Searching frantically for scraps of food, like ants trapped inside a lunchbox, it was that all too familiar look of confusion mixed with a hopeful desperation that brought us together. We were the only Americans in the international terminal of the Manila, the Philippines Airport, five minutes into a four-hour layover on Christmas Eve. There was the actress from Los Angeles, the lifeguard from Orange County, and the manager of a very grown-up toy store who was traveling all the way back to Boise. And of course myself, a writer-slash-waiter bound for San Francisco.
Our frenzied search for something to eat before the second leg of our journey across the pacific had led us to a small glass door at the end of a long corridor. Cautiously we gathered around the entrance, like elk inspecting an open field before deciding whether to enter. A sign on the door read, “Welcome food and smokes.” Peering into the mysterious fog it not-so-suddenly became clear, the only food available in this desolate airport was served in a deli that doubled as a smoker’s lounge.
Sunburned and malnourished, like refugees washed ashore, we hesitated in anticipation of what awaited us on the other side. The air was thick with the stench of tobacco and loose meat, but without speaking a word, we all took a deep breath and slipped through the mist, placing what little money we had left on a dirty counter before retrieving our day-old sandwiches. It was one of those situations so often experienced when traveling abroad, when something is so unexpected it can hardly even be comprehended. Something that, depending on your current psychological state, will either make you laugh until you cry, or cry until you laugh. Lucky for the four of us, it was hysterical.
After a quick stop by the duty-free for a bottle of rum, we found a vacant corner to settle in and reminisce about all of the strange and frustrating situations we had found ourselves in over the past couple of months. Both the actress and the manager had arrived with friends they had since disowned, the lifeguard had to replace his entire wardrobe when his bag—which held both his money and his passport—was stolen from a bus stop in the middle of the night, and I recounted my Indian journey of self-discovery-slash-dysentery, including two trips to the ER and one very eventful ambulance ride through a mountain road that looked a lot more like a bike trail.
But despite the discomfort and sometimes outright humiliation, every story ended with a quiet pause; a moment of reflection and appreciation for an experience that, good or bad, would never happen back home. Back in the states, I will never have to find a ride from a perfect stranger when my bus breaks down in the middle of the night and nobody comes to fix it. I will never have to navigate a menu with a series of hand signals and facial expressions or get a piece of cake when I order a bottle of water. I won’t get lost and discover something that has to be seen to be believed or form an instant friendship with a group of people at an airport on Christmas Eve.
By the time we finally got to the gate, we were the final four to board the flight, which seemed a fitting gesture. The plane was nearly empty, allowing each of us enough room to stretch out across a handful of seats, and just as I began to settle into my makeshift bed, the captain came on the overhead speaker and said, “It’s just after midnight and we want to wish you all a merry Christmas. But don’t worry, we’ll get you back home in time to do it all over again.” Drifting slowly into the best sleep I’ve ever had on an international flight, I thought, I am happy to be going home, but I would definitely do it all over again.
About the Author: My name is Evan Fowler and I’m a freelance writer, blogger, and obsessive-compulsive world traveler.
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