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The South African adventure: Chicago to Dakar

CHICAGO– I’ve been working on my air travel anxiety. I can’t stand being enslaved to fears or phobias, and while I haven’t let said air travel anxiety stop me from doing anything, per se, I also really wanted to bust through that and open it all up to perhaps even unseen possibilities.

There were milestones in this: like the flight I took when I suddenly realized I was watching out the window as the buildings below grew smaller and smaller (instead of trying to breathe evenly through takeoff while clutching the arm rests), or the bumpy flight in which I said something assuring to a passenger who was near tears (knowing I would have met her same level of stress myself not so long ago.).

But, knowing that domestic travel differs from international travel, I also realized that my trip to South Africa this week would put all this progress to the test.

On Saturday, after the radio show wrapped up, I went home to quickly finish packing and started to realize the combination of pre-radio caffeine, the excitement for the journey ahead and the schpilkes of knowing the hour of the early alarm threatened to keep me awake. But, no dread about flights. Good. So, I slept a few hours finally, then met the great Chicago Cabbie downstairs about 6am to head to the airport.

(We rode to the airport talking about ride-sharing and the overarching themes that bubble up when disruption and the need for rapid change hit any industry. And, indeed, industry disruption is very ‘up’ in conversations I’ve been having lately: I’m hearing musicians talking and thinking about streaming and business models just as drivers are talking and thinking about why their medallions for which they saved for years are now practically worthless, how certain ride-share companies are capsizing their livelihoods. Surely there are ethical and humanist ways to embrace technology as hard as we want and can and will and do. I digress…)

At O’Hare, the terminal was chaotic for a Sunday morning, with stressed travelers melting down, couples bickering their way into otherwise beautiful, dream vacations around the world, gate agents teetering on the edge of not giving a fuck. No dread or stress. Still cool.

I focused on the trip ahead and the espresso awaiting me on the other side of the security line, and struck up a conversation with a man stuck in line over resident papers while his wife and small daughters went ahead. The line moved, the espresso was located, a different man stopped me to tell me he thought I had a “sophisticated, European look” (hashtag people who have never seen me lovingly devour a plate of fried okra at a Cracker Barrel), and it was time to board. No dread or stress about the flights ahead.

***

DC– On the flight from Chicago to DC, the teenage boy I sat next to slept most of the trip, though he kept violently (and, I don’t use that word lightly) jumping awake, and the flight was one of the most turbulent I’ve been on before. Yet, no stress, no fear. The flight rocked and shook to the level that a woman a few rows ahead screamed at one point, but the calm stayed. No stress, no fear. Could it be that I’ve really successfully conquered flight anxiety?

After landing, I worked on my laptop for a a few hours at Dulles, though it didn’t seem like long, and watched the gate area fill up with people with beautiful South African accents.

***

When first beginning to study krav maga as a self defense system, I learned to reframe the way we think about fear in order to minimize it by isolating each aspect of a large fear into thin and specific layers, then addressing each layer, and eventually shrinking the fear but ruling out layer after layer. Perhaps the hardest layer to consider of flight anxiety is thinking about dying in manmade conditions.

That wasn’t weighing on me, per se, but I sat on the plane and sent a few text messages before takeoff and realized in doing so that I was craving something like a hug, a high-five, a you’re gonna love this, perhaps even a hey-you-will-be-missed-should-you-vanish-from-the-earth when I was struck with the idea that the truth of our modern world and gig economy is that most of us are just as in touch half a world away as we are down the street, for the most part. It’s the good news/bad news of the modern world, I suppose, in that unless you’re talking about a person with whom you fall asleep pressed against more nights than not, or a person who relies on you for care, most of us aren’t missed when we scurry around the world. To our friends and thanks to social media, we’re all in touch all the time, for the most part. That dawning on me half made me want to become more nomadic and work from all around the world, and half made me want to make a point to visit my close friends more often.

The flight attendants fed us, and people began to pass out. A cute baby belonging to a French-speaking family wanted to play peak-a-boo and pat my hair which was cute the first few hours, but I started to feel bad for the parents, as well as the rest of us, when the child was still cooing and giggling at the five hour mark. Better than wailing, to be sure, but not quiet by any stretch and I was starting to feel kind of fucked up from the lack of sleep Saturday night.

Yet, I was determined not to be a wimp about jetlag, and just power through and cowgirl up. I deeply and truly believe in positive thinking and in sucking it up and definitely in not complaining and in not being a whiny shithead, yet, I’m also a realist and in that moment, my back ached, I was itching to check in on social media, I felt squished and not having slept but three hours in the last day was starting to freak me out, afraid it would catch up with me and I’d crash and sleep through the very important workdays ahead. (Sidebar: I use this homeopathic jetlag supplement which I find helps take the edge off.)

Effectively sleeping on a plane comes down to these three options: upgrade and sleep in first class where you can stretch out; find an aisle you can have all to yourself and stretch out; or travel with someone you want to be (or at least don’t mind) pressing against while sleeping. Otherwise, you’re doomed to fidget and wiggle and annoy the shit out of your perfectly nice seatmate.

I finally reached up the back of my shirt and I unclipped my bra just to emulate something about my sleeping habits, listened to music and focused on the positive narrative attached to this: I’m going to Africa for the first time! Adventures await! I’m going to do work I find meaningful! Yay to all of those things.

***

DAKAR, SENEGAL– I woke to a sudden flurry of activity as flight attendants suddenly began to prepare for landing in Dakar, so I did get at least an hour and some change of sleep, ultimately.

A tiny humming orange peninsula of light came up on the horizon. We swept around and the full moon caught on the wing and the water below and it was gorgeous and perfect seeing big waves crash against the city as if in slow, sleepy motion. Dakar.

Further reading: The South African adventure: Dakar to Johannesburg, and Johannesburg to Cape Town

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