The clock says it is 7 am here in Nairobi, but according to my body clock it is 4 am. I’m sitting in the new terminal of Kenyatta International Airport sipping coffee and feeling pleased with myself: it is my fifth time at Nairobi airport and I’ve figured out how to take a shower. Here is how: you need to find the barber on the second floor of the new terminal and pay 20 USD. Not cheap, I know, but I’m sweaty and on expenses, so I don’t really care.
My head is groggy yet clear. I observe, I let sounds and images float through me, calm and devoid of emotion. I wonder if being jet lagged at an international airport is the closest I’ll ever get to nirvana. If this post is governed by a strange logic, you will know why.
Airports do this to me. They are weird and exciting places, built on paradoxes.
Airports essentially exist outside time and space. You step in and you enter a new world with its own set of rules. It is no longer the UK or wherever it is you’re travelling from, but a parallel reality only for the chosen – those about to travel. Most international airports look alike: same shops, same brands, glossy, shiny, encouraging you to spend, tempting you with a promise of a better world. Airports are the only places where I’m ever inclined to splash on expensive cosmetics. It feels somehow appropriate: I’m a world traveller, I’m glamorous, I have to have that designer lipgloss, and what is fifty bucks compared to what I spent on my ticket. It is only small differences that remind you of where you are, like pan con tomate that I had at McDonald’s at Barcelona airport (in my defence, nothing else was open).
Airports are neither here nor there, they don’t belong to any one country, so in a sense they belong to all of them. An airport is the whole universe in one, there at at your fingertips. Names of exotic places flash on the departure board, spelling potential opportunities, unexplored worlds. Doha, Amman, Sao Paolo, Ulan Bator. No matter how jet lagged I am, I always feel a thrill of excitement.
Airports are in permanent flux. Everybody and everything is moving, nothing stands still. Everyone is from somewhere foreign and you can play a guessing game about where they hail from and where they are headed to. You get to listen to different languages and multitudes of accents.
At an airport, you at the same time belong and are estranged: you are a traveller like all others, but you don’t come into contact with anyone, sitting in your own bubble, trying not to drool on someone else’s shoulder if you happen to fall asleep in the waiting area.
Yet another secret world exists at international airports, a reality within reality, like in a Russian doll. It is the world of business and first class lounges hidden from the commoners, where champagne flows freely, soothing music is playing, seats are comfortable and you can shower without forking out 20 USD. If you’re granted access, you are the chosen of the chosen, creme de la creme.
Airports are suspended in time. Often there is no natural light, so one loses the sense of day and night, plus tiredness or jetlag confuse you even further. Before you embark, you are simultaneously in your departure and arrival time zone and also a little bit in every time zone of the destinations displayed on the departure board. There are two schools of thought with regard to setting your watch: you either keep it in line with your departure location, or you set it for the place of arrival. Undecided, I usually adjust my watch halfway through the flight. Either way, my body clock goes completely berserk. On a plane and immediately upon landing I can fall asleep or get up at any moment, and I eat whenever food is served. In that sense I’m a model traveller: I completely succumb to the circumstances.
Airports are defined by waiting. The wait is constant: to check in, to pass through security, to get through passport control and for boarding – all these stages need to be completed patiently and in that particular order, and nothing can be done about it. Some people wait apathetically staring into space. Some constantly occupy themselves with laptops, phones, books and magazines. Some people start queueing long before the gate opens, presumably in an effort to assume an illusion of control of an otherwise uncontrollable situation.
All this gets exacerbated tenfold when you’re in transit. You are then really suspended in space and time. Like now, when I’m sitting at Nairobi airport waiting for my plane to Dar es Salaam at 7/ 4 am. My body is still on UK time and I’m exhausted from lack of sleep after 8 hours on an economy flight. I’m technically in Kenya, but I don’t have the visa that would allow me to actually BE in this country except for the airport, the no man’s land. Therefore, I am and I’m not in Kenya at the same time.
Nairobi airport is maybe even richer in paradoxes than other airports I have seen. The new terminal is not much different from Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle: there is a food court, a business lounge, duty free shops and spacious, clean waiting areas. In the old part, in a narrow corridor, people are sitting, sleeping or eating on the floor. There are large groups of Somali men, women in burkhas, big families centred around a stocky woman in colourful clothes surrounded by half a dozen children, all sprawled comfortably on the floor and chatting away. You can spot an occasional pale face of a Westerner appalled by the length of the queue to the toilets. I’m drinking litres of weak coffee and looking at the departure board while my laptop is waiting to be charged in one of the few and much desired electric sockets: Bujumbura, Kigali, Addis Ababa, Ouagadougou… Just a step away, all you need to do is board that plane. I catch a breath of Kenyan air just before boarding my flight to Dar.
As a passenger you are in permanent transition from one parallel universe to another. Yet those attending to you, the airport ground staff, never travel. They are stuck in that time- and spacelessness forever. Similarly, pilots and flight attendants are trapped too, but trapped in permanent travel. They spend time on planes, airports and airport hotels, moving constantly, yet hardly ever coming into contact with the reality outside the airport. We pass them by without paying them a second thought, as if they were ghosts of airports and journeys past and present.
Some people hate airports with a passion and I can’t say I blame them. Airports can be impersonal and hectic. You are a mere cog in the machine and you have to keep moving, fast. People are reduced to a passport and boarding card, and separated into desirables and undesirables (visa versus no visa, EU versus non EU). We let airports strip us of privacy: we take off our shoes and walk barefoot, we remove belts, empty our pockets, surrender ipads and laptops, put our liquids in ridiculous tiny bottles placed inside a small plastic bag, we stretch our arms and legs to be searched.
At an airport your options are fairly limited. You can try to sleep, exposed and uncomfortable, you can eat an overpriced sandwich that tastes like cardboard, you can shop in expensive duty free shops or sit, read, and people watch. Those are your choices, but most other things don’t depend on you: delays, queues and the colour of your passport determine your fate.
I suppose it is now time for a punchline. However, airports are not good places for conclusions. After all, everything is open-ended here, always moving. And anyhow, my flight to Dar is now boarding and I have to dash.