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Essay: Sick and Commercial on a Boeing

A meditation on travel


Published in Swarthmore College's Review Spring 2016 Issue

I step out of the taxi by the curb at Philadelphia International Airport. I am slightly drowsy and stumble onto the asphalt before I pull myself upright and swing my blocky backpack over my shoulder. It says ODYSSEY in dull white letters on the back. It's fit to burst and starting to tear at the straps, as if it had been flayed in a previous life for an unthinkable crime. In fact it is just very old and, like me, a veteran of air travel.

I pay the cabbie a little extra, wish him well, and make for the door, careful not to trip on the jutting sidewalk. My shoulders sag beneath the biting weight of my baggage. It's 5:36 AM and I am embarking upon an ordeal to cross a continent and a big ocean for the...well, I'll go with the fifteenth time, in the knowledge that the number is probably far greater—and I'm also suffering from sinusitis. Outside a cold breeze blows and I tuck the scarf close to my chest as I slip through the sliding doors.

This is nothing but repetition to me. I like to joke that I flew before I could stand, let alone walk. I am a nomad of sorts, a traveller, atomized totally, the subject of Brian Evans' "I'm A Traveler", the one who has mastered the art of not drooling on oneself when sleeping on a red-eye; the one who has selectively pre-positioned a pair of headphones in a backpack so as to remove them fast; the one who has inhaled oxygen out of masks, and drunk more ginger ale with ice than would otherwise be recommended on a flight. This is the life I have thus far lived.

But apparently my check-in bag is overweight by about three pounds despite my best estimates. The agent at the counter patiently waits while I drop to my knees and rummage through my clothes and miscellanea, swapping heavy for light, bending a particular paperback (Hunter S. Thompson's The Rum Diary) to smush it into the cubic inch of space between my shirt and my shoe. She likely doesn't want to be here, and who could blame her? PHL is a brutalist structure, composed of concrete, a utilitarian fortress with a tad more sunlight in daytime. Overall it's one of the more horrible airports I have traversed. Right now there's no sun. It's still dark and only the white lights are shining from the fixtures above, highlighting the pallor of the concrete. By the time I zip up and lock up my luggage, I hope I've fixed the problem to spare further embarrassment—and I have. Luckily, there's a semblance of competence currently in me.


Oh, right. There's still security, damnit.

Some nights before I was set to fly, my mother called via FaceTime and suggested, in a familiar tone, that I should shave my stubble before I board the aircraft. She has told me to do this multiple times in the past. Now as a rule I like to shave before flights anyway—a little cleansing ritual of sorts before I'm strapped into a pressurized cabin at 35,000 feet without much recourse. Her fears, however, are rooted in the possible chance I'll be pulled over for questioning by the Department of Homeland Security because of my light bronze skin and burgeoning beard—the stereotypical bin Laden in a Patagonia poof jacket and Nike sweatpants and Zoff glasses (despite the fact that I am North-North Indian and not even Muslim and only found Zoff recently). As she and I have somewhat come to expect, here the appearance sadly sells more on a passing glance than any deep contemplation does. There's no real luxury of thinking in one of the most stressful and serious places to be found on the planet. Rudeness simmers here.

So while rightly detestable for a number of reasons, security checkpoints are nonetheless the digestive tracts of any airport and PHL is no exception to this physiology. Currently the lines aren't too long, the people generally grumpy but not overly outraged. I have seen corridors clogged with the international. I have engaged in an awkward standoffish staring contest with a soldier. I have slept for hours on a thin leather seat, covered in the crumbs of a delicious panini. I have seen a family dressed in playground pink struggling to remove all innocuous coins from their persons. In short I have seen and done a lot, and have spent a sizable portion of life milling through lines at security checkpoints. To my surprise, the infamously grueling process, from curb to gate, only took around forty minutes—making it one of the shorter ones.

It was uneventful. Like a motorized machine I perform the standing-still jumping jack, the optimum position to be bombarded with electromagnetic waves in these metal detectors. The guards swab me down with their censors and I'm through with my belongings, which aside from my overstuffed backpack include a Nikon D90 camera and a crumpled packet of Haribo. At the gate I am left to entertain myself by watching the bit-by-bit reddening sky. Past the blinking lights of the runway and the Delta-embossed fin of the Boeing 737, I think I see the Schuylkill twinkling in the distance. My skin is very dry and I start to feel the allergens defeating the DoTerra and Allegra tablets in my system. And the Mucinex.

Security checkpoints are the digestive tracts of any airport and PHL is no exception to this physiology

I remember the night before. My friend—whom I wouldn't see for many months—joked at length on many absurd hypotheticals in travel, like, what if I became a drug mule? I shut that down with a pelter of laughter. I'd already been detained once upon landing in Honshu and it wasn't a relaxing experience. (Worry not: It wasn't for illicit substances. Still, I wasn't keen on a repeat.) I was coming back in May of '15 and trying to use my ID of permanent residency (my 'Gaijin card') to pass through immigration, as I'd done in the past. I was instead rebuked and directed to a separate enclosed office where I assume they only take the criminal and the crazed. There was I, sweltering in stuffy spring heat, and they were trying to explain to me in their sharp Japanese that I wasn't going to get in...under normal circumstances. Luckily, I was an American, and Americans can enter Japan on an automatic visa for a period of ninety days. So I passed through eventually, pissed at the inexplicable revocation of my residency, but glad all the same...mostly I was just crabby and tired and would have killed to get into a bed—"Let me in already!" I wanted to yell. But all that isn't going to happen this time because I just avoid the hassle and head straight for the line labeled 'Foreign Passport Holders'. Now when I go home I am always a foreigner. It's official.

Just after we take off for Minneapolis I realize I feel like a flying pathogen. My nose is a babbling brook, my mouth is parched, my tongue dry. The flight attendant passes with Dasani but I'm too weak and too damn tired to reach out and ask politely for the bottled water. Saliva is coagulating behind my scalloped teeth and I want to sleep in spite of the roar of the engines.

The guy across the aisle from me is playing Sumoku in a handbook. (I thought Sudoku but upon closer inspection with a zoomed-in iPhone 5S camera I was mistaken.) The woman in the row behind him drinks Starbucks from a red cardboard cup adorned with a white snowflake. I cough frequently, as quietly as I can, and every time I do I smash my larynx with a short gust of air. In an effort at relaxation I try to pass the flight mostly dreaming about scenarios bizarre.

Surprisingly I remember quite a bit, and it only accentuates the overall discomfort and strangeness of this particular trip: I dreamt of Mario Kart but with a savage Mad Max: Fury Road twist; I dreamt that I partied for a week-long night in a space literally called 'The Space' with ice-creamy lights shining from a heavenly ceiling; I dreamt of blue milk; I dreamt of a man who claimed to own the only Mercedes-Benz in the entirety of Tajikistan; I dreamt of a Sufi who could only speak in adverbs and despite this disability he took it upon himself to narrate the Epic of Gilgamesh with the aid of the Muppets, who all the while engaged in a shadow play around us.

When I awake white is streaming beyond the edges of the wings of the plane. The Midwest is rolling beneath us. It is now that real worry begins to fester in me. Will we land on time? I only have a twenty-maybe-twenty-five minute window to rush from one Boeing to another, and I can't miss this flight to Tokyo, which would tarnish my immaculate desire to be obsessively punctual. More importantly I am not in the mood to miss anything. Would anything impede my second takeoff? A Canadian blizzard? A mechanical difficulty? It's hard to say because the unexpected, no matter how much I've planned on Expedia, is lurking any and everywhere.

Plus consider the literal physicality involved in this short sprint I must do. Even if my legs can still run after being reduced to fleshy twigs because of hours of un-stimulation in an airplane seat, I have no guarantee of reaching my destination. Sitting isn't a rigorous sport. It only tightens one's glueteus maximus on occasion. And when one is stuck in a confined, dusty-ish place for beyond reasonable amounts of time, just sitting makes one aware of one's real uncleanliness as a nifty bonus.

Traveling then makes me wholly uncomfortable—it forces me to confront the limitations I must encounter as a mobile organism stuck in one place...but that might just be my beleaguered mind talking itself into normalcy.

My voice is nasally because I haven't spoken for a long time. Sometimes I speak to myself, or at least I try to do it inconspicuously in this cramped compartment, but it sounds too weird and too loud. I try to contain a sneeze but it it comes in a sudden eruption that stops as soon as it starts, like a self-conscious anthropomorphic Vesuvius. I release a terse "ETCHU!" before I raise my arm but miss the glob that leaves my nose by less than a second. My snot-stained sleeves start to dry as we descend.

We land swiftly but the deplaning proves to be lengthy and I start to curl and uncurl my toes, frustrated. It takes almost twenty minutes to step off the plane. I want to shout "Move, ya sonuvabitches!" as I hurtle through the fuselage but I don't resort to absolute buffoonery. But I run once I squeeze myself out of the aisle and into MSP. I rush, like a madman, with a thudding back on my back, my center of gravity lopsided, every lazy fibre of my body devoted to simply not tripping and falling on my face. When I arrive at the gate, out of breath, I glimpse the Boeing 777 through the window and, in fleeting bliss, feel my heart settle in the security that I won't be stuck in a terminal for the beginning of Christmas Break.

Now when I go home I am always a foreigner. It's official.

I sink into my window seat with an audible slight sigh of relief. My nose is a tiny cannonball, my face feels laced with lead, the cavities of my skull are packed with mucus...a flashing concern of bronchitis crosses my mind, but I realize that's crazy, and chalk my situation up to a temporary case of strenuous dehydration. A coughing fit hits me again, and I wish for deliverance as I try to catch some more sleep before the second take-off. The washy images of my destination begin to color my thoughts—Fuji-san on the horizon with nuclear smokestacks belching steam in the foreground; Tokyo Bay shimmering like molten pewter; dollops of cumulus clouds blanketing the sky; scents of nigiri and soy sauce in konbini air; me standing by the baggage claim, waiting, all the while wondering about the next time I'll be in this predicament that's got a tight and loving hold on me...right, January 8th. Of course. It's when I fly back over the Pacific.

Written by Abhinav Tiku

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