Happily Adrift in Airworld
Eric Weiner: On his love for the places so many hate, from Amsterdam's Schiphol to Doha International
01.19.10 | 11:57 AM ET
I recently endured a 13-hour layover at Doha International Airport. No, endured is not the right verb. Enjoyed is more like it. Savored. You see, my dirty little secret is that I actually like airports. I look forward to spending time in them—even the bad ones—and could happily spend months ensconced in a transit lounge like that character in the Tom Hanks movie “The Terminal.” Only I’d be there not because of some visa problem but by choice.
I realize this probably seems—how to put this?—insane. Most travelers view airports the same way they view an annual physical—something to dispense with as quickly as possible and, hopefully, with a scrap of dignity remaining. Not me. I love the self-contained, benevolent universe that is Airworld. Suspended between coming and going, neither here nor there, I can breathe again. For me, a layover is like that small, barely perceptible gap between thoughts, a blissful intermission between did-I-leave-the-coffee-maker-on and how-will-I-ever-meet-my-deadline. Paradise.
Airworld doesn’t make any demands of me. It doesn’t ask me to behave in a certain way, only that I take my shoes off when told and spread my arms like a scarecrow. That I can handle. There are no deadlines in Airworld, except the one printed on my boarding card. That, too, I can handle. There is very little crime in Airworld (all those uniformed people with guns might have something to do with it) and nobody ever gets lost, at least not for long. The best thing about Airworld, though, is time. It’s elastic, stretching into infinity—or until the 3:35 p.m. to Chicago, whichever comes first.
Airworld is also a great place for amateur anthropologists like myself. You can’t beat the people watching, especially at airports like Doha International, a crossroads between East and West. Backpackers with their Teva sandals jostle alongside Muslim women covered head-to-toe in burkhas. I like to play guess-the-nationality or concoct plausible scenarios for my fellow travelers. That man, the blond one with the broad smile and dainty gift bag from Duty Free, is en route to Milan to meet his Italian girlfriend. Those two, the couple with the matching Louis Vuitton luggage, are taking their last vacation as a couple, though they don’t know it yet. The genius of this game is that, provided I don’t actually talk to these people, I can never be proved wrong.
A common complaint about airports is that they’re all the same. I don’t think that’s true. Each airport is different, albeit in subtle ways, and it’s these small differences that I revel in. The luggage carts at Dubai track differently from those at Denver. The lounge chairs at Hong Kong feel different from those in Kuala Lumpur. Airports even smell different. To this day, I still associate India with the pungent, slightly sweet aroma of Indira Gandhi International Airport. (I later learned that the odor is actually that of airborne pollutants, but I still adore it.)
One of my favorite airports is Amsterdam’s Schiphol. Security lapses aside, it’s a thing of beauty. For starters, it’s a manageable size. You can get anywhere on foot. No need to take a train or helicopter between terminals. Schiphol, like all truly great airports, coddles you in the warm glow of fluorescent lights, stale air and the promise of endless possibilities. You exit the jetway, look around and gasp, Oh my God, there is so much to do. To enter Schiphol is to feel like an 8-year-old entering Disney World for the first time.
I once spent 12 of the happiest hours of my life at Schiphol. I shopped. I got a massage. I enjoyed an excellent meal in a faux beach-front café. I meditated. And yet I had not depleted all of the possibilities. Not by a long shot. If I had more time, I could have tried my hand at roulette at the casino and, assuming I lost my shirt, as I usually do, I could buy a new one in Duty Free then salve my wounded pride at the airport bar and, finally, sleep it off at the new capsule hotel.
Ultimately, though, it’s not what you can do in Airworld that draws me back again and again but what you can’t do. You can’t wander too far. Ironically, nowhere on the planet forces us to be here now as much as the one structure designed to get us someplace else.