It’s in quotes because I’m fairly certain this thing’s longer than the original post.
By the time the plane leaves New York, the worst of the Trip Through Hell is over, but ahead there’s still five hours of flying over the US, two hours in Los Angeles, and something like sixteen hours of flying over the Pacific to Sydney. Ample time for something else to go wrong.
Let me just state that this 24-hour-plus slog halfway around the world is not representative of all the other times I’ve flown. The only plane ride that even remotely compares to this one involved a hedgehopper from San Francisco to Reno which almost rolled over on its side when it tried to land. You could feel the landing gear make contact, do the whole landing thing for a while, and then the wings catch some sort of strange air current that lifts up the right side of the plane for a very long and very harrowing three seconds before setting it down again. It is because of this experience that, although I’m okay once the plane is in the air, I’m still a nervous wreck during takeoff and landing.
Anyway, we pick up our hero as his plane descends into the City of Angels.
…is a smoggy brown concrete soup. At least that’s how it looks from the plane. LAX Terminal 5 doesn’t look much better. It’s at that sweet spot where it’s too old to be bright and shiny and futurey, but too new to be retro (Wikipedia says it was remodeled in ’88), so the go-to adjective is “ugly.” It’s what I imagine all those brand new aerotropoli will look like in thirty years.
What’s to come requires a little explanatory flashback. See, I am not, as I said before, a frequent flyer. I don’t have any predetermined method of going about things, I don’t have a preferred “hub” airport like some people, or a preferred airline. When I fly, it’s usually on the cheapest route possible with the cheapest carrier possible, (the only explanation for why I flew out of stinking Kennedy, a pox on that place) and I’ll take the attendant logistical difficulties with a smile because, hey, I can now spend the money I would have blown on getting there on tacky souvenirs.
Anyway, my (and, by extension, my family’s) relative inexperience with this whole “flying” thing naturally means that, although we’re usually pretty good about the booking process, we can still have fantastic lapses of judgment. For example, we did not realize until like a week before we were supposed to leave for New York that we could choose our preferred seat. We’d just assumed the airline picked the seat for us. And, as a bonus, the seating diagram on the LAX-SYD flight said the plane was full. So we had to call the airline to straighten everything out.
They gave me a seat in the exit row.
Those of you who’ve flown more often than me know that, as a requirement for sitting in the exit row, you have to lift fifty pounds, so you can force the door open in an emergency. Those of you who’ve met me in real life know that I am thin and weak and cannot lift fifty pounds if my life depended on it. Those of you who’ve read the unpolished version of this post on the members-only blog where it originally appeared a year and a half ago know that the instant I arrived at the gate I went straight up to the guy at the desk and asked to be assigned elsewhere.
I don’t remember the exact details of the conversation I had with the guy. All I know is that I was put on some kind of waiting list, and that I approached him at least one more time to see if he had a seat for me. I imagine I was like an annoying five-year-old in the back seat of a car: “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” ad infinitum.
I got a spot in a more agreeable location as we were boarding. In retrospect, it should be pretty obvious that a seat change is going to take forever, because he’s got to somehow shuffle everyone around, and all the guys have to OK the seating change, because what if someone else doesn’t want to be in the exit row, either, and it’s probably just a huge pain.
This trip was a whole bunch of firsts for me. First time outside the country (the Canadian side of Niagara Falls doesn’t count). First time in the Southern Hemisphere. First time flying over an ocean.
First time in one of those enormous planes with that big center row.
I love those big planes. Here’s why: just like any other industry, the airlines are committed to making tonnes of money. Amongst other things (oh, Ryanair, the stories I’ve heard about you), this includes cramming as many people on a single plane as they can. Consequently, most planes are a claustrophobe’s nightmare. The center aisle is about a foot and a half wide, which means there’s going to be problems if you run into someone who’s going the opposite direction you are. On a bigger plane, you still have these problems, but they’re mitigated somewhat by the fact that you have more space. Since these planes sit like eleven across as opposed to six, they’re longer, wider, and airier. There’s even enough space to (gasp!) walk around if you like. When you spend most of the flight packed in like a sardine, the psychological benefits cannot be understated.
Neither can same for good in-flight entertainment. Look: imagine you’re flying across the Pacific. That means you’re in the air anywhere between nine and sixteen hours. Also imagine that you don’t have a window seat. Further imagine that your computer is stowed away under the seat in front of you and is pretty much impossible to get at. Finally, imagine that, for some reason, you can’t sleep on planes (I can, but it’s extremely hard). This is, believe it or not, the perfect recipe for a boredom-induced psychotic episode. If your plane has one of those little touchscreens embedded in the seat backs, the ones that have the plane’s coordinates and a half-decent selection of music, movies, and TV shows, you are set. (Seriously, this cannot be understated. Why in a [much] later post.)
“Thus did Theodore reveal his startling naivete about the realities of long-haul plane travel, as in-flight entertainment is universally considered to be eye-gougingly awful…”
Oo-kay…maybe I got extremely lucky. Moving on.
It is my unprofessional opinion (having done it only twice) that the absolute worst aspect of international travel is all the crap they make you do to get into the country. Mostly this revolves around all the declaration forms you have to fill out, which forms repeatedly state that not declaring something is very not cool. Add to this the prohibition on bringing certain food into the country* and the concern that even the most minor of offences will result in deportation,** and my complete inexperience with international travel and the little quirks of these forms, and one begins to understand the trepidation with which I approached filling those things out.
(There was also another form I had to fill out, related to the swine flu epidemic sweeping the nation and indeed the globe back then. Signing it meant I did solemnly swear to do…something (Seek medical attention promptly? Absolve the airline of all liability? Allow Seven, Nine, and Ten to break into my apartment and follow me 24/7?) if I caught the virus, but I don’t remember what it was.)
Anyway, the plane arced grandly over Botany Bay, giving us left-side window passengers a glorious view of…Cronulla…while the lucky ducks on the right side got an eyeful of the City,*** and bumped to a landing at…
Last section, I swear.
I am now fully convinced that Sydney Airport, and by extension every other airport with customs facilities, is actually composed of two airports occupying the same physical space. The first airport is the one you see in all the pictures and aerial photos, with gates and coffee shops and great big windows from which you can see planes and runways and (if you’re lucky) the City.
This airport, I’m guessing, is exclusively for departing passengers, because I was dumped in the second airport, which has the aesthetics of Penn Station. All that’s down here is a very lonely duty-free shop and customs. I’m pretty sure it only just has the one gate, and every international flight that arrives here, and parks anywhere at this terminal, somehow disgorges its passengers at that one gate. There aren’t even any windows, so one could be forgiven for thinking this airport inhabits a universe all its own and there’s nothing behind the walls. (There aren’t even any maps of the place.)
Of course, once you’ve made a surprisingly fast trip through customs, you go down a rather twisty ramp and suddenly you’re back in the warm, bright, familiar first airport, and you wait for a buddy of yours to come pick you up and give you a tour of what will be your new home for the next four months.
Welcome to Sydney.
*This has something to do with the country’s unique ecosystem and the fact that foreign plants and animals have this tendency to prosper and lay waste to regions the size of Western European nations (and I don’t mean those piddly little microstates like Liechtenstein). Rabbits are viewed as pests down there for a reason.
**A small filibuster. Both the country I’m from and the country I am moving to in this tale sit pretty close to developing nations (Mexico and Indonesia, respectively), which means low-income migrants flocking to the shores in the hopes of a better life (nothin’ wrong with that). Unfortunately, then we have racist politicians coming out of the woodwork and capitalising on the issue and giving the country an extraordinarily twitchy deportation finger. (Believe it or not, it used to be worse in Australia; xenophobia was institutionalised right up until the 1970s.)
***The curious tendency of people from certain metropolitan areas (e.g., New York, the Bay Area) to refer to their anchor city or its downtown (e.g., Manhattan, San Francisco) as “The City” is in full force here. Perhaps even fuller than usual. I’ve seen road signs refer to the Sydney CBD as “City.”