Friday Night Flights
[NL]—I returned to Sunshine and the Monterrey and San Pedro valleys yesterday evening; to an honest-to-god feeling of homecoming and a little bit of Fall. In the backyard the big tree is bare, surrounded by crispy fallen leaves, the yard is weedy and temperature is actually a little lower than it was in North Carolina. The autumnal feeling does not extend to the inside of the house, however, where the plants that Sunshine has been tending for me are in the middle of a record-setting bloom. The cat, who sounds like a duck at the best of times, only spent about a half an hour reproachfully holding my six-week abandonment of her against me. More recently, she follows me around from surface to surface quacking balefully when I don’t pick her up. Sunshine is acting much the same. Subjectivity prevents certainty, but I suspect I am somehow displaying, in turn, just how much I missed everyone while I was away.
Flying internationally always makes for a rather interesting travel day. On the trip to North Carolina in December, I had to carry five or six breakable ceramic animals in my carryon bag, as well as one life-sized, gaily painted clay monkey that was too fragile to pack. This I carried in my hands when allowed, and in a take out-bag from a defunct San Pedro restaurant beneath the seat in front of me when I wasn’t. I trapped that monkey in place with my feet while it was stowed, ever fearful that the tiniest little turbulence would snap its festive tail right off. This was a big switch for me, this worry about the monkey. It was not too many flights ago when I was nearly paralyzed with terror, and I was happy to see that my brief bout with flight anxiety had passed to the point where I could worry about something else entirely.
The flight from Greensboro to Monterrey is like international travel in a bubble. It comprises, one after another, all of the irritating steps of going from one country to another, while drastically boiling the process down to just few hours. I still walk into an airport an hour and a half before I take off (boarding is a half an hour before the plane taxies, if possible). I still have to quickly take off my shoes, my belt, my rings, and my watch, slipping them, along with everything in my pockets, into buckets and sliding these through the X-Ray machine with my carryon, my camera, and my jacket. I get waved through a metal detector, but rarely get frisked with the wand thing any more. I have to hurriedly rearrange all of my stuff after being released on the other side of the security station: I have to find a chair or something to prop awkwardly against to get my boots on and I feel like a pervert fiddling with my belt in the concourse. All the while, suspicious uniformed officials mark my every move. Going to Mexico, I only have to do this once, but coming from there I have to do it before each flight. This routine was unbelievably enriched by the addition of the brightly painted and highly breakable monkey.
The next step is to wait for a while in the plastic chairs, trying hard to concentrate on something besides the upcoming flight because I am worried that I will feel anxiety. Since my first terrifying flight, my flight nerves have mostly gone away, and my preflight fear centers around the discomfort of worrying that they will return. Twenty minutes into the ride, with the airline crossword in my lap and the nose beginning to level off, is when I realize, lately, that I am okay; and then there are no more problems until the next takeoff. I spend most flights working that crossword and trying to convince the attendant to give me the whole can of soft drink. I usually sit on the aisle, and in yesterday’s flight, there was no other passenger in my row. I keep the window closed until I am sure that I no longer need to ignore the fact that I am thirty thousand feet in the air. When I opened it yesterday, finally, somewhere over Arkansas maybe, or northern Texas, the first thing I saw was enormous striking lightening slashing through a tall swirl of black storm between me and the horizon. I sat mesmerized by this display, watching hundreds of bolts of brightness tear back and forth in the sky just over there out the right window. In the distance there were the little lights of other aircraft floating through the middle of this yawning display. It was amazing and beautiful and I felt so lucky to be present that it didn’t even dawn on me to be scared. I was glad I wasn’t riding in one of those little lights in its midst, though.
Approaching Houston and Greensboro from the south there are fairly hard descending turns that can feel a little harrowing. Flying into Greensboro this is pretty extreme nose-down right bank, but in December the sunset was lighting in each consecutive window of the plane as we turned, and it was dark enough on the ground to see all the Christmas lights on the houses through the leafless trees. I found this distracting enough. Flying into Houston from the north is just a straight line in, and took place for me about two and a half hours into the flight, an hour after the snack, and two-thirds through the puzzle. Then there was the usual scramble to locate my stowed luggage (which is not necessarily right above my seat in these tiny Embraer Expressjets) and move down the line to deplane.
In Houston things can be pretty simple on the outgoing leg of international travel day. My bags were checked all the way through to Monterrey in North Carolina, so I don’t have to worry about picking those up and rechecking them, and the gates are “close” to one another. Yesterday there was about ten minutes between getting off of, and then back onto, aircraft in Houston. All I had to do was walk the half mile between spoke-like concourses of B gates from 22 to 76. Incoming international travelers are treated to double the walk, once though baggage claim and then through immigration and customs (rife with friendly Department of Homeland Security officers), and then again between concourses which are sometimes a train ride away from one another. Yesterday’s layover was a lot easier, and I was able to misread a sign, walk far, far out of my way, and correct it all before the deadline to board.
The last flight of my day yesterday was the shortest. It is an hour and twenty minute hop from Houston to Monterrey International, located conveniently in the small industrial municipality of Apodaca, about twenty minutes north of Monterrey proper. The flight attendant called this a “nose up, ass up flight” which means that there is really never a point where the plane levels off between ascent and descent. In that time there is a snack, a drink, and the hassle of customary paperwork. The flight attendant ran, quite literally, up and down the aisle throughout the entire ordeal. I had the really interesting first-time experience of being at the very front of the plane, in the single-seat number 1 row beside the flight galley. In the momentary pauses between dashing around, I got to chat amiably with my flight attendant. She made snide asides while pantomiming the security bullet points to the recorded instructions. She gave me the whole can.
I am fairly practiced at filling out the customs and immigration paperwork by now, and it is not in any way tricky anymore. I had plenty of time to finish the crossword puzzle on this flight, and then watch the twinkle of Monterrey valley fill every window in the plane as we plummeted toward the runway lights. Several rows behind me a man complained of chest pains, and the flight attendant called down to have Monterrey EMS meet the plane, and we all sat there on the runway while the man was walked off first. In Monterrey, the smaller airplanes park on the tarmac, and busses drive passengers to the terminal. I had been allowed to stow my bag in the flight closet with all of the cockpit crew’s flight jackets and things because there is no overhead compartment above, or a “beneath the seat in front of” 1A. This would have worked out badly for the monkey I took in the other direction. I was able to deplane very quickly from this position, however, and made it to the passenger busses before everyone but the EMS patient, who waited patiently with me while all of the other passengers filed in and we were all driven to the lines at Mexican immigration.
Here I waited in line to present my paperwork to the bored immigration official. He proceeded to give the same three- to six-month tourist card they always do, even though I have a two-year temporary resident permit stuck right there in my passport. A lot more walking up slick marble ramps and I was able to pick up my luggage without waiting, and proceeded rapidly through customs. At the Mexican customs checkpoint, and this is pretty much the norm all over Latin America, they have a traffic light activated by a button. When I walked up to the desk they checked my passport and declarations forms and then directed me to press that button. Supposedly, the traffic light randomly selects which travelers are let right through (green light), and which are immediately searched (red light) at the adjacent, stainless steel inspection area. Either way, all luggage goes through the X-Ray conveyor one more time. I got a green light, and walked out into the busy terminal where my girlfriend waited to usher me into a well-heated cab, through the twinkling lights of Monterrey and San Pedro valleys, and eventually into our Mexican home, complete with flowering plants and a vociferously quacking cat.