Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Bench of Left Behind Travelers

I knew I only had an hour from when the plane touched down in Seattle to get all the way through customs and out to meet my shuttle to Sequim.  I couldn't hear out of my left ear due to a lingering cold and an enormous amount of sinus pressure. I had been traveling for about two full days, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up and go to sleep. Sleep, however, was not in my near future.

"Do you live in Sequim?" said the border control agent.
"No I don't live there. I'm just visiting for Christmas," I said still not able to hear very well.
"Well where do you live then?" he replied.
"New Jersey. No actually, my parents live there. I don't live there any more. I'm moving to Washington. It's complicated."
Yes, I actually told Mr. Border Patrol that I couldn't tell him where I lived because it was too complicated. Knowing that he wasn't getting anywhere with me and seeing the ever increasing line behind me, I was sent through with a nod and roll of the eyes.

All was going well, and I was moving through the various lines fairly quickly. But it wasn't fast enough. There were just too many people arriving from all sorts of international locations all at the same time. Dragging myself through the whole airport out past baggage claim to door 00, I was met with freezing temperatures and no shuttle bus. I was 20 minutes late. Luckily I had a back up plan, but it wouldn't arrive at the airport for a couple of hours.

I found the perfect spot to rest until my ride arrived. It was a set of 3 chairs connected to each other in true airport style. I was soon joined by an older woman probably in her 60's. And soon after that, a third woman a little older than me filled in the third chair. There were plenty of other seats available, but for some reason the three of us sat together.
"What day is it?" the older woman turned to me and asked with a hint of confusion in her voice.
What she didn't realize, however, was that I wasn't really sure what day it was or what time zone I was in. The only reason I knew I was in Seattle was because there was a big sign that said I was.

I looked at her and said, "That all depends on where you are, but I think it's the fourteenth."
"So it's not the fifteenth then?" she replied.
"I don't think so. I'm pretty sure it's the fourteenth, but I've been on a plane for a really long time." I said.
The other woman laughed, and suddenly the three of us were sharing a moment.
"I told my kids to pick me up on the fifteenth," the older lady said to me.  "I guess I'll have to call them and tell them to come and get me today."

She fiddled with her phone and laughed about her mistake. I have no idea how long she had been sitting in the airport. It could have been hours. The baggage claim area had cleared out, and all of the people on the arriving flights had left except for me and the two women sitting in the adjacent seats. We were the bench of left behind travelers like the island of misfit toys in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
The older lady began to tell her story.

She had spent the past four months with divided time between Greece and Iraq, but it was the two months in Iraq that I found particularly interesting. There was nothing different about what she was telling me and the pictures she was showing to me, but that's why it piqued my interest. While most Americans view Iraq to be a dangerous and barren place, this woman weaved together a beautiful image of the northern part of this previously off limits nation.

"We went to a beautiful hotel and had a nice lunch meeting with important government officials," she said as she flicked through the photos on her phone.

I sat silently as I looked at pictures of a city that could have been pretty much anywhere. There was traffic and buildings and people walking around the sidewalks.

"A lot has changed since I was there thirty four years ago. I couldn't even find my school, but it's a beautiful place."

The other lady and I sat on either side of her smiling when we saw pictures of family members and nodding when she told us about the things that they did.

"One day, my family and I went up to the mountains. We had a campfire. The children had machine guns. It's just what they do there. There's no one around, so they shoot the guns as a game. One of the little boys shot the gun, and it backfired. It scared him, so he will probably wait until he is a little older until he plays with the machine guns again. Everyone has the guns. It's just how it is over there."

Immediately I began to think about how wrong I had been to think that entire countries in the Middle East were the way I had seen them on the news with constant bombings and unstable situations. I should know better being the traveler that I like to think that I am, but I'm guilty of being an American and letting my knowledge of a place be guided by some news clips.

The other lady got up then to check to see if her ride had arrived. The older lady went back to the task of trying to call her children to see if one of them would come pick her up. Within minutes we were strangers again. There was no goodbye. They simply left with no expectation of having to adhere to any social standard, and we were all ok with that.