October 15, 2016
On the flight to Istanbul, I was seated in the leftmost of three seats in the middle row of a Turkish Airlines flight. To my right was an American woman, and to her right another man. As people were settling in, the man rose to go to the restroom. While he was gone, an old woman of about 75 years wearing a light dotted headscarf and dark sweater shuffled down the aisle and took the man’s seat, clutching her purse the entire time. She had been sitting a few rows up next to a young African man, but for some reason she decided this was her seat now.
She spoke no English, so when the man came back and tried to tell her it wasn’t her seat, all his words were lost. Some other passengers and attendants attempted to speak Turkish with her, but she did not speak that language, either. For some reason, the old lady was drawn to my travel companion and myself, and she had no interest in moving. The man soon gave up and moved to the seat she had vacated without further debate.
After some broken attempts at communication, we figured out she was from Iran and spoke Farsi. No one else in our zone spoke Farsi. Nor did any of the flight attendants. The old lady continuously muttered to herself in this language that belonged only to herself.
My new friend and I theorized about why she had moved seats, and what stories she was telling herself. The tone in her voice had a sort of ‘kids these days’ feel to it, though that particular line of conversation made little sense. Maybe it was, “I can’t believe I have to put up with these ignorant Americans!” Or, “How am I supposed to get home? Is there any hope?” Really, we had no clue what she was saying or if it was important. She could have just been hangry.
I tried googling some phrases to communicate with her, even showing her the questions I was reading as I likely butchered the pronunciation. Nothing. It was almost as if she didn’t care to communicate. And yet she kept talking and glancing at us, sometimes with a worried tone–we weren’t sure whether the words were meant for us or herself.
After some time, we just settled in and accepted that she was… just there. Just another passenger. Even though it seemed like she was looking for help, we couldn’t figure out what she needed, let alone how we could help. So my friend and I enjoyed conversation, airplane food, and cramped seats that bring strangers together like nothing else can.
Hours later, as we approached the Istanbul airport, the old lady became animated again. Apparently something wasn’t right–but what?! Somehow (I forget how–I think we saw her passport), we knew that her hometown was Shiraz. How was she going to get there? We’re landing in Istanbul. Did she have another flight to catch? A bus? Was there someone waiting for her in Istanbul?
What series of events would lead an Iranian septuagenarian woman who appears to know nothing about modern air travel to be on a flight from Chicago to Istanbul, alone? My mind raced through possible scenarios. Was there a family emergency? Had she traveled to visit children or grandchildren in America with her husband, only to return home alone after he–the English speaker–suffered a heart attack? Had she been living with family in America that had given up on her and simply sent her on a one-way trip back to Iran? Is this the first time she has been on her own in her long life? Was she putting on a brave face in an emotional and difficult situation? Or was I reading into things way too much? Is she just… entertaining herself?
Something wasn’t right. That’s what my gut told me. It felt wrong to do nothing.
As I continued to ponder what could possibly be done, she began rummaging in her purse. I was expecting her to pull out a ticket, some chapstick, a book… pretty much anything but what she actually revealed. She pulled out a crisp bill, with Benjamin Franklin emblazoned on one side. She tried to hand the C-note to me. I had no idea what her purpose was (Was this a thank-you for keeping her company? Did she want us to buy something for her? Was there some service she thought she could purchase from me? Did I look like some sort of international vending machine?). Whatever the purpose, I could not accept the offer. I politely told her, “No, thank you,” and gently gestured with palms facing outward and down. She got the point, but looked disappointed and bewildered.
When it came time to de-plane, my companion and I stayed close to the old lady. For now at least, we all had the same destination, so why not look after her? The old lady was not a spry woman, and sitting for long periods apparently didn’t agree with her. She had some trouble walking, but would not accept the help of the flight attendants. Instead, she grabbed hold of my new friend and looked at her and me with eyes that said, “Do this for me, yes?” So we did.
We stepped down the stairs off the plane, climbed aboard the shuttle waiting to take us to the airport, and walked through the security gates. Once we were inside the building, we debated what to do. She was safe now, and couldn’t get lost outside, at least. She should know what to do now.
But as we started to walk away from her, she didn’t move from the seat she was in. Again, it felt wrong to leave her.
So… We coaxed her along in the direction we were going, which was the only direction it made sense for her to go. Every time I saw an airport worker, I asked if they spoke Farsi. Every time, they said “No.” After a few times, I started getting suspicious looks, so I began to re-think my strategy. When my friend then saw a help desk and suggested I ask them, I hesitated, but decided this was our last best chance. Once again, none of the workers spoke Farsi. However, another traveler standing nearby overheard our conversation, and he DID speak the language.
So he started speaking with the old woman, with the workers, and back and forth. The conversation seemed to take a bit more effort than it should have, but soon enough she pulled out a plane ticket to Shiraz from her purse.
I repeat. She had a plane ticket. To Shiraz. In her purse. The whole time.
Words escaped me and my fellow traveler. What was going on? Was she really that lost about what to do? Was she just using us for company?
Her, the helpful stranger, and the workers chatted a bit longer, and after a time they seemed to get everything worked out. Then they tried to get her on one of the transport vehicles to take her where she needed to go. She instantly became obstinate, refusing to get on the vehicle and looking at us again with those “Help me, yes?” eyes.
By this time the stranger and the workers were getting visibly irritated. I was also feeling torn (How much does she actually need help?). But we figured her obstinance was probably due to the fact that her knees hurt more after being seated. Or something. So we agreed to walk her to her gate. We thanked the stranger and the workers, then we three went on our way.
Upon arriving at her gate, we led her to the appropriate waiting area. As my friend and I then set out on our own path, the old lady gave us the look again. But there was nothing else for us to do. We surely couldn’t fly with her to Shiraz. We had been told by the helpful stranger and the workers that she knew what she needed to do and had all that she needed to get home. We had to just let her go.
Even so, as we walked away, it felt like I was shirking some fundamental duty to the old woman. There was something in those eyes, as if they were asking for something that her voice could not. Regardless, this had to be the departure point of my life from hers. And so I waved goodbye, turned around, and walked to the long line to have my passport and visa checked. On to the next stage of my journey…