Story time! Strangest moments in airports around the world

We’re leaving for the airport early tomorrow morning. Home for the Holidays, here we come! Boston Logan is typically a relatively calm and uneventful airport, but around the holidays, traveling is like a box of chocolates. You don’t know what you’re gonna get. While I procrastinate on my packing and present-wrapping, here are my all-time best airport stories, a sequel to my weird stories on trains and buses. Moments in airports that just made me do a double take and think to myself, “Wait a minute, did that actually just happen?”

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Grading papers in a near-empty Zurich airport in the middle of the night. Ever wonder where in the world your homework has been?

Cairo International Airport, March 2015

With my cohort of fellow Fulbrighters, I boarded an EgyptAir flight from Casablanca to Cairo to Amman for a spring conference. Here are some highlights from our EgyptAir experience:

  • The plane food looked very questionable, so I did not eat it and was starving by the time we got to Amman. But that was okay because…
  • Everyone who did eat it got food poisoning.
  • The plane was dirty.
  • The pilot said a prayer over the intercom before we left, and I had very mixed feelings about this because on the one hand I entirely support praying for safe travels and often do so myself, but I also want some reassurance that the pilot has confidence in himself and the plane, you know?
  • We flew home in three separate groups (as some left directly after the conference while I and a few other stayed to wander around Jordan). The second legs of ALL THREE flights were canceled, no explanation given, and we all got stranded in Cairo overnight.

So there we were in the Cairo airport late at night, in need of visas to leave the airport and go to a hotel. We’d thought this through beforehand, as we’d heard about the cancellation before our flight left Amman. While we were waiting in the Amman airport, we had traded our leftover Jordanian dinar for Egyptian pounds rather than Moroccan dirhams. So we all had enough Egyptian cash on hand to purchase our visas.

An airport officer pointed to six currency exchange kiosks surrounding the baggage claim area and told us we could get our visas at any of them.

So we approached the closest kiosk.

“Hi, could I get a visa, please? Our flight was canceled. We’ll just be in Cairo till tomorrow morning.” (hands over passport and form)

“Certainly. That will be twenty-five dollars.”

“Actually, can I pay in Egyptian pounds?”

“No, just dollars or euros.”

“I don’t have dollars.”

“You’re American.”

“Yes, but I’ve been outside the U.S. for the past seven months. I don’t have any American money.”

“How about euros?”

“I don’t have euros. I only have Moroccan dirhams and Egyptian pounds- how much does the visa cost in Egyptian pounds?”

“I’m sorry, I can only accept dollars or euros. You can try one of the other kiosks.”

So we made our way from kiosk to kiosk, and this conversation repeated itself at every kiosk, and when we finally desperately tried the sixth and last kiosk, I lost it and yelled, loudly enough that everyone in the baggage claim area could hear me- “You’re telling me that I can’t purchase an EGYPTIAN visa with EGYPTIAN currency IN EGPYT?!???”

The man behind the kiosk looked around nervously, slid an Egyptian visa across the counter, and said in a hurried whisper, “Ok, ok, just this once, and just for you. You can pay in Egyptian pounds.”

So, PSA, if you’re going to Egypt, bring your dollars.

Mohammed V International Airport (Casablanca), March 2015

As I sat in the domestic terminal, waiting for my flight to Ouarzazate, a stray cat wandered calmly through the departure gate waiting areas. People reacted exactly how they should have: They glanced at the cat, shrugged- just a cat- and went back to their newspapers or cell phones or coffee cups. A totally normal response that felt excessively strange to me because, let’s be real here, in an American airport this cat would have caused a terminal-wide code red freak-out. It’s a terrorist cat. There’s a bomb inside it. It’s an improvised explosive cat. It’s a cat full of drugs. Where is its passport? Where is its owner?  It’s about to detonate! HELP! Run for your lives!

Marrakesh Menara Airport, April 2015

This is the story of how I learned a very valuable life lesson called you get what you pay for.

A friend invited myself and two other girls to go to Italy with her to spend Easter with her cousins. We all readily accepted. We found a $16 flight from Marrakesh to Rome on an airline called Vueling. A deal almost too good to be true. We snapped it up. We’d never flown Vueling before, but we knew Ryanair pretty well and we were cool with those super-cheap no-frills European airlines. We bought a second (and equally cheap) flight from Rome to Lamezia- our final destination in southern Italy- on Ryanair.

Marrakesh was a ten hour train trip away from where I lived, but trains in Morocco are inexpensive and comfortable and I had no problem making such a long trek if it meant that $16 flight and being able to travel with my friends. I took that ten hour ONCF journey, meeting up with one of the girls in Rabat along the way and traveling with her for the final four hours, and we all ended up in the Marrakesh airport by midnight to catch our 2:00 a.m. flight.

Yes, you heard that right. Our flight had a two a.m. departure time. Whatever, it was worth it for $16. And ours was the only flight departing from Marrakesh at anywhere near that time, making a delay less likely.

Oh, wait. Take that back. Two o’clock became two thirty, two forty-five, three… and we were still waiting at our departure gate. No explanation was given. Just as we were starting to get worried about missing our connecting flight in Rome, we were finally allowed to board.

So we boarded…

…and proceeded to sit on the runway for another hour.

Once again, no explanation was given for the delay.

We found a flight attendant and asked her what was going on. We told her we had a connecting flight on another airline that we were likely to miss at that point- would Vueling be able to do anything about that? Could she give us a ballpark estimate of when we might be taking off?

The flight attendant simply shrugged at us- “like a sassy diva,” my friend said, and I can vouch that that is a very realistic description and no exaggeration.

It was now past 4:00 a.m. and passengers were getting very antsy and starting to complain loudly.

A man in an orange vest came on the plane and told us, and I swear I am not making this up, that they would have to turn the plane off and turn it back on again. He quickly ducked out of the plane before anyone had a chance to ask questions.

Rebooting a plane apparently takes at least half an hour.

So we continued to wait.

Some passengers got out of their seats and loudly demanded to get off the flight. They argued back and forth with the flight attendants and the man in the vest who reappeared out of nowhere and another airline guy in a suit. The guy in the suit and the guy in the vest disappeared, then reappeared, and announced to everyone that the mechanical problem had been fixed and the plan was ready for takeoff, but since some passengers wanted to get off the plane there would be another forty minute delay while their baggage was retrieved from the hold.

And that was IT.

Pandemonium broke loose.

Passengers were screaming and yelling in Italian, Arabic, and English. Yelling at each other, yelling at the people getting off the plane, yelling at the man in the suit and the man in the vest and the flight attendants, who were of course all yelling back. Babies were crying. Some guys shoved each other. Someone punched the back of my seat. It was nuts.

So the pilot employed an age-old trick passed down from kindergarten teacher to kindergarten teacher for generations. He turned off the lights for five minutes until we all calmed down.

We missed our connecting flight in Rome and had to cough up sixty euros for a train ticket to Lamezia and then sit on a train for seven or eight hours.

At least we made it in time for Easter dinner!

You get what you pay for. And sometimes what you get is a good story.

Abed Amani Karume International Airport (Zanzibar), July 2015

My husband and I flew from Nairobi to Zanzibar for the second half of our honeymoon. As we stepped off the plane, we were immediately greeted by giant, bright yellow signs: All travelers must show proof of yellow fever immunization. I had my yellow WHO card with me, but my husband did not have his, though he’d been vaccinated about eight years before. We were given two options. “You can wait here for the next flight back to Nairobi, or we can vaccinate you here.” My husband chose the latter option. So the TSA officer- and, I repeat, not a nurse, the TSA officer- opened a mini fridge, took out a needle, showed my husband that it was sterile, and proceeded to jab him in the arm right there by the baggage claim.

I like to end this story with “annnddd now he’s autistic.”

PSA, get your yellow fever shot before you go to Tanzania and don’t lose your WHO card cause they don’t play.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (Houston), August 2014

The man in line in front of me at Starbucks was wearing cowboy boots and a giant cowboy hat completely non-ironically. Maybe that’s normal in Texas, but I’m an urban New England girl. It was weird.

Philadelphia International Airport, May 2016

On my way home from a girls’ weekend away, I was strolling through the Philadelphia airport in the direction of my gate, casually looking around, when, as I passed an information desk, the woman at the desk called out to me, “Starbucks is over that way!”

Should I be amused or offended? Do I really give off that strong of a “basic white girl” vibe? Should I work on that? Siiiiigh.

(The worst part: I actually was looking for a Starbucks.)

(Cringe.)

 

There are some other good ones too, but that’s it for today!

 

 

 

Layover like a boss: Istanbul

With family on two separate continents, long international flights are now a part of both our lives and probaby will be forever. And so we are starting to figure out some strategies to make those twenty-hour airplane adventures as smooth, painless, and fun as possible.

For one thing, we’ve decided to make layovers something to look forward to. Especially layovers in the three to five hour range. Shorter layovers mean you get to board your next flight soon, and longer layovers mean time for some quick exploring of a new city, but it’s annoying when your connection isn’t quite enough time to leave the airport but an awful lot of time to kill sitting at your gate. So we have a plan to find all the best little spots at the airports we normally fly through and make layovers fun! I’ll write our tips and discoveries here so we can remember them for future trips.

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We connected at Istanbul Ataturk in early August, shortly after the bombing and the coup. But aside from more Turkish flags on display than usual and somewhat tighter security, you’d never know it. Istanbul Ataturk is still what it is- a busy, bustling, modern international airport.

Some of the gates are okay places to sit around for a while, but some- especially on the lower level- have uncomfortable bare metal seats and limited space. But fear not: We scoured the whole airport and found what we are pretty sure is the most comfy place to wait, aside from the airport lounges we’re not cool enough (read: too cheap) to get into. Cakes & Bakes, a cafe on the upper level, is where it’s at. The coffee and pastries there are a bit pricey, and they don’t have Turkish coffee, but they do have lovely soft chairs in the back that are a great place to read or just chill. For Turkish coffee and a wider assortment of yummy pastries, Simit Sarayi is the place to go. If they’re out of Turkish coffee, Sweet Delights in the food court has it too (along with baklava). A cup of strong, aromatic Turkish coffee will always be a routine of our Istanbul layovers. Just the thing to wake us up after the first ten-hour stretch of our journey! And my favorite Turkish pastry, a savory potato-stuffed cylinder whose name I will hopefully learn the next time we are in Istanbul.