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What a 14-hour plane ride taught me about life

Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road.

I used to complain, regularly, about my commute to and from work, which is roughly an hour in each direction. I complained about the unidentifiable smells that polluted the cramped quarters of public transit, the crackly subway announcements that I could never understand but indicated that my trip would be invariably delayed, and the inability to read or write as the train chugged lazily on, for fear of a nosy somebody reading over my shoulder.

Last summer, I went to Africa and decided that my commute to work really isn't that bad.

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The Internet is brimming with ways to kill a long plane ride and for a generation as screen-happy as mine, it shouldn't be hard.

Yet it is, for no other reason other than the fact that a 14-hour plane ride is chock-full of irony. The irony being that, with a carry-on jam-packed with things to occupy you, absolutely nothing seems appealing the minute the seat-belt sign goes off with an ominous ding.

Not even an hour into my trip, I was overwhelmed with anxiety. I silently reprimanded myself for packing my carry-on full of pleasure reads, rather than my bulky laptop that I use for work.

I fidgeted in my seat, feeling alternately bored and stressed, until the sound of the rickety beverage cart interrupted my piteous wallowing. Upon being offered a choice of juice, soft drink, wine or beer, I gratefully accepted a travel-sized bottle of red and had my first drink at 10 a.m.

As I savoured my not-cheap-tasting-at-all beverage, I surveyed my surroundings. All around me were people who weren't perturbed by the quietude. Older gentlemen sat with their hands folded over their chests, eyelids alternating between long, lagging periods of open and closed. The Christian missionary group that had begun the plane ride with exuberance were sleeping soundly or listening to music in their headphones, bopping their heads rhythmically, their shoes kicked off and feet stretched lazily in front. Even the girl beside me, not much older than 12, sat stationary, her eyes fixed contently on a colourful children's show on the screen ahead. And here I was, on my first vacation in eight months, distressed at the prospect of being still.

My unrest spoke to a grander theme. With so much available in life, be it everyday stimuli or prospective opportunities, I found it hard to justify being still. And though it seemed as if I was the only one on that particular plane to find the solidarity unnerving, I'm far from the only one, generally speaking. We live in the age of overexertion and obsessive smartphoning, keeping us tethered to work 24/7.

If you're not working full-time, managing a start-up and teaching at least two Zumba classes a week, then surely your circumstance is extenuating.

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There's much to be said for being busy, but it also fosters this idea that if you have free time, an hour between work or a Sunday off, then you should automatically be filling it. And if you don't, if you leave it as a day where you're just going to order pizza and teach your cat to play fetch, then you've simply wasted your time. (Side note: My cat plays fetch better than any dog ever will.)

To be as overstimulated as we are is great for human progress, but probably not so great for our sanity. With so many things to do, and so many things we could be doing, it's no wonder our minds are as cluttered as they are. I wonder when and if we will ever return to a point where we can appreciate simple peace and quiet, without paying $25 a class for it in the form of hot yoga.

Several hours into the trip, the two Sleep-eze pills I had popped were mingling pleasantly with the plane wine in my tummy, and I dozed off. I awoke to the realization that I had no idea how long I had slept. Without the periodic arrival of plane food, I had managed to genuinely lose track, which was an unsurprisingly peaceful feeling.

On my plane ride back, after five weeks in Africa, I popped two more Sleep-eze and slept – drooled – for most of the ride on my boyfriend's shoulder. The rest of the time I spent getting tipsy on plane wine, doodling in my journal and letting my mind wander to my favourite trip moments. I wouldn't go as far as to say the time flew, but it certainly passed with more ease and less stress than my first ride had. I also wouldn't go as far to say I enjoyed it – mostly due to the inevitable stranger pee on the lavatory floor – but as long as I wore shoes to the bathroom, I didn't despise it.

On my non-airbound days, free time often feels like I am somehow falling behind – because no one seems to have free time any more, so if I do, I must be doing something wrong. In the sky, however, there is no judgment if you want to drink at 10 a.m., and there's certainly no judgment if you spend four solid hours playing Pokemon or writing Star Wars fan fiction or crafting the perfect Bitmoji – which looks just like you, only hotter and with better hair. On a long plane ride, we're all on the same proverbial boat, just trying to get through it, so as long as you're not falling asleep on the shoulders of strangers or stealing desserts from your neighbour's dinner tray while they nap, the urge to judge and compete melts away with the altitude.

As it turns out, the key to beating a long plane ride wasn't to fill it with activities. Rather, the key was to anticipate the unscheduled nothing and to appreciate it as the rarity that it was. Also, the Sleep-eze didn't hurt.

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