When I say that my trip to the Antananarivo airport last week did not get off to a good start, I mean that I couldn’t find the check in counter for my flight and had to pay someone to escort me there.
“Johannesburg,” the man said to me, nodding to a desk that had a sheet of copier paper taped to it with my flight number written on it.
“Clear as day,” I agreed. “I don’t know how I missed that.”
I still wasn’t exactly convinced that I was in the right place, especially since the first two people in line were speaking with distinct American accents. During my time in Madagascar, I hadn’t met a single U.S. citizen, which led me to believe that these two were most likely already lost and therefore not to be trusted.
Directly in front me was a pint-sized Madagascar woman. She was traveling with three plastic bags and one comically large straw hat. She greeted me by waving a copy of an immigration form in one hand and her passport in the other. When I stepped into line behind her, she shouted what I can only assume translated to, “What the hell am I supposed to do with these?”
Team Johannesburg wasn’t looking strong.
But then, literally in the middle of this mess, I spotted a South African man who looked positively competent. I say this mostly because he, unlike the person to his immediate right, was wearing shoes. Then I noticed that he was carrying both spear-fishing and kite-surfing equipment and I decided that if I was going to get stuck in Madagascar or accidentally flown to an even more remote land mass in the Indian Ocean on account of standing in the wrong line, then at least I’d end up with the likes of him. In the words of my friend Samantha, “This guy is chicken dinner.”
And there I rested, at Anxiety Level Yellow, fairly satisfied that I was in the right place and optimistically wondering if today might be the day that I finally make some progress navigating the disorder of an African airport.
When the ticket counter officially opened some twenty minutes later, I had my answer… and it was a resounding no. Today was not that day. Today was not the day that fears would be conquered or bad habits broken. As it turns out, today was the day that I would resort to fanning myself with the entertainment section of The New York Times and threaten to throw up on a stranger. Because evidently that’s how I respond when a ticket agent even suggests that I might not be able to board a plane.
“You live in Tel Aviv?” the woman asked.
“No,” I said. “That’s my destination.”
“And then where?” she asked.
“Turkey,” I answered.
“You live in Turkey?”
“No,” I said. “I live in New York. I have a long trip planned.” I held up my ten-page itinerary as proof.
“I need to see your return ticket to New York,” she explained. “It’s required.”
I wasn’t exactly surprised that she asked. When I was traveling through South America on a bunch of one-way tickets a few years ago, lots of agents wanted to see my return booking. It was a fair question on her part, but the problem was that I don’t actually have one. My itinerary goes as far as Australia in October. After that, I’m unaccounted for.
“Here’s the thing,” I said to the woman as I draped myself across the counter. “I didn’t book it yet, but I will. Please just check me in.”
“I need a return ticket,” she said.
“No, no,” I answered. “You don’t. It’s OK. It’s totally OK.”
She looked skeptical. “It’s OK?” she asked.
“It’s fine,” I assured her. “I don’t need a return ticket. I need an onward ticket. And I have one of those. I have lots of those actually!” I waved the itinerary again.
And even though what I said was right, I almost couldn’t believe that that’s all it took to convince her to give me a boarding pass.
But still I worried. I worried that someone was going to announce my name and call me back to check-in and we’d have to have the conversation all over again. I worried that I was going to get stopped at immigration with the same questions. I worried that when they scanned my ticket at the gate, the light was going to flash red and I would be turned away. I worried, quite frankly, about every possible thing that could go wrong. And I did it because I like doing it.
My mind is a runaway train. Once I start worrying, no amount of rationalizing or self-soothing can stop it. Reassurance from other people is worthless too. So if ever you find me at an airport stressing about a piece of luggage that hasn’t been lost yet or a connecting flight that isn’t even close to being missed, don’t waste your breath trying to talk me down. I won’t hear a word of it. It’s exhausting – as much for me as anyone who happens to be around me.
Once in a while, when I’m mid anxiety attack, I catch a lucky break and cross paths someone who’s acting even more irrational than I. For some reason, that helps me snap out for it. I guess there’s something about hearing someone else vocalize their most ridiculous fears that makes me realize how pointless it really is.
It was for this reason that I started pacing the terminal and eavesdropping on various conversations in the hopes of finding the craziest person in the Antananarivo airport. Because there is no easier way to convince myself that I would safely board this flight than by finding someone else who was certain that it would crash.
Luckily, I had plenty of lunatics to pick from: a middle-aged German man ranting about the price of a Snickers bar; a business woman who was sure her bag would be lost in Frankfurt based on the fact that her friend once lost one in San Francisco; a grown woman who was complaining to someone (maybe her mother) that the soap dispenser in the bathroom wasn’t working, and, come to think of it, none of them ever do and that’s a real problem; and a dead-eyed white girl who was wandering around terminal and choking on a cheese sandwich. Oh wait, that’s me.
I was still on the prowl when a South African man stopped me mid-chew asked, “Hey. Where did you get that sandwich?”
Unfortunately for him, I got it before I went through security. In fact, I got it before I even got to the airport. Because – get this – I was worried there wasn’t going to be food in the terminal. I told him all that, offered him half and then asked him why he was in Madagascar. We chatted about traveling and work and how awesome South Africa is and in so doing I forgot all about my boarding pass crises – real and imagined. When the announcement came that our flight was boarding, I was so surprised not only that an hour had passed, but that it had gone by in relative peace.
Maybe it was a day for progress after all. Advice I needed yesterday: Talk to strangers. And book a ticket home already.