Welcome to Pandemic Air

I am sitting under a tree in the northern hemisphere in the middle of winter with barely any clothes on. Before you start feeling sorry for me, I should add that hypothermia is not about to set in any time soon. In fact, if I weren’t guzzling cold beers, it might very well be dehydration that finishes me off.

A couple of weeks ago, I woke up and realised I was in the wrong place altogether. Where I should be, I said, pushing the neighbour’s cat off my face, is in Costa Rica. The cat sat up, half closed its eyes and nodded as if to say, “Obviously, you idiot.”

A few days later I was shambling around a deserted Cape Town International Airport, hungover, dragging a suitcase held together with packing tape, facing not one but two 12-hour flights, and trying to find a way to blame the cat.

Was this a good time to be flying to the other side of the planet? At a time when a layer of pestilence has formed between the troposphere and the stratosphere? Inside a metal tube with the virally tainted for company? Of course. There is no better time to travel.

A friend had offered me one of those weird semi-prosthetic neck cushions for people with heads that flop around like beached sardines every time they close their eyes. I was having none of it. It’s not the risk of floppy head that keeps me from sleeping on a plane. It’s the trying to fit a 1.9m body into an economy class seat. Bits of me have to take it in turns to sleep. A foot here, an arm there. Never the brain, though. The brain thinks only murderous thoughts all the way through.

I glanced around at the masked vectors of infection and tried to pinpoint who would be the one to kill me. They all looked like attempted murderers escaping the country ahead of consequences. Not that we have those in South Africa.

Some were dressed for summer. Had these people never flown before? You dress for the climate at your destination, surely. What kind of monster gets on a long-haul flight to Frankfurt wearing shorts? Didn’t they know it was winter in Europe?

The plane stood on the apron for ages because there was something wrong with the machine that charts the route. You’d think the pilot would know the way by now. How hard can it be? Swallows do it every bloody year and they don’t need a machine.

The flight was half full but I preferred to think of it as half empty. A flight attendant with a disturbing resemblance to Charlotte Rampling in Night Porter said if I was quick enough I could snag myself an entire middle row after takeoff. I was nowhere nearly quick enough, even though I wanted this more than I’d ever wanted money or women. Germans are supernaturally good at grabbing things for themselves e.g. pool loungers, tables near the buffet, Poland etc.

By the time I got my seatbelt off, the only empty seats left were a window and aisle, both of which are useless for sleeping because the middle armrests are welded into place to prevent South Africans from stealing them.

We landed at dawn in a heavy fog. As we touched down, Charlotte clapped once, shouted “We made it!”, looked across the aisle at her buddy in the other jump seat and gave a double thumbs up. Bit worrying.

Security at Frankfurt airport was tighter than Jupiter and Saturn were the other night. I am partial to a girl in uniform, but not when she’s my height bulked up with kevlar body armour and an automatic weapon slung across her substantial chest.

It’s roughly at this point, after my stuff gets sent down a conveyor belt and into a darkened tunnel, that I expect to be arrested. It happens every time I fly. I almost assume the position to save them the trouble. Actually, there was a position to be assumed, beneath a moulded plastic arch. Some kind of X-ray device that sees through clothing. Feet in the footprints place, ja. Hände hoch!

A woman with the eyes of a jumping spider kept me in position for longer than necessary. Getting a good look at my willy, no doubt. I wiggled my hips suggestively but she seemed unappreciative and ordered me to move on to the next step, which involved a young deviant with obsidian eyes giving me a full-body frisk. It didn’t feel as unpleasant as it should have.

Everything was foreplay up to that point. The real heavy duty stuff, or in my case, duty free stuff, came at the end of the process. You’ve passed the body test, but you don’t know what they might have found in your belongings. I was almost home free when a gloved hand shot out. He picked up my Tanqueray and Havana Club and told me to come with him. He unlocked what looked like a broom closet. I baulked. No way was there room for both of us in there. What did he have in mind? A bit of my brandy and a little heavy petting? Instead, he put the gin into a scanner. I asked what he was looking for. Explosives, he said. I laughed and said I’d had some pretty explosive evenings on that filth but I sensed he wasn’t interested in hearing more.

Ten hours later I boarded the plane to Costa Rica. It was packed with Germans fleeing their country’s hard lockdown.

I had a window seat and a vial of Xanax and intended to make full use of both. The plan changed almost immediately when a hefty fräulein hove into view and began making moves to wedge herself into the aisle seat. The fear of being trapped between her and the aircraft was overpowering. I suggested we swap seats. Little Lotta grunted in what I took to be agreement. The way she carried on after that, it was as if we had exchanged bodily fluids, not seats. Everything I had potentially touched, she wiped down with sanitiser. She also flinched every time we inadvertently made contact. It was horrible.

I couldn’t even risk taking the Xanax because I would have slumped unconscious into the aisle and it would have taken four strong men to haul me back into my seat and strap me in place. I would wake at 3am two hundred miles above Haiti and find myself in restraints. It would get ugly. Someone from the cockpit would be summonsed to stab me in the neck with a tranquilliser dart and police would be waiting when we landed.

Despite asking the man-child in front if he wouldn’t mind not reclining his seat on account of me not having anywhere to put my legs, he did it anyway. My headphones weren’t working properly so I couldn’t even watch a movie. And I certainly couldn’t risk falling asleep on Little Lotta’s shoulder.

Costa Rica seemed a long way off. It’s unlikely I will be returning home any time soon.