An Airport Terrarium

I have always loved airports. As a child there was always something so fascinating and mystifying about these self-sufficient, enclosed cities. Like a human terrarium–we being the animals behind the glass–I sat there, nose pressed to the window, staring out at the silver planes as they taxied to the runway, the roar of their engines rumbling the air as they prepared to take off. We traveled frequently in my youth, and I learned to love flying. As the plane tilted its nose toward the sky, like Icarus sailing toward the sun, we ascended 30,000 feet, the slight bubble forming in my stomach as the plane tipped down level at cruising altitude–I was giddy in this moment. My father, having been a mechanic in the Air Force and the Air National Guard, was always so knowledgeable about flying, and would try to explain how a plane flew so high in the air–it still seemed like wizardry to me, even as he explained it, my young mind straining to comprehend lift, thrust, drag, and weight.

Now that I am older, traveling has not lost its allure, and I still find myself drawn to airports, intrigued by these micro-worlds built around transportation, small indoor urban spaces, like malls with a tachycardic pulse. The terminal becomes a liminal space for the traveler, an amnesic stop along the way, one of necessity and irritation, an annoyance en-route to the eventual destination. No one purposely spends time in the airport–unless one’s employment preclude’s them from being elsewhere–and because of that, the airport becomes the transient space of which we wistfully pass through.

The concourse becomes the race track from high school, but we are no longer teenagers–heftier than we were at sixteen–as we sprint for that connecting flight. Moving with hurried purpose, at a speed we have never accomplished before in our lives, we pull along luggage and carry bags slung over our shoulders, as we weave our way through the human traffic of the concourse highway. While everyone seems to be in the slow lane, the occasional person moving at a brisk speed, we wend our way through the pedestrian gridlock, like border collies running an obstacle course, slinking our way through any space possible. In those heated moments, where seconds matter, the connecting flight weighing on our minds, all else dissolves from vision, and the airport becomes nothing more than a blur of haste. Although the airport can be the hell of connecting flight, sometimes it becomes our prison, where times seems to stand still, days stretching to feel like weeks.

Airports become the limbo of the travel world, the purgatory of vacations. They can be benevolent gods granting quick travel, upgrades, and on-time flights, but, with a wave of the hand, their nature can become vengeful, where hours tick away trapped in this artifice of life, while delay after delay strands even the most avid traveler. Some of us have spent days on end, confined in airports, snow piling up outside the windows of the airport, blanketing the world in a cold dismal pall. Other times, a hurricane rages overhead, or at our destination hundred of miles away, and we are but mere puppets to its whims. Hours can stretch on, and we camp, in the most unusual spots, these campsites becoming ours, like explorers on the frontier staking claim through improvement of living. Corners and pillars become sought after real estate on the carpeted floors of many a gate waiting area, providing little privacy in so public a space. The airport becomes tent cities of displaced travelers, its inhabitants cursing weather and soothing small children, as they literally and physically try to climb the walls. But all this aside, there is something about these enclosed cities that is enticing for me, and I find myself relishing the moments I spend there.

Maybe I love airports because they remind me of what dystopian futures might be. Like so many sci-fi movies, where a utopian world goes awry, the airport seems the image of which every director taps to make their futuristic utopian world, just waiting to be plunged into social disorder and anarchy. Think about Logan’s Run, The Island, Soylent Green, and you can see the futuristic buildings, so much like airports, self-sustained cities encased in glass, or, in the case of eating your own neighbor, the location where they take you to die peacefully, while watching footage  of psychedelic colors and windblown flowers trail across the silver screen. But not all airports have the luxury of looking out datedly futuristic–like rides of Tomorrowland at Disney that looked so futuristic in 1980, and today would look so aged and dated it would be humorous.

Either way, outdated, futuristic, or modern, airports are still enticing for me, and as I travel, I find  myself living, sleeping, and exercising in airports. I travel on the cheap, and because I do, I tend to sleep in airports. Cheaper flights, found on travel-booking-sites, translates to longer layovers in connecting airports. So I have found myself for twenty hours in Istanbul, twelve hours in Reykjavik, and seventeen in La Guardia-I have spent time in many others, but this is not just a list of sleep spots. In these long hours, I have learned to eat, sleep, sink shower, exercise, and converse like a pro. And this trip will be no different. Tonight, I will fly to JFK, and nestle up on a bench in terminal 4 or 5. My one and a half hour flight, will give me eighteen hours of wandering around this great airport. I will explore this world, like any location while on vacation, and maybe I will find something unique and interesting, something that will make this airport memorable, setting it apart from all others, or maybe it will be complete hell, with no sleep, and uncomfortable seating with partitions that force me to sleep on a rough berber carpet floor. But that’s the chance I take, the roll of the dice, and, well that’s all part of the adventure.

Alt taō besta

Note: if you feel so inclined to sleep in airports there is a website called sleeping in airports. It has been a great guide for me over the years. I have slept in many airports that were not layovers, usually the night before I flew out from a city. København was great, but the tile floors were ice-cold, and Oslo was nice since they had reclining chairs pre check in.















David Jester

About David Jester

David Jester lives in the Midcoast region of Maine. He received a masters degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Maine. David is a full-time firefighter/paramedic and writer, who maintains another blog He travels the world, but chooses locales that many would never consider for vacation. The world is full of many different and unique places, why not see them all?