This is the first post of a series on a visit to my South African in-laws. Find additional installments in the “South Africa” category.
10:30am: It’s a brisk Halloween morning, and we’re chilly in the boarding passage. There will be no glowing, festive fall afternoon, kids in capes shuffling through the leaves – for us, at least. Do not let the army of flight attendants, the service button, the cellophane-wrapped red blanket and the tiny, complimentary toothbrush fool you. There is no coddling aboard a transatlantic flight. We’re flying nonstop from NYC to Johannesburg, South Africa, and no-one is going to help ease the transition.
12pm: I haven’t remembered anything I’ve forgotten, and I’m wearing my most comfortable pants. Soon after take-off, I realize that not only is the morning clearly over, but there will also be no afternoon. I am feeling ready for a sandwich, but within an hour the flight attendants bring me steamed spinach and salmon. It is a forceful implication. We may still be over the mid-Atlantic coast, but we are now on Jo’burg time. Lala and I turn on the in-flight entertainment and watch “Toy Story 3” over our fish. Whenever I eat an in-flight meal, I feel as if the airline has brainstormed the maximum amount of packaging which could accompany one meal. Each virgin cracker, cookie, and slice of cheese, each roll and dab of butter, each tiny medley of vegetables and bite of cake, adds to the pile of cellophane and plastic. Trapped in our seats by the dinners on our tray-tables, we almost disappear behind the wrappers before the flight attendants come around with trash bags.
7:30pm. A few hours after we boarded the plane, the lights in the cabin go out. It is an even clearer message than the baked fish and spinach at what I thought was noon; now, bizarrely, it is time to go to sleep. Due to the final throes of packing and cleaning, as well as a raging Halloween party next door, I had less than two hours’ sleep last night. But now, of course, with the noise of flight and several strangers reclining in their socks within two feet of me, sleep feels as far away as China.
8pm: “There’s Something About Mary.”
10pm: The flush in the airplane lavatory sounds like the water has punched a hole in the skin of the fuselage and the air at 33,000 feet is roaring in through the toilet.
10:30pm: “Glowering Boys, Often Shirtless”. Oops, I mean “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.” It is determinedly dark in the plane, but whenever someone slides up a window, pure white sunshine blasts in. My eyes feel hungry for the light.
12:00am: Dammit, the tweezers and q-tips.
1:30am: To me, time on a transatlantic flight slows to the speed of continental drift. Lala, still upright in his seat, has covered himself completely with a red South African Airways blanket. It reminds me of the scene in “The Sixth Sense” when a haunted Haley Joel Osment flees his tent, only to return and see a specter sitting with the collapsed red blanket over its head. With my husband asleep, it’s the perfect chance to do something I rarely can: watch a movie with subtitles that is not kung fu.
2:00am: But “Coco Before Chanel” proves boring – or maybe it’s my state of mind. Lala wakes up ravenous and asks a flight attendant for something to eat. She brings a few cookies. But the people sitting in front of us return to their seats from what we thought was a walk to the lavatory, and we hear the unmistakable crinkle of wrappers. The smell of cold roast beef wafts over us. It’s like blood in the water. Lala begs me to find a male attendant and use my “feminine wiles” to get food from him. I welcome a chance to leave my wrapper-strewn seat, and find an attendant behind the curtain at the back of the plane. The lights are on back there, the rushing whine of flight is less muted, and it’s refreshingly chilly.
“Hello, when is breakfast?” I ask.
“Four hours and feefty minutes,” he intones in steely, perfectly measured English. Clearly, from his perspective, there is nothing else to be said.
“Look, my husband is famished. Dinner was so long ago and I can’t fix him anything.” My eyes flicker over a mountain of sandwiches just behind another attendant, who watches with silent interest. They are obviously guarding the sandwiches back here, along with the light and the fresher air. They seem determined to take me absolutely literally: the passenger asked us about breakfast, and we told her about breakfast. The heap of sandwiches five feet away could have nothing to do with satisfying her request for food. The male attendant and I lock eyes.
“Vegetable or meat?” he says at last, and I know I’ve won.
3:30am: Lala pushes up the window and the night is velvety black. He urges me to lean across him and see how bright the stars are. I feel the first seeds of acceptance that it is actually night-time. The flight attendants are on the move again, distributing sandwiches to those that are awake. We take our full share.
4:00am: I turn on my light and try to write in my notebook. I look back over the page, see that some of the words are missing random letters, and give up.
4:30am: My hair looks like a 13th-Century Scottish villager’s.
4:45am: Crap, I didn’t buy sun-block. Is it my imagination, or is the sky starting to seem cottony gray?
5:30am: My legs are like lead and my eyes are sandy, but the fellow sandwich-purloiner in front of me has been snoring since the last whiff of cold cuts. I envy his sleep with a true, burning covetousness that flouts the Ten Commandments.
5:15am: “Adam Sandler Croons in a Wig.” I mean, “The Wedding Singer.”
6:00am: A misty prism of color is appearing over the clouds. I feel like we’re flying towards the sun instead of seeing it rise.
6:30am: Who knows what new life forms have evolved since we were last on land?
7:30am: Breakfast is served in a landslide of wrappers. Afterwards, the successive lurches of heaviness in my chest and the pressure in my ears tell me the ground is getting closer. The Captain’s PA comes on; he hopes we’ve “ool hed a reasnible noight’s rist.”
8:30am: By the time we exit the plane, it looks as if a tornado full of blankets, cookie wrappers and headphones has struck the cabin. How could we have made such a mess confined mostly to our seats? On the ground, lavender jacarandas are blooming, the brown bulk of the mine dumps rear out of the townships, and sixteen hours after we left a cold Halloween in New York, Lala’s family is waiting for us in the African summer morning.