On My Island

Posted by Sarah Lundgren

As I sat eating my buffalo chicken panini in the Atlanta airport last Saturday, it hit me. In 37 minutes, I was boarding a plane to the other side of the world. A place I’d only read about in books, and just barely that. I couldn’t speak the language, I have small panic attacks when flying over large bodies of water, and I had just pulled my new Canon 60D out of its box as we flew down the highway to the airport. The sole tool I was expecting to use for all of my assignments was basically an enigma to me–it was nothing like my old camera. My one sure reliance in a foreign place had fallen through; it made my eyes water thinking about my old 30D I’d returned to the university upon graduation just a week before. Was it so much to ask to take one piece of my usual existence with me?

But as I’ve told myself more than once after choosing the journalism career path–Suck it up. So I got in the long line of vacationers, business men, and runaways to go through security. For the length of time it took to get through, you’d think Atlanta security would be a little bit tougher, not just slow. I managed to make it to my gate–at the farthest end of the terminal–as they started boarding. I took a deep breath, got in line, again, showed my passport, and struggled with my over-packed book-bag to seat 38B.

When I sat down, I felt like royalty…compared to my typical situation on Delta flights where I’m squashed up against the window trying to breath next to a hefty and snoring man. That’s not an exaggeration, I think I’m just cursed on planes. But on this one, soft purple blankets and yellow pillows waited in every seat, complete with a personal T.V. set with more functions than any normal person would require. Every 10 minutes during the flight, the stewardesses would come by with something new to offer–headphones, slippers, wine…I thought to myself, this 13-hour flight is going to be like floating on a cloud. Except the other two seats in my row filled up and I sat in between two foreigners and became a little island of America.

The woman to my left, who so luckily got the window seat, was chatting away in a mixture of English and what I believe was Korean. She was so petite compared to myself, I had to look down at her when she sat. That’s saying something, considering I barely hit 5”5. She babbled on about how this flight better have some certain dish that started with a “P” because they didn’t have it last time, but that was the only reason they picked Korean Air over other airlines. Then she moved on to what her and her boyfriend, whom she was talking to, where going to do when she got back to the states. Her mother had told her that if she didn’t come back until September, he would have to marry her right away and they would have a traditional wedding. But if he came to visit her, they could wait. Bear in mind, she has no engagement ring and is taking off her shoes, putting on socks and slippers, and setting up camp while calmly talking about something close to an arranged marriage. From my perspective. I tried not to eavesdrop and was glad someone had sat down to my right.

At least she was interesting to observe–the communication barrier was apparent from the start. She was an adorable and trendy Korean girl, probably 15, with Paul Frank (the cartoon monkey you see everywhere) headphones, leggings that contrasted brightly with her skirt, a hoodie-jacket and a Harashuku Girls book-bag. She looked at me from under her blunt bangs and smiled. It was welcoming. It was a while before I felt that way again. Especially since every time I looked around, my eyes drifted to the woman in the row next to us with her yellow, sequined surgical mask.

The pristine flight attendants, in their crisp beige suits with bows in their hair resembling chopsticks, gracefully maneuvered the isles, offering even more accoutrements in an attempt to make us feel more comfortable. That comfort was lost every time they stopped with a cart in my isle. They would speak to each of my neighbors in flawless Korean, pause, and slowly speak English to me as if I were a 5-year-old. All I could do was sit there, smile, and ask for another glass of wine.

When the first meal came, I couldn’t understand a word said and just agreed to what the woman on my left ordered–it was the dish she’d been hoping for. White rice in a sealed container, another sealed bowl of seaweed soup, an uncovered bowl of seaweed, mushrooms, and onions, and 2 plastic containers with fruit and what I believe were sauteed pickles. I watched as she scrambled over her plate, mixing things here and there, adding sauces I’d never heard of to her rice, and then began to devour it. I followed her steps, as it looked like she’d done this before. I took the rice from the container and poured it into the bowl of veggies and mixed it all up with “hot pepper sauce”–a deep orange paste that ended up being more sweet than hot, but nonetheless delicious. I sniffed the pickle mixture, took a small bite, and avoided it for the rest of the meal. I don’t recommend them to anyone. I managed to get all the broth out of the soup–I’m not a big seaweed fan per say, but the broth was delicious. The poor girl on my right wasn’t so lucky.

As she tried to start her meal, she knocked the soup onto her lap as the stewardesses just watched with their hands over their mouths. I tried to help, but the language barrier got in the way somehow and they waved me off. As I sat there and enjoyed my food, she just turned hers away and went to the bathroom to save what skin she had left beneath the scalding soup. I offered her some of mine, but between the two of us the only words we could get out were “oh” and “no.” So I went back to my island and stuck my head in a book.

It was easy enough to sit there, wrapped up in my blanket and immersed in my travel book, Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost (change it to the Asian continent and it was slightly what I was starting to feel like). There was one crying baby that piped up every couple hours while the only other child meandered the isles with the help of his grandmother. The entire plane was dark, minus the light above my head, and I really felt like I had a spotlight on me that said, “Look, lonely and confused American who’s afraid to be on this plane.” I tried to take it in stride, pulling things from my book. The author himself is terrified of planes and I felt a connection every time we hit turbulence and my stomach turned into knots and my hands clenched the sides of the seat so tight my knuckles turned white. Of course the turbulence wasn’t more than a couple bumps, but I’m a chicken sometimes. It was nice to know at least one accomplished travel writer out there was as well.

I dosed off once or twice, as best I could crammed between two people who had no concept of personal space. When we reached the Incheon Airport in South Korea, it was a melee as we taxied in. No one seemed to care about the stewardess over the loudspeaker: “Please remain seated until the plane has come to a stop.” Sticking myself in between the young girl on my right and an elderly and hobbling asian woman, I let the influx of people drag me out of the plane. Familiar faces greeted me in the terminal and I joined some of my classmates for the rest of the trip.

The South Korean airport was a technological wonder complete with a putt-putt course outside the window at our gate, a spa and a casino. “It’s certainly not Atlanta,” as Professor Kavoori said. My classmate Sumon and I broke off from the group and cheated at the Burger King. I promised myself I’d avoid eating at American places while in Cambodia, but technically we weren’t there yet and I’m a sucker for chicken nuggets. I should have just waited for the plane—the food was much better there. We even got salmon.

On our plane ride from Seoul to Siem Reap, it was a little less crowded than the first. I got my window seat this time, but I was stuck above the wing. Someone knew I shouldn’t look below. Or I really am cursed. One man sat next to me and even offered me some hard candy. He pointed to the package and I think was trying to tell me the flavor was green apple, but all I heard was “no sugar.” It was a comfort to know the language barrier didn’t always stop kindness at least.

As the plane took off, all I could see was a hazy airport and the just barely visible neon pink sun out of the window. I opened my Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing as the man next to me took the seat behind us. An entire row to myself, reading something titled “Lonely Planet”…it could only get better when I reached the part about how travel writing is a lonely business. I was really starting to see that aspect of it.

So I tried to distract myself by taking a pen to the book and highlighting all the important things Professor Kavoori might want to quiz us over. Then my eyes glazed over. It was only a 5-hour plane ride so I thought I could keep my head up…sprawled out across 3 chairs, covered in a blanket, with pillows underneath my head. I looked to the row across me and saw that same professor with an eye mask on and a blanket that was quickly thrust over his head, laid across the seats as well. Seemed like a good idea to do the same. I took one last look at the map on the tv screen above before I closed my eyes. I’d just read about every city on the screen in vivid detail in my Troost book. And that’s when it hit me, I was on the other side of the world.

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