There comes a critical moment as I find my seat on any long haul flight which I call Meeting My New Temporary Best Friend. I size this person up quickly, because if I’m travelling alone, then for the next 12-24 hours they must tick many boxes. My preferred criteria: 1) Friendly but not overbearing. 2) Physically fit, in case of emergency. 3) Healthy – I don’t want to catch anything. 4) Respectful of personal space. 5) Willing to have bones broken in a vice grip during turbulence. 6) Sense of humour added advantage.
On the 27th December 2012, as I left London for a two month Asian adventure, I struck in-flight gold; my jet plane buddy Sam fitted the description perfectly and made what was to be a dreadful Kuwait Airways experience distinctly more tolerable.
No journey is without obstacles, and when you travel it’s far better to embrace adversity, roll with the logistical punches, resist nothing and accept change; a philosophy which needed speedy adoption when I arrived in Kuwait expecting a short connection and found myself stuck there for 12 hours without any local currency or language. Bleary eyed and dehydrated, I dived into the chaos of an angry crowd at the “information” desk where it took an army of incompetent airport workers three hours to inform me of nothing more than Kuwait is a dry state (imagine my horror), I might need a visa to enter even for 12 hours and that process is guaranteed to be lengthy and confusing, I might be given a hotel room, I might have to collect my baggage (or more likely it will continue on to the wrong destination), the onward flight might also stop in Malaysia en route, the flight number might change and there is no predictable departure or arrival date/time. As our passports disappeared into the hands of a man of questionable honour, the angry crowd’s temper was fuelled further, and I contemplated my lack of appropriate attire for an unexpected overnight stay in this Middle Eastern mayhem. The situation was far from ideal but I felt alive, being on the road again, having the Virgo control freak beaten out of me by change and disruption.
And so I spent a sleepless night in a soul-less, sickly green hotel room, listening to my neighbour blasting the Arabic Top Ten Countdown through paper mâché walls, with just a cigarette butt to keep me company, and no trustworthy source of drinking water. Silver lining: the courtesy buffet didn’t give me food poisoning, unlike my My New Temporary Best Friend.
During the onward flights the pandemonium lessened and I was soothed by the gentle tones of a father and son singing melodic Indonesian folk music behind me. They appeared to know only one song, which they harmonised in unison repeatedly over many hours, so thankfully it was soft and exceptionally beautiful to my foreign ears. It was with this as my soundtrack that I caught my first breath-taking glimpse of Indonesia, the land I would call my home for the coming months. As the island of Sumatra crept into view, the sun burned orange to red on its graceful descent behind storm clouds. Volcanic peaks rose through low mist as menacing reminders of their constant threat to the land that geologists call The Ring of Fire. This part of the world remains a scientifically recognised hot spot for natural disasters, but flying over the Andaman Sea on such a calm night it felt impossible to comprehend that this body of gently rippled water could wreak such devastation as it did on Boxing Day 2004.
With a 33 hour journey behind me, I landed in Jakarta for what should have been a Love-Actually-style airport reunion scene with Ben, but fate would have it otherwise. Scanning the crowd for his face I paced up and down arrivals, carrying 23kg on my increasingly sweaty back, ignoring offers of taxis or help, and maintaining with great conviction that he would be there. Some time passed. Anger crept in; how could he leave me stranded? Some more time passed. Then worry; had there been an accident? After 90 minutes I became the sole traveller in the empty arrivals hall, and with my mobile out of action, I conceded it was time for a taxi. I confess that my mood was hanging precariously in the balance, and by the point I reached the hotel lobby and was informed there was no record of my booking or of Ben Reason, that balance was tipped. Cue tears of panic and desperation. There was a huge language barrier; all I could do was keep repeating my myself (with increasing levels of mime and hand gestures) which I did for some 20 minutes until the manager finally realised I was referring to the Ben Reason that was staying in room 511, the Ben Reason who had been in the room all day waiting for me. Embarrassed, he swiftly dialled room 511. The conversation went something like this…
Me, through gritted teeth: “I’m here.”
Ben, buoyant: “Hey!! Baby you’re here at last!! Woohoo!! Amazing! Hell yeah!!”
Me, seething: “Come downstairs. Now.”
Ben, quiet: “Oh”.
With patience, compassion and profuse apologies Ben collected his sweaty, tearful, fuming, she-devil girl from the lobby and within minutes I was calm. In short, Kuwait Airways had outdone themselves in astounding incompetence and failed to publish the day/time of my delayed arrival, leaving Ben to assume the best course of action was to remain at the hotel, our “If-All-Else-Fails-Meeting-Point”. Because my phone wasn’t working I didn’t get his messages. Add into the mix some IT failures and a couple of confused Indonesians, and you have the root of the problem.
So I had spent the first 24 hours of my trip with a stranger called Sam, but what did it matter? Such twists and turns are the heart and soul of travelling, and there would surely be many more…