Having spent so many years working in travel, I’ve lost count many years ago of the number of times I’ve left the front door not knowing if I’d ever see, or be seen again by those I care for. Of course, in reality, we all do this, every day, accidents happen, symptoms strike haphazardly and in a certain frame of mind even the most bizarre unlikelihood seems as possible as any other.
I remember my younger brother, feeling particularly unhappy about a breakup with some girl, penned a short but pithy ditty as follows;
“Someone says that you’re going to die in an aeroplane crash,
On a particular day, at a particular time;
And no matter where you go, or what you do
That aeroplane’s gonna land on you.”
The unexpected can seem bleakly likely at some points in our lives, but trust in statistics can help, I guess. For a start, the most bizarre unlikelihood obviously includes fabulously happy encounters too. Virtually everyone getting on a plane is doing so voluntarily, happily, (Byeee ! see you in a couple of weeks and tell you all about it !!!), because we’re all fired up with excitement about a new country, opportunity, experience, holiday, a week or two of sun or snow as required, but it’s nevertheless a departure and an almost tangible sense of breaking some sort of bond with where we’ve been.
As time went by, and my parents, family and friends aged, the chances of misfortune seemed to stack up, especially as my job usually seemed to involve moving several thousand miles away with no real quick getaway. As it happened I was by chance at home when my father died in the night in his own bed with little trauma, and was fortunate to be with my elder sister, then later my mother, as they moved on, both times with their people around them. Nevertheless, the split second finality of such parting can feel like the big gong at the end of a religious ceremony, with tremors in the body, then the air, then only in the memory of the crystallised event.
An airport is a strange place sometimes; if you’re really early or catch the moments between departures you can sit in almost complete silence until the trickle of passengers becomes a jostling crowd, heaving boxes, smart luggage, hessian bags and tired bodies (somehow its always the early hours) moving to the check-in and then all disappearing. Sitting in a cathedral sized departure hall in Delhi, only the hum of floor polishers and the subdued chatter of cleaning staff may dilute your solitude. It’s certainly a time to think. Not only about the sudden change in your place on (or above) the earth, but about gathering thoughts, feelings and hopes.
It’s all much more final than any other form of travel, I feel – on the train you can see the track, a hand waving from a carriage window, and you know, sort of, the way people have gone. The same with a road trip, the thread of tarmac that carries you over the horizon constantly indicates the place to be in next, a track, a line, a route. Land travel gives the luxury of constant stimulus and adjustment to changing landscapes, vegetation, weather and people en route. But projection into thin air gives no clues; (just beyond that fluffy lion-shaped cloud lies Madras ?).
You move into space with no visible signs, following magnets and radio beacons, no wonder that air travel is approached with trepidation by so many. Most air traffic above the globe isn’t even done by a flesh and blood pilot, pre-plotted routes, altitudes, way-points, spacings in time and distance keeping the flow of traffic seamless. The emotional break from land to air can be so traumatic, for when in our lives are we suspended in such a way ? From womb to grave we hold and are held on to things, floating in fluids, at times grasping our cord, or for fractions of a second leaving the grip of earth in a leap of joy, or faith. And here we sit, awaiting a break with all familiar feelings and trusting the magician with the metaphorical joystick and dials to negotiate safely through thin, thin air.
Change and our ability to adapt to change is one of humankind’s most important characteristics, (although far outstripped physically by that of insects), we are able to make a constant series of emotional, intellectual and perceptual adjustments that have got us a long way on the evolutionary path.
In my position, a tour leader, airports can bring sustenance, disgorging new faces and people to know and cajole and lead through strangeness now familiar to me. But when they go, I go with them to the airport, check them in and watch them again engulfed in the maw of customs and immigration. And I stand, again, alone, somehow relieved, somehow bereft. Going to the airport, the very act of going there and knowing you’re not going anywhere makes it surreal.
Someone once asked me what was my favourite place in India, and though many places please me immensely, none is so pleasurable as Indira Gandhi airport when I’m leaving. None so desolate and unreal when I’m not. This is not to say I dislike India, far from it; usually I feel Britain to be simply boring after the colour and bustle, the sweet and rotten smells, the deafening quiet of deserts and mountains and the numbing cacophony of tumultuous traffic and markets.
No, I like India fine as it is, bursting with vitality in myriad forms, but as I fly westwards I always feel I’m leaving at the right time; I’ve paced myself to the finish. India, like the best performers, always leaves its audience wanting more. Heathrow and London are always a crashing disappointment of bland civility and in plain sight monitoring, rarely a happy face and a chorus of groans about infinitesimal inconveniences. And when once more I trundle bags through the green channel in Delhi, it feels, always, as if I never left at all.
As I write this today, mulling over the melding of technology and emotions in the way we live and move over the globe now, I am struck by the realisation that I am now the waver on the platform, the holder of the handkerchief at the check in, as a dear friend heads across the wide open seas for their new adventures. I don’t feel glum, I feel anew what a kindness it is to let go of a kindred spirit, to set them back into the wild, their true domain and home. I’ve been often enough on the other side of that equation and only feel happy for the surprises they will find, and feel sure they have all the resources they need to make the best of everything they encounter, and enough to spare to fetch them back. In due course.
If we’re all spared !
What a wonderful piece of writing! Thank you Bob. I love sitting in train stations and airports. I once spent a whole day at Heathrow waiting for my family to arrive so we could set off for Egypt. It was as you describe it ❤️
Once again, a pleasure to read Bob. You speak of the world in such beautiful ways, as an adventure shared, as a wonder witnessed; thanks for the steady reminders 🙂
Gail Muller ,
I love this piece so much Bob! Firstly your writing is a joy to read; it pulses and sparks with energy, experience and kindness. The content also resonates with me hugely – I am a passionate train traveller and really understand what you say about the thread that ties you to the land through the journey and that can be mapped and marked to the earth. Thanks for sharing such heartfelt thoughts and I look forward to reading more (and trying to start my own blog too! I’d love to be a travel writer most of all). Very best, G