This is how to blow an ear gasket. Procure a head cold before your flight to…wherever. Make sure that this flight stops over once, preferably twice, which would account for at least two torturous descents, but hopefully three. Forget all medication and don’t study up on how to alleviate a blocked sinus cavity. Damn equilibrium, damn hearing straight to hell. Follow these simple guidelines and you’re squared away for a wondrous flight through the skies of wrenching pain.
My Air India 727 flight had just pulled onto the tarmac in Hong Kong. I expected more from my first stop, albeit entirely in my seat, to China. Alas, there was no romance; no insight into Buddha’s Eightfold Path. The cleaning crew boarded and swept through the cabin with communist efficiency. Orders barked, shrill commands sounded. A lady placed a sticker on my shoulder and asked me to buckle up. I sat grim and gaping in the face of such industry. Then, like Kaiser Sosae – poof – they were gone.
Thanks to the new head cold break-dancing behind my eyes, the descent into Hong Kong had exploded as a battle of will against the infinite forces of physics. The miles had peeled away, dropping down through the night and our 8900 meter ceiling, a stubborn congestion offloading wet cement into my ears.
The side effects of stuffed nasal tracts at altitude would seem straight-forward enough, but they are not. They are embarrassing and painful. They manifest themselves to the salesman from Dubai seated next to you. They prance about in front of the achingly attractive flight attendants. They make grotesque faces at you in the restroom mirror.
Let me give you some idea of what you, hopefully, will never have to endure.
First, you feel pressure building in your skull, your eyes pulsating and distended. You begin pouring sweat from your face and the back of your head. No one knows why this happens. It trickles down your neck and wells up in the little jungle of your eyebrows. You smile and say, “Whew, it’s warm in here,” to the salesman beside you. He performs facial acrobatics that mean he finds you quite odd, possibly dangerous. The strange function that triggered your perspiration causes your body notable agitation, leading you to wiggle, especially swiveling your head and oscillating from the waist. You bob and swerve and mop the sweat from your brow. You don’t think to say, “Listen, my ears haven’t popped in 2000 miles and 70,000 feet of descent and ascent. I do not mean to frighten you.”
Next, you rapidly lose hearing. As the salesman yawns, blinks, and falls into a peaceful nap, you frown and sulk, arms crossed atop your weaving torso. The miles peel away until titanic pain rears its deformed head directly behind your ear drums. You are trapped with your thoughts like bubbles in a shaken soda bottle. You wonder how much blood would spurt out of your ears after your eardrums detonate from the business-end of 18,000 meters of built up psi.
You shuffle through every conceivable mode of therapy. Pinch the nose with forefinger and thumb, close eyes and mouth and concentrate. Now blow, lightly. Yawn, man, yawn! Open your mouth wide and give the mandible a workout. Swallow hard, have your seatmate secretly frighten you, beat yourself about the head with the palms of your hands, sweat like a dope fiend, become an unrecognizable nightmare trolling the fringes of human cognizance! But no matter what, you’re screwed, because nothing works and we have to keep going down to ever get out.
The plugged nose trick does cause a discernible trampoline effect on the eardrums, a curious sensation. Deep in the inner workings of the ear something blows itself up but does not break. It is a very close call. You sense a high water mark of progress and realize that if you blow any harder a fine mist of medulla oblongata will engulf the salesman’s face. You stop lightly blowing. You pull your finger and thumb away from your nose and notice them coated in a clear sheen of snot. You glance at the salesman, contentedly dozing, and wipe the mucus on your pant legs.
Although none of these operations solve the problem, every few minutes you implore the routine again, a sliver more desperate. Yawn, head smack, jaw exercises, swallow hard, sweat. Again. Again. Again. And each time you hear, intimately, a cartilage crackle, a sort of dry leaf disintegration of the mysterious anatomical widgets malfunctioning right next to your brain.
Eventually you ignore the seatbelt sign, scoot past the fellow from Dubai and find the toilet. Upon entry, you rip off your shirt and toss your ball cap in the sink. Everything is soaked, you marvel. Then you see him. The man in the mirror is beaded and glistening in sweat. His face is red. Obnoxiously red. He looks like Mephistopheles addicted to PCP.
The most disturbing affect you see are the misshapen ears. Something awful has happened and you can only look for a moment before feeling nauseous. This poor man’s ears have been wrenched forward and pulled outward like window shutters in Tornado Alley. You touch them and find that the skin behind the ears, usually slack and nice-feeling to rub in stressful moments, has been pulled taut toward the nasal passage.
You fiddle with the violent recesses behind your ears. You whimper. Your head is imploding.
The Return To Seat light blinks and you lurch back to your seat. You smile to cover up your repulsive metamorphosis. You earnestly pray that your eardrums won’t burst but the potential is real. The human head wasn’t designed for this. You sit back down, sweating again, swaying again, slapping your ears again.
The airliner continues to descend, exacerbating already insufferable pain. But it can’t get any worse. This is finally the truth and you couldn’t care less what Mr. Dubai thinks of you.
Then, though you had no pretension that it would ever happen, the plane touches down. Your head is a swimming pool of thrashing kindergarteners but you are on the ground, wet and swaying. The plane, finally, cannot descend any lower, lest the wheel joints snap in two. You think about that.
But then the strangest thing happens. As the plane taxies the tarmac your ears begin unclogging by degrees, slowly, blissfully. There will be no implosion. Your head cold has lost.
The man from Dubai seems pleased. He rushes out of his seat and wishes you “good luck.” You thank the nice man as he sprints down the aisle.
As your ears begin to unclog you actually pull off some perversion of a yawn. Your mouth opens and…bingo. Crinkle and snap, you can hear a vague voice over the intercom for the first time in thousands of miles. You are out of harms way, just 45 minutes behind schedule. Thank you for flying Air India.