I'm sitting in my favourite writer's refuge in Sao Paulo, an unremarkable bar on Avenida Cesar with cheap eats and great caipirinhas, reflecting on the routine miracles of modern life.
Two days ago I was in Canada, plodding through a wet winter, only occasionally seeing sunlight. Now, I have travelled 13,000 KM to another continent and another season. So, before I immerse myself in more snarkiness about the shortfalls of modern air travel (readers of the first "Adventures in Flight" will nod knowingly), let me acknowledge this: that voyage is a miracle.
People living one hundred years ago would have had to suffer a three or four-week sea voyage to be where I am today. For a resident of the Pacific coast, add to that a transcontinental rail trip of at least another week, or, worse, a rounding of Cape Horn. Say goodbye to a great many breakfasts.
Furthermore, the cost of such a voyage would have meant that most people would only make it once, and it would be a one-way trip while immigrating. If you'd realized you'd made a mistake, it would be one you'd have to live with for the rest of your life.
People living a thousand years ago would be lucky under normal conditions to make it 50 KM from where they were born. As abnormal conditions would likely involve conscription into war or slavery, they'd probably have been happy staying where they were, even if it was a shithole.
To travel is to be fortunate. No matter what discomforts we might endure, we ought to remember that.
The cost of my miraculous journey? 792 Canadian dollars and change, after taxes. There was a sale on.
Now, having genuflected before the altar of modern technology, let us complain.
First, and still the most glaring issue for an oversized product of saturated fats and alcohol such as myself: there is no fucking room on these planes. I really cannot stress that enough. It's so bad in economy that I heard one of the cabin crew announce over the intercom, "If you drop your cellphone on the floor, don't try and pick it up yourself. Get a flight attendant to help you."
That's because, unless you are five years old or a chimpanzee, picking things up off the floor is impossible. I don't think they allow chimpanzees in economy (at least I didn't see any) unless they are assistance animals, and I was traveling alone. So I'd have been as helpless as a bug on its back. There is barely room to fasten your seatbelt these days. The masters of modern cramming have rendered all activities save sitting uncomfortably impossible.
Believe me, when I, a determined opponent of state meddling in free enterprise, say this: there ought to be a law.
Because of the cramming and discomfort, I achieved a record 24 hours without sleep. I say this is a record because I am unfamiliar with hard drugs and torture, thankfully, so I never had to endure such a long time without somnolence.
It's not that you aren't tired. It's that no matter how tired you are, there is simply no way to sleep, period. I think we ought to have the option of general anaesthetic on long flights. This is the only humane way to endure something only marginally less painful than abdominal surgery.
I achieved another record milestone on my two flights: I went the longest I have ever gone, since I was fifteen, without coffee.
Okay, well, that's not strictly true. Air Wherever (real name withheld, although they are the only ones flying Toronto-Sao Paulo) managed to supply me with exactly 120 ML of coffee on the Vancouver-Toronto leg. On the Toronto-Sao Paulo leg, there was precisely nothing. This lack of caffeine should make my sleeplessness even more remarkable, I think.
Air Wherever seems to have a system, and I think I've figured it out: as soon as it's time for beverage service, the Captain puts on the seat belt sign. That prohibits the cabin crew from doling out hot beverages, lest there be some Californians on board who will, inevitably, sue.
This occurred in the middle of beverage service on the Vancouver-Toronto leg, forcing me and the chatty woman next to me to share one tiny cup. Entreaties to the borderline personality flight attendant responded in the provision of exactly zero grams of sugar. I drank it anyway, suspecting I would not get any more.
I've done a lot of flying, you see. On the Toronto-Sao Paulo leg, my coffee request was brusquely declined (seatbelt sign, you see), but I was generously forced to accept an unrequested orange juice, which I drank with North Korean obedience.
I suspect Air Wherever needs to cut its coffee costs.
The last issue is, simply put: the motherfucking other people on the plane. Flying with other people makes being Burt Rutan or Charles Lindbergh seem desirable. After all, they got to fly alone.
There are two subheadings to this deeply misanthropic subject: The first, I'll title quite simply as Brazilians.
I was, after all, flying to Brazil. So there were a lot of Brazilians on both flights, particularly the second, which was about as Brazilian as a bus trip from Rio to Recife.
Before I go any further, please don't get me wrong. I love Brazilians. I married one, and I still love her very much. But, as a collective, there is no group of people on earth guaranteed to make you roll your eyes to the point of muscle strain as Brazilians. With the possible exception of people from Ohio. Individually loveable, collectively terrifying.
The trouble starts at the gate. There's supposed to be a system, you see. Board by zone. Line up in an orderly manner, please.
Oh, don't make me laugh. Brazilians do not respond to such discipline. They don't trust the system, you see, something you'd understand if you knew their history. You've got to push to the front, just in case some other crooked fucker takes your seat and the plane leaves without you. So, Air Wherever's orderly system dissolves into the US Embassy roof, Saigon, 1975.
I used to get mad. Now I just roll my eyes and laugh at the shock these people are going to get on January 1 when a former army officer takes over the country.
Then, once you fight through the throng to your seat, there is the matter of carry-on luggage.
Brazilians like to travel super-heavy, you see. On a trip to North America, whatever other activities they may undertake, even a trip to Disneyworld, which is the Wailing Wall for Brazilians, shopping is king. Fuck Mickey and Minnie: the point is brand-name shit without the weight of Brazilian tariffs.
That means a lot of stuff. Brazil is the only country in the world granted a 32 kilo per bag weight allowance by Air Wherever. The overflow goes into carry-on, and boy is there a lot.
This is a constant source of friction between myself and She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. I like to go light. When I suggest she do likewise, her response is typically Brazilian: "It's my right."
Therefore, departure is inevitably delayed at least thirty minutes, every time. After watching Brazilians, ignorant of geometry and its ruthless rules, trying to cram bags into overhead compartments, we get to listen to them casually chatting in the aisles, long after the flight attendants have harangued them to take a seat.
Again, don't get mad. Just roll eyes. Going to Brazil and enjoying it requires shifting your mindset. That process starts at the departure gate.
The other subheading to my complaints about my fellow flyers: inexperienced flyers.
While not generally a fan of segregation or apartheid, let me go on record with an exception. I believe, fanatically, that people with little or no experience flying should be rigorously segregated from people like me.
Why? Frankly, I am tired of having to give Junior Astronaut training to the person next to me.
"Ma'am, you wanted something?"
"So, why'd you hit the call button?"
"Oh, is that what that is?"
My seatmate from Vancouver to Toronto required instruction on everything from how to work reading lights, to selecting movies, to how to use the seatbelt. I did feel like asking for a discount for unpaid teaching hours. My time is valuable.
So, when I arrived in Sao Paulo, and my wife asked me if I had a good flight, what did I say?
Well, my plane landed where it was supposed to, with nobody shouting "Allahu Akbar" in my face. Nobody threw up on me. The plane arrived in one segment, as it took off. I did not get into a fistfight. What do you say, bearing in mind what a miracle the whole process is?
"Yes, honey. I had a good flight."