Friday, April 17, 2009

Travelogue part 1

Friday, 12:45pm
I’m by myself at the airport, with an hour and twenty minutes before my flight across the country. I’ll save all the details of where and why, who and how long, for another post. First, some musing. I really enjoy traveling alone. It’s nice to be anonymous, with no one to keep track of or keep up with, and to operate on my own schedule (with the freedom to alternate between “rigid” and “helter skelter“). I slept on the shuttle bus during the 2.5 hour trip here. I’m well rested, feeling sharp in a denim jacket and bright orange scarf and reliving my independent traveler days. I’m armed with a new book, my Dell Mini, comfortable shoes, and cell phone. What more could a girl need? The world is at my fingertips.

Airports are like malls: lots of people-watching opportunities, a variety of shops (all overpriced), and plenty of nooks and crannies to disappear into. I believe airports provide a wonderful cross-section of humanity. By wonderful I mean harrowing. This place is a sociological gold mine of human behavior. Where else could you find this many people funneled through such a narrow opening of common experience? Maybe at Wal-Mart. Everyone here is consumed by one or more of the following:
a) timetables
b) destinations
c) relationships
d) assignments
We travel for a variety of reasons but use a common mode of transportation. Most of us could do without the proximity to one another.

I love to see what people consider appropriate travel attire. I wish I had the cojones to wear a sleeveless dress and heels on an airplane. Some people are clearly headed for the Outback, dressed like Crocodile Dundee, complete with a canteen on their utility belt and a walking stick (how’d they get that past security?). Others are dressed for success, announcing via their wardrobe “I belong in first class,” with power suits, ties, briefcases, and wing-tipped shoes. And then there are those who opt for a super-casual travel experience, with a pillow under each arm, a tote bag filled with snacks, dressed in Pjs and flip-flops.

Airports are designed to be idiot-proof. You’d have to work really hard to miss all the signs, instructions, public service announcements and last calls. We are herded like cattle, instructed to remove our shoes in a public place and expose the contents of our pockets and purses. It all feels ridiculous, but we do it in the name of safety. And I do feel safer. Knowing that any potential crazies are subjected to the same treatment at least levels the playing field. If my flight ends badly, I can rest assured it won’t be because someone had any liquid in excess of three ounces, without a zip-lock bag to carry it in.

We’re all here temporarily. For some that translates to “take it in stride,” put up with the inconveniences and roll with the punches. For others, that means “treat strangers like dirt” and demand preferential treatment whenever possible. Like the guy at the ticket counter who got all pissy with the airline agent while trying to relocate his luggage, after he told the agent his layover location, rather than his final destination. His bags were long gone, presumably en route to the wrong city. The ticket agent tried to remain calm while several dozen people watched. He turned bright red and kept his voice as low and even as he could while describing a very simple progression of cause and effect: you screw up, you deal with it. The angry passenger kept shifting his weight impatiently, shaking his head in disbelief, and even threw a ballpoint pen in disgust. Or consider the woman in line in front of me, who stood in one place, waiting for instructions, even though she had not checked in electronically, nor received a boarding pass from the counter. She announced without irony that she was going to miss her flight, yet stood still, waiting for some direction. Another man paced between computer terminals, eager to leave his luggage with someone in a uniform and go find his gate. Lots of frustrated facial expressions and darting eyes. Fascinating.

Wouldn’t an airport be an ideal context for a social experiment? Travelers are stressed, tired, uncomfortable, and possessive. With this many variables intersecting with so many desired outcomes, I can’t help but compare myself to a rat in a maze, looking for the biggest piece of cheese. Maybe they’ll serve some for my in-flight snack.

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