The Airport Diaries

At the table next to me inside the airport restaurant, I hear a brother explain what braces are to his younger sister. A blond boy with short legs holds a mug of coffee in front of him. The mug’s almost equal in size to his head. Spilled water on another table flows into the shape of a partying jellyfish. In the background I hear older white men practice Spanish in loud gringo accents.

People hugging their loved ones. Heartfelt goodbyes and teary reunions. Places wherein people "kiss full of love and desperate longing, kisses that must imprint themselves on their recipient for the journey, for the weeks, the months ahead" (Jojo Moyes, After You). Individuals embarking on fresh beginnings.

I once wrote in my journal: Airport, the concept makes me think of the future. They’re futuristic villages. I think of fluidity and constant motion. I think of placelessness. I think of an episode of Black Mirror. The airport functions as its own separate world—contained and sterile.

In the coming days, I would get to know one (CDMX) intimately. Let's back up, though.


Earlier that day I’d said goodbye to my Mexico City hotel. In the taxi ride over, recollections on the past two weeks flashed through my mind as we rode: of eating lunch inside a cave; of hiking the 100 steps of a breath-taking pyramid for a panoramic view of ancient ruins; of dining like a queen for five dollars a meal every day.

Once inside my terminal, the man who checked my ticket told me there was a paper I needed to present in order to board the plane.

My mind instantly went to the small card they’d given me when I first landed after a red eye. The one currently sitting on the nightstand of my hotel room. Only now did I remember having groggily signed it.

"You can get a new one at the tourist’s center," the man said. "It’s about a 20-minute walk from here."

I didn’t make it in time. And the next available flight wasn’t until Sunday—so for the next two nights, the CDMX airport would become my temporary dwelling place.

I'd stay at the hotel attached to it before flying to Denver for a 10-hour layover. Then I’d return home to San Francisco.



Airports as place of comfortable anonymity

Unable to relax enough to fall asleep, I put on my shoes and pace the airport.

I pass a man who’s napping across three seats. His arms cuddle his suitcase like it’s a stuffed animal, while his long grey hair spills across his blue sweatshirt, folded into a pillow-like ball.

He doesn’t look out of place. As Coriander Woodruff wrote in The Call of the Spectacled Owl: "The airport is the only place you can walk around with no shoes, a glazed look on your face, and sleep on the benches and no one judges you." 

I, too, look disheveled. Hair unkempt, my sweater doesn’t match my PJ pants—but I feel okay about it. Airports give us the permission to look and be however we want, protected by anonymity and constant motion.

Airports as the in-between spaces

Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders, in his Atlantic article, writer Tim Kreider says, “This year was like one long Sunday afternoon: society suspended, life on hiatus. It felt like being offstage, or hanging out in the kitchen at a party." 

I feel similarly at airports—insulated from the scurry and hustle of life. A feeling of comfortable suspension between two distinct worlds fills me when I’m at them. A sense of being en route, or neither here nor there, takes hold.

Does my affinity for this state make me an avoidant? I casually wonder.

Airports as places of chance encounters.

I observe a man chatting up a woman at an airport bar. How does she like this restaurant’s garlic fries? Texture-wise, are they up to par? Overhearing them brings to mind the idea of fleeting intersections between disparate journeys momentarily come together.

At 16, I connected with a young Bostonian musician when the two of us sat next to each other on my flight home from a Connecticut writing camp. His path and mine never crossed again, but I still remember the excitement that imbued our conversation. It was similar to the passing connections I’d experience years later in one-time interactions with Lyft passengers. Many would unbury their souls before departing, never to be seen again.

What other chance encounters may be igniting inside the airport right now? I wonder.


Day 2

Airports as places for people-watching and love

At various terminals, I submerge myself in musings—both of other minds and my own. I take in (read), put out (write), and take in again, rotating between locations for variation in people-watching fodder.

As I scan one crowd, a quote from Ioana Cristina Casapu flutters through my mind: "There is truly no other place bearing so much love as airports."

Couples embrace. A man smiles broadly after a parting kiss with someone, then carts his suitcase away like it weighs nothing, even though it probably weighs close to 50 pounds. (Love gives you the strength to move mountains though, right?)

In The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, Jennifer E. Smith writes: "People who meet in airports are 72 percent more likely to fall for each other than people who meet anywhere else."

Airports as places of new beginnings

In Terminal 23, a woman tells a man that she's moving to Brazil to work for a cause she feels passionate about.

At 22, five months after college graduation, I too embarked on a new life chapter. I flew down to Uruguay, where sunny beaches, maté, Spanish spoken in a sing-songy cadence, and an escape from winter awaited. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone (six months? 18?)—and this made me feel limitless.

An E.A. Bucchianeri passage from in Brushstrokes of a Gadfly comes to mind: "Oddly, the billowing diesel fumes of the airport did not smell like suffocating effluence; it assumed a peculiar pungent scent that morning, like the beginning of a new adventure, if an adventure could exude a fragrance."

Who else in this airport is about to embark on a momentous change? I wonder.

Airports as unremarkable places of stress

Granted, the airport is also a place of stress and exhaustion—as exhibited by one woman I observe shutting down her boyfriend's conversation attempt. She doesn't want to talk right now—Can they just eat their chilaquiles in peace?

As Douglas Adams wrote The Long Dark tea time of the Soul: "It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression 'as pretty as an airport.'"


Day 3

I exit the motel to the crisp early morning air. Suitcase wheels rolling against concrete are the only sounds I hear. I step into the terminal, which bustles already. People are awake and alive and buzzing—all testament to the cliché that the airport truly never sleeps.

Denver’s airport is unique. It lacks that sterile feel that’s typical of most. Unlike the depersonalized and characterless majority, Denver’s, I would say, even feels somewhat homey.

The fodder for eavesdropping has shifted slightly; I feel closer to home listening to people toss sentences about in crystal-clear familiar English.

Goodbye, airports

After boarding the plane I seat myself in an aisle chair. As the plane takes off, a meme comes to mind. It pokes fun at those who clap when their plane lands. ("Are you one of those people?")

My answer, without shame, is yes.

This time, the internal clapping begins not when the plane lands, but when it first leaves the ground. I clap for the long-awaited departure, vowing to never again take for granted the hassle-free boarding of an airplane—and to always keep every paper I’m given, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

Airports as places of homecoming

Travelers exiting planes, late at night or early morning, are often returning exhausted. Some are prepared to collapse. Others are wearied but satisfied.

I wonder how many travelers are coming home, and for how many of them the most ordinary things will begin to feel extraordinary for a brief amount of time. This happened for me when I flew home to the U.S. after living in Uruguay for 14 months.

As I exit the plane that night, I am reminded of the swirl of emotions and experiences contained within an airport’s towering walls. Airports are places of hope and new beginnings. They are places of endings, mundane exchange and ecstatic reunions.

They are multicultural, futuristic, villages of nomads. They are fluid motion captured, distilled into, and contained inside a sample cup. They are permission to look and be however you are, protected by anonymity and constant motion.

All of this you will find here at this place that never ceases to hum with life; that sees one ecstatic voyager off on their adventure while welcoming another wearied traveler home.

To close off with the words of Jonny Sun: "Airports make everyone feel like passer-through, like a visitor, like an outsider, and this is comforting in its honesty because aren't we always, always just visitors, just passer-through?"


Category: Airports

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