As I boarded Air Canada’s flight 1802 from Toronto to Jamaica, I peered at the seat numbers, trying to not make eye contact with the passengers already seated. I paused in the aisle, waiting for the woman in front of me to realize that she couldn’t possibly stuff her oversized carry-on bag in the overhead compartment. Then I passed her.
“14A, 15A, 16A. Good. 17A?” I frowned.
I pushed my hand in the side of my bag, reached for my boarding pass, and quickly checked my assigned seat. It was, indeed, 17A. So, why was a woman seated there? I felt my jaw tighten and sighed.
“Excuse me. That’s my seat,” I informed her, not smiling. I wanted to make sure she realized that where I sat wasn’t up for trade or discussion. When I booked my ticket online, I chose the window seat, and that – and only that — was what I wanted.
I stared at her, knowing that I was widening my eyes, raising my eyebrows, and pursing my lips.
“Oh, ah your seat,” stated the woman. She immediately began to scratch her scalp, leaving a light dust of flakes on her braids. I pursed my lips and I looked away, sighing. Then I looked back at her. She was wearing a bright blue and red long sleeve shirt with red pants, and at her feet sat two huge shopping bags that should have been stored in the overhead compartment, not at her feet.
I sighed as I conceded that there was no way I could have expected the same luck I had experienced on the first leg of the flight from Vancouver to Toronto, when I had sat beside a young father and his six-month baby, and I slept without any disturbance from the baby. No spit-ups, no outbursts, no food fights, no temper tantrums.
She pushed her bags across to the right and then got up for me to pass her and take my seat, while passengers waited in a line for us to navigate our seats. I noted that she didn’t apologize, and I wondered why she chose to take my seat so soon since there was a long line of passengers still waiting to board and there was no way she should have assumed that the flight wouldn’t be full. Don’t we wait for them to close the door before we capture the vacant seats?
I buckled up, feeling relieved to finally be one step nearer to home. Home. Jamaica. I smiled as I realized I would always call Jamaica home.
As I leaned back in the seat, I realized there was no elbow space for me. I lowered my arm and began to seethe. Isn’t there some unspoken protocol about sharing the armrest? This thought was swirling in my mind, and then I decided to be a bit assertive. I put my elbow back on the armrest. Surely we could share. She didn’t move over her hand. I stared ahead.
Then she leaned forward and began to dig in her bag. Good. An opening. I triumphantly placed my elbow on the armrest, leaving her with a little space. I tried to not smile. But then I glanced down at my feet and realized her bags were occupying three quarters on the foot space. I gave an exaggerated sigh. This was going to be a very long flight. So in my most polished upper St. Andrew Jamaican voice, I said, “Let’s pretend there’s an imaginary line here. That way we’ll both have enough space for our stuff. So maybe if you could just move your things over a bit …” She moved her things over and I wondered if I heard a hiss. Did she just ‘kiss’ her teeth?
I tried to reign in my seething temper as I began to silently have a conversation in my head about ‘seeing my dying trial’ and ‘who invade whose space’.
Then I glanced back at the woman beside me. She was digging in her bags, unwrapping foil. I groaned again. I felt nauseous as the food smells hit me. Deep fried chicken. Why oh why?! Why me?
I glanced at my watch. I closed my eyes. After about five minutes, I felt a bump by my elbow. I jumped and opened my eyes. I realized the woman’s elbow must have accidentally connected with mine. I closed my eyes again. Two minutes later it happened again. Then again. And yet again. I frowned. Didn’t she realize she was bouncing into me? I moved my elbow. I began to wonder why her elbows were moving around so frequently while eating. Then she (accidentally) kicked me.
Finally the plane took off. Thank God. I closed my eyes again and tried to sleep. But there was another kick. Then it was the elbow. Then she (accidentally) stepped on my foot. For God’s sake!! This woman was at least in her late fifties. How hard could it be to just sit still? She wasn’t eating. She wasn’t reading. She wasn’t doing anything. She was just sitting forward in her seat, rocking forward and backward a bit, while looking on the floor. Was it really that hard to just sit still there? I closed my eyes again. She bounced my hand. I finally gave up on trying to sleep and just listened to the audiobook on my iPhone. Listening eventually put me to sleep and even though I was aware of being bounced and jostled, I slept.
Hours later, I stirred a bit when I was aware of the flight attendant handing out custom declaration forms. I thanked her but then tried to fall asleep again. No luck. I felt another jab in my side as my neighbor dug in her bag for her pen. I sighed. I knew we had at least another hour before landing, and I was really trying to squeeze in some more napping time. After about ten minutes I gave up. The sleep was gone and a new elbow war had begun. I guess she needed more space to fill in her form. I sighed. I figured I’d just fill in my form too.
When I had finished filling in my customs form, I glanced at my neighbor. She seemed stuck on the third line of the first page. Strange. She started long before me. Why would she still be on the first page? So, I moved over a bit and tried to peep to see her occupation. Yes. I was curious. Machine operator it read. I reflected. Then I closed my eyes after putting away my customs form. About ten minutes later, I felt a hand on my hand. Frowning, I opened my eyes and immediately realized she had deliberately touched me this time.
“Ahhm. Yu can ‘elp mi du dis papa? Mi nuh sure if mi fi tick yes or no.”
I stared at her blankly for a moment. I was curious but reserved. “Which part?” I asked.
She pushed the paper towards me.
I read, “Resident. I (we) have goods exceeding the value of my (our) personal duty-free allowance.”
I looked at her. “The things you’re bringing in. Are they worth more than or less than the duty-free allowance? And they’re not for resale, right?”
“Mi nuh know how much dat.”
“How much? What? You don’t know how much is … what?”
“De amount fi duty free.”
I looked back at the form to locate the amount. “It says here that you’re entitled to $500 US dollars. Did you spend more than that?”
“US?! But mi spen’ Canadian dollars.”
“Ok. Let’s say $500 Canadian. Did you spend more than that?”
“Well, is clothes mi wear.”
“Is not new tings. Is de clothes mi buy ova dere and wear.”
“But did you spend more than what they will allow?”
“But everything not new.”
“Ok. So not more than $500? Check the no box.”
She hovered over the ‘no’ box. Then she hovered over the ‘yes’ box. Then the ‘no’ box.
I looked at her confused. “Which is it?”
Then she repeated. “Mi ‘ave a barrel but not evyt’ing new. Some ah it ol’.”
“Ok. So, check no. You don’t have goods exceeding $500.”
And once again she deliberated and hovered over both boxes.
“Maybe you should just check yes? I asked gently.
As I watched her deliberating, I realized her anxiety, so I began to chat with her. I learned that she’d been a farm worker in Alberta for the last six years and her contract had now expired. After spending time with her family in Jamaica, she wanted to return to Alberta, but she didn’t feel confident because “dem a gi dem fren dem de contrac’.”
I asked her how she had coped with the cold weather in Alberta, which was so much colder than Vancouver where I live. She said she didn’t care about the minus 55 degrees Centigrade in the winter because she needed to work and would work in any weather. And when she said that, my eyes prickled.
I told her she sounded like me.
She reminded me of my early days after migrating from Jamaica, when I needed to work and couldn’t afford to turn down any inconvenience. I was willing to work anywhere even when it meant a two-hour commute in each direction to and from work — taking a bus, then the sea bus, then the sky train, then another bus and then finally a five-minute walk from the bus stop to get to work. Yes, I would cry at the end of the day as the words of the song echoed in my head and mocked me: ‘‘Sweet sweet Jamaica, nah lef’ yah’. But failure was not an option and given the choice between starving in Vancouver and traveling for two hours to get to work, I chose to not starve. Just. Like. Her. We both preferred to work rather than starve. As I sat beside her, we shared – woman to woman – and I realized how alike we were.
And as we chatted, she still bounced my arm. Matter of fact, the more we shared about similar experiences — like the first time experiencing snow in Canada — the more animated she got and the more she bounced into me and elbowed me. But this time, she was no longer the annoying woman who invaded my space. The longer we spoke, the more I enjoyed our conversation. No longer was she the stranger. She was the mature, ambitious woman, the mother, the Jamaican — like me — who has strong work ethics, wanted to work hard, even though she feared her luck was about to change.
That made me stop and think. She had so much on her mind that she probably didn’t even realize she was elbowing me. I reprimanded myself. How inconsequential my ‘worries’ seemed after juxtaposing loss of income with aircraft comfort. And I realized I was no longer hostile.
I realized I had been intolerant.
I realized I now identified with her.
I realized: She had become human to me.
After all. She was just like me.