Saturday, January 8, 2011

Wander Lust

Fully-packed backpack for my week-long excursion to NYC and DC. Contents include: 1 pair of running shoes, 1 pair of suede boots, 2 sweaters, 1 pair of jeans, PJs, assorted tops, a silk Chinese-style blazer, double-breasted, black knit jacket, matching black mini-skirt, underwear, socks, tights, leggings and a robe. I kid you not. (Shoe shown for scale)
This week, I discovered a new passion: traveling alone. Let me clarify. Unless trundling down the road as the sole driver/passenger of my Honda Civic, I never travel completely by myself, so when I refer to traveling alone I mean migrating by my own agenda in the company of strangers via public transportation—which becomes, in effect, a social event rife with possibilities. In that respect, my recent trip to New York and D.C. was a party. For the first time in years, I traveled without benefit of husband, child or friend as companion. Ultimately, my itinerary led me to visit with friends and colleagues, but in route—the actual travel part—I was own my own—surrounded by thousands of fellow-travelers. And those encounters—whether fleeting or lingering—are what make getting from Point A to Point B so incredibly enriching.
   Sure, we have the opportunity to meet strangers everyday while standing in line while to buy groceries at Publix, or when going through the weight circuit at the gym, but there's something unique about befriending fellow travelers. In fact, travel is the great equalizer. Set foot in an airport terminal and we are all out of our element, and thrust into a limbo, away from our beloved neighborhoods and familiar haunts.
   We pack a few choice belongings and leave the comfort of our homes to fling ourselves into a mass of people and situations; and even place our very lives in the hands of pilots and flight attendants, and drivers and engineers and ticket takers, any of whom could ruin our day—at minimum—in a split second of bad-judgment, neglect or just plain indifference. By traveling, we thrust ourselves into a universe of unfamiliar faces, most of whom, we will never see again. For this reason, it's tempting to just keep our heads down, move through the line, have a seat, turn up the iPod volume or feign sleep while we are carried along by the current.
   In my past life, when I traveled extensively for business on the corporate dime, I often kept those blinders on. I didn't want to chit chat with the grandma from Tucson who was going to see her fourteenth grandchild in a revisionist interpretation of Fiddler on the Roof, portrayed by an all-Black cast of third graders, nor did I wish to discover the latest trend in geophysics from the mildly attractive, but oh-so-nerdy PhD candidate seated too close to me on the red-eye to San Francisco. If my iPod battery died mid-flight, no worries, I could fake listening to music or Ira Glass until I reached my destination. But no more. I don't travel that way now.
   Now, among other occupations, I am an Airport Docent. Never heard of the job? Well, it's a very specialized position and it requires no training whatsoever; rather, it is hinged upon the ability to step beyond one's own interest and attend to others around you. Yes, while you are traveling—perhaps waylaid by bad weather or mechanical failure, or strapped for time, victimized by thoughtless TSA agents, etc.—you must get outside your own little drama to discover those in need in the airport.
   I first enrolled as an Airport Docent last summer when I was returning to Birmingham from a trip to Chicago. I was scheduled to fly out of O'Hare on Saturday morning and arrived in plenty of time, very happy and content after spending a few days there exploring the city with an old friend. It was a beautiful, sunny day and, since it was a Saturday, I was relaxed and in no particular hurry, so when an announcement was made that there was a mechanical problem on the plane and our flight would be slightly delayed, I wasn't bothered. Twenty minutes later, when the Captain confided that he would board the flight, even though the techs were still trying to fix the faulty switch, I didn't think twice about complying with his request and dutifully found my seat. Sitting aboard the plane, waiting to feel that first gentle tug of momentum as the plane begins to roll back, away from the gate, I was calm and happy. I would reach my destination eventually. No hurry. But when the Captain announced that, despite all efforts, the switch could not be repaired and all one hundred and thirty-six passengers would now have to de-board and be rerouted to other flights, I joined in the collective groan that went up from the cabin. Still, I had no urgent agenda ahead of me that day, and being in a good mood allowed me to forgive the mechanics of the plane, even be thankful that we had not taken to air with a bad thing-a-ma-jig that might have caused us to plummet from the skies. (You never know when a problem is averted, right?) I gathered my backpack and brief case and ambled off the plane, wondering when I might catch the next flight south.
   But not everyone on my flight was quite so blissed out. As I reentered the gate area, I heard the rising plaintive hysteria of a woman's voice, thick with European accent of no discernible origin. "You don't understand!" she shouted to the gate agent. "I do not speak much English. My husband, has no English! I need help!" The gate agent shook his head and pointed her in the direction of a nearby area of the concourse, which boasted a wall lined with six red courtesy phones. "Just pick up the phone," he said dully. Honestly, I'm not sure what came over me accept that I was in a good mood and buoyed by a feeling of contentment on this warm, sunny Saturday. "I will help you," I said to the woman. "Come with me." The woman and her husband exchanged a look and then picked up their carry-ons and followed me to the end of the (now) very long line that snaked out from the courtesy phone area.
   The couple, named Milnik, was from Serbia and now lived in Houston. We stood in line together for about an hour, communicating as best we could with simple words and hand gestures and smiles, slowly inching toward the all-important red phones. But we were not the last in line. By the time we made it to the phones, I had also befriended an African man, who was traveling with his tiny infant daughter and his two young children. Although he spoke lovely English it was draped with a heavy accent, he too was fearful that it would hinder his ability to speak to a faceless agent on the end of a phone in a loud airport terminal. When I complimented him on his beautiful children, he told me that his wife had died giving birth to the baby, who was born premature and now that the infant was nearing a year old, and at a healthy weight, he was hoping to find work in New York and move his young family there. "I will help you," I said. "Don't worry."
   Just then a frantic Chinese girl who spoke very little English, broke to the head of the line, crying "I must get home! I must get home!" I feared the frustrated mob might turn Lord of the Flies on her as they shouted her back to the end of the queue. Sobbing, she took her place behind the African man. "I will help you," I said to her, although from her unchanged expression of pure dread and fear, she might have thought I said, "I will kill you."
   Once I made it to the Red Phone, I made short work of my new friends' flight changes. The Milniks were placed on stand-by for two direct flights to ensure they would get to Houston that day; the African man and his lovely children were routed to JFK; and, although I left the Chinese girl on the phone with the United Airlines translator, I felt certain she would make it home eventually—wherever that home might be. She smiled and thanked me as I strapped on my backpack and headed out to catch the one flight departing from Midway that would carry me home that day. "You're welcome," I smiled. "Happy to help."
   This trip to New York and D.C. did not yield such dramatic requirement of my Airport Docent acumen, but I did befriend The Good Witch of the Upper East Side, a lovely 91-year-old Jewish grandmother, who was so amazingly sharp and independent that she gave me hope I might enjoy this vagabond life for a very long time. Then on the bus from LaGuardia to Grand Central, a passenger left his wallet and passport, and I witnessed several good fellow-travelers catch up to him as he powered up Park Avenue and return his identity to him before he even knew it was missing. And finally, on my return flight from DC, I offered a hacking man a zinc lozenge and struck up a lively conversation with this fellow Birmingham resident, who entertained me all the way home.
    There are a thousand kindnesses to be visited upon others everyday, and when we travel and are out of our own element, these become more apparent. Everyone is in need of comfort, direction, a smile or a cough drop, when away from home; and what I love most about traveling alone with other lonely travelers is practicing those very essential and basic acts of compassion.


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