International Travel During Pandemic October

Around 3 a.m. last night we arrived in our Central Asian city after five months in the US. The return journey was unexceptional in many ways, though trips like this with multiple small children always come with their fair share of challenge and misadventure – He’s eating pretzels off the floor again. Gross. I should stop him, but is it worth it at this point? And yet travel in 2020 is unique enough that I thought a few observations on our trip would be of some interest.

On an encouraging note, we enjoyed seeing airports such as Dallas-Forth Worth and Doha, Qatar humming again with activity, even if it’s less than half of what it was last year. Five months ago when we took the repatriation flight the airports were deserted shells of themselves, dark, empty, and sad. This time travelers and airport staff seemed genuinely happy to just be out and involved in travel again. “Don’t apologize, we’re just glad to be doing some work for a change!” said an elderly counter agent while dealing with our complicated tickets and destination requirements. Alas, all of the Starbucks were still closed. We were hoping for one more American-style cold brew. We did manage to get in one last classic burger.

The planes were all very full, which was a bit surprising for us. Yet all the passengers seemed to don their required face masks and face shields without protest. We didn’t encounter any of the conflict over these requirements we’ve read about in the news. Most seemed happy to comply, glumly resigned, or already adapted to a new normal. Even on 14-hour flights, humanity is remarkably flexible. I mused to my wife about how our youngest might remember these flights. In a few years when we all travel once again with unveiled face, he’ll think back and recall all the space-age face equipment worn, perhaps wondering if that actually happened or if his memory is playing tricks on him. For some kids, returning to “normal” might actually feel like a bit of a loss. No more cool face shields and ninja masks. Bummer.

American Airlines for its part has not adapted to the extent that Qatar Airways has. Qatar brought with it both higher Covid-19 precautions (staff in full PPE, mandatory passenger face shields plus masks) and an almost complete return to pre-pandemic in-flight service. Qatar has never stopped flying during the pandemic, strategizing that it’s better business to make a name for itself as one of the only carriers still going strong. Their flights to and from our region have been a lifeline for us and our organization. I hope it will work out well for them when the industry gets back to normal.

Even with all the restrictions, Qatar Airways also managed to be remarkably child-friendly, ushering our family to the front of lines and showing special attention to the kids during the flights. As usual, this contrasted sharply with the way Western staff tend to treat families with small children. It’s sad to be reminded every time we travel between hemispheres how the East values children while the West views them mainly as an obstruction. “We have a connection to make!” one flight attendant huffed while we fumbled to get off the plane with our kids and our extra bags full of childhood diabetes equipment.

However, this kind of comment was the exception as most travelers and staff, Eastern and Western, seemed more appreciative of simple human interaction than they might have been before. The world has been starving for social contact. There was joy to be found for many just in the simple act of being in a small traveling crowd again. The language barriers, the seat negotiations, and the screaming/laughing kids seemed to be met with a measure of greater patience. Common grace is a wonderful thing. There was potential for a refreshing solidarity, room for conversation where each party gets to share how they’ve been affected by this global crisis. I imagine we’ll be swapping stories about 2020 for decades to come – not a bad thing at all for Christians eager for common ground that leads to conversation about deeper things.

Another trip halfway around the world. But likely one of our more unique journeys – the first one to require face shields and airport nose-swabs at least. Today we are jet-lagging something bad, but our hearts are overflowing with gratitude. Our three kids did great on a difficult journey. We were able to juggle our daughter’s new diabetes and a squirmy almost-two-year-old without any major mishaps. Our oldest son is at the age where he can now help push luggage carts and pull small suitcases! (Game changer). That airline food and coffee was pretty awful, but how wonderful that the long flights served coffee and meals at all. After a canceled flight we even got some rest at an airport hotel (last room available), just enough to keep us sane for our 3 a.m. arrival. God is so good.

So here we are, back in our adopted city, unpacking our bags, coming up on two years of almost-constant transition. Our hope now is for a season of stable presence and ministry. Like so many, we find ourselves largely in the dark as far as the details of God’s purposes for seasons of transition like this. Yet we do not trust in stability or in our ability to piece it all together (much as I might try). Our God is the God of sojourners and pilgrims, the God of wanderers like Abraham. He just saw us through another two day journey around the world… during a pandemic. He’ll see us through whatever longer journey we might yet face. In the end it will all weave together for glory.

Photo by Bao Menglong on Unsplash

A Farewell to the 747

I read this week that Qantas has retired its last Boeing 747, the plane known as “the queen of the skies.” The queen retired with flair, drawing a kangaroo in the sky.

Since I grew up in Melanesia, the first 747 I remember seeing belonged to Qantas. It was a rainy night, probably in the Sydney airport. I was an almost five-year-old. I remember staring out the huge windows at an airplane of mythical proportions, a large red and white kangaroo logo emblazoned on the tail, shining in the rain and the flashing lights of the airport’s activity. In the mysterious ways that memory works, I actually remember it being a triple-decker plane, not a double-decker as it must have been. I spent years wondering why I no longer saw any planes with three levels, like I had seen in Australia. Eventually I realized that I must have seen it as larger than it actually was, time inflating the size of things in the style of the film, Big Fish.

I believe it was also a 747 that we took back to the US on that trip. My father had just passed away and we had packed up and left our host country without knowing what the future held. The pilot somehow heard about our situation and let my brothers and me come up and see the cockpit during the flight, an awfully kind and pre-9/11 gesture for him to make. At that age everything about flying was magical, the in-flight meals, the little toothbrush kits, and the ability to sleep curled up comfortably on the floor. I still love flying, though now I often feel less of the magic and more like an awkward T-rex crammed into a small metal tube (Plus we now have three little rex-lings to keep occupied, or at least kept from dumping their food trays and throwing up, which certainly changes the experience a bit).

I remember stepping onto the jet bridge in my flip-flops as we disembarked from that flight, crunching the snow let in at the jet bridge seam. I had never seen snow before. I took one last look back through the window at the front of the huge plane. Alas, it may be too late for me to ever get to fly on that mysterious upper level of the 747. But I am grateful for how that plane was used to ferry so many missionary families like mine back and forth from the field. Who knows how many thousands arrived safely to their fields of service through the common grace of the 747.

Farewell, graceful queen and sturdy vessel of my childhood travels. Like the steamships that took a previous generation of my forebears to their overseas labors, you also will be missed.