Travel makes me anxious. Ever since I understood what returning and leaving meant, I feared the action of both. Destinations only feel real in flickers. When the sun shines the right way, reality drops like the other shoe. My brain claps and realizes something’s new. The realization goes as quick as it comes. Mostly, a day is a day and living’s living. Routine’s the thing you should watch for.
When you have a routine anything feels familiar. The routine can revolve around change. Those instances of travel feel more foreign than the destination. They are unfamiliar. When I assume anything of an airport I am reminded not to. They have the same soaring ceilings. They have the same tired out TSA or custom workers. They have the same endlessly revolving conveyor belts full of luggage. But every time I go to airports these little changes shake people up like fissures and earthquakes. I’ve heard all sorts of bitching and berating about how this never happened last time. I loathe airports and airlines. I am charged one thousand dollars, and can only bring a carry on and personal bag. If I bring a carry on that’s too large, it gets put in luggage, and I may get charged. I cannot pack anything important into my checked bag, though. That’s a rookie mistake. Your laptop gets lost in transit. One thousand dollars a ticket is not enough to screen out the thieves. Of course, if I bloat my carry on, it ends up in the same place. So I saddle it all in my backpack, my personal bag. Fittingly, the things that matter feel the heaviest. I haul them across the uniformly tiled terminals. But you cannot fight airports. They suck. The airlines do too. However, the more you lose your cool, the worse it gets. You have to move and adapt, because the white washed walls and pillars create a fine facade.
In a way it was a good mentality to start with. Just work with what happens. I tried to keep myself from fighting against the flow of travel. It was not so hard. My dad and I made it to Chicago, and then to the airport with ample time and ease. My anxiety caused all sorts of sharp little movements. When you don’t go watching it, your body and mind match each other. My hands shook while my mind rattled through this nonsense about airports and destinations.
I had no problem getting on the international flight from Chicago to Shanghai. As luck would have it, I sat by a Chinese mother and daughter. We shared friendly banter and tried to working past our language barriers. Unfortunately I hardly knew any Chinese. It poked at a raw nerve. I realized how the little Chinese I learned did not matter much. The Chinese they spoke sounded so separate from Rosetta Stone’s calm cadence. It did keep me studying and focused. I poured over my notecards, and they even corrected a few. They helped with pronunciation too, but that slipped too easily from my mind.
I got into Shanghai about on time and got through customs pretty quick. The line was long, but I did not mind much. I spent the time talking with another student who had been to Beijing. The vaunted stamp in the passport made any stress worthwhile. Those stamps always felt like stories. Though I supposed the real tales came from the conversations with strangers walking the same path.
The Shanghai airport did not seem foreign or exceptional in any real way. It seemed like any other airport. I breezed through it like any other airport. Heading up to the air china booths, I tried to get my ticket. The machines would not process me so they took me to a teller. I gave them my information. Here’s where the routine got shattered. I needed to re-check my bag. In literally every other airline I have heard of or used, you just got your bag at the final destination. Instantly my hands shook and I started to sweat. I set my feet back towards the baggage claim. I had time, but anxiety reasons less than it demands. I felt I needed to move fast, so I did.
Going back to the baggage claim actually meant going through security. I agreed because I had to. My confusion was secondary at best. The short delay stressed me out more than it ought to have. The black conveyor belt spit out bag after bag. I watched it patiently for my black bag. Instantly I wished I brought a big hot pink suitcase. Black on black on black. Even a grey suitcase would have stuck out. I knew the look of my bag. I still felt each black bag for my name tag. Nothing called for me. I waited until the airport attendant told me no more bags would come.
At this point I wanted to panic. I did not know the language. Most of them did not know mine. I was a long way from home facing that fact the process of filing for a lost bag might make me miss my plane. I did not know basic grammar, let alone how to reschedule a flight. I kept control of my anxiety here. Oddly enough it did not involve swallowing it like a pill. I just rode off the nervousness and smiled. I did not fight the possibility that this would suck. It very well would. I had to move forward. The conveyor belts don’t run backward. At least I could get an English attendant and probably find another flight.
I got the form to file for missed luggage, when someone with Air China pulled me to a side area where my bag sat on a cart. In my rush, I overlooked an area bloated with lonely bags. I grabbed it quick, and started to run for the ticket counter. I hardly had time to process the depth of my error. Ironic, considering haste caused it all in the first place. I did not have a lot of time. I had enough to thank my good luck. I’d take luck over language and intellect any day.
The woman read my ticket once it printed. She started furious conversation with the woman next to hear. She told me my flight was boarding. Furthermore, my bag had some sort of liquid in it. I needed to check it at the gate. We ran down to an expedited version of security. They ran me through as quick as they could. I set to running to my gate, carrying my 45 pound bag. I would have been the pinnacle of fitness if I made myself run that hard every day. The bag rolled roughly behind me, but I kept it at balance. My feet would start to slow, forcing me to hammer my legs back into gear. At that moment I really felt I had to make it. A few passengers casually stood in line, waiting for someone to take their tickets. My heart soared. My legs took a rest. A smile stretched across my face. Finally, the breaths came easy.
The worker handling the tickets made an audible and sympathetic sigh when she saw the sweat stream from my brow. She took the ticket stub, and let me through. I strode through the long aisle connecting me to Beijing. It felt like a victory I nearly was not expecting. The man next to me must have been worried. A sweaty, panting white kid with a big dumb smile sat down next to him. I could not have smelled good either. More than anything I felt silly. I put so much drama in getting there and nearly forgot where I was headed in the first place. I dreamt about this. For years I yearned to learn about the soil I soared over. I spent hours of independent study trying to grasp the grain of a country now in my palm. A few small pops of laughter leaked out. I forgot this was all part of my journey to the East.
Nowadays things are strange. The journey starts at the destination. We plowed trails with worn feet once. Our horses hooved their way through deserts and decay. In our old travels we stumbled on blocks of ancient civilizations. Villages took us in for days when we could not beat the weather, for gain or goodwill. Now mostly we zip and glide regardless. We still get snagged on slip ups. There are less bumps but we stumble just the same because we’ve learned to mind our feet less. Life’s about the journey. They have said and I’ve agreed. But where’s the line between journey and destination drawn. Who demarcates that, and what’s their agenda? When I got on that plane to Beijing I told myself the travel stopped. No. The sand erased the line. I am not sure it was there to begin with. The disappearance of that line made the desert all the harsher and all the more beautiful.
~Austin R Ryan