06 November 2011

"Have a Safe Trip"

The flight began like any other flight.

I was traveling from Nairobi, Kenya to Delhi, India. As there are no direct flights between those two cities, I was to have a five-hour layover in Bahrain. This would be the first leg of my three-month furlough, beginning with a visit to Naomi and her family.

Getting ready for the trip, there had been so many last-minute details to which I needed to attend. Wrapping up my normal daily activities as a missionary in Kenya, cleaning out the fridge and emptying the trash, getting the space in my house ready for a tenant to sub-lease in my absence, one last watering of my many potted plants, informing my landlord of the arrangement…. oh, and packing. On top of it all, I had an annoying cold that had really sapped my energy level.

Because the flight wasn’t leaving until 15 minutes after midnight, I stopped off at Carol and Jeremiah’s for dinner and our last goodbyes. I also wanted to see the new house into which they’d recently moved. A downpour had just abated when my taxi arrived.

I arrived at the airport quite early. I had a cup of tea and read the next day’s edition of the newspaper. Strolling around in the terminal for international arrivals, I observed the first vending machine I’d ever seen in Kenya. It was for Coca-Cola products. Later, while standing in the check-in line, I noticed a young hippy-looking guy - complete with a tie-dyed t-shirt and a large, well-used backpack. Included in his luggage were two six-foot long thin sticks. Curious what they might be, I watched as he and the airline attendant struggled to secure them for the flight.

While waiting in the departure lounge, I listened to a very tall middle-aged Canadian man behind me talk about going to Mumbai, India to have expensive dental work done. His Kenyan girlfriend was with him; it was her very first time to fly. They planned to also do some sight-seeing after he recuperated. He carried on a long conversation with a young British couple with a six-week old baby. The two of them have lived in Kenya for five years and both teach at the same school. The dad often walked around the lounge area, with their baby content in the carrier on his chest. I also noticed an older short and stocky guy in a pale orange shirt. He sat on his chair with one leg tucked underneath. Behind him was a young dark-haired gal, engrossed in a book.

A half an hour late, it was finally time to board. As I got settled in my aisle seat, I noticed the man seated at the window was quite restless. After he got up to use the toilet, he asked the young Kenyan Indian lad (seated between us) to trade seats with him. Now seated next to me, the Pakistani engaged me in conversation. I’m not fond of conversation with my seatmates when flying. When I responded with, “India”, to his question about my destination, he abruptly asked me, “Why?” A bit later, he told me he was Pakistani and asked if I’d ever visited Pakistan. When I told him, “No, I haven’t, he abruptly asked me, “Why not?”

When the stewardess gave us the routine speech about the safety features, I only mildly paid attention – like I do on most any flight. My thought has always been that if there were an emergency during the flight, the cabin crew would be there to assist us.

My Pakistani neighbor told me he was nervous about the flight. When I inquired about his nervousness, he said, “No, it’s not my first time to fly, but I’m nervous about having been in Africa for the first time.” He works out of Dubai for a generator firm and had been in Nairobi for a week checking out the potential market there. His remark didn’t make any sense to me, but all through the flight he continually informed me of his apprehensions.

I closed my eyes in an attempt to quiet him down. The young Indian lad at the window had already apparently fallen asleep, with his ear buds in place.

It occurred to me that I had failed to talk to God about the flight. I admitted to him that I’d been so busy getting ready, I hadn’t even prayed. “Keep me safe, Lord. Take me to all my destinations. My life is in your hands. I’ve given you absolute control over my life. I have surrendered everything to you. We all die one day (plane crash, cancer, bicycling accident). You know the appointed day and the hour when I’ll go home. But I ask that I will arrive well in Delhi. Please keep me safe on this flight.”

My thoughts were interrupted by my neighbor, “What is that? Why is the plane going back and forth and making that noise?” I told him it’s just turbulence. “What is turbulence? Is it dangerous? I don’t like it. Is it bad?” I tried to explain to him that it’s just something in the air; there’s no need to worry. “Something in the air? But what if something is wrong with the plane? I don’t like it. I’m nervous.” He got the attention of one of the flight attendants in an attempt to allay his fears.

Off and on, all through the flight, he kept this running dialogue going. “Are we okay? I’m afraid. Are we going down?” In his state of constant nervousness, he got up repeatedly to use the toilet. My annoyance with him eventually shifted to a genuine attempt to calm him down. I even patted him on the shoulder a couple of times… reassuring him that everything was okay.

As per normal when I fly, I was unable to get any shut-eye. Between my fidgety neighbor, the flight attendants serving us a meal, the lights either turning on or turning off, and the occasional turbulence, I was unable to doze at all. I think a person basically goes into a sort of auto-pilot mode when flying long distances. It’s easy to lose track of time, especially when there’s no map and destination information on the screens (as was the case on this flight).

My neighbor was at it again. “Is it time for us to land yet? Are we going down yet?” He fumbled around and found his phone. Going against the rules, he turned it on to confirm the time and added, “What time is our arrival in Bahrain?” I’d been unconsciously staring at the TV program on the overhead screen. Now, it caught my eye and made me laugh. I told my talkative neighbor, “This program is funny.” I think for the first time, the thought occurred to him that maybe he was disturbing me; he actually stayed quiet for a while.

The flight did have a fair amount of turbulence, but nothing really out of the ordinary. Roughly four or more hours into our five-hour flight, the Indian lad woke up. When he opened the window shade, all three of us admired the brilliant orange sun rising above the horizon.

The pilot’s voice came on over the PA system again. I had struggled to understand him all through the flight. This particular time, it seemed like he told us we’d lost cabin pressure and that we would descend to 10,000 feet. Suddenly, in the midst of his explanation, small doors on the ceiling opened up; all the oxygen masks dropped down.

Simultaneously, we went into an obviously steep descent.

After a few seconds, the pilot announced, “All passengers and crew members must take their seats. Do not panic. Put on the oxygen masks.”

The cabin crew sat down and put on their masks. There were no instructions or assistance from them like I had always naïvely expected. Eventually, each of us passengers fumbled with the masks and used them as best we could. Babies started crying.

“Is it danger? Does this work? Is there oxygen?” My neighbor was now beside himself with worry and fear. He kept putting his mask on and off of his mouth. I did my best to again reassure him that all was normal and okay.

But now… I wrestled with my own concerns and faced my own fears. I couldn’t help observing our cabin crew. Each one of them was quite obviously frightened. I had sensed panic in the pilot’s voice. I wondered if we plummeting to our deaths. Wow. Could this be the day? How will my family learn about it? What will Naomi think when I don’t show up at the airport in Delhi? I recalled my prayer just a few hours earlier. “The day and hour of my death are in your hands, Lord.”

I tried to relax and focus on taking deep breaths from my mask. The small children and babies on the plane were still crying. I laid my hand on the head of the two-year old Pakistani boy across the aisle from me. He was in his attentive father’s arms, but was nonetheless scared. I offered up a quick prayer that he would not be afraid. An Indian boy about four years old behind me was also crying. He kept fighting with his mother about using the mask. I tried to convey to him - by using my eyes - that everything would be okay.

The pilot’s voice came on again. “Do not panic. Everyone stay seated. All passengers and cabin crew, continue to use the oxygen masks. We must make an emergency landing. We will land in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It is the closest airport. Do not panic.”

Again, I sensed panic in his voice. I could hear my neighbor praying in his native tongue, Urdu. I heard others around me praying in their own languages and to their own gods. I also prayed. “Lord, let this pilot level out the plane. Let him regain control.” I again wondered if this was it. Was this the appointed day for me? But, I had a sense of peace. Enough that I was able to continue calming my neighbor and patting him on the shoulder.

One of the cabin crew came back briefly to see if we were all okay. My neighbor piped up, “Is it danger? What is happening? Tell us why we are going down so fast.” The stewardess rather curtly told him to keep breathing with his mask. “Do not use the toilet. Just stay seated.”

After approximately 7 minutes, the plane did level out. My ears hurt intensely and I noticed that several around me where experiencing the same discomfort.

The pilot announced that we were coming in for a landing at the airport in Riyadh. I think all 120 passengers took a collective sigh of relief when we touched ground. I heard a woman’s voice calmly say behind me, “Thank you, Lord.”

My neighbor kept up his questions, though. “We’re going so fast. Why are we going so fast?” I tried to remind him, “But we’ve landed; we’re on the ground. We’re just taxiing to our gate. Everything is okay now. You don’t need to worry anymore.” I had felt badly about my irritation with him. I realized that in any given moment, someone may need my listening ear and encouragement… even when I’d rather be left alone.

All four of the cabin crew now made their way around, asking if we were okay and attending to other duties. It was quite obvious - with a glance at her face - that one of them had been crying.

The father of the two-year old boy, across the aisle from me, spoke in Urdu to my Pakistani neighbor. I knew exactly what he was saying by his gestures - that he had prayed for our safety during those scary moments.

Indeed, we had all prayed.

As we taxied to our gate and then waited for clearance from the Saudi authorities to disembark, I offered up a prayer of thanks. As I did so, I saw an image in my mind of a restaurant server, dressed immaculately in his black and white uniform. As he weaved in and out of the tables and past customers, he continued to carefully and steadily hold a silver platter above his head. It rested securely on his fingertips and palm. I immediately thought of my friend, Rod’s, comment to me in a farewell email, shortly before I left Nairobi.

“May God bless you and keep you in the palm of his hand!”

“Thank you, Lord,” I whispered. “Indeed, you do hold me safely and snugly in the palm of your hand! You brought this plane securely back down to earth, in spite of the crisis.”

The pilot stepped into the cabin before we alighted and asked if we were okay. However, we were never satisfactorily informed regarding what had happened. Nor were we offered any “after care”, as is normal in such distressing circumstances.

Eventually a bus came to collect us from the plane and take us to the airport terminal. As we all crowded onto the bus a young Indian gal - quietly and as discreetly as she could manage - vomited on the floor. I’m quite sure it was a residual effect from our frightening experience.

Huge water fountain at the airport

We spent the next 10 hours together at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport. Details of our next move were sketchy and slow to come, but the airline did serve us a morning snack and later a full lunch.

Our morning snack provided by the airline

Our wait was long and boring. The airport offered little in amenities or distractions. Finding an employee that spoke English well and trying to figure out how to use a foreign currency wasn't easy. Nor was it easy figuring out how to get a local SIM card for my phone so I could notify Naomi of our delay.

Saudi Arabia Riyal (SAR)

About 12 of us formed a little community of support and conversation. The older gentleman with the orange shirt (that I’d noticed at the airport in Nairobi) was called Yannis and was from Greece. Owning a number of apartment buildings in Greece, he travels back and forth to Kenya rather frequently to visit folks and also to peddle olive oil for his friends back home.

The young hippy-like fellow was an Italian, named Robert. He was traveling back home with his new girlfriend from Ethiopia. He had spent the past four months in Kenya volunteering with an organization that works in Nairobi. He lived in a slum with street children and also spent some time in Maasai land with the nomadic tribe. The two long sticks I’d seen him checking with his other luggage were what he used to help the Maasai herd their cattle. He had such an engaging smile. Amazingly, because of his lack of fluency with the English language, he had no idea where we had landed. He thought we were in Bahrain (our actual destination). At one point, while we sat together, I noticed he was reading the Bible. When I asked him if he was a believer, he flashed his warm smile and said, “Yes, I am.” As we talked further he expressed his surprise at how calm everyone was on the plane during the crisis. When I told him I was praying for various people around me, he said he was also praying for fellow passengers.

Robert (Italian), Arlo (Somalian), and Yannis (Greek)

The tall Canadian told me his girlfriend was much calmer during the crisis than he had been - in spite of it being her first time to fly. He lives six months of the year in Kenya and the other six months in the US, where he drives an over-the-road truck. He recently put his girlfriend - who has never driven a car - through truck-driving school in Nairobi. Their plan is for her to get a job in the US as an over-the-road trucker… that is, if she can first get a visa.

The young dark-haired gal, that I’d observed reading a book as we waited to board the plane, was from the UK. Emma is a lawyer, but decided she needed a break from practicing law. She’d been living in 10 different African countries for the past two years while working as a tour guide.

The young Kenyan-Indian lad who sat by me at the window had just finished his education for becoming a pharmacist. He was headed to England to visit friends and relatives before coming back to Kenya for his final exams and registration.

There was also a Polish fellow called Darius. He goes to Kenya for a few weeks every year and is employed as a fork-lift driver in the UK. He’s considering living full-time in Kenya, specifically in Ukunda (an area I’m very familiar with on the South Coast).

There was also a Bahraini guy who works for the UN and travels a lot. Rumor was that we were to fly on to Bahrain on the regularly scheduled 6pm flight. Because he flies out of Bahrain so much, he was able to inform us about the various flights we would be able to take to our various destinations.

An Indian grandmother, her daughter, and grandson were traveling back to India. The grandson did all the checking with the airline to get updates on our situation. My guess is that the two ladies didn’t know English. Arlo, a young Somali from Nairobi, was traveling with his mom and some other relatives. And finally, there was a Kenyan gal seated a couple of rows in front of me. Dressed in a colorful blouse, she was on her way to Bahrain for an exhibit she was putting on. She had displayed the most panic of all the passengers I observed.

These are the folks I befriended and hung out with during the long hours at the airport. We commiserated with one another and re-told the story of our experience. Everyone I spoke to said they thought we were going to die.

Off and on throughout our time together in the airport, we had various quiet complaints - the long wait and our inconvenience, the lack of communication from the airline, the lack of facilities and services in the airport, our struggle to let friends and family know about our delay, etc. However, invariably the conversations always ended with words along these lines, “At least we’re alive. We’re on the ground… and we’re alive.”

I didn’t feel well because of my cold and I was so tired from not sleeping for over 36 hours. Additionally, I was tired from speaking to folks for whom English was not their first language - especially Robert (the Italian), Yannis (the Greek), and the Pakistani who had sat next to me on the plane. As much as I enjoyed Robert and Yannis, it was exhausting for all of us to search for the right word that everyone would understand.

At long last 6pm arrived; we boarded another plane for a 45-minute flight to Bahrain. Once there, I and about 20 others were put up in a hotel, with dinner and breakfast provided. Almost 24 hours later, I arrived in Delhi to the expectant and smiling faces of Naomi, Tony, and Mia.

I don’t think I’ll ever speak or hear the words, “Have a safe trip”, in the same way again.

Sign at the airport

This experience was certainly a sobering reminder that life is fragile.

In any given moment, my life can fade away.



Delhibound said...

It is indeed sobering. I may never ignore the fight attendants video and safety instructions again!

We're glad you arrived safe and alive!

Anonymous said...

Deb, What a harrowing experience!!
To think all the passengers must have thought they were going to die! Even a Christian in good standing with the Lord, would be terrified, if the plane is crash landing! Hope this won't cause you anxiety in your future flights.
Glad God spared your life. Peggy

deb said...

Peggy, I had to get on two more flights almost immediately after this happened. One to Bahrain later that same day and then one to Delhi the next morning. I wasn't anxious, but I can certainly see how a person could be.

Pemupukan Kacang Tanah said...

true, we should take good care and take better care of ourself again, and again