I spent most of yesterday afternoon lying in my garden – enjoying the sun, listening to music, and looking at the sky. When you really take the time to look at the sky, you realise what a busy place it is. The small patch of sky above my garden was filled with bumble bees, lady birds, bluebottles, magpies, blackbirds, pigeons and seagulls. I saw a heron, a kestrel and a buzzard. A helicopter. And dozens of planes.
The planes are my favourite. I love planes. Hate airports, but love planes. When I was little my dad used to drive us to the end of the runway at Manchester airport to watch them come in and take off. I can’t tell you how many I’ve been on. I jumped out of one once.
There is nothing more exciting to me than the possibilities of flying. These wondrous man-made creations, which help turn our planet into a tiny village. And I know, they’re not great for the environment, but for what they give us here on earth, I think it’s worth trying to make up for that damage in other ways. (A few years ago I went to ‘An audience with David Attenborough’, where someone asked him how, as a conservationist, he could justify the number of flights he takes every year. He explained how he tries to reduce his carbon footprint in other ways. I try to follow his advice – I never leave the lights on if I’m not in a room. I sort out my recycling, have a couple of meat free days each week.)
Whenever I see a plane, I think about the people on board, and wonder about their stories. Where are they going – and why? Are they travelling alone, or with family and friends? Are they flying into the unknown, or going back to familiar ground? Are they travelling towards something, or running away? Are they feeling sad to have said goodbye, or excited to say hello? Are they embarking on a solo journey of self discovery, or meeting someone at the other end? Are they travelling for work, or to relax, or to explore? Are they itching to arrive, or dreading what’s ahead? What preconceptions will soon be challenged, or what new discoveries are they bringing home?
A sky full of planes fills me with happiness at the thought of so many people travelling, seeing this amazing word that we live in, and taking a little bit of it home with them.
The more we fly, the more we understand the world. When we take ourselves to new countries, we discover things about their culture, and things about ourselves – and we take those lessons home with us.
If everybody travelled, we would soon realise that teenage girls in every country around the world worry about spots and starting their periods. We’d know that all teenage boys want to be sports stars – whether it’s football, rugby or baseball. We’d know the universal love for David Beckham, the international popularity of the Rolling Stones and how McDonalds looks the same, but tastes different, in every country.
We’d know about Middle Eastern girls dying their hair different colours underneath their hijab – a rebellion against their parents, much as a British teenager might get a secret tattoo. We’d know how a headscarf can be a statement of style, as much as religion. We’d know how the Japanese hostess, the Peruvian prostitute and the Chinese business man all long for love and affection. We’d see Aboriginal women breast-feeding their children while painting, teenage mums in Colombia making jewellery while their baby sleeps in their arms.
We’d know that parents love their children unconditionally. That anyone can get cancer. And we’d know that in every country on earth there are rich people and poor people, good people trying to make life better for others, and selfish people looking only after themselves.
We learn new skills – how to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak our language, how to use chopsticks and how to cope with a foreign metro system. We learn to slow down at high altitude, or speed up in New York. We learn about ourselves too – what we really need, and what we cannot live without (in my case, antihistimines and crisps!) We discover how it feels when someone doesn’t want us there – a combination of sadness, anger and rejection – and the feeling of absolute joy when a stranger opens a door – be that the door to a restaurant, or to their home.
The plane is a symbol of hope. That’s the one thing that unites everyone when getting on a plane – hope. They are the most hope filled objects I can imagine. Whether it’s a hope for better weather, a successful meeting or simply the hope of arriving safely, no one boards a plane without a little hope in their hearts.
Of course, we all know they can be used for many things. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemmingway describes planes as ‘mechanised doom’, and I doubt there’s a single person who’s boarded a plane without a small frisson of apprehension in the last 16 years. Anyone flying with United Airlines at the moment is probably wondering just how their journey will pan out. And I personally find it impossible to stand in line for a Ryan Air flight without an impending sense of doom – which doesn’t leave me until the minute I collect my bag from arrivals and walk through the ‘nothing to declare’ door and into the world. I can’t fly with RyanAir without feeling like an unwitting criminal who has broken all the rules and is just waiting to find out which one they’ll get me for.
But despite these worries, these things that make me nervous, I still love the words of the Japanese film director Hayao Miyazaki: ‘Airplanes are beautiful dreams. Engineers turn dreams into reality.’
Now, more than ever, it’s important for us to keep travelling. We need to keep exploring, keep learning languages, keep talking to different people across the world. We need to keep discovering the similarities that bind us together.
We need to keep flying, filled with hope, knowing that the risk will all be worth it if this airplane can fulfill its promise, and fly us directly into our dreams.