It was my first time leaving from Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International airport, and it wasn't going very well. The lines outside the international terminal were a labyrinth, airport staff shouting conflicting directions to travelers seeking entry into the building as various lines snaking in and out of one another in a jumble of angles. How ironic such chaos was birthed from an attempt to bring an orderly process to life.
But that's probably a pretty good description of South Asia in general - chaotic order.
There are some situations in life where you just kind of shrug and let the confusion roll off your back, so I picked a line and decided to leave it to fate. This proved to be a poor choice on my part as I was informed by the door minder at the front of the line that I had queued incorrectly and I needed to be in another line. So I took back my passport and shuffled over to the indicated line for an additional 20 minutes of queuing before the new door minder finally checked my passport and printed itinerary (mandatory to enter the terminal) and waved me through. It was here I discovered the line entered the building less than 10 feet away from the previous line I had been rejected from and both joined the same new line to pass through a security check into the check-in area. I flicked my eyes over to try and catch the attention of the door-minder that had sent me packing in the first line, but decided getting through the remainder of my day was more important than expressing my annoyance.
Despite the inconvenience, the redundancy of the whole ordeal really just reinforced my thought that this was yet another trip through an inefficient airport somewhere in the world, just like all the other ones I'd taken before it. Passport out, ticket in hand, laptop out, and walk to gate. This is the dance I waltz in airports across the globe year after year. It's odd something as exhilarating as travel can be plagued by a sense of mundane routine at times. There I am walking through an airport at the foot of the mythical Himalayas and I found myself, dare I say it ..... a bit bored. It's not that I didn't love the time I had spent in Nepal, rather it was that I felt as if I was staring directly into the face of what promised to be "just another flight" in the long list of flights I've taken over my life. I consider myself a bit of an "avgeek", but even my love of airplanes often isn't enough to stave off the feeling of monotony that often seeps into the flying portion of my trip.
As I arrived at the gate for my AirAsia flight to Kuala Lumpur, I was shuffled through the throngs of people standing in the narrow hallway by a string of staff members who checked my boarding pass and directed me to the next "link" in the chain. A rope barrier had been erected seemingly arbitrarily across the waiting area, and I was guided to a very small area on the far side of the ropes. All around me were a sea of people, ebbing and flowing amongst one another, wave after wave of humanity slowing breaking upon the podium like a solitary rock in the surf.
As a traveler I'm used to being in a variety of places were I stand out. Whether I'm the chubby half-Asian guy in Japan, or the American struggling with his verb conjugation in Argentina it's not uncommon for me to look up and suddenly notice I'm quite conspicuous. No surprise then that I quickly realized as I sat in a chair in the midst of this mildly frantic scene that no one else waiting to board this flight seemed to be like me. There I was in my baby blue shorts and a red v-neck t-shirt with my beige and blue backpack slung over my shoulder, but everyone else around me was swaddled in various shades of black and brown. A vast majority of them were young males, with a smattering of young women thrown in. My eyes scanned the room and I wasn't able to find a single face I would wager was over the age of 35. Everyone appeared by my untrained eye to be South Asian, and the one thing that stood out to me is despite all appearing to be locals, no one seemed to be traveling with family. Everyone seemed clustered into groups, a mix of nervousness and excitement fluttered across each face.
Curiosity got the better of me and I began to slowly circle through my area, eavesdropping into the conversations going on and casually scanning the boarding passes as I meandered by. The conversations were all in Nepali, so I gleaned nothing from these, but the perusal of the boarding passes showed almost everyone was headed onward from Kuala Lumpur to Jeddah, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia.
It suddenly dawned on me that this plane was loaded with contract workers headed off to the sands of the Middle East to work for who know's how many years. The vacillating episodes of excitement and fear suddenly started to make much more sense.
This wasn't "just another flight" for about 99% of the people about to board the plane. This was a trip into the unknown.
Before I knew it the doors behind the podium were flung open and the AirAsia staff started scanning tickets. I had managed to snag a seat right next to the podium so I was the third person through the doors and out onto the tarmac walking up to the Airbus A330 that would be our ride to Malaysia. I made my way up the stairs where I was greeted by two immaculately groomed flight attendants, hair cascading down their backs like dark waterfalls. Through the door and to my seat I went, which was located directly behind the business class cabin at the bulkhead window - 7A.
I started to settle into my seat as a steady stream of passengers made their way past me into the plane. The boarding process was slow and complicated as people lingered in the aisles, pointing toward the bins and the seats while speaking to those around them in voices draped in excitement. As person after person filed past me, it became overwhelmingly apparent this was the first time most of them had even been on an airplane. An almost tangible sense of wonder began to waft about the cabin as grown men and women giggled in delight at this strange new world around them.
While it's quite possible I turned my head for a bit and missed some folks as they walked past me, it appeared I might have been the only tourist on that flight. An endless stream of Nepalese, the vast majority of which seemed to be on their way to work in a far off land, continued to march their way down AirAsia's red-carpeted aisle.
My seatmates were two of the last ones to arrive on the plane, marching in with a cadre of men who filled up the rows around me. I smiled and nodded my head at the occupants of 7B and C. They returned my smile but quickly moved back to whipping their heads in wide circles, taking in every element of the plane their eyes could find. Hands darted across their seats as they pushed the recline buttons and adjusted head rests. The only word I can think of to describe the twinkle in their eyes is glee.
The doors were closed and the flights attendants began to make their way through the plane preparing for take off. It was an immediate struggle for them to get anyone focused on the tasks at hand as the excitement of everyone's first flight was still electrifying the passengers. I know many frequent fliers (and even not so frequent fliers) laugh at safety demonstrations and videos that seem to suggest anyone would need an explanation as to how a seat belt works, but one glance around this particular flight would stifle laughter pretty quickly. The flight attendants had to stop at almost every row to provide assistance and instruction. I ended up unbuckling my belt and re-buckling it a few times to help my seat mates understand the procedure as well.
As we taxied the crew had to make several announcements and passes through the cabin to get people to return to their seats. The concept of staying seated during specific portions of the flight was clearly foreign, so it felt like every minute or so someone else would get out of their seat and walk down the aisle to go talk to someone in another row. I felt some sympathy for the sole Nepali-speaking flight attendant, but at the same time I was reveling in the exuberant joy being displayed by the faces rushing around. Eventually the message was received by the passengers, we posted up for take off, and then began rocketing down the runway and lifted off over the sprawl of Kathmandu.
As the wheels left the ground and that momentary feeling of semi-weightlessness began to roll through our bodies, a collective gasp of surprise escaped throughout the cabin. What a beautiful thing to experience - the one collective moment when an entire plane full of people experience the miracle of flight for the very first time.
Now despite the growing acceptance worldwide of the use of electronic devices from gate to gate, I'm still that guy who will put the Kindle down or turn the iPhone off when it's time for take off so he can look out the window. In my opinion the views out of an airplane window during take off and landing are some of the most hypnotic vistas one can have the pleasure of experiencing.
Yet today, on this flight, I found the scene inside the plane much more beautiful than the one outside the little circle to my left.
Those that were lucky enough to be near a window turned their heads as the view of solid ground beneath us slowly retreat as we rose higher and higher. People seated in the middle of the plane craned their necks to try to catch a glimpse, the internal struggle of remaining seated as instructed vs. the inherent desire to see the world from above wrestled across many faces. A few nervous flyers simply closed their eyes or stared straight ahead, the telltale signs of accelerated breathing and firmly gripped arm rests giving them away.
Never in my life have I seen a group of people take the announcement "the captain has turned off the seat belt sign and you are now free to move about the cabin" to heart more than this plane full of folks. Once the direction was provided in Nepali over the loud speaker a cacophony of seat belt clicks and feet shuffling broke out across the plane as people stood up and moved to the windows. Those that were seated along the walls were trapped as an influx of bodies stretched out to look out at the world below. My seatmates hopped up into the aisle and disappeared into the rows behind me, though I was visited quite often for the first hour of the flight by a variety of faces eager to peak out the window next to me, which I happily allowed people to do.
I tried speaking with a few folks as they gazed out at the mountain ranges and river valleys below us, but sadly English didn't seem to be a language anyone felt very comfortable speaking in, so the most I got back from anyone was usually a shy "hello" or a "nice" followed by a finger pointing out the window.
God bless the flight attendants working this flight, as they still made the most valiant of efforts to provide the standard service expected of them, rolling out the food and drink carts and patiently negotiating their way down the aisle. Most of my fellow passengers were completely uninterested in the offerings being made, so it seemed an exercise in futility. And yet they pressed onward, like twin battering rams plowing through a sea of flesh.
The flight from Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur takes several hours and as the landscape below disappeared into a sea of blackness as night fell people slowly began returning to their seats and the atmosphere in the plane moved closer to that of a busy coffee shop. Conversations sprouted up all around the cabin as people chattered away in hushed, excited whispers. I understood not a word of it, so I can only imagine the topics that were on their minds - the exhilaration of their first flight, the fear of moving to a new country, the sadness of leaving behind friends and family. The excitement that started the journey slowly ebbed into the night as a more reverent, somber tone draped the cabin.
Eventually the nose of the Airbus began to dip, indicating we would soon be landing. The flight attendants seemed to learn from the take off experience that they needed to pro-actively start working the cabin early, and they started immediately making their way through the aisle collecting garbage and asking folks to bring their seats upright and buckle their belts.
I turned to my two seat mates and tried my best to pantomime the act of switching seats. I figured either one of them would enjoy the view of flying over a massive city like Kuala Lumpur lit up like a flat Christmas tree much more than I would. Either my miming skills need much work or they were too polite to accept my offer, as they both smiled at me but remained seated and made no effort to switch with me.
Still, they stretched their necks out across the void in an effort to look as far out of the window as possible as our A330 crisscrossed the skies over Malaysia. Unlike the loud murmur that enveloped the cabin at take off, a deafening silence fill the air now. The glittering glow of yellow street lights grew brighter and brighter as we approached the airport, my seatmates never once pausing from their peering out the window. As the wheels finally skidded across the tarmac and the brakes screeched to life, cheering and clapping erupted throughout the cabin. A raucous display of happiness rocked the plane as we skidded toward the end of the runway and taxied off toward the terminal.
Whether excitement had taken over or the instructions in Nepali weren't given as clearly as needed I am unsure, but the aisles were soon filled with people pulling down luggage and attempting to queue up for the door despite the fact we were still moving and the seat belt signs were illuminated. Announcements were made pleading with passengers to return to their seats but even then only about half seemed convinced it was advice that should be heeded. Eventually the crew seemed to just give up and we completed our taxi to the terminal with aisle filled with folks holding plastic bags of belongings and chatting up a storm.
As I exited the jet bridge and waved goodbye to my two silent seat mates, I couldn't help but feel thankful.
Thankful I had the luxury of viewing something as miraculous as flying in an airplane as mundane and routine. Thankful I was born into a life where the likelihood of me signing a contract to go work in a foreign country while leaving behind my friends and family is almost zero. Thankful I am able to travel the world and be constantly shown that sometimes all you need in life is a reminder to have a bit of perspective.
It was their first experience with flight, but it was my last flight where I viewed flying as a chore. As travelers it can be difficult to remember there are many things in life we take for granted and we should really be more conscious of appreciating - the ability to travel, the beauty of flight, the privilege of having a home and family to return to at any time we choose.
There are so many people in the travel community who try to tell you travel is accessible and easy, and admittedly those are true statements .... if you're part of the subset of humanity that has the economic and social stability to collect miles, redeem awards, or manufacture credit card spending. Yet for a vast number of people in this world, the experience of regularly traveling is fickle fruit. Even something we may view as commonplace such as having even flown in an airplane is still just out of reach.
So the next time you're upset about having to take your shoes off at a TSA checkpoint or a thunderstorm has delayed your flight by an hour, just remember you regularly experience something people all across this world dream about but may never get to achieve in their lifetime.
Always carry with you a sense of appreciation and remember to gaze out the airplane window from time to time and be reminded of the miracle of flight.