Why an Airport is Like My Aquarium

In here, everyone gives their emotions a free run and everyone is on the phone. Everyone is also equal.  
The airport is a perfect microcosm of the larger world outside. Photo by AMR Image/iStock.

Airports make me bold. Given the security we see in international airports today, bravado might not be the safest of emotions, yet I find myself feeling dauntless. This sense of bravado, or even freedom, is perhaps often born when amidst strangers. As you look around a terminal and watch its people, you are left with the abiding sense that the airport is just a dry run for the destination. You are not there yet, but your journey has already begun. You feel like a different person from the one you are at home. At least I do. I feel more responsible—my bags, passport, identity card must be handy, the hot chocolate finished before I board the flight lest I spill it. I am confident about the supervision-free choices I make—a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream (the large one) from duty-free, the aisle seat over the window, and people-watching from my perch in the first floor coffee shop. I can be whoever I want to be. So can everyone else.

In all my travels, I have found that there is nothing more amusing than watching people at airports. Confused first-time travellers, people in business suits glaring at their phones, headphone-wearing jaywalkers, excited children, bored adults, cosy couples, quiet readers, and backpackers with their 20-odd kilo rucksacks, are all found at airports. What intrigues me is that no matter what the purpose, everyone and everything is in a constant state of motion—machines buzzing, people talking, reading, or thinking, and a constant play of emotions on every face. While the machines don’t have much of a choice, it is the study of emotions that is interesting.

I have never boarded an aircraft without saying goodbye to some people, even though I knew I’d be back in couple of days. Maybe it’s the idea of leaving a place, maybe it’s the uneasiness of being disconnected for those few hours, or the trust we place in technology we don’t completely understand. Whatever it is that governs these emotions, I’ve hardly seen anyone who isn’t on their phone texting or talking just before take-off. And nine times out of ten, I assume they are communicating with people they care about. That is another thing that is common between everyone in an airport—the heightened emotions and the need to communicate with someone. The inference could be presumptuous but maybe secretly we’re still awestruck by the mysterious sky, or maybe it’s simply comforting to know that there is someone dear and familiar beyond the runway borders.

Recently I was telling someone how airports fascinate me. Turns out airports fascinate him even more. One of the first things he said to me was, “Airports sort of make everyone equal. Time binds everyone. They have to abide by it. Everyone is going somewhere.” It made me think that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you know, you still have to do what everyone else is doing if you want to catch your flight. This brought to mind an instance from my travels last month. The family in front of me in the immigration queue couldn’t find some of its members. Oblivious to the fact that his brothers and two of his children were lost in the airport, I saw a grandfather listening intently to his grandchild explaining flights, airplane food and earaches. I chuckled remembering the time I did the same with my grandfather when I was about six.

I took my first flight at three months old, and by the time my grandfather was on his second flight in his 50s, I’d already taken a few, so it seemed natural that I should explain things to him. Maybe if we were taking a train or bus, I would be the one listening. I was more comfortable at the airport than he was but after the conversation I’d just had, I realised that to the grouchy security personnel stamping my boarding pass and wise-looking gentleman in the next line, it didn’t really matter what I knew.

The little universe within the airport is in many ways a perfect microcosm of the larger world outside. There are characters and stories, rules and systems, romanticism and facts. As writer Alain de Botton says, “Had one been asked to take a Martian to visit a single place that neatly captures the gamut of themes running through our civilisation…then it would have to be to the departures and arrivals halls that one would head.”

  • Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.

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