The taxi arrives at the departure terminal of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport after a relatively unimpeded journey from the city centre. The driver, who’s main focus until now was the unintelligible conversation he was having through a Bluetooth earpiece, signals that it’s now time to pay.
As usual for drivers in this city, there is an immediate hesitation to accept the outstanding payment by credit card and I am recited the classic excuse that the machine is ‘broken’.
Following some back-and-forth grumblings, the driver reluctantly agreed to try, and the payment predictably goes through without issue. A peevish claim is made by the driver that the card reader’s “connection must be good here”.
After some superficial pleasantries briefly exchanged with the driver, I exit the cab with my small backpack that was resting on the backseat next to me.
The whiff of crisp spring air that initially greets me is soon overwhelmed by the smell of cigarettes being huffed down by either recent arrivals or airport workers. Both of which look equally lifeless and weary with deep, sunken eyes. I briskly pass by the human chimneys and enter the terminal building.
The destination this time is Bangkok, Thailand, but not before a brief stopover in the Chinese capital of Beijing. Total flight time all said and done will be 20 hours aboard a China-based airline.
Apart from a comprehensive frisk by a surly border officer, the check-in and security procedure could be described as rather uneventful. However, as I approach the departure gate, I struggle to comprehend the announcements made concerning my flight due to the poor quality of the overhead speakers and the thick Chinese accent orating the message. That being said, half the passengers already sitting by the gate are seemingly dozing off, with none reacting to the various announcements.
Only a few minutes pass by and a call for boarding is made. Thankfully this is made apparent by some large displays as the announcer remains near impossible to understand.
Upon entering the plane, I was pleasantly surprised at the state of the cabin interior when compared to the drab atmosphere of the North American carriers. A citrusy, yet undeniably chemical smell wafts through the air, which quickly overstays its welcome as my eyes begin to slightly water.
As per the usual seating arrangement, one is herded first through the business class area on way to the economy section just as the sparkling wine is being served. This is no doubt by design to falsely provide the stingy economy passengers an initial positive first impression, before all is dashed by the realisation of the true state of affairs that awaits in the cattle class.
Approaching my aisle seat, I see that the adjacent place is already occupied by a man in his early twenties wearing a pair of spectacles with a thickness comparable to that of a pair of jam jars. Despite a first visual impression that could lead one to assume this individual was more on the introverted side of personalities, he did strike up a conversation after our initial exchange of polite nods of acknowledgment to one another as I sat down.
He was a student studying at the main university in Toronto and returning home for the summer after completing the semester. The end destination for him was also not Beijing, but instead a smaller provincial city which I was not familiar with and cannot now recall.
I could detect a small level of confusion as he asked why I was flying to China. Although, I stated it was just a connection on the way to Bangkok, there must have been some miscommunication as he began to give me travel advice for the city and country. As I was going to be staying in Beijing for a three-day extended stopover on the return leg anyways, I did take mental notes of his suggestions.
It seemed however that after each of his recommendations, he told me to keep my expectations low as there’ll most likely be thick smog which would hamper any enjoyment. I am left not feeling very confident in my decision to arrange the return flight stopover in the Chinese capital.
The conversation is soon interrupted by the pre-flight airline promotional and safety video which was around twice the length in Chinese versus the English version. I wondered to myself what critical and potentially life-saving information I may have missed as the flight begins taxing to the runway and then followed by take-off.
As the city below soon disappears beneath the clouds, I consider the approximately 13-hours of flying that lies ahead of me. The contemplation is cut-short by the sudden motion of the seat directly in-front of mine jerkily reclining back to the maximum angle. A sizable proportion of my originally limited legroom was instantaneously lost and along with it, my already dwindling enjoyment of this flight. To make matters worse, the perpetrator of this act was a middle-age man of a compact size who appeared to have a more than sufficient amount of space when the seat was in its original configuration.
I decide to divert my attention away from this unfortunate situation with some films available on the in-flight entertainment system. The selection appeared to be rather limited, however I settled on some of the more recent, critically well-received films which I hadn’t had the chance to view until now. I am not exactly thrilled to find out that all films on this flight are accompanied by large Chinese subtitles which are overlaid over a significant portion of the small screen and cannot be turned-off. Watching films while flying in general is never a riveting experience anyways.
While the hours begin to slowly drift by, there is the occasional offer from the flight attendants for hot water. I had initially thought they were pouring tea that hadn’t been steeped long enough given that there was a slight tint of yellow, however the lack of any flavour confirmed that there was no misunderstanding. Still, I drink the hot water as this has been the only beverage available thus far and I neglected to buy any sort of drink at the airport prior to departure.
I have always heard that the water tank in airplanes is seldom cleaned and almost guaranteed to be filthy. Supposedly many flight attendants opt to bring their own thermoses aboard. That being said, at this point in the flight I’ve already had four cups of the hot water ‘tea’.
Because of my continued liquid intake, I have had to piss more times than I could count. People must be thinking that I either have a small bladder or I am suffering from a medical condition as I can feel the stares from the cabin section while waiting for the toilet.
A while later there is a meal service and as the flight attendants do not seem to speak much English, my spectacled seat companion acts as a translator. I request the beef dish but receive the chicken one instead. I suppose this is close enough.
My boredom on the flight at this point has reached critical levels as I lose the ability to focus and concentrate on whatever entertainment or stimulation I have at hand. At some points I find myself dozing, although never actual sleep. I check the map periodically to get a sense of the current location, however much of the flight route is over the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean and the tundra regions of Alaska and Russia.
Visa arrival cards are handed out despite the scheduled arrival time not being anytime soon. I began to feel nervous as I notice there is a section for my visa number, which I did not have since I was only transiting through Beijing airport. There is some second-guessing of myself as I honestly was only skimming through the visa requirements on a ‘Wiki Travel’ page. I imagine the scenario where I am forced to immediately fly back after arriving in China. This thought becomes a trance which keeps me occupied for an unknown amount of time.
The ability to feel time progress is lost as my consciousness enters a seemingly never-ending cycle of drinking hot water ‘tea’, watching mediocre films, a meal service, going for a piss, and the occasional mildly amusing conversations with the spectacled student next to me.
Eventually, after what feels like an eternity, I notice the air outside becoming increasingly grey. The clear, blue skies that were present for most of the flight disappears as the route map indicates we are getting closer to Beijing. Soon I am not able to discern the ground or the sky, as the plane becomes enveloped in a thick, dark smog.
Short informative videos are played relating to the seemingly complicated arrival procedures. One of which indicated that the plane is required to be sprayed in order to kill any bugs that may be aboard. Those with health conditions were advised to hold their breath and cover their mouths.
True to their word, the flight attendants began liberally spraying the aisles with a mysterious concoction which did not seem to bother anyone else on the flight. I could feel myself wheezing.
Finally, the plane approaches the landing strip and touches down with a jarring force. I think to myself how a crash after spending the last 13-hours in this plane would be a terrible way to go. Thankfully, I do not have to muse about this scenario for much longer as the plane is now carefully treading along to its parking area.
As we all prepare to disembark the aircraft, I notice the arrival time is later than anticipated and my connecting flight will depart in less than an hour. With that, I am quick to collect my backpack from the overhead compartment and politely wish my seat-partner a safe journey home.
After stepping out from the cabin and onto the movable stairwell, I am immediately struck by a vague burning smell. The outside air is thick with dark smog and nothing beyond the immediate tarmac area is visible. The sun, now blood-red and setting at the current hour, is not much more than a dim spot in the distance.
The subsequent bus ride to the terminal was thankfully brief as the remaining minutes to my next flight ticked by. My hurried pace through the various hallways and corridors seemed to not be necessary given the airport was suspiciously quiet.
At one point, I am indicated by an airport employee holding a sign with my connecting flight number to head to an alternate area for security and customs clearance. No real questions are asked, and my bags only lightly searched. My passport, however, is now covered in a blue dye which had rubbed off from the stamp pressed onto my boarding pass by the customs officer.
My mind is now in a dream-like state as I wander through the eerily empty section of the airport. I arrive at the departure gate with a few extra minutes to spare before the call to board is announced. This flight to Bangkok will be approximately 6-hours.
As I board and find my seat for the second time, I am disappointed to find a rather rotund American woman sitting in front with her seat already reclined. At this point, I am too exhausted to raise issue and accept my fate.
I sit down and immediately close my eyes. It’s not long after that my consciousness is lost and, aside from briefly awakening during a midnight meal service, I sleep for virtually the entirety of the flight. My consciousness only returns just as the plane prepares to land at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.
A churning in my stomach is suddenly felt, and my urge to use the washroom has unexpectedly become urgent. The lit seat-belt sign indicates to me that it is too late to use the onboard lavatory. I attempt to distract myself by looking outside the window at the increasingly glowing lights of Bangkok at night. Small beads of sweat drip down my forehead as I tightly clench my muscles.
The passage of time has slowed to a crawl and my entire focus is now on keeping everything together until the plane has landed. Fortunately, the whole process of disembarking the aircraft does not take long, and I am soon on my way and inside the modern Thai airport.
I rush past the other passengers and quickly dart in the direction of the first washroom indicated by a sign. Entering the lavatory, I see that there are two stalls, and I do not hesitate to pick the one closest to the door
My relief of finally arriving at a toilet immediately turns to shock as I notice the ‘toilet’ is of the squatting variety. With little time to think and strategise, I ready myself in a position that I hope would suffice. The events that followed are perhaps best to not be transcribed.
While washing my hands, I notice in the mirror that the adjacent stall (i.e. the other one available), had a normal, western-style toilet. To make matters worse in fact, only the stall I had just used was equipped with a squat toilet.
I let out a quiet sigh, too mentally fatigued to dwell on the topic further. My thoughts were now focusing on the fact that I was now in Bangkok after spending the last twenty hours in a tin can.