06 August 2007

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Traveller

I arrived back in Big Eastern City this morning on a red-eye from the West Coast, a sullen, dark, sleepy, and meal-free flight that was notable only for its lack of notable occurrences, a blessing in this day and age. Mr. Gordo delayed his departure for work to sit and have a coffee with me, both of us sleepy in the grey light of morning, talking quietly, exchanging kisses and holding hands, comments on my tan after six weeks in California and the presentation of my little gifts: a Papier-mâché doll from Mexico obtained at a flea market, a double pack of Nutella from CostCo, unpacking my toiletry kit with Japanese shampoo and Clarins, bringing a chuckle from Mr. Gordo. What is Oso if not a product queen?

As I rode the bus into the city, the weary dawn not breaking through the rain clouds, I reflected on the sensory elements of arrival: the dank humidity rising up from the sidewalk through my sandals, the subdued nature of the sleepy crowds around the luggage carousel, the dry heat of the first cigarette on the sidewalk outside the terminal, negotiating the transport into the city to arrive at Mr. Gordo’s EasyBake apartment in time to see him before work. The cognitive dissonance of air travel is what strikes me at moments of arrival. Six hours before you were here, and now you’re there, here, there, here, there. In a sleepy dawn, it’s best not to think too much about this: the rib dinner with La Gamine, her boyfriend and La Zeez, the delicious post-prandial iced Mocha with toasted coconut, so strangely Californian in its fusion of flavours, the hasty goodbyes at curbside.

I realised, on the bus, that I am almost never met at the airport. Sometimes it happens, often when I go to California and always when I go to Geneva, The Fierceness waiting outside the frosted sliding doors of customs. I can count on one hand, after dozens of arrivals, the times I have been met at the airport in Big Eastern City, and never in Cold City. Usually it is me alone, waiting for the luggage, buying a transport ticket into the city, then riding alone, surrounded by tourists, into the labyrinthine depths.

While air travel has been democratised, it is still something most people do not do frequently. Whether by nature or profession, I feel I am on planes and trains and buses often, sometimes for pleasure and other times for duty. But what remains characteristic of my travelling is the essential loneliness of it, shifting from one world to another, and doing so alone.

I tend not to talk to seatmates. I am quiet, unobtrusive. I bring a book or a pile of magazines with no pictures. I read. I nap. I use the toilet. I eat what is given to me, and occasionally will drink as well. I do remember a period in the eighties when I thought it a bad idea to eat or drink on a plane. I’m not sure when that ended, probably right around the time one started to not get fed on long-distance domestic flights.

I remember smoking on planes, when I was a non-smoker. I remember when flying wasn’t so stressful, yet so dull. I remember flights where the toilets stopped functioning someplace over the North Pole, and others where one had a whole row of seats luxuriously to one’s self. I remember my first flight to France: girls dressed to the nines in the departure lounge, little paper menus (still beef or chicken, just in French), literal baskets of bread, and the little kit one got, laid on the seat in a keepsake plastic bag marked with the logo of Air France: eye shades, slippers, toothbrush and paste, a mint. Not anymore. Now, flying to Europe feels like going to Cleveland. Flying into Caracas for the first time, over the ranchos with strung incandescent lights that shimmered like candles, a large, winged orange tropical roach crawled up the wall of the jet way to herald my arrival.

Travel, travelling, is something, with a few notable exceptions, that I have always done alone, a pattern that started with my first real journey, from Los Angeles to Prestigious Eastern University, oh so long ago. I remember the arrival then too: sharing the plane with a high school basketball team all arms and legs, the dyed hair of the woman in front of me, her reclined seat and hairdo impinging on my space, LaGuardia, the dark luggage retrieval area, the shuttle bus, the fear of mugging, the humidity, the detritus of the East, the rust, the sumacs glowering over the ruins, the Jews and Italians and Black folks with their accents of ethnicity holding up paper signs with names on them, not my own.

There will always be something of that original and primal shock for me in travel, banal omens and boredom and excitement and sleepiness and a greasy face.


Anonymous said...

Ahhhhh, travelling can be lonely can't it? Sometimes it's social though, like when I was a prospective at my undergraduate alma mater and I met Joanie, mother of two, on the plane from NYC. We talked the whole way. When we landed she extended her home as a refuge from college life. "She's so nice" I thought to myself. I remember my first airplane meal: blueberry pancakes. Mind you, the blueberries were canned! Sometimes people meet me at the airport and sometimes they don't. Sometimes I want them to meet me, and sometimes I don't. Most recently I took a Supershuttle to the airport and ignored the two women in the back. A South Asian guy arrived late and got on talking loudly into his cell phone. I ignored him too. he barely turned his legs to let me pass when I got off. "That was rude," I thought to myself. I'm so in my head when I travel, and actually I relish that time to think :)

Professor Zero said...

Another odd sensation, I find, is arriving at dawn in an unknown city and helping the cab driver find an address I have never been to myself. If I could always say something like, "To the Club of the Bank of this Republic," it would be one thing, but usually I am going somewhere far more obscure.

I expect that to say something like "District XYZ, 316 A Street, between Avenues 4 and 5 West, will be sufficient, but usually it is not ... or if it is, I then get a question I cannot answer, such as "Shall we take the Throughway or the Viaduct?" (I have been known to transparently fake answers like this: "You'll know best, sir, how the traffic is at this hour.")

But usually my information is not considered sufficient, and I find myself saying, "Do not worry, I am sure we can find it. If we get lost in XYZ District, we can ask." All through sleepiness, greasiness, and no breakfast.

Sfrajett said...

Lovely post. These days travel is such a pain in the ass that it's easy to forget the excitement and mystery of even a cross-country flight. I will think of you and try to see the magic around me when GF and I fly to California in a couple weeks.

MaggieMay said...

I haven't visited your blog in awhile, and boy I've missed it. Lovely post; I especially love that last line. Sums up my 37 years of travel experience remarkably well.

Tenured Radical said...

In Chiapas, MX, los indiginos say that it takes three weeks or so for your spirit to catch up with you when you travel long distances. Airpplane travel I am sure, only enhances this problem: it has certainly explained that wild feeling I often have after returning home, when there is nothing wrong, but I am right on the edge of a crying jag anyway.

NB: I have always thought anyone who offered to meet a person at a plane in New York or any other eastern hub, unless the taveler was a baby, was insane. They are all under construction all the time, and now htat we have Homeland (In)security, it's worse. Better to stay home and make scones from scratch and hope the relaitonship holds up.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post!

Cero said...

3 weeks, hm. This is further proof that I need to spend *all* summer away.