Tag Archives: Airports

The People

Terminal One, Addis Ababa Airport.  There seemed to be a few issues; the sign here says, “We are under a major and complete roof maintenance.  We sincerely apologize for the inconveniences caused due to any leakage that may occur during the rainy season.”

There was a half-hearted security check.  I think a camel could have walked through and they wouldn’t have cared.  Then it was up the elevator—no, cancel that.  There was no way I was taking an elevator in Ethiopia.  I chugged up the stairs and assessed my options.  I had less than an hour before my flight left, and no souvenirs.  I ran into the biggest shop I could see and after making sure they took credit cards, started throwing bags of coffee and wood carvings into a basket.  For good measure, I bought a necklace made of old Ethiopian coins with the image of Haile Selassie on them which weighed about five pounds.

Sated, I took a seat in the vast hall that served as a waiting area and people watched.  There was a line of a hundred people shuffling toward the gates.  There were people wearing turbans and fezzes and long flowing robes and skin-tight jeans.  There was a big group of white Americans taking home their adopted Ethiopian kids.  There were missionaries and mercenaries and every kind of misfit.

An Asian woman sat next to me and started telling me her life story.  She was Philippina and had been working in Brazil for the last eight years.  She loved Brazil but for family reasons it was time to go back home, so here she was transiting through Ethiopia.

My sore throat had turned into a full-blown head and chest cold.  I was blowing my nose and coughing my lungs out so I just nodded as she talked on and on.  Suddenly she stood up, wished me “good luck” (for what?) and went to join the queue.

An extremely large black woman sat down next.  Everything she wore, from her shoes to an elaborate hat, was bedazzled with sequins and rhinestones and feathers.  I didn’t catch where she was coming from but she had a French accent and was headed to Paris.

After she left a tall white guy sat next to me.  He was quite attractive and had what at first sounded like a British accent.  “I’m taking my mother home to South Africa,” he said, “from Sheffield.”  That explained that his accent sounded more British than South African, if he had lived in Sheffield for a long time.

“Oh, that’s nice,” I said.  “She misses the home country?”

“Aw, no, she’s dead.  I’m taking her body home for burial.”

He had a large duffel bag and I almost made a joke and asked if his mother was in it but I caught myself.  He started to tear up, then stood abruptly and walked off to join the line.

On the plane to London.  Whoopee, it was less than half full and I looked forward to stretching myself out across all three seats, especially since a small boy behind me kept kicking my seat.  I believe in being direct, so I stood up and turned around to talk to the mother.  She had already moved to another row and left him and his sister sitting there on their own.

“Don’t kick my seat,” I said with a smile.  They looked at me as though they didn’t understand English. I would guess they were Pakistani. I sat down again and he continued kicking.  Then I heard the sister tell him in very plain British English, “Don’t kick the lady’s seat, Russell!” He stopped.  Good girl.

Before I could lie down, a woman in what appeared to be Ghanaian dress sat down in the aisle seat.  “I will sit here,” she informed me.  Damn.  I tried blowing my nose and coughing extra hard.  She not only failed to be repelled, she propped her feet up on the middle seat.  Half way through the eight hour flight I nodded off and my hand fell onto her foot.  She glared at me as though I was a pervert.

Is it me?  Is it people?  Is it travel?

Terminal One

In Shire, I said good bye to Maki and thanked her for everything.  I know it’s a lot of work to host a visitor from HQ, and having worked with her from afar on proposals, I knew how busy she already was.

I hopped back into the Landcruiser and we were off to Axum, from whence I flew to Addis Ababa.  There was a woman in front of me across the aisle who had clearly never buckled a seat belt before, and the flight attendant patiently did it for her.  Directly across, a woman started donning gold jewelry as soon as the flight took off.  I don’t mean delicate, little things, I mean giant, chunky bracelets, necklaces, a pair of earrings that looked like they weighed an ounce each, and some kind of headdress.  I wondered if she was flying to some international destination and this was her way of taking assets out of Ethiopia and getting around some limit on taking cash out of the country.  But maybe not.  When she was done, she looked at her teenaged son, who nodded briefly.  He obviously had not given her the feedback she wanted, because she leaned over and smiled at me.  I smiled and nodded vigorously and she sat back, satisfied.

I was on the aisle and a young man was next to me at the window.  I had brought my stupid feather pillow that I carry all over the world with me.  I can’t remember why I had it with me in the cabin instead of stuffed into my suitcase.  It had a sateen pillow case.  My seatmate kept looking surreptitiously at it.  It used to be that men stared surreptitiously at my boobs.  Now they stare at my pillow.  I could tell he really wanted to touch it and finally his hand crept over as he sought my permission by making eye contact.  I nodded.  He stroked he sateen.  “Good material,” he said. I asked if he was in the fabric business or a tailor or something but he got all flustered and retreated to looking out the window.

We arrived in Addis at about 7:30pm.  My onward flight to Heathrow wouldn’t leave until 1:15am.  When I had arrived the previous week I had noticed the little shops that sold fly swatters and other trinkets and thought I would check them out when I departed, but they were closed.  There was one restaurant with an overpriced menu.  They only took cash, and there were no ATMs.  After counting and recounting the grubby handful of birr I had left, I ordered fries and a beer and sat down to watch China Global Television Network, which had news about world events on a loop.  The food took half an hour to arrive, but what did I care, I had six hours to kill in this place with no shops, no ATMs, no wireless.  Worst of all, I didn’t have a book.

I ate as slowly as I could and managed to make it to midnight without nodding off into my fries.  It took another half an hour to find someone I could pay.

I went to the bathroom and found more evidence of Chinese world domination.

At least it wasn’t called Golden Shower.

I took my time going to the security area, where a big guard looked at my ticket and said, “No London.”

“Wha…at?” was all I could stammer.

“No London.  Terminal One for London.”

I hadn’t even known there was a Terminal One.  After receiving conflicting directions from half a dozen uniformed people, I stepped out into the night with my purple suitcase, feeling very conspicuous.  It was inky dark.  There were no street lights, no sidewalk, no signs.  The only people around were men lounging against cars.  I walked for at least three city blocks, with each step convinced there was no Terminal One or that if there was, I would never find it.  I started to panic; tears welled up; I called myself an idiot.

Then I turned a corner and there it was, lit up like Las Vegas.

Inside, there were a hundred shops and restaurants, each with “free wireless” if you bought something.

Gatekeepers

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

Waiting in the gate area for my flight to Belize. Why do people crowd around the jet way entrance as soon as the boarding announcements begin? It takes at least half an hour to board everyone, and once you’re in the jet way you stand in line anyway.  Then you stand in the aisle of the plane til you can reach your seat, so what was the rush?

But crowd everyone did, except me and a few other hangers back.  Maybe people thought the announcements would sound clearer if they got closer.  Why is it that airlines can propel a million-pound vehicle through the air but they can’t invent a PA system that’s as clear as a MacDonald’s drive through?

A group of military personnel stood patiently as tourists in flip flops and shorts shoved in front of them.

Ah, now I could make out part of the announcement.  They were asking for volunteers to give up their seats and take a later flight because the plane was “very full.”  You mean, overbooked, don’t you? I thought.

I used to work for a consulting firm that analyzed the data of applicants to private colleges.  Using an algorithm with 400 data points, we would sift and sort and make recommendations.  If you were poor but your test scores were high and would bring some kind of diversity to the student body and you played the marimba, you might be offered a $50,000 scholarship toward the $60,000 annual cost of attendance.  If you were dumb but lived in the Connecticut zip code with America’s highest per capita income, they might give you a President’s Scholarship of $2,000 to flatter and lure you in.

The two principals of the firm traveled extensively to visit our clients.  College enrollment, explained one of them, shared similarities to how airlines filled seats.

“Everyone on a plane has paid a different price,” he said grumpily, which was how he said everything. “I might have paid $850 to go to Sioux Falls while the guy sitting next to me paid $500.  They’ve got my travel history, they know how much I was willing to pay in the past, they probably know how much I paid for the house in Georgetown and my condo on Summit and my Volvo, so I’m fucked.”  He had done very, very well in the college admissions consulting business.

So knowing how sophisticated it all is, you have to wonder whether, when an airline overbooks, is it intentional and if so, what’s the point?

I didn’t pay enough attention to see if anyone gave up a seat.  Next they announced that most everyone would have to check their carry ons.  What the hell?  Is this because of the jerks who are trying to game the system with their one “extra carry on item?”  That used to mean a handbag or a laptop case, but now people are testing the limits and bringing purses the size of Labradors, in addition to their actual carry on.

“We’d like to thank the US service members who are flying with us today,” was the next, pretty-clear announcement, “and invite them to board first.”

The people who had shoved past these military members now turned and smiled and thanked them for their service. Some people applauded.  The soldiers looked uncomfortable and made a beeline for the gate.

I would like to think that Delta and my fellow passengers were sincerely appreciative of these military members’ service. But we’re all so detached from the wars—er, conflicts—in which we’re involved. It’s easy elbow past them in line, then give lip service to “honoring our veterans” five minutes later without much thought about what they’ve witnessed.

I interviewed a young veteran last year.  She had been on gate duty at a US compound in Afghanistan, and she told of having to turn away a desperate father who came seeking medical care for his small son, who he was carrying.  She started crying. “Maybe you should keep working at The Gap for a while,” I said gently. “Maybe it’s too soon to work with torture survivors.”

Carry On and Keep Calm

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

We would be moving around a lot on this trip, so I was determined to take only a carry on.  This was a good call because if I had brought my regular bag I would have been trying to cram it into the back of a van with the 10 carry ons of my fellow travelers, and I would have lost the unspoken competition for who could travel with the least stuff.

Checking the baggage restrictions, I was remembered that the free checked bag on international flights doesn’t always mean “international.”  I went to Canada a few years ago and they wanted $50 to check my bag.

“But this is an international flight,” I protested.

“No,” said the smiling ticket agent.  “Canada isn’t international.”

I think Canada might have something to say about that, but I had no choice but to fork over my credit card. I have to give Delta credit for clarifying things.  Instead of using the term “International,” they now list the fees by regions—checking a bag to Central America would be $25 each way.

I hadn’t traveled with only a carry on for years, so standing in the security line I suddenly had a start—I had been so focused on packing the right rain and sun gear that I’d forgotten about the limit on liquids and gels. Crap!  As we inched forward I took out my cosmetics bag and triaged the confiscatable items.  Obviously, toothpaste, then the wrinkle-reducing miracle face cream, then sunscreen were priorities. I could jettison the bug spray, shampoo, and five other gels and liquids I was carrying if forced, but I quickly distributed things among my carry on, purse, and vest pockets, thinking maybe they wouldn’t figure out they were all from one person.

I went through, no problem.  Should I feel good or scared about that?  I choose good.

The Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport used to be the headquarters of Northwest Orient Airlines, which became Northwest, which became Delta, which moved to Atlanta where labor is cheaper.  It’s still a hub, but now we have this sprawling infrastructure without the cash flow to support it.  When people describe an ostentatious new house as, “cold and cavernous like an airport hangar,” that is not a compliment. MSP is pretty much like that—gigantic, soulless, with moving walkways that go forever, off-white walls that need new paint with billboards that proclaim, “America’s Leading Source for B to B Online Storage Solutions, in White Bear Lake, Minnesota!”

The main terminal used to be named Lindbergh, and the charter terminal was called the Humphrey.  The names were changed a few years ago to the scintillating, “One” and “Two.”  Charles Lindbergh was an anti-Semite who thought Hitler was on to something, but he was also the first person to make a solo flight across the Atlantic, which was a big deal in 1927.  Hubert Humphrey fought anti-Semitism as Minneapolis mayor in the 40s, and became Vice President under Lyndon Johnson.  Parents used to have to explain who Lindbergh and Humphrey were, which provided a little civics or history lesson while waiting at the airport. One and Two don’t pique any curious questions, but I guess they’re very, very clear.

There is Gate G, where the international flights depart.  They must have gotten a grant to redo it. It’s stuffed with shops and bars and there’re sparkly tile and mirrors and colored lights.  And of course the ubiquitous iPads at every seat—because for about five minutes five years ago, that was the state of the art thing to do—force people to order lousy food on them instead of from a real person.

There, I’ve had my say about MSP.  My opinion was reinforced when I connected through Atlanta.  What a beautiful airport.  I had to walk from one end to the other.  Some people might complain about that, but I am always glad for an opportunity to get my blood pumping.  There were all sorts of artworks and tributes to historical figures on the walls—none of which I read but I like to know it’s there.