I traveled as a kid. A lot. I flew back and forth across this planet. Learning about different cultures, different airlines, different airports. People talk to you on airplanes. There is some rule of thumb that you can tell a perfect stranger your deepest darkest stories when in the air. It’s like Vegas. What happens in the air on a transatlantic flight, will stay in the air. Or at least the cargo hold.
I met a guy on one of these flights. It was the Amsterdam – JFK leg. We sat next to each other, drinking Heinekens, and sharing stories. Well. Actually, he did most of the talking. I did most of the drinking. He told me that he had just spent $50,000 in a little over a month, partying in Europe. His partner had died of AIDs and left him a chunk of change. So, he partied. I was like, “Wow. I’m like a white-bread chick in love with Simon Le Bon and watching movies like Goonies. I can TOTALLY relate!” Philadelphia with Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas hadn’t even come out yet. I was amazed, and fascinated. It was like hearing someone describe the train wreck that you had missed rubber-necking first-hand. He continued to tell me about his hook-ups and his raging dysentery, and on and on. Then we landed. As we entered the too bright lights of the International Arrivals, I suddenly felt like I had been watching a movie for those eight hours, and now here we were in the real world. He walked away to join a different line. He stopped making eye contact with me. I felt strangely like I had been dumped.
A cheap Vegas stripper alone in Arrivals.
Being dumped on an international flight, by a gay man who had confided in you far too much information about his month of reckless abandon doesn’t even compare to the pain of my winter break flight, senior year in high school, from JFK to Dhahran.
The morning of my departure I took and failed my trigonometry exam. Good start. I reached JFK with a few of my friends who were departing for our homes, in the sands of Arabia. I went to check in my bags, as I had on every flight that I’d taken from the US for seven years. The ticket agent looked at me funny.
“Your ticket expired.”
What? Tickets don’t expire!? What are you talking about? I want to go home. I panicked. I called the dean of my school. Poor guy was so nice, he offered to buy me a ticket on his credit card and said that my parents could just pay him back. That was at least a $2000 favor. I sighed.
“The plane is full,” the ticket agent – who had a certain lack of personality, just enough to put a hormonal teen girl over the edge – said to me. Argh. I am in the airport. I am already an hour and a half away from my school. I don’t have money for a hotel. While I melted into a large attractive puddle of snot and tears, he agreed to get me onto the next flight, along with one of the boys that I was traveling home with.
I dried my snot. My trig exam snot. My plane ticket snot. This was not in the time of cell phones. Calling Saudi Arabia was very expensive. I did it anyway. I used a crusty, flu and vomit (or so I imagined) covered pay phone and called home. My parents ranted and raved. They said the ticket was fine. They told me to go argue with the ticket agent. They didn’t seem to remember that I was a teenager.
I melted again. But I picked myself up (with some help from my friend) and began to argue with the ticket agent. Turns out it actually was a good ticket, but of course my plane had already left. It had been four hours, and I was still in JFK. I would have been closer to Saudi Arabia if I had been swimming.
So we waited for the next flight. It was delayed. There was a broken window that needed to be replaced. Then we had to wait for a new flight crew. It had been nine hours. I was still in New York. It was the middle of the night and there was nowhere to sit. We ended up in an airport bar, using our carry-ons as pillows, while a South African sports team got loaded and sang fight songs into the wee hours.
I drooled profusely… waking just enough to glare at the drunkards and wipe my chin before nodding off again.
Finally we boarded our plane, the South Africans stumbling over their own typically coordinated athletic feet, me hiding the giant drool mark on my bag. We arrived in Amsterdam. Our next flight was into London, which is incredibly frustrating if you are heading to the middle east. It’s like a side step. It doesn’t really get you any closer to your destination. Before that side step, we had a 12 hour layover. We stayed in the heart of Amsterdam, in a beautiful hotel. I was not feeling it. I was tired and grumpy and still a teenage girl. My friend light-heartedly asked if I wanted to go to a bar for a beer. Yes indeed. I did want that. As we walked through Amsterdam, in the late evening hours, people would pass us by. They were interesting, mumbling characters. It took me a while to realize that my friend was saying”no thanks” to each one that passed us. As they walked by they were mumbling drugs.
“hash… ex… mumble mumble mumble…..”
We finally reached our bar of choice. Rick’s Cafe. I talked about Rick’s in another blog entry. It was dark and smokey, not terribly full. My friend went up to an enclosed window box, like at a movie theater. Instead of tickets, he walked away with pot. Good idea. Except I was already paranoid and full of angst. I (stupidly) stuck to a beer. I began to slowly realize that everyone in the cafe was small. Like, really small. There were little people all around. It was like the plane ride from hell had dropped me right down the rabbit hole.
Ah Amsterdam. Nothing quite compares.
We boarded our next flight, bound for London. It had been two days since I had left my boarding school. Still not home. I briefly wondered where my Christmas presents would end up. We arrived in London without a hitch. Our next flight was to Riyadh. This is as frustrating as the London/Amsterdam hop. You’re just so damn close. Argh. So we waited for our flight to board.
As the back rows began to get on the plane, I was called up to the boarding area.
“Um. I’m sorry, but it seems that your visa to get into the Kingdom will expire at midnight.” All I could think at this point was, “FUCK!” Really? All this work and I was going to be sent back to JFK? The little people? The South African athletes? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”
“Oh wait a second. If the plane is on-time and there are no delays, you should arrive in Riyadh at 11:45 p.m.”
Wow. And if there is a delay? I would have the honor of staying on the plane and heading right back to London. Cool. A fifteen minute window. I’m pumped.
We took off on-time, miraculously enough. In my mind, I flapped my wings to make us go faster. I was racing the clock. We made it into the Kingdom, my visa still good for ten minutes. We boarded the next flight, and I was home. I was back in the deserts of Dhaharan. Never thought I’d be so happy to feel the humidity and have the sand instantly crust up my contacts. HEAVEN!
My total travel time from the school to my house was four days.
In my bubble I don’t smoke anything. Sometimes I burn a smudge stick and the smell kind of reminds me of marijuana. That’s about as close as I get. If I had that whole experience to do over again I would have said “YES!” to the GRASS! “YES!” to the strange people offering drugs! I would have joined in the drinking songs at JFK!
And, I would have toasted my old homie, from that trip long ago, who told me his tales of debauchery in Amsterdam.
I may have lost my bags, but at least I didn’t end up with dysentery.