Do layovers count?
I often wonder. When sharing travel stories, we typically differentiate between the places we’ve “been” and those places where we’ve laid over. And yet layovers — the intermittent geography between one place and another — are fundamental to travel. They are non-destination precursors to the destinations we aim for. And whether or not we “count” them, layovers are part of our travel experience. For example, I have never visited Miami, Florida. And yet, cumulatively speaking, I have spent about a week of my life in that airport (MIA), flying back and forth from Latin America. I even have certain Miami Airport traditions (Cubano sandwich, Concourse D).
Ten hours after leaving Japan, I landed in Russia: Aeroflot, Flight 582 Tokyo–Moscow. No matter how much I travel, I will never lose the thrill of holding a ripped boarding pass stub in my hand, especially when said stub is printed with the words Tokyo and Moscow. The true distance between these two capitals is vast. All throughout my flight, I studied the arching green line on the digital screen, stretching over Kamchatka and across all of Siberia. I was watching movie number four by the time we reached the Urals, promising to carry me to the other side — to Europe.
My first five minutes in Russia were theatrically chaotic with shouting guards and masses of red-eyed passengers shoving themselves like cows stampeding at a slaughterhouse. After so many weeks spent in orderly Japan, the disorder of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport was shocking, and yet it came as a welcome and pleasant change. Crushed into random holding areas, the Russians and foreign newcomers all pouted and grumbled, but I was grinning like a madman. This was Russia! I was back in Russia and it was still so very Russian: misanthropic, melodramatic, hapless, and every surface action taking placed under the grand illusion of authority without any real authority.
Russia is every man for himself, even at the airport. I remembered this important fact after ducking into the men’s bathroom, where I witnessed a bearded man who looked like Tolstoy washing his feet in the sink, another one brushing his teeth and a whole family of Pakistanis changing their undershirts. Honestly, Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport is like a gigantic Eurasian homeless shelter. I can say this because I have been homeless here before.
It was the day after New Year’s Day, more than ten years ago. I was flying from Kiev to Brussels and I had a rather long layover in Moscow. I had hoped to go into the city and meet up with friends but at immigration, I was informed that I had exhausted my multiple-entries on my Russian visa. They would not let me leave the airport.
Me and about 600 Indians and Bangladeshis. They too were stuck in Moscow on a layover and not permitted to leave the airport. Like me, they had no connecting flight until the following morning. And like me, they were all very cold.
At 10 o’clock that night, the airports lights went out. No kidding–they turned off all the lights in the airport. Then they turned off the heat. Every door had been locked. I remember staring out the glass windows and watching the snow falling so thick. This was 1999 and it must have been a bad year because I don’t know any other airport in the world that simply closes, locks up all of the passengers and then turns off the heat and electricity. By midnight, all of us were shivering en masse — the temperature outside was well below freezing and indoors, huddling on the floor with these hundreds and hundreds of South Asians, I watched as our icy breaths formed a white cloud in the midst of the darkened terminal. Like animals, we shoved our bodies into a pack, holding one another, taking out coats and scarves and extra clothing to cover us vaguely from the cold. I slept very little that night, huddled on the floor, spooning with so many strangers from Bangladesh, borrowing their body heat until morning.
But despite my traumatic near-death memories of one very cold night at SVO long ago, I chose to pass through this very same airport. It’s hard to explain why, but I am quite endeared to Russia. I just have this thing for the country–a strange nostalgia that goes all the way back to when I was a teenager and first started taking Russian lessons by satellite TV. This affinity for all things Russian has followed me through life. Perhaps I am a masochist — must Russophiles are (Dostoevsky would have approved of my eagerness to “embrace suffering”).
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Thus I eagerly embraced the few hours I had in Moscow’s international airport. I walked around each shiny terminal of Sheremetyevo, amazed at the wealth of renovations and feeling of newness. I was giddy with the free Wi-Fi and gawked at the Baskin-Robbins ice cream stand. I met three American sailors on shore leave and introduced them to Baltika beer. I shopped for perfume, and admired the wealth of gaudy Russian souvenirs on sale: matroshka dolls made in China, designer vodka bottles, and 3D refrigerator magnets with a shifty portrait of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Best of all, I got to speak Russian in Russia. Speaking Russian let me jump most of the lines, which is a true Russian luxury. Also, my food arrived faster, people were that extra bit nicer to me and the gate agent got me a great seat for my ongoing flight to Budapest.
No, I did not go to Red Square — not this time. I did not sit in Moscow traffic, or walk with a fur shapka down the Arbat. I did not feel miniature next to the Kremlin or get lost on the wonderful rat race of the Moscow metro. Instead, I stayed indoors at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and experienced Russia, briefly yet truly. It felt good to be back in Russia, even without leaving the airport.
Which is why layovers count for me. This time trapped in airports waiting for our next travel counts as travel. Perhaps on some written itinerary, I would have merely been “en route” somewhere in between Japan and Hungary. But not for me, no — I had flown to Russia. I had entered the country and been frisked by Russian security guards. For a moment, I was surrounded by Russian food, beer, attitudes and people. Outside the glass windows, I watched Russian planes coming and going until it was my turn to leave Russia.
And when I finally did leave, I took a new memory with me — a new memory of Moscow.