By Jessica Harper
"I think I’m a savvy traveler in spite of my visual limitations, until a turbulent trip through the Vancouver airport makes me rethink …"
I like to think of myself as a relaxed traveler. I fly from the west coast to the east every month and have come to know LAX and JFK so well I could find my gate blindfolded. Or maybe blind.
But last week, when I had to navigate the unfamiliar halls and escalators of Vancouver’s airport, I realized I wasn’t as well equipped for such an undertaking as I thought I was.
In addition to being visually challenged, I have no sense of direction. (My husband would say I need a GPS to find my own kitchen.) So, I noted that during six hours of travel time from Canada to L.A., I needed to ask ten people for help.
Helper #1 was the lady who, when I asked her where Delta’s check-in was, pointed left and said, “Just beyond the green sign.” I couldn’t see a green sign but figured I got the idea: I’d go left.
At the counter I found I was expected to use a machine to check in. Helper #2 walked me through this, scanning my passport and reading me the questions on the screen. The machine wanted to know if I was carrying explosives or farm animals.
“No,” I said. “Not if you don’t count the grenade I’m using as a shoe stuffer.“ Actually, I didn’t say that last part out loud, but I’d been awake since 4:30 a.m. and was punchy. Plus, I figure they don’t expect a serious answer. I mean, who’s going to admit it if they have a bomb in their underpants?
And I think she misread that part about farm animals. Who travels with pigs? Although I heard about a guy who almost got through customs at JFK smuggling in a couple of pigeons strapped to his legs. (You’d think bringing those birds to NYC would be a coals to Newcastle sort of thing, but, whatever.)
When I was asked if I had any liquids, I said, “Nope!” with excessive good cheer, hoping #2 couldn’t read my thought bubble which featured a full color picture of the hand lotion I had concealed in my purse.
My passport didn’t scan properly so I was sent to the counter, to Helper #3, who pointed out that I was not at Delta. That airline was over there, past the green sign.
I went to Helper #4 at what I hoped was Delta. (Their logo looks like one of the “gotcha” visual puzzles that often thwart my efforts to buy sox or whatever online.)
Successfully checked in, I moved on to customs, where, unfortunately, they had also installed machines to expedite things. When I told Helper #5 I had visual problems, he said that in that case I should step aside and fill out a blue form.
In a tone I hoped was neutral, I explained to #5 that reading a blue form would likely be as challenging as the machine. #5 considered this for a moment, then bailed and sent me down the line to Helper #6.
She couldn’t figure me out either so she sent me to Helper #7, the nice dude who, in spite of my suspicious behavior, neither detained me nor asked me if I was transporting livestock. He allowed me to move on to security without the receipt normally granted by the machine.
True to form, I joined the wrong security line, a mistake that was corrected by a stern Helper #8, who steered me to the correct line, which was ten times longer than the forbidden one.
I feel about waiting in line roughly the way I feel when watching a golf tournament on TV. Instantly antsy, I pulled out my iPhone and cued up the audiobook, The Girl On The Train. I was so gripped by the story—the protagonist was getting hammered on gin and tonics and texting naughty things to her ex-husband—that I neither heard nor saw #8 asking to see my passport.
Narrowly escaping arrest for breach of protocol, I finally made it through security, which, by the way, is shockingly lax in Vancouver. For one thing, they did not confiscate my hand lotion which I’m pretty sure would have triggered a full body search at JFK.
Also, you can remove your shoes or not—it's your choice. Call me Howard Hughes but I don’t know why anyone would choose to tread barefoot through the bacterial leavings of millions of previously departed passengers if they didn’t have to. (On the other hand, maybe some people are simply not sure and would like an outside party to determine if their Manolos might blow up over Iowa.)
In any case, I kept my boots on through security, then asked Helper #9 to reveal the locations of Gate 87 and of the ladies’ room.
Even with her help, I scrutinized the sign on the bathroom door, making absolutely sure the figure crudely represented there was wearing a dress. I have surprised a few unzipped gentlemen in my day and do not want to rerun the experience.
Helper #10 was the flight attendant, who showed me which seat was 3C. In a notable coincidence, the guy next to me drank five gin and tonics, making himself a suitable subject for the sequel to my audiobook. (Think The Guy On The Plane.)
When I de-planed, I decided to ask nobody for help finding the baggage claim area but instead to follow the crowd. This did not go well—I ended up at departures. (The flock I’d fallen in with were catching connecting flights.)
I untied the knot of my confusion and found the line-up of drivers holding signs bearing the names of their assigned passengers. One of these dudes was waiting for me, but which one? Each driver’s eyes widened when, bent forward and squinting, I stuck my head inside his personal space (within eight inches of his body) in order to make out the name scrawled on the cardboard.
Luckily, as I closed in on the fourth guy, he shouted out my name, obviating the need to continue this awkward dance.
Home at last, I went to the kitchen (sans GPS), poured a glass of wine, and made three notes-to-self:
1. I am now familiar (you might say intimate) with one more major international airport.
2. Today was stressful, but there’s no crying over first world problems.
3. With the possible exception of #8, all the Helpers were truly nice, and, I am pretty sure, were not just motivated by a paycheck.
Thank goodness, as always, for the kindness of strangers.