Sunday, April 24, 2011

Flying around the world. A wild ride.

The United Airways ticket counter hadn’t even opened yet. There we were: eight duffle bags, one dog kennel and four one-way tickets to Kuwait City. Summer was over. We were headed home.

Transatlantic flights are a norm in my family. We have a routine. I don’t complain when we arrive at airports five hours before flights, it’s just my dad’s way of doing things. He’s always uncomfortably early for everything. I think he secretly competes to beat the other passengers to the ticket line. He wins every time.

Then there is his planner, this “magical” planner that never leaves his side. Our lives have been planned out by the minutes and every second recorded in his leather notebook. Waiting in the ticket line, he reviews the page titled, “Kuwait Checklist.” Blackberry charger, check. Garnier Fructis hair gel, check. Peanut M&M’s, check. Toothbrush, check. Why he had to write down toothbrush is beyond me. And the list goes on.

Every summer before leaving Texas, we would make these special stuff-for-Kuwait Wal-Mart trips. We filled our buggies with anything and everything we needed, mostly luxury brands we couldn’t find in the Kuwait supermarket, like Honey Barbeque Fritos, Oreo pop tarts and Herbal Essence Shampoo and Conditioner, to name a few. And we would buy in bulk. Instead of just one or two tubes of toothpaste, we’d buy six. To this day, it’s hard for me to go to Wal-Mart and just buy what I’ll need for a week.

Packing is an art. Living overseas for over 10 years, I’ve become an expert duffle-stuffer. There are a few crucial rules, like wrap all liquids and creams with masking tape and messy foods go in Ziploc bags. These rules have evolved from experience. I’ve had too many outfits ruined by shampoo explosions or melted M&M’s. Who knew traveling had so many technicalities.

Once we passed security and put our shoes and belts back on, that’s when the fun began. My parents walked straight to the gate, like always, to read their World War II novels or nap. We had a lot of time to kill. Once I wore out my magazines about Angelina Jolie or the new fashion trends, other passengers slowly but surely joined us at the gate. Me and my sister wanted to conserve our iPod batteries for the 12-hour flight ahead, so no music – just us and front row seats to a busy airport.

There was only one thing to do: people watch. And we had the time of our lives, just observing, laughing, and guessing peoples’ life stories. There was the couple at the coffee shop, but only one of them was wearing a wedding ring, “Scandalous!” Then there was the Arab family decked out in gold, Prada and Gucci, we were convinced they were members of the Saudi royal family. At airports it is okay to be a stalker. I really brushed up on my eavesdropping skills.

We were taking a direct flight from Washington, D.C. to Kuwait City. My favorite part of flying non-stop to the Middle East was the company of our fellow passengers: an abundance of US Military men. There is always so many of them, old, young, navy, air force, you name it and we’ve seen them. We checked out the fit boys with military buzz cuts and desert camouflage backpacks. They couldn’t have been much older than me. I was hit with a weird sense of reality. There I was boarding the same plane as these beautiful U.S. soldiers, except we were traveling to very different places. I was going home, back to school and my life. They were traveling to a war zone. I can’t even comprehend the courage they must have.

After high school graduation I left Kuwait for good. My sister and I traveled back to Texas alone for the first time. Our dad wasn’t with us but somehow we still managed to get to the airport too early. We waited at Starbucks. While sipping our non-fat vanilla lattes, we met the most inspirational men, ever. They were U.S. military. They commented on how random it was to see two American high school girls causally chilling at the Kuwait International Airport. And they couldn’t wait to get back to their families. The oldest had daughters about our age. His eyes lit up as he showed us his family pictures. It was refreshing to hear their stories and exciting adventures.

Now, being in college, I have to make those transatlantic flights by myself. I flew to Bahrain this summer to visit my family. Traveling alone was just not the same. I didn’t arrive super early like my dad, I didn’t have to pack a truck-load of shampoo and toothpaste, and I didn’t have my little sister there to people-watch with. I waited in terminal C, alone, and watched waves of people pass by. It was clear, life is all about people. Whether it’s our loving families or casual conversations with strangers at the airport, interactions and relationships shape our lives. I love airports.