“Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.” – Paul Theroux
These past few weeks, I have been on eight flights, countless cars, busses, taxis and trains, two continents and three countries… and yet here I am once again sitting at my modest desk overlooking a busy road and a powerful ocean in the north of Chile.
Before I embarked on any journey to Chile a few years ago, one of my husband’s friends was chitchatting to me about our impending travels and asked me how we get to Chile. Before I had a chance to reply, “by plane, of course,” he asked… “can you drive there?”
It’s funny, we are all floating on the same landmass, if you don’t count that relatively small slice of the Panama canal. I remember going on Google maps that night just out of curiosity – knowing that realistically such a drive was impossible – but wondering if any road could technically go all that way from Canada down to Chile.
I discovered that once upon a time such a route was envisioned and has been largely realized: the pan-American highway, running from the top of Alaska all the way down to the remote tip of Patagonia. (Take a look – have you been on part of it? I have!) Sadly, thanks to a few gaps in the highway system (most notably, a small stretch somewhere in the jungle of Columbia), politics, borders, laws and various dangers ranging from violence to malaria, the entire distance of this passage isn’t actually realistic to drive.
Still, in an odd way it’s somehow comforting to me that we are all connected, even if it’s in such a small, token way.
And besides, if I could drive I would miss the glamorous experience that airports provide. (Note the sarcasm in that sentence.)
I am amazed that airports can be so far apart yet always feel so similar. There are the similar, universal color schemes: black, white, grey, sometimes peppered with a navy blue or an outdated teal or orange. There are the Starbucks and the McDonalds, as ubiqutous as the airport security and almost mechanical announcements that tell you “not to leave your baggage unattended” or that “this airport is in the __ time zone, the current time is __ o’clock…”
On the other hand, can smell different: some, like fried food, others, like plastic-y cleaners and the slightly murky smell of clothes that need to be washed or the musky smell of cologne. Likewise, the people are all the same in some ways (ears glued to cell phones, headphones on and dozing off in uncomfortable and unnatural sitting positions, etc…) and different in other ways. I always remember all of the cowboy hats and boots worn in the Houston Bush airport. Chicago O’Hare is filled with professionals dressed in grey suits crisscrossing the midwest going to sales meetings (or the like). You can buy Disney and Harry Potter souvenirs in Orlando. San Francisco has boutiques that stay open late at night for shoppers catching the red-eyes to the East Coast. You can get poutine, smoked meat and bagels – all trademark foods of the area – in Montreal Dorval. I found a delightfully retro (1940s) bathroom in Buenos Aires Ezeiza. Miami feels like you’ve already travelled far, far away from the U.S., with its strong Latin American influences as well as Caribbean flair. Once you start traveling to a lot of airports, it’s fun to pick up on these little nuances that distinguish one grey, stale-smelling, magazine and potato-chip filled airport terminal from the next.
There are drastic improvements that could be made to all airports. I would love to know why concession stands and food courts in airports insist on only offering deep-fried, grease-soaked, chocolate-coated junk food. Usually, I would do anything for a piece of fresh grilled chicken, baked potato, bright green salad and seasonal fruit during my travels. (The closest I can get is usually a slimy fruit salad and mayonnaise-filled chicken sandwich. That will be $19, please…)
I also always wonder why one cannot get any fresh air in an airport. I understand the need to maintain a secure area, but what do airport architects have against designing courtyards where patrons can step outside and breathe in some fresh air? A bit of oxygen and a dose of sun is badly needed during a 5 hour layover after an 10 hour overseas flight.
Speaking of which, many airport patrons lie flat across rows of tandem seats in between long flights. Hey, airports, why not throw in a few recliners or oversized, cushy chairs for those of us who have just spent all night wiggling sleeplessly in a hard airplane seat? I know, I know, I could travel first class (and have) but it’s out of reach of most even though sometimes after a 10 hour flight cramped in coach all night behind the bathrooms, you would do anything, include dip into your retirement fund for the extra $1,000 required to recline in flatbed seats under a down duvet that some transatlantic first class cabins offer.
At any rate, travel itself sounds glamorous, but as the quote above indicates, the reality is that it is a less-than-human (or humane) experience at times. Until a pan-America highway becomes feasible to drive, or, better yet, a bullet train connects the continent, we’re stuck in those stuffy airport terminals. Still, there are some gems to be found if you look hard enough…
Like at the Santiago airport: you are forced to exit the security zone after arriving from overseas, so you might as well step outside for some air. In the early morning, I have witnessed a few spectacular sunrises over the massive Andes mountains.
And that is what travel really is all about, anyways: dealing with pain, hassle, discomfort and trouble for a few precious moments that end up being the ones you remember most.