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airports

At the end of the world

The biggest market I’ve ever seen.
Santiago, November 2021.

Chile, my dear Chile. Fancy seeing you again. I’d forgotten, for a moment, how arid your hills are.

It took me a little while to get over here. In Madrid, in that never-ending hall, the one that rolls out to infinity with gates enough for the entire world to visit, I helped a guy who was trying to go to Mexico find his flight. He was confused because the letters and numbers were repeating themselves, the terminal, the subterminal, the gate, the same icons on a loop, like knowing a place by its GPS coordinates but not its name. I was confused because my gate number changed as I was leaping between moving walkways. I was confused because I was tired, and I had a headache and I was clutching a thousand forms: vaccine passes, pcr test results, declarations of the absence of symptoms, the location in which I would stay, all those numbers and words used to identify which country, gender and age group I belong, boarding passes, taxi reservations, evidence that someone will pay if I get sick. But I heard someone say, “Cachai” as we waited at the gate, and suddenly the number of documents seemed irrelevant. Do you get what I’m saying? A blink and I was in Madrid, another blink, gone again. But the Chilean words stuck around, with a reassuring presence.

We came backwards through Santiago airport, coming in through what must be newly built gates, walking through doors designed for the flow to be in the other direction, passing ‘no entry’ signs. I wandered through this labyrinth, following the guy in front. Chileans can queue. Without thinking (and therefore without worrying), I allowed myself to be herded through. I wondered how the Chileans were going to test us all and process all our documents and I imagined that I might be awhile in the airport, but they attacked the problem with many hands, applying parallel processing: countless people siting at countless desks collecting the countless documents in a building constructed like a maze. Fodder for Borges, I thought.

I was given a sticker to identify me as in isolation and sent down the escalator for my pcr test. I keyed my passport number into the machine and then moved into the next queue for testing. My first test, in Berlin, had been a gentle affair and I had wondered afterwards why people made such fuss about it. In England, my pcr test had been less comfortable but in hindsight not so bad. In Chile, I was reminded of those hooks which the ancient Egyptians used to remove a dead person’s brain through their nostrils.

I went up another escalator and followed people through another corridor. We’d made it to arrivals, and I recognized the room where we waited in our lines to pass through immigration. Slow lines, because the open desks could be counted on one hand, discarding the thumb and most of the fingers, and the staff kept wandering off to do other things. I didn’t feel rushed. I’d seen the sunshine through the floor to ceiling airport windows. Peace had settled upon me. In line, I helped a Spaniard connect to the free airport wifi so that he could call his children and tell them he’d arrived. He offered me chewing gum. The lady at the immigration counter stamped my passport with the pretty multicoloured Chilean stamp, and I was in.

Wheeling my jenga tower of suitcases out through the building, I found a bottled water dispenser, inserted my pesos and the machine refused to dispense the water. I tried another machine: it didn’t work either. I wasn’t the only one wanting water, and I shared consolations with a stranger – at least the machine refunded our pesos. We met up again a few minutes later, buying water from a little shop. A woman served me, handing me a bottle of water which was cheaper than those sold in the machine. Perhaps the gods were helping out.

Thankfully, I knew what I was doing because I had clear instructions from Chilean friends. I found my driver, a professional chap who squirted my hands with sanitizer and did all that moving my luggage around, and he drove me to a friend’s flat. The receptionist appeared and these two men transferred my three suitcases into a shopping trolley. I just stood there, while all this happened, with an expression halfway between a sunshine smile and goldfish thinking. I was led into a lift, and left there with the trolley, the receptionist pressed the button, sent me up and phoned my friend to notify her of the guest on her doorstep.

I had arrived.

How scary can an e-passport machine be, really?

fear
Street art. Malaga 2016.

The flight back from Malaga ended in a rather distressing experience at Manchester Airport.

Almost all of my companions on the aeroplane had not grown up with the Internet and whilst technology to me, who had my own computer when I was 6, can sometimes be a bit daunting, to many of my fellow passengers such an exciting and innovative technology as an electronic passport scanner was as terrifying as a mysterious disease or venomous spider.

This isn’t a blog post about doom, so I shan’t concern myself with the idea that maybe these people are right to have such fears. Fear of something complex, especially if it uses your personal data, is understandable. Yet, sometimes we do get carried away with it.

Like in the queue for the e-passport machines

These people had been contentedly sitting in a metal box in the sky for the last couple of hours, and they’d been perfectly fine playing candy crush on their iPads, arguing over the last muffin and dozing gently to the hum of the engines, but once their feet were on the ground and they had to wait in a queue for ten minutes, they became much less bearable.

Jokes are made about the English people’s ability to queue, but I’m not so convinced. Whilst these men and women didn’t push or shove, they weren’t very good about making the experience a pleasant one.

They just kept complaining

The more complaints and worries were aired, the more people didn’t listen to the instructions, or read the instructions, or dare to just stick the damn passport in every way until it worked. I pitied the poor man standing at the front of the e-passport machines who had to repeat himself again and again in his loud, bellowing, increasingly desperate voice. At the back of the queue, the tension increased. More mistakes were made, progress slowed and the queue took longer.

Now I’m not going to say that getting through the e-passport machine is always a smooth adventure, it’s not, but it most certainly isn’t the end of the world. I couldn’t help but think that if there was less complaining and more listening then the queue would move much faster. Yet the queue was stalled by the immense fear associated with scanning your passport and looking at a camera.

When we’re emotional, especially when it’s a feeling like fear that we really don’t want to accept we feel, we react in some truly creative ways. I had underestimated the range of possible complaints. It’s alright complaining about the staff cuts and the impersonal nature of the procedure, but it’s unfair to also expect cheap air fares.

I don’t have much tolerance for complaining

Complaining about immigration, then stating that you’d be better off in the immigration line because there are fewer people waiting in it, and then going on a rant about immigrants when you have a house in Spain also seems rather unconsidered. I found filling out the forms to get my Egyptian visa at Cairo airport stressful enough, I wouldn’t envy doing it with children or for a more complex visa.

Complaining that the queue was much slower now that the people had been replaced with machines also seemed naive. Unless of course you’ve been flying through Manchester Airport, from Malaga, and landing at a time where there was only one plane load of people to be processed, like ours, and only if you’d measured the time taken for the whole plane load of people to pass through passport control then could you really make a comparison. More likely, this wait was more acute because it was the only one currently being experienced. And dear man, you were at the back.

By the time the family ahead of me got to the front of the queue, the oldest lady, presumably the mother or mother-in-law of the chief complainer looked at the machine as if when she stepped into it, she would be gobbled up.

I’m not saying only this one man was complaining, this was most certainly not the case, no, every conversation I heard was a complaint.

Why do we pick a fear and then exacerbate it?

I do not know, but I do know that fear stops us listening. Whilst I’m unafraid of e-passport machines or silence, I am afraid of many things, like being judged as not good enough, conflict, getting my interpretation of people wrong, and disappointing anybody.

Most of the time though, my problem is in recognising that I’m afraid. Fear often appears in disguise.

We rarely dare say to a family member or friend, is this you speaking, or your fear?

Which means most of the time, when if comes to working out why I’m upset or angry or suddenly having a rant about something I didn’t even know I cared about, I have to remind myself to stop and consider what else I’m worrying about. Fear makes me behave irrationally. It limits my ability to be creative and warm. It makes me rather a pain to be with.

This blog post is one big complaint, and I think it’s because I am terrified of life being swept away in mindless negativity. Quite frankly, these people were old. They were stood in the company of their loved ones and were ignoring each other. I waned to point out that standing in the passport control queue might not be the most wondrous place to be, your legs might ache, you might be thirsty, hungry and tired, but each minute that passes is another minute you’re never getting back.

Soon, you die.