|Kuster & Wildhaber Photography|
The Man From the Plane
The man in the middle seat desperately sucked in air, then forcefully exhaled. He rocked back and forth, ran his fingers over his eyes and gasped for another breath of air. The wheels of the plane were barely off the ground but it already seemed apparent the vomit bag would be needed.
"Not good," the man said and waived his hand around in a gesture I interpreted to mean "I suck at flying."
I agreed. Not good.
I typically assume the standard anti-social traveler position on planes--ear buds in, torso facing the window, eyes looking everywhere but at the person next to me. But stronger than my hatred of too-chatty seatmates is my dread of being stuck in a tin can with recirculating air that smells of vomit.
So I started talking. I talked about why I was in Jordan (for fun) and where I was going (home via connections in Egypt then Amsterdam) in a language he didn't understand, and then he talked about his family and who the heck knows what else an English/Arabic mixture I didn't understand. The time passed, color returned to his face and the vomit bag stayed in the seat pocket.
When the wheels hit the ground, his face relaxed into a state of visible relief. While we said our goodbyes, the man grabbed his one carry-on bag--a red, cylindrical bag about two feet long--and then disappeared into the crush of people surging toward the door.
The Acceptance of the Gift
The immigration and passport control area was madness. The immigration officials at the far end of the small room were hidden behind a hundred men pushing to get closer. The room was lined with booths from vendors and airport officials, one of which was my key to getting a visa into the country. While I stood there, being jostled by passing travelers while I contemplated which Arabic-language sign said visa, someone tapped me on the shoulder. The man from the plane stood behind me with his cylindrical carry-on bag. With one end unzipped, I could see the top of a circular tin.
"Egyptian sweets. For you. Thank you."
It was a thoughtful gesture, one that can't be refused even if middle-eastern sweets aren't a particular favorite. He melted back into the crowd, and I continued my quest to get a visa with a smile on my face and the tin in my hand.
The Sleep-Deprived Travel Day
That night was one of many occasions in which I thought spending the night in the airport wasn't such a terrible idea, only to remember that it is in fact always a terrible idea. My flight from Jordan arrived in the evening, and I flew out on a different airline early the following morning. Instead of spending money on a hotel room, I plopped down on a bench in the check-in area and spent seven very long hours listening to the same 10 songs, wondering what my Egyptian companions had in their 10 suitcases and dreaming about the bottle of water I forgot to buy before all the stores closed.
Dawn eventually arrived, the airline employees checked in all of the hollow-eyed overnight squatters, I boarded my plane to Amsterdam and promptly fell asleep.
The Standard Airport Interrogation Goes Bad
In this post-9/11 world of travel, airline security is often as changeful as it is strict. On this particular day at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, officials had set up a second security checkpoint at the gate, which is where the problems started.
"Did you pack your own bags?" "Yes."
"Did you ever leave them out of your sight?" "No."
"Have you accepted any packages from strangers?" "Nnooo...oh shit."
"Well you see..."
The airline official's brow furrowed as I explained.
"You see there was this guy on my flight and he seemed distressed so..."
"He seemed distressed? Was he agitated? What was he doing?"
"He just didn't seem to like flying. So I talked to him and he gave me the tin of sweets."
"What did you guys talk about?"
"Well I don't really know actually. We weren't exactly speaking the same language."
"And then he just gave you a tin of sweets?"
"Did you look in this tin at these supposed desserts?"
"How did you know it was dessert?"
"Well, that's what he told me."
Sigh. "Where is this tin now?"
"I put it in my luggage. Which is checked."
He pulled grabbed another airport official and explained to her in rapid-fire Dutch that this American idiot had taken a potentially dangerous package from a potential terrorist, packed it in her luggage and was now going to be responsible for accidentally blowing everyone to bits over the Atlantic. Or I'm guessing that's what he said from the way she glared at me when he was done.
They then got on their walkie talkies and told everyone the story in rapid-fire Dutch. Everyone associated with the airline proceeded to turn and look at me.
The security line backed up. Fellow NY-bound passengers averted their eyes out of fear that my stupidity would be contagious.
"I don't even like these sweets!"
I stood there imagining the poor guy who was digging in the belly of airplane for the black bag that could potentially contain something dangerous. For 15 minutes I stood there blocking the line while they dug out my bag, ran it through an X-ray machine, dug out the offending tin and discovered: baklava.
The airport officials gave me a lecture about accepting packages from strangers, glared at me one last time and put me on the plane. I felt a smug sense of reward for my faith in the man from the plane but learned a big, big lesson:
Next time a stranger gives me a tin of sweets, host a bake sale at the airport to pay for a hotel room.