Tuesday, 20 September 2016

A Million Miles that Ruined the Planet


Yes!  It’s all my fault – I have to confess.  My love affair with airline travel has contributed, possibly fatally, to the demise of the planet.  My only excuse is that, when I started, I didn’t know that would happen.  I’m currently eleven and a half thousand miles from home, a journey I’ll have to do in reverse in a couple of weeks time. That’s twenty three thousand miles in a single month. Sitting on a plane crammed with almost four hundred people doing the same thing made me think really hard. Most of them were going on holiday, to visit family or on a business trip.  Many of those journeys were luxury items at a time when we’ve got to think very carefully about our carbon footprint.  It set me calculating mine.
Too Many of These
I first flew about 50 years ago, in the days when the jet-set really WAS. Flying was something very few people did.  I was a terrified first-time passenger with a young baby, boarding a long-haul jet to join my husband in the middle east.  Have a few gins, the doctor advised.  It’ll keep you calm.  Fortunately I don’t like gin, so I was sober in charge of a child and almost completely in my right mind when I got on the plane at Heathrow. We were treated like celebrities and there were free Elizabeth Arden cosmetics in the loos.
Martyr's Square, Beirut as it once was. 
We flew to Beirut.  Remember Beirut?  Formerly in the country known as the Levant, the jewel of the Mediterranean, the Athens of the East, a fabulous, vibrant city (before it was bombed to bits), where East met West.  It was my first experience of the Orient, and I fell in love.
Dubai as I originally saw it
From Beirut to Dubai, which was at the time an unspoilt ancient trading port on the Arabian (then the Persian) Gulf.  It was a vision of carved white wind-towers, looking at their own reflections in the Creek, where fleets of wooden Dhows were moored in a shimmering heat haze.  A few years later it was all bulldozed to create the concrete manhattan shopping mall you see today.

Dubai airport was a tarmac strip on the edge of the desert.  From there I flew to Abu Dhabi, which didn’t have an airport at all – only a subkha strip on the beach and a hut made of concrete blocks roofed with corrugated iron that served as a terminal.  We landed in an old DC3 that still remembered the Second World War, there were camels in the distance, I’d been reading Lawrence of Arabia and – yes – I loved the desert too.
In the balmy waters of the Gulf
Since then my entire life seems to have been punctuated by flights to one part of the world or another as well as every European destination you can name.  Totting it all up, I can remember Iran, India, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, Thailand, China, Cuba, USA, Canada, Malaysia, Indo-China, Russia .......
A railway station in China
That Russian flight was one of the most memorable.  Europeans who went to Russia for the first time after Glasnost got a bit of a shock.  We arrived by charter flight at Leningrad/St Petersburg (it wasn’t sure which at the time).  ‘Just a warning,’ the female pilot told us over the intercom in cut-glass accents. ‘This is not going to be like any landing you’ve ever experienced.’  And it wasn’t, as she hopped along the runway avoiding the pot holes left by decades of Soviet neglect.  On either side were the rusting hulks of all the planes that hadn’t made it, mostly Aeroflot.
In front of Lenin's tomb, closed for the Glasnost revolution
There have been other memorable flights – landing in a field in India in a monsoon gale – a flock of goats that led to an aborted flight in Katmandu – a flight through a typhoon over Hong Kong – a Cessna flight through the New Zealand alps, wing-skimming the mountains, buffeted by turbulence, to land on a strip of grass beside a stream. Dawn over Iran, sunset over the rocky mountains of Canada; nostalgia starts to set in the moment I mention the names.
Dawn over Mount Elbrus, from the plane
But the most memorable of all has to be an internal flight in Africa; the only time I’ve ever had to bribe my way out of, or into, anything.  Having survived two military coups in a matter of months and experienced soldiers running around through the houses with machine guns, I wasn’t keen to live through another, particularly on my own.  My husband was ‘up-country’ on a business trip and I was alone with my 2 year old daughter. Many of the houses around me were empty, as Europeans had left the country in droves.

The first sign that something was wrong came when I discovered that the night-watchmen had vanished in the middle of the night and the rest of the staff didn’t turn up for work in the morning. The steward, the garden boy and the small boy were absent.  The radio was playing martial music.  A phone call confirmed what I feared, there had been a coup during the night.  I was desperate to get out of the capital city.  Throwing some essentials into a bag, I drove round the back roads to the airport to try to get a flight into the interior where my husband was.  There was only one flight still running and it was fully booked.
Peta, aged 2, in West Africa
Summoning all my courage (what will you not do for your kids?)  I asked to see the supervisor and was shown to his office.  ‘I have to be on that flight,’ I said, putting some money on the desk – roughly twice the price of the fare.  I saw him look at it and hesitate.  My daughter began to cry and I suddenly saw his face change.  He picked up the money and wrote me a ticket.  It was the first and only time I have done anything like that and it filled me with shame.
A runway - believe it or not - somewhere in Africa
The plane was a very old turbo prop that probably wasn’t airworthy at all.  The pilot was in the same shape; a battered Australian with an alcoholic shake.  He walked through the cabin re-arranging the passengers, tipping up seats and moving us around to balance the weight, he counted and re-counted his flock, as though puzzled that it didn’t add up.  I was surprised that the plane became airborne at all, and it would certainly have been my fault if it hadn’t.

There were holes in the floor and I could see the tree-tops of the rain forest skimming underneath our feet.  That flight is also one of my daughter’s first memories, mainly because she arrived without knickers, which I’d forgotten to pack in my panic. It’s among mine because of the guilt and the overwhelming relief associated with it.
Flying Small in Canada
I totted up my air miles recently and lost count when I got over nine hundred thousand, and that didn’t include the short haul hops round Europe.  I didn’t realise at the time, that I’d contributed to the pollution of the atmosphere and the destruction of the climate. I loved every moment of it – the thrill of travel, the paradox of flight.  These days I try not to fly at all – it’s just that it’s so difficult to go anywhere these days without stepping on a plane, if you have family in foreign places.
A haze of pollution over Singapore
Apart from the environmental damage, flying does weird things to your body – it affects your lungs and your brain, thickens your blood, dehydrates you, makes you feel drowsy and oddly sexy – which I suppose explains the Mile High Club.  One frequent flyer club I’ve never managed to join!  We need to cultivate the art of Slow Travel - trains, boats, bikes and boots, holiday nearer home (it’s good for our local economies) and do more business by video conference.  Meanwhile, I’m off to get on a train into the western wilds of New Zealand.  I'd better enjoy it while my conscience still allows  me to.
More of this, I think.

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