Who, in their right mind books a 3 a.m. flight? On Halloween?
Those flying from Vancouver to Australia wanting to pay the least amount of money, that’s who.
We hadn’t seen our daughter Chantal or hubby Duncan since their wedding 3 years prior, and having never met our 14 month old granddaughter Alexandra, (and planning to be there for the birth of her new baby sister or brother) we hoped our 6 and a half weeks in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia would be an unforgettable adventure.
I learned that Unforgettable is a double-edged (s)word.
Only birthdays and directions should never be forgotten. Childbirth and our journey to The Land Down Under, both, which oddly enough, left me exhausted and unable to go to the bathroom myself, should be buried so deep into the psyche that only Dr. Phil could dig it out.
As a white–knuckle flier, my doctor prescribed for me a tiny white pill that packed a big wallop. Only half the size of a Tic-Tac, I was assured that it would relax me and perhaps even make me fall asleep. One whole pill was good for 8 hours, half a pill 4 hours (and if you just wanted a catnap, give it a lick). Our flights were approximately 22 hours ONE WAY, including a stopover in Hong Kong, so I asked if it came in a maxi-dosage suppository form, but, alas! it's doesn't. Therefore, I brought enough medication for ‘total airborne time’, not calculating that we might be get stuck in, let’s say, somewhere like Seoul, South Korea while they scoured the city for a more qualified pilot!
I know, I know...how could I be so stupid not to calculate that into our schedule?
It was on our way to the ferry in Nanaimo that our daughter Katharina, aged 10, started feeling sick. She was choked already with having to miss Trick or Treating, and now her throat was a bit sore and she felt warm to the touch (it ended up causing inner–ear pain that made take-offs and landings hellish for her, and therefore us!). It was an omen and as you might recall, I am BIG on Signs and Omens.
I briefly thought of canceling the trip but knew a slight cold wasn’t excuse enough cancel the rare chance to see the Australian branch of our family tree and flush all those non-refundable deposits down the toilet. And even more importantly, I’d be accused of looking for an out. You see, I have an obsessive, near debilitating fear of flying. I cried nightly for a week before the departure date and I seriously considered tripping myself down the stairs in hopes of breaking only one leg as a reason not to go.
Other than that, I am perfectly normal. Really.
The hour and a half ride on the eerily barren ferry to Horseshoe Bay felt endless and we gratefully stepped into the cold October air and hailed a taxi. At least, that is what we thought we’d hailed. The bumper sticker that read ‘BEWARE ALL YE WHO ENTER’ must have fallen off.
I, like all chatty extroverts, sat up front with the driver and took stock of our chauffer du jour. I would have been concerned at the way he bolted out of the parking lot as if he were the driving the purple triple-decker bus in Harry Potter, but I was too distracted and startled by his loud, raspy breathing, each exhale an embattled struggle for air. He was like a cross between Darth Vader and Burgess Meredith.
A slight, wiry man, his brown leather bomber jacket looked borrowed and battered. Silver wisps of hair peeked out here and there from under his black wool toque and a grizzled 5 o’clock shadow bristled his pointy chin and sunken cheeks. Rheumy eyes, magnified to Betty Boop size behind his thick, coke-bottle lenses darted back and forth across the road and I got the distinct impression that he was trying to focus. Unfortunately, I was right.
The hour-long drive to the airport felt like a TRON arcade game. From my front row roller-coaster seat, listening to his obscene-phone-call breathing, we hurtled through the pitch-dark night, the bright neon city lights flying past me in a stringy, fluorescent blur. I braced my feet against he floorboards and tried to remember the old ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...’ psalm that all people who are scared shitless recite. Then suddenly, steering with his wrists, he began to switch his glasses on and off with another pair, squinting around questioningly. All this while maneuvering through tunnels, crossing bridges and jumping intersections at approximately 320 miles an hour.
I tried to close my eyes but they were stuck on high beam.
We made it to the airport and my husband Peter and Katharina, both half-asleep in the backseat stretched and yawned as I paid off Burgess Vader and kissed the curb.
Peter: (carrying our luggage inside the terminal) I didn’t hear you talking to the driver. That’s a first.
Denise: I didn’t want to surprise him. I don’t think he saw me sitting there.
We arrived 3 hours early as advised and spent the time wearily playing cards in the empty food court and sucking back dishwater thin coffee and greasy Burger King fries. At the half-hour-to-boarding mark, Peter, bleary eyed and numb with fatigue, held Katja’s hand as she slept on the bench, and I dragged myself to the bathroom to take my magic pill as directed.
The second I walked back out, wiping the water from my mouth, they announced that the flight would be delayed and possibly canceled due to the fact that the pilot, who lived on Vancouver Island (probably right next door to my house) forgot he was working this morning and missed the last ferry. They were trying to find someone willing to pilot the flight.
As you can imagine, the thought of a grumpy, tired pilot with rumpled clothes and bed-hair getting behind the wheel of my Boeing 747 was hard to swallow. Unfortunately, the pill I just took was easy to swallow and it was on its way to work. I began to panic...how could I function drugged up or worse, zonked out under the bench?
Turns out they did find a pilot and we began to board at 4:00.a.m. At least that’s what they tell me. I have no recollection of getting to my seat, except a vague moment where I dreamed of putting on a sleeping mask and a blanket, but for the next 8 hours I was out like a light. Peter had a fitful nap now and then, but he spent most of his time watching over Katja and planning how he could dump my body out of the plane without being seen.
I woke up groggy in Seoul, Korea.
Peter: Wake up...we’re in Korea and you should go to the bathroom.
Denise: (fuzzy headed) Korea? We aren’t allowed to pee in Hong Kong?
Peter helped me to the bathroom, thinking I probably shouldn’t hold it in for the full 22 hours, and explained to me that the pilot they had finally found didn’t have a license to fly into Hong Kong. I heard they need special training to avoid the giant gorillas and papier-mâché monsters that frequently wreak havoc on their skyscrapers, but that could have been the drugs talking. 4 more hours? I popped half a pill.
After an hour on the tarmac, we flew off to Hong Kong where the scheduled 9 hour stopover was lessened because of all the mix-ups, and the 8 hour flight to Perth was but a small white pill of blessed nothingness.
We arrived in Perth at midnight (their airport could fit into my living room) only to get the wrong room at the hotel we booked. In an Inspector Clouseau-like scene, I tried to ask for a bigger room and could barely understand the thick Aussie accent from behind the counter, but my world renowned expertise at Charades came in handy and we were eventually given a better room, even if it slept 6. Brandishing my plastic Courtesy of Cathay Pacific knife at him might have helped a bit too.
We flaked out until the next morning where got were ripped off by cabbie who took us the long way round to the station and then we took a 7 hour ride on The Prospector, Australia's fasted train, to Kalgoorlie. And I was wide awake while everyone else slept like babies. It was like riding a ghost train and the red, Mars-like earth of The Outback made me feel like our plane had taken a wrong turn at Neptune.
Our grandson Maximillian was born on November 17 2009 and every minute of our god-awful trip (in total: about 43 hours in the air, 27 hours waiting in airports, 14 hours on trains, 10 hours on buses and various TRON taxis) was worth being able to hold him just an hour after his birth, and being able to cuddle and kiss our beautiful, sweet granddaughter (well, not 'we' exactly...she clutched onto Grandpa for 6 weeks and allowed me close enough to shake hands with her while boarding The Prospector to leave).
And I admit, had I been mugged at any point during our stay in Oz, I would have handed over all my jewelry, cash, clothes and all my gold fillings before I would have given them my stash of return-flight, little white pills.