Go for the Blankets
As the plane descended into Dubai – lights off, flight attendants strapped in and watching that no one put down a tray or reclined a chair – I reflected on what a smooth trip we had been having. Check-in had been a breeze, boarding was easy, our seats were good. The kids were behaving beautifully, I had had a wine with a remarkably good dinner. We had, in effect, sailed to the end of our first leg with only one – albeit hideously long – to go. Travelling with kids, I thought happily, four years after we took our first baby on a long-haul flight, was getting easier.
Then, our ears popping, the bright lights of Dubai sparkling below, my two-year-old threw up. After a pause, my husband and I frozen in momentary horror that one of the long list of potential travelling-with-children nightmares was actually happening, he did it again. And again. And again. It covered him, his chair, his seatbelt, undigested pools of it, and was dripping onto his legs and the floor. The spell broke and in a flash, my husband was standing and trying to get wipes out of a carry-on, stashed overhead. The flight attendants went nuts – rightly so – and were screaming, restrained by their lap-belts, ‘sir, sit down! Sit down immediately!’ while my two-year-old groaned and swiped tiredly at the vomit he was covered in, smearing it further. The smell was acrid, rising up from our row in a sour cloud. I grabbed airline blankets we had stuffed into the seat pockets in front of us and scooped up handfuls of vomit, wrapping them up and shoving them into plastic bags that had once held ear phones or magazines. As we gathered that last fit of speed, that fizzy burst that guarantees we’re about to hit tarmac, I peeled his clothes off him, scraping off as much vomit from his arms and legs as I went, and shoved those clothes into another stray plastic bag. We waited, him in a nappy and whining with exhaustion, as we taxied to a slow halt, and when the lights went on, got him wiped and changed. He threw up again as we exited the plane. Again on the terminal bus, passengers trying not to watch in an act of politeness or disinterest, I’m not sure. And again as we waited in with the small group that was being hurried through the airport to make the Sydney connection.
We didn’t make that Sydney connection. We ended up being whizzed through the airport on a medical buggy, siren blinking, to the Dubai airport medical centre, where he was given a drip to counter dehydration. He was so tired he didn’t wake as it went in. Another toddler came in, feverish, throwing up. Later, as we waited with his parents to be discharged, the Mum asked me how old my boy was – the same age, as it turned out, as hers.
‘Is he speaking?’ She nodded at her son. ‘Mine isn’t. Nothing. Not even Mama.’
So we had the bilingual kids chat at God knows what hour, in the relentlessly bright lights of an international airport that has no morning and no evening, just endless perfume counters and rows of alcohol bottles. They were on their way home to the USA, their kid had brightened, ours too. Somewhere behind us was an Australian clutching a few packets of electrolyte powder, furious to have missed his flight due to a funny tummy and doing his best to blame the medical staff for all of it.
My four-year-old had, by this point, been awake for about sixteen hours straight, so we booked a room for 24 hours at the airport hotel to shower, change clothes and let the kids sleep. We figured we’d sleep as long as needed and get a flight out the following day. Except all flights to Sydney were booked and the only one they could squeeze us onto was in three hours. So we cancelled the 24 hour rate, paid for 12 instead, lay down at 6.45am and set the alarm for 7.15am. We schlepped the kids to check-in and were told we were all seated separately because the flight was full and they were the only seats they had. And then we were told, ‘your luggage will go straight through, you won’t have to get it in Bangkok.’
We were on a flight to Sydney via Bangkok, in separate seats. Sleep-deprived and smelling mildly of vomit I hadn’t quite been able to sponge out of my teeshirt in the hotel room, I said rather tersely to the fourth person I had been directed to, that someone else was absolutely welcome to take care of my two small children for the remaining 14 hours of travel, but they might not want to. It might also be illegal. They might also get vomited on. It took an enormous amount of complicated logistical calculations, but eventually a couple and two singles agreed to be moved (I nearly kissed them all individually, in fact I found one of them as we disembarked and thanked him profusely. ‘Of course, what do I care where I sit?’ He was German. A pragmatic German. I almost cried with gratitude.) and we were placed in a row together for the Dubai to Bangkok leg. In Bangkok we disembarked and re-checked in (security policy) and had to go through the whole seat rearranging charade again. This time we were unable to get a row together, rather a row of three and a single. Whatever. You could have parachuted me into the Outback and given me a camel to finish the journey on at that point, I didn’t care.
But we made it. We touched down at 9am in Sydney, sour and exhausted. We crawled into Mum and Dad’s place, showered, slept for a few hours, woke to go and pick up the rental car. I remember feeling like someone was digging me out of the earth. We got coffee and packed the car and drove up the coast, where the cicadas were deafening and the ocean shushed as the daylight dimmed. Peanut butter toast, a glass of wine from half a bottle I found in the fridge. Bed.
Until a couple of weeks ago, the worst flight I ever had was when my then two-year-old had the most spectacular breakdown on a plane from Vietnam to Singapore, because I wouldn’t let her flick the blinds up and down. That feels like lightyears ago, another person ago. This person laughs in the face of toddler meltdowns (not really, oh God, please don’t let one of them chuck a whammy on the flight home) and this person knows what to do if someone starts projectile vomiting in a descending plane. Go for the blankets.