Returning Home: No Hajj, just Extreme Exhaustion

So on our day of departure, Mom and I were up and at the Newport bus station at 6:00am, thanks to my cousin Jeremy’s kind offer to drive us there, waiting for the coach to take us to Heathrow.

The ride back to London was nicer than the ride out; Mom’s breath was considerably better than my last traveling companion’s. We slept a little, drove through some more small towns (no idea which ones), and arrived at Heathrow about 8:30am. This early coach was really our only option as Mom’s flight left at noon, so we had to be there at least at 10:00am. My flight departed at 5:30pm, but it was the only flight to Cairo so I came well-stocked with airport-friendly activities.

First we got Mom all checked in, luggage carted away, seat assigned, flight confirmed. Then, we took a train to the new terminal for British Air flights. Door to door, with walking, waiting, riding, and dragging my suitcase, it was probably about a 20 minute journey. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re tired, and your damn suitcase weighs too much (how can veggie sausages, a trash can, grout pain, some mugs and a wee bit of chocolate weigh that much?), it felt rather monumental. (I was curious where Heathrow fell in the realm of busiest/largest airports and was surprised to find that the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is by far the largest, with 81 square miles of space – whereas Heathrow seems almost puny at only 4.7 square miles – but in terms of busiest, Heathrow handles the most international travelers, and if you combine all the airports in London, London is the definitely the busiest “aviation centre” in the world.)

Our plan was to check in my bags, then head back to her terminal, get a coffee and wait for her plane. However, British Air (I can’t speak for other airlines) apparently has a rule that bags cannot be accepted for a flight prior to three hours before departure. And I found out that when they say three hours, they mean exactly three hours, not four, not even three hours and fifteen minutes. So we found where you can pay to have your luggage stored (new-fangled lockers essentially) and I checked in the sausages.

So, we had our coffee, relaxed, and Mom made it through security without any incidents. I then took the train back to my terminal and proceeded to wander around, explore, window-shop, and try not to fall asleep, while I waited for my three-hour indicator.

In the last 30 minutes, I had reclaimed my suitcase, finished my book and was literally sitting on the floor in the departures area watching the flurry of airport activities. As I mentioned, this is a new terminal, so it’s sparkling clean, so much so that I had carried around an empty soda bottle for over an hour before I found a trash can (how is it that Brits can not only keep it spotlessly clean, but do so without a trash can in sight? Really miraculous, I think. Cairo has a similar no-trash-can policy, but it tends to lead to the opposite result of piles upon piles of rubbish).

I watched a whole slew of British Air employees, noted for their matching blue polos embroidered with “Can I help you?” on them, just milling about with almost an air of desperation to help people. As a group they looked like census takers waiting for the next victim.

At six minutes before my three hour mark, I went up to one of the hundreds of windows accepting luggage. “I’m sorry, but we can’t accept bags before three hours.” I looked at her and said, “It’s six minutes away.” “I know.” Boy, talk about by-the-book! She actually suggested that I walk slowly down to the farthest booth to kill some time. So I did. I walked through sections marked A through H, with either 16 or 26 windows in each. Then I stood slightly in front of one window and calmly filed my nails while I watched the countdown. In my final rebellious act, I walked up with great determination, placed the bag half on the scale (fearing a over-weight charge), and noted with a tad of glee that they had accepted my bag one minute early. Ha! Live on the edge, I say.

So now I only had three more hours to kill. I got through security, and was suddenly exposed to duty-free world and all the shops that just love an impulse buyer – Tiffanys, Harrods, Gucci, etc. What is it about a “Duty Free” sign that makes us consider buying a $400 ounce of perfume that otherwise we wouldn’t consider? Saving $20-45 in tax?

By this point my exhaustion was taking on physical qualities and I was doing a combination shuffle/stumble as I walked from one end to the other and back again. I did see a bunch of heavily-armed police ambling about – guess they’re supposed to make one feel safer, right? I also heard a gasp followed by a crash and turned to see a woman who had fallen backwards on an escalator. She was laying prone upside-down and wasn’t moving. They stopped the escalator and emergency came quickly and managed to get her standing up, but it was rather disconcerting.

Throughout the terminal there were huge TV screens high overhead broadcasting very long elaborate advertisements involving pixels blowing back and forth across the screen, become one person on one side, and another on the other. Then the screens were filled with “I love you” written in everything from candies to doodles to chocolates or flowers. In my growing delirium, I found them utterly fascinating. I also found myself examining the towering glass windows that bordered the length of the terminal on two sides, connected by the high industrial ceiling. It all felt like we were in a huge human terrarium, but instead of a captive lizard on a log, it was full of a thousand little colorful blobs in constant motion – I was a pink blob. (Delirium is funny.)

At one point I was sitting near the “Caviar House & Prunier” where I was subjected to their continuous silent promotional video -- ick. Luckily, I was distracted from that by a man behind me typing erratically and a German woman a few chairs away who chose to use her outdoor-voice while on her cell phone in the airport, so I got to hear, “o-k, o-k, o-k” over and over. At one point the male part of the beautiful sleeping couple across from me, opened one eye to glare at her, to no avail.

I continued to people watch and found myself amazed at two things in particular: what people choose to wear during travels (I mean, I guess if you can get away with wearing a slinky black dress and strappy heels on a plane, more power to you), and how light some people travel. Ever since I was little and would fly to see my dad, I would pack a carry-on with books, games, walkman/ipod, etc. I guess the fear of being bored outweighed any overpacking concerns. Even today, just going for ten days to Wales, I took five books. I know, issues.

So I was finally able to board the plane, get my seat, stow my gear and settle in. I slept a bit, watched the latest “Indiana Jones” film, and chatted with the nice couple from New Zealand who were meeting their daughter in Cairo for a vacation. They had a bunch of typical questions, “Can I drink the water? Is there crime? How do you deal with the heat?” etc. I answered everything and then found myself offering up all types of info on life in Cairo. I felt very excited about the adventure that was ahead of them.

Have to admit that the excitement didn’t last long for me. I thought I’d return to Cairo with a new sense of patience and calm, but in all honesty, being away from Cairo merely heightened my annoyance sensitivities and my type-A tendencies were raw and surface-level. I think it’s being in a country (city, village, basic hovel) where things run smoothly, trash is picked up and discarded, customer service is friendly and capable, promises are made and kept, appointments are held, etc. So returning to inshallah-land, will take some getting used to – again. But I did it once, so I can do it again. If nothing else, Cairo quashes the type-A with amazing efficiency.