It’s 10:25pm in New York from where I took off; it’s 7:25am in Dubai, my next stop; and 5:25am in Johannesburg, my final destination. Ten hours and 45 minutes ago, I took off just as I have taken off every other week over the last couple of weeks, and almost every month over the last two years. Today I’m perched at seat 74k on this massive beast called the Airbus A380. The screen in front of me says we’re cruising steady at an altitude of 39,008 ft and at a speed of 569 miles per hour. This airplane seats no less than 500 people, and with a few empty seats, there’s a little negotiable space for weary bodies. And for the first time, my childhood imagery of staircases in an airplane has been matched by the creativity of the designers of this Emirates aircraft. No, I’m clearly not up the stairs; I might not be a regular first class passenger yet, but I’m no less a valid member of the community of the skies.
Over the last three years, I have found myself taking trips to and from airports almost more frequently than I have called my dear mum. Now, that could paint me as an inconsiderate son but that’s my least intent here. I cherish the moments I get to speak with my mum and to update her on my progress, but since seeing her last almost two years ago, I’ve hopped on and off several planes, at several airports, made several friendships and witnessed some tremendous occurrences. Leaning back in my seat, I can clearly remember the first flight I took, only a few years ago aboard Turkish Airways to Istanbul. I didn’t act like the novice that I was. Of course, it wasn’t my first international travel (I’d been on road across West Africa previously), but I was as new to the take-off experience as I was to the excruciating pain in my ears after about two hours in the air. A few painkilling pills and ten hours of discomfort after, I was able to soak in the city of Istanbul (best viewed from the air, honestly).
I’m not much of a social or holiday traveler I travel more frequently on business and educational purposes. I must confess though that my holiday trips have been the most enjoyable. My trip from New York to Florida for Thanksgiving 2011 and my trip from Johannesburg to Amsterdam and then New York for Christmas 2012 were extremely pleasant. They both came after several months of tireless work and I knew that I could use a holiday desperately. I have also traveled for work purposes on several occasions: on a few occasions in 2011 and early 2012 I made a number of trips to keep up with speaking engagements across the United States, and then in September 2012, I embarked on the longest trip of my life – 17 long hours across several oceans from Atlanta to Johannesburg. Needless to say, I visited the bathroom about ten times over the course of the flight, but that wasn’t the surprise; I was shocked to observe that the two gentlemen who flanked me on both sides sat through the entire trip as alert as dead logs of wood.
A few other experiences have stood out in my flying memory, most beautiful of which was the send-off party for the captain of my KLM flight last December. I had taken off from Johannesburg for Amsterdam, and after about three hours in the air, the hostess announced that our captain was embarking on his final flight after 26 years with KLM and that he had handpicked every single member of his crew for his last trip. Instantly, the hostess who was handing out napkins two rows ahead of me burst into tears. “He’s a very good man”, she said. “I’ll miss him”. The captain himself shortly walked through the aisle to a prolonged round of applause and shook hands with several passengers. When we touched down at Schiphol airport, the applause was even louder. We were all excited to send him off as though we had been in the air with him all 26 years.
Definitely, not all experiences have been as enjoyable as that one to Amsterdam: there have been the halitosis experiences, the deeply-distressing air turbulences, the drunken seat partner dripping saliva all over, the neighbouring gay partners kissing repeatedly and the passenger who had an asthma attack and passed out completely. On a recent flight into New York, I had the misfortune of sitting next to an Arab man, who might have been pleasant were he awake, but chose to keep his oral cavity completely agape as he snored silently. I needed no warning before draping the blindfolds over my nostrils instead. It wasn’t a comfortable couple of hours.
The other day on my way from Istanbul into Lagos, we encountered some serious turbulence as we passed through North Africa, and while everyone was taking bracing positions, the dude next to me, high on two bottles of red wine, slowly dripped saliva all over my clothes from the corner of his mouth. I wished I could give him a piece of my mind, but he wasn’t sane enough to receive it. And while I’m definitely not homophobic, I clearly don’t approve of two gay guys (fashion designers apparently) making their voices heard all over the aircraft, especially when they were sitting right behind me; neither do I approve of two grown women, in their 50s perhaps, sitting next to me, groping each other and kissing for the entire three-hour duration of the flight from Charlotte, North Carolina to JFK, New York. However, I was genuinely concerned when a 71-year old man passed out on my most recent flight from Dubai to New York apparently from an asthma attack; kudos to the Emirates crew for resuscitating him and keeping him on a gas mask for at least seven hours.
I’ve traveled on several airlines and through various airports but the award for most impressive airline goes to Emirates, while the award for most impressive airport goes to Hartford-Jackson Airport, Atlanta. Delta was a close runner-up to Emirates with their amazing in-flight package, but having had my luggage hacked through twice, the beautiful experiences have been clouded by those shadows. Turkish Airlines was my first and I’ll fly with them again, but British Airways, KLM, US Airways and United are all regular in my estimation. I’m constantly amazed by the crowds that travel through Atlanta, but the airport always remains decent and well-managed. I also loved Sherementyevo airport in Moscow, London Heathrow, the Dubai International airport (except that the wi-fi was dead), Charlotte, North Carolina, Istanbul, Schiphol, Amsterdam and OR Tambo, Johannesburg, but JFK, New York and Lagos, Nigeria get no props from me. JFK gets low marks for poor clearance procedures and poor aesthetics, and Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos gets low marks for everything ranging from power outages, to pilfering customs officials, and bathroom sinks without water.
I am by no means an elitist; I’m just a young dude who occasionally needs to get from point A to point B, and those points are often separated by thousands of miles. Looking around me and seeing hundreds of fatigued bodies eager for the plane to touch down sometime soon, receiving trays of food from the crew, fastening their seat belts at the captain’s request, queuing to use the bathroom, watching movies and listening to music, while hoping that nothing wrong occurs somewhere in the middle of nowhere, I’m impressed with this growing community of the skies. We’re all conscious of the fact that air crashes are most frequently fatal, but we place our absolute trust in those two beings whose faces we never see and whose voices are all we hear at the beginning and end of our journeys. We hope that they know what they’re doing and that while we’re permitted to snooze, they’re not; while we’re permitted to use our gadgets, they can’t be fooling around in the cockpit; and while we can take bathroom breaks, we wish they’ll just stay right up there driving us higher and higher into space.
One of the beauties of modern air travel is the ability to use electronic gadgets and even connect to the internet from 39,000 feet above sea level, which means work never stops. Several hours have passed since I started typing; I’ve passed through Dubai International Airport, changed planes and seats, slept twice and eaten three meals. I’m now reclined at seat 42K on a Boeing 777-300, looking forward to touching down in Johannesburg in two and a half hours. I’ll be hopping on a plane in another two weeks, this time to Doha, Qatar, and I’ll practically spend several accumulated months in the air over the coming years, but I’ll never forget my humble beginnings. Every time I get on a plane, I remember that first ride, and how I said a prayer and wrote into my journal: “We took off at 10:04pm from Murtala Muhammed Airport for Istanbul, Turkey”.
We’re now flying over Dar-es-Salam, Tanzania; a quick snooze is in order. I’m a full-blooded member of this community and I’ve got my massively stamped passport to prove it.
Faith Abiodun presently coordinates his multiple activities from Johannesburg, South Africa