That Time I Ended Up Crying on a Runway in Serbia

The first time I traveled to another country was also the first time I traveled without my parents…and the first time I had been away from home for basically more than a weekend. It was such a traumatizing experience that it took 6 years and a completely different continent to rekindle my joy of traveling.

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(playing a concert in about 100 degree weather)

The year was 2008 and I had just finished my freshman year of high school. My orchestra  (yes, I was an orchdork) had been planning a trip to Greece for over a year. My parents had paid the deposit, helped me apply for my passport and left me for the wolves on a yellow school bus speeding towards O’hare. I was excited, my best friends were in orchestra, my director was funny and we were spending 10 days in a Mediterranean country. What could go wrong?

Once we were there, everything was going okay. If you consider terrible sunburn, only eating bread (I was a picky 14 year old!) and my best friend joining when my arch nemesis picked on me okay. And this wasn’t even the traumatizing part.

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(Concert on the beach!)

Basically I was a burnt, hungry, dramatic teen the whole trip.

When it finally came time to leave, I was pretty ready to go home. I befriended a girl who was also extremely home sick and we started to count down the hours till landing in Chi Town. We arrived at the airport ready to board our flights to Germany and then on home. Our director was continuing his trip to Italy, leaving all us kids with the chaperones and the large senior class. We had to split up into two flights, due to having a large group (~30). The juniors and seniors and a few chaperones got on the first flight, leaving us youngins for the second flight.

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I would’ve given all 14 years of birthday money to be on that first flight. While we were in the air, a man on our plane had a heart attack. Looking back I should’ve felt a lot worse than I did at the time. Someone was fighting for their life and I was only concerned about getting on my plane to Chicago. The pilots had no choice but to emergency land the plane in Serbia.

We were sitting on a back runway in the middle of eastern Europe when I lost it. I had been so homesick and ready to go home that when I realized we were going to miss our connection to Chicago it felt as if the rug had been ripped out from under me. I cried in the middle of a stuffy, at capacity, chaotic airplane.

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(Home sick, dramatic me)

I obviously didn’t handle spontaneity very well. After accepting that I wouldn’t be home in 12 hours, I focused on a bigger issue. We had no director, most of us had no money, and no way of contacting our parents.  Cue pandemonium.

Thankfully, one of the few chaperones on our flight was one of my childhood best friend’s moms and one of our neighbors. She was not only like a second mom to me, but she was calm, and a seasoned traveler.  Between her, a few other parents, some kids’ credit cards and the airline, we were all put up in a nice business hotel and treated to a very delicious dinner.

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(Dinner in Germany)

After a few more tears talking to my mom on the hotel room phone (I still don’t know if I paid for that, or really if anyone did) I made it home. I don’t know if I will ever go back to Greece, or Serbia for that matter, or if the man who had a heart attack at 30,000 feet survived. I chalk this experience up to immaturity. I wasn’t ready to appreciate being surrounded by another culture. I was too concerned about what my peers were doing, but what 14 year old isn’t?

Maybe in a weird way being stuck half way across the world without any money, parents or communication, triggered my passion for travel? (Ha. Ha. Ha.)

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