Traveling is seen by many as The Great Adventure. Cramming luggage to within micrometers of bursting with newly purchased adventure clothes, loading pricey cameras with super huge expanded memory sticks for those “caught in the moment” shots your family and friends really don’t care about seeing, pouring over the myriad of options in your itinerary until it just sounds like a great idea to simply stay blindingly drunk at the hotel bar the whole time. These are what most people do to prepare for the act of traveling. These are the fun parts. The giddy anticipation of finding the great WOW! The quest begins with the excitement of landing at some wildly exotic destination where the only English spoken is the jabbering of broken quotes from old “Dallas” reruns by old, toothless side walk vendors and money hustlers on street corners looking to exchange your cash for the local form of currency. From there, maybe a daring order of local “specialties” that arrive on your table looking not much different than what the cat, with her violently upset stomach, unceremoniously dumped in the litter box just before you took off for the airport. It may continue with the shady taxi drivers giving you the “VIP” tour, circling the block of your hotel 6 times, pointing out the same damned landmark each time because he thinks you are too drunk to notice. Or maybe it’s the locals, some of whom are lacking the kindness to point you back in the right direction as you wander blindly into what, back home or anywhere else, would gently be called the “mean streets”. Traveling has been an infectious pastime for generations. And with it come these and many more of the “perks”.
For most of mankind, this is the week or two they have been rushing gleefully toward all year long. The smooth, white sand beaches. The indigenous architecture of small towns with unpronounceable names. The glamour of tropical islands, the deep sea fishing, the sing song melody of new languages spoken all around you. But there is a small group of folks who see travel differently. They travel with you, packing a bit lighter, exit the plane to see and hear the same sights and sounds, but are counting the minutes until they take off again for the most exotic destination of all. This is your flight crew. And for many, that apex of destinations is, drum roll please……..Home. We do it regularly, this travel thing. We cram a vacation into a 20 hour layover, relying on those who have come before us to give us the intel as to where we can get a good meal, drink a native drink from your travelling mug and see the local sights, all while moving at a breakneck pace to cram it in like those suitcases on the conveyor belt under the plane that look like they have reached maximum density and could explode any second.
And for the most part, we have a good time. But people give me these strange looks when I tell them that I hate to fly on my day off, that jamming my knees into a free airplane seat for 6 hours to go somewhere is akin to a jail sentence. I fly, and essentially travel, for a living. I sit in the front of a large aluminum tube, press many pretty colored buttons and babble with many faceless voices on a radio while hurtling around in the inky darkness of the night sky. My job is traveling. I am your pilot. That dashing aviator in a sharply pressed uniform, cap tilted jauntily to the side of my well manicured head. I am the man or woman who gets you THERE! We get there together! We are Travelers, you and I. An elite fraternity hell bent on being modern day Louis and Clarks, lacking only tattoos of all our destinations and a secret handshake. The exotic locales, the luxurious hotels, the oddly pronounced drinks at native watering holes, all inherent to the job. I make my wages dotting the earth with my presence, seeing rarely viewed treasures and watching many beautiful sunrises and sunsets. And all I want to do is go home.
For the casual traveler, those things above are all part of the package that makes traveling so inviting. Slapping on your new Indiana Jones hat and humping a 5 lb fanny pack to see a lost temple notorious for human sacrifice that is stuck deep in a remote rain forest. Meeting the really caring locals who take the time to point you in all the right directions and giving you the address’ to their favorite haunts. The food that you can never find back home that wouldn’t taste as good anyway. These are all enjoyed by the traveler who has the time to burn on these jaunts. They have ear marked a day for this and that, leaving on a dilapidated old pink VW microbus at some unholy hour, crammed in with funky smelling natives and other clueless tourists to go carouse through a local street market full of indigenous produce and odd hunks of meat dancing with flies one day, and the next go hiking through violently buzzing clouds of mosquitoes and thick tropical under growth into the lush, humid jungle to take hundreds of pictures of a glorious waterfall.
But for the most part, I never get to see any of that. My day starts, like most airline crews, with getting fondled roughly in security, angry glares cast at me by passengers as I cut the security line to get to the plane. A meek “The plane isn’t going anywhere with out me” fails to solicit even one look of forgiveness. My computer is bounced into a ratty looking grey tub, my wallet and change dumped in another. I hop around on one foot to pull off my shoes. My balance fails me and I teeter over, grabbing the x-ray machine to stop the fall. The looks from the people behind me say it all. “I’ll bet that son of a bitch must be coming from the bar. He can’t even balance on one foot. God, please don’t let him be our pilot.” A grossly over weight security screener, gut bouncing off elephant like knees, shirt stained with something like gravy and sucking noisily on a triple lard Tahitian vanilla frap-shake, gives me no more than a passing glance and waves me through. I hope like hell she pays more attention to the people not in a flight crew uniform.
Getting to the gate is something akin to stumbling into the lions pit in an ancient Roman coliseum. Instantly, we are set upon by irate passengers. We are told the plane is going to be late. We are looked at as if one of us was delaying its arrival by slashing its tires solely to screw up your vacation. “When is it coming in? Will I make my connection? Will my bags make it with me? Is there food in the terminal? Will my small, 22 year old Yorkshire terrier with only one lung and severe diabetes, in her soft little carrier, be OK stuffed into that freezing cargo hold below with little or no oxygen and the howling of the engines her only friend? Huh? Will she?” It is sometimes dizzying, this shotgun approach to questioning. The gate agents are our saviors, arriving and snapping at the passengers to back off, their computers aren’t up yet. The crowd slinks back, eyeing the counter and crouching at the ready for the minute she looks up and they can storm her position. Can you see where the glamour of being a Traveler is slowly getting sidetracked?
We finally board up, close the doors and are on the way. The other pilot and I settle in for the 6 hour flight. Our thoughts aren’t centered on where we are going to eat (not yet, at least) but on the level 6 thunder storms that are hurling massive bolts of lightening and chaos ahead. Later on, at cruise, the hunger sets in. Our food is usually packed at home, a healthy assortment of sodium flavored Ramen Noodles, rich snack bars and prepared sandwiches so loaded with preservatives they come with a warning from the Surgeon General. These gustatory delights are often the only food we will get, sparing us from the stale pretzels and the overly salty nuts they have the gall to pass off as snacks in the back.
We finally touch down, sometimes more like concrete hitting the ground than the feather we claim it was to all our non flying friends. Now is the moment when the intrepid travelers get to inhale deeply the heavily perfumed air as they exit the plane onto the tarmac. The gentle swaying of the native trees or the shimmering cityscapes and monuments out in the distance are the first sights taken in after staring blankly at the seat back in front of you for the last 6 hours. The first thoughts of what to eat and where a drink can be found most expeditiously are then formed by the traveler. They have arrived. And so have we. That cold beer sure sounds good, but the FAA, those kindly, gentle government folks that peer over our shoulders, take it mighty personally if we imbibe a cold adult beverage within 8 hours of a flight. We have 9 hours and 11 minutes for this overnight. A flurry of calculations, some usage of incredibly complex time bending math formulas, and we come up with a pitiful thirty nine seconds to find, procure and finish a drink. And all bets are on only if the van to the hotel is on time. This will be a Prohibition style lay over.
The van ride is usually a violent excursion through deeply pot holed side streets and into the “bad” part of town. Our hotel is what is known politely as an “efficiency”. The sheets have strange stains on them, seemingly anti-social gangs of roaches scatter as the lights are turned on, though some stand their ground in mute defiance, the toilet flushes meekly if at all, and the bathtub has soap with hair stuck in it still on the rim. The place is usually sold out, to whom God only knows. There are no other rooms available. This is where our half of the adventure crackles to life. I will, in all likelihood, open a soda pilfered from the plane, gingerly lie down on the soiled sheets and go to sleep, drifting off to the sweet lull of native sounds of gunfire, random screaming and wailing sirens. The traveler, on the other hand, has by now settled into their first cocktail at the bar, greedily downing the free bar snacks. Their thoughts will soon turn to tomorrow, when, after a long sweet slumber in a freshly sheeted bed nestled in a cozy cottage or warm, spacious room, they will begin the act of traveling in earnest. This is where our paths diverge. We will wake to the bleating of an alarm clock, the hurried cup of lukewarm coffee and oddly smelling eggs at the complimentary “continental breakfast” and make the mad dash through another countries version of our crack squad of security specialists.
We will get home later on that day, to our own beds, our own cars and our families. We will use our own showers and soaps. We’ll rummage through the refrigerator, poking around to see what’s new. We’ll shuffle through the new pile of mail. We will crack a beer in our own local bars and backyards without the fear of a random drug and alcohol test being sprung on us. For many of us, this is the vacation part of the traveling. This is our exotic destination. Going with you to these exotic places was fun the first 2 or 3 times, especially when we had at least 24 hours to cram in a whirlwind tour of the place. That was when we had the time to see anything and everything of interest that lay within a 3 mile radius. But home is where most of us go for vacation. The clothes to wash, the cats to be pet. The smile of a spouse. We are Travelers too. Just going in the other direction.