Getting There Can Be Half the Fun!

I love traveling—returning to familiar cities, reconnecting with friends and family, and going to new places where exploration energizes my spirit. Barring long security lines and flight delays, I don’t even mind the hours spent in airports too much. Of course travel can be stressful, but I prefer to frame it as an adventure. Reaching my destination is the whole point, certainly, but why not enjoy the getting there as well?

Creating “feel good” moments along the way can make a huge difference. Many airports are filled with ever changing displays of art, and I love finding unique pieces in unexpected places. (Always look up!) People-watching can be entertaining and sweet. A few weeks ago I was behind a cheerfully dressed older couple who held hands as they laughed and strolled as though in a park and not a crowded airport. My heroes!!

airport art and entertainments

Airport Feel Good Moments

I walk as much as possible between the hours of confined sitting, but I might treat myself to a 15 minute chair massage, or a quiet hour in a sky lounge. I once spent a long layover in DFW at an empty wine bar, chatting with the hostess while enjoying a glass of bubbly and a delicious light meal. The hours passed quickly and pleasantly.

I usually get a window seat and I never tire of the view outside that little porthole: Mono Lake, erupting volcanoes, oxbow lakes, Stone Mountain, icebergs, Greenland, Caribbean islands, the hills of East TN, and ships entering the Panama Canal at dawn are a few of the recent visual delights.

sights from the sky

 

Then there are the cloudscapes, pastel sunrises, and kaleidoscope colored sunsets. 

sunsets rises and clouds

 

There’s so much more to see than the back of a seat. Perhaps I just crave visual stimulation, but I can’t imagine closing yourself (and your shade!) off to all these sights. Movies and books are for the middle of the flight!

Traveling alone offers its own opportunities and I am that person who will talk to anybody. I have no qualms about starting up a conversation with whoever I find myself  next to. At the very least, it can result in a few minutes of pleasant conversation, shared laughter over travel miseries, or an exchange of useful information. You never know who you’ll enjoy a brief moment of connection with. Exchanging more than a brief greeting with the flight crew has earned me special treats like cockpit visits, extra ice cream, and more, although that’s not why I do it.

An attendant on a flight out of San José once came over to chat when he saw my Tennessee destination. He’d found a great Italian restaurant in the middle of nowhere and wondered if I’d heard of it—La Cucina. Of course! It’s one of my favorite places! We excitedly talked about this hidden gem near Mountain City where he planned to retire. Let me tell you, it’s a very small world when Costa Rica and Mountain City, TN meet up!

One of my recent trips was filled with remarkably good vibes and “small world” surprises. It was the “getting there is half the fun” ideal.

leaving el coco

Juan Santamaria Airport and approach, Costa Rica

 I arrive at the airport at 5 a.m. knowing my first flight is leaving 2 hours late, but despite a new departure time of 9:30, I had to beat morning rush hour. I’ve already had to rebook my second flight, and thanks to the marvels of technology, I was able to do that at 3:30 a.m. when I was notified of the delay.

While in the check-in line I overhear the professionally dressed young man behind me speaking excellent Spanish. Then I hear his heavy southern drawled English. He is chatting to someone about the difficult situation in Nicaragua where he works. Of course, I’m too intrigued to stay silent, and I turn around.

“I couldn’t help but overhear that you’re based in Nicaragua right now—that must be pretty intense.” And we’re off! Because obviously, he likes to talk to strangers, too. It goes something like this:

“Where are you from?”

“Alabama. You?”

“Tennessee.”

We are much amused at our shared southern roots and our living in Latin America. There are fewer of our kind than you might think ‘round these parts! He runs a community development program in Nicaragua. We are both interested in one another’s personal experiences in Latin America, but his flight is boarding, so we quickly exchange contact information. It’s an engaging ten minute encounter and a great start to what will be a particularly unique travel day.

When it’s time for me to board, I say silent prayers for safe and smooth travels, and for what my family calls seatmate lottery. This means an experienced frequent flyer who settles in quickly, respects the limited space requirements, honors the unwritten code of abbreviated conversations, and is friendly but not intrusive.

A loud, overly chatty woman wearing heavy perfume is my personal seatmate nightmare, right up there with the large man whose fishing vacation buddies plan to celebrate exuberantly throughout the flight. And, please, God, don’t give me a snorer for the overnight! But, I digress.

The chances of scoring a winning seatmate are significantly increased by flying first class, and I’ve sprung for a first class ticket this time. I’ve flown overnight in sardine class more than a few times, but I couldn’t bear the thought of doing it on this lengthy trip. As I reach my seat I’m a little surprised to find that my seat mate is a teenager flying alone. He’s been in Costa Rica on a student exchange program, and is excited to get home after months away. I ask him if Atlanta is his final destination, and he says no, he’s flying into a small town in Tennessee. Really?! Smiling, I ask where exactly.

“Tri-Cities,” he says, and I start laughing.

“I’m from Kingsport.” (one of the three cities in the Tri) And now it’s his turn to laugh.

“I’m from Johnson City,” he says.

“What are the chances,” we both say together. He had played in the same orchestra my daughter once played in, and we know some of the same people, of course.

“So, will you be stopping at Pal’s on the way home?” I ask.

He grins from ear to ear. “OMG yes! I haven’t had decent sweet tea in months! Then he adds, “this is great. Talking to you is almost like already being  home.”

It’s just too funny that two random people on a plane in Costa Rica connect over this small town burger chain nationally renowned for its tea and its “Sudden Service.” It’s the first stop out-of-town natives make when they return for a visit. We immerse ourselves in our own entertainment for the rest of the flight. I wish him well as we deplane, and I’m a little envious of his destination. Talking to him was a bit like being back home for me, too.

Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson

Atlanta International Airport

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the busiest airport in the world, and I’ve been connecting through it since it was a single building. For as long as I can remember, it’s been “under construction,” yet the security lines one must endure upon entering the US seem to get longer and less efficient each year. Today it’s about 80 degrees in a room filled to capacity with snaking lines that are barely moving. Not fun. With Global Entry, Clear, and carry on luggage only, I can usually get through quickly, often catching up with my flight’s crew on the Plane Train, but there are days like this.

At long last I am through and at my gate. There are no empty seats, so I join the small group milling about near the front. An older lady in a wheel chair sits quietly, looking weary. No one seems to be with her and I feel sorry for her. “Long day?” She smiles and sits up.

“Yes. I’ve been traveling aaall day,” she says. “How about you?” I tell her I was at my first airport at 5 a.m. and am also running out of steam. She asks where I’m coming from and when I say Costa Rica, her eyes light up, and she exclaims, “my homeland!”

She was born in Costa Rica but now lives in New York. She begs me to speak Spanish to her because she misses hearing Costa Rican Spanish. Her granddaughter returns with some snacks, and I am glad to see she isn’t traveling alone. We spend the next few minutes chit-chatting. She gives me hug after hug as though I could somehow reconnect her to the country she loves. She wants a picture of us.

“I wasn’t even supposed to be on this flight,” I tell her. And she answers, “you were meant to be here to cheer me up and give me good energy. This has been a blessing for me.” Awww. How do you explain something like this? I am the one feeling blessed.

NYny sunset skyline

New York’s JFK is my last US airport connection. I’ve never been here and thanks to my unexpected flight change, I have only minutes to make my connection. I find myself smooshed into a shuttle bus literally stuffed with travelers. Then we sit there. A gorgeous sunset bathes New York City in golden light beside us, but few notice it. Many of us have close international connections to make and the tension is palpable. Kids are fussy. Grownups are fussy. The bus doesn’t move.

Suddenly a male voice from the back begins to sing, “Start spreading the news, we hope we’re leaving today, don’t wanna be a part of you, New York, New York.” We all burst out laughing! It was brilliant. Everybody is laughing and chatting as we finally start moving.  Parents and kids start singing The Wheels on the Bus. Moments after reaching our building some of us are practically running to get to our gates in time.

As we sprint, a young man from the bus strikes up a conversation about where I’m from and where I’m going. When he hears Costa Rica, he gets excited. “My parents are planning to go to Costa Rica next year! It is so cool to meet you!” By the time we reach our gates which are across from each other, he’s got my contact information and my promise to answer his parents if they write.

Five breathless minutes later my flight boards, and this first day of travel comes to a “high in the sky” end. When I awaken the next morning, we are somewhere over Germany, and an hour or so later, after the easiest international entry I think I’ve ever encountered, I’ve arrived in Prague, Czech Republic.

I end up in the taxi of a friendly young Czech who carefully shows me the GPS route on his phone and reiterates exactly how long it will take to get to my destination. He’s obviously trying to make sure I’m not uncomfortable riding alone with him, which I appreciate. He asks dutifully about where I’m coming from, what it’s like, and so forth. He points out some of the sights and apologizes for the traffic. What traffic? It’s incredibly orderly and efficient. Nothing like traffic in San José, I tell him. He wishes me a good visit and says I am the first person from Costa Rica he has met. “If all Costa Rican women are as nice and beautiful as you, I must go there,” he adds.

It’s offered sweetly and sincerely, and I laugh as thank him for his kindness. First, I could be his mother, and second, I’ve been traveling for over 30 hours now and have had maybe 5 hours of sleep in the last two nights put together. Beautiful is definitely not how I would describe myself at the moment. He’s earning his tip, for sure!

A minute later we pull up at my daughter’s building just as she is walking up the sidewalk. My four year old grandson runs up to hug me and even the baby who barely knows me in person smiles at me. The driver takes my small carry-on out for me, and thanks me for being such a nice passenger. My daughter mentions that he seems particularly friendly. I won’t understand how true this is until later in the week when I learn how standoffish most Czechs are. The luck of the draw has smiled on me, it seems.

As we walk in my daughter asks, “so, how was your trip?”

What can I possibly say? “It was truly incredible!”

Not every trip I take is as special as this one, of course, but most of them are pretty darn good. I’ll be off again in a few weeks and I’m already anxious to see what fun awaits on the way from here to there. The sky’s the limit and I’m the eternal optimist. Bring it on!