Having one child still in college means a perfectly legitimate excuse for a spring break trip. This year we arranged for our youngest daughter to meet us in Sydney, Australia. She flew the 16-hour “Pacific Express” from Dallas to Sydney via Brisbane. It’s a long haul, but even so, she was ahead of us by a couple of hours. We followed behind her from Port Moresby to Cairns, Australia before journeying on to Sydney. Our flight from Port Moresby to Cairns was on a de Havilland Dash 8. I’ve flown the ‘ol Dash more in the last couple of years than in my whole lifetime before moving overseas. I used to avoid them like the plague because I was just convinced they would crash. But, flying has become so much a part of my life, so routine, that my fears have become nonexistent, well…almost.
It was Saturday, March 8th, notable because of my husband’s momentous birthday the day before – making him eligible for retirement. The date would take on much greater significance by day’s end, and I would revisit many of my flying fears.
Entering Australia from Papua New Guinea means passport control and customs. On the way down to Cairns, I passed the time reciting my passport number to my husband. I was determined to finally memorize it so I wouldn’t have to fumble with my passport, my reading glasses and the small print on the incoming passenger card. It’s infuriating for those of us in our 50’s with failing eyesight.
As we came through passport control, I noticed an extraordinary amount of staff on duty in the small airport. But Cairns is an international resort town with connecting flights to the rest of Australia so I didn’t think too much of it at first. But then I noticed that no one was being very friendly. ‘Where are all the tan, gregarious Australians?’ I thought. Where was my ‘Hello Love!’? This time the agent who took my passenger card wasn’t smiling. In fact, she looked downright mean.
While my efforts to memorize my passport vitals were successful, I’d forgotten to actually write the info down on the card. I guess that sets off alarm bells. Still not smiling, the agent remarked that I had been remiss in my responsibility to properly fill out my card. She then motioned for me to step into “you are being punished for not writing down your passport number” lane. My bag and me were ushered off to the left where I was commanded to stand between two black lines and not to move. I was searched, sniffed by a sweet puppy trained to detect bombs and drugs, and swiped for explosive material. Thankfully I passed because, you know, I was pretty worried about it. I realize that being a middle-aged American woman makes me a prime suspect for all things deadly. My much more stern looking husband got no such treatment but of course, he remembered to fill out his card completely. I now know that being thorough on the passenger card is the number one sign for not being an international terrorist. He was waiting patiently for me at the exit. I met his quizzical look with a shrug as we proceeded into the arrival lobby.
The tiny lobby was filled with security. Australian police stood in groups of three, talking quietly and looking around. More customs agents and their dogs walked in and amongst all the passengers who had just arrived. “What in the world is going on?” I asked my husband.
Later that day we learned of Malaysian Airlines flight 370’s disappearance under mysterious circumstances. When we flew through Cairns, the news was still fresh and everyone was speculating about terrorism. No one knew then (and no one knows now) where the plane went or the fate of the mostly Chinese passengers on board.
I’ll never know if the unusual circumstances in Cairns were just routine tightened security or whether the plane’s disappearance made the atmosphere more tense in a town that hosts so many Chinese travelers. Whatever it was, it was definitely out of the ordinary.
I would continue to follow the story of MH370 in the coming days. It took on extra significance for me because my husband and I were meeting in Kuala Lumpur some weeks later and we were flying Malaysia Air. For the first time in many years, fears about my fate in flight resurfaced. Would I know if something were wrong with my plane or if I were about to lose consciousness? Would I notice an odd turn in our flight path? Would I start looking at the pilots and crew more intently for signs of distress? All things I haven’t given much thought in years.
Flying is a necessary part of the expat life and I accept the risks. But the frequency and the routineness of it all breeds over confidence. I’ve become much more concerned about my physical comfort than my physical safety, in spite of the real dangers that exist in the world today. Those dangers are the reason for the mean faces, the dogs and the attentiveness to the passenger cards. And though I find it annoying, those dangers are why I’ve been screened, searched, swiped, questioned, even yelled at, all over the world. I know I’m supposed to trust those procedures for my protection, but when my flying fears resurfaced I had to ask myself – Whom did I really trust? Did I still trust the God of my salvation with my fate and my eternal security no matter what may befall me? I found my reassurance in Psalm 91.
“The one who lives under the protection of the Most High dwells in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”” (Psalm 91:1–2, HCSB)
Whether I survive or perish, I am the Lord’s…and I’m going to be just fine.