White Knuckles In The Air

Friend and fellow victim of a career in Market Research Achala Srivatsa is back with a delighful piece on the joys (woes?) of air travel. Musings, coping mechanisms, call it what you may, but I promise that by the time you are done reading this piece, you will have relived your last (few) plane ride(s).   

Look out! Frantic Air Traveler Inside!

I am a nervous, you could say anxious flyer. I would not call it a phobia exactly but I find myself sweating quietly at takeoff, scrutinizing the cabin crew’s expressions and body language and clutching the hand of whoever is next to me during turbulence.

I envy that guy in front of me who pulls up his blanket and begins to snore gently the moment he straps himself in, that lady whose concentration on her book does not waver even a little as we battle through dense, angry clouds, the businessman who continues to frown at his balance sheet even as the plane rocks.

Since mine is a job that requires travel, I’ve had to bite the bullet and develop some coping mechanisms to ensure I don’t turn into a gibbering wreck by the time I land. Fortunately, the human race is a colorful one and I find that between our very own Bhai-Behen and the dour farmer from South Dakota, I am provided with enough entertainment, aggravation and amusement to take my mind off… oh my god, is that lightning? No, it’s some twit taking pictures in the aircraft.

Let me start with myself. I am no mean hand at dishing out irritation and amusement to those around me in a plane. The moment I am strapped in, I kick off my shoes and then crawl around on my knees the entire duration of the flight trying to find them.  When my tray of neatly wrapped AVML arrives, I consume everything on it, including the cling film, noticing with mild interest that the watermelon is a bit chewy. I spend 20 minutes getting the little sponge wraps around my earphones, tear them and sheepishly ask for more. Meanwhile, the 14 something old next to me rolls her eyes and deftly slips on hers. I manage to lose my blanket and pillow, demand blankets slightly petulantly and then discover I’d been sitting on them all the time.

At the slightest hint of turbulence, I clutch the hand of the person next to me (a bonus if it turns out to be a cute guy, not so much if it’s a large hirsute man with heavy gold chains around his neck). I babble about my life, my work, the events that led to my traveling that day. The moment the rockiness stops, I drop his/her hand and spend the rest of the flight squirming with embarrassment trying hard to remember exactly what I said to the man and whether I should expect a call from him soon.

So people pretty much cheer when I walk into the aircraft because it makes them feel supremely tremendously calm and competent. It’s a public service really.

But enough about myself. The one thing I’ve learned by flying is that all men LOVE that little hot towel that’s handed out. The man next to me will extravagantly and thoroughly scrub his face, neck, his ears, wring out the towel and proceed to wipe his arms up to his elbow. The women around me, meanwhile politely pat their hands with the towel.  As hard as I try not to get distracted by this, I find myself wondering every single time if: a) Men have discovered the link between hot water and hygiene just yesterday b) have taken a sacred vow to not clean their necks until they are seated in seat 45B next to me.

One of my most memorable moments and one that made me forget my fears completely was on a flight from New York to Minneapolis. I was seated next to two very pleasant gentlemen. As is my wont, I began to babble the moment we hit some turbulence, explained to the man next to me that I had a need to converse to get me out of panic mode. He asked me where I was from, to get the conversation going. He turned out to be a farmer from South Dakota on an annual pilgrimage to NYC to watch a Mets game. The whole conversation we had was about Hinduism (what is it about?), Christianity (only those who believe in the Lord our Saviour will go to Heaven) about my family and me – we’re not bad people really (Nope, it’s Hell for you heathens) and finally the Big Question (why don’t you convert?).

I was mildly amused by his assumption that a 2 hour flight could have me questioning my beliefs but a friend of mine had the last word when he wrote to me saying  – “ Well, think of it this way, Hell will be full of your friends while Heaven will most likely be full of farmers from South Dakota, so I think you’re better off”.

In that Baptist farmer’s defense, he really was not being offensive, he genuinely could not believe anyone would actually choose to follow a different faith. Ah well…

Swinging back to our own motherland, on my way back from Bangkok recently, I boarded the plane, settled in and then… the sweet, unmistakable sounds of two self-righteous Indians squabbling over nothing. It started slowly – a few splutters of “what, what is this, I say?” then slowly swelled to a crescendo of “How dare you I say? What you are doing? See Sir (to a startled fellow passenger minding his own business) he has just thrown my bag out of the overhead baggage hold… how he can do that?, “you mind your language” and then of course the sweetest, classical Indian high note “Do you know who I am”?

This question always reminds me of an Asterix comic  strip when a Roman soldier asks Asterix what the password is, to which he retorts “Why? Aren’t you in the know?” (The response from the Roman soldier is classic. Drawing himself up, he replies  “I should think I am. It’s Cogito Ergo Sum”)

But I digress. By this time, the Thai crew is standing around smirking and barely hiding their loathing for us as a race (“such a silly matter”) and I have never been more interested in my biography of Clarence Darrow.

Anyway, I think it’s safe to say that as long as people keep me amused while flying, I think I can keep my fears in check. Plus, I have a theory. I believe I am not alone in my fears.

While I may act out my fears, (okay, so banging on the cockpit door demanding that the captain sit next to me holding my hand was not the wisest thing in retrospect. To be fair, the police were very understanding) that businessman staring at his spreadsheet is most likely mentally reciting the 10 names of Arjuna feverishly as we fly through a storm and I did notice our bookworm toss back her third glass of red wine. So maybe there is a collective sigh of relief when we land and that typical scramble for the door is a way of us kissing the ground and saying  “let me out of this tin can”.




17 thoughts on “White Knuckles In The Air

  1. Ruchira

    Brilliant – Absolutely brilliant ! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Does Achala have a blog – I hope to god she does ! I am dying to read more gems from her !
    I spend all the air travel worrying about inhaling the same air as everyone else for the next 8 hrs or so – can you beat that !

  2. Rickie Khosla

    Thanks, Ruchira! Yep, a total joy to read Achala’s writing!
    Achala doesn’t have her own blog but you can find her essays here if you click the link “Why we have awesome guest bloggers” on the right hand column. Every single piece is a delight 🙂

  3. C. Suresh

    That’s a huge pity that she does not have a blog. Superlative writing. Btw, I always thought that women did not use the towel on their faces because they did not want to wipe away their makeup – Not so?

  4. Amit

    Why the hell have I never thought of writing something similar? I completely identified with the post because I start imagining the whole accident sequence with me flying out of the cockpit door the moment I enter an airplane. My wife laughs at me everytime I hold her hand in my sweaty hand while landing and taking off.
    Brilliant post. Made me feel very normal. 🙂

  5. Rachna Parmar

    Had a good time reading this one! I once sat next to a guy on a flight, who went chanting “Ram” naam every time we encountered turbulence.The first time he did so, I laughed loudly. He gave me a look of pure hatred that I tried to return :). Now, I understand the nutty behavior ;-). If you have my younger son for company, he will begin asking what happens if the wing falls off now or if the door flies out just when your plane is trembling like a leaf. Too much Air Crash Investigation, I guess :).

    1. Achala

      Hi Rachna, we all seem to have fears in one form or the other so I feel much better now:) MAny thanks for reading this post.

  6. Andrew

    Good stuff. I have similar experiences, particularly during take off and landing. Everyone else seems to feel pressure only in their ears; in my case it’s somewhat different. Every vein in my body feels like it’s about to burst, and I find myself shadily looking around for a doctorish face.

  7. Roshni

    So very funny!!! I remember the Asterisk comic segment and it is very apt in the same way to which Indians think the “Do you know who I am?” will make their listeners all shrivel up and slink away!!

  8. Achala

    Thank you for reading guys:) I think everyone has some anxiety about flying and it’s nice that people are writing in with their fears and experiences:)


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