Travel – The Surreal Experience

Alarm at 4:30. In car at 6:00. Flight at 9:30. First layover at 6:00. Second layover at 7 the next day. Arrive at destination at 11:30. Hotel at 1.

I am finding the process of travel interesting. I’m not talking about “traveling”, which, to most of us, means being someplace else for an extended period of time, other than where we typically lay our heads . No, I’m talking about the actual act of “travel”, known as the time between leaving the house and officially arriving at your planned destination. More and more, I’m beginning to see this time frame as a limbo here on earth, a purgatory of our own making, and one which, for the most part, we volunteer to participate.

There are several components to this. Having been to more than my fair share of train stations and airports, I can safely say that these are locations that exist solely as entrance and exit points, and are rarely destinations in of themselves, based on their own merits. Rare is the person who flies into O’Hare for the purpose of being in O’Hare. The typical person, once arriving at an airport or train station, will endeavor to leave it as soon as practical.

But until that moment, these places become of a formal community of strangers. And, depending upon the location, the size of that community can be small to quite large. Consider for the moment that Atlanta’s airport, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, during its peak period on any given day, makes it anywhere between the fourth to sixth most populous city in Georgia.

To put it another way, Hartsfield–Jackson is a city that has, on average, 100,000 different citizens every day. Imagine if all of the residents of Green Bay, Wisconsin simply upped and left one day, to be replaced by 100,000 new residents, and then have this repeat itself day after day after day.

Now add in the second component, that of time. Being part of a transitory citizenry means that, almost by definition, everyone is from someplace else. Places where it’s not 3 o’clock in the afternoon, but rather five hours ahead, seven hours behind, or some other time of day. Now you have 100,000 people in this transitory community who aren’t even on the same schedule.

Then there’s the effect of travel upon an individual. When at home, the day rolls in a regular fashion, quite linear. The scheduled events are known by rote, the mailman arrives at noon, one’s partner gets home from work at 5, bedtime is 10-ish. Yes there are events that happen spontaneously, and others that are scheduled purposely outside of the norm, but for the most part, life is a predictable pattern.

Travel takes that pattern and tosses it out the window. Either the flight forces you to get up at an ungodly hour, or your itinerary takes you beyond your time zone, or the actual act of travel requires you to be on the move for over fifteen hours or more. And the further you are away from your home time zone, the more your body rejects the schedule you are trying to fit it into. Most people know this as jet lag.

But jet-lag is what happens after you arrive at your destination. When in the midst of travel, time becomes essentially meaningless. Specific moments in time are important, certainly. You have to be at your gate by a precise moment, or you’ll extend your stay in limbo. But the concept of units of time? They are only important once as a means of prediction or rationalizations of complaints. “We should be in London in three hours” or “I’ve been on this lay-over for seven hours” you’ll often hear. These units of times seem to serve no other purpose. Because travel is directed by the schedules of other people (unless you’re driving), time is little more than a means to express how long we’ve been traveling, or how long we have yet to travel. The idea of the eight hour work day, or 30 minutes it takes to watch a sit-com, or the hour-and-a-half it takes until your partner comes home from work, all of these ideas of time are now non-essential.

Mix all of these components together, and the result is a near orchestrated chaos, a nearly surreal series of events meant to ensure that we end up someplace different from where we started. We give the responsibility of travel to the hands of others, often strangers, and leave ourselves at the mercy of their experience. Our lives, for the most part, are out of our hands. We are tired, amongst strangers, and hoping beyond hope that when we land, it all will have been worth it.

(Note: As you can probably guess, I wrote this elsewhere. My apologies if it comes across as obvious, and/or whiney. It was meant as neither.)