scare had driven down air traffic all over Asia.

Then I had dinner at KFC, shopped for some pasalubong (chocolates, orchids, cigarettes), wrote some postcards, and read The Remains of the Day. After a while I decided to watch The Matrix, which didn’t turn out so well because the laptop’s batteries ran out on me just as the most exciting part — the rescue of Morpheus onwards — was beginning. I just went back to my book and read until the boarding call for my flight sounded over the PA system.

The flight to Madrid was, mercifully, only about 60% full. I was given an aisle seat in a row that was conveniently close to the lavatories but not so near as to be inconvenienced by the people lining up to use them or by the flushing sounds that emanated from them. I also had an empty seat beside me, so I managed and get a bit of sleep lying down, curled up like a baby. About the only drawback to this longest leg of the trip were the entertainment options, or the lack of them, to be more precise. For the fifteen-hour duration of the trip, Thai Airways offered up the following for our “entertainment and relaxation:” one episode of Friends; a movie that was even more forgettable than the previous one (if you must know, it was a stinker called “Kevin of the North”); a short feature on entertainment technology in the future that was more retro than techno (they showed stuff that I had read about a year ago); and a wonderful documentary on the caribou (yes, the caribou). Needless to say, even if you were desperate enough to watch every feature in its entirety, you were still left with about 11 hours of flight time to kill (well, 10 hours, since we had a one-hour stopover in Rome).