As you drive past Princess Julianna International Airport in St. Maarten you immediately realize you’re in the right place. Two beach bars bookend either side of a steep and idyllic white sand beach against pure, clear blue water. People drink Carib beer and order Sex on the Beach and wink at the bartenders as if they’re all the first person to ever order that drink. Bellies stick out over beige shorts and electric blue tank-tops cover brand new two-pieces bought just for this trip.
You hear a rumbling from the sky and a group begins to gather. Professional photographers, 20-somethings with stick-mounted Go-Pros, European tourists in Speedos: no one is immune from the romantic idea of getting your fucking face blown off by a jet engine.
The ocean goes on forever. The sand stretches about 25 feet or so, coming up at a steep angle to the road. The road is two lanes only, 14 feet across at most. Then, there is a barrier, and the barrier just says “No Standing! Danger!” Obviously, everyone gets as close to this barrier as possible. Through the chain link fence and barb-wire you see the famous runway, literally only a stone’s throw away.
I took a boat in from Anguilla, and when the shuttle driver asked me what terminal I was going to, I asked to go to the Sunset Bar. He asked me for a few dollars, which I was happy to give him for this once in a lifetime experience. He told me a JetBlue plane would be landing at around 1:15pm and a KLM 787 would be taking off shortly thereafter. He knew the routine.
We pulled up to the beach at 1:09pm and I saw the Sunset Bar in the distance. People were running wildly towards the ocean. The JetBlue arrival was early. “Get out! Go! Take your picture!” he yelled and I left my bags in the car with him and pulled out my phone and ran through the sand until I hit the spot where the most people were. I figured they knew.
People were yelling and waving, trying to get the attention of the people on the plane, or the pilots, or for no reason at all. It’s hard to tell.
I stood in solidarity with these people. Together, we were going to have an experience. The JetBlue plane was closing in, seeming to just grow in size as it hovered over the blue water.
We all did the exact same thing. We all experienced the moment in the exact same way. Your heart stops for a moment as you realize that even though you came here to have a plane head straight towards you…that right now a plane is heading straight towards you. It’s not a feeling you know.
Most of life is comprised of feelings you know. Mornings feel tired. Working out feels annoying and then great, in that order. Food tastes familiar and nice. Sex feels great, but gets to be more like food over time, familiar and nice. Most things you do for the first time you’ve already done, and most things you do for the first time you will do again. This isn’t like that. There is a plane heading straight towards you.
And in that moment we all lean back, look up, spin around, and watch as, only seconds later, the plane lands safely on the ground.
The jet engines blast us all with sand and debris and we turn our faces away and smile with our eyes closed and listen to the sounds of other people laughing.
It’s kind of nice. We don’t talk to each other, but we all look at each other and our eyes say “How cool was that?”
My shuttle driver was kind enough to wait for me and drive me back to the airport. He giggled as I got in the car and said “Everybody’s gotta do that! I have no idea why!”
As I checked into my flight, the woman behind the counter asked me if I had just come from the beach watching the planes land.
“How did you know?” I asked.
“You’re covered in sand. It’s very dangerous. A lady died.”
I settled into my seat and prepared for take-off. We taxied towards the beach and as we turned I could see the beach through the window. And I saw all the people waving at our plane. I wondered if any of them were the same people that I had been standing with less than an hour prior.
Either way, I looked at them and I thought “What the hell are you people doing? Who are you waving at?”
And then I remembered that they were waving at me. All those people who I was standing with earlier were actually waving at someone, they just didn’t know it. They just had hope. They had hope that there was someone on the other end, someone to tell them that they were alive.
Turns out, there was.