Four Airports

Gatwick airport

Not many kinds of building will evoke emotions quite like an airport.

Primarily, airports, to me, equate to long-distance travel, and that is always a good thing, right?

Of course.  You cannot travel to the other side of the world without visiting an airport first, but instead of always wanting to celebrate their existence there’s something about them that seems so wrenching to me when they come to mind.

I’ve noticed that my emotions never feel truly balanced on each and any occasion I’m in an airport, and I think it’s that – moreso than the widely maligned concept of queues and customs – that makes my stomach feel so heavy when I think about them.   There’s always a hello or a goodbye involved.  There’s always distance involved.

I do think there is a massive difference in one’s perception of the airport depending on whether they are travelling alone or with others.  When you’re travelling alone, you have no other option but to spectate and truly absorb what’s going on around you, whereas amongst company the trajectory of thought is decided for you by your companions – conversations about what so and so said or whether or not we’ve packed enough soap.  The naked intensity of the airport is tranquilised by the presence of familiar faces and discussions reflecting day-to-day life…but you don’t have that if you’re alone.

The following observations stem from my experiences of travelling solo.

We start with airport number 1.  Our origin, gateway to a dream.  Upon entrance our minds are full of the half a dozen things we are sure we must have forgotten to pack.  We work out whereabouts we’re meant to stand and then we queue.  We say sayonara to our luggage and use our newly free hands to go and  grab a coffee.  We wait. We watch.  We look at all of the other people in the airport and wonder where they’re going and for what reason.  The airport is a microcosm of diversity and we are surrounded by skins of all shades, hear voices of all accents and see whole varieties of dress.  We are mesmerised by it.  We remember how big the world is and smile to ourselves.

The excitement of impending departure causes us to be restless, and we pin our eyes to the Departure boards dreading the sudden emergence of bright red text next to the name of our destination which will signify that there is a problem with our flight.

Things become more real once we are motioned to the gate.  We familiarise with the departure lounge and finally allow the feeling of excitement to pulsate through every single cell in our body.  We think about all of the memorable things we’re going to be doing in the days ahead.  New places to discover.  New people to meet.  New feelings to feel.

The second airport.  “Finally!!” We arrive.  We are jet-lagged.  Turbulence has left us unable to hear a thing and the bright lights which we saw mapping out the city below us have left us feeling romanticised and our hearts beating faster.  This is it.  We are here.  Exiting the plane, sounds become muffled.  Everything seems so much more luminous.  We are tired, but we are excited.  Our mouths are dry and we look haggard but the thrill of being somewhere new is shuffling us towards border control.

Hello there, stern-faced man at the barriers.  The first person I will speak to in this new country.  Here is my passport, there is my nut on the page so that you can verify it’s me – adhering to regulations by looking completely blank and expressionless. No hair over the face.  No headwear.  No glasses.  You look at me intensely to check it’s really me, and then you motion me onward, over to baggage reclaim, where I wait.  For an eternity.  Dreading that mine will be the last case to come out, or that it won’t come out at all.

Just like the panic in Jakarta July 2012, when that hand-drawn sign saying ‘End’ appeared on the conveyer belt but my suitcase was nowhere to be seen.  There was panicked jumping onto the belt to expediate my journey to the other side of the room where I thought I could see my bag, security chastising me for this, but it didn’t matter because I was happy to have located my suitcase, unrecognisable from losing it’s multi-coloured strap I put there for identity purposes.  Thank Heavens, they’ll get their presents, and I have enough underwear to last the trip.

And then: We leave.  Out into the open air.  The foreign air.  The foreign smells.  The foreign noises.
That wonderful feeling of not knowing where you are… and it is a wonderful feeling despite not sounding so, because it ensures that everything that is about to happen to us will be a complete surprise.  We bathe in the blood-rush and this new wave of excitement will be both the fuel and the guide that our jet-lagged bodies need to reach the hotel,  The adventure begins.

These first two airports of the journey will represent the best memories and emotions of the lot.

But then there’s the return, a journey we will eventually have to make, when the airport takes on a completely new context, and emanates a completely different vibe.  Airport number three is the worst one. We turn up tired and the building is no longer a gateway to new dreams and memories, but an arduous formality that stinks of cleaning fluids and concentrated clusters of fast-food outlets.  But we don’t really notice any of that because our thoughts and emotions have been sidetracked by a feeling of hollowness.  A feeling as though we are missing something.  A feeling as though we have left something remarkable behind.  It could be a person.  It could be a place.  It could be an over-friendly street-cat that you passed each morning on your way to the market, or it could be the wistful way that the man selling roti by the side of the road looked at you in hope of your custom as he sat alongside a dozen others selling the same thing.  Whatever it is, you can almost find yourself searching for it in your handbag, because it feels like it should be with you.

Airport number three brings out the worst in us.  It was a hard goodbye to people who are no longer by our sides.  This is the worst thing about travelling alone.  At least when you’re with
other people, you can commiserate one another and reminisce the trip.  When you’re alone and you’ve passed through those doors, that’s it.  You have a long-haul journey ahead of you
in which you will speak to nobody… bar maybe the flight attendant when you confirm you want the chicken option, or the person next to you when you need to pass them in order to get to the toilet.  That’s it.

I have to say… sometimes the goodbyes have been so hard to do that it’s made a small part of me wonder if things would’ve been easier had I not gone at all.  Airports can make that moment so much worse.
The harsh bright lights shining over your sole suitcase.
The doors, heavy and damning.
New friends waving… and then disappearing, gone, from view.
Sitting having a coffee alone trying to use up the last of your foreign notes and the tears are welling up, but you’re more exposed when you’re crying alone.  You cannot bury your head into the shoulder of a friend.  Strangers stare at you with that expression of awkward sympathy.

When the plane takes off you look at the labyrinth-of-a-city below and wonder if the things you will always remember from that place will remember you too, or whether or not you’ll
be forgotten just as soon as the next visitor touches down.  You wonder if you’ll ever set foot on those streets again and possibly find yourself promising to yourself that you will.  A coping mechanism that will make this departure a little easier to bear.  You get your camera out from your handbag and browse through all the photos you took just to keep the flame of this trip burning for that little bit longer.

After what seems like an eternity of floating around in the troposphere, we eventually reach airport number four.  How you feel about that one depends on how long you’ve been away.  If it’s been a considerable amount of time, airport number four is the emblem of a homecoming enriched with pride and excitement.  Visions attached to the warming thoughts of roast dinners, hot water, English pubs and timber-framed buildings with uneven floorboards.  The smell of cloves and potpourri.  Family and friends.

However, if your absence has been much shorter term, we tend to attach thoughts of all the negative parts about the homeland.  Rain.  Dark Monday evenings in Winter.  A conservative society in which saying hello to stranger as you pass them on the street is considered abnormal or overbearing.  Documentaries about our binge-drinking culture.  Formalities.
We still love home, of course, but it lacks that element of surprise.  We know it too well.  Too often it slips into the rhythm of repetitive routine, because we allow it to.

And the fourth airport is the damning rubber stamp to this realisation.