You really don’t want t sit next to Matt on a plane.
Looking back we should have seen the signs: the whole morning was a treasury of forebodings written by a bad horror novelist. I rose before the sun and went downstairs to find Sarah standing in front of the huge windows, gazing out into the starless sky as it was ripped by claws of lightning. Our hosts’ black cat, Meg, coiled in and around her legs like a clockwork omen. Outside, in the trees, the monkeys screamed and shook the branches, and in the distance the Petronus towers glowed ghostly silver and crackled like a toy from Frankenstein’s playroom.
It was a bad day to fly.
Anyone visiting Asia should get to know the local Gods, their powers, whims, and modes of transport. Brahma sits at the top of the Hindu trinity, bestowing blessings, meddling in the affairs of humans, and generally just relaxing. He has four heads and moves around on a divine swan. Shiva, the destroyer, brings destruction to the universe and should not be approached. He rides a bull called Nandi (or possibly Mandy.) Vishnu is the protector and has the ability to change forms”tortoise, boar, man-lion, dwarf. Vishnu flies Garuda, despite their poor safety record.
That’s all I know so far.
Sarah and I have never flown Garuda, but we have prayed aboard many of South East Asia’s affordable airlines. Nok Air (We fly smiles!) runs out of Bangkok. PMT Air operates out of Phnom Penh and is no joking matter. There’s SpiceJet, JetLite, Condor, (naming your airline after an endangered bird. Wise? Discuss.) There’s IndiGo, there’s Al Express, there’s even an airline from Nepal called FlyYeti. (Please note: I made none of these up.)
The safety record of these carriers chills the blood. Incidents from the past year alone include failed engines, sheered landing gear, unsecured doors, and flights that terminated unexpectedly on the side of a mountain.
But you can’t beat their low, low prices. And so we packed bad thoughts away and got ready to take a dawn flight out of Kuala Lumpur with a cut-price carrier called Firefly. Firefly”We bring the FUN back into flying! Subang Airport’s busy taxis-ranks make you think you’re pulling up to a real, living airport with lounges full of tired travellers, and endless arcades stacked with cheap booze and eau de toilet for you: the consumer.
Only when you get inside do you find yourself in a ghost-port: a vast network of empty, unlit halls, derelict kiosks, shuttered arcades, disused baggage conveyors, deserted transit lounges. There’s no piped music, no announcements, no soldiers with machine guns, just an eerie port of lost souls where the only things still in operation are the Muslim prayer-rooms, and Firefly. To reach our plane we had to walk the dark corridors until we accidentally found our gate. Then we wandered outside again, across a scarred tarmac under a sky as black as smoke to where our silver bird waited. From the ground it seemed as if the airport was ringed by storm.
The fun began after takeoff. The drinks trolley was trundled out by two lovely Fireflettes and I ordered coffee. I noticed that there were a number of plastic holders glued to the bulkhead with signs that said ‘Prayer leaflets’, and that the holders were all empty. The god of choice in Malaysia is, of course, God. Islam, like Christianity, has one all-purpose deity. A ‘Swiss Army God’, as Sarah calls it. I also noticed that no one else on the plane had ordered coffee. Or anything. And they were all looking at me, and some of them were smiling.
And that’s when I remembered: I’m a complete idiot. Just as the ladies were preparing my brew the plane hit the first barrels of disturbed air and I quickly tried to cancel my order, but as you know, sign language in foreign countries can often be misinterpreted, and in Malaysia, clearly, waving both hands and saying “No, no, it’s ok, I don’t want coffee now,” is the signal for “No milk for me, but please fill my order as quickly as you are able”. The pilot yelled something over the intercom that could only have been, “Buckle up ladies, some shit is about to go down”. I looked to them for some sense of reassurance, because these ladies are angels of the skies, and have truck with the gods, but I got nothing. They bundled their paymaster’s goods and flashed taut smiles before sprinting off down the aisle, leaving me with my small pot of dark, hot material.
The cup had no cap, the surfaced quivered with ripples from the vibrations of the engines, the flecks of light on the surface split and flew into spinning stars and galaxies, vortexes and black holes from which light itself could not escape. The implications were cataclysmic: soon everyone around me would have coffee. Even Sarah was looking at me with eyes that held a universal truth: that I was alone in the skies, and also an idiot, that my prayer basket was empty, and that there was absolutely no solution to my predicament.
“This is not going to end well,” I said, and Sarah, nodding, handed me an airline safety card.
Now, anyone who suffers from fear of flying will find that being left holding a Styrofoam cup full of boiling liquid with a laminated air-safety procedure card clamped over the top while your pilot flies the aircraft directly into a tropical storm is a great way to transform your brewing anxiety into an essence of pure panic. The egg-shell thin cup is the perfect metaphor for the fragility of your position. Push too hard and the cup will break; push not enough and the scalding liquid will pour from the lip. But in the act of finding a point of stasis (while also trying to ignore the burning sensation in your hands, and the hot liquid sneaking down your sleeve,) you’ll become less aware of your true peril.
Amid the tortured screams from the propellers, the gasps and cries from the passengers, the look of pale horror on your loved one’s face, you’ll briefly forget the fact that you’ve chosen, of your own free will, to fly with an airline whose name contains the word “fire”, from an airport whose name contains the word “bang”, and into the heart of a storm-front, and you’ll find an eye of peace and tranquillity. In the scheme of things, you’ll say to yourself, things aren’t so bad.
This is nothing like that family reunion on Koh Samui when your brother crashed a Jet Ski and you had to bribe the Mafia to let you leave the island. This is nothing like the time two comical Spanish thieves tried to rob Sarah and her sister of your cash and passports while you were off booking a room. Those were trials of character; this is just a test of fate, the work of forces completely beyond your control. The fact that your craft is now surrounded by a heavenly whiteness, that the weight of the storm currents are making it do sickening, balletic dives and pirouettes, and that the noises coming from the fuselage make it sound as if the craft is being twisted by a pair of great hands, are not things that you can control. As crisis points, they’re nothing compared to the things you’ve done, and the things you will do.
You’ll almost cry when the plane finally punches through the storm clouds to reveal a nine-billion-year-old sun rising over a golden ocean above a densely jungled coast. Relieved sighs will ripple through the cabin, Sarah will sqeeze the bridge of her nose and silently shake her head. The Firefoxes will appear again beside you with their trolley, and their sympathetic smiles. They’ll look so happy to find that most of the coffee is still inside the cup. You’ll almost laugh out loud when one of them hands you two paper napkins to mop up a small, grey puddle of spilled coffee, and the other leans in and quietly say’s, “That will be 4.80 please”.