How to Torture a Traveler

Retching sounds echoed throughout the cabin. The man across the aisle reached for the plastic bag that had once contained his in-flight blanket.

No sir, you hold it in.

The man next to me groped for a sick bag in the seatback pocket.

Not you too! Why God? Why!?

I pulled my flannel shirt up over my head hoping to block out the smell I knew would trigger my own gag reflex.

This can’t be happening…

I used to love airports. I once wrote an essay about people watching in airports, guessing where everyone is going and where they’ve come from. There was just something about wandering around, looking at all the departure gates, like windows of possibilities. In the past I’ve selected flights based on the number of layovers: Chattanooga > Richmond > Chicago > Salt Lake City > San Diego. The people watching began to lose its appeal in Chicago… Even though I started to prefer more direct routes, I still didn’t mind wandering around an airport or two.

This trip broke me.

If you really want to torture someone, especially someone who loves even the traveling part of travel, make them fly from Cambodia to the U.S. via China Eastern. I haven’t been able to feel my toes since I left Siem Reap, and I haven’t really slept or had a proper meal since Tuesday. I know it might not sound like a long time, but I’m cold, hangry, sleep deprived, and in need of a proper rant, so let me break it down:

My flight to Siem Reap from Shanghai took about 4 hours, which normally wouldn’t seem so bad unless it was a red-eye flight that arrived in China at 3:30 a.m. … I shivered on a bench for two hours waiting for the transfer desk to open then proceeded to the sunniest spot in the airport where I defrosted for the duration of my eight-hour layover.

Thawing out in Shanghai.
Thawing out in Shanghai.

The last time I flew China Eastern over the Pacific I was sorely disappointed. There weren’t seatback screens (first-world probs, I know) and they played the same Chinese film over and over for 15 hours. The food smelt like something left out to die, which was enough to put me off even trying it. The only upside, even though I was on an aisle, the two seats next to me were empty so I just popped a few sleeping pills and had myself a 15-hour siesta.

To sum up, I didn’t have high hopes for this flight.
The turbulence started about 8 hours into the flight. I had just begun to drift off when the plane started jostling. We had experienced minor turbulence earlier in the flight, but nothing someone who’s traveled Cambodia by bus can’t handle. This was different. I could tell by the way my stomach kept rising into my throat that the plane was dropping then climbing in altitude.

I watched as the other passengers started reaching for receptacles. A few braved the bouncing to make a run for the toilet only to be yelled at by the flight attendants.

“Stay in your seat!” They shouted. I think. It was in Chinese…

Few listened.

Seated towards the very back of the plane I crossed my fingers they’d make it past me before succumbing to nausea. One woman rushed passed cradling the laminated safety flyer like a bowl.

The sound was unbearable. Gagging, coughing, moaning, all around me. Every time I noticed someone reach for a bag I hoped I wouldn’t be next. My stomach gurgled. I kept my eyes forward and thought of a happy place, anywhere but here. The men seated on either side of me couldn’t hold on.

I prepped my barf bag, just in case, and recounted everything I had eaten. Watermelon, fermented milk with flavoring (a very honest way of labeling yoghurt), a bite of funny tasting noodles, a bread roll. None of which I was particularly keen on encountering again.

After about an hour or two of being tousled in a tin can, the plane hit an air pocket. Loose articles flew into the air, a few people screamed, and I started crying. I clutched my pillow and wrapped the tissue-paper blanket tighter around me. I could feel my normally unshakeable confidence in air travel melting away. Alone, surrounded by strangers, listening to frantic announcements I couldn’t understand, this was not how I planned on going out.

I wanted to clap after the plane touched down in L.A. and could not get away from my fellow passengers fast enough.

After passing through immigration and customs I made my way to the ticketing counter determined to get an earlier flight to Orlando.

“Unfortunately we only have one flight a day, and it just left ten minutes ago.” The agent explained sympathetically.

I asked about hotels in the area, hoping the airline would offer to put me up for the night. They did not.

Turns out, you can’t check a bag until the day of your flight and if you can’t check your bag you can’t enter the actual airport. So I found a nice spot on the floor next to a working electrical socket and settled in for the next 22 hours. At least I did still have my checked bag because at some point in the night I pulled some clothes out of my bag to use as a makeshift blanket. I wasn’t alone either, other unfortunate travelers came and went, all of us huddled in the fetal position along the wall, trying to keep warm.

At 4 a.m. outsiders started arriving. I moved closer to the ticket counter and glared at everyone just now getting to the airport. I even over heard one lady comment to another, “Oh you’ve been here since four, make sure you get a good spot in line.”

I don’t think so, lady.

The amount of layers I had packed on made me look homeless. And I’m pretty sure my eyes were spinning in two different directions. Come at me, bro.

On the plus side, I didn’t have to pay for my checked bag and there wasn’t a line at security…

One more flight to go.

UPDATE: I have horrible travel luck, check out ‘How to Torture a Traveler: Part Two‘.

6 thoughts on “How to Torture a Traveler

  1. Oh my good, what an experience. Sometimes you are really unlucky with weather conditions and airlines (Chinese Airlines…). Good to see that you made it home in one piece. Hopefully, you’ll be able to enjoy airtravel oneday again 🙂


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