I love flying. It is truly one of my favorite things. I love the food, I don't even mind twisting myself in the seat to nap. I love falling asleep right before the plane takes off and waking up to discover that i am already floating away, that I am going somewhere. Everything else about flying can be so unpleasant: but not this, this moment of buoyancy, of finally being in the unknown.
Time and regular routines are suspended. You land at an airport. It is 4 am wherever you flew from, except in this brightly lit space where it is never day or night, you can eat a burger when normally the very idea would make you hurl, or order a glass of wine at an hour when bars outside the airport have finally cleaned up the night's debris. Here, you are in an everything-goes zone.
It's just getting there that's the difficult part. My anxiety has little to do with planes, but with the part of getting on the plane: applying for visas [this amazing essay says it all], the airline staff who can never quite understand my visa, who photograph pages and send it to their colleagues over WhatsApp, all trying to decipher whether I can actually travel.
Sometimes I look at the people who are immaculately turned out for the airport -- hair done, outfit coordinated, in shorts and sandals and heels. I am the one wearing an anklelength dress - with socks, because it was the only warm thing I packed. [Never again.] I walk around aimlessly, looking at the joke-sized bars of chocolate and dithering over which cafe looks less likely to be soul destroying. I used to exhaust myself on stopovers, unable to decide whether I wanted to eat a burger or a doughnut or try and find a place to sleep while holding on to all my belongings. Now I just find a chair and try to relax. The joke-sized chocolate is the same everywhere. There's nothing new to see.
On airplanes, I am consumed by the kind of hunger I can't really describe. I eat the entire meal, even the too-sweet pudding. I drink too much. I drink too little. I know this is a bad idea. But I need to fortify myself for the journey ahead: It feels like an achievement: pouring the contents of a miniature bottle into a plastic cup, sitting back and sipping that makes me realize that its all over, for now. I sleep. I read. I wake up. I are aware of the possibilities: I could be anyone. I think about my life and the fact that I can even travel, that I have a passport and a life, and how I used to wish I could get a flight going anywhere, how ingrained the anxiety of travel is, the constant reminder that I have no right to be here, that the hundreds of dollars worth in stamps don't guarantee anything, that I could be turned away, that no one would know or care.
A few years ago, I was booked on what I thought was a short flight but which actually entailed a 20+ hour stopover in Dubai's Terminal 2 - both ways. The real joy, though, was that this was allowed me to stay in flydubai's business lounge, so for 22 hours I watched TV, and ate copious amounts of lentil soup, and lamented to the bartender. I watched the shift change, I walked around the rest of the terminal where the only highlight was a Paul, I tried to take a nap on the armchair, I ate bowl after bowl of lentil soup. A few days later, I did the exact same thing on my way back. It was horribly exhausting, but it was probably the highlight of my career. I will never amount to much, but for that one day I was a tired, dishevelled person who could order whatever I wanted to eat or drink.
The flight arrives. My phone never works. I plaster a big smile on my face - it’s easier to smile with a glass of wine running through your system. A visa is not a guarantee. You know your fellow passengers don’t feel this way: they are confident, their passports allow them the ability to pay a few dollars and waltz through. An immigration officer's stamp is suspended over my passport, my heart stops still and I can count all the money and time I have spent, everything leading up to this moment, and I wish I was back on a plane again, in that safe space where my anxiety is many hours away.