Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Monday, May 26, 2008

Death by a thousand cuts.

Air travel has become one of the slow, painful forms of modern torture. Nothing happens very quickly except the actual getting between two points. Travel to the airport will take whatever time it does depending on where you live and need to go. Once at the airport, at least two hours ahead of departure, there is the long slow process of checking in: you see 50 people ahead of you, and see how long each passenger takes; you do the maths and figure out you will be in line another hour, without there being lots of high context waffling. Then more waiting in the lounge; a modern human holding pen. Most people now prepare for this: DVD players, Game Boys, iPods, laptops, books, eating, snoozing, watching the TV monitor--playing through the boredom. If you are fortunate to travel business or first class you can minimize some of this delay, with special lines and special lounges, where you can really relax and even eat and drink nice things for free, and have a play room for the children. Either way, by the time you hear "We invite passengers in group one to board" you have probably been NOT travelling anywhere far for about four hours.

Then comes boarding and take off: that can take another sweet hour. On bad days, you can then sit in the plane on the tarmac, going no where as technicians move around the craft, and the in-flight staff mingle together muttering and occasionally talking to the pilot. Worse case scenarios include being told that "We have a technical problem, and hope the engineers can fix it soon" but worse is when nothing much is said--never a good sign--but several hours later you are still in the plane on the tarmac: no food, no drink, no in-flight entertainment, tired, bored, angry. My own worse experience was two hours of that situation, but longer times have been reported. Imagine that too, in the sweltering heat because the AC cannot function until the plane is airborne. You are in one of the middle seats in a row of three or four, and surrounded by the family from Hell whose children are crawling all over you and none of them seems to have a nose that is not oozing a flood of goo. In such cirucmstances you may love it when you hear "We find that the engine has an albtross wedged in it and we will have to deplane while the engineers continue to work". Back to the lounge. That can go on for a day and end up with an unscheduled day in an airport, even followed by an unscheduled night at a hotel or even being sent home and told to come back the next day. Been there; done that.

So, sometime between four and twenty four hours after you left home the first time you may be heading into the air. If you have kids you will have heard "Are we there yet?" about six million times by now and thought that sending the little ones as checked baggage may be the way to go next time, like people do with their pets. Then the "in-flight experience". The American airlines have now put air travel close to being a violation of basic human rights. I remember when you could get a meal no matter where you were in the plane and where-ever you were going, something that required chewing more than five times or sucking on a straw for 10 seconds and saying that you had been fed and watered. Now, you hear "We have a range of snacks for purchase: a high-octane muesli bar for $10, a pretzel chip for $3, or the crumbs from the bag of chips we served in business class for $2. We take cash or credit card, but please have the correct money as we cannot give change." If you have been smart or lucky and got yourself a seat in the front of the plane you will be hearing this while sipping on a cocktail and nibbling some nice snack; even a small bowl of warmed cashew nuts may be more than those in row 35 have to share. It's a painful experience that people now endure.

So let's fast forward. The flight may have a film or some collection of TV shows: "Head sets are available for purchase..." It makes sense to take a course in lip reading, or remember to bring your own DVDs. Even my flight from Barbados to New York yesterday could have been real torture for some. But, I had the cocktail and nuts treatment, plus the choice of meals on a real plate with metal cutlery! For the first time I was on a flight where a major romantic event occurred. Barbados is popular for weddings and honeymoons, so it's not too much of a stretch that a couple would decide to have a public marriage proposal while in-flight. It seemed at first as though there was a competition in the plane as a hostess talked about having a prize to give away. Well the guy proposed. I did not not hear the girl say yes, but there were no angry exchanges and they embraced as they received a bottle of champagne from the crew. So, next time, fake a deal like that and at least have a good drink.

Moving ahead quickly. We are now at the destination airport, in my case after four hours of flying. We taxi toward the airbridge, and...wait, while the crew that should guide the plane in is not in station. And wait.... An hour later, we are able to leave the plane. Thankfully, we had heard "You may now use your cell phones. But please remember to turn them off in the immigration and customs hall." Immigration was fast, as at 10 pm in JFK there are hardly any flights arriving. Then, we head for our bags and wait again...for nearly 30 minutes. At last, escape. Now, to home or in my case, a hotel. My fellow passenger, an American-sounding white lady, who was in fact Bajan but lived in Connecticut, had another two hours driving to do. Not for me, I thought: I was staying at an airport hotel. So, I meander to the AirTran and take the driverless train to another stop and wait...again...for the hotel shuttle bus. After 15 minutes a driver from another hotel came to me and said "Do you want to hang out?" I'm not homophobic but have been in some dicey spots when travelling. "What?" I replied quickly, imaging a night with a man with not an earring in his ear but a Bluetooth receiver, and not even a good looker. In a good New Yawker drawl, he told me "Our hotel ri nex yours, an your driva ain doin mo dan relaxin. Jus memba who gotcha dere now." We had a deal and I sat shotgun up front with him and a busload of Russian students, and were rushed to hotel ville in Jamaica (New York, not Caribbean), in Queens (location not proclivity). By 11 pm I was looking at a huge bed that said "Come here, sweetie." Absolutely knackered after leaving home at 1.30 pm.

Now, I am a hardy and well-seasoned traveller. Done it for years. Done it to many places. Done it for pleasure. Done it for business. Big planes; small planes; even rickety Russian helicopters to get there. Luggage loaded by hefty men and sent on belts; luggage loaded and unloaded myself. Been in a few crises: one passenger dying; one passenger sitting next to me having a panic attack after take off that required we turn back; one engine cutting out. Been with the family from Hell--12 hours on the way to Singapore: my child sleeping; Hellraisers climbing over the seats and jumping and screaming. "Shut the **** up, child!" one passenger yelled. Had the best: caviar, champagne, Concorde. Had the worst: one pilot, one passenger, one Bible--"Oh, Father God, don't leave me." Big airports; dirt covered landing strips. Flying isn't fun. Reaching there is great. But getting there is now a series of frustrating layers of delay, delay, and more delay. Of course, if I had to walk it would be longer. But I would be geared up for a long walk. The train ride, if possible, is better, as you can get up and walk around and not have one stinking blocked toilet to share for 3,000 miles. You can use your phone and your computer; get real food to buy, not reconstituted confetti. I don't know how air travel got to be so bad. 9-11 and terrorism made a lot of problems--and I did not get into the whole security thing. Higher oil prices are making new problems: in a few weeks American Airlines will make us pay to check each bag into the hold. Nut? You pay for your seat now, and may have to pay extra for it to be just for you, as sharing could be standard. Reminds me of travelling to the former Soviet Union, when the organization had booked rooms for 6 people, and we found that we had been given two rooms--sharing a trois. The hotel manager said that no one had told him we each needed separate rooms. It was a two week mission. Hee-hee.

Well, ends justify means? I get to do it all again later today. This time across the Atlantic, though with my favourite airline, British Airways. I hope they don't let me down.

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