Smoke on the Airplane - my adventurous flight to Aruba.

September 25, 2020

The International Airport of Amsterdam Schiphol
The International Airport of Amsterdam Schiphol

Very slowly, the day turns to night as I stare at the runway through the window in the airplane. We should already be there, but we have not even taken off yet. My face feels as wet as a dripping sponge because I've been wearing a mask for 16 hours, the shrink-wrapped cheese roll on my dinner tray looks like it's about to run away, and I'm sitting on a broken airplane for the second time today.


I am on my way to Aruba. You might think I am a couple of beans short of a full espresso shot to take the risk of going to the Caribbean in these times of Corona, just to bask in the sun. But the decision is not that simple. Decisions in life are rarely simple. I am not doing this for the sun but because it is the only way to finally be able to enter the United States to be with my boyfriend. The US borders have been closed to Europeans since March, because of Corona. There are no exceptions for couples and families, which is not totally unexpected due to the Orange Face in the White House. Having spent three weeks in August with my boyfriend in the third country of Croatia after four months of forced separation, I now feel like going the whole hog. Because I am tired of these temporary solutions. I find that the crucial loophole to entry is not the nationality of the visitor, but where you have been during the previous 14 days. If I am out of the Schengen area in Europe for two weeks, I can enter the United States. At least that is how several other couples have done it successfully.


However, because of the almost universal border closures in the world, there are only a handful of countries which would allow me to enter for these 14 days. One of them is Aruba. How horrible. I have to spend 14 days in the Caribbean! What actually turns out to be horrible, however, is my journey. More of that now.

By train and with smoking corners to Amsterdam Schiphol

Carry-on luggage only, traveling around the world
Waiting for my train to the airport

5:00 AM: The alarm goes off. It is a song by Simon & Garfunkel. Even that does not even make it any better, as I am dead. Not my time. Still mentally awkward, I tiptoe into the kitchen, where a laser beam from the ceiling lamp penetrates my eyes as I take the last piece of cake from the fridge.


6:00 AM: My dad comes around the corner on two smoking tires to take me to the train station. He is sentimental. I am nervous. Because of the 12-hour flight, because of the border control, whether I get my entry stamp showing the day I arrive, whether my negative corona test, taken just a couple of hours too soon, is accepted.


6:13 AM: I take the train from my hometown in Wuppertal to Amsterdam. Of course, there are three times I must change trains. I am only wearing thin clothes since it is almost 90F in Aruba. Always. Every day of the year. Not so in Germany. Here it is 40F. I stand on the track with rattling teeth while someone smokes in the yellow smoking corner. The fumes drift over to me, because the smoke does not know that it is supposed to stay in its yellow smoking corner.


9:40 AM: The train arrives on time at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. I am flying from Amsterdam because even though Aruba has an internal autonomy, it is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and there are still inexpensive flights between the two countries. I still have to empty my water bottle before I reach security.

Fancy security and no air conditioning

Dreamers, Amsterdam Schiphol, flying, long-distance relationship
Dreamers and lovers, do your thing - always!

9:50 AM: I run over this shitty, giant airport and following the arrows to security.


10:00 AM: I am still running over this shitty, giant airport and following the arrows to security. Where did they put the security area? In Nepal? Will I be able to reach them before Christmas without the help of the ghost of Sir Edmund Hillary?


10:15 AM: I'm at the security and just about to unpack all my laptops, mobile phones and cameras again when the security officer says they have new machines now and I can just leave all my electronics in my backpack during the scan. I look like a dumbstruck cow first and then like the cheshire cat.


10:17 AM: My bag beeps and is x-rayed a second time. The security officer pulls out my water bottle. I feel a bit foolish. But instead of having to throw my bottle away, he throws it into some weird drum, takes it out, and says, "Yes, it's definitely just water, you can take the bottle with you and go." Fancy! Maybe the airport is not so shitty after all!


10:25 AM: I walk over 200 corridors on the way to the gate in Terminal G.


10:35 AM: I walk over 200 more corridors on the way to the gate in Terminal G. I am hot.


10:45 AM: I am here. The flight departs at 12 o'clock. Boarding is about to begin.


11:30 AM: My boyfriend texts and asks me if I am on board yet. I am asking myself the same thing. The KLM gate agent steps to the microphone: "Boarding is delayed a bit because the air conditioning is broken in the plane. We're working on it."


11:35 AM: On my way to the garbage can, I accidentally drop a small piece of banana peel. I hope no one slips on it. And if anyone does, maybe it will be this screaming kid who is already getting on my nerves and who will sit on the same plane as me for 12 hours.

"Mind the Gap" and mind the annoying passengers

Airplane delays, flying KLM
Finally in the air

11:45 AM: The gate agent announces that the air conditioning system cannot be repaired. They will get us a brand-new aircraft. But that the new plane will take at least two hours to arrive and it will be waiting for us at the other end of the airport in Terminal D. A human caravan sets in motion. I decide to stop at McDonald's during the seven-hour march across the vast terminal complex and eat something that looks totally healthy on the advertising poster but is probably 90% fat.


12:30 PM: I am sitting at Terminal D. The automated walkway next door routinely says "Mind the Gap" every five minutes, just like on the London subway. I feel very British.


1:15 PM: I am still sitting at Terminal D. My face now feels slightly dirty under the mask. My butt hurts even though I have not yet flown a single inch. The treadmill is becoming annoying. I feel like pouring glue inro the mechanism, so it will finally stops saying "Mind the Gap."


1:45 PM: We board. Finally. The plane is packed. "Keep your distance if possible," says one the cabin crew over the loudspeakers. I sit in a window seat. An unfriendly Dutch woman sits in the seat next to me. I would very much like to have ten miles distance between us. After she wants to argue with me about her blanket, which was on my seat, and I cast the evil eye at her, she suddenly disappears for the rest of the flight. I hope she has burst.


2:00 PM: We take off. The huge aluminum casket thunders down the runway and I cling to the seat back again with white hands. Fear of flying sucks. Especially when you are sitting on a plane so fat that you know it is impossible for this death machine to fly! It would be like a whale that suddenly begins to float in the sky. Impossible!

St. Maarten Airport: Top 10 Most Dangerous Landings

digital nomad, working from everywhere, working and traveling
Thank goodness, I can work on the airplane!

4:00 PM: Still 7 hours until the stopover on St. Maarten. I watch The Strange Case of Benjamin Button on the monitor in from of me and wonder about time and space. What if you were born old, then you become younger with time and eventually die as a child? Later, when turbulence comes, I begin wonder what it will be like to die in general.


5:00 PM: I am trying to sleep. I am just pretending. For me, sleeping on an airplane works about as well as teaching a rabbit to ride a tricycle. So, I decide to work. I had downloaded a few things offline last night and can now work for a few hours on writing projects. I smile as I imagine sticking out a middle finger to the days of yore when I had to stamp a timecard every day at the office to earn my money.


8:00 PM: Only two and a half hours to St. Maarten. I swallow water wrong while taking a drink. I almost suffocate while trying not to cough, otherwise everyone thinks I have Corona.


10:25 PM: We should be right there. Why are we still in the air? Where is the runway?


10:27 PM: The plane is so low that I see each wave, each individual wave.


10:29 PM: We begin to level off, and I see the sea urchins sitting under water at the dinner table.


10:30 PM: The island suddenly appears under the plane's belly, which is almost touching the ground. We roar over a small beach at a height of 10 feet and touch down immediately. Somehow, I still have pulse. The pilot brakes violently and brings the huge machine to a complete stop in an unbelievably short time. Which is good, because after only about two thousand yards the runway disappears into the hills. What I do not know at the time is that St. Maarten Airport is one of the most dangerous in the world because the runway is so short. Large aircraft like this one have to land on other nearby islands like Aruba or Curacao on their way back to Europe, because they are not allowed to completely refuel in St. Maarten due to the weight – they wouldn't be able to lift off from the short runway in time if they had a full tank of fuel.

Comedy in high Humidity: The next plane is broken

Broken airplane adventure, St. Maarten Airport
And it slowly gets night on St. Maarten...

10:40 PM: Some people deplane, many new people board the aircraft. The aircraft will be even fuller than before. We who are traveling to Aruba must remain on board without exiting. But because the engines are off, the air conditioning system is not operating either. Outside, the temperature is 91°, and the humidity is 85%.


11:00 PM: How long does this boarding of new passengers shit take? Meanwhile, the onboard temperature is now easily 85°. My mask feels like the skin on liver sausage. Everything sticks together like glue.


11:20 PM: I almost have to laugh when I think that I should have already landed in Aruba. The local time here is 6:20 PM (five hours behind Germany) and it is starting to get a bit dark outside. The plane is still parked in the heat on St. Maarten. The guy next to me is sweating just like me. The air is thick enough to cut. Right, we also still have Corona lurking everywhere.


11:25 PM: The pilot says, "We have a little problem. One of the engines won’t start," he adds, somewhat distressed. Really? Did they leave the lights on overnight or what? "We have an external starter on the ground. But that was... broken, too." I puffed into my mask as my face slowly begins to blister. Then I take the last sip from my water bottle. What is this? KLM or Keystone Kops Airlines?


11:45 PM: The passenger next to me seems to have fallen into a kind of waking coma. The sun sets. I do not feel my back anymore. It is so hot and I am sweating so hard that I feel like I am just slipping down the water slide in my seat to the floor. Can the flight attendants bring more water?


11:50 PM: I look out the window when suddenly dark smoke begins to rise from the right engine. I begin to panic. I truly start to feel that my life is about to end. The engine is on fire, we are all about to die.

How I finally got my stamp

Stamp passport, Aruba
In Aruba with my stamp - yay!

11:55 PM: The smoke clears. The pilot cautiously comes back on the PA, “We have now found a second external starting device. But the ground crew doesn't know how to use it.” Then he explains where the smoke came from and why it was not dangerous at all. I still feel like I am going to have a heart attack. “We're calling Amsterdam now. Maybe they know how the device works."


12:05 AM: The pilot returns to the PA. Meek. “We're going to call the chief mechanic now. He has already left work for the day and he lives on the other end of the island. He should be here in half an hour... he is our last resort.” 

It is now clear to me that at this time, and on this island, there is no third replacement plane stashed somewhere in the corner. I just hope that I get my stamp on my passport before midnight Aruban time (it is 6:05 PM in Aruba, they are six hours behind German time), because my 14 days only count from the time I arrive on the island.


12:15 AM: Finally, they bring us water. I feel like I am in the Mojave Desert. Maybe I will go up in flames before the engine will.


12:30 AM: The engines on the plane start and the aircraft begins to rumble down the runway. I am still so unnerved that I write my boyfriend a kind of farewell message and then put on my headphones. What would I want to hear if this thing crashes now? Something dramatic? Something sad? I choose the Beach Boys. To hell with it. If one must die, one should die happy!


2:00 AM: I did not die. The plane touches down in Aruba. It is pitch black outside. I stagger to the customs control. Now I will have 500 questions to answer and thousands of papers to show.


2:05 AM: The lady at the customs booth takes my passport, looks at me, pounds the stamp into my passport and says, “Welcome to Aruba!” I almost turn around just to ask her if that was all. I have never entered any country anywhere that easily! And it is still only 8 PM local time! My stamp will be good.


02:30 AM: I am stumbling out of the airport drunk with joy. Since I had already done my corona test and all other papers at home, I was simply waved through. Without quarantine, without conditions. My Airbnb host is picking me up in her car. I cannot believe that I have finally got the stamp and am here, in my small apartment. I jump in the shower and then into bed.

If you have ever wanted to know what a person is capable of doing for love: just read everything in this blog again.

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