by Sara Ortiz
Imagine a place without trees, without grass. A place where water must be imported. Imagine no change of seasons, no light of day, no moon by night. Imagine a room composed only of florescent lights, glass windows with mundane views, tight walls, and dull colors. But why imagine it, when you can travel forward, or eastward, in time (by plane) to a structure just 20 minutes from Amsterdam. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: Schiphol International Airport, Terminal 4.
The simultaneously massive and asphyxiating, four-star airport is reputed to be among the top five airports in Europe. A rating that has me questioning the sanity of the critic. Terminal 4- advertised as a modern city to astound the traveler’s mind- has contributed to the airport’s recent award-winning credentials. The high-class accommodations that Terminal 4 provides include a variety of entertainment including lounges, tour guides, in-terminal museums, a compulsive-shopper’s toy store, your staple communication center with posh decor, an Xpress Spa, and a children’s center. For unfortunate souls, such as myself, however, who spend an unexpected 24 hours in Terminal 4, it feels much more like a penitentiary.
Most everyone has been in an airport and experienced the familiar sound of luggage being rolled down corridors, heels beating glossy floors, the rustle of suits and jackets passing by slow-walking families chattering with a primal air about them in unrecognizable languages. Include one more sound to this menagerie- the familiar sound of a customer service rep announcing, “KLM Flight 107 to Cairo, Egypt has been delayed and will now be departing at 5:20 p.m. Your flight’s been delayed two hours.”
Across from you is the eight-year old British girl with soft, blonde curls who has not taken her eyes off you for the past hour. Her mother- a woman whose neck gives away her age of 40ish- is reapplying makeup on her freckled face, to no appreciable difference. As much as you’d like to ignore the eight year-old’s obsession, you can’t, so instead you join the rest of the condemned as they roll their bags to the next destination in Terminal 4. You follow the Dutch/French/English signs and their arrows to the nearest bathroom, a place of awkward glances, awkward silences and some even more awkward non-silences; a place even grimmer, more surreal, and more hideously lit than the rest of the airport. After several failed attempts, the automatic sink finally spews water. But this “four-star airport” has no towels. After deciding not to stand for three cycles of the automated hand-dryer, you wipe your wet hands reluctantly on your pants.
You pass the upscale hotel- yes, inside Terminal 4- to kill time. As you trudge by, you can’t help but notice the advertised prices on a sign: “LONG LAY-OVER? RENT A SMALL ROOM BY THE HOUR. 30‚¬/Hour. You begin to wonder how small the room is, then remember that 30‚ is the amount you’ll be spending for a weeks-worth of food in Cairo.
At a small store, you pick up the latest best-seller and decide against purchasing it because it’s overpriced, just like it was at the other three stores. But this time you remember to buy the gum for the plane. Gum is your only defense against the excruciating ear pain of in-flight cabin pressure. Buying gum is a must, except that as you keep passing over the sweets and candy, you still can’t find it.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” you say. It doesn’t matter how much you try to blend in with your international features, your politeness and Texan twang still give you away.
The woman behind the counter ignores you.
“Hello?” you say, losing your patience. She looks up. You want to say, “Thank you for showing some sign-of-life,” but instead say-
“I seem to keep passing over the gum? Could you maybe point me in the right direction?”
Showing her less-than-perfect teeth the woman tells you there is no gum.
“Oh, ok. Well, where can I get some around here?”
Impatient with you, she says, “Nowhere.”
The airport, according to the impatient woman- who has clearly chosen the wrong job- doesn’t carry gum.
“No gum? Why?”
“Because, it’s messy. People spit it out.”
After the idiotic response, you dwell on the idea for a moment. In a place where it is just as common to see someone roll up a joint in public, as it is to see someone roll their luggage through Terminal 4, spitting gum is bad? It makes perfect sense, in a place where prostitution and drug-use are legal and common, the risk of someone spitting gum on the floor is a serious threat to Terminal 4. What must be done? Take action. Ban gum.
Your flight is delayed another time and finally cancelled. Despite the fact that Schiphol is a four-star airport, they stop outgoing flights at midnight. You now know why they didn’t get the fifth star. They didn’t deserve the fourth either. You, along with a few hundred Cairo-fanciers, are being lugged off with your luggage to a two-star hotel, where you will sleep for a couple hours and wake to be bussed back to Terminal 4.
“Please stay in your seats during take-off and keep your seat belts fastened. Store all carry-ons beneath the seat in front of you or in the overhead compartment. We’ll take off shortly.”
The jet engines resonate throughout the Airbus A330. The plane inches its way to the runway and as it takes off you break the spine of the overpriced, best-seller. And just as you breathe a sigh a relief, a painful pressure plugs your ear.
You begin to wonder: What is the real reason for renting a room by the hour?