Summer journey westward
The trip starts the way these trips always start, with a very slow beginning at the Dushanbe airport. For some reason check-in tends to be a slow and painful process, with lines that have nowhere to go, filled with slightly confused travelers that are already sleep deprived, since they must turn up at the airport at 3 am. This particular morning was clearly going to be more excruciating than normal when I heard those fateful words “the system is down.” This is bad news at any airport, and in Dushanbe it slowed things to a crawl. It took over an hour for the check-in clerk in front of me to process four parties, including myself. At that rate, it is miraculous our plane ever left.
Two other sub-plots were going on in Dushanbe airport. Being summer, there are many travelers engaged in the “classic” bicycle trek through the Pamir Mountains of eastern Tajikistan. Several groups of these were on their way out of Tajikistan with their bikes. Although this is as predictable as the summer heat, airport staff seemed remarkably unprepared. While some were told to take their bikes through one unmarked door, I saw another woman told to take her bike behind the counters and lay it on the luggage belt – this of course was a bad idea as the bike was too wide for the luggage belt and she had to stand there feeling like an idiot until a friend helped her get the bike down. The other bit of theatre that usually happens is when the customs men (they are mostly men) want to “see” your money – it gives literal meaning to the phrase “show me the money”. Although it is a ridiculous request, I went along to see what would happen… In the end he saw my small collection of Tajik somoni and US dollars and decided that I probably hadn’t robbed the central bank on my way out.
The sun was up by the time we boarded at 5:30 am, and five hours later we landed in hot and humid Riga, which was crowded with travelers coming and going, but at least is quick to get around and the staff are all friendly and helpful. Even the airport food is good by airport standards. I said goodbye to friends who had traveled with me from Dushanbe, and boarded the flight to Paris, where the weather was cold, gray and wet.
Charles de Gaulle airport is a big place. The 1970s architecture of beehive shaped buildings filled with people-moving, overlapping escalators is charming but the sheer size of the place was a bit disorienting after the living room size airport where I had started. An inexplicable lack of signs forced me to ask directions several times, but eventually I found the train to my terminal.
The other sub plot in all international travel these stays is of course the security rituals. They vary quite a bit from country to country. In Dushanbe they are perfunctory and usually very little happens. At least I don’t get a hassle about bringing my water on the plane. In Riga they were very serious – my wallet and passport got a special scan and many people were getting patted down. In Paris we had the old liquids dilemma – you can’t take the water with you but we won’t confiscate your Nalgene water bottle. Which means you drink all of it on the spot or find another solution – in this case the inspector produced another bottle to pour the water into. I half-intentionally forget to get rid of my water before security because the whole process is so annoying, but it is certainly very good for the water sellers at the departure gates and on the flights.
I am always fascinated by the waves of people washing through a large airport like Charles de Gaulle. People from a hundred different countries, and thousands of different stories. If you have the time to observe, you glimpse the sheer diversity of international travelers in 2011. An ever-shifting and moving United Nations.
Onward across the Atlantic to Atlanta, Georgia, I sat near a French family headed for a tour of the U.S. Starting in New Orleans they would eventually make their way to Boston via Washington and New York. I am always fascinated but what travelers to the U.S. choose to see, what will form their impression of America. And how the reality is different from their impression when they arrive…
Finally, the last leg to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I felt Philadelphia even before I arrived as I sat next to a baseball coach from Swarthmore College who had been traveling around the south recruiting potential students for his team. Soon we had landed but I knew my bag would not be there. It was taking a tour of Paris, so I filed my claim and made a check of the belt just in case. While I was there waiting for my sister to arrive, I noticed a group of People to People Ambassadors who were also returning from Europe. They had that glow I had seen many times before on young travelers returning from a big trip – excited by their experience and happy to be home.