Does she have to wear so many metal bracelets at the airport? Is it her first time travelling? Maybe she was excited to be on a plane for the first time and wanted to dress up. I cannot make assumptions. But gosh, who wears all that just to sit in an air-compressed metal can? I need to be compassionate, I thought. After taking off the bracelets, she beeps as she goes through the scanner anyway. She is now showing signs of distress. The Italian security officer closes his eyes for a moment and takes a very deep breath. F*** my actual life.
This is my train of thought, having the unfortunate crap ticket of being stuck behind someone with a heap of metallic personal attire at airport security. Airport security, where people can literally be hauled off if they misbehave at the airport. No one yells, and no one says anything that could be misinterpreted as negative. The goal is survival. I’m next with my trainers, sweats, t-shirt and hair tie. No metals. Anywhere. Like her, I learned the hard way.
Hodgepodge of Experiences
Like many wanderers, I‘ve been travelling for years, being a global citizen and all. For work, pleasure, to visit a man, to meet a friend, and sometimes to just get away (confession: when I had no money, I took the train to the airport just to remind my body to feel the pre-departure adventure. It was simulated ecstasy that actually worked).
There are airport experiences that make me genuinely happy; knowing when boarding a plane that an adventure awaits you–destinations familiar or new. When you land it feels like a soft bouncy castle after a relaxing unfull flight to your sun destination.
And there are airports where I feel my nostrils flare, hold my breath and glower in judgement, ranting about it after to my friend who picks me up (see metallic-doused passenger description above). Don’t get me started on luggage claim i.e. the minefield of meltdowns, the final frontier where if you already had a bad trip, could be that last flick that can set anyone off if an airline loses a bag. I have witnessed the most composed, pearl-wearing zen characters completely lose their shit at luggage claim.
The Whens and Wheres of Airports
If we’re going to name names, I can probably provide memory for almost every airport I’ve visited. A few come to the forefront.
Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson (ATL) was where I ran to the main terminal’s TGI Friday’s restaurant to embrace a man who asked me to marry him. And a few trips later, I dragged my old, purple, stained suitcase across the same floor to catch a 6 am flight, heartbroken after the relationship ended.
Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) was where I landed with my friend C to spend an overnight layover checking out a popular DJ in downtown Dallas instead of getting a boring hotel room. We trotted the large corridors (I find DFW so beautiful) with the sunset beaming through its’ monstrous skylights with curiosity and anticipation, seeing it as a transitionary space. Twelve hours later, it was where we staved off a hangover after pulling an all-nighter, with only the vending machine to provide sustenance as we waited for our twice-delayed flight.
Heathrow Airport (LHR) was where I lost my passport. I cried to the British Airways gate attendant, who let me board a plane anyway. She upgraded me to business class after witnessing me in tears with sticky bits of chocolate in my hands as I tried to emotionally eat my way through the crisis.
In Amman (AMM), we ended up accidentally travelling first class to Manila because we happened to be the first refugees to board Royal Jordanian Air. This was a different kind of Air Jordan; a flight that saved our lives instead of increasing a sneaker collection’s value.
Airports and Creativity
I’ve come up with many story ideas at airports. My imagination and creativity can run wild, especially if I’m travelling alone with no one to distract me. Anyone can be seen as completely sane just sitting on a lounge chair with nothing to do but stare into space. Sure, we have phones and everyone just looks down at them, but if you’re just waiting for your flight, you will not be judged. Do that at a restaurant, park or any non-airport space and people will look twice. You’re pegged into possible serial-killer category looking for their next prey. At the airport, you have the license to just be.
Airports are curious places where you see every type of person. I burst out laughing eavesdropping on two young, male backpackers who set their “bros-before-hoes” pact before their flight to Rome. And I chatted with an elderly couple leaving the only country they’ve known to be with their grown children in a new place.
And then there are the bars. The bars where if you have time to kill and don’t mind being drunk, tipsy or hungover before flying, can be a wonderful place to meet people. The bar where the drinks are too expensive but needed to drown stress from a travel-heavy, demanding job. The bar, where you could meet a cute guy at the Denver airport to feel wanted after a horrendous fling. If you’re travelling with your girlfriends, is the place where your vacation actually starts with an overpriced daiquiri with a cute umbrella as a prop.
There are many actors at the airport. Actors in the form of border and customs officers, airline attendants, security guards, and anyone else responsible for ensuring you don’t assault or disrupt anyone, including yourself. And this is where shit can really hit the fan.
There was the trauma of being yelled and berated at in my teens when I seemed suspicious for not having a return ticket from New York to Canada when I carried a Filipino passport (my aunt was going to pay for my return ticket). The humiliation can scar you for life, and you then think, will it be like this moving forward? Will the fact that I have a Middle Eastern first name, Chinese middle name and a seemingly unusual itinerary mean I would always be a target for an enforcer having even just a slightly bad day?
Even though I now carry a passport from a diplomatically-popular country that gives me visa-free access to most countries in the world, I still get nervous when I happen upon a border officer who is a little too stoic, stone-faced, or quiet when inspecting my passport. Their eyes peer at me to see if I really am the person in the horrid photo.
Boxes of Memories
The various experiences at airports are memory capsules. Airports are where I have felt almost every single emotion at its’ core: curiosity, heartbreak, despair, anticipation, success (celebrating at LAX after a trade show), both rational and irrational fear, and euphoria. It’s a place where I have learned to be self-reliant by crossing borders, and literally flying into different worlds. It’s a launching pad for my many life-defining moments because it’s a place where there is always (e)motion.
What have your airport experiences been like? Let me know in the comments below!