How to beat monotony

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EVERYONE is saying that the world is shrinking in size.

Not true, literally.

The distance from Sarawak to Singapore is the same as it was at the time of the Anglo Dutch Treaty of 1824.

Even modern science cannot reduce the distances between one place and the other. But it has reduced travelling time by many folds through the invention of the aircraft.

Still, a lot of time is spent at the airports in between flights. That’s part of modern life.

From your house in Petra Jaya to the Kuching International Airport, it takes you a good 45 minutes and another two hours before you board the plane, assuming that there is no delay in the arrival of the aircraft or its departure due to bad weather, or some technical problem with the plane. To catch the 8pm flight to Singapore or KL, you start proceeding to the airport at 4pm to avoid the traffic jam.

At the airport

If you are the type who travels heavy, your luggage will have to be scanned by the security machine, which can detect prohibited items – these may be a pocketknife or a handgun. If detected, you will have to take it out and hand it over to the security officials. And you may have a problem with the law.

Everything all right; next, you have to queue up at the check-in counter to weigh your luggage and collect your boarding pass, holding everybody up in the process when your baggage is overweight; you will have to pay for the extra weight and get a receipt for it.

Before you proceed to the departure lounge, another security check is required. At this stage of your journey, you will have to part with your property – your hand luggage, your handphone, camera, hat or keys. And with hands raised you are subjected to a body search before you can proceed towards the Immigration counter for passport examination. If you are not a security risk, you may proceed to the departure lounge and wait and wait there for your call to board the aircraft.

By now you may have spent about four hours away from home.

While the flight by a big plane from Kuching to Singapore takes slightly over an hour, that from Singapore to Brisbane takes about seven hours. If all flying time is taken, it will be over nine hours to reach that Australian city from Kuching – four hours at Kuching’s airport, three hours at Singapore’s airport and one hour at Brisbane’s airport plus 30 minutes to your host’s house.

When on land there is a lot you can do, but nobody has invented a standard game for adults to play during a long flight. Babies sleep, the five-year-olds draw, young people watch movies.

But what can the adults do?

You would be lucky if you are seated on the same row as somebody who is as talkative as you are. Bad luck, if he or she is not interested in talking to you at all.

During this particular trip Down Under, soon after leaving Singapore, I introduced myself to a man sitting next to me. He is a retired Aussie farmer named Bill Snowden. After disclosing my intention of going to Australia, he asked if I had ever been to the country before.

Yes, I have been there several times, the first to Darwin and Sydney in 1960 en route to New Zealand. That mention of New Zealand made him feel bad.

Like any fair dinkum Aussie, he was still sore about the performance of his rugby team in the recent Rugby World Cup championships.

“The All Blacks almost lost to the French – a French Revolution all right.”

“I have never played rugby,” I admitted.

“Rugby is a gentleman’s game played by ruffians. Only for the fittest, you see,” he added.

Eager to continue with the conversation, I asked him if exports of New Zealand apples had been allowed into Australia. He expressed surprise at my question, but nodded. I was not being tactful there. Realising that this was a sensitive issue, I wanted to change the subject.

“No, no, go on.”

“Did you know that New Zealand was part of New South Wales?” he asked. I responded saying that I had heard about it years ago.

We had a good laugh!

That conversation lasted at the most for half an hour and we had six hours plus to go. How to fill the time?

How long can you carry on with a conversation, however interesting it may be, while sitting down strapped to your seat? In a pub, you can walk about and stretch your legs freely. But here!

We talked about the Malaysian Solution. The subject is a hot political potato in Australia. The Labour government insists on the offshore processing of asylum-seekers at Malaysia’s end while the Opposition is adamant that Nauru will do the job. After all, it was the Pacific Solution under the Howard government anyway and it worked. The Malaysian Solution was shot down by the Australian High Court because the agreement was technically flawed as one party to the agreement (Malaysia) is not a signatory to the Refugees Convention governing asylum-seekers. Effort to repair the agreement has been made by the Gillard government but the Opposition would not support it.

My friend, Bill, thought it was politics, pure and simple. Not appearing to make a stand on the problem, I merely said that Malaysia was trying to help the best way it can to discourage people smuggling by providing facilities for processing before the genuine refugees would get to Australia.

I added that Malaysians were as concerned as their Australian friends with so many deaths on the high seas of asylum-seekers.

Bill was quiet and so was I. Couldn’t think of any interesting subject to talk about any more. In a conversation, you need two people, at least.

He started putting on the head set and fiddling with the buttons; he was watching Mr America and I was looking at the world go by, one half dark and the other clear with a white stretch on top of the world. Snow?

After a while, I tried to think of another topic to discuss with my friend but he had been watching the movie over and over again and I did not bother him any more. I had left my screen on as I followed the flight path. It was showing a tiny plane flying over the Java Sea. We were flying at a height of 36,000 feet. The headwind was 19 mph. A slight turbulence but the ‘Fasten-your-seatbelt’ sign was not on. I began to look at the tip of my nose and it was there all right.

This was heaven compared to the wobbly boats that might be carrying the asylum-seekers down there on the way to Australia. What was I complaining about?

My friend was asleep but I couldn’t do the same. I put the headset on and listened to the music – Soul and Rock – over and over again. Though I enjoyed the music, the gentle stomping of my feet did not amuse the passenger in front who was wriggling in his seat, registering a silent protest.

Four hours to go and what else could one do now?

One tended to fiddle with the gadget again and again, following the plane’s path every five minutes. Boredom was an understatement.

The headwind at 9 mph had turned to a tailwind at 20 mph. I didn’t feel any change of wind nor could I do anything the head or tail of it anyway.

I was quite restless; my wife nudged me.

“Try to get some sleep,” she advised.

I tried but couldn’t.

“Can you sing me a lullaby?” I asked.

She dozed off.

I wished someone had invented a device for someone like me who cannot sleep in a moving vehicle or inside an aircraft. Why can’t the aircraft manufacturer add a system to induce sleep? For instance, watch some image on the screen for a while and count up to 10… something that puts you to sleep before an operation in the hospital. But sleep without the help of the sleeping pills, which may cause side effects. Or alcohol. Wine at 4am. Not really.

I must have dozed off finally. When I ’woke’ up, we were flying over Western Australia. Tail wind 29 mph and the weather was fine – smooth flying it was. I went back to the music, checking the flight path every 10 minutes and the distance to the destination was a good 2,006 miles.

Movies and more movies and more music. Half asleep, half awake and generally uncomfortable’

Then suddenly the cabin lights were on. Someone had pushed up the window shades; it was bright outside. The ‘toy’ plane on the screen proved that we were flying over Queensland. The local time was 9.15am. In Kuching it would be 11.30am on the same day, on my watch.

For many months, at last I was ahead by at least two of my friends in Kuching in terms of enjoying a Saturday morning.

“Ladies and gentlemen, as we are about to land, please return to you seat. Please keep your seatbelt securely fastened. The toilets are out of bounds for the time being.”

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