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Midnight in Greece

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The globe in the National Geographic 125th Anniversary exhibit at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC. (Photo by AE, NGT)

My favorite in-flight movie is the in-flight map—the one that starts playing before take-off, a blinking white airplane icon that inches through the night across a digital map of the world.

I find the constant frame of reference somewhat comforting—the visible proof of my own progress, and a clear reminder that while I am dozing in the cushioned, pressurized, climate-controlled, seemingly-stationary interior of a Boeing jet plane—I am, in fact, traveling halfway around the earth.

In case we are not paying attention (and none of us really are), our Ethiopian Airlines pilot pipes in to inform us that we have already passed over Cape Cod, and how, just about now, we are entering Canada.

Lunch is served over the Labrador Sea, and as I stab stuffed pasta shells with a fork, the TV map zooms in and out. I imagine the long parade of summer icebergs floating some thirty-seven thousand feet below us, sailing from the arctic into oblivion.

Up here, geography is nearly imaginary. In principle, I trust the in-flight map to pinpoint me on the globe, but the evening clouds offer no landmarks—no promise of truth.

I work, I doze—I get restless in the air.

Across the aisle, a young man reads a book, “Understanding Agricultural Markets in Africa”. The pages are soporific—soon he is asleep while sitting, a comatose body traveling across the Atlantic, only slightly less cognizant than I.

Over Scotland, my seatmate laughs aloud to the ongoing Nigerian soap operas on her screen, while I settle into that early 1970’s cult film, The Poseidon Adventure— the one where blonde women wearing hot pants climb through scrap metal in a distressed, upside-down ship; the one with a clean-faced Gene Hackman, who calms the survivors of the on-screen tragedy by declaring, “There is nothing to worry about until there is something to worry about, okay?”

This is a good motto for travel, I think.

I have nothing to worry about. Outside my window it is minus 48°C—a deadly temperature if I was out there—but I am in here, where it is warm and safe. We are flying through the atmosphere at more than 700 miles per hour, but my internal organs are still intact. If I was on the ground, the world would be a blur, but up here, the earth at night moves in such slow motion.

Honolulu, Vancouver, Paris, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Lima, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Sydney, Tokyo, Blantyre, and Cape Town. Zoomed all the way out, the in-flight map only mentions these cities—I know each of them personally and each is so different.

But on the screen, like last year’s video game, these places hold no meaning. Up here, the earth becomes nameless and flat—only the glowing green trail of our flight path curves elegantly around the planet.

It’s called The Great Circle Route—the quickest way between two points on the globe is not directly horizontal. Over a curved surface, the shortest distance may curve up and over, or down and around. This is why my journey to Africa takes me above Belgium and Austria.

I pace the aisle of the plane because I have read that this is how not to get blood clots on long flights. I do laps to the front of the lane and then all the way to the back. Half the passengers are asleep beneath yellow satin Ethiopian Airlines masks. Others are in groups wearing matching T-shirts that advertize their church or medical mission to Africa. Most of them want to change the world—and who doesn’t?

Towards the rear of the plane, I overhear two youth pastors discussing their work, “It’s ridiculously inexpensive to feed children in Africa—like fifty cents a day.”

The in-flight map switches to French, announcing the heure locale is 12:00 AM.

At the far back of the plane, I crouch down by the emergency door and stare out the cold, oblong patch of window—the one that makes me feel like I am flying though space in a submarine.

I watch the sparkling lights of coastal cities far below—thread-like roads traced out in street light pixels. Here is a place I have never seen before—never traveled to: This is Greece, and that black mass without lights? The Adriatic Sea.

At least, this is what the in-flight map tells me. Welcome to Greece.

As it zooms in, the in-flight map even points out obscure undersea details—soon we are crossing the Herodotus Trough. The great Greek geographer himself, rendered to a label on an undersea gash seen only by insomniac airplane passengers who happen to spot it in the second it flashes across so many night screens.

I want to apologize to Herodotus for what has happened. How geography has lost its true meaning, and how even now, I am crossing the Sahara in the same amount of time it takes to watch My Cousin Vinny.

At dawn we touch down in Addis and the cabin erupts into uniform applause. The lunatic clapping is goofy, if not disconcerting. Shouldn’t we reserve applause for special occasions? Is safely landing a plane so unique and extraordinary that we should clap?

But on the screen I see the facts—more real than the Ethiopian mountains outside my window. 13 hours in the air. 7,575 miles traveled.

And I clap, too—not for the pilots (who deserve it), but for my favorite in-flight movie, that has just ended.

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Sleepy somewhere high up over the Atlantic (Photo by AE, NGT)

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