Before reading this, please know that the following prose will not follow a strict narrative format comprised of a structured and summarizing introduction, a measured, logical argument proving a point and supported with evidence, and a culminating conclusion offering broader reflections and implications. This is the written equivalent of “please hear me out until I finish, and then you can ask questions after”. I have purposefully chosen this format as a nod to the fact that the piece is a real-life account of a section of my life that did not go ‘according to plan’. As such, I will not present it in a similar fashion. However, I will say that this piece contains lurid descriptions of mangoes as well as personal downfall/heartbreak/recovery/redemption/etc. Please enjoy.
Airports are fascinating places for me. While all unique in composition, especially with regards to culinary variety, the landscape outside, and overall cleanliness and order, many demographic characteristics hold true more generally. People passing through airports include mixes of harried and/or bored businesspeople, families going on trips together, families sending off loved ones with a mixture of well wishes and tears, families welcoming members home, couples leaving, couples reuniting, buddies/friends/girlfriends varying in both group size and hygiene quality, and solo travellers going out into the world or finally returning home.
Airports have enormous ethnographic potential in addition to prime people watching. There are the travelers themselves, who are engaging in the endlessly transformative and meaningful act of long-distance transport. There are airport employees, ranging from local bagmen to flight crews transiting through. There are the infrastructures of customs and border control, appendages and reflections of the state and its self-created discourses of diplomacy, force, and the rule of law. There is the physical construction and decor, subtle backgrounds that are hugely important in creating a visitor’s first impression of a place or a returning local’s renewed encounter with home. Finally, there are the obvious personal and sociological ones: people traveling seeking adventure, running away from pain, because they want to or because they have to go for business, and the clashing of different peoples, cultures, languages, politics, and body odors in a event that is a fascinating phenomenon of modern-day society.
In my life I have had the great privilege of being in many airports, as well as in a few particular ones several times. I always loved the smells and the excitement of going somewhere new. The airport symbolized so much of the above for me: the blur of colors and people large and small, young and old, happy and sad, and more than anything the thrill of exploration and adventure.
The first time I visited Ecuador I vividly remember the times I spent in airports going both to and from. When I left Denver International Airport [DIA] it was a far cry from when I had set off for eight months in Europe the previous summer, literally. Instead of the smiling and heart-warming sadness that accompanies a trip undoubtedly bound to be good, I left my beloved momma at the entrance to security only after a lengthy waterworks session replete with astonishingly racking sobs on both ends. I also remember feeling horribly physically, puffy and bloated and soft, and knew that I was heading into the most chaotic situation of my life (at that point). After leaving my mom with an ugly pit in my stomach I just knew that shit lay ahead.
From Denver I flew to Miami [MIA], where I boarded a plane to Quito [UIO]. This second flight was full of some exceptional young adult awkwardness, as I knew I was accompanied by my study-abroad classmates but didn’t know who they were (although it wasn’t too hard to guess). My first encounter with the new Mariscal Sucre (himself an unlikely traveller) Airport outside of Quito was one of trepidation. It didn’t take long to find the mostly outdoorsy Americans from private liberal arts colleges who were to become some of my best friends in the coming weeks. I remember that airport experience consisting largely of a first attempt to acquaint myself in a sleepy haze with a girl on whom I would later develop an enormous crush, getting a tepid response, trying not to lose any of my stuff, and getting ushered in the middle of the night to a hostel seemingly in the middle of the rainforest. All good so far, kind of – chalk it up to a long stay spent in airports, planes, and some first day jitters.
The next time I found myself in UIO was not four or five months later, as was planned, but instead after a scant four weeks. My master plan for a junior year spent entirely abroad in two different places, both Spanish-speaking, one offering European culture and travel access and the other a ‘localized’, ‘indigenous’, and ‘intimate’ experience went a solid one for two. While I would now argue that a 50% success rate in life is generally pretty good, at the time it seemed less like a swing and a miss than a swing, miss, slip, and fall. Crippling anxiety is never fun to deal with, much less so halfway around the world from home. These things happen, or rather they exist; I believe they either manifest themselves through a variety of ‘coming of age’ experiences or else stay unmolested beneath the surface, where they can wreak havoc indefinitely in ways both subtle and not so. Self-solace aside, equating my time in the beautiful country of Ecuador, full of tropical cloud forests, perfectly conical snowcapped volcanoes, and, yes, neon goopy and cloyingly sweet mangoes, with breath-stopping trauma has always stung quite deep.
The better part of the next few years was spent in airports as varied as Portland [PDX], San Francisco [SFO], Washington D.C. [IAD], Detroit (DTW), and New Orleans [MSY], first venturing out slowly from the comfortable confines of home where I was tackling a rigorous treatment and recovery program to my final year of undergrad. These were days when I was reacquainted both with myself and the people who had always been in my life, a strange exercise that was equal parts painful, frustrating, awkward, and disorienting, and a process still ongoing and never ceasing to provide perspective and meaning. I was accordingly reading lots of Hemingway and Nietzsche. Trips during this period served to test my progress, provide a break from the simultaneous tasks of breaking myself down with the aim of repairing serious mental health ruptures, deal with the normal career and social stressors of being twenty-one, and try to recapture some of the endless vigor and carefree nature that had defined me prior to fate intervening. Life passed largely in a triple fashion consisting of those who knew, those who didn’t, and what I knew. I put on my best smile for most, tried to open up when it counted, and leapt and receded like waves on a shore break, each time pushing farther and farther out towards high tide.
I like to say that my aim for life is that good or bad it will never be boring, and what I’ve so far described was if nothing else certainly a very full period. In the time that followed I finished undergrad and then left again for South America, armed with little more than a one-way ticket and three great friends in tow. A year saw airports large and dazzling (Bogotá [BOG], Santiago de Chile [SCL], Montevideo [MVD]) and small and sometimes comical (Cuzco [CUZ], Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia [VVI], Arica, Chile [ARI]). Farm and hostel work and then whirlwind travel was both light and fun as well as infinitely challenging: I was out in the world again, with the training wheels off the rebuilt version of myself. I saw and felt a range of awesome natural and cultural beauty and personal and social passion and heartbreak. My intellectual interests were slowly becoming clear, but like my other progress emerged at what seemed like a snail’s pace. Then bam, a shot in the dark panned out, and I got into Oxford, and everything fell right into place. It was if I had been instantly cured, and my problems shifted to ‘normal’ ones predicated on finding a job and a future, rather than secretive battles against demons in embarrassed isolation. If nothing else for me it really all boils down to this: anxiety and perfectionism are illogical if you’ve put forth your top effort, so try your best and be content you’ve done all you could do, rather than lamenting about things that could have been and worrying about what could be.
Passing again through Detroit [DTW] on my way to London [LHR] I again cried in an airport, again with a one-way ticket to somewhere far away and leaving behind my beloved parents, friends, family, and puppy, who had nursed and nurtured me back to health with so much more effort and love than I will ever know and am eternally grateful for. At Oxford I have been challenged in ways I didn’t know were possible, and the grand irony of it all is that I am certain that I could not have survived its rigors without the lessons, skills, knowledge, fortitude, and resilience I learned throughout what can be termed as somewhat of a three-year spiritual morass. In addition and putting my humility aside, an equally important ability has been to trust others and engage in sharing the burden.
With stops in airports like Fez [FEZ], Tangier [TNG], Madrid [MAD], and Paris [CDG] with best friends both new and old, I have felt with every adventure a strengthening of personal resolve and nourishment and simultaneously an overwhelming gratitude to pay it all back. I hope this does not sound like farce because it is plain, unadorned, and very simple: on my trip to the bottom and back, I truly feel like I’ve been given a second chance on life, which is one more than most people get. As such, I will fight to my end to help secure peace and prosperity for those who cannot, a situation that also applies to our beautiful and bountiful planet. With great privilege comes great responsibility, and I have been privileged with far more than a life’s worth of opportunity. I plan on doing my modest part to repay the immense amounts of time, effort, and genuine care shown to me over the years.
And so, 40 months after the day this story started on, I went full of purpose from Heathrow to Miami to, you guessed it, Quito. During my first year at Oxford the temptation to gain control was omnipresent; nevertheless, I resisted. Somehow, constant calls to ‘listen to my heart’ and ‘follow my passion’ have led me to a dissertation looking at unknown and nefarious foreign intrusions into a domestic body’s internal politics that have caused great social and environmental distress. Maybe I already know which prescriptions apply: patience, gratitude, persistence, and the resolve knowing that nothing can replace the unbeatable combination of dogged hard work mixed with timely amounts of luck. Maybe the perceived problem itself isn’t really external, but rather a series of uncomfortable truths that need to first be acknowledged in order to eschew superficial solutions in favor of realizing fundamental and sustainable change. I’m excited to find out.