1. An instance of travelling by air

I don’t know if you have ever flown in an aeroplane, but for me, it is one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I don’t know whether it is the excitement of going somewhere new with a different culture, or language, or the trepidation of climbing on board two hundred tons of metal to be hurtled six miles into the sky, or a combination of both.

I have been on many holidays and business trips by land and sea, and none match up to the experience of flight. Maybe it is because of all the things we have been able to achieve as humans, flying free like the birds has not been one of them! The invention of the aeroplane has allowed us in some small way to experience the magic of flight.

Airports are strange places, filled with people from diverse nations, all thrown together because of one desire – to go somewhere else. From the moment you arrive, something feels different. Despite the hustle and bustle of people dashing to get boarding passes, arguing with the check-in clerk over the weight of their bags, there is a calmness which doesn’t exist outside the airport. Whatever people’s differences, whether it be colour, religion, ideas, or jobs; they calmly stand in line to have their bags checked by security, and their passports checked by passport control.

You could be standing next to a dictator, a bank robber, a thief, or a drug addict, but you wouldn’t know it. Outside the airport they are someone else, but here they just stand, silently waiting to get on the plane. Resigned to the fact that in order to get to their destination they must not draw attention to themselves.

As I stand in line, I often look around me at people, wondering who they are in real life, what they think about, and how they behave? Are they married, rich, poor, powerful, or weak? Do they dominate their family? Are they nice to their friends? Are they happy or sad? But they never give it away. They quietly watch the boards giving them instruction: “Wait in lounge;” “go to gate;” “boarding;” or “FINAL CALL.” Then they gather their bags and move on to the next designated area, until finally boarding the aircraft.

The hand luggage is stowed, seat belts are fastened, shoes are loosened, books are opened, and mobiles turned off. As the doors close, a faint realisation comes over me that I am now disconnected from the world. I have no way to communicate with loved ones, no friends to laugh with, no one to argue with, just 300 strangers with only one thing in common, the need to go somewhere else.

Family crises, deals to be clinched, plots to be made, governments to be brought down. But in that aircraft, there is nothing but an uneasy togetherness.

Who knows what thoughts are in these people’s minds, who knows what trouble they may cause at their destination, but as the plane taxis down the runway, and the safety demonstration tells us what to do in the “unlikely event of a landing on water,” there is only one thought going through everyone’s minds: “I hope I get there safely.”

The wheels are aligned with the middle line, the engines start to roar, and two hundred tons of metal and highly combustible fuel hurtle towards the end of the runway. The plane gets faster and faster until ever so gently the nose starts to lift, and the ground disappears quickly behind you.

You hear a slight whirring noise as the gear is retracted and the flaps are adjusted. Upwards you go, until you go through the clouds, and no matter what the weather is doing below, thunder or snow, you are suddenly bathed in sunlight (sorry, not if you are flying at night!)

Soon, the seatbelt signs are turned off and the plane starts to level. The roar of the engines has died down, and all you hear is a constant, almost calming drone. You are here now. You and three hundred strangers doing what Man was never intended to do – fly!

Look down and, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of the cities passing slowly underneath, or see a small dot on the ocean. You are six miles above the earth, totally reliant on Man’s ingenuity. You could either scream in panic, or just relax and enjoy a wonderful experience.

What passes underneath

In my travels across the globe by plane, I have often thought about the people below – who they are, what they do, what thoughts they have, and how happy, sad, or violent they are.

Thanks to the marvellous modern invention of satellite mapping, we can now switch to a channel on our personal entertainment console, and see a little icon of the plane superimposed on a map of countries you are passing over.

Whilst we are enjoying our lunch and watching yet another hollywood blockbuster, people below are fighting, killing, or raping each other.
They may be starving, scheming, desiring, or lying, but here in our plane six miles above the earth, we are above all human emotion and action, distanced from suffering. We may ourselves be suffering, but for now it is almost as if we are suspended in time, if only for a few hours. When we touch down, reality starts again, but whilst the engines drone on powering us towards our destination, we might as well just sit back and relax.

Directly underneath us, someone may have just been shot, lying in a pool of blood, gasping their last breath on this earth; someone may be arguing with his wife over money; and another may be in the depths of despair over money owed; we may be over water, where a violent storm on the ocean is about to capsize a boat tossing all on-board into the dark ocean, but up here none of that matters. This is a new reality, one where time almost stands still, even though we are travelling at five hundred and fifty miles per hour.

Touch down

As we start to descend, a new feeling seems to engulf the people on board. They start to get edgy; they start to fidget, gathering their belongings and their thoughts. The sounds on the plane change, the hydraulics start to whir into life, the engine pitch changes, the seatbelt signs come on, the entertainment system is turned off.

The plane starts to become more affected by the weather; it judders and shakes, banking steeply as it prepares its descent back to earth; back to “reality.” The landing gear is extended noisily and locks into place. Suddenly we start to feel reality getting closer and closer as first we make out fields and cities, then buildings and cars. We turn onto our final approach in line with the runway.

Already people are busying themselves at the airport for our arrival. The fuel truck is put on standby, and the catering and baggage trucks wait patiently, as do the cleaners. Passengers are being readied to board our plane, a new crew is walking through the airport, and people are rushing through traffic to meet the passengers.
The land rushes up to meet us, and we touch down. The engines roar in reverse, and the brakes are applied swiftly.

As we are welcomed by the cabin crew to our destination, and we arrive gently at the stand, the feeling of calmness and peacefulness passes, and we are suddenly motivated to start thinking of what we have to do now. Quickly people turn on their mobile phones which bleep loudly with new text messages, and people carelessly grab their bags from above their seats. Politeness now turns into selfishness.

Only thirty minutes ago, people were apologising as they passed each other in the aisle, now they now have no time to let other people out of their seats. They rush off the plane walking quickly and purposefully towards the baggage carousel, passports at the ready, jostling for position, engaged on loud conversations on their mobile phones. They grab their bags and leave the airport, on their way home, to a funeral, to seal a business deal, to lie in the sun, or go to war.

But for a short time up there, they weren’t businessmen, criminals, tourists, or politicians; they were just human beings, travelling in two hundred tons of metal and fuel, six miles above the earth, where status and position counted for nothing; where rank, seniority, and wealth were of no importance.

I would like you all to just think about this for a moment and try to imagine carrying the feeling of flying with you as you travel through life. Where all you believe you are, has no significance. You fight your way through life with your ambitions and your desire for power and position, but ask yourselves this: “Why am I fighting? What good does it do me and the planet I inhabit?”

When you leave the ground, you leave it all behind, and the same happens when you die. You leave it all behind. In the unlikely event that your plane crashes you face the ultimate reality that you are no one, that everything you have strived for has no point.

I often wonder what all the people on board a plane that comes plummeting to earth think about in their final moments of life. Do they worry about the size of their bank accounts or their position in society? I seriously doubt it.

Many will pray to god to spare their life, or ask to be forgiven for things they have done, or think about not seeing their loved ones again, but their sports car or holiday house will be the last thing they think about, I can guarantee it. So let’s try to live each day well, being kind to each other, living in the moment, and enjoying every minute here. You never know which day will be your last. I am not trying to frighten any of you, just to get you to wake up to that which you really are.

It doesn’t matter if you fly first class or economy; if the plane crashes you die the same way. Try to remember that when you think about your status, or lack of it in the world. All humans are equal on this earth. Maybe not financially, but the rich man and the poor man breathe their final breath exactly the same way.

Chinese (Simplified)