Back in the Kimberley Airport, 45 minutes before boarding, I had one priority: getting on the internet. The terminal, a building perhaps the size of a small supermarket, was split into roughly three equally sized parts — to the left of the entrance was the security checkpoint and the boarding area, directly ahead was the arrival gate and waiting area, and to the right was another large waiting area with a small refreshment bar-type thing. I got a big bottle of still water and sat down one of many empty tables. My phone connected to the internet immediately; AlwaysOn was here too, and it was actually on given the nearby wireless access point. However, the several hours of access I’d paid for at the hotel was inaccessible (I don’t know why) so I opted for a free half-hour of internet instead. That would suffice for our slightly longer wait.
So I sat there, did some browsing, opened up Outlook on my laptop and downloaded some work emails, elongated my Duolingo streak (over 500 days long by this point) and generally putzed around. It passed the time quickly.
Soon we were on our way through security, the shortest checkpoint ever. Well, scratch that, it was just about as lengthy as a standard airport checkpoint, it just took about 5 seconds to get through. Beyond was another waiting area, mostly empty and with a large set of floor to ceiling windows overlooking the tarmac. I sat down again to wait, browsing on the phone, and taking in the airport TV feed of some international news channel.
Our ride was already out there. From this point on, it would be three flights, two long layovers, and over a day of travel to get home. On the clock: 26 hours. In reality, 36. In no time we were outside in the blazing morning heat of Kimberley, striding along the pavement to the plane. I snapped some photos as I walked, after which I was promptly told not to do so. Whatever, photons be free.
This little skipper might have been the same aircraft that brought us to Kimberley the Tuesday before. It was the return flight of the round-trip we’d done half of, a shuttle that seems to go nowhere else outside of its circuit. Our departure time aligned with our previous arrival, so there’s a decent chance it was.
The ride back to Johannesburg was shorter than I remember the flight away being. I spent most of it shooting landscapes and clouds out the window. Again, I missed the skyline of Johannesburg as we approached from the same direction as we’d done from Frankfurt. Out of the plane, onto a bus, back to the terminal we went. Up the stairs into the domestic terminal, I spied a small boutique that offered some items I’d been looking for: postcards with icons of the country, safari animals, monuments, flags, cityscapes. See, we have a sort of tradition in my team at work — anytime anyone goes somewhere foreign or exotic, they bring back everyone postcards to put up in their cubes. I have ones from Spain, Bali, and Norway so far; now South Africa would be added to my collection, as well as those around the office.
After collecting a suitable amount and turning over one of my two remaining Rand notes (from which I received a few coins in return), we shifted on over to the international terminal. A lengthy wait in customs and security later and it was on to the South African Airways lounge. I really shouldn’t have gotten used to these business lounges. They’re way too nice for someone like me.
Immediately upon entering I was faced with a banquet of food: delicious tortellini, plentiful dinner rolls, Indian rice, baked goods, bottled water. It was a feast in there and all of it was free. Ahead, a second-floor view of the runways, of planes from far off lands coming in an out of gates, and of the green horizon meeting the hot summer sky.
Off to the side there was a work area, an elliptical room with a long table in the center, flanked by work stations along the two walled sides. I set my computer up, stowed my luggage next to me, plugged my power adaptors into the varied internationally flavored sockets, and… watched YouTube, maybe watched an episode or two of The Wire, did some work (sort of — it was Saturday) and basically just relaxed. This was a seven-hour layover in Johannesburg. Aside from the eleven hours I mostly slept through in Germany, it was the fastest long layover I’d experienced. It was almost over before I wanted it to be. On the way out, I stopped at a newsstand to grab a South African newspaper. In Germany the first time, I kept a copy of Die Welt. Now I had a copy of Beeld too!
I had a goal in mind to re-orient myself to California time that involved napping lightly, structuring meals to PST meal-time, and forcing myself awake for the rest. The layover was spent wide awake, the time in California still very early in the morning. I was ahead at least eight hours and it wasn’t looking good.
Eventually we headed over to our gate (or should I say ‘gates’) just fifteen minutes before boarding. The reason I say ‘gates’ is deliberate: the plane we were launching back to Europe in was an Airbus A380. If you’ve never seen one before, you might be blown away when you do. It’s the largest commercial airliner in operation (and existence, for that matter). It’s two stories tall, 73 meters long, has a wingspan of almost 80 meters, and rises almost 25 meters above ground. It is amazingly large. To service its two floors, it requires two separate boarding gates. I was set to board at one, my colleague at the other. I thought the 747 was large; this was somehow even larger.
In the boarding tunnel was a newspaper case; I thought to add to my collection with a Süddeutsche Zeitung on my way in. Funny thing: carrying a German newspaper onto a German-crewed Lufthansa flight to Germany will cause all flight staff to default to German when speaking to you. It was awesome. I stepped on and the first woman said to me “Zweite rechts dann links für Sie,” the directions to my seat for those who don’t read German. As I went to the second aisle and bore right, another flight attendant spoke a very fast German sentence or command to me. I looked at him cross-eyed and he pointed to my newspaper curiously. I told him I can read German pretty well, but my verbal understanding is still mediocre. He laughed and I proceeded on down the aisle to my seat.
Then we flew away from Johannesburg into the night. This flight I don’t remember. I failed in my jetlag mission maybe an hour in after indulging in the freshly released debut episode of Invisibilia. I fell asleep hard, staying unconscious through all of the meals. I remember flying back over North Africa, watching the Mediterranean begin as Tunisia or Algeria ended. A short hazy memory later and we were approaching Frankfurt once again. I was glad for this flight to be over; my knees were killing me and my back was in distress. I needed to stand up and move. It seems my body can tolerate about two and a half 11 hour flights before it begins to break.
We descended into Frankfurt Flughafen from the northeast, the skyline to downtown Frankfurt out my window in the dead of night. The buildings were black, glowing yellow-orange street lights below, red aircraft lights on top. It was eerie, intimidating, almost Darco-like, and appropriately, in the colors of the German flag.
Disembarking was a pleasant mess. My legs twitched like they’d just spent eight hours sleeping in the back of a car, but it felt so good to get them moving. A river of people flowed out of the arrival gate down the long terminal walkway, completely empty like every other international arrival terminal. It led to another passport control checkpoint, which was passed quickly, and to another security line, through which I passed very slowly. I lost my colleague in the queue, reaching the international departures terminal alone after a half-hour wait. It was about 3am in Germany and most of the stores in the airport were closed, save for the shiny duty free shop through which the path to the terminal led. I bought a large pack of Tic-Tacs, since I’d not a chance to clean my mouth. I thought of buying a souvenir of some kind as well, but my real purpose was to split a 10 Euro note into a 5 and some change.
Out of the duty free, I got a bit lost in the terminal. I scouted all the way to the departure gate, following the wrong signs for the premium lounge, and ended up returning to the duty free store, where I stood and looked around confusedly. In the center of the atrium out front was a beautiful shiny white piano with a red felt bench. The sign beside read “Bitte nehmen Sie Platz und Spielen Sie Ihr Lieblingsleid,” or “Please have a seat and play your favorite song!” I shuffled around, internally debating whether or not I wanted to perform for a mostly empty airport in a far away land in the dead of night.
I didn’t. I couldn’t convince myself to. I might regret that decision a little bit. Next time I’m in Frankfurt though…
Finally, I entered the Lufthansa Lounge where my coworker had already made it. Surprise, more free food! More free drink! Lots of chairs, very comfortable and ripe for sitting in, and nobody around. I grabbed a crossaint, brewed a cup of fruity black tea, snatched another newspaper, Die Welt am Sonntag, and sat down. I wouldn’t move for three hours. I spent the entire time catching up on my YouTube backlog while the room around me filled up almost completely. It was glorious. The room was bright, clean, seemingly new. It was almost IKEA-model-like in its elegant simplicity. I made sure to take it all in and thoroughly enjoy the moments I had in its comfort. I felt like a world traveler, sitting there with my Zeitung on the table and cup of tea in hand, while the television over yonder spouted weather forecasts in German. It was a feeling I hope to live again in the near future.
And then, again before I wanted it to be, it was over. I was going home to the United States. Back at the gate, I sat by the window looking out over another giant Airbus A380 beneath the rising sun whilst folks around chatted. I’d made a hobby of eavesdropping German and I began to understand how really anyone can pick up an unknown language via immersion. I wish I had more time there.
In a line blocking the terminal’s main walkway I stood for a few minutes before boarding. I assume its content was largely Americans, given the destination. I even saw a guy wearing a San Jose Sharks shirt. A little slice of home abroad. When I got on the plane, I made quick small talk with the flight attendants in German. My confidence was rising. When my seat neighbor sat down and began conversing with her other neighbor in German, I was again happy to eavesdrop. She spoke to me in German briefly, to which I didn’t respond, before she switched to flawless accent-less English. She was American, actually. I was intrigued by her bilingualism, but also too tired to form enough cohesive thoughts for a good conversation.
My window seat was a beautiful view … of the starboard side wing. The curved spline of the leading edge, lofting up into the sky, blocked almost the entirety of the horizon. I saw nothing but blue sky and shining white metal. After we took off, the plane did a quick loop of Frankfurt. As the plane banked right, the horizon rose enough to reveal a clean view of the Frankfurt skyline. I ducked down to grab my camera, only to find the sight had passed already when I returned seconds later. Bummer. Live in the moment, people.
When drink service came around, I asked for a “Wasser, bitte.” Mission accomplished. My German-speaking American neighbor was now intrigued by me, having displayed at least some knowledge of the language. I told her my brief story, sure to mention that my skills were in progress. Still, when that water came around to me, it felt real good.
This second flight wasn’t so bad on the body. I spent it watching more of The Wire, having almost finished off season two at this point. After all, I had no view out the window to distract me.
About halfway through the flight, according to the maps that displayed occasionally on the screens throughout the cabin, we flew north over Greenland. This was the coolest thing. I couldn’t see the terrain, which is apparently staggeringly beautiful, but the awesomeness of this occurrence was in the sky. See, when we took off from Germany in the early morning and headed on a great circle path to San Francisco, the sun rose in the east, which was on the right side of the north-headed plane. As we came closer and closer to our zenith, it grew dark; the sun set again… in the east. It was almost dusky outside, the dark northern horizon now out my window to the right of the plane.
A couple hours after that, the sun began to rise again, this time on the left side of the plane. We were descending on our arc back to the southwest and at this point, the west was now out my window. The sun, still in the east, was now on the opposite side of the plane. It was truly bizarre. My knowledge of solar positions, terrestrial coordinates, and our flight path made this occurrence understandable and expected. However, just think about this from the perspective of someone who was just sitting in their seat, who might be feeling as though the plane was just flying straight ahead (which it was, on the surface of a sphere). Sunrise on the right, then a sudden sunset, after which the sun eventually reappears on the left. I can barely imagine what that hypothetical person must have thought.
I glanced often at our flight map as we crossed North America. From Greenland we flew down over Alberta, British Columbia, and eventually Washington state. Mount Rainier was out my window, if only I’d had a view of something other than a wing. We jogged sharply around Mount Shasta for some reason before approaching the Bay from the north. We circled for some time. At SFO, the direction at which planes land varies by the weather, so you really never know which way you’ll approach. This time, it seemed like the pilot didn’t either. We did a figure eight around Santa Cruz, San Jose, and the peninsula before finally settling into a reasonable approach vector. The cabin screens switched over to a camera mounted on the tail of the aircraft, showing a very foggy landscape behind the giant plane, which was made smaller by a slight fish-eye effect.
Honestly, I got a little nervous as I watched the plane make course changes that clearly didn’t line up with SFO’s runways. Especially since I couldn’t visually make out the airport. As it happened, the pilots deserved my faith. We landed, many minutes behind schedule, but on the ground back in America nonetheless. The deceleration of the Airbus was awesome. I watched the lumbering beast pull to a crawl before turning to the terminal. Those 737s seem to break off the runway at 100 mph sometimes; this guy was barely moving as it turned its massive frame.
We pulled into the gate at SFO 36 hours after the flight from Kimberley had departed. At the end of the international arrivals terminal was just what I wanted to see, a giant freakin’ line. Welcome to the United States, the signs read. In English. It felt so boring, too familiar. I chose my queue, poorly. It was clearly the slowest line. People at this checkpoint were being held up by gods know what. When I got there, I was in and out in about twenty seconds. No big deal.
I skipped through baggage claim, rushed up the stairs to where I’d left from a week earlier, and found a bus to the long term parking lot and my car. As soon as I got in my vehicle, it was like I’d never left. My odyssey across the planet felt like nothing more than a dream. Upon leaving the airport grounds, I was thrust into aggressive American traffic, bad even for a Sunday. Welcome home.
I was so tired and so jetlagged I didn’t have any time for any chicanery. I was irritable and impatient. I just wanted to get back to my apartment. When I did, my life got instantly more complicated. I couldn’t bear to do anything other than throw on some television, lay down on the couch and watch.
I woke up hours later. Surprise nap! I gave up and went to bed. I even made it to work the next day. Unfortunately, the week was a waste; my jetlag lingered until Friday and my productivity was low. My mood was unstable and my nights were wasted. It was a bad time.
However, the trip was incredible. I was more than willing to receive a week of miserable desynchronosis for a week abroad in distant lands among the vibrant unfamiliar cultures. There’s really not much left to say about it. I’m lucky this opportunity was sprung on me and I eagerly await the next one. Next time, I’m absolutely going to say yes, without hesitation.
I’d be foolish not to.