Monday 26 January 2009

If I was ‘Delayed Indefinitely’, am I still there?

Back in the days before digital doodads, the Departures and Arrivals boards in airports used to display information on ladders of plastic slats, and when a plane left or landed, the whole gismo would suddenly go shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty-shifty, as the slats flew around to assimilate the new information. The whole effect was quite trippy and hypnotic, because the names and numbers appeared to flow upwards, like the waters of a river, as the sign updated itself.
25 years ago I was sitting on a seat in Auckland airport watching just such a sign. As was my youthful travelling way back then, I’d slept in the airport to save money, patiently waiting to take my first step towards Australia, via Noumea, or New Caledonia, as the imperialists would have it.
I didn’t really want to go to Noumea at all, but to score the cheap flight to Sydney, I had to travel with an airline called UTA, the less well-known Pacific branch of Air France. All the young travellers flew UTA around the Pacific Rim in those days, despite the fact that the French cared for the airline just as they treated the people of their Polynesian colonies: with contempt, neglect and disregard for health.
With the now common exodus of young people on Round-The-World trips, I’m sure that standards have risen enormously, but then, among we few travellers, UTA stood for ‘Unknown Time of Arrival’, with flights invariably delayed, overbooked or cancelled.
But boy, were they cheap! Even though UTA pilots always seemed to plot a course across the Pacific Ocean through every lightning-flashing thunder-crashing storm, I flew them all the time, simply because without them I couldn’t afford to travel.
My flight to Noumea had been delayed for a few hours, but it was estimated at 09:30, so I shuffled off to the bathroom to wash and make myself feel almost human. It had been another long wait, but as long as I’m ready and have everything I need, this control freak can do all the waiting that’s out there.
But it would be good to move on. I’d enjoyed an unbelievably wonderful few months, hitching around New Zealand, but after the relative solitude of the road I was eager to reach Australia, to see old friends who had decades before left England.
But I had some reservations about this trip to Noumea, if you’ll excuse the pun. There was a civil war going on there, especially notable as a triangular conflict. There were the colonial Caldoches, the native Kanaks and the regular French (if anyone can really be called ‘regular’ when operating in a country as far away from their own as it is possible to go in this world), all having a go at each other over an island rich in nickel.
There’s always a natural resource in the mix somewhere. War follows natural resources as poopers follows peepers.
Having scraped the detritus of another rough night’s sleeping off my teeth and tongue, I threw my blue bag over my shoulder and walked with vigour towards to check-in desk. Passing the Departures board, I threw it a cursory glance, more out of habit than interest, and off it went, as if propelled by my very own eyes:
shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty-shifty.
shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty,-shifty shufty-shufty-shifty.
The ripple of slatty movement arrived at the slat with my own flight on it, and whoooshhhh! It was off, moving around, who knew if up or down...
shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty-shifty shufty-shufty-shifty.
shufty-shufty-shifty, shufty-shufty-shifty shufty-shufty-shifty.
My feet were frozen mid-stride as I waited for the plastic flow to settle.
And there it was.
UTA flight to Noumea: ‘Delayed Indefinitely’.
Delayed indefinitely? What did that mean? I have seen all manner of delays; every possible reason any airline or airport might give to delay a flight, but ultimately, always either ‘Cancelled’ or ‘Estimated at...’.
Only UTA could come up with ‘Delayed Indefinitely’.
No. No no pleeeeeeeaaaaase no. I was here all bloody night and everything was okay until I went to brush my teeth and then there was the bad shufty-shufty-shifty and now what? Some kind of existential holding pattern?
Was I meant to sit there for the rest of my life?
And what of that plane? Had it left L.A. or not? If it hadn’t, then when was it going to, and if it had, how was it delayed indefinitely?
A gaggle of emaciated sunburned young things were crowded into the tiny UTA office by the time I got there, so I heard from several over-excited youthfully exuberant types that our plane had come down on Vanuatu; had been hijacked in Tahiti; had crash landed into the ocean; had an engine on fire and had to turn back...
To this day I still don’t know what happened to that plane. Instead, void of Kiwi dollars and resigned to my fate, I waited another 24 hours in that airport, trying to enjoy and learn from the experience of being delayed indefinitely.
Bring on the æons.
Delay me for epochs, see if I care, declared the control freak inside me defiantly.
I’m not sure if I really learned my lesson that day, because I am still a passenger on my very own Control Freak Express, departing Freedom City daily, stopping at Anxiety, Stress, Exhaustion and all stations to Self-Inflicted Misery.
Still, the delay meant that I had only three days to get through on Noumea instead of four, and then I would be in Australia at last. Three days on a tropical island? How bad could that possibly be, compared to being stuck, ‘Delayed Indefinitely’, in an airport?
Well, quite bad, as it turned out. The Scouser lad that sat next to me on the bus from Noumea Airport to the hotel decided it was would be a great idea - “Crackin’ “ - to get out his huge camera and take lots of photos of all the military planes and tanks lined up in the fields outside.
He was promptly arrested and yanked off the bus, never to be seen again. Suspected of being his companion, I was placed under house arrest, unable to leave a tiny room for the entirety of my stay.
One minute I’m delayed indefinitely, freed from everything but progress for all eternity.
The next I’m imprisoned, stuck for a finite time into a tiny space.
Life’s wee tricks, eh? No wonder I’m a control freak. Sod it, if that’s the worst of me, I came out okay.

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