Airport nightmares and headaches

Listen to this article

I figure I’ve been through about 80 airports around the world. That’s a lot of time spent in airports. I started out at 7 months and just kept going. As a typical Third Culture Kid, I learned to fly before I walked. By the time I was 11 months old I had been in a car, on a train, on a plane, on a boat and up a funicular. All those “at what age” questions in my baby book were full in no time.

I know some people feel at home in airports, or love being in airports. I hate them. For the most part, they are just boring. I spent hours zoned out, jet lagged, and sleep deprived on hard benches waiting for the weather to clear or the congestion to ease up or to make up for a lost connection.

Some of my life’s most terrifying experiences happened at airports. Of course the plane crash at age five was the worst but there were plenty of tense moments after that.

When I was 14, I was in boarding school in Austin, Texas. In the fall my parents had moved from Mexico City to Bogota. That winter break I was due to fly to Bogota, someplace I had never been. My route was Austin, Houston, Miami, Bogota.

I got through Houston OK. I had never been to Miami airport before and it was a very long way from the gates to the ticket counter. For some reason I thought I could get my boarding pass at the gate so I just found the gate I was leaving from and hung around there. When they called for us to board the plane, I showed them my ticket and they told me I did not have a boarding pass. I didn’t understand the problem. They told me I would have to go to the ticketing counter to get the pass.

Now, they were already boarding the plane and the ticketing counter was miles away. I freaked out. All they said was, “you will need to hurry so you don’t miss the plane”. I ran as fast as I could down to the ticket counter, I barged to the front of the line in a panic. They gave me a boarding pass and I ran as fast as I could back to the gate, sure I would miss the plane.

Whenever I was in these kinds of situations, I never had much money and I never had contact information. I just got on airplanes and expected everything to go okay and didn’t worry about it. Had I missed that flight, all I had was my parent’s address in Bogota. No phone number, no other contact info. I suppose I could have called my brother but I’m not even sure I had his contact info. After all I was 14 years old. But I was lucky, I made the flight and my parents were at the airport to meet me at the other end.

My freshman year in college, I traveled from California for Kenya for Christmas break. I landed in Geneva only to discover I was wait-listed on the flight to Nairobi leaving at midnight. I had one $20 traveler’s check on me and the name of the hotel in Nairobi. I waited around all day dozing and reading and trying to keep my mind off all the “what if” questions.

Midnight rolled around and I was told I had to wait until everybody else boarded the plane before they could tell me if a seat was available. I was a nervous wreck, hoping somebody would miss the flight or decide not to go. Finally they called my name. I ran across the tarmac as fast as I could to board that plane, I was scared to death they would leave without me. And when I took my seat I started to cry with relief. Once I landed in Nairobi nobody was there to meet me as my parents thought I would be on a different flight. I was lucky again because a flight attendant took pity on me and gave me a ride to my hotel.

On another occasion I missed my flight in Frankfurt on my way to Nigeria. That was the worst because the airport in Nigeria was complete chaos and I knew it was going to be hit or miss if I connected with my parents and again I did not know how to get a hold of them, nor did I have much money.

I managed to get a midnight flight out of Paris to Lagos. It was Harmattan in Lagos and the sands were blowing down off the Sahara. Visibility was poor and the plane could not land. We went to Ghana. We sat in Accra airport for four hours in the early morning. At least it was fairly cool. We again boarded the flight for Lagos and I managed to catch our driver just as he was leaving the airport. They had about given up on me.

Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow.
Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow.

When I was older and married and had a small child, I was leaving Moscow on my way to Minneapolis. I had a connecting flight in Amsterdam but there was bad weather in Moscow and our flight was delayed and we missed the connection. In Amsterdam I went to the transit station and they booked me on a flight the next day but would not give me a voucher for a hotel. They said it was an “act of god” and therefore did not qualify.

I went to the cash machine only to find the credit card was maxed out and I could not get cash. I had about $40 or $50 dollars on me and knew that it would not get me very far. I went to the information desk and explained my problem and was on the verge of tears and they were very kind to me. They found me a cheap hotel near the airport that had a free shuttle.

There were times during my travels when things didn’t go well, but somehow I always managed to get where I was going. Over the years, I learned there were times when you really could depend on the kindness of strangers.