Finding a Sense of Comfort and Home In Airplanes

“The fasten seat belt sign is now off. However, we would recommend that you keep your seat belt fastened during the entire flight.”

I fitfully glance around the dark cabin devoid of any illumination. After a minute or two and a few eye rubs, my vision slowly acquaints itself with the dim, starry blue lights that faintly adorn the ceiling of the airplane cabin. The thinning, slightly drier air of the flight somehow gives me a sense of solace; you know how different places have different smells, a different air? You may think that the air in the city you currently live in is different from the air of your hometown. You may like one better than the other. Or, you may just notice the difference between both. But that’s the thing about airplanes’ air. No matter where you are in the world, be it Malaysia, or Germany, or in the isolated archipelago of Papua, every airplane still has that distinct hint of corroding metal, followed by a sensation of a slightly odd dryness in the mouth… But it is inherently the same anywhere you go, and it offers a comforting familiarity for people like me, whose sense of home is tangled in a constant flux of moments in place, time, and sometimes, people.

Ironically, the quiet of the night accompanied by the indistinct reel of the airplane engine makes my mind wander towards the loudness of my fellow passengers’ thoughts. I wonder if that grandma with the unnatural dyed red hair (probably to cover her graying roots) and the blue knit-scarf is thinking of the grandchildren she is about to see. Has the woman with the wild brown curls (who is slowly drifting to sleep) been backpacking? She looks tired… I momentarily wonder where she is from, for her strong facial features made me guess that she, or her ancestry, is rooted somewhere in the Mediterranean. Does the little sleeping boy, leaning on his mother (who happens to be wide awake with traces of worry in her tired face) know why he is flying halfway across the world? And that young man with the navy green hoodie looks numb. Is he running away from something? a past? a place? a memory? 

I sigh in contemplation at my train of thoughts, then peek through my small plane window to look at the sky. It is during rare moments like this, when the flood of stars decorating the sky is so beautifully raw, that I wish that my vision was perfect; for the spectacles resting in my nose can only let me see so much. It almost makes me think that it would have been worth it to miss out on all those wonderful stories and poetries (that had corroded my vision a little bit) in exchange for a perfect view of this night sky. Perhaps. I mean, I would never know. I might be a different person, had I not spent countless restless nights in a softly lit corner of my room with the company of a fairly good book. 

The night sky free of light pollution makes me wonder where in the world I am right now. For if we were passing nearby a metropolitan, the stars would shyly hide behind the obtrusive, glamorous yellow lights of the city. I lightly tap the screen in front of me (with hope of appeasing my curiosity). The screen that I had set to a dim brightness shows a plane map that says it is 3:47 AM, and that we are somewhere above Nepal and India. It may still be dark outside, but in about two hours or so, somewhere, a mother will wake up, put her saree on, and prepare breakfast for her big family. Right now, a college student may be seated in a small room with a cup of cold tea, cramming for an exam he is desperate to pass (he probably wishes he had paid better attention). Perhaps, a small baby is sound asleep somewhere in the safe embrace of her mother… 

The light tapping noise of a flight attendant’s heels lifts me from my train of thought. I had noticed her earlier because of the way she pronounces certain words using that deep, throaty, distinctively Arabic voice. She walks around to check on the passengers, which I thought of as slightly odd. Why this hour? Who knows? She quickly circles the cabin and retreats back to her resting post. Will she reapply her smeared red lipstick in the morning? Will she redraw her fading eyeliner? She does look kind of tired… 

Quiet, fleeting moments like this flood my head with an ocean of somberness and, funnily, relief. For my insignificance in this world of seven billion is both my safety and my danger. My dearest friend, and my most despised adversary. I find it perplexing how we all unconsciously think that the universe revolves itself around our existence—that our problems are big enough to pause the world from rotating. That is ridiculous (and slightly arrogant). But, for a moment– for just a second– imagine if somehow an engine failure occurs, and this plane plunges into a steep terrain in South Asia. In some tower somewhere, the small dot on the radar screen of our airplane will disappear. Just like that. Panicked voices would then follow, desperately trying to reach the pilot (but with no luck)…

(Possibly) Tomorrow’s news headline: 350 passengers killed in fatal plane crash. Some families might grieve, while others might simply think that their long-lost family member cut them off permanently. Or, if you contributed to your community (be it volunteering in fundraisers or food banks), a vigil or two arranged by your local neighbors might follow. You might also become the temporary talk of a small town’s residents (since they probably have nothing better to do anyway). Remember that photo you took with a random classmate at a party? That may show up on Facebook along with the caption “you will be missed." But that’s about it. Days will pass, life goes on, and we will all be reduced to shadows of everyone’s past. Reduced to “350 passengers” in black ink printed on cheap paper (which will be recycled after a day or two). 

In a couple of hours, the sun will rise. The other passengers will slowly wake up. The flight attendants will roll out their trays to hand out breakfast, and the passengers will start eating amidst fatigue and jet lag. A few more hours will pass, and the plane will descend. The view of the sky from my small plane window will gradually be replaced with the veins of the city—the same veins that tradesmen carrying spices and colorful silk passed through hundreds of years ago. The exact same veins that will carry every one of us in our separate journeys and different paths. 

We will all go on intertwining with so many other lives, but for now, this is it. They are present, and so am I; for now, they are merely faces of people who lead different (or similar) lives as me. I am made quite aware of the realization that there are so many people and places that I have seen for the very first and the very last time, although I do not know that yet. And if (in the smallest chances) I do ever see them again, I wouldn’t know. And neither would they. 

There is simply too much to comprehend. But for certain, I know that airplanes around the world smell roughly the same.

The only remaining commonality that is left within all of us is that for one brief moment, that little airplane cabin flying over the Atlantic (with its distinct hint of corroding metal, followed by a sensation of a slightly odd dryness in the mouth) is our safe haven, our respite, temporarily disconnecting us from the weight of the world.