Chasing the Plane #RTW

So far, I have never missed a plane in my life. Ever.

Perhaps this is because all my journeys begin in the still, black hours of pre-morning, when not even the rats are roaming the streets of our nation’s capital.

If I start early enough—say, 4 AM—I can usually make it from my doorstep to the airport in less than seven minutes, depending on my cab driver’s treatment of red lights.

This morning, for example, he was fast, whipping past the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Jefferson Memorial in under two minutes, zipping across the marble bridge and over the Potomac’s dark water. We were halfway there before he spoke to me.

“You going far?” he asked, half-curious, half-nosy.  NPR mulled through the car speakers, my hands rested on the fake leather seat and I inhaled the ashtray smell of a car that nobody has been allowed to smoke in for years.

“Yes, quite far,” I answered.

The farthest anyone can go, I thought, and then spoke up, “San Francisco today . . .”

“Oh?” He was already bored, but I continued with my itinerary.

“ . . . then on to Asia, then Africa, and then beyond . . .”

The driver slowed his cab a little and turned his head back around from the driver seat, now intrigued.

“Where in Africa will you go?” he asked.

“Oh, lots of places, Tanzania—maybe Egypt,” I felt exotic simply saying the name aloud.

“Aha!” he announced, as if I’d found him out, “I am half-Egyptian—my mother is Egyptian!” The half-Egyptian began his guidebook pep talk for my impending visit to Egypt. I listened legitimately to his advice, realizing that I had not even had the time to Google Egypt since finding out I was embarking on this great voyage.

“You will love Egypt!” he said over and over. “The people are so nice! The food is fantastic!” and then, “I miss there so much!” he added forlornly.

My driver’s name was Ali, and we were no longer cabbie and charge, but two pals talking travel over the seatbacks. He turned into the airport.

“Which airline are you flying?”

“You can drop me at United, please.” I answered. Ali pulled up to Departures and parked with the engine still running.

“You know you can fly direct, right?—you can just go straight to Egypt. It takes 14 hours from New York.” I nodded and thanked him for his advice.

“Well, I’m actually going the long way round—it will take 14 days,” I countered.

“But where did you get such a ticket?” Ali threw both hands in the air with Arab flourish. “Which airline sells this? Is this because you have to fly through London?” My recent pal Ali was suddenly very concerned with my in-flight well-being.

“No, it’s fine. I’m going on a private jet,”—I confessed, already feeling a little self-conscious about something that sounds so extravagant, and then channeling my nervousness into larger explanations.

“We will make many stops around the world and then we intend to land in Egypt.” I caught myself sounding mysterious and perhaps a little boastful—yet it was true—I am flying around the world on a private jet.

At some point, all travelers divulge their destination to a stranger and test their intentions out loud. My upcoming trip is not some jumble of flights on various airlines with discordant stops around the globe—no, this will be a proper expedition, on the same plane, with intentional stops at some of the world’s greatest sites.

Sitting in the backseat glow of the parked cab, I heard Ali sigh with happiness and perhaps a hint of jealousy.

“You have nothing to worry about. You will have a wonderful trip.” His words were straightforward and unwarranted, yet somehow comforting. I listened and nodded, and continued to sit.

I lived two years in eastern Ukraine, where I picked up a local superstition—to sit down and wait at least a full minute before embarking on any great journey. I paid Ali his fare but remained sitting in the cab, waiting silently for a minute.

The fact is that I have already missed my plane. The private jet departed the week before, back when I was still running across a small European nation-state. Yet I am entirely determined to catch it—to chase the plane halfway around the world if I must.

I took off from Washington, DC in a window seat—bumped to first class on a Sunday morning. For six hours, I watched America pass by in color, from the fading fall hues of Appalachia to the irrigated yellow-green circles of Kansas crops, like giant television pixels. I saw the dirt brown of Colorado break up into rippled mountains—watched the snow gathering in the natural shade of the slopes. Utah’s red and magenta landscape came next, nearly glowing against the searing blue skies, followed by the bone dry and beautifully desolate space of empty Nevada.

From the air, America is vast and painted with the watercolor shades of nature. I peered down over the yellow-gray slopes of the High Sierra before we began our descent into San Francisco Bay, which like some giant soup bowl, had filled up with an unrelenting mashed potato fog.

At San Francisco airport, I met another driver who sped me into the city in twenty minutes. His name was Ayman and in the kind of grand coincidence that only travelers truly appreciate, he disclosed to me that he, too was Egyptian.

“I used to be a flight attendant,” he confessed, “For TWA—do you remember them?” I surely do remember Trans-World Airlines, and I began to consider my own upcoming transworld airline—a single plane that will take me around the planet.

“I used to run the flights back and forth from New York to Cairo,” Ayman told me, “And that was 14 hours!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, I know” I answered, then revealed it to Ayman, “I am actually headed to Egypt very soon.”

This time I did not tell him that I would be flying around the world. I did not tell him that he could follow my every move on Twitter, or track me around the globe via #RTW. Instead, I listened to my newest Egyptian friend who was busy telling me about the ancient library of Alexandria, which was, “not to be missed under any circumstance.”

I thanked him for his travel tips and stepped out onto the curb of San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Unlike the dour grey-green bay, the California sky was blue and open, the slanted sidewalk warm from the day’s unfettered sun, and the Pacific Ocean, egging me on.

In a single morning, I had crossed the entire continent, but I have only just begun. I still have a private plane to catch, somewhere over that wide Pacific. I fully intend to make it happen.

After all, I have never missed a plane in my life. Not ever.



  1. Erma J
    Abilene, Texas
    October 15, 2012, 11:12 pm

    Ah, this is the way to travel! You have been in San Francisco and now to Asia. Where will we find you next, Japan, Korea, Afghanistan? I’ll be waiting to see where your beautiful pictures and words take me when I read them next.

  2. Chasing the Plane #RTW | Field Notes
    October 17, 2012, 11:24 am

    […] the rest of the story on National Geographic’s Digital Nomad […]

  3. […] little screen in front of me, watching the squiggly yellow line arching out into the Pacific, still chasing that plane. Keywords: Around the world, California, cities, rtw, San Francisco, Spud Hilton, travel, USA […]

  4. Adrian
    October 22, 2012, 4:48 am

    Wow, you had wonderful journey from America to Asia.. I could imagine what would be your next unusual location… Let us check your photographs also.. Thanks