I’ll never forget the anticipation of flying to New Delhi for the first time. We came from Frankfurt after laying over there for 24 hours, and the flight arrived about 2:00 a.m.
I was wide awake on the crew bus, and it was almost pitch black, as the streets were not lit. A dim haze from bonfires seemed to be lighting up the sky, and the air felt heavy. Another smell permeated the air, putrid and unidentifiable at the time, but which I now can identify as burning cow dung. A light drizzle fell, and it all seemed very eerie.
I was staring out the window of the crew bus and was puzzled by what seemed to be little lumps scattered around the ground. Then my vision came into focus, and my eyes started to adjust. Those little lumps on the ground were people covered with newspaper. At first I thought they were dead bodies.
In actuality, these people were at home in the streets, lying on the ground using newspaper as a shield against the raindrops. In the early 1980s, there wasn’t such an obvious and pervasive homeless problem in the United States, so this was quite startling to witness right in front of my eyes. I was speechless.
The arrival at the Delhi InterContinental was in sharp contrast to our ride from the airport. Even though it was almost 3:00 a.m., we were greeted in the lobby by the hotel staff with a full-on tea service, complete with sterling silver coffee pots, beautiful English china, and silver trays full of delicious cookies. We were treated as welcomed guests, almost as ambassadors of the United States. It was quite an extravagant welcome.
You learn quickly when traveling to places like India, Haiti, or Africa that you have to throw out your own frame of reference. The world as we know it is not the world as others know it, and what seems incomprehensible to us might be standard operating procedure to others.
Pan Am taught us the great lesson of respecting others and their belief systems and not to impose our standards. It was impressed upon us that we were guests in other countries, and should conduct ourselves as such.
In India, the streets are the home to millions—these are the Pavement Dwellers. Scores of people live in thatched plastic huts in developments called Hutments. The luckier, less impoverished people live in apartments or homes with a bona fide roof over their heads. And so on...
But one thing I learned quickly was that the level of comfort in which these people lived had very little correlation to their level of happiness. That might seem obvious, but it is powerfully illustrated in a place like India, where everything seems to happen on the streets.
I never took for granted the privilege of having the world at my fingertips. Attending the Polish ballet in Warsaw one day and trudging through the Mayan ruins of Tikal a few days later was just par for the course. And it gave me a profound appreciation for my freedom to be able to do these things.
I still get chills when I think of making the voyage to East Berlin when the wall was still up. It made me poignantly aware of the freedom I had always taken for granted. Passing through Checkpoint Charlie, I was frozen with fear, as the guard looked under the tour bus with a mirrored stick, looking for East Germans who might be trying to escape.
A striking realization of the great influence of the Jet Age came over me one day when we boarded passengers in San Salvador. A very handsome couple, whom I later found out were South African, boarded carrying a little bundle. In their arms was a tiny baby wrapped in a pink blanket with a shock of black hair peeking out. The couple was full of anxiety trying to find enough room for their belongings. I struck up a conversation with them and found out they had just picked up their newly adopted daughter, who was two weeks old. They had been in El Salvador for ten days, arriving right after the birth of their daughter, getting the proper documentation, and preparing for the journey home.
Now on the flight home, there I was witnessing an extraordinary life-changing event. The baby in their arms had no idea how the course of her life had been permanently altered by the kind act of this one couple. Her new parents had rescued her from a life of poverty, and her chance destiny opened up possibilities that would otherwise never have been.
That experience reaffirmed my awe in the power of flight, which, when combined with our own initiative and intention, can truly make anything possible.
Reprinted from Life, Love, and a Hijacking: My Pan Am Memoir by Wendy Sue Knecht. Wendy’s memoir details her adventures, life lessons, and some harrowing events that took place while working for the world’s most iconic airline, Pan Am.
Buy the book: http://tinyurl.com/kuxl5t5
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