It started with my alarm going off at 4am in the morning. 4am. And this was meant to be my school holidays. Although, I anticipate that Cambodians have a culture of early awakenings, so I might have to get use to it.
I said goodbye to my mum, in the normal British fashion (i.e. protracted). My mother questioned why I was taking a photo of the house.
“I’m not going to see this house for a whole year!” I told her.
“Neither am I at this rate,” she retorted.
Then my dad drove me to Birmingham International. This part of the journey was unexceptional except for an ill-adviced Burger King brunch (BK was the quietest part of the airport and I felt I needed to buy something to be there). And there was a man with one of the best moustaches I have ever seen.
Then, at 09:40 my first flight to Amsterdam departed. My stop at Schipholl was even more unexceptional (no men with moustaches, just a lot of tall people).
The flight was about 12 hours long, in which time I watched The Jungle Book; Hail, Caesar!; and The Theory of Everything. The food was reasonably good, too.
Although it was night time and we were meant to have the shutter down I did keep having a sneak peak out the window. I looked out over night-time Afghanastan. Then there was a spectacular lightening storm between Lahore and Dehli. I tried taking photos and videos but it didn’t do it justice. Columns of the cloud below us, hardly discernible and formless in the dark of the night, would momentarily be illuminated a dazzling white, veined and iridescent like marble. I wish my phone picked it up better, because if you didn’t capture it, it didn’t happen.
We arrived at Bangkok to get off the plane, knowing I would be returning to the exact same seat in the same plane about an hour later. The first thing about the outside world I noticed was the humidity and the smell. It just smelled of Asia. I can’t really describe it, but Asia seem to have a particular smell. I expect the UK does but I’m so used to it I don’t notice it. (I wonder if I’ll notice it on my return.) Bangkok airport was a slightly frustrating exercise as they led us on a half-mile circular route through various floors and security checks only to end up in the first departure lounge we passed on our arrival.
So I returned to the same seat on the same plane, hoping that the man next to me on the first leg of this split journey finished his journey at Bangkok. I arrived at my seat and for a while it seemed that I would get my wish. The plane was also ridiculously empty so no one else would have been joining me. But, alas, he returned to his seat. Blind obedience obviously transcends cultural differences, because he sat where his ticket told him to despite there being swathes of empty rows on this plane. So, I was one of two people within an 11 km radius that was within accidental-touching distance of a complete stranger. The other person being the complete stranger I was at risk of grazing my elbow against. I was also the only person on this flight whose exit to the toilet was impeded by having to inconvenience an aforementioned stranger. But on the plus side, the loos were just across the gangway.
After waiting for a suitable moment, I made good my escape. I went to the toilet, then sat a few rows back never to return to my actual seat. The sense of mischievous liberation I got out of this simple act suggests I’ve had a very dull existence until now, but, in my defence, when you’ve been traveling for 24 hours (with the bloodshot eyes to prove it), it’s the small things that count. However, I would pay for this moment of joy as I was departing the plane.
The meal on this flight was slightly more exotic. You know those hot lemon-scented towels you get given in Indian restaurants at the end of your meal? Well, I’m now pretty sure I now know what it would taste like if you were to put one in your mouth instead of using it to wipe your hands. There was an innocuous looking noodle salad with a surprising astringency to it. It would perhaps be generous if I were to call the flavour “refreshing”, but we’ll go with that for now. There was a nice coconut rice dessert and fruit salad, both of which actually were rather refreshing.
After this, I fell asleep. My slumber was peaceful and comfortable. Little did I know, as I dozed, that I was soon in for a nasty shock. I awoke just as we landed with a shuddering bump as we hit the tarmac of Taipei Airport. As I got I up I noticed a strange sensation: my trousers were wet. I will let you know this: when one awakes in a foreign country with a dampness in the seat of one’s trousers, one is inclined to feel a moment of sheer panic. Questions burst through my head, trying to account for such a discovery. Had I wet myself? (No, the dampness is isolated to the posterior not anterior of my pelvis.) Had I had a castastrophic bowel movement? Was it the Burger King brunch? (No, there was no other accompanying evidence for this, as one would expect; furthermore, the dampness was only around my left cheek.) Was I bleeding? Is this what dying feels like? (Look, I had only just woken up, people. I was dazed and confused- don’t judge me.)
I tried to exit the plane calmy and efficiently, shielding my rear with my bag and hoody as much as I could (I had little idea how evident my problem was to the rest of the world). I considered what I would do. I would find the nearest toilet and I would inspect the damage. I would try to discover the source of the substance and then I would decide what to do next. I reminded myself that I had bought a change of clothes and wet-wipes in my hand luggage.
After a short walk and one travelator later, I found myself in a clean and spacious toilet cubicle. At least I could investigate in comfort. Through thorough imperical experiments (poking and sniffing) I ascertained it was probably a beverage, most likely apple juice or Chinese tea that had been spilt on my chair and I had gradually absorbed it as I slept. That will teach me for moving seats.
Braced by this news, and cheered by the cleanliness and sophistication of the toilets, I felt ready to tackle Taipei Aiport, which was to be my home for the next 18 hours. If worst comes to worst, I’ll just find a spcaious cubicle and sleep there. I thought I would find somewhere to sit, hopefully with Wifi, and then perhaps get a drink or something to eat. However, I found myself in hell, a circuitous, airy, beautifully designed, orchid-filled hell. Every orchid-lined corridor just led to another orchid-lined corridor. Then after a while I would find myself at a wide, brightly lit atrium with arrows pointing you towards immigration, which was a queue of hot and harrassed looking people. Every corridor I tried I would eventually find myself back there. I probably walked a mile and a half of corridors, each with those endless orchids. I did consider for a brief moment the possibility that I had died in an airplane disaster and I was simply waiting to move on into the afterlife.
I decided that I would dare it. There was nothing for me left on this side; I had no choice but pass on through. I joined the queue. A border control employee directed me into a queue that stood motionless for around twenty minutes. I was hot and sweaty, I had bloodshot eyes and I’m not sure how fresh I smell at the moment. I probably looked like a drug addict. Someone else must have thought so too, because two customs guards came, one with a sniffer dog. However, the dog was not concerned by me and they moved on. The queue, however, did not.
It did not help that the man in front was emitting some very irritating sounds. He seemed to be suffering from sleep apnea, only he was awake (or a very talented somnabulist). The noises that came from his nose had the same sonorous quality of an accordion falling down a flight of stairs. I was not sure how much longer I could take it.
Fortunately, the queue suddenly picked up the pace. The Republic of China became the proud owners of what can only be a rather unflattering photo of me and a record of my fingerprints and I was swiftly ejected out into the arrivals hall. I wandered to departures and I’ve positioned myself in a reasonably uninspiring food court. However, there is not an orchid sight, so I’m happy here for now.