An Ode to Arrivals
“And where are you off to, young man?”
“Santiago,” I replied.
My questioner — a silver-goateed, balding man of about 60 — sighed.
“Ah, Chile!” he exclaimed, resting his hands atop his belly. “I was there once upon a time…”
And that’s how it began: 10 years’ worth of stories to pass the time as we sat at departure gate 37 of Sydney International Airport.
I had arrived there, panting and sweating, only minutes before, having sprinted halfway across the airport for fear of missing my flight. Not that I’d been late to check in. I’d been early, in fact. I’d even had half an hour to meditate in the lounge, supremely satisfied with my time-management skills: the mark of a seasoned traveller.
That was before I attempted to board the plane, only to be told by the attendant that I’d misread my ticket, was at the wrong gate and had better hurry, as my flight was listed to depart in eight minutes at the opposite end of the terminal.
Thankfully, the flight was delayed, giving my fellow traveller Graeme plenty of time for his stories. He was a writer as well, as it turned out, working on turning his blog for older travellers into a book. He wanted senior citizens to escape the prisons of cruise ships and organised tours, and to instead discover a more independent, intrepid mode of travel.
Thinking back later, the conversation reminded me of another fleeting interaction I’d had, this time at a bus stop at the foot of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Sitting at a plastic table on the side of a hot and dusty road, I was joined by an English gentleman of a similar age to Graeme and with a similar air of veteran contentment. He chatted easily with me and the Berber merchants trying to sell us trinkets, and when his tea arrived at the table, he leaned back in his chair and remarked with a sigh, “This is the life!”
Not that there was anything notable about the town or the tea. But there was something notable about the activity: we were waiting for a bus. We were on the move. In transit.
Airports, bus terminals, train stations. There’s something dramatic about these places between places. The rushing and the waiting. The announcements echoing from loudspeakers across grand old buildings or from the throats of impatient conductors at dinghy little pit-stops. Such powerful emotions erupting minute by minute in the separations and reunions of families, friends or lovers. How many times have the words ‘I love you’ been said at a train station, perhaps for the final time?
There is no more enduring or accessible metaphor for life, I think, than a physical journey. The path, the road, the open sea. When you spend a night in a station, you witness the intersection of a thousand stories before boarding again the vehicle of your own. Perhaps it is simply an illusion, but it never fails to fill me with a feeling of purpose. Something is happening, at least. We’re going somewhere, though who can really say what’s to come?
That sense of freedom can be inspiring, especially when combined with the ensuing duration of contemplative stillness that is sitting in a vehicle for hours on end. Some of my best ideas come in transit, staring out the window at the world going by. And the journeys often end up being little stories in and of themselves.
I once took a bus and a train from Croatia, through Slovenia, to Northern Italy. My intention was to hike into the alps, where a Rainbow Gathering was in progress. But at the final stop, I met another traveller coming the other way who reported treacherous conditions — already the cause of one fatality and widespread sickness. Heeding his advice, and not wanting to fork out on unnecessary time in Italy, I turned tail and took the journey again in reverse, completing a circuit of three countries in a just over 24 hours. I had done little more than sit on buses and trains, wait at border checkpoints and stop every now and then to stretch my legs and snack. And yet, when I arrived back where I had begun in Zagreb — exhausted, yes — I realised I’d somehow still had a ball.
Or there was the 30-hour marathon from Kathmandu to Delhi, complete with a desperate, unscheduled stop to allow me to attend to my troubled belly, as well as a night spent sleeping on the floor of what was essentially a repurposed school bus, snug with four Indians beside me, all of us using my pack for a pillow. By journey’s end, my body was ruined, but I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.
Because all that journeying inevitably leads to something special. After all the rush and panic to depart, all the uncertain hours passing through strange terrain, there is the arrival. And with it, all the promise of new beginnings.
Cover by Tanja Heffner