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What I Wonder When I Wonder: What is there to enjoy about air travel?

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Despite being nomadic for over 900 days, it is actually fairly rare that we fly. In fact, air travel makes up such a low percentage of our travel that certain aspects just seem so bizarre to me.

There is no other time in life where I would arrive two to three hours early to an event in order to ensure enough time to strip off my jacket, shoes and belt and let strangers look at my naked picture – a picture I myself am not even allowed to see – or pat me down in places I tend to reserve for only those closest to me. Bus travel requires none of this touching and patting and seeing me naked, and while train travel requires you to occasionally put your bags on a belt through an X-Ray machine and pass through a metal detector, it is certainly not as intrusive as with air travel.

Yet, every time we fly, we pass through this intimate ritual, only to be left with hours of time to kill before boarding a metal tube which speeds through the air at 37,000 ft. As an aside: until I met Dani I never thought about how flying worked, I just got on the plane and flew to my destination. But her questioning of ‘how in the world this thing stays up in the air’ has caused some questioning on my behalf. Rather than look seriously into the mechanics of flying, I choose to remain blissfully ignorant and just get increasingly nervous on flights.

plane over mexicoBack to that killing-time-in-the-airport portion of the journey: During this time, there is not much to do but mull around shops and restaurants that charge ten times the price of the same items just outside the airport walls. For those shorter distance or budget flights, if you don’t buy food in the airport, you’ll pay even more on the plane when they have you trapped at your cruising altitude, so I always end up paying a price for something I would never otherwise buy before boarding the plane.

Add on turbulence, sitting in the middle seat in coach, cramped bathrooms and the fact that flight attendants only give out the full can of soda half the time anymore and it’s safe to say that I am increasingly disillusioned by my time on board. I mean, I am actually grateful when tiny rations of mediocre food is included in the price of my ticket – what does that do for my psyche, I wonder. But, we do it. We do it because the airlines have a magic button to push that propels me from Costa Rica to Chicago in half a day instead of ten days by bus, or to Thailand in 24 hours rather than spending a month at sea.

airplane foodWithin the mess, however, there is a silver lining to the experience. It is one that I have come to love so much, I actually look forward to getting the airport. And no, it’s not the fact that this is the only time I purchase actual magazines or wear expensive perfume, nor does it have to do with my theory that calories from Pizza Hut or other fast food restaurants do not count if consumed in the strange inter-world that is the airport.

What I love about the airport is observing the myriad of ways that other people travel.

The cross-section of travelers is so much more varied than bus or train travel, with travelers of all ages, nearly all income levels, styles and religions. The guys with rolled up shirt sleeves feverishly ย pounding figures into spreadsheets on their laptops in the same space as kids and even small dogs. I love to be amused by the contrast between the flawless precision of the frequent flyer set and the deer-in-headlights look of families who rarely travel at all.

malaysia airport restrictionsOn my recent flight from San Jose, Costa Rica to Chicago, I was thrilled to discover an Amish couple waiting to board the plane. I don’t know about you, but we certainly don’t see Amish people flying often, so I took it all in. She had on a white bonnet and ankle length floral print cotton dress. Her husband proudly wore a straw hat and suspenders, jeans and a striped shirt, with a sleek, strangely expensive laptop case slung casually over his shoulder. They looked as if they had done this many times before. Next to them stood a middle-aged Latina woman, her tight carrot-top jeans and gold-chain belt wrapped tightly around her hourglass figure. Gracefully balanced on 6-inch stilettos, she reached into her Gucci carry on bag, pulled out and applied an elegant glossy pink lipstick that somehow enhanced the way her high cheeks bones looked under her golden Prada sunglasses. As hard as I tried, I could not imagine another context in which these three people could have stood next to each other. Not even other public spaces, like a hospital, because the Amish pair are most likely part of the Amish community of settlers in the Monteverde mountains in Costa Rica, while Seรฑora Gucci must be based in Miami, or Colombia, or in Los Angeles, as Sofia Vegara’s best friend.

I suppose I could shop in the Duty Free stores like others do, but ever since pictures when on the cartons of cigarettes, I can’t stand walking around looking at cancerous tongues or purple feet with missing toes, plus the deals on booze or perfume aren’t even that good anymore. I could go into my VIP travelers lounge and get massages and drink champagne except the only loyalty we show to an airline, any airline, is the fact that we buy tickets and fly at all, so no points or loyalty clubs for us.

malaysian cigarette packsSo instead, I people-watch, creating backstories through observation, while attempting not to get caught staring. I love to try to decipher where people are from based on context clues, and then hopefully have that confirmed by catching a glimpse at their passport as they board. I love to think about the purpose of their trip (where were those Amish people going, anyway?) and what their lives are like back at home.

People are my inspiration for travel in general, so no surprise that this is my favorite element of air travel as well. Some people travel to check off major world destinations like Macchu Picchu or the Great Wall of China, while others travel in order to undertake adventure like swimming with sharks or climbing volcanoes. I do those things too, but what I love most about traveling the world is observing people, whether that be in their own native environment which seems so foreign to me, or when our paths cross locked into an airport and an airplane together traveling from point A to B.

What I wonder is how many of those people I am watching, rushing about and waiting around, shopping at the duty free and eating in those overpriced restaurants, are only there to get from that point A to point B. How many people actually take the time to appreciate the silver lining, any silver lining?

Or…do some of those people actually enjoy stripping down to their bare feet and buying bottles of Smirnoff?

What do you enjoy about air travel?

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Tags : What I Wonder When I Wander

28 Comments

  1. I love the feeling of taking off. Apart from that I like the scenery below (especially at night) is great. But, my favorite is stepping off the plane, knowing I’m in a different time zone.

    1. I used to love taking off too, Peter, but have become increasingly scared of that part. The scenery is pretty awesome, too – we just flew over an exploding volcano in Guatemala. I agree with you, though, the most exciting part is the arriving in a new place, for sure!

  2. I also quite enjoy people watching at an airport, but the reason I enjoy flying is that I am usually on my way somewhere… unless it’s coming back from somewhere, but even then I have this feeling of going somewhere. But then again, I tend to fly quite a lot, so I’ve just learned to enjoy it ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Just make the best of it either way, I say! I think for me it’s less about the excitement of going somewhere, since so much of the time we are indeed going somewhere, just usually by bus (or boat, or train, maybe a car).

  3. Wow, I see Amish people all the time on Amtrak but never on a plane! I don’t enjoy much about air travel except the views and the cost, at least when I score a cheap ticket. I should probably do a better job of enjoying the people around me but I’m usually in my own world, frantically thinking about what I’m going to see in my limited time in my next destination.

    1. I just like to take that time to take it all in. I find other people in the act of traveling so interesting. We once saw Mennonites in full on plaid, suspenders and hats on a city bus in Chicago, that was also fascinating, but I think what I found so cool was how ‘cool’ they were with flying. They seemed to have more in common with the business frequent flyers than the families who had obviously rarely flown before. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I love this post! I do the same thing at airports. I actually LOVE airports, and jump at the chance to drop/pick up friends and family there. It IS such a cross section of people, and it’s a happy place. I love watching people reunions at Arrivals. Almost always brings a tear. And I am SO not a sap!

    Another silver lining for me is when I’m trapped on the plane, I just tell myself that tho is MY time to do as I like. Watch a movie or read a book or just close my eyes and drift. I try to look at it as time spent relaxing rather than anxious “when can I get off this thing?”

    1. I remember the days when you could actually go in to the terminal to pick people up – you could witness a lot more of those tear-jearkers that way. On the plane itself, I usually feel guilty if I’m not working…I should maybe make it me time, like you say. The only reason I’m not working is if I am feeling air sick…

  5. Very cool post -especially loved the description of the Amish couple vs the Latina Lady:) I too enjoy watching people while I have to wait for something else to happen, and you are right: it’s usually airports where you tend to get the wildest potpourris of the most different people. I am not very comfortable with the concept of being in one room/ metal container with a lot of other people closer to me than I would prefer it, though -especially since I can’t just walk out/ away, so when it comes to flying, I am usually stressed because of that. I wouldn’t make a good sardine, I guess:). Don’t we all have a little something!!

    1. Hey Vera, so glad you liked that part – it’s what inspired me to write the post. I just loved the contrast! There are so many little things about flying lately that have gotten on my nerves, which is why I am glad I don’t do it that often, though!

  6. Great post girls! I can identify with your ‘people watching’ and often Amy and I must nudge each other and say “Honey, you’re staring at them”…….completely out of intrigue and curiosity! The other game we play is ‘Who hasn’t flown Before?’ – which is where we spot the newbies who struggle with reading signs, navigating through hand luggage pulled by spaced out people and get buzzed through security 8 times….like watching a really boring strip tease by a complete stranger! Amy and I have completely reversed roles – I was once petrified by flying and now feel rather normal, where as Amy is aware of every clunk, thump and buzz that she hears. And also, we have never, ever been upgraded….I’m starting to think that it is a myth! Thanks for the read!

    1. Yay! So much fun to meet other people watchers. Dani doesn’t do this at all, she couldn’t pick a single other person on our flight out of a line up, something I find so bizarre since this is my favorite thing to do at the airport. From now on I am going to steal the ‘who hasn’t flown before’ game for sure!

  7. I think perhaps the thing I love most about your blog is how it makes me think. Sure, food porn and stories of things and places experienced are great as well (I read many blogs for the vicarious experiences, and greatly enjoy yours too), but when you write about something we so often do without thinking and make me think about it is when I appreciate your writings the most. And you clearly have such an unfettered curiosity for people around you; it is infectious. Thank you. (And thus ends my sycophantic rant.)

    1. Sam, you’re awesome! Thanks for such a great comment! I read it right after you left it but we’ve been non-stop moving since then. I appreciate your kind words and it feels good to know that people actually enjoy what we take the time to put out there on the interwebs ๐Ÿ™‚ Hope you continue to enjoy the posts as much as I enjoy writing them!

  8. I remember too, Jess, the days when people would say goodbye and hello at the gates. A few months ago, I saw some grandparents putting the grandkids on the plane, and that made me think about those days. Of course, now I’m separated and soon to be divorced, so I’ve accompanied my daughter in that scenario a couple of times already. The last time, she was actually escorted down the gangway by one of the pilots. Wish I had taken a picture. It was a cool scene to watch from the gate’s door.

    1. Must be really neat to see her all grown up and traveling by plane like that ๐Ÿ™‚ Sorry to hear about your divorce…though I would guess there is one amber liquid you and I are both familiar with that may help to drown sorrows? Road Trip! ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. I love airports and air travel. There is so much excitement and anticipation before arriving at a destination. All the preparation is finished so there is nothing to stress about and you know a whole new world awaits when you step off the plane.

    For me, it all starts the moment we leave for the airport. Once everything is packed, there is no point in worrying any more, so I become very relaxed and calm.

    Airports are always very creative spaces for me. Everything is so large and modern, there are generally decent book stores to browse and all the travellers make it so international.

    The flights might be cramped and the food less than good, but I still love every minute of it.

    Free booze doesn’t hurt either. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. You know, John, I’ve never really thought about the fact that it’s all in the hands of fate once you get to the airport, you’re right. I should be even calmer than I tend to be. I get the creative vibe, too, and I also ‘try on’ different ways of being by imagining the lives of the people around me. It’s one of the few places where I feel what it might be like to be a true business success one day…don’t usually feel that way crammed into a 40-year-old school bus in Honduras ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. I love the thrill of an airport but I would rather take a train any day. That said, there is something I like about being trapped somewhere with nothing to do but watch movies. It’s very freeing.

    1. I need to let that freedom happen to me, too. I feel this constant need to work, write, produce, create on a plane. I think I feel this way because there are no distractions, no internet, and silence. But I like your movie option better and will take you up on that on the way to Buenos Aires tomorrow! ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Just discovered Louis C.K. (don’t know how I missed him, he’s hilarious) so will have to go watch a clip of this. I feel the same way ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. I actually do enjoy flying for the most part. After all, I’m going somewhere and that’s almost always exciting.

    What does bother me though is being on a long haul flight in economy – trying to sleep is uncomfortable and futile in those tiny seats (and I’m a tiny person too!). It’s nice when you get upgraded!!

  12. Interesting post. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I think I am ‘the other people’ while at airports. I rush through security, buy magazines I don’t intend to read, and try to get drunk as fast as possible in case of turbulence. The coffee is usually no good, but the shopping can be enjoyable at airports! Also the ridiculously bad ‘massage’ chairs can be an OK way to make 5 minutes fly by…, but their effect is debatable..

    While settled on the plane I finally have the time to listen to any new music I have downloaded, but haven’t gotten into yet! + movies at long-haul flights are enjoyable, but not when you miss the ending because the flight-time is over.

    So I don’t enjoy time spent at airports, but I find good use of my time spent on a plane and wouldn’t want to be without it ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Annie, that’s awesome – I’ve always wondered about those people who just get drunk before their flights. I have motion sickness, so take-off with a boozy stomach is a no-go for me. And we have never sat in a massage chair either. It’s funny how different we ‘do’ the airport – just makes you realize how much the actual airport experience caters to so many different types of travelers. Fascinating!

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