Reflections on Flying

View from my window.

View from the plane.

No matter how many times I travel abroad, I always get nervous right before departure. And so I was nervous when I left home Monday morning to fly to Beijing. There are so many things to be nervous about when flying: Will my plane crash? Will my bag be overweight? Will I be seated next to someone who is visibly ill? On Monday, one of my biggest concerns was whether or not I would make my connecting flight in Vancouver.

Flying can be distressing even for frequent flyers, but arriving is not relaxing, either. I’ve been to Beijing before, although it was nearly seven years ago now, and by all accounts the city has totally changed. There’s now an easy way to get to the city center from the airport by subway, but I was still nervous about lugging my baggage through Beijing’s crowded underground.

It turns out I was rightfully nervous about my connecting flight in Vancouver. If everything had gone smoothly, I would have had an hour to saunter through the labyrinth of deserted passageways in Vancouver’s airport. But snow in British Columbia delayed my flight by half an hour, so my flight from Portland parked – not even at a real gate, I had to walk outside in the snow to get inside – about 10 minutes after the flight to Beijing had started boarding. The flight attendant, having warned me about the tight connection, made sure that I got off first and that I knew my departure gate. I shouldered my obscenely heavy backpack before taking off in a sprint.

For some unknown reason, Canada requires a customs check even for people who are not actually going to stay in Canada, so as I ran along the endless airport corridors, nervously glancing at my watch, which was already inching past 12:10, I had horrified visions of a bottleneck at the custom’s check that would cause me to miss my flight. The custom’s form asked if I was bringing in meat, fruit or nuts, and indeed, I had a nice leftover roast beef as well as two oranges and some pistachios. I originally thought about lying and saying I didn’t have anything, but decided against it and marked yes. So I was also dreading having to hand over my only assurances of decent food on my upcoming 10.5 hour flight.

Happily, there was no line at custom’s, and the woman glanced at passport and custom’s form briefly before waving me on, beef and oranges still safely in my purse. I huffed and puffed up to the gate and saw a couple stragglers, all of whom looked Chinese. As I checked in, one of the attendants shouted, “Hurry!” to the Chinese family arriving around the same time as me. When they didn’t respond, she turned to the attendant examining my boarding pass. “Do you speak Mandarin? Can you tell them to hurry up?” “Kuai yi dianr!” The attendant yelled without hesitation. Turning back to me, she told me to go ahead and board. Still out of breath, I gratefully made my to seat 31 K. A window seat.

It also turned out that I needn’t have rushed. They held the plane for some other passengers arriving on a connecting flight from Victoria that had also been delayed, and we were already running late when we pulled away from the gate and made out way to the de-icing station.

That is when I realized that I had never been on a plane that needed deicing. The planes where lined up while two people on tall rigs sprayed a fluorescent green liquid on the wings and tail of the plane. Before the de-icing, they were covered with snow, now they were covered with a bright green film. I’m sure that de-icing liquid is what allowed my plane to take off safely instead of plunging into the Pacific Ocean, but I have to say that de-icing liquid didn’t look very non-toxic.

I had a short conversation with the Chinese man sitting next to me, proud that I could conduct it entirely in Chinese. When I asked if he liked Beijing, he said no. The air is bad.

Another thing that is bad is the food. We were served a dinner of sorts around 3 pm Vancouver time, but it was among the worst airline food I have ever had the displeasure of eating. I ate it anyway, since I had devoured most of my beef and biscuits right after take-off and wasn’t sure I had enough food left to keep me from starving for the rest of the flight. I wasn’t particularly hungry, but thought that the chicken with barley, topped with airline sauce (the sauces they serve on airlines are always exactly the same) would probably be a lot more palatable if I ate it warm. The bread that went with it was ok, but I didn’t touch the chocolate brownie turd. Even the tea was bad, although at least they had real milk. So I got a coffee after “dinner,” figuring I should take advantage of one more coffee before five months in Beijing.

I was glad to have the window seat. The flight from Vancouver to Beijing follows the Canadian, then Alaskan coast north before curving over the Bering Strait and over Chukotka, in the Russian far east. Between Juneau and Anchorage the skies were perfectly clear, and under the plane there was a breathtaking expanse of mountains and ice for as far as I could see.

The peculiar thing about this trip is that I miss a night, since the plane passes over the international date line. It is sunny outside for the whole trip, but it’s not normal to move from Monday to Tuesday without a night, at 6:20 the cabin lights went out and everyone was asked to close their windows. At this point we were directly over Chukotka. An hour and twenty minutes later, the lights came up. Rise and shine! It’s time for another delicious meal!