How much of our time do we spend waiting when we travel? What are we willing to wait for? Is there any value in the wait?
Here at home, I’m starting to feel a little lost.
When I finally step on the plane to Ecuador this September, it will have been seven months. Seven months since the last flight, seven months since the last passport stamp, seven months since the last hilarious misunderstanding in a lingua franca. I’m not even sure I can wait that long. How long is the average time to wait between travelling? Everyone else seems to be doing it all the time. I’m starting to wonder if not travelling regularly could actually be bad for my health in some way. Grounded with no tickets booked, reluctantly deleting unopened British Airways sale e-mails, flicking through itineraries I won’t be using for the best part of a year … Here at home, I’m starting to feel a little lost.
I’m no stranger to waiting, of course. I’ve waited for hours in ill-equipped airports and deserted train stations. I’ve waited days for visa applications to come back just in the nick of time. I’ve waited with complete and utter impatience for weeks leading up to any given trip, knowing I was on the verge of falling in love with a place I hadn’t even seen yet, brimming with anticipation for the people I would meet who would all somehow change me in their own infinitesimal way. I’ve waited for trains that never arrived in Bangkok; I’ve waited for the sun that never shone in Oslo; I’ve waited for the downside that never came in Bruges. But I’ve never spent this long just waiting for the waiting to stop.
Back in the nineties, nobody cared about Goa. Before it became the go-to beach destination in India, it was just the smallest state, a bit odd, very out-of-the-way for most tourists. In the nineties if you wanted to fly London to Goa, you actually flew London to Bombay to Goa. You spent that hellish half-day stopover in the sham that was Bombay’s international airport, because you couldn’t drag your child out into the insanity of the city. You had to book two separate flights, so you’d packed your hand luggage to the brim with overnight essentials. All that remained was to find a spot in one of the most oversubscribed airports in one of the most overpopulated countries in the world.
And because you couldn’t leave your bags unwatched, and you couldn’t leave your family in case you got separated, and you didn’t have any mobile phones, and Bombay airport’s answer to overnight couches were thin, flat, raised, partially reclined, plasticky single mattresses … all three of you had to cram onto one oversized grey “bed”, bracing your legs against the seat dividers, curling your arms strategically around luggage handles, trying not to put your elbow in someone else’s stomach or vice versa. And then, you had to sleep enough to recover from the previous 9-hour flight but not so much that you missed the boarding call for the next one.
When we hit the turbulence somewhere over Turkey, I didn’t bat an eyelid. Although coaches scare me and I frequently feel car-sick, I have never had a problem with packing myself into a tiny metal tube and being propelled thirteen kilometres into the clouds. But when the plane started to sway somewhere over Syria, my confidence took a tiny blow; my fingers unconsciously began to choke the armrest. The lightning and thunder didn’t help, and as the tropical storm grew progressively more violent over the following hour and forty-five minutes, for the first time in my life I mentally calculated the probability that my boyfriend and I might end up just names in a newspaper article the next morning …
Strange city. No information. One grainy phone call.
So when we landed safely in Qatar and were told that our connecting flight had been cancelled due to a technical issue with the plane, I was more than relieved. The handful of passengers on our route dutifully queued up at the information desk, where we were issued 24-hour emergency visas. Then the airline staff drove us to a hotel, plied us with meal vouchers, and left. Strange city. No information about our connection. One grainy phone call to my family in India to let them know we wouldn’t be arriving in the morning.
Thanks to our baggage being flown straight to Goa, we didn’t even have toothpaste that night. To this day I joke that my boyfriend is my personal travel jinx, having blessed me with two overnight stays in train stations and one overnight stay in an Arab emirate during our travels together. But it was only when I started to cry at the thought of spending less time with my family than I’d hoped to that I began to realise how much I took my annual visits home for granted. It dawned on me that one day I might not be able to fly halfway around the world when I felt like it, however much I missed Goa. Looking at the strange new stamp in my passport, for the first time I admitted to myself how little I knew of Asia, how little I had bothered with the vast and varied continent that informs half of my heritage.
As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes the wait is half the journey.