A Boundless Ocean

‘Ready am I to go, and my eagerness with sails full set awaits the wind.
Only another breath will I breathe in this still air, only another loving look cast backward,
Then I shall stand among you, a seafarer among seafarers.
And you, vast sea, sleepless mother,
Who alone are peace and freedom to the river and the stream,
Only another winding will this stream make, only another murmur in this glade,
And then shall I come to you, a boundless drop to a boundless ocean.’

– Gibran. K. 1923. De Profeet [The Prophet] Den Haag, The Netherlands: Mirananda (2000) p. 7

Could An Amateur Land A Commercial Aeroplane?

There are 400,000 people in the air at any given time. Now, if you were on an aeroplane in which both the pilot and the co-pilot had fallen ill, it would be incredibly difficult for anyone else to land the plane down safely. Luckily, an incident such as this has never occurred in commercial airline travel history.

To prevent food-poison related illness or more harmful poisonings, the pilot and co-pilot on a plane always have different meals from each other. In the case of extra long haul flights there are three pilots instead of two.

Simulations with people with civil private pilot licences taking over the control of a large commercial jet have been carried out in the USA. In these cases one person could not move the seat that moved them towards the control, another turned the radio off, and another turned off the autopilot and crashed the plane immediately.

One of the first problems is getting into the cockpit, which is much more secure these days following 9/11. The pilot and co-pilot may be too ill to let you in.

If the plane was on autopilot (a device invented in 1914 no less) you could continue to fly level, and once you began to land people would talk you through the procedure, but there are so many variables that it is really difficult.

Thankfully there is an auto-land system. The chances of an intelligent person landing the aircraft in such a situation are 1 in 10 if it is in autopilot, and 1 in 100 if it is not in autopilot.

The flight on which it is most unlikely for such a disaster to happen is – unsurprisingly – the shortest commercial flight in the world: in the Orkney Islands, from Westray and Westray Papa. It usually takes two minutes, but the shortest it has ever taken is 58 seconds. The distance is shorter than the runaway of Edinburgh Airport. A return ticket is £39; however, you do get a certificate and a miniature of Highland Park whisky.

Innocent Gestures

Different cultures can be tricky to handle. Sometimes, westerners can seem so ignorant, set in their ways, or even plain rude. Here is a short-list of things never to do, say or gesture whilst travelling abroad:

Extend your hand, palm outward in Greece

– What you think you are saying:
“That food was excellent.”

– What you are actually saying:
“That food was excellent. Now I’m pretending to rub excrement on you.”

– How come?
In Greece, the hand out gesture is known as the moutza. It dates back to the time of the Byzantine Empire, when criminals would be paraded through the streets on horseback, their faces blackened to indicate their shame. If they were lucky, the blackening agent would merely be charcoal. If they were unlucky, it would be a substance much, worse.

Give the thumbs-up in the Middle East

1753 Vaugondy Map of Persia, Arabia and Turkey...

1753 Vaugondy map of Persia, Turkey and Arabia

What you think you are saying:
“Hello, nice to meet you, we’re just passing – isn’t this a nice day.”

What you are actually saying:
“Hello, nice to meet you. I am going to have you killed.”

How come?
It’s not just in the Middle East. This seemingly universal gesture is also hideously offensive in West Africa and South America. The thumbs-up sign has been confusing people for thousands of years. Contrary to the Hollywood legend, Roman gladiators were not spared by a thumbs-up, but by a thumbs-down. A thumbs-up is still linked to the order of killing someone.

Say “Hi” to a member of the opposite sex in Saudi Arabia

What you think you are saying:
“Hi […]. How are you? Fancy getting a soft drink?”

What you are actually saying:
“Hi, […]. How are you? Fancy booking a hotel room so that I can do immoral sex acts on you?”

How come?
According to sharia religious laws, it is deeply immoral for a woman to greet a man in public, or associate with any man other than her husband without an escort.

Though, perhaps this is nitpicking considering women are not allowed to drive, vote, own shops, testify in court or ride bicycles in Saudi Arabia. Bizarrely, it’s perfectly fine for women to fly high-powered jet planes.

Give an even number of flowers in Russia

Flowers 1

A field of flowers

What you think you are saying:
“Darling, you have been so wonderful this week. These are for you.”

What you are actually saying:
“Darling, my condolences.”

How Come?
In Russia, even numbers of flowers are only ever given at funerals, and such a gift is seen as inviting death.

Choosing the right gift seems to be a minefield of morbidity everywhere you go. For instance, never give a clock to a Chinese person, as the word “clock” is almost identical to a Chinese word for “death”. Don’t wrap your present in white paper there either, as this suggests funerals. Don’t give white flowers to anyone in Bangladesh for the same reason.

Give a gift with your left hand in China

What you think you are saying:
“Please accept this gift.”

What you are actually saying:
“Please accept this rubbish. You are not worth anything more.”

How come?
Toilet paper may have been around in China since 589 AD, but for much of the world, it remains a prohibitively expensive luxury. In places such as India, Sri Lanka, Africa and the whole of the Middle East, doing anything with your left hand is seen as unclean, as it is – as least symbolically – the hand which is used for wiping. Do not even use your left hand for eating, this is considered vile as well and is awfully bad form.

Of course, this is not the only reason left-handedness is bad. According to the Qur’an, Satan himself was left-handed.

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