Friday, September 28, 2012

Planes, Trains, and... pt. 2

Terminal 1. 

Not the smallest of the terminals, at least according to the map, but perhaps most diverse in terms of airlines flying out, Terminal 1 does not inspire confidence.  My frustrations over the train (and the fact that I was carting around 100 pounds of luggage) meant that I didn’t get a chance to compare it to the other terminals.  But once I’d checked my luggage (again, after waiting an hour for the six people sitting at the desk to decide that they were now working), I had free rein of the place.  Well, of Terminal 1.  Two full-body x-rays per day were quite enough for me. 

There are approximately five places to get food in Terminal 1, four of which are duplicates between one end and the other of the terminal.  Large international flights leave from this terminal, yet there isn’t enough seating in the waiting area for everyone on even one plane at a time.  As a result one generally spends one’s time in walking from one end of the terminal to the other, or sitting on the floor, or queuing in the mass of people who refuse to recognize that there is in fact a queue, or that queues are more than theoretical formations of individuals.  Instead they stand in a large lump of humanity in front of one desk or another.  When one section of a plane is called for boarding, everyone stands up. 

This was my first experience with this type of line, this mass line.  But I digress.  The line is a subject for another day.  Finally, I was making it, had made it through the boarding process and I was on my plane.  Things were certainly looking up.  The seats on the plane were large and comfortable, I had more gadgets than I knew what to do with, and I had a window seat. 

I didn’t sleep on the plane.  I never can sleep on planes.  Travel, whether to the other side of the world, or the other side of the state, is too exciting for sleeping.  I took pictures.  I wrote numerous emails that wouldn’t be sent until I found a reliable wireless internet connection again.  I wanted to document everything.  I wanted to tell everyone about everything.    I wanted to let my spirit of adventure soar, and land triumphant—there’s that word again—in a new land.  I was blazing a new trail, going where no person (or at the very least no rural Western New Yorker), had gone before, and goddamned if I wasn’t going to remember ever minute of it.

I remember very little of it now.  They say sleep is key in the conversion of short-term to long-term memory.  Oh, hindsight.

Istanbul was beautiful.  From the air, the city was a patchwork that seemed to stretch for miles in all directions.  The Mediterranean was the blue of happiness itself.  From the airport… well, I didn’t see Istanbul from the airport.  The international terminal in Istanbul is quite a bit bigger than Terminal 1 in JFK, but no more inviting.  After an interminable walk from the arrival gate, I was greeted by no less than three different, but to a foreign eye indistinguishable, lines, and virtually no guidance as to which would safely get me to my connecting flight (I say virtually because in fact there were signs, but not informative signs, and people just milled about, occasionally hopping lines and all in all making getting anywhere quite a miserable prospect). 

I got lucky, though—my second choice proved to be the correct one.  Who knows how long I might’ve stood there in my first—incorrect—choice of line, queuing like a good American, while all around me people milled, shuffled, and moved forward for inexplicable reasons, speaking indecipherable words that brought to mind images of Babel to me, but seemed to get them where they needed to go.  But I didn’t just stand there (for too long).  I made the correct choice (second).  Once again American guts and ingenuity were proving unstoppable.  I was on my way. 

Next stop: 6 more hours of layover in a foreign airport that I couldn’t leave.

In popular culture, air travel is romantic.  It’s an adventure.  Even when someone gets snowed in, or misses a flight, sleeping in an airport is not that bad because it leads to the inevitable reward of the storyline.  People who sleep in airports are atoning for a relationship sin, earning or re-earning a loved one’s trust, enduring love’s purgatory until they are once again reunited with their soul mate—or at the very least that fictional person designated in this particular fiction as their one true…whatever.  In short these people are questing.  And it’s noble, and it’s romantic, and it’s even somewhat glamorous. 

Real airports are a wasteland of trackless granite floors, hard metal chairs bolted to the floors, and armrests that don’t go away and so prevent any kind of productive sleeping.  For about half my layover, I wandered these trackless wastes, alone, tired, not really hungry because I’d eaten an overpriced sandwich in a restaurant that promised free wifi but delivered only a token facsimile, and just plain bored.  There are only so many times one can read the departing flights boards, especially when they only put up flights two hours ahead of time.  When you can’t even see your own flight number, all interest and novelty is really taken out of the endeavor.

I wandered the barren departure terminals, with their frozen empty landscapes of so-called chairs, counters where once smiling flight attendants had stood, and the inevitable pillars which prevented one from seeing the counter from the seat one is always forced to take, far from the gate, because one got bored and wandered off for just a minute, only to return and find the waiting area completely full of people.  I sat in empty rows of chairs, half-convinced myself I would sleep for a while, but then ended up wandering on after mere minutes.  I tried, time after time, to find reliable, free internet, trekking up and down the hills and valleys, wandering all the various caverns extant in the local geography. 

I got to know the well-trammeled terrain of that airport quite well—the forests of pillars, the resplendent but far-flung fountains, twinkling oases in this desert of wifi capabilities.  It was indeed purgatory, of a sort, but there was no carefully choreographed romantic reunion at the end of my little interlude.  Oh, how I lamented my decision to ever leave my beloved country, with its surfeit onfStarbucks and Starbucks derivatives who fed off our great nation’s desire to appear hip, cutting-edge, and different by doing what everyone else in the industry does at exactly the same capacity.  Some would call it mediocre; at that moment, I called it dependable.

Instead, more wandering, more desert.

Until I happened upon a place that changed my (travelling) life forever.

There, at the far end of the airport, shining like a golden ray of hope, I saw it.  Like the gates of heaven, those doors opened for me, and I was saved.  I’ll never truly know if I was, by virtue of my international boarding pass, actually allowed in that Turkish Airlines lounge, but whether or not I had the correct ticket, I had the correct attitude.  Yes, once again, America wins. 

You see, I was unsure:  was I allowed in?  was I not?  But I had a goal.  Just out of sight, I knew there was another world waiting.  I didn’t quite know what was in that world, but I knew it had to be better than where I was, and I wanted in.  Turnstiles.  I hate turnstiles.  But that was it.  Standing in my way was a turnstile, and a little red line that would scan the code on my boarding pass, and tell me whether I was worthy.  Surely my time in purgatory—tired, far from home and my loved ones—was enough to grant me surfeit from the desolation surrounding me.  I tried it.  And when it didn’t work, I tried it again.  Finally after a third try, with my obstinate refusal to go away, the man at the desk let me pass. 

And it was glorious: clean bathrooms, free wifi, free food, an entire room devoted to giant reclining chairs and relaxing music. 

Once again, America wins.  When all else fails, act like you belong there.  Invariably you’ll find that you do.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Planes, Trains, and ... pt. 1

It was a pleasant Tuesday morning when I set out on my journey.  My flight was at 12:15pm, so of course I was sure to arrive at the airport by 10:00am for the obligatory 2-hour wait in the terminal.  Even with flights to Toronto to keep it busy, the Rochester International Airport very efficiently gets passengers through security and off to the one operating terminal of its two (prudent of them, really, to keep a back-up on hand at all times [really, I’ve never seen the other one in use.  I always fly out of terminal 2]).  Luckily, I had a brilliant view out the windows in the gate waiting area.  And the terminal was so calm, so peaceful, without the hustle and bustle of so many—I’ll say less organized—International Airports.  Such a relaxing lack of shops or restaurants, or really anything to do or see to distract one from the pleasant quiet and solitude to be found in Terminal 2.

My overseas flight, booked with Turkish Airlines, left from JFK with a layover in Istanbul, but I had a separate flight to take me from Rochester to New York.  I was fortunate in this.  Having flights with two different airlines meant I needed to recheck my bags once I arrived in New York.  If you’ve never pushed a trolley, loaded with enough baggage to last a year, through JFK Airport, then truly you are missing out.  JFK has an extensive train system to take you anywhere you could possibly want to go in the airport, except where you need to go.  Indeed, I’d no sooner figured out how to disengage the brake on my trolley and pushed it onto what I thought was the train I needed to take me from terminal 5 to terminal 1, then I was told that this train, the train that was marked as going next to 4, then to 3 and 2, and finally to 1, was going somewhere quite completely different. And the stairs!  There were at least three separate levels from which trains arrived and left, and while there were stairs and escalators in abundance all over the place, it was as if they were purposely trying to hide the elevators from anyone who was actually trying to accomplish something with a large amount of luggage and small amount of patience or, shall we say...patience... with airports that cover a larger area than the town in which I grew up.

Perhaps I should’ve taken it as a sign.  Though Terminal 1 of JFK Airport was not so pleasantly bereft of activity as Terminal 2 of Rochester International, it was quite lacking in anywhere to sit, or anything to do, really, during a four-hour layover.  I don’t mean to say that I sat in a tiny international terminal for four hours with nothing to do and nowhere to go.  I mean this to be a true and accurate depiction of my travels, and so it shall be.  No, at least 45 minutes was spent trying to traverse the broad and trackless wilds between Terminals 5 and 1.  And then of course there was the hour, at least, that I sat on the floor in front of the Turkish Airlines counter, waiting for it to open and let me check in and re-check my luggage.  Two hours being the natural maximum pre-flight period to allow check-ins for people arriving for an 18-hour flight to a place half-way around the world. 

But back to my sign.  The train system would seem to have been encouraging me to spend more time away from Terminal 1.  Go out, see the airport, even take a ride into the city, it said to me. Enjoy your freedom.  For once you enter the realm of Terminal 1, you’ll be in a wasteland of bad internet connectivity and non-vegan dining options.  Oh, and sitting on the floor.  (I suppose I don't really mean wasteland.  There were things happening in Terminal 1.  There were shops in which to buy liquor, jewelry, and overpriced clothes.  There was a giant door marked Air France, through which on could watch people mysteriously go in and out, and disappear inside, as if walking through the back of a wardrobe into Narnia.  Perhaps this, in itself, was a sign.  

I didn’t heed the signs, though.  Still high on my conquest of the week before, when I single-handedly brought the Consulate General of the Republic of Kazakhstan to its knees, I stepped boldly and bravely into a new world.  

Terminal 1.