Archive for the 'Travel Tips' Category

Pedestrians Do Not Have the Right of Way: Returning Home After An Overseas Experience

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Near-hit, Traffic in Buenos Aires

Crossing the street in Rome could be the final exam for a 500-level course on “How to Avoid Getting Hit By a Car.”  It requires advanced preparation and specialized knowledge.  While studying abroad in Barcelona, I traveled with a friend to Rome.  We took a bus into town from the airport, hoisted on our backpacks, and began walking to our pensione.  At the edge of the grassy median separating the bus station from the main road we stopped abruptly, paralyzed by fear.  A group of travelers stood cowering like a family of pioneers about to ford a river.  In terror-stricken silence, we watched as multiple lanes of Italian sports cars raced past.  It wasn’t oncoming traffic; it was the Running of the Bulls.

Frantically, we searched for an intersection, crosswalk, or animal whisperer.  With none in sight, we resigned ourselves to spending the afternoon on the curb.  Suddenly, I remembered an obscure fact I had read in a guidebook: the key to crossing the street in Rome is eye contact.  I waited for a lull in the traffic, took a deep breath, stepped into the road, and with feigned confidence shot the Italian drivers an intense look that said, “Hey! I’m walking here.”  Magically, the vehicles slowed, kneeling graciously as we sauntered to the other side.

Fortunately, in New Zealand you don’t need wits to cross the street, just patience. You simply congregate on the corner and wait for the neon crossing guard to give you the green light.  It’s all very civilized, albeit boring.  The biggest risk is that it might be ten minutes before the light changes.  (Jaywalking was completely out of the question for me since I never could work out which direction the traffic was coming from.)  However, when pedestrians are finally given their turn, they have the opportunity to cross diagonally, thus getting two crossings in one.

The best part about being a pedestrian in New Zealand is the zebra crossings.  Alternating dark and light patches of pavement, and black and white poles indicate places where pedestrians always have the right of way.  Because the friendly, law-abiding Kiwis actually respect the road code, you can walk into the street while reading a book without fearing for your safety.

When I finally landed in Buenos Aires after a seventeen-hour delay, an eleven-hour flight, and traveling backwards in time, all I wanted to do was shower.  Before I could so, I had to walk a few blocks to the store to buy toiletries.  At the first intersection, I spotted the familiar black and white bands of paint, and mindlessly continued into the street. A gang of taxis fought each other for the chance to commit vehicular manslaughter.  I jumped back onto the sidewalk, barely avoiding an accident. Between the pharmacy and my friend’s apartment, I had three near-hits.  It seems I was a little unclear about what city I was in.

There are no pedestrian walkways in Buenos Aires; there is only target practice. Although Argentines are essentially displaced Italians, you can forget about the eye-contact strategy.  Staring at an Argentine motorist only helps him perfect his aim. Even where there are pedestrian lights, turning traffic has the self-appointed right of way. The best strategy for crossing the street in Buenos Aires is to run for your life.

Other than a few close calls at the beginning, the transition back into life in Buenos Aires has been relatively smooth.   The weirdest part is that it’s hardly weird at all. There are no suggestions of my time in New Zealand, save a few photos on Facebook, and many remnants of my former life in Argentina remain.  Most of my close friends are still around, I have an active social life, and I know where things are. It’s comfortable.  It’s home.

With everything so deceptively normal, I predicted that I would only need a few days to recover and establish a daily routine involving cooking, meditating, exercising, reading and writing.  After ten days, my biggest accomplishment was watching an entire season of America’s Next Top Model in one afternoon.  Apparently, you don’t get over an abroad experience overnight.

For more than a week, I did little more than sleep and sit on the couch in my pajamas. I felt like a character in a Jane Austen novel sent to the coast to convalesce.  Except that instead of taking a carriage to the seaside to breath in the salty air, I rode the elevator to the rooftop terrace to lie by the pool. At first, I was confused by my exhaustion and frustrated by my apathy.  After a difficult year abroad, I had been looking forward to going somewhere easy.  Now, I appreciate that reentry is harder than I expected, especially because I am so hard on myself.

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires

Returning to a city where you’ve already lived is certainly less challenging than, say, starting anew in Lithuania.  But, it’s still a process and it definitely takes longer than a long weekend. Even if mentally it’s as though I never left Argentina, emotionally, I’m still tied to Auckland.  I may not need to meet new people, but I do have to catch up with old friends and make sure no damage was done to the foundation of our relationship in my absence.  There is the work of creating and adhering to a new schedule, acclimating to local sounds and smells, and seeking out the raw materials needed to facilitate my lifestyle and hobbies, both of which have changed considerably since I last lived here. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about a job or a place to live.

Rather than reprimand myself for being lazy (or blame Argentine drivers for my reluctance to leave the apartment), I lowered my ambitions.  I set smaller, attainable goals for myself, such as getting dressed before noon or reading in the Recoleta Cemetery instead of on the couch.  Slowly and naturally, life is regaining a sense of order and purpose, and I am becoming more active and motivated.  More importantly, given that I am only in Buenos Aires for six weeks, I have reassessed my priorities.  I didn’t come here to be responsible; I came here to spend time with friends and decompress before starting a new adventure. Staying out until 6am on a Wednesday may decrease my productivity, but I am supposed to be on sabbatical. With no one to answer to but myself, maybe, for a little while anyway, I can stop being so demanding and unreasonable.


Halfway House: Starting Over in a New City – Again

Auckland, New Zealand

Except for that time in high school when I got kicked out of a party for talking about the hostess behind her back (she was totally asking for it), I avoid conflict.  While altercations of all kinds make me uneasy, I particularly abhor domestic quarrels.  I would rather listen to an amateur hip-hop DJ practice his set at 1am or clean up after someone else’s 10-person dinner party than confront a flatmate.  You can imagine how disconcerted I was when my new roommate yelled at me less than a week after I moved in – over a frying pan.

For a nomadic pseudo-hippie, I have an absurd amount of stuff.   If money were no object, I would happily board a plane with just a good book, an empty suitcase and a credit card.  If I were less hygienic or sartorially inclined, I would emulate my parents, who spent an entire summer in Europe with little more than a toothbrush and two pairs of underwear.  Alas, I am too high-maintenance and too low budget to travel light.

When I left Wellington, I left nothing behind.  The trunk of the rental car looked like a bag lady’s shopping cart.  Batteries, a Rubik’s cube, secondhand bunny ears, and an art smock were among the items that made the trip not just from Wellington to Auckland, but from Argentina to New Zealand.  I have no excuse; I’m just that ridiculous.

There was simply no way my belongings were going to fit into a bedroom already containing five bunk beds and the personal affects of ten tourists.  I figured that booking a room in a full-serviced student apartment would be better than staying at a backpacker’s hostel, especially since I had no idea how long it would take for me to find my own place.  Before leaving for Auckland, I reserved a double apartment for my friend and I.  She only lasted two nights.

That they were still standing was the only redeemable aspect of the apartment building, a grey high-rise tower located in the heart of the University of Auckland’s city campus. The entire building smelled like an unsettling combination of Thanksgiving dinner and the dentist.  There was no hallway, dining area, or living room, but there was a hot water kettle crawling with fire ants. The kitchen and bathroom were so close together I could open the fridge while sitting on the toilet.  As we stood in the doorway, I was hesitant to even hazard a sarcastic comment or look my friend in the eye.  Marriages have ended over less.

Forty-eight hours after we moved in, my friend moved out (she would have left sooner had we not paid in advance), and I was relocated to a different apartment. The first thing my roommate, a twenty-year old Korean girl, did when she met me was to tell me that the chopsticks were hers.  The second thing was to ask me how long I was planning on staying. When she returned from the library, she was carrying a handful of “roommate wanted” posters collected from the bulletin board.

One morning, I decided to make toast for breakfast.  As the apartment had no toaster, I grabbed the nearest frying pan and heated my bread on the two hot plates that passed for a stove.  A few hours later, I heard a knock on my bedroom door.  “I’m not happy,” announced my roommate. “You used my frying pan and now it’s scratched.” She was so angry and serious I felt that I should at least try to defend myself or express remorse. But when I opened my mouth, all that came out was, “I’m leaving in a few days.  Get over it.” I packed up all of my stuff, called the taxi company, requested a van – yes, just for one person, and moved into a hostel.

I’ve never been fond of staying in a backpacker’s when you’re not actually a backpacker. They are typically dirty, crowded, noisy, smelly, and distracting.  You have a better chance of spotting a unicorn than finding peace, quiet, and privacy.  Forget about a good night’s sleep.  People get drunk and eat the chocolate cake you baked for your friend’s birthday and were naïve enough to leave in the communal fridge, use the computer to upload pictures to Facebook, and have sex on the bottom bunk.  And even though there are always interesting people with funny accents around, making real friends is practically impossible when the last people you see before you go to sleep are never the same people you see when you wake up in the morning.

Yet this time, I was actually looking forward to moving into a hostel.  The truth is, when you’re fresh off the airplane, unemployed, and have no friends, furniture, or agenda, there is no place better for you than a good hostel.  Luckily, I discovered a great one – clean, bright, cheap, and not a bunk bed in sight.  The best part about it was the enormous, secure-luggage storage area in the basement.  The excellent location, large garden, spacious lounges, and ample kitchen so well equipped an episode of Iron Chef could easily have been filmed there were just bonuses.

Hostels, I’ve discovered, are a lot like dormitories during Freshmen welcome week in college – everyone is friendly and outgoing, every night is a party, and there’s always someone to look out for you. But eventually, classes start and you no longer appreciate returning from the library and discovering that you’ve been sexiled by your roommate and the guy she met earlier that night in the communal bathroom.  For a while, I truly enjoyed living in the hostel.  I didn’t have to pay bills, make the bed, or clean my room.  I never ate a meal alone, even if I wanted to.  And I even found a cute Dutch kid to take me out on the weekends.

All that changed when I got a job.  I soon became annoyed with laying my clothes out at night and getting dressed in the dark, so as not to wake my sleeping roommates at 6am.  As my Canadian friend sipped boxed wine from a tin mug and stared at me with sympathy and horror while I packed my lunch for the next day, I realized the hostel and I had grown apart.

For me, hostels make excellent halfway houses – a place where you can stay while you secure employment and housing, and where you can begin to build a support network and integrate into society.  Of course, if you have no intention of or desire to lead a conventional life, there is no need or even benefit to leaving the hostel.  There are a lot of costs associated with moving into a flat, and they are hardly worth assuming if you are merely passing through.  But once it became clear to me that I was going to stick around Auckland for a while, it also became clear to me that it was time to move out.  Fortunately, the hostel had wireless Internet, so I could hunt for a flat while everyone else played drinking games.

I’ll Take You As Far As: Relying on the Kindness of Strangers

En Route to Cape PalliserSeals

I recently finished reading Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson’s account of his farewell trip through Britain, his adopted home of twenty years, before moving back to the United States.  Personally, I’m a great fan of Bill Bryson, especially of his wit, social commentary, and writing style, and have read and recommended a number of his books.  As usual, Notes From a Small Island made me laugh, taught me something new, and gave me plenty to think about.  However, unlike Bryson’s other works, I found this one to be a bit boring and repetitive, perhaps because, as he points out, Britain is a bit boring and repetitive.  After a while, the places visited ceased to captivate the imagination, the people encountered no longer amused, and the anecdotes failed to entertain.  I remain a loyal reader, but I do suggest skipping Notes From a Small Island and going straight to I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Neither Here Nor There, or A Short History of Nearly Everything.  But I digress.

Literary review aside, I mention Notes From a Small Island here because I hold it responsible for what happened to me the other day.  Bill Bryson travels through the UK by means of public transport (bus and train) and his own two feet.  He has a rough itinerary, but he allows himself to veer off course when fancy strikes, even if the travel time significantly outweighs the amount of time spent at the destination.  Once he gets the idea in his head to visit a sight he is undeterred, regardless of how complicated the timetables or difficult the route.

A few people had mentioned to me that the nearby town of Martinborough and its lovely vineyards were worth a visit.  But my guidebook’s vague description of Cape Palliser and Palliser Bay, located along the coast of the Cook Strait, had sparked my interest.  Unfortunately, the explanation of how to get to Cape Pallier was as vague as the description of the place itself. But with Bill Bryson in mind, I decided to forgo the wine and make my way instead for the black sand beaches of the Wairarapa coast.

My guidebook did mention that the Cape was located south of Martinborough.  So, I woke up early to catch a train from Wellington to Featherston, where a perfectly timed bus was waiting to take me to Martinborough.  Once I arrived in Martinborough, I visited the local i-SITE for guidance.  One of the kindly women on duty walked me over to a display of pictures of the Cape and explained that it was just a mere 40 minutes down the road.  “Walking?” I asked, naively.
“No, by car.”
“Is there a bus or some other form of public transportation?” I inquired.
The poor woman looked at me like I had just asked her if Santa Claus was real.  She clasped her hands to her mouth in genuine anguish before responding, “No, lovely, I’m afraid there’s not. Can you drive?” she asked, optimistically.
“Not on the left side of the road.”
“Oh dear, well, I’m not going to show you any more of these photos then.”

Disappointed, I thought to myself, what would Bill Bryson do? And then it came to me in a flash of inspiration.  I would rent a bike and ride to the coast.  When I revealed my plan to the woman at the i-SITE, her eyes filled with tears of pride and admiration.  The problem was that no one could give me even a rough estimate of the distance to Cape Palliser or how long it might take to reach it by bike.  But I figured, what the hell? If I don’t make it, at least it will give me something to do for the day.

I hired a bike from the wine center down the road and set off down the lonely path to the Cape.  The scenery was stunning: sheep grazing in green pastures and white clouds topping rolling hills, typical New Zealand stuff.  The road was paved and decently flat, but after just a short time, I started to resemble the Little Engine That Could more than Lance Armstrong.  I’m not the best or most experienced cyclist in the world, but I’m in shape and have taken more than one spinning class.  The challenge wasn’t so much physical as it was mental.  I enjoy traveling alone, but some activities, such as riding a bike an indeterminate distance through deserted farmland, are just not as much fun without a friend.  At one point, I even started talking to a cat that was crossing the road.

After an hour, I finally came upon a road sign indicating the distance to my final destination.  Cape Palliser, it read, 50km.  That’s when I decided to pull over to the side of the road and have a snack.  I was eating an apple, contemplating my options, and secretly hoping that someone would come to my rescue when a car pulled up beside me.  A young, South African woman and her dog Turbo leaned out the window.  “You alright?” she shouted to make herself heard over the sound of the hip hop music streaming from her radio.  “No, actually, I’m not,” I replied.  I approached the car, explained the situation, and accepted her offer to drive me at least part of the way there.

It turned out that she was free for the day. So, rather than take me as far as she was going, she ended up being my travel companion.  We drove along the coast, stopping to watch a group of Danish surfers battle the waves, take pictures of seals, have a few drinks at a hotel bar overlooking Lake Onoke, and talk about life.  She was absolutely fascinating, and we had a great day together, even though one of the only things we had in common was that earlier that day we happened to be in the same place at the same time.

At five o’clock, she and her boyfriend drove me back to Martinborough.  Before dropping me a few blocks from the wine center (to give me the appearance of having accomplished my stated goal), we exchanged contact information and said good-bye, possibly to meet again in the future.  I returned the bike, and headed to the i-SITE to catch a ride back to Featherston with the woman who had helped me earlier that day.

With a few hours to kill before the train departed for Wellington, I made myself comfortable in an Italian restaurant near the station.  I was trying desperately to entertain myself when the owner came over and handed me a stuffed cow.  “A little souvenir for you to take home,” she explained.  Either it looked to her like I could use a friend, or she, like everyone else in this country, thought that I was under the age of 16.

People often think that I’m crazy for traveling alone, and the truth is that it’s not always easy (although neither is traveling with your best friend).  Sometimes I wish that I had someone with whom to share the experiences and the responsibilities, to help me feel safe and keep me entertained.  But days like this remind me that, even in today’s skeptical, cynical, selfish world, if you’re open to accepting rides from strangers and letting new people in, you’re never truly alone. (A fact confirmed again later that night on the train platform, when a clearly inebriated, middle-aged man introduced himself to me by way of a giant hug).  I like to think that even though I never made it to Cape Palliser, Bill Bryson would have been proud. (Or horrified by my foolish behavior.  He is a father after all).

Beware of Sheep: Taking on Nature and Taking it Easy in Queenstown

Queenstown, New ZealandMilford Sound

Queenstown is a fairyland: snow-capped mountains, shimmering lakes, majestic fiords, and cascading waterfalls.  More importantly, it’s the adventure capital of the world.   If you’re someone who believes that you can’t truly appreciate life until you’ve faced death, then Queenstown is the place for you.  Between jet boating, kayaking, luging, and paragliding, this city is a pleasure seeker’s paradise, assuming that you find knowingly placing yourself in harms way to be enjoyable.  With a generous budget (and insurance plan), you can get your thrills by land, sea, or air.

Personally, I love to do things that scare me, which is good, because I’m a bit of a paranoid hypochondriac, meaning I’m afraid of most everything.  Yesterday, a friend and I took a bus up to Lake Wanaka (please note that the accent in Wanaka is on the first syllable.  I tell you this so that you don’t accidentally pronounce it as if it were the name of a summer camp in Northern Michigan).  The plan was to sky dive from 12,000ft (or as another friend put it: the height when you’re allowed to turn back on your electronic devices).  I never understood the appeal of diving headfirst off a ledge with a giant rubber band tied to your feet.  However, there is something inexplicably exciting to me about the idea of free falling through the sky with nothing but a manly New Zealander and a parachute attached to my back.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate and we spent a day seeking shelter from the wind in the town’s tourist shops, debating over which would be the best souvenir: kiwi-shaped candles, kiwi jam, or kiwi scented body lotion.  I rescheduled the jump for this morning, but the sky was overcast and grey, and no one was flying, leaving me to spend the day by myself in Queenstown.

Looking for a way to justify my 7:30am wake-up call, I set off to climb Queenstown Hill, armed with only an iPod, a granola bar, and the wrong kind of undergarments,.  It’s a fairly easy hike with fantastic views of the city.  However, being up there alone was kind of creepy, as much of the trail winds its way through a dark pine forest, causing me to wonder every few minutes, Is this the spot where I’ll be abducted?  Fortunately, I saw enough fellow climbers to keep me calm, and eventually the path spilled out into a clearing.

As soon as the sunlight (and my breath) returned, I heard the call of a wild animal in the distance.  Seconds later, another animal responded, and I looked up to find two wild sheep trotting towards me.  Sheep attacks may not be as prevalent as bear attacks, but I’m pretty sure that any animal is dangerous when it feels threatened.  Not wanting to get mauled by a rogue ewe, I stepped aside to let them pass.   The sheep continued to talk amongst themselves, but the pair never went by.

Now, I’m no Doctor Dolittle, but I just knew that they were talking about me.  So, I decided to join in the conversation, doing my best impression of a sheep.  From further up the mountain, the sheep team leader engaged my trash talk, no doubt insulting my mother, but the other two remained silent.  I was trying to figure out what they were up to when all of a sudden I was startled by a violent “BAHHHH!” coming from overhead.  It seems that during the diversion, the two sheep had snuck around back and were now standing above me.  Without thinking, I did what any rational, levelheaded person would do. I ran, leaving the delinquent sheep to high five each other behind my back.

Further up the hill, I stopped to tie my shoe.  I looked up just in time to see a flock of sheep stampeding towards me.  I had no idea what to do in the given situation – play dead, look them in the eye, stop, drop and roll?  Luckily, they ceased their charge and left me alone.  Once safely back indoors, I decided to give myself the rest of the day off.  So, while my friends are taking a guided walking tour of the Rob Roy glacier, in the rain, I’m sitting in a café, sipping hot chocolate, and writing a blog entry.  In all honesty, given how intense my life is right now, a warm drink and wifi is about all the thrill I want or need.

Two weeks ago, I was eating dinner in my apartment in Buenos Aires with two of my best friends.  Until a week ago, I was sleeping on an air mattress on the floor of my high school friend’s house in Auckland.  Just three days ago, a college acquaintance was trying, in vain, to teach me to boogie boarding in the Pacific Ocean.  And yesterday, I was sitting in an apartment in Queenstown, warming myself in front of the fireplace and watching Flight of the Conchords on TV.  How does life change so fast and so dramatically?

When I try to wrap my head around all of the places I’ve been, people I’ve seen, and things that I’ve done in the span of fourteen days, my mind wants to explode, or take a nap.  Which probably explains why I’ve been so tired lately.  Today, I don’t need to jump off or out of anything, row down any bodies of water, or tramp up the side of any landmasses.  I’ve had all of the excitement I can handle for the moment, and there is plenty of adventure still to come.  Instead, I’m taking a mental health day, and dedicating some of my precious and limited travel time to those things that keep me grounded: writing, working out, meditating, and listening to music.  I’m even treating myself to an hour in the hot pools.  Besides, I need plenty of rest for tomorrow morning – I have an 8:30am jump time.

Three Years in Three Suitcases: Packing for New Zealand

LuggageBuenos Aires, Argentina

My mother just confirmed that she is coming to visit me for a week in February.  Her timing could not be more perfect: she arrives exactly 20 days before I leave for New Zealand.  At first I was reluctant to have a guest so close to my departure date, but then I welcomed the idea of something other than my own neuroses nagging me for a while.  Plus, a week living like a tourist in Buenos Aires is a wonderful going away present.  But more than anything, I’m excited that my mom will be here to help me pack.

I am terrible at packing, which is somewhat humiliating given the number of times that I have traveled and moved.  My mother, on the other hand, is the Mary Poppins of packing.  When it comes to deciding what to bring, she is a disaster.  But when it comes to fitting all of the wrong things into a suitcase, she is a magician.  (I think her secret involves a combination of airtight Ziploc bags and sitting on the luggage, but I can’t be sure.) This talent will certainly come in handy when I try to shove three years of my life into two suitcases and a carry-on.

Truthfully, other than a ridiculous amount of shoes, I don’t have that much stuff.  I haven’t exactly been backpacking for the last three years but I haven’t had a permanent address either (unless you count my parents’ house in Michigan).  Since arriving in Buenos Aires, I have lived in eight different apartments, always renting a furnished room in someone else’s home.  I never had to invest in furniture or electro-domestic appliances.   Any consumer impulse I may have has been reined in by my limited space.  My last bedroom didn’t even have a closet. (Though it did have one of those clothes racks that you find backstage at a fashion show.)  This means that I have more discretionary funds for traveling, but it also means that I can’t bring back many souvenirs.

The last time I moved, I was horrified by the fact that I could barely fit the contents of my room into my roommate’s SUV.  Subsequently, I conducted a massive possessions purge, donating bags of old clothes and already read books to charity.  At some point, I convinced myself that I would make a scrapbook of my “trip” to Argentina.  That was back when I still thought that, like a boomerang, I would someday soon return to my point of origin.  So, I held on to ticket stubs from concerts, recitals, planes, trains, and automobiles, brochures from hostels, and maps from cities.  In one day, I threw almost all of it away.  Then, I read every single one of the holiday cards, letters, and postcards sent to me by friends and family.  I considered mailing them back to their owners, as they documented their lives and times more than my own.  But I got rid of them instead. I have regretted it ever since. (Note: some things are worth hanging on to, even if you only look at them once every few years.  Especially virtually weightless pieces of paper containing the private thoughts, events, and insights of loved ones.)

I’ve never considered myself to be materialistic.  When you’re a nomad, it’s easier to travel light.  But I like pretty things and posterity, and sometimes it saddens me that I don’t have more to show for the past three years. Of course, it’s better to experience life than to accumulate stuff, to constantly make new memories rather than live vicariously through mementos.  But one day, I will have my own house (I hope), and nothing to fill it with. My tastes will likely have changed by then, but I would like to be able to pay homage to the person that I once was, and trace the path that led me home.

When I shared this sentiment with my mother, she offered to let me store treasures from my travels at their house.  “All your other crap is still here.  What difference does it make?” But I could picture myself ten years from now, excavating my parents’ basement and coming across an old, dust-covered box. Gently lifting the lid, I would peak inside with excitement and anticipation, and discover serving pieces painted with toucans purchased in Guatemala and a bright blue pillowcase embroidered with an Incan monkey from Peru.  I didn’t want to collect trinkets that I would never use, which is all I can afford right now anyway.

I will have to leave a lot of things behind when I move to New Zealand (or my mother will have to bring an empty suitcase). It pains me to think about it, but how much baggage can one person carry? Besides, the most important things that I will take with me are those that are intangible: relationships, lessons, stories, and experiences.  My time in Argentina has changed me in ways as yet immeasurable and unimaginable.  It has a left an indelible impression, visible in the way that I talk, dress, think, speak, and interact.  What really matters can’t be taken away.  Not even by the Transportation Security Administration.

The Golden Rule of Flying: Everything I Need to Know About Air Travel I Learned on a Flight to Chaco

Chaco, ArgentinaLlegada del primer vuelo de Aerochaco al aeropuerto de Resistencia. (Foto gentileza Diario Norte)

Do you remember when it was fun to fly?  I don’t.  I’m not sure if this was before my time or if I was just too young to remember.

There have been memorable flights.  Like the time our plane was delayed returning from the Dominican Republic.  As we sat on the runway, I caught a commotion out of the corner of my eye.  I looked out the window to see fuel spurting out of the wing.  Moments later, a ground crew arrived with an economy pack of paper towel and a roll of duct tape the size of an airplane wheel.  They patched the hole, refueled the plane, and cleared us for take-off.  We taxied down the runway like Hansel and Gretel walking through the woods, leaving a trail of jet fuel behind us.

There have been memorable fellow passengers.  Like the woman who sat next to me on a TACA airlines flight from Lima, Peru to San Salvador, El Salvador.  Flights may be inexpensive, but you pay for the difference in price in other ways. In the case of my row mate, she had been trying to get home to Guatemala City for over 48 hours, and she was not pleased.  A flight attendant interrupted her ranting to inform her that she would have to get off the plane.  TACA had given her seat to somebody else, and rescheduled her on the next flight. The woman stared the stewardess in the eyes and declared through clenched teeth, “I am not getting off this plane.” Because there were no doors to slam, she loudly buckled her seat belt, grabbed her book out of the front seat pocket, thrust it into her lap, and began to read.

There have even been memorable meals.  Like the time we were served baby prawn and corn sandwiches on the way from London to Paris.  But I cannot recall an air travel experience that I would describe as enjoyable. Not even my senior year of high school, when 48 classmates and I chartered a flight to the Bahamas for Spring Break.

Legend has it that air travel used to be an event worthy of excitement and fine attire.  This was in the 1960s, when the airlines were still regulated and flying was considered a luxury.   The government controlled airfares and routes, keeping prices high to please investors and unions. Taking to the skies was symbolic of economic prowess, and promised those who could afford to fly a whole wide world of opportunities.

Then President Carter introduced deregulation in 1978, and airlines began to compete on quantity instead of quality.  Costs were cut to woo travelers, and flying became available to the masses. Airlines and passengers began to take one another for granted.  We all know that we are going to fly regardless of how poor the service or uncomfortable the plane, as long as we can afford it. Business suits and Sunday dresses were replaced by sweat pants and slip-on shoes, and in-flight meals went from fine-dining served on real china to for-purchase snack packs.  As an economics major and budget traveler, I am thankful for open markets.  But as a frequent flier, I long for the way things used to be.

In recent years, terrorism and paranoia have transformed flying from unpleasant to painful.  There are the invasive questions: “Who packed your bags?  Did anyone give you anything to carry on the plane? Where did you sleep last night?  Did you sleep alone?” There are the multiple security checkpoints, just in case at some point you caused a diversion, ducked around the corner, and removed your glasses.  It’s enough to make even the most innocent person act suspicious.  Which could be problematic given that, according to “If Looks Could Kill,” an article appearing in the October 25, 2008 edition of The Economist, researchers are developing intelligent video surveillance systems that will use body language, gait, facial expressions, and “micro-expressions” to detect hostile intentions.  Don’t let your fear of flying be mistaken for fear of getting caught.

As much as I love to travel, I have always hated the process of getting from point A to point B.  But a recent flight to Chaco changed my perspective on air travel. Every year my friend invites me to spend the holidays with her and her family in Chaco, a province in Northern Argentina. Our flight was to leave from the Aeroparque Jorge Newberry at 9:40am.  My friend promised to call me in the morning so as to synchronize our arrival at the airport.  An hour before the flight was scheduled to depart, my phone rang. My friend was just now on her way to the airport.

I arrived at 9:00am.  There were no lines and the only question I was asked at the Aerochaco check-in counter was, “Can I please see your passport?” The airport has been renovated to look like an upscale shopping mall (the food court even has a sushi bar), and we treated it that way.   After waltzing through security just twenty minutes before our scheduled departure, we headed straight to the nearest clothing store.  I waited as my friend purchased a Christmas gift for her friend’s baby, and tried on the same pair of jeans in two different sizes. We made it to the gate with five minutes to spare, where the gate attendant greeted us like we were school kids late coming in from recess.

We had the plane practically to ourselves.  The flight attendants were nervous and gracious.  Before take-off, I went to the bathroom, and one actually opened the door for me.  After I was asked to stow my backpack in the overhead compartment, my friend joked that they were afraid I might have a bomb in my bag.  That’s right, we joked about having an explosive on a plane.  We arrived on time, and immediately descended from the plane by stairs to find my friend’s father waiting to pick us up.  That’s when I realized that flying doesn’t have to be miserable.  It can actually be carefree, easy, and dare I say it, fun.

The reality is that planes were never pleasant, not even during the golden age of flying. Aimée Bratt, a Pan Am stewardess in the mid-1960s, is quoted in the article “Up, Up, and Away,” which appeared in the January/February issue of the Atlantic, as having remarked,  “how crowded it was on an airplane, no place to put anything, lines for the lavatories, no place to sit or stand … there was no choice of meals, and there were no extra amenities like headsets or hot towels.” If amenities are better since the days before deregulation, then it is our attitudes that have worsened. Flying went from novelty to necessity. Personally, I have been one a plane more than in a car this year, and I no longer bother to look out the window. Article author Virginia Postrel observes that, “Airline glamour was not about the actual experience of flying but about the idea of air travel—and the ideals and identity it represented.”  Flights used to be a final destination, now they are just a mode of public transportation.  And no one gets dressed up to ride the subway.

Sadly, we are desensitized to air travel, no longer recognizing it for the marvel it is. The truth is that no matter how accessible air travel has become, the fact that humans can fly at all is a privilege.  Human flight is an incredible feat of engineering, and one of our greatest triumphs over nature.  Air travel is perhaps one of the best examples of how to use technology to defy limits and expand our horizons. Flying permits us to see the world from a different perspective, to cross natural barriers, and to connect with peoples, cultures, and wonders previously out of reach. You board a plane in one continent, and after 13 hours you get off the plane in a different hemisphere, time zone, and culture, two days later.  That’s not air travel, that’s time and space travel.

Perhaps this is the golden rule of air travel, to treat flying with the respect and admiration that it deserves.  If airlines won’t provide me with glamour and romance, I’ll bring glamour and romance to the airlines.  Maybe long lines, grumpy passengers, jaded flight crews, recycled air, bad movies, and bloating are unavoidable.  But the next time I go to the airport, I’m going to put on my most flattering pair of pajama pants, buy a pair of white gloves, pin a pair of wings to my lapel, and take to the skies with the wide-eyed innocence of a child’s first visit to Disney World.  After all, even if airports aren’t the happiest places on Earth, it is thanks to airplanes that it truly is a small world.

Inflight Travel Advice For Long Plane Rides

Travel Advice for International Flights

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