Finding Zen at the Airport

Much maligned, often reviled, and rarely praised – when is the last time you heard anyone say something good about an airport?  Never mind someone being eager to get to one and spend any length of time in it!

It’s for this reason I’m always cautious to reveal one detail about myself to people I’ve just met, for fear they may think I’m a little crazy : I like airports. No – check that. I LOVE airports.

Where do you want to go today?
Where do you want to go today?

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment my affection took flight, but I tend to think it’s all the hours I spent at Calgary’s airport as a teen. I’d often tag along to wait with my Mom to pick up my Dad as he returned home from business trips. As we’d patiently keep watch over the clock and the flight information, I’d wander the terminal – going from the arrivals level to the departures level, from the check-in desks to the luggage carousels. I’d people watch, have a bite to eat or something to drink, and even play a few games of pinball in the dark and dingy arcade. Eventually, I’d wander back to the waiting area to watch people come through those automatic, sliding, frosted glass doors which separate the travelers from the rest of us. Dad would emerge, we would leave, and I would already be looking forward to my next visit to the airport.

Waiting is the hardest part.
Waiting is the hardest part.

Today as a solo traveler, I can’t wait to get to the airport. I’m perpetually early. Early enough that I’ve learned you can’t drop your bags for flights with some airlines until three hours prior to departure.

On occasion, I’ve been that guy – waiting at the check-in counter for an early morning flight well before the airline’s staff have even hit snooze on their alarm clocks.

My need to be early has earned me belabored sighs and grunts from family and friends who’ve been rustled out of bed well before the crack of dawn either to take me to the airport, or to join me in another travel adventure.  But being early is the key – I’ve found – to eliminating the animosity-laden relationship that is so easy to develop with an airport.  Most people I’ve seen lose their marbles at the check-in counter are doing so not because the airline has screwed them, but because they’ve screwed themselves out of time to spare.  But I digress.

Once I’m able to drop off my suitcase at the counter, I feel not only a physical weight come off my shoulders, but a metaphorical one, too.  It’s just me, my backpack, and my boarding pass.  It’s one of the few times and places in life where I truly don’t have a care in the world.  I feel free.

I feel lighter in my steps as I make my way toward the security checkpoint. I fly through in a breeze – shoes off well before I get to the front of the queue, and nary a liquid, gel or aerosol in my bag.  And while I’ll grumble about getting stuck behind a family of five who doesn’t realize a Costco-sized vat of sunscreen isn’t going to fit in that little plastic bag for liquids, I’ll never get snarky about being pulled aside for extra screening.  I have nothing to hide, and because I’m early, I have all the time in the world.

This way to my happy place.
This way to my happy place.

When I’ve made it through to the “other side,” it’s then that I know I am truly free. Free to go explore the world. Free to relax and unwind.

Let me stop right now to acknowledge that you are rolling your eyes, laughing in disbelief, or are shaking your head. I know that how I feel about airports is not the way 95% of travelers feel about them. Hell, I’m willing to even jack that number up to 99%. But stay with me.

There’s something comforting to me about the organization of an airport. As I’ve found out now having taken a number of long haul flights, you don’t even need to be functionally conscious to move about the terminal. Arrows point you to food, drink, the toilets, your gate, the exit. Stanchions rope off areas where you’re not allowed. Audio messages in soothing voices fit for an easy listening radio station remind you of the most mundane things – don’t leave your bags unattended, don’t park in front of the airport, inhale… exhale.

Waiting at the gate.
Waiting at the gate.

You see the breadth of humanity pass by at a terminal gate. Some people are giddy and excited about their trips. Most are apathetic, trying to rest or get some sleep before boarding the plane. Parents chase after children who can’t sit still, spouses chase after their significant other who is sprinting to make a connection, and then your attention turns toward a nearby gate as a passenger in a sundress and big floppy hat demands to know why her plane hasn’t arrived yet.  Her socks-and-sandals wearing husband stands at her side, defending the diatribe.

As I walk down the hall toward my gate with coffee in hand, I take care not to stumble over people sitting on the floor, hovered around electrical outlets like moths to a flame. As they’re trying to get as much juice in to their tablet, smartphone, or laptop before having to line up for their zone number, I continue on my way looking at the destinations which appear in red dot matrix print on electronic signs above each waiting area. Some cities I’ve been to, some I’ve yet to discover.  The vast array and distance of some of the destinations reminds me it wasn’t so long ago such travel wasn’t possible – either because we lacked the technology, or didn’t have the financial means for such “luxurious” trips.

When I finally get to my gate, I find a seat with a plug-in nearby and uncoil my web of wires and cables to connect and charge my devices.  I take a sip of coffee, and sit back to relax.  Relaxing is actually something that doesn’t come naturally to me – I’m fidgety.  I’m always on the go, Go, GO!  Being contained behind the wall of security, I have no choice but to relax.

I connect to the airport’s free Wi-Fi and scroll through Facebook or Twitter mostly out of habit and not out of interest.  But it doesn’t take long before I’m distracted by the view out the ceiling-to-floor window just to my left.

What a beast! I bet I know where it's headed next.
What a beast! I bet I know where it’s headed next.

Vehicles and people buzz about the tarmac awaiting the arrival of the plane I’ll be flying out on. When it finally and gently pulls to the gate, I can see the beehive of activity engage on the ground. It’s this part that makes me a little sad – because even though I’ll soon be leaving for a new adventure, the secured and calm world of the airport will be left behind.

One last time I make my way to the recently scrubbed down lavatory so I don’t have to go on board, straighten my clothes, and check my hair. I stop by the newsstand on the way back to the gate and pay way more for a bottle of soda and a bag of gummy candy than I would ever consider forking over in the real world.

I saunter back to the gate, and wait patiently for my zone number to be called – with my boarding pass wedged just perfectly inside my passport so when I get to the front of the line, one deft flick of the book will reveal not only my seat number, but the picture page of my travel document. (As you can tell, I’m rather proud to have discovered this efficiency.) I bound down the skybridge looking back one last time toward the terminal with a smile. It’s been a good stay.

I know I’m not alone in my affection for airports.  They are a thing of beauty to many people.  This recent video posted to Vimeo takes my breath away.

I fully acknowledge that I romanticize airports way more than any normal person should.  But in a life filled with distraction and disorder, I’m comforted there’s a place where I can find my happiness.  My zen.  It resides just on the other side of the security checkpoint – and I can’t wait to get back there.

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