Reflections of a Traveler
November 21, 2012
As most of you know, I travel a fair amount. On my journeys, I’ve taken to being intentional about observing the things, and the people, around me. What’s similar in each place? What’s different? What do I notice about the people I encounter? What are our topics of conversation? I speak with people on planes, at the terminal gates in airports, waiting in line to board a plane, in lines waiting to go through immigration and customs, and so forth.
In all airports there is that one man who is a sophisticated traveler. His clothes are usually classy, he wears a cool hat and shades, and he charms everyone he encounters … male and female. There’s also that one woman who is dressed to the nines, wearing name-brand clothing, and carrying Gucci bags. Typically, there’s at least one person with pants adjusted so low that you have a good view of his underwear, and have the constant feeling that the likelihood his pants will fall down increases with each step he takes. Every airport has that collection of business travelers who vary in dress, but all have a cell phone in operation either glued to their ear, or operated via blue tooth with a unit attached to their ear. They rush by you in a hurry to catch their flight, or can be found sitting near a power outlet, charging up while working.
There are those people who are oblivious to everyone around them as they engage in loud conversations … or stand, or walk in everyone’s way … talking on a cell phone. At every gate, there are those who hover, hoping to jump the line or be first in their zone, so they can grab space in the overhead bin for their luggage. Then there are those who come in together in groups or as a family, wearing goofy hats or funny clothing purchased on vacation … the kinds of items you know are likely to find their way to the souvenir closet at home, never to be used again. Then, of course, there is any number of airport staff … cleaners, shopkeepers, gate attendants, and security guards … whom, encountering hundreds of thousands of people in a day, seem to appreciate a friendly face and a smile.
I’ve often noticed in places like Colombia a number of people who remind me of Indiana Jones and appear as though they’ve just come out of the jungle. They wear specially designed clothing produced by companies like Eddie Bauer, Patagonia, and L.L.Bean. The pant legs zip off into shorts, and the material is usually a nylon/cotton blend. Their shoes are mountain trekkers designed for walking and all-weather terrains, and their luggage is a duffel that’s a backpack convertible.
In international airports I find myself talking mostly with ex-pats, business travelers, international medicine professionals, and tourists. Most are from the U.S., but some are European. I find that the people I encounter, and the conversations we have, are usually quite interesting. We talk about family, jobs, travel adventures, politics, the Episcopal Church, and life in general.
In US airports, most of my conversations are with internationals. Many are Latino, who I suspect are appreciative to find someone who speaks Spanish. On a recent trip, I spoke with a Jordanian who was returning to work in Atlanta after a visit with his family in Amman. We spoke about Jordan, his work in Atlanta, and his impressions of what is currently happening in the Middle East with the civil strife in Syria, increasing tensions in Jordan, Turkey and Israel, and so forth. I also spoke with an elderly couple from Brazil, returning from a visit with family in Montreal, and en route to visit family in Atlanta. Their son has seven children, five of whom are adopted. They shared their excitement about being surrounded by so many grandchildren through the Christmas holiday. Then there was the young couple divided by employment … she lives in Atlanta and he lives in Los Angeles … who shared their concerns about the reliability and quality of discount airlines as we shared a meal together.
There was a man sitting near me on one of my flights who works for an airline and who has traveled all over the world. We swapped stories and experiences about travel in different countries and shared funny stories about customs and immigration. And speaking of immigration … I was standing in line in Atlanta behind an elderly Muslim woman who had an US passport. She was wearing traditional muslim black dress and a head wrap (in other words a burka). When I think of a burka, I usually think in terms of the garment covering everything, including the face … her burka did not cover her face. She was clearly well-educated and based on her jewelry, I suspect reasonably wealthy. We had a very pleasant conversation while waiting in line, and then she was called to step up to the counter. It took about 10 minutes for her to get through immigration. She was asked many questions (which, of course, I couldn’t hear), was finger-printed and had several pictures taken. After she finished, I stepped up, handed over my passport, and wasn’t asked a single question. My passport, with visas for Tanzania, Bolivia, and Colombia was quickly stamped and handed back to me without being given as much as a second look. Hmmm ….
Are we ever going to “get it?” “Boarding schools” for indigenous populations … internment camps for the Japanese during WWII … ID requirements for anyone “looking Latino” in border states … racial profiling of all kinds in police departments throughout the country … building a retaining wall as a solution to immigration problems … and the list could go on … ARGH!!! I can’t begin to describe the emotions I was experiencing watching her being put through the proverbial mill. Suffice it to say that I was saddened to see that a fellow North American was being treated so significantly different from me.