Sunday, 20 November 2011

Transpolar Flying with a Toddler, Part One: Argentina-New Zealand

It is not so much my actual stay in New Zealand I would like to set down in print, as there are others who were there, who took photos, who shared memories and made memories with us, and I don't fear that the experience will be lost or lessened by not writing about it here. I would however like to record the experiences we had on the flights between Neuquén, Buenos Aires, Auckland, and Whanganui - not bad mileage for a 16 month old, and something this 32 year old will not repeat in a hurry... In the same way one can feel alone in a crowd, I feel like these things - good and bad - happened only to us. That if I don't write about them they will be forgotten, and that only we have the whole story (and one of us has a vocabulary limited largely to a handful of monosyllabic words, where 'dut' means 'duck, and every other kind of bird', 'truck' and 'that').

An important background note to this story is that the volcano known as Puyehue, in the Chilean Andes and geographically speaking just round the corner from here, has since June regularly and disconcertingly spat out clouds of volcanic ash. When the volcano is taking a break, the wind picks up what is lying around and blows it about wantonly, and either or both of these occurrences are enough to cancel flights, grind airports to a halt and generally encourage people to stay indoors for fear of respiratory problems, irritation to the eyes and general grumpiness at the brownness of the world. The closest ariport to Zapala is in Neuquén capital, 180km from here and one of the most closed airports since the first disruptive eruption. Knowing that it was entirely likely that if I booked a flight it would never leave the ground, I booked a flight a day early, so that in the case of cancellation I had time to take the bus - an 18 hour trip, and therefore preferably avoided just before undertaking a 14 hour flight with a toddler.

In that way the universe has of encouraging beginnings to increase the chances of there being middles and ends, the trip out to New Zealand, and particularly the first flight from Neuquén to Buenos Aires went well. This is to say the plane not only took off, but it left on the minute, was incredibly smooth, well serviced and luxurious for an economy seat, the food was excellent, the in-flight entertainment entertaining, and Arne slept the whole way. A resounding success, and we arrived to Buenos Aires on a Thursday afternoon with more than 24 hours until we had to be at the next airport, to check in for the next flight. We had prebooked a car to the flat the family has in the centre of town (currently home to Jeremias, but vacant as he is away on business), and we were soon installed comfortably with no further urgent action until the next evening, barring a bit of food shopping at a local supermarket and some leg-stretching in the plaza across the road (

The plaza is home to many restaurants, bars, shops and theatres, all connected by brick paths, shrouded in lush green plants, and set on many different levels accessible by ramps, stairs and bridges. This was heaven for a sociable toddler, and we spent several enjoyable interludes walking around, going up and down levels, chatting to strangers (mostly Arne, who has a knack for making friends) and passing the hotter hours in the shade. The next evening we were accompanied by friends Lucas and Pablo first for a pizza dinner at the flat, and secondly to the international airport at Ezeiza. May fortune always favour them, for accompanying a stressed mum to Ezeiza at 11pm at night, and staying until 1am in the morning! Arne was very pleased with his two new uncles, and made them run around the departures terminal following his giggles and shrieks. I was dead tired by midnight, but Arne kept going like a little dynamo, only crashing once we had boarded the plane and the engines started rumbling.

Flight number two also went incredibly smoothly, and exceeded my most daring hopes for a bearable journey - and while I wouldn't go so far as to say it was fun (two people in a small seat, one of them pregnant and the other all squirmy... You do the math), we certainly were very lucky for various reasons. Firstly, we were assigned a seat on the aisle, in the middle, in the first row in economy - plenty of legroom, the whole door area to walk about and stretch legs in, proximity to the wheelchair access toilet which is practically luxuriously big, and to the galley where snacks and drinks are served all night. Score! Secondly, one of the four seats in the row was unoccupied and of the other two one was soon vacated by its occupant (perhaps because in the third was another mother with small child). This left four seats between us mums and our kids, allowing us to stretch them out on the two in the middle at intervals, to let them play on the gap on the floor in between us, and to generally make house a bit for the long haul. We also had a very attentive steward who went out of his way to make sure I had everything I needed - he played with Arne and showed him around the galley (so many handles and buttons and toggles and switches!), and made the interminable 14 hours feel a bit less arduous. From him I learned that the flight takes a transpolar route because with the curvature of the earth that is actually a straighter line from South America to New Zealand - a transpacific route would be longer still, though it appears to be straighter on a flat map. Logical, really, though I had never really thought about it before. I chatted to the Brazilian woman in my row - whose baby was only a month younger, but several sizes smaller than Arne - and found out she was now a dairy farmer from Ranfurly on her way back from a visit to her parents. Arne slept in fits and starts, usually in a sprawl in my lap at mealtimes, but in general behaved very well even while awake, charming fellow passengers on his regular laps about economy class. We arrived tired but whole, and after a short interlude at Auckland Airport (bought a sim card, bought a calling card, called Joel and my parents and checked my ongoing luggage), we were picked up by a good friend David, who manages a motel four kilometres from the airport. We were shuttled to his apartment at the hotel (my fellow mother-in-transit also) and were invited to spend a few hours in peace and quiet, eat some great home cooked food and have a rejuvenating shower before our respective connecting flights. It's those little things that seem so great sometimes. Another on whom I pray fortune always smiles!

The last leg of our intercontinental journey was conducted on a little propeller plane with about 16 seats, pilot and copilot within arm's reach of the front row and the pilot reading the safety announcements before taxiing out. The most eventful part was when the GPS wouldn't work and they had to program in the coordinates by hand, delaying our take-off by 15 minutes. A little money spider climbed the inside of the window on the seat opposite ours, and Arne slept despite the deafening racket of the propellor right outside our window. Whanganui came into view as we descended, and I could see Mum and Dad's cars in the airport carpark as we passed overhead. There is something oddly comforting about an airport that consists of just one room, and crossing the tarmac with a sleepy baby and one bag I felt lighter and more relaxed than I had since I left Neuquén. We made it! No more planes for many a day! Whee!