The recycled air has a steady scent of human flatulence, which cloaks any odor my own person may exude. Diet, drinking habits and dynamic posture are a loss on these transnational journeys that I’ve come to sort of get used to by virtue of working internationally, so my mind is really on my sister’s trip, which is her graduation gift to herself after medical school, and my brother who has never flown off the North American continent. After two decades of exploring different parts of our own continent, living in different time zones and intersecting in fractions at family holidays that were suggested rather than mandatory, this trip is a “getting to know the person you’ve become” adventure, even though I pitched it to them as a “get to know the country of your origins” vacation.
In the supermarket just before my flight, I get that tingling anxiety of encountering a known temporal deadline. I’m nervous of missing my flight for the entire day before lift off and my stomach wrenching isn’t mitigated by waiting in the airport for 4–6 hours before boarding. It’s not just that I’ve missed flights before. There’s something about anticipating something you might miss, although even if you don’t it’s discomforting. It’s an ambivalent apprehension of the inconvenience of missing the gate or making it just to be crammed for hours in physical discomfort. It must what any terminal patient feels once his death date is announced.
This Boeing 777–800 is a bus. Only on international flights does one see so many people in a plane. At what point in the world’s population did airline companies realize that they could find, sell and fly almost 400 people from North America to Saigon? I mean, I’m sure that the Vietnam War, refugees, and improved political relationships between the two countries played a large part in that, as it is playing also in the predicate of this trip for me, but the sheer number of incidental desires to travel there, to travel at all, to have the infrastructure of travel, must too be a function of reproduction and lowered child mortality.
Clouds verge on tangibility seen from above. Where terrestrial remarks of a day’s cloud condition refers to the level of sunniness and hotness, from above it refers to the cloud objects, types of clouds seen. The shadows cast onto the earth correspond to the size and shape of the cloud, just as one would expect but rarely experiences from the ground. If blanketing the view, the clouds become a textured material creating the air space in which you sit. If passing through a cloud, its obscurant density isolates you from the world. But I don’t see this, really, just the tiny monitor playing a wide variety of bad movies.
Flying over Hong Kong, I’m struck by how contained the city is from the hills and forests of each island. How much is Macao and where Hong Kong begins or ends is unclear to me, but the entire area looks will designed, ordered, and livable. While allegedly very dense, the towering buildings have the human space between then that recall planned neighborhoods of Bogotá, wide boulevards and parks that tempted even Le Courbousier’s notion of spacious urban design, although most of his plans weren’t laid.
Phúc meets me at the airport. The crowds that form in familiar enthusiasm for travelers is something we’ve lost in the individuated society of America. There’s something transcendental about wondering out of an airport, sweaty and disheveled, wearily peering through a scenery of people held at bay by a railing that is surely more symbolic than fortified, trying to find that face you barely remember and then suddenly being ‘alright’ when your fading memory is jolted by the smiling grace of that person who’s come to collect you. That’s an international flight in a developing country. It’s categorically the opposite of catching an Uber.
Aline calls me from HCMC and asks about our hotel. I realize I have fumbled the dates and our check-in for today’s hotel isn’t for 12 more hours, which makes us roomless for the evening. My date of departure has lapsed into the second day of the trip — my first day abroad and I haven’t even slept! Booking something and sending her the directions is no issue, with smartphones and internet, i.e. the world in which we live today, but! I realize this will become the tip of a crutch that will wield our relationship for the next two weeks. A polevault of moments in which I’ll try to frame the phrase, “Can you google that?” politely.
By 1 am, Phúc is at Tân Sơn Nhất and drives me to drop off my luggage before we have beers in District 4. The garbage is being collected across the street. Restaurants poor the organic waste in the gutter and a guy in a truck pulls up, sweeps it into a shovel and mosies down the street. Pretty much the same manner as New York City, except with less black plastic bags. My stomach’s untwisted at the familiar.