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A Special Encounter on a Puddle-jumper

The puddle-jumper

Traveling from Martinique to the US involved three separate flights for me, and the first of these was on a Liat Airlines “puddle-jumper.” First, a 15-minute jump from Martinique to St. Lucia, then a half-hour jump to Barbados.

The puddle-jumper plane operated by LIAT airlines

The puddle-jumper plane operated by LIAT airlines

If you know me, you know that fear of flying is an ongoing issue for me. Seeing the small size and the propellers of this puddle-jumper plane pushed all my fear buttons. I couldn’t knock myself out with a sleeping pill like I often do on longer flights. I’d need to be alert enough to pick up my checked bag in Barbados to transfer to my New York flight. Instead, I took a valerian pill, meant for reducing stress, and tried to stay calm.

a view inside the plane

The inside was newer than I expected. I’ve been in much worse planes before!

On the first jump, I was next to the window, and a silent young Frenchman sat next to me. He wore shorts which revealed part of a tattoo of a creepy face on his knee. (Sorry, there was no way to take a photo without being noticed.)

view of clouds looking out the plane's window

A view during the first flight.

I kept myself busy to take my mind off the fear by filming the take-off and then the landing. That helped. The flight was quick and so routine in every way that, when there was turbulence, I didn’t even get the panicky stomach I usually get. If you’d like to watch the films (they’re pretty dull and unremarkable), here they are. The first one is the take-off (about 6 minutes of the flight, until we were above the clouds).

This next film is the landing: the last two minutes of the flight.

Our stopover in St. Lucia was just long enough for some people to get off (including a couple I’d met in the departure lounge who’d spent $700 for the privilege!) and to allow others to board.

A special encounter

This time, an old man sat down next to me, after helping an elderly woman across the aisle to put her cane in the overhead compartment. He said “Hello” and announced that he hadn’t flown in about 15 years.

Sensing a desire to talk, I asked “Are you afraid of flying?” He nodded yes with a slightly embarrassed smile. He had laugh lines around his eyes.

We spent the next half hour—the entire duration of the flight—talking. He told me about his family (the woman across the aisle was his sister) and why he was flying after so long. I told him about my travels and my family. We discussed growing older and what’s important in life.

And he smiled a lot. His milk-chocolate-brown face was deeply lined to accommodate that smile, which revealed that a tooth was missing on the side. This, I could see, was a deeply contented man.

“I have a saying hanging in my room that I see every day,” he said, in his beautiful Caribbean accent:

There are two mays to get more. One is to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.

What the old man told me.

Wisdom.

It was only a half-hour’s flight, but I was reluctant to part with this special person after such a short time. I think he felt the same, because he insisted on giving me his name and phone number, extracting a promise to visit St. Lucia. I hope I can keep that promise. His rich life experience, his love for his family, his air of contentment: all these things made me feel calm, but also made me wish the flight was longer.

I was completely fearless during this flight, and I think he was as well. What a gift! And not only that, the feeling of serenity he’d given me lasted through the whole flight from Barbados to New York, despite some rather strong turbulence.

In many ways, this stranger, this senior citizen, is who I want to become. He was bursting with love and pride in his family, both past and present. He was completely content: satisfied with his life as it is and how he lived it in the past.

Isn’t that how we’d all like to feel as we near the end of our lives?

27 Comments

    • rachel75

      May 5, 2015 at 5:19 am

      It’s different from some other common fears, isn’t it? Avoiding spiders, say, or snakes or clowns or even heights won’t limit your options the way avoiding flying will.

      Reply
  • Susan Moore

    May 12, 2015 at 10:45 pm

    I love flying, though I do know a few people that have such a strong fear of flying they do not fly at all anymore. Kudos to you for facing your fears. Isn’t it wonderful when the person seated next to you is the exact person you need at that moment in life.I adore the man’s wisdom.

    Reply
    • rachel75

      May 13, 2015 at 5:13 am

      Even when my phobia was at its worst, I was determined not to let it stop me. It’s gotten a lot better, but still hovers in the background.

      Reply
    • rachel75

      May 13, 2015 at 5:16 am

      Really? Everyone else always seems so calm! This was a good, newish plane. I’ve been in much worse: I’m thinking Air Malawi in the mid-80’s…

      Reply
  • Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    May 13, 2015 at 7:08 am

    One of my favorite flights in a “puddle jumper” was from Managua, Nicaragua to Big Corn Island off the coast in the Caribbean. The clouds were like puffs of cotton and the sea was gorgeous shades of blue. How lucky for you that you had a chance to meet this incredibly wise man – and I love his philosophy. As full-time travelers we’ve become practical minimalists and it makes life so much simpler!

    Reply
    • rachel75

      May 13, 2015 at 10:49 am

      We’re not full-time travelers, but we’re moving in the minimalist direction very slowly. In a couple of years we’ll be downsizing in a big way, so we’ll have to! Certainly on this one-month trip, having just one bag made things easy. No decisions to make and very little to worry about as far as possessions went.

      Reply
  • Donna Janke

    May 13, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    Beautiful story. It is so often the people we meet as we travel that make the experience so rich. I am not afraid of flying, but am often uncomfortable flying over water. Flying in the Caribbean has its own flavour. I remember an island-hopping flight years ago on a very small plane (maybe a total of 5 passengers) I was particularly nervous about. The pilot turned around to us (no separate cockpit on this plan) just before taxing and said, “Okay, Nevis in 10.” It turned out to be a beautiful flight and we were there in 10 minutes.

    Reply
    • rachel75

      May 13, 2015 at 5:59 pm

      I was on a flight like that once, back in the 1980’s! It was a 6-seater Cessna that flew the newspapers from Dar-es-salaam to Zanzibar and took passengers back (probably illegally). I was initially terrified but once we got on there, being able to watch the pilot and see how completely calm he was really helped calm me down. Before 9/11 I used to ask to visit the pilot on every flight, which always helped. Unfortunately that’s not an option anymore…

      Reply
    • rachel75

      May 17, 2015 at 11:43 am

      The noise doesn’t bother me, except when I’m feeling particular scared. Then I listen to every little change in the tone of the noise, afraid that it means something’s wrong! I generally wear earplugs or play music so I won’t focus on the noises.

      Reply
  • Sue Reddel

    May 17, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story. I feel bad for you that you have such a fear of flying and love to travel. Have you ever tried hypnosis? Might be worth a try. I just loved the story of the old man and printed out the quote myself – words to live by, for sure.

    Reply
    • rachel75

      May 17, 2015 at 6:13 pm

      No need to feel bad for me. After all, I CHOOSE to travel, so I choose to deal with the fear. I’ve never tried hypnosis, though I’ve tried EMDR, which worked for a while but then wore off. I’m slowly getting better at reducing the things that trigger the fear, so flying on this last trip (8 different flights in a month) wasn’t too bad.

      Reply
    • rachel75

      May 19, 2015 at 5:27 pm

      It’s the first time just meeting someone on a flight has cured me so completely for two flights. Sometimes I chat with whoever’s next to me and that distracts me for a while, but I don’t usually feel that kind of connection and the conversation doesn’t usually get that deep. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply

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