An Extended Period of Uncertainty…
…Made me resolute enough to withstand a childhood fear, get better at planning, and overcome anxiety with patience
The most memorable of interactions happen by chance. It was one of those brief but unforgettable of meetings, ones that go on to become interesting anecdotes in the story of life.
It’s an unusually lengthy transit at the Humberto Delgado Airport in Lisbon. We had been to the café/restaurant a couple of times, taken strolls covering the entire circumference of the airport in the process and binged-watch arrivals and departures of numerous flights.
Yet, it seemed a never-ending wait till we bumped into this affable gentleman who was also heading back to Germany, albeit on another flight. There was an instant connection, and a casual conversation followed…one that went on for a considerable period.
As the discussion veered from general to personal the gentleman told us that his place was very close to the airport. His work required him to travel out of town every now and then, and he loved to travel otherwise. Besides, it wasn’t necessary for him to frequent the city center or the other parts of the town. As such, it made perfect sense for him to live in a place close to the airport.
Our conversations continued till the flight announcement happened. We were to board a TAP Air Portugal flight. We wished him the best and headed towards our flight.
I have always loved travelling. I venture out at every opportunity available. Weekend getaways is a norm while longer distances happen every now and then. Not to forget there has been a considerable amount of work-related travel during the course of my career. Being married to a like-minded person has also been of tremendous help. In fact it is a blessing in disguise to have a partner who is equally passionate about travelling.
The gentleman we met at the Lisbon airport… We haven’t met him again. It is certain that neither us nor him will be able recognize each other should another chance encounter happen. Yet, we will always be thankful to him. The gentleman had given us a pragmatic idea. He had made us think.
We changed bases soon after that memorable encounter, moving very close to the airport. It’s not imperative for us to reside at the city center or in any of the nearby surroundings. Considering the inherent desire to travel frequently staying close to the airport made a lot of sense.
However, things don’t always go as planned. We realized it the hard way.
That trip to the Portugal and Costa del Sol (southern Spain) in late December 2019 (and early January 2020) was a lengthy one no doubt but little did we know that to-and-from journey in TAP Air Portugal was going to be the last occasion we would board a flight for a considerable period of time.
That virus that is still wrecking havoc is to be blamed, of course. As social distancing, personal hygiene, mask requirements, vaccination, Work From Home and other such words/phrases became the way of life traveling was a strict no-no for the next many months.
The worst thing for a frequent flyer is to be rendered flight-less for a considerable period of time. I was being made to suffer a similar plight for no fault of ours.
There is no better travel alternative to being airborne, especially when it is about saving time. Besides, for me travel was seldom about long-term planning. It was always an impromptu affair. However, these were times when any such abrupt approach took a back seat.
As things stood most flights had been grounded. Air travel had taken a hit. Even when it did resume, albeit sporadically, it was under strict restrictions. Getting back to flight mode was not yet an option.
Our decision to move closer to the airport had boomeranged. We had adjusted to the new surroundings. The sound of flights flying over our house to the runway was no longer a disturbing noise. The same albeit reduced considerably not long after we moved in.
Taking off randomly and heading to an unplanned vacation was no longer possible. These were uncertain times. It was about getting used to life in confinement and restricted movement, and living through 18 months that ensure ennui and exasperation.
To give credit where it is due my partner was happy being local, moving around the city and the suburbs as and when required. However, given a choice I would always prefer the global option. It is only that I had no choice.
In fact I had begun to curse our luck. However, as days passed I managed to regain composure and get back to being my pragmatic self. Over the course of our discussions with my partner I realized there were two alternatives to choose from.
Either I could sulk and live in self-pity, or I could be content with the fact that the virus had maintained social distancing with us throughout the period and even as things were slowly opening up both of us were in good health.
I decide it was time to go back to the drawing board and reassess the chances. It was perhaps time to curb the natural instincts, ditch the extempore and opt for a more elaborate method. It was perhaps time to do some detailed planning before setting off to a new location.
But before all that it was imperative to meet the first stipulated condition for travel in the post-Covid era. It was time to get vaccinated. More importantly for me it was time to face the fear.
Trypanophobia. Yes, that’s the word. It literally translates to an extreme fear or aversion to blood or needles — a fear of injections to be precise.
I had it for many years, since I was a child. With the advancing years I maybe had got used to the blood part, but the aversion to the needle somehow remained. In fact I had no shame in admitting it.
That being said, I have over the years conquered a lot of my other fears, but in this case I was guilty of running away from it as opposed to facing it. Every time I was supposed to take an injection I would look for an alternative, enquire if the treatment was possible with oral medication.
If the response was in the negative it would make me go stone cold. A normal blood test would make me dizzy and nauseated. When the blood was drawn I felt like throwing out, without actually doing so. The more claustrophobic the setting the worse was my condition.
There’s one incident I remember in particular. As a kid I had got injured while playing soccer. The doctor, who happened to be a relative, insisted on administering an injection. I resisted of course, but lost the opening round. He forced the needle in alright, but got a kung fu style kick in return, one that hurled him into the adjacent sofa. I had squared the proceedings at one apiece. Even as he rose cursing me, my mother had to step in to assuage him. The fact that they were cousins saved me from a retaliatory act of violence.
Years later, when I was due for a blood test, my better half candidly explained to the nurse about my needle phobia, citing the example above. The moment I entered the laboratory, the nurse smiled at me.
“I am told you kick doctors,” she said, adding, “But I am a very nice person.” I had to assure her that she’s indeed a nice person, and that I was the problem. It didn’t work. In her bid to avoid my action she gave a pre-meditated reaction. I was left with a deep wound, something that took quite some time to heal.
Many friends and relatives used to make fun of me. A few concerned ones advised me to get over the fear. If I needed an inspiration I didn’t have to look far. My better half scored a lot better when it came to needles and medication. That being said I was lost in dedication… to my childhood phobia of course.
When it became clear that vaccination is the best alternative against the virus, it took a lot of time for me to get convinced. Initially I resorted to something that was expected of me in such situations, of employing other tactics: altering my diet, increasing the exercises, social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands regularly — as taught by teachers in primary school and later by experts at the World Health Organization (WHO).
Fortunately for me there was the omnipresent motivating factor. When a person is consumed by wanderlust, travel is must. Amid all the coronavirus-imposed lockdowns, and the repeated extensions, travelling was something I missed the most. As months passed it became clear that the virus was here to stay, and vaccination was essential to restart travel. I decided to stop being hesitant. The lure of travel was making me attempt to get over the fear of the needle. It took some efforts to do away with the self-imposed restriction and secure an appointment with the doctor.
The lead-up to the first dose was a lot more excruciating and nerve-wracking. I hadn’t taken an injection for years. There was a recurring headache, and a lot of discomfort. Confiding in the doctor didn’t help matters either.
The moment the doctor became aware of my needle phobia, she began giving long and boring sermons. However, when it came to the execution aspect instead of making it easy for me by asking me to turn my face to the other side, she brought it right on my face. I had to closed my eyes. The damn thing went in, my body became stone cold, the head was spinning and I remained seated at the clinic for the next 15 minutes.
Ahead of the second shot there were few nervous moments. The experience with the first shot had ensured I was better prepared. That being said every experience with the needle/syringe is a new one, and in isolation — irrespective of the previous experience/s. But in this case I was less hesitant, and more determined. The idea was to get it over and done with, and get out of that spooky place that a clinic/hospital is.
However, they say it is not over until the fat lady sings. In my case it was not over until the old lady stabbed. The veteran doctor was definitely not in a good mood that day. Her stabbing the syringe ruthlessly ensured a painful swelling that took about two weeks to heal. In this case the aftermath had been more painful than the lead up.
On a positive note I was now fully vaccinated. More importantly the documents, the vaccine passport and the all-important QR codes were ready. After 18 months of caution, and about eight weeks of vaccine-related confinement, travel had become a possibility again.
Flying albeit was not exactly an option, partly owing to availability rather the lack of it — most airlines were yet to start operating at full capacity, and partly due to apprehension. I’m not afraid of inserting the swab into the nose. However, they do leave you with a lot of agony, and doing it again and again is anything but a pleasant experience. On the contrary it is irritating.
Multiple trips would have meant multiple ad hoc tests. So, it was a strict no-no. Besides, sitting inside a packed flight with the mask on leaves you gasping for breathe. It is claustrophobia of a different kind. The situation demanded a change of plans. For someone who loves to travel not opting to fly for such a long duration could have been a huge handicap but for an alternative.
The best thing about residing in Europe is the availability of options. Anything that comes to mind throws up a multitude of possibilities. Be it art, cuisine, culture or life in general. Likewise, when it comes to travel there is a plethora of options to choose from. The same applies to the mode of transport.
So if I had a certain hesitation as regards flying there was always the option of taking high speed trains to the destinations of choice. Besides, opting for a first class ticket not only meant more privacy but also a lot more breathing space, and an overall safer alternative.
So traveling had resumed after a 20-month break and for the next few months we travelled with a vengeance. Whenever there was a possibility it didn’t go waste. Train travel can be exhausting, and as such demands adequate planning. During the lockdown enforced confinement planning was the one aspect where I had made considerable improvements.
Besides, traveling long distances in trains also requires a lot of patience, and patience is something I had been forced to learn during those many months of lockdown. I was ready to go full throttle, as trains seemed the best of the options available. For longer distances I preferred breaking up the journey into parts, to ensure adequate rest and recovery.
It is also in this period that I learnt to become a lot more flexible. If a particular travel plan didn’t work out I didn’t hesitate to cancel it altogether and opt for a completely new strategy. It wasn’t only about travel now. It was about smart (and safe) travel.
The emergence of new variants brought travel to a halt again, at the beginning of the year. The rules kept changing and quite frankly, it wasn’t a risk worth taking. Lying low was the best possible thing to do.
Three months later though the inner voice demanded a change of scenery. Multiple variants had necessitated the requirement for booster. Besides, having given the virus a cold shoulder for two years neither me nor my partner were in a mood to relent.
The booster shot was an impromptu affair. We went to hospital and took the shot, as simple as that. By this time I had got over my fear... to a large extent, if not altogether. As such the booster shot happened by choice, not by compulsion. It was a momentary sensation, and the jab…err the job was done with minimum fuss.
We stuck to trains for one trip and were contemplating another when my better half informed me that things have got back to near-normal levels as regards air travel, with the frequency of flights having increased considerably over the last few months.
Without wasting further time I made the bookings. It was 30 months since we had taken the aerial route, on that TAP flight from Lisbon airport. More importantly, it was first time we would be heading to the airport from close quarters. There was excitement no doubt.
Having honed my planning skills in the lockdown period I believe I had made the perfect arrangement for not only another vacation but also to get airborne again. I was palpably excited. Did the excitement happen too soon?
In the lead up to the European summer we weren’t the only ones planning a vacation. It was the entire world. The lockdown period had led to massive staff shortage across the continent. As such there was chaos, endless delays, staff strikes and cancellations.
One day there were news reports saying Zavantem, the biggest airport in Brussels (and Belgium), had cancelled all departures owing to security strike. If this was not enough only a few days ahead of the scheduled departure came the news that the crew of Brussels Airlines — my preferred choice, would go on a three day strike.
The next three to four days were full of skepticism. If 30 months of uncertainty was not enough I was being made to endure 10 days of heightened anxiety. Every time I logged in to check the flight status there was palpable apprehension. A cancellation of flight would have been anything but surprising, considering the circumstances.
As usual, I had booked a flexi-ticket. My better half consoled me suggesting a change of plans should the inevitable happen. Then again, she has always been an understanding partner. That being said, I was also aware as to how excited she was excited regarding this vacation. It was meant to a lengthy one, coinciding with our anniversary and a cancellation rather going back to the drawing board would have hurt.
So I was willing to take a chance. That being said I was hoping and praying that at least we took off as scheduled and proceed for our vacation. In this scenario the leaves, planned well in advance, wouldn’t go waste. In case the return flight got cancelled there was always the option of looking for an alternative.
Multiple reports about missing and unclaimed luggage at the airport had made me decide against carrying check-in luggage altogether. Over the years I have perfected the art of travelling light. As such, having only cabin baggage was not an issue. It was not easy for my partner to set aside a lot of things she had packed, and wanted to carry, but she was understanding as always.
A combination of apprehension and prudence made us reach the airport well ahead of departure. The formalities were complete in quick time and we were left with a lot more time to kill. On a positive note we managed to avoid the chaos that we had been reading about in the weeks prior. In any case a longer wait at the departure hall is a more safer option than standing in a queue.
With the aircraft on schedule, there was a sense of relief. It wasn’t just another flight. It marked the culmination of an extended period of uncertainty, during which patience helped overcome anxiety, and conviction ensured a solution.
There was a lot of personal satisfaction of course. I had not only become resolute enough to resist a childhood fear but also learned to plan things better. Moreover, I had somewhat mastered the art of understanding the situation and looking for viable alternatives.