Ex-Pat Living: Fear of Flying?
Flight for man is a miracle. Flight for most expats is a necessity, born of passion. To boldly go…
Expats go where we do because certain skills don’t already exist locally and we are there to build, make, develop, or establish whatever the country needs at that point in its development- to give it a boost through Foreign Direct Investment, entrepreneurship or mission critical aid.
Many of the places we go are off the beaten path. We share experiences; we share stories of flight miracles, of near misses.
Do we fear flying? In truth, we fear only what we do not know.
“We started to accelerate. The beads on the windows ran horizontally now, as the plane barreled down the runway. I touched my necklace, holding St. Christopher between my thumb and forefinger, feeling the pattern of the man carrying the Christ child, and prayed for a safe journey.
Look out for your children who travel the Earth today, be it on land, sea, or the air as I do.
Bring us safely to our destination, be it home or abroad.
Make the purpose of our trip fruitful, be it business or pleasure.
Help us to enjoy the wonders of new places and to appreciate anew the comforts of home.
There is a leap of faith that goes into flying. That moment when the nose raises up and we reach towards the clouds. I know that physics goes into it – some formula involving velocity, trajectory, the curve of the wings – but not really understanding it, that spot of time is always a miracle to me.”
-Amy Flotz, Amy’s Inkwell.
If They Can Put A Man In Space, How About A Decent Airport Bathroom?
Baku Bina Airport wasn’t particularly efficient or modern when expats began to pour in during the early 90s. But somehow, they had a system. As with most “systems” it isn’t what you know, but who.
In the early days, the airport was run from the inside out: if you had a facilitator on the inside, you could get yourself in from the outside.
And so it was, my first working trip to Baku. My family accompanied me for a few days of vacation while I did oil company work, training staff for their first office in Baku. I was fortunate to be seated in company paid First Class, though my family was in coach. My husband had no way of knowing that the head they kept seeing, bobbing in conversation, wasn’t me.
No, I would be the one head down in the air sick bags all the way from Istanbul to Baku. I had a reaction to something I ate just before we left and it managed to hit just as we boarded. It wasn’t a long flight, just two hours. But those two hours can be an eternity if the lavatory is occupied by others when you need it.
When we arrived, all luggage was offloaded to the tarmac and each person had to pick up his/her own luggage and carry it inside the terminal. Coach passengers deplaned out the back first, and my husband and daughter were already hustled inside by the time I finally deplaned and got to identify my luggage.
I made it some 50 meters to the terminal and sat in the holding area with my head down, trying not to move. I didn’t know where a bathroom might be, and got the feeling I didn’t want to have to find out.
Our facilitator found us, angel of mercy that he was. Namik took care of everything with customs, got people to take our supplies, and managed to get us on the way. A forty minute drive later we were at the home of our friends. Namik called a clinic for me and got some activated charcoal to dissolve in a glass of water. I drank the black water and waited… in the toilet room.
No One Knows You’re Gone…
After a number of trips to Georgia, driving from Baku to Tbilisi in a van with wood for bench seats (9 hours each way without air conditioning), renting a Mercedes E Class with driver (6-1/2 hours… he thought his name was Michael Schumacher and our trip an F-1 race!), our group decided to fly for this particular business meeting in Tbilisi. It sounded like such a good idea at the time!
The flight was about an hour overall. We were using a Russian Yak-40. We didn’t know it at the time, but Yakolev stopped making these in 1981. This was now 2000…
We were being delayed for take off by some calculation error, as far as we could understand. The pilot exited the plane. The co-pilot followed. A moment or two later, a third officer emerged from the cockpit with charts and maps. It was curious to watch but we didn’t speak Georgian so it was mostly a mystery. In a short while, they all came back. The conversation was getting louder in the cockpit- not exactly the start you want for a flight.
A small group gathered on the tarmac- maybe half a dozen airport staff. Next our luggage was all offloaded from the plane. The pilot, co-pilot and the third officer who appeared to be the navigator again exited the plane.
This was getting a little unnerving, the not knowing. Soon some of the passengers going home got off the plane and went to the group on the tarmac. We began to hear bits and pieces from other passengers who could translate from outside. She said, “There seems to be a problem with the weight. Yes, the plane is overweight- it can’t take off at this weight.” Just then the man in the front row- a Georgian businessman who fancied himself some kind of big shot (maybe he was, maybe he just thought he was, we couldn’t tell) exited the plane. Tempers heated up and the conversation got louder.
There were now 22 people on the tarmac, all arguing over whose luggage was going to get thrown off (and whose “special fees” were being returned) so the plane could get its weight under control. She translated again, “The Georgian businessman says he has ‘paid extra’ to get his five pieces on this flight. And the employee he paid, doesn’t want to give his money back.”
Before our Louisiana businessman could go out and join the fracas, other arrangements were made and the Georgian man and his “special circumstances” left and the weight issue resolved itself more or less peacefully.
We prepared for takeoff once again, each of us praying that the calculations were now correct. As the Yak lumbered down the runway, we looked at each other, hoping the wings would hold together and get us airborne.
Things went well enough until we banked sharply left and made our landing without the usual announcements. It didn’t look like Tbilisi airport. I wondered to myself why Tbilisi airport would have “xoş gəlmisiniz” written on the side of the terminal? (Khosh Gal-missin-iz, Azeribaijani for “welcome”) After waiting several minutes for some explanation of what was going on, our Louisiana friend decided he wanted to get off and go use the restroom.
“That will not be possible, sir. We are in Ganja, not Tbilisi, and you do not have a visa.”
“What do you mean, I ‘don’t have a visa’? Of course I have a visa!” my colleague replied.
The flight attendant explained, “No, sir, you need an entry visa for Azerbaijan. You exited the country at Baku Customs Control. There is no Customs Control here as this is a regional airport, not a port of entry.’
My colleague slowly sat down, realizing what this meant: If anything happened here, no one would know. If we disappeared, people would look elsewhere as we had (technically) left Azerbaijan and would be presumed lost in the Caucasus mountains on the way to Georgia. A sobering thought indeed…
We eventually learned that the Tbilisi airport had been shut down for outside traffic as President Shevardnadze had decided with elections this week, he should fly to the regions to campaign. We all took bets on how much his victory margin would be. I won the pool with 78.2% of the vote. (I picked that number because Azerbaijan’s president Heydar Aliyev had just won his election with 76.8%- a little one upsmanship, of course!)
After a very tense afternoon, we finally did arrive in Tbilisi, and never more happy to go through Customs Control than this day.
The next afternoon, we had our meeting with the President and diplomatically wished him well in the election though the results were already a foregone conclusion. Once safely back in our hotel rooms, we all wondered how he was still in office.
By our next visit, he wasn’t.
Eduard Shevardnadze would be deposed in the Rose Revolution within months, bringing change and turmoil once again to the Republic of Georgia.
We flew back to our temporary home and got on with the work that had brought us to Baku, still feeling the rush of seeing history in the making.
Do we fear flying? No, in truth, we fear what we might miss if we don’t.
Let me wrap this up with Amy’s words… I can’t improve on this.
“The beauty of flying, the fortunes of being an expat- seeing what few others ever will.”
“I had never seen their mountains before that morning; was it possible that some people never saw the valley floor?
Our plane banked eventually, pointing us towards home. I watched them as long as I could. I shifted in my seat and craned my neck until the curve of the earth and the arch of our flight plan took them away from me.
I settled into my seat, looked straight forward, and thought about the beauty and the wonder that I’d just seen.”
I was always too close to something smaller; and even something small can block the infinite if that is what you’re focused on.
I always had my feet on the ground. I was never going to see anything other than what I’d always seen if I only looked where I’d always looked before.
I had to take flight to see what I had never seen, even though it had always been there whether I knew it or not.
I wonder what else is out there?”
Thank you to Amy Flotz for her beautiful prose “Taking Flight“. Click on the title and check out Amy’s Inkwell .