13 December 2011


Undercover Mexican Girl with little brother Coco
The winter holidays are the time of year we spend with our families. But for many people, it’s also the season of airplane travel. From the time I was born, throughout my early twenties, I traveled by airplane several times a year. It wasn’t any different than getting into a car, and I even enjoyed it – ascending into the sky and seeing the buildings and landscape turn to miniatures, surprise deluxe meals and dessert served right to my seat, the roller coaster feeling as we were touching down on the runway. When my brother and I were little, we even got to visit the captain’s cockpit and see all the levers and buttons.

Between 2008 and this year, I didn’t travel by plane at all. It wasn’t until April 2011 that I had to go on a plane again, for a work-related conference. And I was nervous about flying for the first time in my life. My flight from Austin to Los Angeles was bumpy. My muscles tensed up, my teeth clenched, and I gripped the armrests each time the plane took a little dip. I wanted to grab the arm of the guy next to me, but he was too absorbed in his laptop. Evidently, he was not afraid of dying on this flight.

The next time I had to fly, in November 2011, I was self-conscious about my recently developed phobia of flying. On the car ride to the airport, I was queasy and thought about having a few Bloody Marys for breakfast. But the flight was so uneventful, I felt silly having been so anxious. There’s nothing to it. Airplane travel is safe. You’re more likely to die in a car accident, or of heart disease.

The thing is, it’s not natural, being way up in the sky, with no easy way to get off. On my return flight this last time, from Chicago to Austin, I was extremely exhausted. I had spent two and a half days attending a very busy conference, and then several more days spending time with relatives I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. I fell sleep before the plane even took off, hoping not to wake up until the plane had safely landed.

Soon after we received our complimentary beverages, the lady next to me started talking to me. I tried to keep the conversation brief. I wanted to finish my Cran-Apple cocktail and fall back asleep. Still, she kept asking questions and telling me random things about herself. Are you from Austin? Here’s a picture of my adorable grandson! What do you do? I love music! I’m a music teacher. I raised six kids as a single mother. I love Austin! Do you have children?

Although I was beginning to enjoy the chat and was curious to know more about her, I was fixated on sleeping throughout the rest of the flight. I politely let her know I needed to catch up on rest, since I’d been awake since four in the morning. As soon as I felt myself starting to drift off, the captain announced we’d be ready to land. I stowed everything away, happy to know the flight was almost over.

Then it got darker outside, and the sky became thick with clouds. The energy in the airplane changed. The flight attendants looked preoccupied with something more beyond collecting napkins and plastic cups. The captain announced that “due to the weather,” traffic control instructed us to delay landing for thirty more minutes. He firmly reminded us to fasten our seat belts and stay seated. We’d be circling for a while. There were five or six planes ahead of us.

The plane shuddered, as if it were made of paper. The ceiling shook from side to side. The engines beneath roared against the fast winds. Then they’d stop, and we’d float like a little leaf in the sky, suddenly losing ground. Hail pummeled the plane like shards of broken glass. I felt as if nothing were holding us underneath. The woman next me, whose name I originally heard to be “Joy”, started to get nervous as well, even though she said she enjoyed airplane travel.

At first, she held on to my arm to make me feel better. I was hyperventilating a little, trying to take deep breaths. To distract ourselves from the turbulence, I started telling her stories about my great aunt’s youth in the mountains of Durango, Mexico, where she camped out underneath the stars, during a journey on horseback, and had been caught in a downpour. Suddenly, I began telling her all my greatest fears, doubts, and secrets. How I had rejected my childhood religion of Catholicism, but now felt a bit of security knowing my great aunt had sent me back to Austin with a bottle of holy water. She had told me so much about herself – I did not feel strange telling her so much about me.

When I was nearly to the point of tears, she took my hand, the same way my mother would when I was a little girl and we were about to land. Joy’s hand was cold and shaky, and warm and firm, all at the same time. She did not let go of my hand, even when a flash of rationality crossed my mind, and I wondered if it was all in my head – that I was simply overreacting, the captain had it all under control, bad weather happened all the time during landings, and I was being plain ridiculous.

Looking back, I’m not really sure if we were in any kind of real danger. But I did walk away with one realization – no matter how tired you are, you should never sleep your way through life. Wake up. You might make a new friend, learn something new, or simply be glad to see the sun.

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