If you’re ever speaking to a man who claims to be a mechanical engineer and you want to test if he’s lying, ask about bicycles. Nearly every mechanical engineer I’ve met thus far (though it’s not a conclusive sample) lights up when they talk about bicycles. Most will bring it up themselves even without prompting, after which they will gush in manner that is basically the nerdy-man equivalent of a teen girl fawning over her favorite pop star.
I can maybe understand the feelings. Bicycle mechanics were at the forefront of the budding automotive and aeronautical industries, and that’s a pretty big part of their work. If there’s a more deep-seated, philosophical reason for the man-bicycle love, it’s lost on me.
I’ve always liked the bicycle in theory but could never quite get of its inconvenience in practice. If you take a bike anywhere useful (like to school or a grocery store), it’s likely to get stolen. It doesn’t fit well on buses and trains and those seats…don’t get me started on those seats. Nothing has ever squished my lady parts in all the wrong ways quite like a bicycle seat. It’s nearly enough to send me to electrical.
(I actually have developed a preference, I think, for electrical, though I assume that its based on more than a grudge against bicycles. Perhaps not. I am a pretty petty person.)
Aviation poses similar issues. In theory, flight is nothing short of awe-inspiring. How they managed to go from the wood and cloth contraptions of two bicycle mechanics to the magnificent jets of today in approximately a century is enough to impress even me. In practice, however, it stresses me to tears.
Similar to a bicycle, being in an enclosed space at an unnatural height with hundreds of strangers of unknown sanity levels really presses my emotional makeup in all the wrong ways. Not to mention I almost always travel alone, with Mr. Omar & Louis in one hemisphere and my family in the other, and over a day’s travel in between them. It means I’m always saying goodbye to someone I don’t want to say goodbye to, and I am always dependent on other people (mechanics, pilots, grumpy customs officials) to carry me back to them again. I don’t like it.
Lastly, I kind of resent the amount of greed flying encourages. It’s already such a privilege to be flying at all, yet airlines have an uncanny way of making me feel like the fact that I’m unwilling or unable to pay for the fleeting use of a suite and a five-minute shower above the Atlantic means I’m somehow failing at life. It seems like such an inordinate purchase to begin with. Maybe I’m just jealous I was never that cleanly.
I usually am pretty cheap though. For all my heartfelt talk about disliking travel, I almost always take the “scenic route” out of Africa by flying through the United Arab Emirates. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, I prefer to takeoff and land in the desert where there is no threat of ice. The airlines are also really generous with baggage restrictions, and as previously alluded, they usually offer some really good deals.
I don’t fly often enough to be particularly authoritative on airline quality, though; the stress of switching time zones means I don’t see my family nearly as often as I’d like. Still, one does not spend 29-36 hours in planes and airports without a few interesting things happening. In regard to surprising and/or regrettable moments, these are my top six:
1. I sobbed under a beaded baobab.
A slight delay in boarding meant I had just enough time to realize both my man and my parrot were now separated from me by a degree of two security guards and a really mean customs lady. It was upsetting. I cried. As I always cry when saying goodbye, because I’m an emotional person like that.
Surprising: Not at all. In fact, it was practically a given.
Regrettable: Yes, because I looked like an idiot.
Verdict: This was a mildly regrettable moment.
2. I bought a camel.
In my defense, there were a lot of worse things I could have done in Arab airports. I could have bought gold bars from an ATM or a Lamborghini from between the moving walkways. I could have purchased that bag of potato chips I really wanted but refused because they were more than double the normal price. Or maybe I could have booked a room or a spa treatment or done a whole host of other things that sound unusually fun when you’re tired and bored.
And I have to say, nothing tempts the pockets quite like a really long layover and duty-free in the UAE. When my dad gave me a few extra bills to ease the travel, it was only a matter of time for me to fold.
And I did. It was the middle of the night. I had hours to consider the purchase (which I took), and when I had eventually convinced myself that I would regret it if I did not buy it, I happily over saw this little pachyderm being swathed bubble wrap and sealed in my first-ever duty-free bag. I wondered later if I would regret it, but it ended up being a big hit back home and is now one of my favorite things in the house. I’m quite happy I bought it.
Verdict: This was a surprisingly un-regrettable moment.
3. I was bought a soda by a random stranger.
Again at an Arab airport in the middle of the night, I had picked up an Arabic newspaper and passed the time seeing what words I could pick out from the text, having just finished a semester of Arabic at uni. A man saw me there and insisted on buying me a soda. Eventually I reluctantly agreed and then we ended up having a conversation that I don’t really remember, though I do remember mentioning Mr. Omar at every possible moment to very little effect. He then offered to take me to the duty-free shop and buy me anything I wanted, but I vehemently refused this in the prickliest of manners possible. We eventually parted with me having another soda for the road in my carry-on along with a business card, and a really confused understanding of what had just happened.
Surprising: Maybe. Then again, I would buy myself a soda. Personally, I think I’m pretty fabulous.
Regrettable: Yes. I felt like I was being mostly rude while he was being very nice, but I had no understanding of the cultural implications of what was happening, and I wasn’t sure what his motives were.
Verdict: Regrettable. It’s regrettable that we can’t just be nice to people without raising suspicion, and that people so often have suspicious motives underneath being nice. It’s unnecessarily-complicated and also kind of sad.
4. I wrote a final exam in a German McDonald’s.
It was several days before Christmas and hours before the end of the semester. A horrible snowstorm was ravaging Europe, causing whole lists of flights to be cancelled and scores of passengers to be rerouted to trains. There were tired, indignant Europeans everywhere. And also one tired, indignant American, who really should have finished this damn paper before she left.
Surprising: Yes. I’m usually better prepared than that.
Regrettable: Almost. But I finished at exactly the time it was due so it’s melted snow under the bridge now.
Verdict: This was more surprising than regrettable, though there were elements of regret worked in there.
5. I inadvertently smuggled Chanel through three security checkpoints.
“Are you a student?”
“Yes,” I lied.
Technically I had just graduated, but the true answer (personal weirdness) didn’t really seem a strong enough reason to be carrying a 4-kilogram, 1,000+ page, hardcover art textbook through airport security. They flipped through the pages with gloved hands and pushed it back and forth through the x-ray machine, almost as if it actually contained the paintings of which it had pictures. I was in the process of moving and had a whole host of weird things I wanted with me for no real reason. If the woman had been on baggage duty, she would have found a Walt Disney World Mr. Potato Head, complete with plastic mouse ears, in tow.
Despite having really odd choices of things I felt I needed to move with, I’m rarely an interesting person when it comes to carry-on luggage. One long-haul flight and two security checkpoints later, my bag was being scanned and re-scanned by another very serious-looking person.
This time I was annoyed. It was toward the end of a 13-hour layover with little to do, and I said something snippy. He eventually let me through. When I opened my bag near the boarding gate, I was mortified. My half-empty bottle of Chanel perfume had somehow made its way into my carry-on and not my baggage, and though it probably just brushed under the 100 ml mark, it was in a 200 ml container, large enough to merit confiscation. Fortunately that had been the last of the flight security between me and my destination so the bottle remained safely in my backpack, but it was regrettable in most respects. No one should ever risk perfume like that. I mean, really.
Verdict: This was both surprising and regrettable.
6. I boarded an A380 test flight from Chicago.
Though commonly flown to other cities, there was a special, once-off flight to and from Chicago by the new Airbus A380, and it turned out I had, quite by accident, booked a seat on the Chicago-Dubai leg of the journey. I had watched a documentary on the making of the plane a few months earlier and couldn’t believe my luck that I actually got to fly on one. It was a pretty big deal among the airport people as well, who kept coming from all parts of the airport to admire the plane (they spent months updating the gate so it could accommodate a plane of its size). Before my flight there was even a little party on it for fancy people, with lovely gift bags. I didn’t get one, but I also didn’t mind. I was super pumped about the spacious seats. It flied so beautifully, like a cross between a goose and a spaceship.
This of course was wholly surprising and not at all regrettable, which, if I look at it, is true of most the cases I’ve mentioned. Though there were probably other inconvenient things that happened which I don’t recall, the regret I remember has pretty much all been self-inflected or self-interpreted. And I think that’s probably true of life in general. So many times life seems troublesome and unfair, and the people mean. Maybe it is, and maybe they were, but if we really stop and look at it, there are quite a lot of nice people and things as well, many of which just might be surprising.