Whoever coined the phrase, “Getting there is half the fun,” never traveled by airplane.
I am on the outskirts of purgatory; precisely 48 minutes of time to sit among the two lines of spartan faux leather and chrome seats in Madrid’s Achoa train station. On the other side of glass doors across the way stand the sleek white Renfre trains, stretched out like long reptilian creatures in parallel rows, red headlight eyes observing us reading, snacking, and wait for the departure sign to announce which of these beasts will carry us to Toledo.
I detest the infinite space between beginnings and destinations. Airports are a world onto themselves, a black and grey world of departure and arrival times, gates and carrier names that change overnight with mergers and takeovers that create bigger, but never better airlines. Remember flying Eastern “number one to the sun,” or dreaming of taking a Northwest jet beyond Seattle to the Orient, or imagining a KLM. flight landing in a field of scarlet tulips? I never enter an airport with expectations; I don’t salivate thinking about saturated lard dripping down my Cinnabun; nor do mages of Sbarro pepperoni pizzas dance in my head as I ponder whether or not Air Iberia will serve me an edible meal in a few hours. Only in airports do I spend time obsessing whether to leave nothing to chance and get a turkey sub and a bag of chips at The Earl of Sandwich or buy some M&Ms and a bottle of Vitamin Water to tide me over ‘til takeoff and hope for the best.
We are summoned to airports hours early, anxiously removing shoes, belts, scarves, jackets, as if preparing to hop into a bed that we know we aren’t going to see for a very long time. Instead, sensing the pressure of the long line of travelers behind us, we grab a handful of grey (of course) plastic tubs, responding to the barking orders of the uniformed TSA officers, “All liquids must be in quart size plastic bags.” “Put all laptops separately in a plastic bin.” “Notebooks can stay in your carry-on.” We obediently allow ourselves to be x-rayed, patted down and finally released to make our way back to claim our belongings from the assembly line of backpacks and carry-ons revealing their contents before the not always so watchful eyes of homeland security.
And then comes the shock—-not bothering to tie my shoes, throwing my raincoat over my arm, stuffing my lap top into my pack as I throw it over one shoulder, wondering where I put my passport and boarding pass—I hurriedly make my way to Gate #4, sure that I am going to miss my flight; let alone have enough time to grab any sort of semi-edible sustenance. And here’s the irony—-in spite of the litany of check-ins, passport inspections, and body searches, I always end up at the gate with time to kill. At 63 years old, I spend my life desperately trying to put the brakes on the minutes and hours that whiz by like Olympic downhill racers. Yet, in the bizarre world of airports, time crawls like an ancient, faded tortoise. Within this universe where travelers’ eyes never meet and small talk between strangers is the exception and never the rule for the masses plugged in to their own private media. Our collective consciousness is focused on only one thing—getting out of here.
Yesterday I was lucky. My flight was on time. Dinner was edible and two romantic comedies kept me occupied for 2/3 of the flight, without taxing my fatigued brain. As I end this posting, I am being whisked towards Toledo in a high speed train, surrounded by afternoon nappers leaning on each others’ shoulders. The early morning cloudy chill has given way to an “azul” sky. My computer screen, still wedded to Northampton time, tells me that it’s 6:42 a.m. I do the math, figuring that I have now been awake for precisely 23 hrs. and 29 minutes, when the loudspeaker announces, “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Toledo.” The doors of purgatory have opened and I am released.