My flight to DC was the first time I’d been Up In The Air in over a year. I’m no stranger to the inside of a steel tube, racing across the skies. I started flying at 13, in 1981, child of divorce, with my mom. It was Frontier Airlines, with cowboy wallpaper and ashtrays in the armrests. The smoking section must have been nearly the whole plane, because Mom would never have agreed to a non-smoking seat, but I remember that burnt-sienna wallpaper on the bulkhead as if I was staring at it right now.
This isn’t exact but it’s damn close.
Nobody likes turbulence. Maybe seasoned pilots, babies that need rocking, or wing designers – for them it would be a fun occupational challenge. But you weather it. I weathered it, quite well, for quite a damn long time. Here’s my flight map from just one year of my flying decade: well over 100k miles – I know, because I had 100k on just one airline, and I flew lots of airlines. That year I went from Zimbabwe to Afghanistan and back to Zambia in one trip – from the bottom to the top of the alphabet, and back again.
The blog begins – 2011
Travel is what made me start writing a blog. I rarely write, or rarely write much, about the work I do when I get there. It was the motion I was interested in, and what I saw – I loved the displacement of one life here, another life there, connected by a few hours soon forgotten. Here are the things I loved:
Whipping out my computer to work in an airport, like Somebody Important
Moving smoothly and quickly through TSA (and, relatedly, feeling superior to people who don’t know you can’t have a large-size contact lens solution in your carry-on)
Knowing where my passport, boarding pass and bag tags are At. All. Times.
The miles I earned on my own credit card for paying for travel and being reimbursed
Gifting miles to my family – they acted like I was a goddess
Arriving to weather extremes I “knew” I’d find at the destination, but still feeling awed by the change.
Clooney said it best in Up In the Air: All the things you probably detest about traveling, are warm reminders that I am home.
Systemized friendly touches – that was gold. I loved having Executive Platinum status with AA. I could have told you my frequent flyer miles balance at any moment. When I first saw Up In the Air, I was absolutely giddy – Clooney got it! Vera Farmiga, she got it! It’s fun to stay in a hotel! My people.
Back to the story
But this isn’t why I was writing this blog post. In July 2013 I moved to Bogota, and stopped traveling so much. I traveled a bit around Colombia, but just a fraction of my previous miles. Long trips were to see Ramon in Islamabad or somewhere in between the two cities.
Anyway, on one of Ramon’s visits to see me in Colombia, we went to Cartagena. The flight was bumpy – seriously bumpy. We were in the back of the plane – clinically proven the bumpiest spot in the bird. I admit it, I got a little scared. Ramon might have, but if he did, he didn’t show it. Instead he ignored the scared looks I was shooting him, and he distracted me. There was some cuddling, but no coddling. He talked about a lot of stuff, made jokes, kept me paying attention to him. It was not a pleasant fifty minutes till we landed, in terms of my sphincter, but I had to admit – the guy was a master of lovin’ me right out of my fear.
Whenever Ramon and I flew together, I could feel that fear again anytime my invisible turbulent friend paid us a visit. Note: whenever we flew together. Noticing it, I realized I might be indulging this fear – one I could ill afford, given my occupation. Was I milking his kind affection? His swift jump into action to save me from my own brain? Gallantry can be very appealing.
But, wait a minute… I like flying
I have so many distinct memories of flying. Though the hours are generally forgettable, there were minutes… Really good, memorable minutes.
The first time I flew to Kabul. Going to Afghanistan scared me. I imagined there would be Taliban on every street corner. My (friend, mentor and) former boss would not take work there. Why had I agreed to go? But on the last leg, from Dubai, I was on a low-cost carrier that was hip and modern. Looking around at the others heading to Kabul, I realized I was going to be fine.
First flight to Peru with Roger. My very first work flight, with Roger the friend/mentor/boss. This was before I knew, really, what we were doing (or that it was called, mysteriously, “evaluation”…) Roger pulled out his laptop and started tapping merrily away. (He is often merry. Just one of his many charms.) The air was bumpy, and I made a nervous noise… and Roger just smiled and kept working. Whatever he had, that calm, I wanted it. It set the tone for my decade of relentless, comfortable flying.
The baby plane. Roger and I spent three weeks crossing Russia. Arriving from an 8-hour flight, crossing as many time zones, we took off again for Magadan – another eight time zones away – and all this during White Nights. That was some kinda jet lag! Anyway, we continued on to Irkutsk, to Ulan-Ude, to Ufa, to Kazan, and to Yoshkar-Ola. Most of these occasioned long flights back to Domodyedovo Airport in Moscow, since the regional cities had no direct flights between them. But the most peculiar flight was the “Baby Flight” back home to NYC, with a couple dozen parents trying to calm their newly-adopted kids. More on this amazing trip here.
Juba to Nairobi, Hajj. The plane was full of pilgrims. One of the ladies told me how she loved her headscarf and gave me one. It’s super stretchy and has rhinestones, and it completely covers my hair without bobby pins – it is a keeper. She just wanted Western women to know she was not oppressed.
Short flight to Kabul. My Pakistan International Airways (PIA) flight from Islamabad had to wait 14 hours for a part to fly in from Lord Knows Where. The only other passengers in the lounge were the Pakistani Ambassador to Afghanistan, and the Chief of Operations of PIA. Finally we boarded, and as we were landing less than an hour later, the Ambo was missing. The PIA guy told me, “He’s in the cockpit, watching the landing.” Ambassadorship has its privileges.
Tiny flight to Guatemala. San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to Guatemala City. The plane looked and felt about like an empty Kleenex box, our captain a pimply kid who was terribly gracious when I asked, “Are you the pilot???”
I was none too excited about getting in this thing, as you can see. But it turned out to be a lovely, low-flying trip. I remember the shape of the forests below, bent into waves by mountain ridges, unbesmirched by roads or signs of life. In Guatemala City we taxied past The. Biggest. Plane. Ever. It was a Russian joint, brought in for an Olympic Committee vote on Sochi. Hundreds of people waited in the shade under the wing for a tour. There were more wheels just under its nose than under our entire San Pedro plane – which would surely have fit right inside the cargo-bearing beast.
More great minutes
First time in Business Class. En route to Zambia, with a company that flew us in Business for long flights. The planes this Major UK Airline sends on the Lusaka Route are… a bit run down, I know now. But as I hadn’t been in Business before… I had a footrest thingy, a nice lady bringing me food, and more space than I knew what to do with. I just hunkered down and loved on the in-flight entertainment.
First (and only) time in First Class. I had a lot of miles built up and I used them to wow my family – flying to and from Alaska ain’t cheap. After two years of steady use, I splurged on First Class to London with the last hundred thou in my account. This, my friends, was The Real Deal – they give you PYJAMAS. They had nine wines to choose from. They gave me a teeny tiny deodorant!!
Three little letters: DCA
Washington National was my home airport. I would bend over backwards to land there rather than Dulles, which is arguably the nastiest airport in the region, if not the country. It’s awful. And slow. And the ceilings are low – what, did they save money by skimming six inches of head space? I hope they didn’t pay full price for those flickering gray-green Joe-vs.-the-Volcano-style fluorescent lights.
By contrast, DCA is cute, modern but retro, easily navigated in short bursts of energy, with all the amenities. A Starbucks, natch, right where I free my hands after leaving my luggage with AA. A bookstore. A long narrow shape that begs to be walked before a flight, for some circulation. And the best bathroom water spigots around – perfect flow, they always work right as your hand nears the spigot, no waving around. There’s enough water to wash your hands without feeling wasteful. And the best chorro de agua in airportdom goes to… DCA!
The terminals are short – you bustle out into the main building seconds after disembarking. Luggage shows up remarkably fast. Like, truly fast. At night it’s peaceful but there’s always a taxi, or a Metro if I had only my trusty purple carry-on.
DCA has the added benefit of being within biking distance. Did you know that people go and sit out past the runways to watch planes take off and land? Gravelly Point – look it up! – it turns out I can sit there for quite a long time myself, watching the landing gear reliably fold up after takeoff, or come out before landing. Beautiful.
The only other airport I knew nearly as well was Miami. MIA was a nooks ‘n’ crannies airport, pre-renovation. Its terminals seemed to have accreted over time, as if there were a “highest letter terminal” award to win. Terminals A to W stretched out over a ridiculous length of airport drop-off pavement. But you know what? It worked. If you were going to Qatar, you didn’t have to go queue with people like me bound for Managua. Post-renovation it’s waaaay too orchestrated and unfriendly, everyone funneled through the same six TSA doors, each one like the Costco of airport entries. There are these twee brass conch shells lining the walkways, dolphin silhouettes signaling outlet shopping ahead… And everyone, but everyone, in the same terminal.
Meeting people on planes is an art
And I have met so many people in planes. So many good conversations about every topic under the sun. I love that. Once I came upon Roger and my other work/flying hero, Christy, talking about the annoying seatmates who won’t shut up and let you work. When they looked to me for concurrence, all I could say was, “I’m the one who talks your ear off on the flight!” I never have mastered nonchalance…
[Side note: This week’s New York Times thinks I’m on to something. According to some doctor, “Sometimes people feel an extra spring in their step when they talk to a stranger on a plane or a subway, or when somebody greets them at a restaurant.” Apparently we’re newly noticing how much social contact helps us flourish as pandemic restrictions ease…
I didn’t mind not being in control of the planes – which I’ve heard is one of those “underlying reasons” we don’t really like flying. That was okay with me: after all, I don’t know how to fly a plane. But I would walk barren, dim corridors from terminal to terminal just to avoid waiting for the poky rail lines that caterpillar from one terminal to the next at DFW. I loved that feeling of control – I might be slower, but I got there on my own steam.
But something happened, or, The Kilimanjaro effect
In 2019 I flew a fair bit for a big piece of work in East Africa – including lots of flights between capitals on small planes, like Kigali to Nairobi to Dar es Salaam to Kampala to Kilimanjaro. One of those flights had to turn around five minutes after takeoff; all of them waggled menacingly over the hot air rising off the ground. Suddenly, it wasn’t just flights with Ramon – it was all my flights. This was about the time of the 787 Max tragedies. I’d never before picked flights based on which airplane. But after the first Max crash, I began to do so. I could panic just looking at the news, whenever a headline popped up about any type of plane.
All that love of flying evaporated. I felt panicky and like my heart was being yanked out of me when we took off, during even mild turbulence, and again when we landed. This was Not Good. Not for my line of work. Not for my line of life. My family lives on the other side of the world. Being displaced – having the place moved from under my feet – still excites me. I haven’t yet been to the volcanic Italian island of Stromboli, or Malta, or Valparaiso, Chile or Rio or approximately one bzillion other places. I still love trying to figure it out, being lost somewhere new, talking to people on flights. What was I going to do, stop flying?
Did I secretly want to stop flying?
A year of no flying, not any damn where
A year off of flying was not, I was sure, the best way to face my fears and get over them. I know better, after all – safer than the drive to the airport and all that. But man did I waffle when it came time to buy my ticket last month to come home for the vaccine. I did not want to feel as awful as I’d felt on my last trip home from Bangladesh. But I wanted the vaccine more than I wanted to stay on the ground.
And then about 72 hours before the flight, a thought appeared in my head – I did not think it, at least not consciously – it was more like I hosted it. It said, “I’m not going to panic anymore.” Not defiantly, not pugnaciously, not Marianne-Williamson-affirmationally. Just a statement, as if of fact, but one that I had no reason to believe. Panic doesn’t just leave. Anxiety doesn’t evaporate. It had become my habit.
I don’t feel I can take credit for it as a “thought.” It did marginally calm me, though, while I packed and got closer to the departure date. It was part of my thought process during the seven hours I had to wait at the airport prior to the 2:00 a.m. flight, thanks to a new curfew in Tunisia. Somehow I wasn’t having those panicky feelings, no swings like my heart was auditioning for Cirque du Soleil.
Takeoff, Tunis, 2:something a.m.
So there I am in the plane, too early in the morning to call anyone or send my last-minute text message of love to Ramon. In my most recent flights, this is when the feelings of fear began, and I would try to meditate a little bit. But I wasn’t feeling it. We started bumping down the runway. That sensation literally equated to panic in my mind a year prior – but not tonight. The building speed. The tilt of the initial climb. The rumbles and changing sounds of the engines. A little feeling of being trapped, a squeeze inside my chest, heat in my hands and head. Just over a year ago, I had had to manage these sensations before, so they didn’t overtake me. But not tonight. How could that little voice in my head have known something I didn’t know myself?
This night, I just wished for a Sudoku.
When we arrived in Frankfurt we cleaved channels of clouds as we descended. Still no reaction in my body, no fear rising up. After a long layover (and much whipping-out-of-my-computer-to-work), we took off again, this time in daylight. The blue when we broke through the clouds was brilliant and the clouds so white it nearly hurt the eyes. Blue skies like those first flights, when I was a kid, looking at the fluffy billows below me, like safe shelves holding us above the ground, like cushions, inherently calming. Though it was Germany below me, it looked like Colorado, like home. My heart rate was a little up but it was at least half excitement that I could, again, see the clouds and be happy to be Up In The Air.
We landed in Dulles (blech) several easy hours later. Big planes don’t generally bump as much anyway, but I was feeling confident that the whole Panicky Flying Episode was now thoroughly behind me. Oh, me! I’m nothing if not unpredictable. As we began the descent, I felt the familiar tug like wire wound round my heart, a little bit. I thought about it, tried to reason with it, laughed at it a little. At least I know it doesn’t always have to be scary. There’s something there I can work with, I am not a lost cause. I just have to avoid flying with Ramon!