It’s day 1 of the COVID-19 lock-down in Namibia. I’m reading through my blog posts and discovered this (previously) unpublished post below. It’s from roughly a year ago. When airports were busy places…
I mostly write about fitness. Mental and physical fitness. Writing about a day at an airport does not seem to fit…
Important note: Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes two operating systems of the brain. System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the automatic system. It generates thoughts, reads familiar words, recognizes things, detects objects and to a certain degree, assesses situations – among a few other things – and it does so whether you want it to or not. You can’t control it. You can evaluate it by using System 2. System 2 requires mental effort and since we are programmed to follow the path of least resistance, in most instances we just go with whatever System 1 says, being too lazy to utilize System 2. What follows is mostly the product of System 1 – a system I can’t control, only evaluate…
It’s 8 am on a Sunday morning. My daughter and I are in a queue at the check-in counters. Standing in front of us is a person. That much I’m certain of. What sex this person is, is anyone’s guess. It makes me uneasy not knowing whether someone is male or female. One part of me feels sorry for this person. ‘It’ must be a very confused individual. The other part simply despises the being in front of me. Shame on you System 1.
There’s time for a quick cup of tea before my daughter must board a plane to Cape Town. The bill confirms what we already know, yet it still shocks me every time: Airports are exorbitantly expensive.
After a long hug Elisbe makes her way through the boarding gates and with a final wave she disappears from my view. Suddenly I’m acutely aware of a big lump in my throat. Uncontrollably tears well up in my eyes. I turn my gaze towards a big billboard to my left, not wanting a stranger to make eye-contact with me in my moment of weakness. Airports have happy and sad sections. Boarding gates, at most airports, are located in the sad section.
I gather myself and head over to the happy section. The arrival hall at OR Tambo is a large half-moon shaped area. Passengers enter the hall through glass sliding doors. I take a seat on the bag on my trolley while my mind races to assess what’s unfolding in front of my eyes.
Loud shrill screams interrupt my brief stay in my ‘nothing box’. A place in my mind where I frequently spend time. I’ve come to believe that it is only males that can comfortably and indefinitely spend time in their nothing boxes. My head jerks up just in time to see the sliding doors open up to spit out a black women with long fake hair hiding behind an overloaded trolley. Her welcoming party goes nuts. She must have climbed a mountain or won a medal or something. Cellphones are in the air filming the grand entrance. The newly-landed pulls out her own device and starts filming in the opposite direction while hiding her face behind a suitcase. Silly.
The sliding doors continue to spit out a steady stream of travelers. System 1 is now properly in overdrive. Two grey heads. An old man and his wife. They’re on holiday. It’s their first visit to Africa. The man already looks tired. His wife is in his ear giving him directions, as if she’s been here before. Poor soul.
A middle-aged businessman. Neatly dressed in navy-blue trousers and a shirt with buttons. Short hair, glasses, laptop slung over his right shoulder. Brisk pace. Heading straight for the car rentals. He’s done this before. He knows where he’s going and when he gets there he’s going to make some money.
Then a pair of bulging biceps squeezed into a too small shirt. Tattoos everywhere. Seemingly wanting to be the center of attraction yet avoiding eye contact. Maybe another tattoo will up the confidence levels?
With every person emerging from behind the sliding doors it takes my mind mere milliseconds to blurt out an assessment. Some funny, some disturbing. Three middle-eastern women emerges. Dressed in traditional robes complete with full faced burkas. Please don’t explode. Again, shame on you System 1.
Complete strangers funneled together into an arrival hall. Each carrying his or her own baggage, heading into his or her own direction. Each one busy scripting his or her own story.
It’s nearing lunch hour. I still don’t have a plan for spending the remainder of the day. The best idea I can come up with is to find myself a room at the Airport City Lodge. At the front desk a name tag on a neatly ironed uniform reveals the receptionist’s name as ‘Happy’. This must be one of the coolest names on the planet. How can you not be happy when your name is Happy? Well done parents. Really, well done.
After liberating myself from my luggage I head back into the bowls of the terminal building. This is a new experience for me. I’m free to explore. I don’t have to police my luggage nor do I have to worry about being late for anything. Exploring the airport now turns into a beguiling, gripping and at times, mesmerizing experience.
Like I said, you’re likely to experience tales of happiness at the arrival hall and witness tears of sadness at the boarding gates. If you’re feeling emotionally drained and just want to stare at people, the food court is the place to be. I find myself a corner table where I can observe ‘traffic’ coming from both directions. From my table I also have an unobstructed view into the dining areas of the various other restaurants in the middle of the food court.
Across from me, at a table for two, are two overweight Asian women. They’re sharing a single ice cream on a cone. The one holding the ice cream would lean over the table and dangle the frozen delight under the nose of her ‘partner’. The partner would then give the ice cream a lick with tongue as large as a towel and offer an awkward smile as a ‘thank you’. I doubt whether they’re related…
Closer to me a colorfully wrapped bouquet of flowers arrives at a table for four. Seated at the table are what looks to be a newly-wed couple and a young mother of two. Carried by a bald, bulky man with a broad grin. A tiny blonde women leaps up from her chair and embraces what must be her husband. It makes me smile. Normal looking happy people are also to be found at airports. Shortly after the exchange of pleasantries a search party is assembled to track down the two toddlers who were hanging onto mommy’s skirt just a moment ago. It’s one of my greatest fears, losing a child at an airport.
I order a glass of sauvignon blanc. And the wine does what I intended it to do. It dampens the activity of that part of the brain that’s responsible for attention, motivation, planning and learning. It basically shuts down system 1 and awakens the reward centers of the brain. It hits the amygdala. The amygdala tells us how to react to the world around us. It tells us when we are threatened. Alcohol turns that down a notch. The strangeness of strangers becomes blurred, revealing uncanny familiarities. System 2 scolding system 1. If only we made more use of system 2 the world would be a much happier place.