Miss Independent

I was 11 years old when I went on my first flight alone. Because I was under the age of 15, I was considered an Unaccompanied Minor and was looked after by the flight attendants. Where was this 5th grader headed? Probably to her grandparents’ house, or somewhere that she has flown to a couple of times. Summer Camp?

Nope. I went to Texas for the first time; Austin, Texas, to be exact. I had never been there before, let alone by myself. My best friend in elementary school had just moved there with her family, and they invited me to come visit, so I did! They picked me up from the airport and everything was fine. I had a wonderful time, and a week later my friend’s mom dropped me back off at the airport, solo again.

I remember being a little nervous when leaving Atlanta on the plane, but I had a whole row of seats to myself so I lifted the armrests and sprawled out, taking a nap. (This was back when I was short enough to do that, mind you). Departing from Austin a week later, there was not one butterfly in my stomach. I was excited to get home and see my family! I strutted down the aisle and found my seat like a pro.

This time I was next to a wiry girl wearing cargo pants and sporting a butterfly tattoo on her wrist. I politely said hi, digging through my backpack for my Nintendo DS. Next thing I new, she began word vomiting her personal life issues to me, an 11 year old girl, and as the underdog sitting next to someone with authority, I sat up and listened. For the next 2 hours, she warned me of adulthood and how I need to cherish my youth and have fun. “Right now you have no responsibilities and I am so jealous of you. You don’t know how good you have it. God, being an adult sucks”.

I dealt with a lot of anxiety when I was young, so once this woman put an idea into my head that the future was dim my mind began spinning faster than Alice’s Tea Cups at Disney. I practically ran off the plane into my mother’s arms, crying because this woman had honestly scared the crap out of me. I told her everything the woman had foreboded me of, and after comforting me for a while, she said, “Kelly, how old was she? Did she say?”

“23”.

TWENTY-THREE.

When I look back now, all I can do is laugh. How crazy is it that I was listening to some 23 year-old punk vent about the hardships of adulthood, when she was barely an adult herself!? I mean, to an 11 year-old she seemed so old. But now I realize she was probably going through some hard time where her parents decided to cut her off and she was pissed at the world and decided to vent to the first person that would listen to her. I just happened to be the victim, an elementary schooler about to embark on her first year of middle school. After that conversation, I was completely freaked out to grow up, let alone begin middle school.

*

I’ve always been timid of growing up since then. Okay, I can’t blame it all on that one experience in flight, but that conversation really had a big impact on me; I will never forget it. But as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to stay a kid and be in the comfort of my childhood home. I always felt a strong connection to the movie Peter Pan, for Peter and I have the same basic principles of life. I think we would have been friends, and I definitely would have taken his offer to go to Neverland.

Fortunately, I grew up having an incredible relationship with my parents, and home truly was an amazing place to be.

The irony? I have always been a very independent person. The story above is just one example: flying alone at 11 years old? I never realized how unusual this was until I took one of my best friends on a trip with me to Florida in high school, and she was really scared of flying without her mom. She was 16.

Despite my desire to stay forever young, I grew up pretty fast, at least in the realm of travel. [Refer back to “Friends In Flight” where I gushed about being in New York City without adult supervision for a week with my two best friends. We were 15 and 16.]

I was 17 when I went to New York City alone for the first time. It was spring of my junior year in high school, and while most kids were showing their independence by driving into Atlanta on the highway for the first time, I flew to NYC by myself. I landed in La Guardia wide-eyed and bushy tailed, excited for to explore the streets of Manhattan alone. No longer would I have to wait for my mom to catch up with me, or stop at the edge of the sidewalk when the red hand signal was showing. I was free to walk as fast as I wanted and breeze past the tourists at the crosswalk, crossing when the “Walk” signal was not showing. It was the first time I ever felt like a true New Yorker.

I navigated my way to Times Square and sat on the TKTS steps, feeling pretty good about myself when I saw teenage girls walking with their moms and dads and looking completely lost. I know, this sounds prideful. But honestly, that’s how I felt: Independent.

That trip, I met one of my good friends Lauren for the first time. We had connected over Instagram (Yeah I know, how millennial of us), and decided to meet in the City face to face and see a Broadway show together! Lauren was from New Jersey, so she and her mom took the train into NYC that day to meet with me.

Let’s recap: 17 year old Kelly flew to NYC by herself for the first time, avoided sketchy gypsy cab drivers at the airport and took a Yellow Taxi into Midtown, and met up with a complete stranger that she met over the internet?

Yep! Completely normal, right?

When I met Lauren and her mom, we clicked immediately. They were so nice and sweet, and we even got to see one of our mutual friends, Emerson, make her Broadway debut in Violet at the American Airlines Theatre. It was such a blast!

When we sat down for pizza before the show, Lauren’s mom asked about my experience flying alone. I related that I had done it before, but never to New York. I had been to NYC with my mom and friends a couple of times, but this was my first time alone. Her mouth dropped for a second, and shaking her head she exclaimed, “Well, I know a lot of people over 18 would never be able to navigate this city alone for the first time, let alone 17. I give you major props for that!”

That night, I took the subway to my Uncle’s apartment in Harlem after he had texted me specific instructions on which train to take, which direction, and rules of proper subway etiquette. I sat in his living room boasting to him about how I took the subway alone and it was “so easy and fun!” I was bubbling over with excitement and joy, purely enlightened by my first day in the City. He kept laughing at how amazed I was: Baby’s First Solo Subway Ride.

My uncle taught me everything I know about the subway. He pulled up the map on his computer and even gave me a newspaper to read on the train. After our lesson, he presented me with a certificate that read “MTA Green Belt”, and ever since then we have this running joke of MTA Karate. Whenever I stay with him, he will ask about my latest subway endeavors, and if the stories seem challenging enough to him he will move me up a belt. Challenges include switching trains, picking out the best car to get on for the nearest exit I need, near misses, and… wait for it… the MTA bus system.

I’ve come a long way since then: Currently, I am at a Brown belt. Take that, NYC.

In my next post, I will explain all of the exciting, cheap, and easy ways I use to navigate Manhattan. I have learned by trial and error, and now I can honestly say that I am a subway pro. I will provide my travel secrets for getting into NYC for under $3 from La Guardia airport, and my other modes of transportation when coming from Newark and JFK airport.

I truly am thankful that my parents trusted me enough to let me go to one of the biggest cities in the world by myself at such a young age. That day my junior year that I landed in NYC, something changed. I began to grow up for the first time. And while I was nervous at first, I flourished and thrived in the concrete jungle. Being an adult didn’t seem so scary anymore; it was thrilling.

Walking down the halls of my high school that Monday seemed so trivial and unexciting. I was anxious to go back to the freedom of Manhattan again. I thought to myself,

“Get ready world, here comes Miss Independent”

The Fly Girl

Adventures on Airplanes to Abaco

[ Warning: The some of the contents of this blog post are a little graphic. If you get queasy easily, maybe skip this post]

My family’s favorite travel destination is Abaco, Bahamas. Abaco is a chain of out-islands far away from the touristy crowds in Nassau and out of reach to cruise ships. For a week, my family will go boating, snorkeling, fishing, and beach hopping all across the island chain, hitting our favorite spots at Elbow Cay (pronounced “key”), Tiloo Cay, Green Turtle Cay, Manjack Cay, Guana Cay, and others. These islands are made up of 4th and 5th generation Loyalists from the Revolutionary War, their family names prominent on boat businesses, ferry companies, and grocery stores. I just experienced my 11th trip to this hidden paradise, so I thought I would reminisce on travel stories from the past!

Because Abaco is small and unadvertised, many commercial airlines do not fly there. The smaller airlines that do only fly out of Florida, so our trips begin there. Once in Florida, we connect on a no-name airline as paying passengers. While these trips may seem boring from the lack of Non-Rev stress, some of my best stories come from these 6-60 seater aircrafts. Stay tuned if you are interested!

Yes. You read the above statement correctly. The airplanes that fly to Abaco range from only 6 seats to about 60 at the maximum. Talk about a tiny plane! One of my earliest trips to Abaco was on a 6 seater, and I vividly remember walking up to the plane and sitting down facing the back of the plane with my mom sitting directly across from me facing the proper way. That was a fun flight!

Back in the olden days (early 2000s), Abaco’s airport on the island of Marsh Harbor was the size of a studio apartment in New York City. Ok, that may be an exaggeration, but it was a little house looking structure, with one room where you walk in to find the gate agent. They had three gate agent stands, but no designated gates for any flights, no air conditioning, and one snack bar with flies zipping all around. If you arrived to the airport early, you had to wait outside on the benches, for that was the only seating area available. This may not sound bad at all, however the Bahamas gets pretty hot and muggy, and when you have food poisoning, it feels like you’re in hell.

When I was 13, I got food poisoning the morning we left Abaco. Food poisoning in it of itself is awful, but add a 30 minute ferry ride, a 15 minute cab ride on unpaved roads, and a 4 hour delay at a tiny airport with no AC, and you have a slumped over 13 year-old Kelly with a bag of melted ice held to her forehead. The worst part was, I never threw up until we landed back in Florida. At that point it had been 9 hours of a nausea and pain and I couldn’t take it anymore- I upchucked all over my seat as I stood up to leave. I felt immediately better! However I felt bad for the cleaning crew that day…

*

One of the most popular airlines to fly on to Abaco is Bahamas Air. It’s notorious for late departures and top-notch straight outta flight school pilots. Sounds great right? One year, our flight was delayed 2 hours because of a patch of thunderstorms settling over Florida. After the storms cleared up a little bit, we were cleared to depart from Marsh Harbor, so we were all thrilled. We got on the little 45 seater and took off to 10,000 feet. Everything was all fine and dandy until the flight attendant’s voice came over the loud speaker and boasts, “Well folks, you are so lucky they cleared us to fly! On our last flight, we almost died. Literally. Our plane got struck by lightning I think. It was CRAZYYY”. All of a sudden everyone’s pretzels fell out of their mouths and hands clung to the armrests of their seats. The rest of that 45 minute flight was full of so much tension that you could hear a pin drop, even with the loud hum of the engines. Can you imagine sitting on an airplane with no way out and the flight attendant telling you that the last time this plane was in the air it almost crashed? How comforting is that!?

*

A couple times my parents decided to fly into Nassau and connect from there to the out islands of the Bahamas. These connections sometimes meant staying a night at Atlantis, which my siblings and I loved as kids.

Atlantis is one of those places where one night is enough- all you can do there can be done in one day. We don’t even really consider it “the Bahamas” because the island is flooded with tourists and cruises. The Abaco Islands form a little oval with each other, one side made up of the main island, Marsh Harbor, and the other side is a chain of smaller islands (like I mentioned before). On the outside is the open ocean, but on the inside is The Sea of Abaco, where most of our boating adventures take us. The Sea of Abaco is too shallow for cruises to go through, so none of the islands have been contaminated with that many tourists. Woohoo!

One time on the way home from Abaco, we had to connect through Nassau. Because it’s a bigger airport and a more popular destination, there are more opportunities to people watch. At this time, back in 2008, my family and I were obsessed with Adult Alternative artist India Arie and her song “video”. When we connected through Nassau back to Atlanta, she and her band happened to be on our flight, sitting in the row across from me! When we deplaned I stood up with my mom and told her how much I loved her music. Her guitarist was with her as well, and gave me one of his lucky guitar picks with his name engraved on it. This was definitely a moment I will never forget.

 

*

My parents always enforced a strict sunscreen policy on our trips. Because we stayed for 7-10 days at a time and spent all day everyday in the sun, we had to re-apply constantly. I started going to Abaco when I was 6, so imagine the stress my parents endured of maintaining our sunscreen supply. One of the best inventions was the Rashguard, a sun-shirt that you can wear underwater and dries quickly, but also acts as a protectant from the sun (and sunscreen).

About halfway through our 2nd trip to the Bahamas, my sister (who was about 13 at the time), was on the beach with her friend all day. My mom had come outside and asked Lauren if she had sunscreen on and replied, “No!”. Two minutes later my mom came out, handing Lauren her Rashguard and walked back in the house to hang out with the other adults.

5 HOURS LATER

EXT. GREEN TURTLE CAY, GILLIAM BAY BEACH

MOM

Lauren, do you have sunscreen on?

I see you aren’t wearing your Rashguard.

LAUREN

No!

INT. VACATION HOUSE, BEDTIME

CU on Lauren as she lays in bed crying because her back hurts so much. We see that her skin is as red as a tomato and has now bubbled over.

 

LAUREN

It hurts, Mom! I can’t sleep!!

Mom walks to shower and proceeds to soak three towels, then lays them on Lauren’s bed for her to sleep on.

 

What does this story have to do with airplanes? Well you know how when you get sunburned, a couple days later your skin starts to peel? Well imagine getting the worst sunburn of your life, so bad that you have bubbles all over your skin, and then about three days later your entire body begins to peel. The timing is perfectly aligned with your flight home away from paradise. And you are sitting next to your little sister, (me), and once we stand up to leave the plane, she sees your skin all over the seat and yells, “EWWWW LAUREN YOUR DEAD SKIN IS ALL OVER THE SEAT”, loud enough for all to hear.

This was yet another time I felt bad for the cleaning crew.

 

*

Lessons learned from all of these flights? Just because you are traveling to paradise, does not mean your travel time will be paradise as well.

En route to my 11th trip to Abaco, I got to sit next to my boyfriend. Thankfully, nothing crazy happened on this flight. This trip was the exception to my statement above: sometimes, traveling to paradise can be paradise, especially when you get to experience the islands all over again through fresh eyes.

We won’t be back in Abaco for a couple of years, but I will never forget that view from 10,000 feet in the sky looking down on turquoise waters and lush green islands.

It’s Better in the Bahamas,

The Fly Girl