Does your heart start beating a little faster when you enter Tom Bradley Terminal? Mine does. There is something about the international terminal that is magical. It is different from the Southwest gates that take you to Houston, Phoenix, Norman, or Raleigh.
The minute you set foot in the international terminal you’re primed for shit to happen, and it does. The first thing that happens is all the white people go away. Well, they don’t exactly go away, but they get diluted down to their proper global ratio, which is another way of saying that except for one tiny white fleck the entire globe is either black, brown, or olive.
Aside from the visual, the international terminal slams you with the aural, too. The sound of foreign languages is the most enticing and magical sound there is, and it puts you on notice that there is a whole lot of stuff going on around you that you don’t understand, even though everyone is pretty much saying the same thing, just in a language you can’t grasp.
“Where’s the toilet?”
“Is Aunt Wang picking us up? I don’t see her!”
“The Starbucks is a ripoff here, too!”
“Don’t change money at the airport.”
“My back is so friggin’ sore.”
“Did you remember the Disneyland vouchers?”
It’s always been this way
The first time I was in an international terminal it wasn’t even international. I was eight years old and we were flying to Puerto Rico to visit a couple who my mom had gone to med school with. After graduating from UTMB in Galveston, Pablo and his wife Gloria had returned to San Juan to complete their residencies.
Going from Texas to Puerto Rico made an indelible impression on me. Parts of the trip I remember as clearly as if they had happened this morning; clearer maybe, because I often tend to forget what I had for breakfast as the day goes by. I remember that the Munozes told us not to drink out of the tap; all the water was boiled first.
I also remember the forests and beaches on the other side of the island, especially the little breakfast cabana where I was attacked by a hive of wasps and almost died from the fifty or sixty stings. I remember swimming in the crystal clear water and experiencing the incomparable pain of grabbing a sea urchin, which of course resulted in a handful of spines and a nasty infection. My hand swelled up like a catcher’s mitt and ached for days.
I remember getting bitten by a lizard, falling down the steps at San Juan castle, accidentally stepping into the shower without checking only to find out that the hot water was scalding, and getting a horrible case of diarrhea. It struck in a gushing emission late at night from the upper bunk, and my brother, who was sleeping down below, was roused in a fury and gave me a solid thrashing to go along with the leaky drainpipes that plagued me the entire trip.
The charm of the different
Still, I also remember extraordinary meals cooked by Gloria, long walks with my family in the rain forest, and the dumb mystery of listening to the Munozes and everyone else in Puerto Rico speak Spanish. I also remember how disappointed I was that my parents, who I considered the two smartest people alive, were unable to say a single word in Spanish. It was so humiliating to go to a store or a stall and hear them say, “Do you speak English?”
I don’t know how many international terminals I’ve walked, run, stumbled, dragged, strolled, hurried through, and transited in my life. A bunch. But I’ve never been in one that wasn’t interesting to me, from Cold War Moscow with no lights and no heating, to modern Istanbul with its coffee shops priced in four different currencies, to Dublin, where the entry signs are bilingual in Gaelic, a language that no one, least of all the Irish, is able to speak.
Because of the differences, I think we all have our international terminal security blankets; I have two. One is my book. I have never set foot in an international terminal without a book. The second, more recent one, is a loaf of bread. Before I sallied forth today my wife gave me this gem of airplane food, thrusting into my hand a warm nourishing thing she had just baked. “In case you get hungry,” she said with a gentle smile.
The international terminal with its words and skins and customs and destinations is the gateway of all gateways. And I’m going through it.
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