I don’t recall my first time. And it breaks my heart. I want to recall the screaming and screeching and the sudden feeling of leaving the ground, of floating and soaring into another universe. Maybe I had closed my eyes, afraid to allow this unfamiliar pleasure to possess me. I’m almost certain my heart was galloping away, my breath caught in my throat in small bubbles of exhilaration and fear. I’m sure I didn’t know what the hell to do because who can claim to know what to do the first time? And nobody wants to ask. Because it’s embarrassing. You want to pretend that you know your way around this experience, that it’s not your first rodeo, that you do this all the damn time. I know I was stiff and I’m almost certain that it was brief, that it ended before it even started. And when it ended, I might have thought; yeah, I’d love to do that again.
Sadly, I don’t remember all that. Because when you have been there many many times, you might forget your first one.
But can you imagine the wonder of aviation? You get into the bowels of this big bird with sometimes hundreds of other people and you lift off the ground, rising to an altitude beyond oxygen, above all the clouds and rain, a place where the temperatures fall below – 45 degrees centigrade and you are up there for hours and hours, sometimes over vast amounts of water! This heavy phenomenon weighing 161,000 Kgs, steered by two souls in white shirts with gold stripes on their shoulders, fellows who speak normally in person but who sound completely different over the passengers’ PA system when they gain altitude. A flying plane is a rabbit pulled out of a hat.
When you start flying you are just glad you are flying. You are grateful for the experience. You wake up so early to go to the airport, maybe some relatives come to see you off. You want to sit at the window so that you can see the tarmac run by swiftly, so that you can see the ground recede and see the world like a bird does. You stare at clouds for hours. You want the chicken and you want the beef. You want the wine and the beer. And the dessert. You enjoy looking at the clouds and how the earth looks rumpled, like an unmade bed. You love the sound of the seatbelt sign coming on. You love to track the location of the plane on the screen map. You hang onto your ticket, a souvenir, for many months after.
You are still innocent, your aviatic virginity has not been shattered yet. Which means you are blissfully unaware that you are in the animal farm and that some animals are more equal than you. You are just grateful that you are in the plane, that you are flying and that if you press a knob overhead, a pretty girl will show up with a smile and say, “yes, sir. How can I help?” But then the more you fly the more it starts becoming commonplace and the more your eyes open to certain things, key among them being the curtain in the plane.
The day you discover what goes on behind the curtain is the day you are forever ruined. It’s the day your innocence is snatched, the proverbial bite of the Biblical apple. Suddenly you are aware that there are two types of people who fly commercial in the world. Those who get on the plane and turn left and those who turn right. A majority of us will always turn right. Problem with this realisation of how the other side flies is that you are no longer happy with merely flying. You are suddenly inconvenienced with sharing an armrest. The food suddenly tastes bland. You hate the cutlery. You acquire a new language of complaints in your vocabulary; you introduce new phrases like ‘legroom.’ Not that your legs have suddenly grown longer, no. They are still as short as ever. You are only now aware that there are people on the same flight who have the option of stretching their legs.
And slowly you learn to dislike them. Then you hate them.
You hate them because they are in what’s called The Business Class and you are in Economy. That word ‘economy’ itself suddenly sounds so derogatory. The meaning screams: using no more of something than is necessary. Or careful not to waste money or resources. Frugal.
Personally, the day I discovered that there were people who fly Business is the day hate entered my heart. And for me, the realisation was the damn curtain. I hated how they drew it during meal times, creating a wall between us and them. I had the urge to stand up and shout, “Oh yeah, go ahead and draw the curtains on us, because we have nothing to do on this flight but ogle at the high and mighty eat. Oh, God forbid we should watch the aristocrats chew!” I’d probably be told, politely, “Mr. Jackson, if you continue bothering other passengers the captain will have you apprehended.” To which I’d shout, “the hell with the captain! He’s not the boss of me!” When we land, cops would be waiting for me with bracelets for jeopardising the safety of other passengers.
The more I flew the more I slowly realised that I didn’t actually hate these people who flew Business, that it was actually deep envy. I envied them so much I hoped they choked on their medium rare steak. I hoped the pinotage they chugged in the cabin behind the curtains stained their teeth forever. Or that a bag from the overhead cabin would fall on their heads, not to break their necks, but just to give them a concussion.
The first time I flew Business, I was stunned. Forget the short flights in these small planes. I mean, it’s pointless to fly Business to Kisumu. What you really want is to fly Business on a long haul flight in a big bird like an Airbus or a Dreamliner; it’s mind-blowing. It’s intoxicating. It’s a ruinous luxury. It fundamentally alters your composition to your very core, shifts everything you thought you knew about contentment. It makes you wonder why some men are rewarded with privilege while others have to settle for sharing a seat with someone who naps on your shoulder and drools.
I learnt the other day that Business Class is called Wasafiri wa daraja la juu in Kiswahili.
“Darajah” in Arabic means stature, prestige, dignity, order, status, rank. It’s basically an echelon. Upper echelon. Or in other words, daraja might also mean, “ye from behind the curtain.” To fly Business class is to be convenienced, that’s the whole essence of it.
Often when I’m turning right to find my seat in the cattle class section of the plane, I sometimes catch glimpses of those who travel Business before someone takes their coat. And I often wonder, what the hell does he or she do for a living? Because it’s easy to hate on people in Business, I always say dismissively, fine, he could be a businesswoman or man but from that gaudy watch it could also most likely be corruption money. Mostly, I try to find the worst crime to accuse them of. Maybe they run an NGO for orphans and widows and they syphon half the money into their pockets. Maybe they are drug dealers who will one day have their day in court. I hope that day is in Malaysia or China. Maybe they are Trust Fund kids. Maybe they are unhappy. It’s easy to imagine people of great means and resources being unhappy. Makes us sleep better.
Of course most of them are C-suite people on business travels paid for by their companies. Or they are businessmen with companies. One time in Business Class, unable to reign in my curiosity, I asked this ageing Indian fellow what he does for a living and he said simply, “I manufacture buttons.” I said, “Just buttons?” he laughed and said, “Yeah, just buttons.” His buttons have never left my head. Buttons, for the love of Mike!
Here is how the fellow who ends up in Business Class flies.
When he wakes up on the day of travel his wife is seated at the dresser, applying her make-up. He’s probably been married for 24 years, so he’s a bit bored and she’s a bit bored but they love each other. She looks at him through the mirror and says, “you overslept, you must have been really tired.” He scratches the small patch of beard on his chin and yawns while stretching. He keeps hair on his armpit because when he shaves he gets boils from ingrowns, so he keeps the hair. “Yeah, I was wiped. What time is it?”
“6:46am,” the wife says, “what time is your flight?”
“12pm, but I might have to nip into the office for an hour.” (Of course he’s the kind of fellow who uses the word ‘nip’.)
“You better get cracking, then.” She uses a soft brush to powder her face. Plumes of dust leap in the air. They have three children who all, thankfully, look like her.
Now he’s in an Uber, a weird looking car that looks like something from a douche kit. “What do you call this vehicle?” He asks the Uber guy looking up from his tab, where he was responding to emails.
“Toyota Porte.” the driver says.
“It sure is very spacious inside.” He says going back to his tab.
“Yes, but it doesn’t look spacious from outside.”
They are on Expressway because the Business Class traveler’s life is about maximising the value of his time as best he can. The radio is classical music which the driver says is gospel classical on Family Radio 316. He likes talking to cab drivers. He likes talking, period. He learns he’s called Onchonga Evans and he’s got three kids like him even though he looks about 31 but turns out he’s 40 years old!
“You don’t look 40!” He says. “ And three kids already!”
“I get that a lot. I guess because of my body frame.” Evans says. “And three kids isn’t a lot. My uncle has 17 kids.”
He whistles. “From one wife?”
“Yeah,” he laughs. “Guys in the village tend to have many kids.”
He gets off at the drop off at JKIA’s Terminal 1A. Now at this point the wheat starts getting separated from the chaff because there are two points of departure. There is the entrance to the right where everybody-else enters. These are people who are leaving. Then there is another entrance for the Business and First Class. These are people who are departing. He will drag his suitcase through this doorway, past the security checks and then to the passport control station because a very efficient person named Fridah from the office would have already checked this guy in. Once past passport control, he will ride the escalators while scrolling through his phone, for what, we will never know. Maybe monitoring the stock exchange. Maybe sending an email to the Board. Maybe reading an email from the daughter who’s in university abroad. Or he might also just be on Instagram, looking at a picture of a girl dancing in booty shorts. Who the hell knows what these C-suiters do on their phones?
At the security check upstairs there will be more things separating him from the rest of the commoners. He will head straight to the Sky Priority section which has fewer people. If you were blind-folded, do you know how you would know you are in an ordinary check-in as opposed to priority check-in? Because you would feel someone’s hot breath on your neck. I don’t know if it’s just Kenyans but we have complete disregard for personal space in queues. Most people will literally be smelling your neck. Nobody cares for your personal space, we are always in a hurry to bloody go, especially in supermarkets. We stand so close to each other you’d think we are all in a relationship. Hell, even in relationships people need their space.
He will walk though, past the Duty Free shenanigans, he will see the cologne he wore a few years ago – Allure by Chanel – and red memories of that season will come rushing at him. Flashes of big windows and deep sighs, a lonely drive down a road with no sidewalks, a small dog with a pink tongue, calls that went to voicemail. He will swallow as he heads to the Business Lounge. The Business Lounge is where your ilk gather as you wait for flights. There is food. You can also help yourself to a drink, if you choose. Most of these folks will just settle for chilled juice. Or maybe a gin and tonic if it’s a late flight. Alcohol isn’t a fascination to him because these people have bars at home and bars in their office. There is also silence in the lounge because people who travel Business don’t suffer small talk. Money is a buffer. It’s a chasm, to cross it you use a long bridge of wealth. So most sit working on their devices, one leg draped over the other.
There are lots of women in lounges. There are more and more women in lounges because now women are running ships. They look more severe than their male counterparts because they have to shed more blood and dig through more trenches to get there. The battle scars are written on their faces. They have seen things. They have learnt in which rooms to draw their swords and in which to keep it all sheathed. They know a thing about wind and when to raise your sail and when to lower it. They will cut you if they have to. And as you bleed they will go home and hug and kiss their children. They learnt from men, this cold art of war, then they upgraded it. There is one seated at the window, she’s wearing white Nike sneakers and jeans. On her neck are pearls. Drops of Jupiter. You know what pearls say? Pearls say less while meaning more. Their eyes meet momentarily as he walks towards the table by the window and there is a deep recognition and respect, a subliminal one, like a wolf meeting a Chow Chow. They don’t nod at each other because what the hell do you think this is, high tea?
When his flight is called, he walks to the boarding gate. No, he strides to the boarding gate. For folk who fly Business don’t walk anymore.
Of course he’s boarding before the rest, because commoners like to rush and breathe on your neck. The hostess smiles and says, “welcome and enjoy your flight, sir.” At the entrance another hostess says, “welcome and enjoy your flight, sir.”
He turns left in the plane. He doesn’t know what happens on the right anymore. He once knew but now he don’t, like my son likes to say. He doesn’t care for the savagery that ensues there anymore. The confusion of folk who can’t read their seat numbers correctly. The petty fights over armrests are no longer his jam. The even pettier fights over window seats left behind.
Can’t you just take the aisle seat?
No, actually I can’t. My ticket reads C-45 and C-45 is where you are seated.
But a seat is just a seat.
No, a seat isn’t just a seat otherwise you would sit on your seat.
I think you are being petty.
Petty? Are you kidding me? You are in my seat! Get off my seat, please.
I don’t like your tone.
And I don’t like your face.
You know what, I’m not leaving, eject me if you can.
I will report you to the captain.
Boo-hoo! Go ahead, you little crybaby with tiny rat teeth.
Summoning the hostess: excuse me, excuse me, this one has taken my seat.
Air hostess: Kids, please stop fighting.
He started it.
I hate you!
Oh God, none of that pre-flight melee anymore. He has done his time, made his bones.
A hot towel is handed to him by someone who was born smiling. It must be tiring, to smile through an 8-hour flight, to wear it like a hat. To constantly smile even when you are unhappy, when your child is sick at home, when you are having major cramps and back pains, to smile through some jackassery.
He is handed a vanity pack of sorts that contains bathroom items. He tosses them aside, he doesn’t need any more vanity in his life than he already has. The seat is something else. It’s so wide and big he can raise children in it. He can incline it all the way back, turning it into a bed. The onboard entertainment screen is massive. Other passengers are settling in; removing their coats and jackets, fluffing their pillows, retrieving their laptops from bags, wiping their spectacles.
A hostess extends a tray, “champagne, juice or water, sir?” The smile again, like a tattoo on her face. She sets the glass of champagne on a white coaster. He says ‘thank you’, like his momma taught him. He looks outside at the tarmac, the airport crew in reflector jackets walk about. A vehicle drives by. The sky is as blue as the sea.
He hears hearty laughter. Across the aisle is a man. A very colourful man. He’s wearing an orange suit that looks like something made from an ostrich tail. On his neck hangs the noose of an orange scarf. He’s sipping champagne. Probably a fashion designer, he thinks to himself, looking away. No way in hell that guy is an auditor or a hedge fund manager. Behind him is another fellow he was talking to, he looks familiar. Yeah, he’s on TV. Yeah, he calls himself The Wild Wild Willis. Willis flashes him a peace sign and he gasps. He is mortified. He doesn’t want to be associated with gangs. He wills himself not to look in their direction again. They might try selling him contraband or a mix-tape.
He looks out the window at the Kenyan colour on the wings of the aircraft and feels a brief heady moment of patriotism, because say what you may but the Kenyan flag is beautiful and energetic. He recalls the time he was once marooned for over 24 hours in a cold hotel in Schiphol Airport because of bad weather, a particularly nasty winter. How homesick he was. How when they were taken to the airport to try if they could fly, he saw the smooth large nose of a Kenya Airways plane and its familiarity in that miserable cold Europe, got him so emotional.
The plane leaves the ground, leaves Nairobi, leaves Kenya. It’s a Dreamliner, which means it just hisses through clouds. He can feel its robustness. It’s power. It’s confidence. They cart in the food. The airline has revamped its dining experience in Business and Economy class cabins for long and medium haul flights. Anybody flying Business for flights above seven hours will now be served hot meals in proper dinner plates. No more signature rectangular casseroles lined on a rectangular base plate. None of that.
He will have an appetiser of creamy quinoa salad and then follow it with Thai Red chicken thigh with rice, sauteed snow pears, turned carrot and red pepper. He will then have an almond and lemon cream tart for dessert and order a pinotage as the plane flies over other African countries. The hostess will come and ask, “more wine, sir?” and since he isn’t one to abuse hospitality or a smile, he will have more wine. By the time the seatbelt sign is switched on and seatbelts are clicking in readiness for landing, he will be feeling warm inside.
The other last beauty of Business Class is that when time comes to disembark, there is never a mad rush, the great wildebeest migration, the usual crashing exodus to flee the plane. Nobody pushes or shoves you. Nobody tries to run out of the plane before you. The hostess stands at the iron curtain, holding back the sea of people from the other side, just waiting to run out. As he deplanes he will lock eyes with one of those fellows and he will recognise himself.
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