On Traveling, Airports, and Fear
I am an anxious person who travels often. At the end of a recent trip to Mexico, I found myself in the Cancun airport waiting for my flight. I had already consumed my customary muffin-and-fruit-cup airport breakfast and was sitting in a crowded cafeteria in the very middle of the international departures terminal. My gate wouldn’t be announced for another hour, but fortunately I had my kindle so I could read while I waited.
Suddenly, as I was engrossed in the story I was reading as well as a text conversation with my girlfriend wherein I was joking with her that I loved the fictional characters in my book more than I loved her, an alarm started to go off. Lights on the ceiling began to flash. I was, needless to say, concerned — but a quick look around suggested that I was the only one. Everyone was carrying on their business as usual. I fought the urge to run out of the airport.
Instead, I got up calmly (wondering, ‘If I’m pretending to be calm, maybe that’s exactly what everyone else is doing, when really we ought to be running around in circles screaming like normal citizens do in an emergency’) and went to the bathroom. It wasn’t far and it seemed to be a tactically advantageous place to be in the type of emergency that would cause alarms to go off in an airport.
The alarms stopped as I was en route and I tried to be calm. I texted my mother, who travels more often than I do, and asked her whether this was a normal airport occurrence. She responded that she didn’t think it was. All in all, a reassuring conversation.
As I (and approximately ten other women) waited in line inside the bathroom, the alarms started going off again. My heart raced, especially when, this time, the alarm was accompanied by a message, garbled enough that I could only make out “An emergency has been reported, all officers please…”
We all exchanged glances and a few people just kind of shrugged. I went into a stall and texted my girlfriend that in fact I do love her more than the characters in my book. The alarms stopped and I went back out into the terminal. I gave myself a mission: find an outlet. Charge my phone. Don’t think about what the emergency might be.
I stayed in the terminal for another four hours or so due to delays, and no more alarms went off. No more lights flashed. No more garbled voices directly from a horror movie about airports came over the announcement system.
I got on my flight and slept safe in my bed that night, as I have every other time I’ve flown, taken a train, boat, bus, taxi…
Not everyone is this lucky. Sometimes, the alarms go off and they mean something. Sometimes, a bomb explodes. Sometimes two bombs explode. There’s no telling why the fates act the way they do, why some airports explode and why others don’t. There’s no telling why some boats sink and others float, why some trains are derailed while others pull safely into their destination on time. Chips fall all the time, the scales are imbalanced, life is fragile. Every high-profile attack reminds us of this.
Travel is dangerous. Before studying abroad everyone asked me if I’d seenTaken. As a matter of fact, I hadn’t. But as I rode through the dark on a bike path in Tulum, Mexico the other day, it occurred to me that someone could easily snatch me up and ship me off to some horror that I like to pretend doesn’t exist. I biked faster and thought a little harder about the cool breeze in my hair, my bare feet on the pedals, the sounds of the birds in the night sky, the bulbous solstice moon hanging low above us.
When bombs went off in Brussels this March, I was in Italy. Several family members and close friends messaged me to make sure I was alright, saying that they were glad I was coming back in a month. Many people expressed their awe at my bravery. “I wouldn’t want to travel around Europe after that.” “I wouldn’t set foot in an airport for months.” “I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t.”
The world is dangerous. You walk outside, someone could grab you. They could take your wallet; they could take more than that. Being a person is dangerous. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter where you are. It’s dangerous.
When the alarm went off in Cancun, I was scared. I thought of all the airport attacks that I’ve heard of. I thought about bombs and guns; shootings were fresh on my mind after what happened in Orlando. I pictured myself staring down the barrel of a gun, and I wondered what I would do. Would I put my hands on my head? Would I lay down on the ground? Would I cry? And what would my mom do?
Every time something like this happens, when a notification pops up on our news feeds about a new attack, a human hurting other humans, we get scared. We think, “I won’t go to airports anymore. I won’t fly. I won’t go to a bus station.” But how far do we have to travel down that path? “I won’t go to a club. I won’t go to a mall. I won’t go to a movie theater. I won’t go to school.”
It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to worry and wonder what if? What if it happens here, what if it happens now? It’s natural. We’re humans.
But more important than allowing ourselves to worry and wonder is allowing ourselves to step beyond that place of fear. We have to fall to the ground and weep for humanity, and then we have to pick ourselves up again. We have to step over our fear and walk forward, even if it follows alongside us or just behind. We can’t allow terrorism to win by letting terror seize our hearts. We can’t let our fear stop us from seeing the world.
Some people leave ugly scars on the world but we can wipe those scars out. By flying to far corners and seeing how the waves lap at the shore on another continent. Buying fruit at a market in India. Smiling at a child in Guatemala. Stepping outside our doors and showing the entire world that we have fear, but we aren’t afraid.
The more we travel, the more we see and understand. The more we see and understand, the more we come together as a people. I’ve seen beautiful places and met incredible people. I’ve done things I couldn’t have imagined had I stayed at home out of fear.
I was lucky in Cancun. My thoughts are with all those who have not been so lucky.
When the alarms started going off, my first thought was wordless fear. My second thought?
If I die now, thank God I didn’t stay home.