Prepare for Landing
Tyler: lover of surf, snow and tubs of margarine I was 27 and had just left my life in London behind to travel the globe in a clockwise direction, a tell-tale requirement of the discounted round-the-world plane ticket I was in hot possession of. These tickets were popular with the young, heedless, jobless, directionless and childless; I was all these lesses and more, in particular - penniless.
At about the three-quarter mark of my great world tour, I had completely run out of money (‘savings’ would have been a gross exaggeration) but thankfully had made it as far as Edmonton, Canada, where my parents were living.
It was the middle of winter there, bitterly cold – a chilling minus 10 degrees outside. My parents didn’t trust me to drive their cars along the icy snow-covered roads so for two months I was holed up inside, kept company by our family pets, two beloved yellow Labradors - Mitchell and Tyler.
A few years earlier, the dogs had made a tremendous journey in a large wooden crate, flying in the underbelly of numerous planes to join my parents here (Palmerston North > Wellington > Auckland > Honolulu > Vancouver > Calgary > Edmonton). We were all very relieved when they turned up alive.
I was happy to spend two months this way: slumped on the couch, snuggling with my old furry pals as we waited for our mum to get home and feed us.
After Edmonton, I was set to fly Calgary > Los Angeles > Auckland and finally to Sydney where I would begin my new future as a responsible tax-paying adult in a deliciously warm and sunny place. Toodles to you England, the land of the salty microwave meals from Tesco, and hellooo Australia, with your healthy salads and green juices.
A round-the-world plane trip is an exhilarating ticket to hold but not without its pressures. If you fail to show up for your flight, which tends to be a hazard of being young, directionless and childless, the subsequent flights in your booking are also cancelled and the whole ticket becomes void. Not usually one for flippancies such as punctuality, I started to fret about missing a flight and losing my chance to win at a new life.
The stress of being on time for my flight soon spilled over into a fear of losing my luggage in transit. Every single item I owned was packed up into just one suitcase, and I, being materialistic and also quite poor, felt very attached to it. Plus, Tom and I had recently lost a black suitcase on a flight to Mumbai. At the airport, we reported it missing and were led outside to a large shed with a rusty roller door, which opened to reveal roughly 90 million black dusty suitcases stacked on top of each other. To safeguard against this happening again, I purchased an oversized expandable bubble gum pink suitcase. While it was an embarrassing shade of pink for someone my age, I wasn’t prepared to take any chances.
Eventually, sated up on family love and Canadian junk food, with my bank balance replenished with savings (well, obviously these weren’t my own savings but those of my parents who were left with little choice), I was ready to embark on the final legs of my journey.
Despite all my nerves, I was still only just on time when we arrived at the airport for my evening flight. As I made my way through the security, a guard became incredibly suspicious of the bloated make-up bag I’d brought in my carry on and spent a very long time dissecting each mascara and lip gloss, breathing her hot breathy breath, the yucky air from the very pit of her insides, all over my tools, and it took me quite a while to repack them into my small bag.
At last, I was weaving my way through the airport to my gate, showing my boarding pass to a factory line of three separate attendants. I took my seat feeling comforted knowing my worldly possessions were securely stacked a few feet beneath me, a pink whale of a bag amongst a sea of black suitcases.
It was a short flight so I hadn’t bothered to bring anything to read and it was proving hard to gauge time passing. It felt like an eternity that we had been flying. I leafed through the flight magazine and read a fascinating article about Innuit children who travelled great distances through snow swept plains to attend school and wouldn’t see their parents for years. That seemed an immense pilgrimage, almost as long as this one-hour flight to Calgary seemed to be taking.
It was also growing dark outside. Like, alarmingly dark. What was going on?
I didn’t want to appear foolish, so I carefully asked my neighbour, “Excuse me, where are you off to today?” “Oeh? Home.” (Canadians start all their sentences with Oeh. I think it’s short for their actual favourite phrase ‘oehkily doehkily’). I continued, “And where would home be?” “Oeh, Winnipeg." My eyes widened. Winniwho? Still I said nothing and quietly pulled out the inflight magazine to quickly flip to the world map at the back. I could see Edmonton down to Calgary, it was a mere finger space away. I traced my finger down the vast land mass of the North Americas. I could not see this Winnipeg place anywhere.
I looked again even more intently, and there, way over on the far side of that enormous map of Canada was Winnipeg.
If you have ever hyperventilated at 35,000 feet you will know that the sounds of the cabin become very closed in, your fingers lose sensation and the top of your head will tingle as though it’s actually going to take off. I hit the call button, now my own personal panic button, to summon the air hostess. When she arrived, I squeaked out, “I think I might be on the wrong flight”. "Oeh, I very much doubt that honey,” and I handed over my boarding stub to her. “Oehkily doehkily, I can see right here you are in seat 36D, so nothing to worry about!” To which I replied hoarsely, “Yes, right seat - wrong flight.”
When we eventually touched down at the James Armstrong Richardson airport, an airport I had never heard of in a town I never thought I would visit, it was close to 1am and minus 20 outside. Inside I was greeted by airline staff who listened incredulously, through my sobs, to my tale of derailment. My whole ticket getting cancelled. My new life waiting. A lone pink suitcase going around interminably on the luggage carousel at Calgary airport. Thankfully they assured me they would take care of everything and all I needed to do was to come back to the same counter at 6am. In the meantime, I was sent off to stay in a nearby motel.
It’s funny, just the week before my parents and I had marvelled at the preposterous story of a 9 year old boy who made his way from Seattle to Texas, with a plane change, without a ticket or boarding pass. And yet here I was. 27 years old, blindly flown into the navel of Canadian nothingness. Even our Labradors, wanting of nothing but wet meat and a head pat, had flown more successfully than I had.
The motel I was put up in was a frightful dingy truckers’ stop and like many places in Canada it looked exactly like how a small town motel in America might have looked 40 years ago. Without any luggage there was no point in going to my room, so I made my way to the bar. The place stunk of cigarettes, sour bourbon and pancake batter. It had yellowing patterned wallpaper, honey-stained high varnish wood panels, dinky, fraying doily lace curtains, colourful festoon lights strung everywhere and a large TV on the sport channel. About ten enormous heavy-set thick-necked men with red lumberjack shirts and goatees sat there, fixated on the TV screen and (to my relief) completely ignored me. Together, we sat up drinking and watching ice hockey until the early morning, when it was time for me to go back to the airport.
Only 15 hours behind original schedule, I was back on track, sitting on a plane with a set of new tickets, flying to meet my forsaken suitcase at LAX.
I woke towards the end of that flight, groggy and bleary-eyed, only to discover my head was nestled comfortably in the warm crutch of the guy sitting next to me, where apparently I had lain for the last 5 hours. I had heard of women sleeping with strangers before but never sleeping on a stranger. My neighbour was friendly, about the same age as me and not bad looking, dark and tall, possibly someone I might even have considered sleeping with had we met in more romantic circumstances. He had carefully tried not to disturb me as he sipped his morning coffee and read his notes for the important meeting he was on his way to.
When we parted ways, we shared a hug. It was the very least I could do, and he in turn handed me his business card.
Later, I looked at his card and thought fondly of him. I imagined him at his meeting, standing up at the front of the room as his clients looked on, glancing at my drool patch of bourbon and diet coke and some sticky pink cherry lip balm stuck on the inside thigh of his suit pants.