Riding The Long White Cloud

The Monkey King Dances is a collection of columns written for two New Zealand newspapers – which don’t archive online – between August 2007 & July 2008. Columns are reprinted as originally published barring any serious grammatical errors. Pictures and links added for fun.

I had given up on air travel long before I came to New Zealand. It was shortly after I had surmised that I could leap – in a single bound – from a tall tree onto the roof of the house with just my trusty red cap. A few bacchanalian years and several bad relationships later, I realised there might be worse things than plummeting to your death.

And while I’m still reluctant to don the cape in public again, I have managed to harden my resolve when it comes to flying.

I was very nervous, however, before my first domestic flight to Auckland recently. Obviously, I am no stranger to modern transportation. How else could I have reached these fair shores of Hobbitville? I’ve only swam up the length of the Mighty Mississippi once and I’m certainly no Whale Rider. But the experience is still fairly new to me.

My maiden flight was only four years ago and each subsequent trip has been a 17-hour exercise in painful immobility and minimal stimulation. I believe some people call this meditation, or worse, soul-searching.

I opted to fly out of Christchurch for several reason. For one, my roommate and a friend offered to take me, which meant a couple wonderful hours of bonding. Nothing seals a friendship like trying to sniff out whose digestive track is malfunctioning.

With gas prices the way they are, it might have been cheaper to simply fly out of Timaru. Stingy as I am there are a few places I will not be fooled by a “good deals” or “specials”: airports, racetracks and Chinese restaurants. I had also read a story of Timaru Airports recent problems and did not want to be foolish enough to risk becoming a news item myself.

Finally, I chose Christchurch because I had absolutely no desire to sit next to someone who would be the all-in-one package of seatmate/pilot/stewardess/baggage handler/shrink. A contraption that looks as if I could break if I just yelled “pencil pusher” loud enough is scary. Those little planes are nothing but trouble.

I’m sure I’ll have to squeeze into one some day but it certainly won’t be in New Zealand. Illogical as it sounds, I would be very upset if I died in one of those tiny dragonflies in a country that offered Zorb rides and soap operas like Shortland Street.

If I am to go down in such pathetic little zipper, I’d much rather prefer it happen while I’m hunting rabid orangutans in Mozambique with an Eskimo named Monte Carlos. Any other situation is just too banal and simply won’t do. And on that point, I’m standing my ground.

But I do I find New Zealand airports fascinating. Even the largest ones seem very calm and quiet, no matter how many people are moving inside.

Because I rarely see so many Kiwis packed into one place, I’m always expecting to walk past one of the four national personalities I can actually recognise and properly catalog.

In my earnest excitement, I had actually expected to see Nikki Watson, Richie McCaw, Paul Holmes, and Tami Iti skipping hand-in-hand through Gate 4 like they were Off to see the Wizard by following the yellow brick road. I saw none of them, which makes me wonder if perhaps they were at Gate 5 heading to Wellington.

What was at the airport, like all the others, was that wonderful shop that sells every imaginable New Zealand-inspired item. The shop is lined with patterned wool, filled with kiwi birds and offers hundreds of authentic Maori artifacts, including the cutest little dolls you’ve ever laid eyes on. The fact that I’ve seen none of these items in any household in the dozen cities I’ve visited during my 10 months here is … well… it’s an absolute mystery, to say the least.

Stepping out of car lot, my friend handed me two white pills and said, “Here, you’ll need these.” What was strange about that moment was not my friend’s wryly smile, but that feeling of déjà vu. I rolled the experience around in my tongue and swallowed hard when I remembered where I had come across the tablets before.

Before she heads off for a flight, My Beloved Companion has to take a few of the pills and a few drinks to put her in such in such a state that she can sit passively should Armageddon’s trumpets begin to shriek.

What surprised me about the ingestion of anti-depressants and relaxants was how matter-of-factly it was approached. It was as if it was as come-place as packing a toothbrush. Sitting at the airport bar, I began to feel panicky and wondered what could be so bad about domestic air travel that everyone feels the need to get high.

It couldn’t have been the security. I’m used to Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security. Passing through the gantlet of the guards and their tools, I always feel as if I’ve done something wrong.

I braced for the quick strip as I stood in line for the metal detector. But they just waved me though. It was only after boarding the plan that I remembered my carry-on bag alone would have been grounds for a cavity search back home. I had two lighters, a cigar, and a pair of scissor in that bag. And I didn’t even have to take off my shoes.

Domestic flights are unique, particularly in New Zealand, I think.

Because of the size of the country, airplanes and air travel seems to be just a gloried and quicker version of taking the bus. Just like buses, a whole clydescope of people cram into a single space. Just like a bus, there’s always a few sharp turns and pot holes.

Taking my seat, I still couldn’t understand why everyone I knew, even the seemingly toughies, doped up before a flight. I don’t mind a few bumps here and there. It’s cheaper than day at the amusement park. A little turbulence, a quick bank to the left, these aren’t a big deal.

Then, my answer came up the aisle and repeated itself several more times. Just like the bus with its clydescope of people, this plane was going to be filled with something that rarely accompanied me on my 17-hour flights. Babies. Of various ages. Crying, giggling, gurgle, babies.

I only enjoy the company of my own kids, which is to say that I don’t like children at all. And it was then that I realised the pills and alcohol weren’t to calm the flying nerves.

The plane jolted off the run way, and as we began to drift over clouds that looked like the world’s plushiest pillows, I slowly searched for a window latch, or even a crack, that I could open wide. I was still trying to figure out a way to stuff a few of the kids into the overhead compartments without being noticed, when the stewardess came back.

“Drink, sir?”

“Two please.”

She handed me more medicine and asked if I wanted headphones.

“Sure,” I said. “What station can I find ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow?’”

Timaru Herald, April 2008

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