The panic was familiar. Running back and forth between platforms last summer in the Paris metro system in a frenzy to catch the TGV to Nice with an oversized suitcase was very similar to running between gates at the Toronto airport right now with an oversized backpack (there’s a theme here and it has to do with Raquel travelling internationally with luggage).
It was a panic only travellers can understand, an anxiety which stems from the uncertainty of not knowing where you’re supposed to be or where you’re going – and a discomfort with being in the moment.
I had been excited for this trip to South Africa, a long overdue vacation, my fourth backpacking adventure (the third one with Alyssa and the first one with an actual backpack) until inclement weather threatened my travel plans, namely my connecting flight from Toronto to Washington en route to Johannesburg and I was redirected to several different gates, through American customs twice and back and forth to opposite sides of the airport.
The two-day journey (in the end), helped to illustrate that a good traveller cannot be characterized by the shape or size of her valise – whether she wheels around a suitcase or straps a bag to her back; whether she over-packs or under-packs (despite the fact I was carrying around two 15 pound bags, I still managed to forget my phone charger), a good traveller is one who can graciously handle the inconveniences – and sometimes terrifying aspects of jumping continents. Does she react like Gaylord Focker or Nelson Mandela (and believe me, when a hurricane causes a cancellation of all Toronto flights to Washington on the day before Independence Day, it feels like you just might be left to languish for 27 years in the airport’s one Starbuck’s line)?
I have to admit I vacillated between being minorly annoyed and holding back from having a complete Helena Guergis-style meltdown at the complete ineptitude of United Airlines staff.
“Is Frankfurt close to Johannesburg?” one attendant helping me to rebook my cancelled flight asked.
“About as close as Washington is,” I answered incredulously. “Can you get me to Frankfurt?”
“No. We don’t fly there.”
I’m confused – why did you ask?
That was better customer service than the man who “tried” to help me the day before, only to return my passport saying, “I wish I could help you, but I can’t find you another flight. Sorry.”
Wait, this is your flight that you cancelled, right? Don’t you have to help me?
By the time I landed in D.C. I’d had a good long talk with myself about how I was going to deal with airports from here on in. My inner diva wanted to scream: “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting in this airport?”
I texted my sister: “If I can’t get on this flight, I’m coming home.”
But deep down, I knew I couldn’t do that: admit defeat, that is. I had too much pride to return to Regina, tail between my legs and admit I could not do airports and unhelpful staff (Just to be clear, I can’t do airports, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to admit that to anyone else).
Plus, this wasn’t the worst experience I’d ever had travelling – this particular delay ranks somewhere between sitting on a tarmac in YQR for four hours while the crew thawed out a frozen Mexico-bound engine and forgetting my birth certificate and being temporarily denied a boarding pass to New York.
In the moment, it sucks; afterwards, it makes a great story.
Finally boarded, I leafed through my book: “A tree with deep roots can weather any storm…The storms of life are inevitable. The question is not whether there will be another storm. The question is: when will the next storm get here? And when the next storm gets here, it’s too late to sink roots.”
Travelling is a good way to develop roots, to develop patience, and to develop a little bit of faith. Either flying in the air, or stranded in the blasted airport, when you’re suspended between where you were and where you’re going, for a little while, you just are.