My Very Own Seinfeld Episode at 35,000 Feet

UPDATED - see note at end of post.

I think you’ll enjoy this story of my SAA flight from Johannesburg to New York on my way back from a South African Safari nearly two years ago.

It was August 27, 2014 and my good friend and I were home bound after a glorious 12-day safari.

We try to fix the outside so much, but our control of the outer world is limited, temporary, and often, illusory.
— Matthieu Ricard

Our inbound flight to Johannesburg had been tough to handle so I intended tomake the best of this 15.5-hour flight. 

Little did I know how much this decision would matter.

We boarded and settled in with me taking the aisle seat...and then it started.

A Tale of Two Seats

Crisis #1 - An altercation over changes to seat assignment erupted just two rows ahead of us. Accusations, including bribery, are exchanged and an attendant gets involved to diffuse the situation. Luckily, a few understanding people play musical airplane seats and all parties quiet down.

We hadn’t left the ground yet.

At this point I thought “Wow. Is this any indication of how the rest of the flight will go?”

But I Had it on the Last Flight!

Crisis #2 - A woman two seats to my left across the aisle who is obviously on her first international trip, asks for the attendant who just finished serving the meal. 

Happiness is a state of inner fulfillment, not the gratification of inexhaustible desires for outward things.
— Matthieu Ricard

Here’s how the conversation goes: She'd like strawberry yogourt instead of the peach yogourt she’s been served. The flight attendant lets her know that today’s menu includes peach yogourt and that there is no strawberry yogourt on board. The woman insists. "But I had strawberry yogourt on the flight over. I want strawberry yogourt". The back and forth goes on for longer than anyone should need patience for and, finally, the exasperated attendant says “Ma’am, if there were any way for me to get you that strawberry yogourt, trust me, I would. We’re 35,000 feet in the air and there’s no way for me to get it for you." He moved on to other tend to other passengers and she was left to  grumble like a two-year old.

By this point, I’m feeling like George Costanza because I can’t believe what’s happening around me…and I was about to feel more in character still…

A Hairy Situation

Crisis #3: A few hours later, the same woman needed to get up to go to the restroom. She was having difficulty getting up because of her short stature and claws at the head rest in front of her, yanking at what little hair the man in front of her has. He yelps, she apologizes. Everything seems to be OK. 

She manages to make it to the lavatory and, on the way back? Yup, she does it again! It didn’t go so well the second time. Despite an already-unimpressed man and her travel buddy reminding her not to touch his seat, she just couldn't seem to help it. No joke. Every time she needed to move in her seat,  get up from her seat or reach down to get at her carry on, it happened. He was exasperated and I'm ashamed to say that I was having trouble containing my giggles.

We're now five hours in and my patience is about ready to be tested.

Hippy Times

As those of you who’ve experienced an international flight know, it’s tough to maintain your sanity on a 15+ hour flight because everyone gets a little nutty sitting in a small space for so long. We're now five hours in and my patience was about ready to be tested.

Turbulence of a Different Kind

Crisis #4 - The hair grabber’s buddy across the aisle, decides her seat isn’t comfortable anymore and that she'd prefer to stand to watch her movie. She wiggles out of her seat, leans forward with her elbows on her head rest, leaving her ample hips to fill the aisle for the duration of the movie, which meant I had her rear end at eye level, and way too close for comfort. 

The truth is that even if resentment is triggered by an external object, it is not located anywhere else but in our mind.
— Matthieu Ricard
It may be true that ‘expressing ourselves,’ giving free rein to our ‘natural’ impulses, gives us momentary relief from our inner tensions, but we remain trapped in the endless circle of our usual habits. Such a lax attitude doesn’t solve any serious problems, since in being ordinarily oneself, one remains ordinary. As the French philosopher Alain has written, ‘You don’t need to be a sorcerer to cast a spell over yourself by saying “This is how I am. I can do nothing about it.”‘
— Matthieu Ricard

Now, apparently, I can deal with a rear in my face for nearly three hours but, as people are trying to pass by her during this time, she doesn’t move, which meant my head rest is getting hip checked every time someone needs to get by. Yup, I have my own personal version of turbulence. That is, a very intimate type of turbulence with more strangers in two hours than I'd like to remember.

And then? She watches another movie!

You have a good idea at this point of what happened during the remaining 8 hours.

Apparently, human nature is pretty wild at times. It felt like an entirely different type of safari.

It felt like an entirely different type of safari.

It's amazing to me what difference one small decision at the beginning of the flight made in how I experienced it all. I hope I never forget it. The lesson, not the flight. How could I possibly forget the flight?!


*Despite my girlfriend not having her luggage for nearly half of it...she was a real trooper.

Note: I have reworked this tale based on having delivered it to a live audience on June 23, 2016. It differs in style, though much of the content is similar and all of it is as I recall it. 

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