Up the aisle, a bony man struggles to shove his luggage into the compartment above. His elbows look like a branch off a yellow-bark acacia. If you walked into his elbow by accident you would die from excessive haemorrhage. Feet drag past, down the aisle, searching for their seats, urged along by the severe red-lipsticked smiles of the cabin attendants with their pale faces. Up comes a Somali man with four small girls in tow, him in his baggy trousers, yammering away in staccato Somali. He will later tell me in Doha, as we wait at the threshold of business class for the elites to disembark, that his final destination is Perth, Australia. Who goes to Aussie?
There is the usual skirmish of someone who sat in the wrong seat, eyes squint at ticket numbers, a flight attendant intervenes. How hard can it be to find seat 23C when it’s written on both your ticket and the bunker overhead? Finally it’s resolved without teargas. One of them unclips their seatbelt and relinquishes the seat. Muffled apologies are mumbled.
Behind them is a wailing baby. An Asian baby. Maybe Indian or Pakistani, modern Asian parents, in any case. The father has a trendy beard which he doesn’t want the baby to ruin, so the mother is carrying the baby. The mother is a thin flower, her long fragile stalk stopping at a bob style-like crown with trendy Ray Bans atop it. She has a small tattoo of a beetle or a ladybird on the sharp edge of her collarbone. Her baby – black curly hair, tiny pencil nose – is screaming at the top of his voice, like he’s being abducted. He has a vein on his forehead. It could be stress. Or a hangover. Or he hasn’t been fed in months. It could be anything.
I’m scared of that baby. I’m scared of babies on planes.
I’m thinking, “Lord, could you please not let your screaming baby sit with or near me today?” It’s not a very nice thought for someone with children to think but I think it and I’m almost certain everybody else is thinking it. There is an innate selfishness in people on a plane, they are mothers and fathers and nephews and uncles and nieces but nobody wants to sit next to a passenger with a crying baby. They want that baby to sit in the jump seat in the cockpit. Why not?
I take fearful, furtive looks at the baby and what I see doesn’t reassure me; the crying baby looks pissed off. His face seems to be saying, “I’m going to f*** up your flight, all of you smug adults with your novels and Kindles and headphones. You wait! Boy, am I going to scream loud!” The mother transfers him to the other hip and shushes him as she waits in that human jam in the aisle, searching for her seat. Everybody fears her. Even other women.
The seat next to me is not occupied yet, and neither are the seats right in front of and behind me, so there is a healthy probability that one of these seats is theirs. I know I was not a good person last week. I forget to pray. I don’t tithe. I make fun of SDAs. I have been saying I will go to a children’s home and give them foodstuff and diapers but I haven’t. Finally it seems God is going to slap me on the wrist. This crying baby is coming my way and he’s more than just a crying baby, he is a punishment.
I have not had any luck with babies on planes before.
A Kenyan lady from New York connecting in Amsterdam once sat in the seat in front of me with a baby. Because of the long haul, that baby was literally crying throughout, and boy did that Yankee baby cry?! And he had a loud voice. You know those babies who seem to have broken their voices at four months? That was the New York baby. He hollered loudly for so long and nothing the mom did could soothe him. At one point she held him against her chest to burp him. Have you seen a baby’s face after they have burped? They look guilty. I can also always tell a baby who has farted. They, too, look guilty. Babies can’t hide anything from me; not a fart or a burp.
This baby continued yelling after burping but I could tell he was now just pushing it because he knew he had an audience now. He was like a professional mourner in our funerals. I didn’t feel sorry for this baby but I did something foolish; I asked the mother if I could hold him. She gladly handed me the baby who, by the way, weighed a ton. What the hell was this baby eating in New York? Burgers and beer? The baby was a point-five baby. Big Republican cheeks. Miraculously he immediately stopped crying when I held him. I felt triumphant. I had the Midas touch, after all. It’s my soul. My soul calms babies.
What I didn’t know was that the baby was just thrown off for a bit; he was trying to comprehend if he had just been sold to me for being a crybaby. Maybe not sold, more like gifted because the market value of a crying baby in a plane is zero. The baby stared back at his mother and stared at me, probably thinking – What the hell is happening here? And who is this guy with a forehead smiling at me? Then he let loose. A loud howl like I had pinched him. I immediately tossed him back to his mother who took him back reluctantly.
That was a long flight.
But the thing with a crying baby is that at some point the screams become normal. The screaming becomes part of the normal atmosphere in the plane. You get used to it. In fact when the baby stops crying the silence sounds like noise. During this time you also learn the amazing capacity of humans to wear straight polite faces in the face of a yelling child in the plane. Nobody ever raises their head. Because it’s impolite; after all, weren’t we all once children? In fact, some of us have never stopped.
But if you think being in a plane with a crying baby is inconveniencing, you should try being the mother for just five minutes. It must be double hell for her; she’s exhausted and sleepy and irritated and frustrated. She doesn’t know what else to do with that baby to get her to sleep. She has tried everything; changed fresh diapers, fed her, burped her, sang to her, made faces at her, prayed for her. Nothing. On top of this her breast milk is probably leaking through her blouse. Maybe she also has post-baby weight to shed off, so she doesn’t particularly feel sexy or find anything sexy. Plus her feet are swollen like she’s pregnant again. She hasn’t eaten anything because the baby hasn’t let her. She can’t remember the last time she read a chapter of a book without the baby interrupting with cries. Her eyes are red from exhaustion and she is at the very end of her emotional tether. Forget the crying baby, that woman is a time bomb more dangerous than the 100 ml liquids that they don’t let us into the plane with. All you have to do is tell her one wrong word. Just one wrong word and the captain will have to come out.
So everybody looks away. Lest she locks eyes with you.
I say a small prayer as the Asian family approach with their human siren. Everybody says a small prayer: Lord, show me a sign of your compassion. Show me that you are not a vindictive God. If nothing else, please cover that baby’s mouth with your hand.
You know, babies and drunks have always been my waterloo in planes. I never ever get a chance to sit next to a hot chick in flights like some men. Good things like that never happen to me. Airlines have devised a watertight algorithm to lock me out of sitting next to a hot chick. And it’s all good because you can’t fight a hot chick for the armrest. Well, you can. But you shouldn’t.
There are things that travel insurance covers that make sense. ICEA LION, for 2,000 bob, covers against the usual things like being bumped off to the next flight and losing a day of your accommodation at your destination. Or if an airline sends your luggage to Karachi while you were going to Nigeria and so you end up buying strange Nigerian lotion and socks. Or if you are arrested for jaywalking in Boston, because you are Kenyan and you are used to crossing the road anywhere you damned well please. Or if you ate a 4K meal because the airline delayed their flight.
I think travel insurance should also consider covering sitting next to a wailing baby, but only for flights that take more than four hours. Because there are tons of things travel insurance covers that don’t make as much sense as the real danger of sitting next to a crying baby. I mean, what are the odds that I would walk through a glass door in Sao Paulo and break it (and my nose) in the process? Or that I doze off in a park bench in Bangalore and a monkey steals my camera? Or that I am arrested in Japan during their random police checks because I stepped out of the hotel without my passport. Or I break a leg in Addis, or pop an eardrum in Amsterdam or contract dengue fever in Morocco or get food poisoning or herpes in Bangkok. Or for some reason I decide to desecrate a national monument in Nice, France, or get arrested for peeing on a fence in London?
The odds of these things happening are so low, at least for me, but sitting next to a crying baby? Or a drunk? Those two are plausible. People who drink during flights are annoying. Because they want to talk. They want to know where you are going. And what you do. They lean in and ask, “What book is that you are reading?” And you want to say, “Oh, it’s a whodunit about a guy who was found dead by the cabin crew at the end of a flight, a plastic fork lodged in his throat.” Then they are always waking you up and excusing themselves as they step over you, to go to the loo. Then they snore when they sleep. Cover me against this, instead of the possibility of being arrested in Dubai for indecent “lewd” public behaviour.
The Asian family neared my seat, with the man staring at the seat numbers overhead, his lips moving slightly. The cries of his baby followed behind him. I looked out the window hoping that they would pass, instead I heard a voice say, “Excuse me, I think you are in my seat.” I turned around to see which other idiot had sat in someone’s seat. The Asian guy was looking at me. His wife was looking at me. His baby had stopped crying and was now looking at me. The whole plane seemed to be looking at me.
I looked at my ticket and looked at the seat number. Shit.