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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Traveling Back To The US

Air travel sometimes becomes quite an adventure for me, and this was one of those times again. It has become a feature of late, and a feature that is sometimes not too bad, but sometimes makes things very inconvenient and annoying.

Basically, because of the delay in confirming my return arrangements, because of the lack of internet connectivity, I could not get a seat assignment on the first leg of my flight back home. When I reached the airport, the check-in agent asked me to wait while he finished checking in everyone who already had a seat assignment. Unfortunately, by the time that was done, there were no seats left on the flight.

The agent apologized to me and started exploring alternative ways of getting me back to the US. I could go back home and come back the next day. It would cost me money back and forth between home and the airport and also 24 hours in extra time. Instead, we decided that it would be better if I could get out of the airport on some other flight. There was an alternative that would get me out within the next 2 hours, but involved a long connection. Luckily, the long connection was where my brother was living, so I decided to opt for it. Instead of being in the US 24 hours later than originally planned, I would be in the US 18 hours later than planned. And the agent arranged for an upgrade to first class on the long flight from my brother's place to the US (about 14 hours), so I was reasonably happy with that arrangement.

The first flight was a mediocre experience. It was in coach class. Coach was cramped as usual, and leg-room was further compromised because of the presence of some electronics, for the entertainment system, under the seat in front of mine. But it was only a 4 hour flight, so I tolerated it. I remember I used to travel back and forth between home and the US in coach class all the way when I was a graduate student. It used to be 20 hours of flying hell each way, which for some reason did not seem like flying hell at that time, because I just did not know any better. Now that I have traveled in business and first classes on long flights more frequently, my tolerance for coach class has gone down very seriously.

The more serious problem with this flight was that the seat was extremely uncomfortable for some reason. In addition to the normal reclining controls, the seat had another set of controls for some kind of lumbar support, and this thing just wouldn't get adjusted right for my comfort. My back was bent backwards at an unnatural angle throughout this flight whenever I leaned back in the seat, making life miserable.

And then I made the worst mistake of all. Instead of skipping the meal offered on this flight (which was not at a regular meal-time anyway), I decided to go ahead and have it. I should not blame the airline for the quality of the meal, because taste-wise, it was not too bad. What ended up happening though, was that my stomach became seriously upset because of this meal at an odd time.

At one time, when I was younger, I used to have what people could rightly refer to as a cast-iron stomach. All hell could be breaking loose as far as the rest of my body was concerned, but my appetite never failed me. My stomach never complained about taking in food whenever it was offered. And it almost never complained about the quantity of food that I pushed into it either. In fact, in graduate school, I once finished a whole large pizza almost entirely by myself, earning me the nickname of "bottom-less pit" from my professors and friends. And this was when I was all of 125 pounds in weight! I am 10 lbs heavier now, but the quantity of food I eat nowadays is probably about half to three-fourths of what I used to eat then.

I started noticing that my stomach was getting more prone to upsets about 5 or 6 years back. I was in Europe, attending a conference, when I started noticing that I could not eat what I wanted, when I wanted, because my stomach was starting to protest about what it considered as abuse. Since then, I have been more careful about what I eat, when I eat and how much I eat. But, it is certainly an unwelcome reminder of the fact that I was growing older. It is also inconvenient when something you have taken for granted all your life starts giving you unexpected problems, because you have to change ingrained habits to work around the new problems.

I have read somewhere that you lose about one-third of your gastric juice output (and I am guessing, one-third of your digestive power) by the time you hit forty years of age. I guess with one-third of my digestive power gone, my days of taking my stomach and its digestive power for granted are long gone.

In any case, nothing much happened immediately after I had the meal. The flight ended uneventfully and my brother picked me up at the airport and took me to his place. My next flight was 16 hours later, so I was going to spend my entire day with him and his family. But my stomach was feeling heavy and I could not eat anything. I did try to have lunch, but I ended up throwing up most of it about 10 minutes later. This was certainly unusual for me, so I decided the situation was desperate enough to call for desperate measures: I decided to starve for as long as necessary to get my stomach back to near normal.

Fasting, or starving, has always been effective at setting my stomach right on the rare occasions when things have gone wrong with it in the past. It has been vindication to me of the truth of an ancient saying we have that says fasting is the best medicine. And I have never been much affected by fasting as far as my energy levels and other aspects of my day to day activities are concerned. I seem to have enough reserves so that I can go for a couple of days with no food intake whatsoever and still function quite close to normally all the way through.

It may be a by-product of my enthusiasm for hiking and trekking. I have no problem with going on all-day hikes with nothing more than a few pieces of fruit along the way for nourishment. So, I would guess that my energy reserves amount to something like 6000 to 8000 calories. So, given that I am not expending more than 1800 or so calories a day when I am not actually hiking or trekking, going for a couple of days without food seems to be absolutely no problem for me.

In the evening, my brother dropped me off at the airport again. I was given a first-class seat on the flight, as promised. Once I got on the flight, I told the flight attendants that I did not want any food during the flight because I had an upset stomach. I asked them to just keep my water glass refilled in case I woke up and drank water. Once the flight took off, I lay down on the flat-bed seat and went to sleep.

One more aspect of my long-distance travels that I have always taken for granted is the fact that I almost never suffer from jet-lag. I never realized it at that time, but I think it is because I sleep soundly during flights regardless of what the flight timings are. I go to sleep once I get on and wake up only for brief periods to use the bathroom, or to eat meals, etc. I always used to arrive at my destination fresh and never suffered even a day of jet-lag because of my travels. In fact, I used to make fun of people by saying that jet-lag is just an excuse for lazy people to sleep at all times of day and night. Some of my relatives used to suffer for days or weeks from jet-lag after making the trip between home and the US, and they were not amused by my jokes!

But in the last couple of years, instead of just sleeping on flights, I have tried to stay awake and sleep according to the time-zone of the destination (I read that this was effective at preventing jet-lag. Why I would heed some dubious advice about avoiding jet-lag when I don't even suffer from it is quite beyond me, now that I think back about it). Sometimes, I have forced myself to stay awake even when I felt sleepy just because the time-zone was not right at the destination. I never associated it with this behavior, but I have suffered from some symptoms of jet-lag in the past couple of years after long trips. I have felt very sleepy suddenly in the middle of the day sometimes, and felt it difficult to keep my eyes open. I have even fallen asleep at odd times of day when I had nothing else to keep me awake.

So, I decided on this flight that I was going to go back to my original policy of just sleeping on flights regardless of the flight timings. Not having to wake up even for eating meals suited me just fine on this flight. I was probably awake only for about 3 hours out of the 13-hour duration of the flight. And in spite of not having eaten now for almost 20 hours straight, I felt fine when I finally got off the flight. A couple more days of watching what I eat, and letting my stomach recuperate, would probably get things back to normal.

Other aspects of the trip worked out just fine. My luggage made it with me all the way through without getting lost or damaged. I reached home safe and sound only about 18 hours delayed. And the diversion to my brother's place had given me an opportunity to meet his wife and daughter and spend some time with them. The long flight in first class restored my faith in air travel, so that I will not be scared the next time I have to fly for that long to get somewhere (as long as it is in business or first class, of course)! I guess this is one adventure with a reasonably happy outcome, so I will take it without complaining too much!

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