In Transit

Following on from joni’s top 5 cities, here’s a related subject about experiences when travelling.

Have you had any unusual experiences while travelling?

Here’s a recent one from me…

There’s something odd about airports.  They’re one of the few places where people actually arrive purely to depart, or depart in order to arrive somewhere else. Transitory places where the only permanent fixtures are the luxury designer shops selling branded watches and clothing with very few customers, and over-priced cafes and bars touting mediocre food at exorbitant prices for desperate travelers that seek to while away the hours in a ten dollar beer.

The shopkeepers and security staff quietly acknowledge each other amidst a sea of ever-changing faces. People from all walks of life, from every corner of the Earth, all going someplace else. Each sharing the same goal; getting the hell out of the airport as fast as possible.

Airports, I have discovered, bring out the worst and the best in people. You’ll regularly witness people trying to push in, or jump queues, jostle for position in some pseudo orderly fashion, while the ground staff attempt to maintain some sense of order and enjoyment about the whole travelling experience. It’s a façade which is hard to maintain, when the reality is, it’s a nightmare. Particularly when flying budget.

It was mid-February, 2009, when I found myself at Hanoi airport, waiting to catch a connecting flight to Danang which is 30kms from the peaceful seaside town of Hoi An in Vietnam.

After going through the usual check-in process, we arrived at the departure gate only to find that the place was crowded with fellow travelers with almost every seat taken and basically standing room only. Victor made a beeline for the pastry shop while I zeroed in on one of the last remaining vacant seats. As anyone whose traveled in Asia will attest, there’s the quick and the dead. Within seconds I found myself firmly placed in the seat, surrounded with my hand luggage and quietly proud of my tactical accomplishment.

It wasn’t long before I realised that I was sitting back to back with an elderly gentleman who happened to be in a wheelchair. He had members of his immediate family standing close by, ensuring, I had guessed, that he was going to be comfortable for the flight. Unsurprisingly, the remaining passengers in the terminal were mostly of Vietnamese appearance with a few other Westerners thrown in.

I was just beginning to settle in to the first few chapters of a Stephanie Plum book, when someone nearby broke into a coughing fit.  Not that there’s anything unusual about coughing at airports. You hear it all the time. So I persevered with my book, albeit with the ever foreboding presence of “the cougher.”

There’s something unmistakable about the smell of vomit. 

It permeates your own nasal cavity and works its way down to your stomach and gradually induces the same inclination to follow suit. As the smell of vomit grew stronger I casually looked over my shoulder to see that the guy in the wheelchair was now not just coughing profusely but was spewing mass amounts of vomit into a plastic bag being held to his mouth by one of his female companions.

Whatever he had “was it contagious?” Was the first thought to enter my mind. Of course, I also thought “poor guy, what a state to be in,”  but almost immediately my thoughts returned to self-preservation. “He shouldn’t be traveling in this condition” I said to no one in particular, while simultaneously thinking “Jesus Christ, this is fucking disgusting.”

Almost immediately I found myself in one of those rare “should I stay or should I go” predicaments.  By now, the guy was attracting a great deal of attention and was practically dying on the spot. Coughing and vomiting uncontrollably. Honestly, I’ve never seen so much spew. By now, I was beginning to feel overcome with nausea myself. “I don’t want to die” I thought. “I’ve got a holiday to go on.”

But then how would it look if I were to casually collect my things and walk to the other end of the terminal?  Would people look at me with disdain? “There goes the evil westerner, they’d think collectively, unsympathetic to that poor man’s plight.”

By this time a small crowd was gathering, I glanced around again and a young Vietnamese man who spoke very good English was offering up a bottle of water. I imagined, hoped, that he was a doctor. Meanwhile the vomiting continued. It was relentless. There had to be a good two litres of puke in the bag by now, I figured, judging by the bulging bag, and the stench that continued to fill the air. 

I realised that I just couldn’t take it any longer and casually collected my things and vacated my seat, trying as far as possible to remove myself from the scene quietly and discretely.

“What kind of man am I?” I thought to myself as I tiptoed away from the disaster that was unfolding beside me. As I reached the other side of the terminal I looked back to see that the wheelchair guy was now lying flat out on the floor, shirtless, with what looked like medical personnel trying to assist him.

“Thank God” I thought. Wondering whether I was more relieved for him or me, managing to escape the drama of it all.

Our plane boarded while the wheelchair guy was still lying flat out on the floor.

I wondered how he was doing as took my window seat on the Vietnam Airlines 737. As we began to taxi our way to the run way I glanced back towards the building and the backlit sign “Terminal” in large yellow letters lit the night sky.  

“What language is that?” the guy sitting next to me asked. “Is it Indonesian?”  Following the safety announcement.

“I think it might be Vietnamese” I replied politely.

“Well it sounds a helluva lot more like Indonesian to me” he said categorically.  Judging by the way he was dressed and his ocker accent. I had quickly established that this guy must be from Queensland.

“Are you from Queensland?” I asked, trying to change the subject.

“Yeah mate, an’ I’ve been to Bali heaps of times, an’ that definitely sounds like Indonesian to me. You don’t know what you’re goin’ an about.”

“I don’t know what I’m talking about?”  I gasped, taken aback, while resisting the urge to just attack this fat sweaty bastard on his dress sense alone.

“Look” I said. “We’re in Vietnam. This is a Vietnamese Airline’s plane. The crew are Vietnamese, half the fucking passengers are Vietnamese, what on Earth makes you think they’re speaking Indonesian? If you don’t believe me why don’t you just go ahead and ask the cabin crew.” 

And so he did.  He summoned an attractive young stewardess and then disappointed that he didn’t get the response he anticipated he turned to me and said “well I reckon it still sounds like Indonesian to me. Bali’s a top spot. You been there before?”

I pretended not to hear, ordered a carlsberg while slipping on my Ipod headphones, closed my eyes and thought “thank Christ it’s only a one hour flight”.




14 Responses

  1. Reb, wow
    wish i was there.

    That guy on the plane . That hit home and it sounds like you held back very well. Glad to see you made it and next time im sure you wont misplace the luggage with all our presents in it.

  2. You bloody snob, sreb!

    Why didn’t you just say – “Howya goin’ mate, I’m from Tassie…”

    …but no you just had to show your bloody, southern superiority…dintcha! All the bloke said was it “sounded” like Indonesian…they own half the friggin’ Pacific anyway…how easy to get it wrong?

    What a f***in’ smartarse you’ve turned out to be…just ’cause you’ve been to bloody VN!

    Well lucky you, some of us could have gone for free for a whole year – but they stopped the special trips!

    PS Nice to have you home and safe, ol’ mate!

  3. “What a f***in’ smartarse you’ve turned out to be…”

    LOL! Sorry, I can’t help it. It just seems to come naturally…


  4. Reb, just for your information, Queenslanders can’t help taking the piss. It’s clear your fellow passenger ‘saw you coming’, decided you would be an easy mark, donned the ocker outfit as part of the joke, and then – well the rest is history.

    I am informed he recommended a good tailor in Hoi An who sold you a pair of white shoes to complement the suit.

    At least, that’s the story as the ‘fat sweaty bastard’ tells it. Reckons he renewed his membership in the mile high club with that ‘attractive young stewardess’ as well.

  5. I get this feeling this is bash Queensland week Reb…something obviously irked you here…as for the dopey & stubborn passenger, I doubt you’d have got the same response from Kevin Rudd or Wayne Swan…both Qlders remember?…:)


  6. ‘… the only permanent fixtures are the luxury designer shops selling branded watches and clothing with very few customers …’

    Plus shops selling luggage. I mean I really don’t get that. Who TF decides to buy a new suitcase after they get to the airport? Do they carry everything in green shopping bags in the hope of getting a Hermes bargain or what?

    At least the wheelchair guy was considerate enough to get sick BEFORE he got on the plane.

  7. LOL

  8. Hmmm, after writing a bit it occurs to me that a lot of trips have unusual elements. This post is mostly about the process of air travel.

    I (used to) fly Sydney – LA (and then on to the US East Coast) for work a couple of times a year. The whole trip can take 30+ hours to get to your ultimate destination. Sydney-LA is one of the longest non-stop flights in the world (until recently when new aircraft came into service with extended range). By the time you get there you just want to get off the flippin’ plane – even if you’ve been in Business Class. And then you hit LA, one of the, er, less functional airports in the world…

    IIRC once while we were in the air half of San Diego’s bush surrounds caught fire and took out the power station. It turns out that air traffic control for the whole region between San Diego and LA is done from San Diego, so we couldn’t land in LA and were diverted to Reno, Nevada. We landed and it was stinking hot and they couldn’t do much about the temperature inside. After a few minutes they informed us that because it wasn’t an international airport they had no customs facilities so we couldn’t leave the plane. Meanwhile food had basically run out, water was getting low, the toilets weren’t in the most attractive condition – and no customs meant no supplies could be loaded either. We sat their for almost six hours before we got the all clear to fly back to LA.

    Another time they were readying the plane for departure from Sydney when there was a bit of a delay with ground staff on board. After a while the pilot announced there was a fault with the cabin lights – if we turned them off, we couldn’t turn them on again, and regulations require them on for landing. They’d decided to depart anyway and leave them on all night and the passengers could use the eyemasks to sleep. Shortly afterwards there was a bit of a mild commotion up ahead in First Class with a passenger or two repeatedly standing up and sitting down again, flight attendants trying to placate them, and some animated discussion. Turns out the passengers were a well-known Aussie actor flying with his partner and kid. This went on for something close to half an hour before the pilot announced that a group of passengers was leaving the plane. Another half an hour passed as they removed the passengers’ baggage. Then we had to get a new takeoff slot which took another 20 minutes or so. By the time we got to LA practically everyone had missed their connections and the airport was fuller than it would have been so we were all quite peeved (language edited for propriety). They’d booked us on new connections but many of us (myself included) had already missed those! I eventually had to wait in the lounge (thank goodness for Business Class – and showers in the lounge) for about 7 hours to get my new flight. After about an hour the actor & his family turned up in the lounge. They apparently had spat the dummy about the cabin lights and transferred themselves to the later flight. Lot of dirty looks in the lounge because they screwed up hundreds of people’s travel plans.

    I once made it from the East Coast to the lounge in LA on an earlier flight awaiting the connection to Sydney. I was wandering around when Ozzy & Sharon Osbourne wandered in, Ozzy in a long trenchcoat looking a bit dazed and confused (which doesn’t seem that unusual). One of my colleagues arrived in the lounge at that moment from a later flight and almost bowled Ozzy over without seeing him. He came over to where I was sitting and it took a couple of discreet and cryptic comments from me before he cottoned on.

    I once flew to Hawaii on QANTAS points, which means a bit of an unusual itinerary because there are no seats on the direct flights. We went via Nadi codeshare with Air Pacific, and on the way back we landed at “Christmas Island” – not the one off the West Coast, the one in the Pacific (Kiritimati). It’s very low and flat, mostly coconut palms, sand and fishing – and not somewhere most people will ever go. A couple of guys got out with fishing rods and went to the hut behind the wire fence that served as immigration and customs. Apparently the plane used to stop there once a week taking supplies and a small number of tourists. We weren’t allowed to leave the plane so all I have is a few photos out the front door. We reckon they could have done a roaring trade in small souvenirs and passport stamps if they could figure out how to sell them to the passengers on board. Apparently flights there are suspended at the moment until they fix the runway…

    Then there was the time in Hawaii when the two people behind us in the security queue had three cats, which almost proved one too many when they had to be out of their cages during the security scan 😉

    The time we landed in San Francisco and they’d had a strike or a stuff-up and the luggage carousel area was almost entirely covered in a massive sea of luggage with bemused and bedraggled travelers trawling for theirs…

    Norway during the summer when it normally rains most of the time. That summer there was an awful lot of sun – and on a flight the pilot decided to fly (relatively) low instead of 30,000+ feet – beautiful country 🙂

    Another time in San Francisco after 9/11. Being Aussie, and being ill and feeling the cold more than most I had a couple more layers of clothing on than the locals. I also had a shaved head. Strangely enough I was the one they asked to try out the new air-sniffing explosives detector machine…

    Trying to book a sequence of 7 trains from Italy to Norway – in Italy. Queued for almost three hours. The clerk then asked what train numbers we wanted. We didn’t know. He told us to go to a different queue to find out. Queueing for a couple of hours before we could find out. Back to the first queue for another few hours. Even then they couldn’t persuade their booking system to book one. Arriving in Berlin and booking the missing leg in under three minutes…

    A Swiss train. My traveling companion spoke French & German, me only a little German. My surname is Italian. An old guy and another passenger strike up a conversation – he speaks Italian, the passenger translates to German, my companion to English – and then back again. The old guy can’t understand why I’m not living in Italy with a name like that 😉

    Traveling from the East Coast to LA, sitting on the plane waiting to depart and suddenly a bunch of Aussie accents are heard. The Matildas (Australian female soccer team) are heading down the aisle in uniform. The LA-Sydney flight is canceled due to plane malfunction. We all head to the connections desk – I get sent back via Brisbane, and the Matildas’ team manager fronts up to the desk wanting about 25 seats to Sydney please…

  9. Reb,

    Your description brings back so many bad memories of flying I don’t know where to begin. Suffice to say, perhaps the most annoying aspect of flying is boarding. You all sit there like a flock of sheep waiting for your group to be called and when it is we all scramble to be first in line but there is just one problem, there really is no line! This quasi mob scene unfolds and you have two choices. Stand in what is supposed to be the line or pull the old “I don’t see the line” and attempt to “merge” into it. You could be standing there for 10 minutes watching folks from later boarding groups pulling the “merging” tactic if you attempt to play by the rules so inevitably, after watching this scene for 5 minutes or so, the frustration is too much and you join the herd of mergers. What and risk having no overhead space! Hell, my boarding group was called 10 minutes ago you think! Except when you finally do get the nerve to merge, the ticketing agent has finally decided to wake up to the scene she has undoubtedly witnessed a million times before and calls you out? With scorn, former “mergers” have somehow slipped in behind you and have joined your former category, the “play by the rules group”, and now all are looking at you with disdain. You then not only find there is no overhead left when you eventually do manage to board after being sent to the end of the “quasi line” that is now being enforced but those on the plane display their animosity in one glance after another throughout the flight, including former “mergers” who managed to go undetected!

  10. A ‘merger’ sounds so much nicer than a queue jumper!

  11. Kittylitter:

    “A ‘merger’ sounds so much nicer than a queue jumper!”

    Maybe that should be our new term for “asylum seekers?”

    After all, John Howard wanted them to “assimilate” rather than propogate the idea of multiculturalism, so maybe a big sign at Christmas Island “Welcome Mergers” might do the trick

  12. “Welcome Mergers”

    I like it reb, Australians already know to ‘Give Way To Mergers’ through our traffic laws – how could it not work?

  13. A few more, seeing I couldn’t sleep much last night and not much else in the way of travel experiences is being reported 😉

    Flying from Sydney to California on Dec 31 when they called for volunteers to stay until tomorrow because the flight was overbooked. We took it – and headed out the next morning to the Federation Centenary parade in Sydney. Later we found out we were in the crowd shot on the front page of the SMH.

    Driving on the freeway to Sydney (mid-90’s?) noticing a bushfire burning off to the right. Just then the radio announced the freeway was closed between two particular points – and I realised I was still between them. I must have been one of the last cars through before they closed it. The queue was already forming at the police roadblock in the other direction – some people were there for days before it was re-opened.

    Returning from dropping my partner off at a retreat in a mostly natural area in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’d decided it wasn’t worth getting my camera bag for a short run 😦 On the way I saw a bobcat by the side of the trail, and watched it hunt small rodents for 20 minutes before hikers disturbed it. That was the only time I ever saw one. Another trip to a different location on another day and I saw a pure white (albino?) deer…without my camera. You’d think I’d learn.

    Attending the Gilroy Garlic Festival along with thousands of other people – complete with garlic ice-cream. I’m not a big garlic fan, but the ice-cream was not bad.

    A business trip to the US several years (and several business trips) after I gave up my green card. This time they decided to check on their computers and claimed the green card process hadn’t been properly finalized, despite me writing to the consulate to formally give it up. Missed my connection, and after fussing for a while they asked me to bring the consulate’s reply letter on the next trip – something like 6 years later? Makes them seem really incompetent…and paranoid.

    Driving in Baja, Mexico. Mostly amazing Sonoran desert scenery for 1500km. Security checkpoints manned by soldiers with machine guns every couple of hundred k’s – the guide books tell you not to mess with these guys. At one they asked to look in the boot, and after a perfunctory glance one of the soldiers gestured to my wife to get ready to take a photo. He took his beret off and put it on my head and told me in very broken English to salute and look stern and serious! It was so unexpected could barely stop laughing long enough for a snap.

    After spending a couple of weeks in the Sonoma Desert and arid parts of New Mexico, returning home to “civilisation” in San Francisco and finding it a real shock – “re-entry shock”.

    Speaking of re-entry shock, have you heard how broad (and often very) ocker many Aussie accents are when you’ve been overseas for a year or three? It’s strange to temporarily find it almost grating!

    And speaking of culture shock, traveling on a coach in Fiji where they played a loud, violent, somewhat raunchy Hollywood movie the whole way. Goodness knows what the locals thought of it – we would have preferred to have avoided it ourselves.

    After a couple of years in California, traveling to Virginia and being stunned by smoking in restaurants – once it’s banned, you forget that things could be so much worse. I only vaguely remember flying as a child when you could smoke on airplanes…the concept seems weird now.

    And another type of shock – sleeping in a hotel by the beach on Kauai, Hawaii only to wake up and realise that the “train” noise was a magnitude 6.7 earthquake. Fortunately no major problems – but the international airport on Oahu apparently had to close for several hours because the backup power generation wasn’t big enough to power all of the security equipment!

    Hiking out to the lava on the Big Island, Hawaii at dusk and being a bit disappointed that there wasn’t much going on. After the majority of people left I stayed on with a few others wandering around until an amazing triple set of lava flows started on the plateau, waterfalling over the edge and creating a huge mesmerising slow-moving river of lava on the ledge below. I hung around with a couple of locals after everyone else had left – they said it was an unusually good show, and hung back with me on the return journey to make sure I made it as I was getting really fatigued. Just awesome – land creation in progress.

    Returning from the US (LA-Sydney) and noticing after we boarded that I was surrounded by people hunched over these new-fangled Blackberrys. They were Bush administration staff flying over to support the Free Trade Agreement negotiations. Didn’t bother starting a conversation on how they were going to screw us…

    Surely other people have had interesting or unusual travel experiences too?

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