Perhaps airports are mystical because, for a long time, I had not noticed one. I had only seen its flash beckoning from across fallow fields as I lay on my cot in our courtyard, staring at the Milky Way on a summer’s night. The airport symbolized for me, then, dreams of a far away, unreachable world.
My father had promised to take us to the Nagpur airport but alas, that visit never materialized. Years later, as an adult, I accompanied a relative to Mumbai’s Santa Cruz airport. When the security guard stopped us because we were not passengers, my relative said, “Don’t worry. One day you will fly abroad from here.”
And fly abroad I did one day.
American airports in those days were spaces one could lounge and relax in. Security restrictions were perfunctory; people came all the way to the gate to receive you. You could slip into the airport, stroll into a Pacific Southwest Airlines flight, and arrive in Los Angeles as if you had just stepped off a bus.
Certain airports remind me of certain eras of my life.
I arrived at the Papeete airport in Tahiti on the way to New Zealand one Christmas Eve in the early 1980s, hoping for a two-day stopover. I still had an Indian passport but the travel agent had never mentioned a visa so I had failed to procure one. At the immigration desk, an official looked me up and down, as if incredulous of my stupidity. There were no flights for two days, he reminded me, and brusquely asked me to step aside. American couples in flowery outfits streamed past. Suddenly, a middle aged woman in a sundress collapsed on to the floor, rivers of blood oozing out of her mouth as her husband helplessly bent over her.
I was so shaken, my worries evaporated. I was alive. I was young. I had my whole life ahead of me. I persuaded the official to stamp my visa and stepped into street markets bursting with tropical fruit. Sauntering into the sunshine, I felt deliriously happy.
Airports in Hawaii had a different feel then. When you arrived in the Big Island, you had the sensation of entering an outdoor restaurant. People hopped off their planes, ran into bathrooms, emerged wearing sarongs and leis, and burst into hula dances. Hawaiian music, which sounded schlocky elsewhere, streamed on the Musaac and melted away your stresses and worries.
Often your descent into an airport tells you the story of the place. And your resonance or dissonance with it. When I flew to New Zealand to live there, I looked upon a never-ending Pacific until the plane came upon a green dot in the middle of the water. Losing altitude, I saw tin roofs dotting the hills, and wondered, “Do Kiwis live in zopadpattis?”
Once we were outside the airport, I noticed green highway signs and exclaimed, “So New Zealand is not such a backward place.” Just then, the smooth pavement gave way to a narrow one lane road passing for a major highway. Those tin roofs, I realized, were actual houses. Who would have thought?
Heathrow, which I only visited in the 1980s for the first time, told me all I needed to know about the state of the former empire. The multicolored miniature airline booths were straight out of Disneyland; the bathrooms and facilities run down and scruffy. People were rude, and the service lousy. A glass of orange juice cost three pounds.
Flying into La Paz, Bolivia, recently, was like flying into heaven. At over 13,000 feet, the airport was named El Alto and offered me te de mate—coca tea—for altitude sickness. To drive into town from there was like diving into a bowl of soup. La Paz looked just like San Francisco, only upside down. In San Francisco, the hills rose up, in La Paz, they sank down into a gigantic crater.
Airports are fascinating because they have the quality of dead time. Time, in an airport, is a time of anticipation, particularly if you are going on an exciting journey. The reality of the voyage may not turn out as good as your imagination, but sitting in an airport, you are free to dream.
Airports have the sensation of a human embrace. Because everyone is welcome; everyone belongs. You do not feel you are trespassing; you are in the never-never land between countries and cities and states, where you are as likely to run into someone from Timbuktu or Tokori as from Tacoma or Teaneck.
In the late summer of 2007, I arrived at the Seattle airport after spending six weeks in isolation at the Hedgebrook Farm, a writers’ retreat. Although I loved the natural environment of Hedgebrook, my little cottage, and the organic garden, the group of women in residence, I had discovered, were a bit cliquish and sophomoric. Retreating from life was not conducive to my writing; it was the very hustle and bustle of normal life that stimulated me, gave me inspiration. Being cut off from the world and put into a paradise was relaxing for my soul, but not a trigger for the writer in me.
So on my way back to the airport, I felt liberated. I was so happy to be joining humanity again that uncharacteristically, I began to chat with other passengers in the shuttle bus.
“Yeah, I have had that sort of experience at a retreat,” a middle-aged woman said in sympathy, “where I just felt I didn’t belong.”
Entering the cavernous building of Seattle airport, an incredible euphoria rose within me. I was free. I was anonymous. I was among humanity. I was no longer isolated. I was not in danger of being judged. I went to a book stall and bought a trashy novel. I did a crossword puzzle. I purchased trinkets. I watched CNN news on the overhead monitor. I went into the Body Shop and indulged in lotions and creams for myself and my kids. I called a friend and laughed and laughed.
I was in that dead zone where people are free of their daily obligations; allowed to waste away time without any feeling of guilt.
Even in the post-911 era, I realized, it was possible to have a good time in an airport. That feeling of being surrounded by masses of people, of diversity, of being a part of something big and chaotic and happy, was what I loved about the airport.
That day, airports took on a different, magical meaning for me. It became a symbol of hope, a sanctuary. A wayfarer’s stop in Gulliver’s Travels, a Buddhist inn on Xuanzang’s Silk Road, a caravanserai in Alexander’s journey to Persia. In another era, railway stations, with their steaming engines, noisy vendors, and miles of sidings, used to hold a mystical allure. One day, airports too will evoke legendary narratives.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visitwww.saritasarvate.com