“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
― Anaïs Nin
There’s nothing like the thrill of international air travel. Nothing can get me as high or as intoxicated as the sheer prospect of knowing the exact date, time, gate, seat and final destination of the next series of unknown adventures during that period of suspended existence.
It all begins at the travel agency, or for the more frequent (and modern) travelers, at the comfort of your own home, right in front of your computer.
CDG. JFK. LAX. THR. ORD.
What appears like nonsense to the untrained eye is actually a tacit code that unifies travel junkies in the brotherhood of voyage.
SFO. MIA. MSP. DSM. CCS.
These are on a realm beyond mere destination. They are our safety, our ground, that first kiss between our feet and our final destination. Sometimes an annoying fleeting space of transit, but always familiar and comforting.
In the United States, “Always remember 3-1-1. Place your shoes on the bin.” Concourse A. Terminal F. Gate C19. Stand on the right, walk on the left. “This is the shuttle’s last stop, please don’t forget your belongings.”
SJU. FSD. DTW. IAH. LGA.
Always different, always the same, and for good reason – sanity has been lost over much less: between the avalanches of luggage and the perpetual threat of overbooking, it’s wonderful to count on this universal constant.
According to my passport, my first encounter with an airport happened in 1988, when I was three. But my memory cannot go that far back. In my reality, one of the first and most memorable times at the airport occurred on February 10, 1996, just one day before Pope John Paul II’s visit to my hometown of Caracas, Venezuela.
It was a frazzled morning. I was bothered that I was awake so early, even though I had no class (the joys of Catholic school and their devotion to such an infallible figure visiting the city). But, I was going along with my family to see my mother off at the airport. She was going to Miami for the week, to visit friends and tour schools for my brother Jorge and me.
After checking, double-checking and checking once again for passports, tickets, and foreign currency, my family and I were off to the Simon Bolivar International Airport (IATA: CCS)– an hour drive from the Caracas metro, nestled between the bluest Caribbean Sea and the lush Avila mountain range, in the seaside satellite city of La Guaira.
The traffic was a blur, yet aggravating enough to put everyone in the car on edge: would we get there on time, or would we have to jump through hoops to get my mom on the next flight?
When you are on the way to the airport in a large city, time passes in an entirely different way: sending your heartbeat through the roof if you are running two minutes late, extending eternally if you are a bit early – or if you have a four-hour layover at a mediocre airport, like Joe Foss airfield in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
My oldest brother, Hector, dropped us off near the check-in counter of Avensa, a formerly successful private Venezuelan airline, symbol of Venezuela’s once highly privileged status in the region. I remember my mom stressing out more than usual, frantically digging through her purse and talking in code to my father. I assumed it was just them being typical grown-ups, worrying for no reason.
Mornings at airports, especially those in larger cities, are particularly energetic: a vortex of systematic chaos and anticipation. Cars, SUVs, airport shuttles, buses and motorcycle taxis all agglomerating at the most popular airlines’ check-in areas, as doors open and shut. Well-dressed bodies emerging from all directions, struggling or confidently carrying backpacks, Louis Vuitton suitcases or duffel bags. Armies of curbside airport employees running and yelling in a free-for-all race for the juiciest tips. Echoes of hellos and goodbyes, long hugs or stoic handshakes as masses of travelers sweep through each others’ lives.
The sliding doors opened, releasing cold, chemical air that played opposite to the warm scent of the Caribbean Sea. I stepped inside, onto the Cruz Diez mulicolored mosaic that blankets the floor at Simon Bolivar International, and followed my mom through a maelstrom of faces and luggage, to the Avensa counter.
My mom surrendered her documents to the agent, then her credit card and a familiar blue vinyl booklet. I heard my name spelled out and “February 16, 1985” typed away behind the counter. Still confused, I tried to follow my parents’ conversation. “We’ll just buy her some clothes for the week,” my mom said to my dad, handing me my passport, with a freshly printed green and beige striped CCS-MIA-CCS ticket inside.
No packing. No anticipation, only sheer spontaneity; here’s your passport, let’s go.
It was at that moment –when I unexpectedly switched roles from seeing someone off, to acquiring that desired “traveler” status at the airport– that I became a travel junkie: addicted to the thrill of the unknown, the unplanned, the endless possibilities of seeing other places, meeting new people, hearing other languages. I became hooked on the excitement of experiencing the world and discovering all that lies outside my domestic reality.