Flight KL809, Kuala Lumpur-Jakarta

She was already seated in my assigned seat, 9A, as was printed on my boarding pass, when I arrived, rushing, into the cabin, being one of the last three passengers to board. After I stowed away all my hand luggage in the overhead compartment, she got up and gestured that we exchange places. I smiled and said “No problem”, as I settled into 9B and fastened my seatbelt.

She was dressed comfortably but immaculately, her auburn hair tied up loosely in a ponytail. She was clutching an Indonesian phrasebook and the French version of Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” (Mille Soleils Splendides) in her hand, so I automatically assumed that she’s French. I wanted to strike up a conversation with her, dying to practice whatever little French I remember, but she closed her eyes even before the plane took off.

When meals were served some 30 minutes into the flight, she opened her eyes briefly to nibble on her braised chicken and fried rice, sipping delicately on her red wine. She asked for tea from the stewardess after the trays were cleared away, but the tea remained untouched on her table as she dozed off again, leaving me alone with my thoughts on the pros and cons of led light bulbs.

At some point during the flight, turbulence threatened to spill her tea, so I touched her elbow gently and she awoke with a start. But her eyes smiled with her lips as she murmured a heavily accented “Thank you” after she realised how close she was to having her skirt drenched with hot tea. After hastily downing the contents of her paper cup, her delicate eyelids closed shut once more.

She only opened her eyes again as the plane slowly started its descent and the chief stewardess requested the passengers to turn off all electronic items and stow away the tables. That’s when I decided to take my chances and talk to her. I smiled and asked in English if she’s in Jakarta on holiday. She smiled back broadly and answered yes, she’s visiting her son.

Emboldened, I asked her, this time in French, “Vous etes Française?” (Are you French?). She laughed and answered to me in Bahasa Indonesia, “Saya dari Madrid.” (I am from Madrid.)

And so started the most interesting short conversation I ever had with a stranger on a plane. Apparently, she’s a native of Madrid who goes to Jakarta twice a year, staying for about a month each time. Her son, (Spanish) daughter-in-law and three cucu (Indonesian/Malay for ‘grandchildren’) have been living in Jakarta for nine years already and speak Indonesian like locals, hence encouraging her to learn the language, as well. And that’s exactly what made the conversation truly unforgettable — while I spoke to her with whatever Spanish I could muster, she was speaking to me in halting Indonesian, interspersed with some Spanish words that she asked me to translate into Indonesian!

Alas the flight was over too soon. As the plane touched down in Cengkareng Airport, I wished her a safe trip and invited her to stop over in KL next time. She smiled one last smile and promised to do so in her next trip.

It’s small moments like this that make a trip unforgettable and travel an experience like no other.

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