"Do you have any more surprises, Mom?"
Thomas turns to face me, but his stare penetrates the luggage bin three feet above my head. He wills me to pop it open, pull down my carry-on bag, and relieve his mid-flight boredom with some novel entertainment.
"I'm not sure what's left, Thomas, but hang on a minute and I'll check."
Jon has just fallen asleep against my shoulder. I shift his head onto the armrest, unfasten my seatbelt and kick blankets, books, and shoes from beneath my feet. The tray is stacked with half-eaten meals; I steady the orange juice and sausages with one hand and shimmy into the aisle. My neck cracks as I reach for the carry-on. I find a crushed bag of Goldfish crackers, a yogurt bar, and a write-and-wipe number book. Not much, but something.
"Here you go, love."
Thomas takes one look and flops over in his seat. "I don't want that!" he screams into the floor of the airplane.
The heads of neighboring passengers twitch just enough to let me know they've heard. I should reprimand. I should kneel down on the crumb-ridden floor, look Thomas in the eye and quietly discuss this behavior.
But to hell with it. I'm tired, he's tired. We're into the second leg of our trip now, a 12-hour day-flight from Amsterdam to Cape Town. Thomas slept maybe three or four hours on the previous flight, the overnighter from Toronto -- not nearly enough to feel like counting or math. I cut him some slack and leave him to glower at the emergency floor lighting. Besides, there can't be long to go now; feels like we've been on this plane forever. I check the handy flight tracker at the head of the aisle.
REMAINING FLIGHT TIME: 9 HOURS 14 MINUTES
It can't be.
9 HOURS 13 MINUTES
I sulk back into my seat, under the meal trays, over the shoes and books, and into my seat belt. I close my eyes. Jon squirms awake in the seat beside me.
"Mommy, I need to pee...."
We've made the two-day journey back and forth between Canada and Cape Town five times now, and as I write this column we're preparing for our sixth, a vacation to see family in Ontario and Nova Scotia. On our first intercontinental trip, our relocation to Cape Town, Thomas was three years old and the twins, Alex and Jon, had just turned two. I packed diapers, soothers, and blankies, took off in a fog of naivetÃ©, and landed close to catatonic. On our last flight, that marathon trip from Amsterdam, Alex and Jon were four years old, and Thomas almost six. The boys had grown older, and I had grown wiser. Those remaining nine hours and thirteen minutes gave me ample time to reflect on all I'd learned in fifty thousand miles of travel.
In case you've ever doubted, it's true: night time is the right time. The long day-flight was experimental. On all other trips, we've flown overnight on the longest leg, even if it meant a lay-over between flights. In my experience, kids will sleep on night-flights -- provided you switch off all video screens. They won't have nearly a full night's rest, but they might give you four hours peace on an eight-hour flight. That's better than no hours of peace, which is what you usually get on a day-flight.
I must credit Alex with my second lesson in travel. Alex is our miniature powerhouse. Built like a three-and-a-half foot triathlete, with a metabolism to match, he doesn't take well to confinement. Our first visit back to Canada entailed two long-haul flights, one extensive delay and one short-haul hop. Alex drifted to sleep on that last leg -- a brief commuter flight, passengers all fresh-faced and relaxed -- only to wake in sheer, ear-splitting terror to find himself still strapped into a plane. On the return trip to Cape Town several weeks later, my husband and I convinced him that the flights would be shorter.
"Yes, Alex, that's right. Just one short jaunt over the ocean, one teeny, tiny plane ride after that and we'll be home!"
But we were mid-Atlantic, halfway to London, and a good twenty hours from home when Alex came to realize he'd been duped. Each time the plane changed altitude or the engine noise diminished, he gathered his hopes for landing. When an airport failed to materialize from the clouds, he became incensed. With rising volume and indignation, he wailed, "It's... taking... too... long...."
From that trip forward, we've told the kids exactly how many planes to expect, and whether the flights will be short or long. They now know that "long" entails dinner, night and sleep, with landing sometime after breakfast. On short flights, they anticipate the juice trolley, but no longer hold out for snacks. The boys, in fact, have become quite savvy travelers. They drop their backpacks on the rollers at the security check and haul them off at the other side. They count the numbers along the airport corridors until we reach our gate, and then plop down to rest, as weary as any global traveler.
And long-haul travelers do grow weary. As airlines economize and airports tighten security, air travel no longer seems part of a holiday, but rather a trial to endure en route. Further into that interminable flight from Amsterdam, I stumbled up and down the aisle with one cranky, restless, apple-juice-soaked preschooler after another, and thought: Yep, this sucks. Then I thought again.
Sure, the plane was cramped, the toilets reeked and we hadn't slept much. Consecutive long-haul flights with three small boys are as exhausting as they sound. On the other hand, we'd been fed, and plied with pillows and in-flight entertainment. Statistically, we could count on a safe arrival home. And we'd just enjoyed a three-week holiday with family and friends on the other side of the world. Fifty thousand miles of flying sounds extravagant -- and it is.
After all I have seen in South Africa, all I have described in Mother City Mama so far -- poverty, violence, disparity, racism -- my tolerance for whining has plummeted. I cringe, for instance, to hear my boys complain that dinner is too hot, too green, too spicy, too much. I cringe to hear myself complain as well. Don't get me wrong, I still do it. No doubt the check-in lines will prove too slow on our upcoming trip, the in-flight coffee inevitably weak. But I also try -- try -- to step back and see the bigger, often brighter picture.
So, still on that flight from Amsterdam, I fumbled the boys back to their seats and nestled them under blankets. I lifted the window shade beside Jon's head. It had grown dark outside. Pinpricks of light clustered into constellations above. On the ground below, similar constellations -- twinkling, silver dots -- snaked along riverbanks, radiated at tributaries, swelled into towns and cities. We were somewhere in southern Africa, maybe over Angola or the DRC.
"Jon, look," I said.
"Like a shiny necklace," Jon said, his nose against the window.
Then he sank down, squirmed in his seat, asked for more juice, searched for his stuffed frog, dropped his blanket, and fell asleep against my shoulder. I looked back out the window. Yes, like a necklace. Brilliant, bright, I might even call it beautiful.