What Happened to Survival?
In December 2011, a volcano in Iceland erupted, halting air traffic all across North-Western Europe and displacing thousands of travellers just before Christmas. I was 16, travelling alone for the first time and desperately trying to make it from Rome to Canada before December 25th. The first thing I did when I got the news that I would indeed not be getting on my flight back home was pick up my cell phone and call my mom, crying harder to her than I had in years. Trudging along the Fiumicino airport, I set up camp outside McDonalds, the only place in the airport that Google told me was open 24 hours, and also had beer on tap.
Over the course of the next five days I spent my time trekking between various airline counters, booking flight sequences through Amsterdam, Germany, Turkey, Japan, anywhere that seemed it could provide me with the possibility that I could get even a step closer to home. For five days, I routinely checked my bags, passed through security, and waited at my airline’s gate only to see the inevitable CANCELLED in halting red letters on every screen. I even got to the point of desperation in which I attempted to bribe baggage attendants with Malboros to sneak me into the plane’s underbelly.
38 years earlier, in 1973, my uncle was desperately trying to make it from Saudi Arabia to Kenya to see his wife in time for Christmas. She had landed in Nairobi while he was grounded in London, due to both bad weather conditions and Muslim travellers on Pakistan Air being given priority seating during Ramadan. There were no phones, no email – simply no way to connect.
Fortunately, I come from a long line of hyper-organised women, so they had naturally come up with a plan months prior via handwritten letters, in case an unprecedented event like this occurred. Assuming that British Airways was one of the more reliable companies in the world, they had agreed to leave a message at their Nairobi airport counter detailing their new course of action should they need one. However, when my aunt arrived at the BA desk, she was greeted with a door to a broom closet, no employees to be found, and certainly no contact information.
So, after waiting in the airport for eight hours with no sign of him, my aunt did what any logical 20-year-old in the ’70s would do. She took a piece of scrap paper, wrote that she would be travelling across the Serengeti desert, and to use a payphone to call once he had reached the Kenyan border so that she could bribe the border crossing agents with candy bars. She then took a nail provided by a friendly maintenance man, and hammered this note to a telephone pole in the middle of the airport, next to hundreds of other notes from fellow travellers in the hopes that their loved ones could recognise the handwriting and find their calling card.
When stuck in unfamiliar territory, the first things we crave are the comforts of home. For my aunt, this meant the warm embrace of her loved ones. But within the past few decades something has changed. Home, to some, is now defined by the place where your Wi-Fi automatically connects. If I had gotten stuck with no forms of communications or technology, I seriously doubt that I would have the street smarts and savvy to get myself out of a hard situation. I can barely make it across my neighbourhood without the help of Google maps, let alone navigate the Serengeti!
The ways in which humans have pushed their boundaries and explored the unpredictable for centuries has now been taken over by the discovery of the New World, of technological communication. For the first time in history, it is actually debatable whether Christopher Columbus or Mark Zuckerberg can be deemed the furthest reaching explorer of all time. It seems that technology is hammering out the basic survival instincts that we as humans have relied on for all of history. Instead of “fight or flight”, millennials have “respond or mark as ‘unread’”.
We have stopped using our survival muscle because frankly, we don’t need to. Life for the majority of people living in the Western world has every comfort delivered to your front door, so the need to exercise our survival instincts disappears, and in turn so do those very intrinsic instincts that have been so crucial to human survival up until this point.
I finally landed back in Canada after 27 hours of travel and seven connections, and gratitude was the furthest thing from my mind. Annoyance, rage and desperation were certainly present at every stage of my journey, but never appreciation. Although every convenience had been made available to me in my time of despair, the act of patience had escaped me, and therefore made acknowledgement for all my resources impossible. I lacked the ability to use the values that should be so natural to me. I barely have the attention span to wait for a text back, let alone search for a handwritten note on a telephone pole.
This generation, my generation, would rather find love by conveniently swiping through hundreds of potential “matches” dictated through a computer program, rather than taking a risk on someone without being able to decipher their profile first. Spontaneity is rapidly disappearing.
After three days, my uncle was once again air-born, and flew from London through Rome and into Tanzania. He never even passed through the Nairobi airport in the end, and my aunt says there is a good chance that the note is still sitting on that pole, read by many but never who it was meant for. Their embrace at the Kenyan border was filled with emotion. “All of our struggles had been worth it to finally be back together, I was so grateful that we had found each other,” she tells me.
The primal instincts of survival helped them defy the odds that today would keep many of us stopped in our tracks, even with all of our available resources. So, the next time you may be delayed, impatient and feeling the tears well up in your eyes, remember that you are a part of a long history of humans who didn’t need the latest iPhone to triumphantly make it through this world.
Cover by Ilya Ilyukhin