Fear in flight

By Tom Hewitson

What have I done?

It’s the middle of the night yet blazing sunlight burns my eyes. Outside the mountains of Afghanistan slip at glacial pace belying our speed. I’m sitting in the penultimate row of the 21:45 direct London to Bangkok. And I’m on my own.

I take a swig of water and try to steady my nerves. My mouth is like sandpaper. This time I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.

When I decided, in a flash of spontanaity, that I was going to quit a dream job at a national newspaper and backpack around the world I had no fears. I didn’t think perhaps in this economy leaving a stable job wasn’t a good idea. I didn’t think that getting out of a recently signed contract on a spacious South London flat would be incredibly painful and expensive. I didn’t even think of the Masters graduation that I would miss. My only thought was: at last!

Since the age of fourteen I’ve had a tatty, homemade world map held together with strips of sellotape across the back. On this map there are tens of little red crosses – places I wanted to visit. TV, books and friends had introduced them to me but a decade of daydreams had given them a colour and urgency that made every accidental glance a stomach clenching mistake.

Despite a failed but fairly violent mugging in western France that forcibly curtailed my only other solo trip due to an inability to change my own bandages, I knew I wanted to go alone. This trip was about me and my place in the world. Go with someone else and the whole point would be lost.

However, as I contemplate a whole year alone this rationale becomes increasingly difficult to remember. I want to get up, run around, do something. Anything. Just as long as I don’t keep obsessing. But of course I can’t. Most of the cabin is asleep and I’ve already watched all the in-flight movies. I listlessly flick to the animated map of the plane on it’s journey, hoping to derail my train of thought long enough to fall asleep. It doesn’t. Instead I watch the time to destination tick towards zero and think of my family.

When I told my Mum and Dad that I was leaving they urged me to think of my career, of the risk I was taking. When I told them I was certain they just smiled. They knew how long I had dreamed of leaving and now I was finally making it happen. As they stood outside the security gate at Heathrow and waved me goodbye I fought the flow of the crowd, hoping to keep them in view for just a few more seconds. How would I last a whole year without their advice and support?

And what about my friends? Maybe one or two had let me down in recent times but I would still miss them. Would they miss me? Would they even remember who I was by the time I got back?

The seat-belt alarm bongs as the captain instructs the crew to “prepare for landing”. This is it. Asia. The adventure I craved is just minutes away. All the thoughts of those I’ll miss and the loneliness I dread evaporate as I realize that I’ve somehow got to get from Bangkok airport to the center of a sprawling city of 12 million where the vast majority of signs are in Sanskrit.

As I heft my bag onto my back and step through the sliding glass doors of the arrival lounge I can’t help but smile, whatever happens I won’t be bored.

Next time: Bangkok – sin in the city of angels


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