On March 13, I entered Toronto’s Pearson Airport on the busiest day of the year, the first day of March Break. The next day, I left the country. I texted my mother:
“1:22am: officially up in the air, seats go back, people already snoozing except guy in front to left reading a series of papers non stop!”
At 8:56pm on Friday, March 13, 2015, I had begun to text my Mum because literally just as we began to board for our 9:30pm flight to London Heathrow, after the disabled passengers had been wheeled on, the Captain called a halt. My first messaged missive:
Only a few minutes late, after futilely calling specific passengers, they’ve started boarding beginning with Zone 1 (I’m 5, last I think)…oh wait, Captain says not OK to board. Waiting 5 minutes to find out why.
I waited a tad longer, then began to send texts at regular intervals until 1:22am, 4 hours later:
Maintenance on board, minimum of 30 minutes before we board. At least we’re still in the Terminal!
Apparently, we will be speeding along once we take off in 20 minutes. Going to go in airplane mode now. Strange seat, but I can STRETCH my legs. I think guy beside me put on cologne when he saw I was going to sit here. 🙁 Strange to be on a plane again. See you in 2 weeks!
Oh, the maintenance issue: a plumbing problem. By the time you read these, I SHOULD be in London!
OMG! We’re going to switch planes!! The plumbing problem is insolvable. This after they just got some people switch seats. Another 1.5 hours.
12:17 am on Saturday
It’s 12:15, and we are on plane #2. Everyone is being efficient and passengers talkative. The school groups are way behind me cause no flagging their energy! Maybe we’ll take off in 15minutes as they’re scheduled for. Maybe I’ll even be in London when you get this. Ha!
The additional relief pilot is finally here. Doors are closing! Bye. I hope.
Well, I’m not a medical doctor so can’t help with the new reason for the delay. But there’s a guy going back there. Lots of rushing around.
I feel like asking if I’m supposed to go to England…they’re taking her off. They’ll have to find her bags unless the gods are finally smiling on us and she has no checked bags. It’s 12:48. Quite the tale, eh? Glad I found plugs that worked in the terminal to charge my iPhone. Glad I have this seat I can stand in front of. Sigh.
Firemen on board to take the woman, who is all the way in the back, off. I had to sit back down to get out of the way cause they’re coming down my aisle.
1:02 am and faint clapping as doors close and we move!!! (Older woman walked down the aisle and off the plane with her younger female companion and Fire crew fore and aft.)
End of my texts, but the adventure of flight AC848 was not over.
At 1:54, they came by with my “special meal”: ovo-lacto vegetarian. I was well into the very hot and a bit spicy couscous dish when they began serving drinks and dinners to the non-special-meal folk: chicken or vegetarian. I was done by 2:14. I didn’t eat much of the cold salad as it was much the same as the hot stuff. Choc chip cookie the thick, crispy kind. Non dairy too.
I had the kind of seat the airlines now charge for so that I could have extra leg room. The seat did not go back much. And there’s no room to sleep really, as they’ve narrowed the seats and shortened them so much.
I dozed maybe 1.5 hours; I finally got up and walked down the length of the Boeing 777 to the cramped back space to look out a tiny window, chatted; then we were told to clear out as snack time was at 5:44. Nice interlude.
Flight was swift as we had a strong tail wind – my booked cab had anticipated me landing a half hour early – but “no trip to London is complete without some holding,” the Captain said. Ten minutes, he said, opining not too bad for this time of the morning. But: another 30 minutes. 11:50am.
Being at the front, I was one of the first off; my suitcase on the other hand … It made me so late, my cabbie and minicabit tried to call me to see where I was. Problem is, I didn’t hear the call (what Canadian doesn’t have roaming issues – get a pay-as-you-go UK SIM card!). But he waited and hunted, and I spotted him, to my intense relief. The cab ride and the courteous efficiency of my hotel were the highlights.
I got in too late to execute my Saturday plan, so at about 4:20pm, I went for an hour and a half walk through Kensington Gardens to the bridge over the Serpentine and along its edge in Hyde Park. I took my camera and did my old, shoot-sans-thinking-too-much routine. But I did remember to check all my settings and thought about them as I tried to figure out why some of my pix looked the way they did. The light in England is hard to get used to after the strong sunlight and dramatic twilights of Toronto.
Brain injury and a bad flight don’t mix well, so I felt rather fragile. But an Arctic wind (Siberian wind? bloody cold, anyway) blew my sick-fatigue out and chilled me right through as I walked. I forgot: Canadian cold is tolerable; English cold is deep to the bone and lasting. Still, the peace of chatting with Brits walking their dogs, shooting (um, photographing) different ducks and geese, walking through large urban parks, was worth it.
Day one over.
Notes for travelling alone with a brain injury:
It is true, not asking the airline for special needs is good for the self-esteem even if it ups the difficulty factor. It gives you a chance to learn you can do more than you realize, how well strategies work (or not), and to ask and ask for help because people do and usually will help. That gives you a connection to society, to be just like any other tourist. And in the end gives you the confidence to handle the actual vacation when you are out and about on your own. Make the decision to not ask for special needs with the health care professional you trust the most (not your friends or family). And then have as many pep talks with him/her beforehand as possible so that when difficulties hit, you’ll hear their voice in your head telling you what to do.
Book a “Top Review” cab through minicabit (link on Heathrow website under Taxis). Energy and brain injury needs trump budget. Booking beforehand makes it cheaper than a black cab.
Have a smartphone. Don’t have one? Get one, and learn to use the messages, phone, email, Google maps, a simple game, reading and notes apps, and camera at a minimum before you go. I was able to email minicabit with each delay so that they expected me to be very late and didn’t charge me extra. It kept me in touch with family and friends while I waited. And it distracted me when things got stressful. While going about England, having Location settings on meant it was easy to locate myself and have Google maps show me the way, particularly when lost. Plus it was fun watching yourself move on the map when on the train.
Book and get everything beforehand: train tickets, Oyster visitor card for London transit, dinner reservations, cabs to and from the airport.
Check with your bank which ATMs you can use (for free in my case). Call your credit card company to put a travel note on your card. And don’t panic when your credit card doesn’t work: not all companies accept “foreign” credit cards but won’t tell you and some machines are just wonky. Have them try again with another machine. Get some pound notes.
Set up international roaming with your mobile provider. But get a UK pay-as-you-go SIM card the day you land. I got mine from carphone warehouse: £12 for 1000 minutes UK talk, unlimited UK text, 2GB data. I only needed to talk to my UK family and friends. But you can pay extra for international minutes.