Planes, trains and tragedies
For seven years, I flew back and forth between the US and Bangkok twice a year, always with at least a three-hour transit at Tokyo Narita Airport. If I was lucky and sat on the right side of the plane, I got to watch the sun rise above the sea of clouds from the plane window. My skin would always itch from the dry air and my lips would chap. I often found myself sitting next to a Japanese businessman who drank Asahi after Asahi. I once cried so hard watching Up, I had to explain to the concerned passenger next to me that I was OK — I was just watching a very sad cartoon.
The flight I took from Bangkok to Tokyo lands before Narita actually opens. The airport just waking up, the A/C still off, perfumes and cigarettes and booze still trapped behind metal shutters, travellers lay down on benches with their shoes off and their backpacks as pillows. I always felt like I’d witnessed something secret, like going into the kitchen of a restaurant. I must have walked from one end of the airport to the other and heard the “End of the walkway” announcements a hundred times.
I know where the gates are without having to look at the signs. At 7am the showers open, at 8am, when I came out, the airport had stretched and yawned and is wide-awake. I would leave Japan and arrive in New York and it would be an hour before I left. I think I will never get over the wonders of time-travelling.
I’m writing this as flights to Israel are being grounded and as flight routes are diverted around war zones. In light of recent tragedies; the crash, the disappearance of people, or their complete annihilation, or even 9/11, it’s impossible not to dwell, beyond the loss and trauma, on the sense of vulnerability one feels in airports and aeroplanes.
The destruction of flight MH17 suddenly made a distant conflict, previously unnoticed by much of the world, a global problem. Passenger planes have always flown over areas of conflict— Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria. Nothing ever happens, or almost never happens, until it does.
Then there was another crash of a TransAsia Airways plane in Taiwan on Wednesday night. The week of aerial tragedies was indeed long.
On Sep 11, 2001, four commercial planes became weapons of mass destruction. The world does not allow for an intermission when you are suspended in the air. The idea of dying alone, or essentially with strangers, is always replaced by reports on the stories of the victims and how they lived.
I do not understand tragedies; I can only contemplate.
I was on a flight from LA to Chicago once and the pilot played the role of tour guide: “Here on the left, the Colorado River”, “Here, the history of the Hoover Dam”. I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon from the ground, only through aeroplane windows. There are places you have flown over but you know will never ever visit. There is the curve of the world that you only recall when looking at flight routes, when you realise you are somehow floating above Alaska. The distance grows and present time seems immaterial — only departure and arrival times matter. When you are in-between places, you suddenly become profound. Nothing or no one is within reach.
Earlier this year, Amtrak offered a test run for its writers’ residency programme, sparked by writer Alexander Chee, who said the train was the best place for writing. Jessica Gross, the first writer to try out the programme wrote: “Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular.” She was riding from New York to Chicago, then back again.
I feel that plane time is not found, but ambushed. It is time out. You sit in an uncomfortable corner chair, not a punishment, not unpleasant, but not entirely voluntarily due to lack of options.
Flying, to me, never had the same romance as train travel, the destination so disconnected from the starting point, the airports never the grand train stations. There is, however, always the drama of taking off and landing, of leaving ground, being completely unreachable, then back again.
What I have so often experienced, perhaps too sentimentally, when travelling between places separated not just by physical distance, but bookmarked by a brief suspension of time, is merely a poetic notion.
Pimrapee Thungkasemvathana is a feature writer for Life.