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The tricks and trials of traveling while fat

NYT: As the well-proportioned gird themselves for the hassles of holiday travel, plus-size travelers prepare for a plus-sized ordeal.
Image: Fat traveler
Serge Bloch for the New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

AS soon as I board an aircraft, the first thing I do is make a beeline for the flight attendant and begin a routine that has changed little in 20 years:

Discreetly, I point toward my stomach, offer a half-smile and wait for a nod. Once I’m in my seat, I prepare for the “handoff.” Without making eye contact, the flight attendant approaches, and, like a player in a secret drug deal, quickly slips a small package into my palm: a seat belt extender.

At 285 pounds and 5 feet 7 inches, I may not be the tallest, but I am almost always one of the biggest passengers on a plane. That’s “one of”: as anyone with even the most tangential relationship with news headlines over the last several years knows, Americans are getting fatter and fatter. And as the well-proportioned gird themselves for the hassles of holiday travel, plus-size travelers like me prepare for a plus-sized ordeal.

It starts with finding a place to sit on the plane. The airline industry has responded to its ever-widening clientele with new rules: a handful of carriers, including United and Southwest, now insist that passengers who cannot fit comfortably into an economy seat (with the armrests down) buy a second seat (something I’ve done for years whenever possible); and three domestic carriers have instituted a policy that bans overweight people from sitting in exit rows. (Our bulk, they reason, could hinder an evacuation in an emergency.)

Yet for large travelers like me, the issues persist long after we have figured out whether to buy one seat or two. Going through airport security, for example, I could set off the metal detector not because I’m smuggling a box cutter or pistol, but because my girth comes too close to the sides of the machine, prompting it to beep. (After years of trial and error, I have a technique to eliminate this embarrassing possibility: I extend my arms forward, lower them with my palms out and twist my torso slightly to one side.)

But for truly novel challenges one must leave America, where being fat, in many ways, has become the new normal.

Having visited more than 50 countries in the last 20 years, I have become extremely adept at remaining calm and unfazed throughout situations that unfold because of my weight. Still, there have been occasions when I’ve been caught off guard.

“How many kilos you weigh?” asked a customs officer at Ho Chi Minh Airport when I visited Vietnam a few years ago.

“Is that a question on the form?” I responded, slightly unnerved.

Smiling, she told me no. She was apparently just curious.

After giving me the once-over, she giggled and advised me to avoid riding in the local hand-pulled rickshaws, as my size could force them to tip over. “Welcome to Vietnam,” she offered cheerily, as I skulked away muttering.

In Rio de Janeiro, public transportation proved to be the issue. I’ve visited Brazil many times, and on my last trip I convinced myself that I was an honorary Carioca, a true Rio native. As such, it was only appropriate that I should travel along the world-famous beach to Leblon as the locals do: by bus.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that to sit down, I would have to first squeeze through a tiny turnstile. For the sleek Cariocas, this is a piece of cake. For me, because of one too many pieces of cake, this was impossible. With a packed busload of riders staring at me curiously, my chubby cheeks turned a bright crimson. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, an English-speaking passenger pointed at two seats almost hidden behind the driver. “You can sit there,” he said. “They are for the old and disabled and for people who are very big.”

In China, traveling while fat turned farcical. I had been in Beijing less than 48 hours when I started to notice small children running up to me and touching my stomach before scurrying away in fits of laughter. Day and night they continued to approach me, poking and prodding at my belly.

On a walk through the Forbidden City, a local guide explained to me what was happening. “The kids think you are Buddha,” he said, “and they are rubbing your belly for good luck. You are Happy Buddha.” At a local souvenir shop, my guide showed me a statue of the Happy Buddha. Except for a shaved head and a hoop earring, the Happy Buddha and I could have been brothers.

In neighboring Thailand my embarrassment was caused when a Bangkok tailor used “special” fabric to create a one-of-a-kind shirt for me. Only when I was seated in the lobby of the world-famous Oriental Hotel and noticed the stares of guests did it become clear that my shirt had been made with the same material used to cover the hotel’s furnishings. It brought a whole new meaning to blending in with your surroundings.

Over the years, I’ve sometimes wondered what it would feel like to travel with less physical baggage, to be able to check my Buddha belly before boarding and to know that I could settle into an airline seat comfortably without the need for the belt extender. And what it would be like to travel without being a curiosity.

This year, there’s hope for me yet: On my way back through Australia, I have planned a side trip to Fiji, where plus-size travelers are revered for their bulk. And on the way there, of course, I’ll try to upgrade to a larger seat.

This story, The Tricks and Trials of Traveling While Fat, originally appeared in the New York Times.