Zac is rising 12.
That’s the magic age at which many airlines let children fly not as an unaccompanied minor, with a bevy of hosties pandering to their every whim, but actually solo.
It’s also the age at which a London child would be taking public transport unaccompanied.
Because we’re nomadic, Zac has on many levels a lot of independence. He’s been going to the shop solo, running wild with friends and taking himself home from places since he was nine – all over the world.
Weirdly, though, he’s highly likely to take his first flight solo before he rides his first bus solo.
And so, even though I’m arguably the world’s worst flier (managing airports is up there with parking and geography on the list of basic skills I still don’t have), I thought I’d better show him how the system works.
“OK,” I say, at Athens airport. “You’re the leader. You need to find out where we go.”
“Gate 21,” he says, confidently.
“Yeah, but we need to check in first,” I say.
“Oh god,” he says. “Do I REALLY have to do this?”
He sullenly locates the correct desk and we join the queue.
“Mum!” he says. “This is all wrong! It says we need a boarding card, and we don’t have one. This is just a baggage drop.”
“Yes,” I say. This endeavour is going every bit as swimmingly as my early attempts at teaching him maths. “I noticed that. Let’s stay in the queue and then ask someone at the end.”
“Ummm, Mum,” he says. “Shouldn’t we check in here?”
Athens Airport has passport scanners for auto checkin?! Who knew?!
“Now,” I say, trying to regain my initial authority. “You need to hand over our passports.”
“Seriously?” he says. “That’s all?!”
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s all.”
The next day, at Istanbul’s Atatürk, Zac is team leader. He leads me to the check-in desk and hands over the passports.
The guys at the desk flick through them…
And flick through them…
…And flick through them some more…
“You have an onward ticket from Indonesia?” the younger of the two asks.
“Well, he has one,” I say, smiling nicely. “He’s flying out to Australia to see his father, then back into Malaysia. I have an onward ticket from Malaysia to Nepal but haven’t bought my flight out of Indonesia yet.”
They look concerned. “Can we see it?”
“It’s on the computer,” I say.
I grab my passport. “Look,” I say. “We’ve flown into Bali loads of times and they never, ever check. Look! Indonesia stamp, Indonesia stamp, Indonesia stamp…”
“I think you’ll need a real ticket,” one says. “Not one on the computer, or a phone.”
I bite back panic. Now, I can totally see why many airlines no longer take reservations on a mobile phone, because a fake ticket on a smartphone is the single easiest way for longterm travellers to fulfil visa entry requirements without spending money on tickets they have no intention of using.
But a legitimate email?! From the airline?!
Also, where DAFUQ am I going to buy a paper ticket out of Indonesia?! AirAsia doesn’t have a desk at Istanbul Airport and the other airlines are going to cost a fortune.
“I don’t think so,” I say, smiling nicely and channelling calm. “Can you check on the computer? Honestly. All they care about in Bali is whether you pay your entry visa or not.”
More ruffling. Turkish conversation.
“OK,” one says. “You can go through.”
“Well,” I say to Zac, still in teacher mode “I’d be with you at that stage of events anyway, so you wouldn’t have to handle that kind of thing on your own. What shall we do now?”
“Oooh!” he says, spying a snack stand. “Baklava!”
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m sure they’ll have baklava the other side of passport control too. Let’s just get through to airside.”
He meanders round the airport in a purposeful fashion until he finds the sign for Passport Control and, shortly after that, a seething mob of travellers backed up around 50 metres through the airport.
I let slip an obscenity.
“Yes,” Zac says, placatingly. “I think we should go and have some baklava while we wait for the queue to die down.”
We spend our last Turkish lira on coffee and baklava. The queue does not die down.
“Are you on the KL flight?” asks the guy behind me.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Uhoh!” says Zac. “I left my carryon bag in the baklava place.”
He scampers off.
“I don’t think we’re going to make the flight,” says the chap behind me. “We’re boarding in 45 minutes.”
“But this is the TURKISH passport queue,” says Zac.
We’re getting death stares from our fellow queuers. Turkey is diverse enough for me to pass for Turkish, especially with a tan, but Zac’s colouring is firmly Celtic, and we’re speaking English.
“Yes,” I say. “I KNOW. This is where the guy in the orange shirt TOLD us to go.”
Stress is mounting. I’ve only missed one flight in my life, when Zac was 9 months old, and my child-free travel companion had under-estimated the time required to cross London on public transport with a travel cot, a pushchair, a car seat, a week’s worth of nappies and clothes and, obviously, the baby to whom said appurtenances belonged.
But still, I’m stressing.
“Excuse me,” says a girl behind me. “You can’t queue here. This is for Turkish citizens only.”
“Yes,” I say. “But he told me we could join this queue. Otherwise WE’RE GOING TO MISS OUR FLIGHT.”
Just as we pass security, I remember that I need hard currency to buy our Indonesia visas on arrival, and that all my hard currency is now in the hold.
I dump Zac near some chocolate and scamper to the only airside ATM.
Last call goes.
“Don’t panic!” I say, panicking. “They can’t kick us off the flight without unloading our bags first. It’s going to be fine. What number gate are we?”
“Wait a minute,” says Zac. “Let me check.”
He scrutinises our boarding passes, and navigates us towards the gate.
“OK,” I say. “We need to hurry.”
We belt past the tourist shops with their evil eyes, the endless miasma of Duty Free, the forlorn families, the strip lighting, the floodlit tedium that is any international airport…
“WAIT!” says Zac. “I’ve got stitch!”
“Oh god,” I say. Zac had surgery under 10 days ago, and his incisions aren’t fully healed. I have nightmare visions of a hernia. “Your stitches?”
“Yeah,” he says, panting. “I’ve got stitch in my stitches.”
We pause, catch our breath, and make it through to our gate where our flight is in no way, shape or form boarding.
“Ooh, handsome!” says the beautiful 20-something manning the gate, as Zac hands over our passports.
In three years’ time, I think.
In three years’ time…
Zac settles down to fill in his Indonesia visa application form and the family customs form. “What should I put for home address?” he asks. “Nomadic?”
“No!” I say. “Christ, no! Use our old one.”
“What about profession? ‘Student’? Or ‘None’?”
“Student,” I say.
“Ooh,” he says. “I need to tell them about my hunting knife.”
I look at the form. We are, indeed, supposed to declare weapons, along with narcotics and pornography.
“That’s an odd one to include,” he says. “Pornography. And narcotics.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I think it’s easier just to check no and say we’d forgotten about it if they find it. It’s not like you’re carrying a gun.”
“OK,” I say, once we’re safely boarded. “So it’s going to be your job to sort out what we do in KL.”
He rolls his eyes. “Look, I’m not going to be transiting solo, am I? Why do I need to do this?”
“Because it’s a useful skill,” I say. “The onward boarding pass you’ve got tells you what you need to do. Do we need to pick up our bags?”
“No,” he says. “They’re checked all the way through to Denpasar.”
“Do we need to pass passport control?”
“No,” he says. “We’re transiting.”
We pass the flight playing Tetris and Battleships on the seatbacks. We arrive, sleepless, in KL just after midnight, Istanbul time, or 6am local. Bang go our body clocks!
At KL, Zac navigates us uneventfully enough to our gate, and then to a lounge with wifi. As we’re boarding, I ask him to check where we are sitting.
“15A,” he says.
“That’s not right!” I say. “I’m in 41C!”
“It’s definitely 15A,” he says.
And, my little boy, a veteran of unaccompanied flights, now running on 18 hours without sleep, begins to look a little anxious. “We won’t be able to sit together!”
They find us a spare seat, and he’s asleep before takeoff.
Needless to say, the chaps at Denpasar airport have absolutely no interest in our plans for onward travel. And the visa folk take cards.
But as we step out into the sun, and the velvet humidity wraps itself around me, Bali feels — well — a lot like coming home.