By J.O. Haselhoef
Chicago O’Hare’s international terminal offers street theatre.
I arrived recently at Terminal 5 to meet a friend, coming from Kathmandu, Nepal, via Abu Dhabi, UAE. Henry sent numerous texts once he landed as to where I might meet him and his luggage. He encouraged me to wait in the quiet of my car till he arrived. True, it was our nation’s busiest airport and often chaotic. But I refused. It was the drama of the arrivals gate that fuelled my 90-minute drive — not souvenirs that he brought back from his time in Kathmandu, Nepal.
The entertainment started immediately. Two middle-aged women from India, dressed in hot-pink saris, walked toward me and tried to exit through the automatic door to their left at Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal Five. Those doors would have been correct in India. But at this American airport’s international arrivals gate, it was the wrong door. It was my entrance, not their exit. I feared my step would trigger the glass portal to swing into their faces; I took a step back. They saw my look of fear and sensed their mistake. They, too, stepped back. We stood on either side of the glass, in a standoff. What should happen next? A porter, watching the narrative unfold, ran to their help and guided them to the right side of the hallway and the proper exit door. As we passed one another, we looked and smiled.
I found Henry’s arrival gate inside. The passengers on the connecting flight from Abu Dhabi began their travel two or three days before, perhaps in a mountainous village or maybe an apartment in a city of 20 million. They came not just from Nepal but India, the Middle East, and all of Africa.
The flight brought many ethnicities, cultures and religions together as they walked the lengthy concourse from the plane, passed through immigration, and gathered their belongings at baggage claim.
Families and friends waited. We served as a kind of reward for the travellers, standing patiently, excitedly, behind two sets of restricting ropes and a gap of 20 feet. Many of our impromptu group pushed towards the front to get a better first view of a loved one’s face — not unlike my father with his brother.
There was room to move behind the group of us waiting. A young woman, who wore a Muslim headscarf, pushed a baby carriage in a small circle. She kept her eyes focused on the baggage area. Her arms went up in a double wave when she saw the person she waited for. She clutched the handles and cried. A few moments later, she walked with more vigour while she pushed the pram.
A passenger claimed the first bag from the flight and walked toward the rope barrier. His family rushed into the exit way to embrace him and clogged the entrance funnel.
A small man negotiated his way through that tight exit sleeve. A tall woman grabbed him and they shared a passionate kiss. They turned to go and caught me staring at their togetherness. They smiled. Guilty, I smiled too.
I looked back to the woman with the baby carriage. Her traveller had not yet joined her. She stopped moving in a small circle and rocked the carriage in one place instead. I moved closer and asked how old the infant was. “Three weeks,” she told me. “His father has never seen him.” She told me he had not been in the U.S. for two years.
That didn’t make sense. “What about nine months ago?” I asked.
“Oh!” She giggled. “Yes! I went to Jordan to see him.” The couple flew to the U.S. where she was a citizen, but he was not. Officials stopped him in Chicago and sent him back to Jordan.
This time, he went through immigration in Abu Dhabi, so they knew there would not be difficulties. “He will get through this time,” she said.
We stood together, waiting, discussing baby names, immigration processes, when the child began to cry. “He’s hungry,” she said as she changed the angle of the pacifier and rocked him faster. “But I doubt I have time to nurse him.”
Just then, she saw her husband leave the baggage area and start through the funnel. Politely, she excused herself and wished me well. Again, I couldn’t help myself as I watched this moment of intimacy. Like with my father and his brother, the moment was full of joy.
Finally, I saw Henry head in my direction. He wheeled one large roller bag with his right hand and, with his left, carried a duffel bag. He grimaced as he tried to manipulate his way around a family reuniting in the middle of the narrow walkway. He looked tired, dark circles lay below his eyes. After our hug, we walked the distance to the car lot and he complained to me about his long-haul flight. He started with the frustrating behaviours of his seatmates — the women talking incessantly followed by the man across the aisle snoring loudly. He continued about a child kicking his seat in the row behind him. He described the difficulties flying without a common language. And he ended with, “The airline served the worst curry!”
I expected him to be positive, given all the thumbs up he had posted on Facebook during his visit, but 48 hours without sleep and 14 hours in one seat interrupted that flow. He was tired and intolerant.
He flew more than 7,000 miles. I drove only 60. We both spent time with the same passengers. Oddly, mine was the savoury souvenir.
J.O. Haselhoef is a social artist who writes and travels. Her work appears in Swamp Ape Review, Re-Creating Our Common Chord, Evening Street Press, and Fiction Southeast. Her book, GIVE & TAKE, Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be a Charity in Haiti was published in 2015. She is online at http://www.JOHaselhoef.com.
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