14 Days, 9 Airports: Jetting Through The World’s Fair-ports

Airports are both your welcome-wagon and your farewell kiss.

Doha airport
UNSPLASH Sergey Zolkin

You can learn a lot about a city from its airport. Thousands of people will fly through the city, never having left the airport. Airports have to make sure that each traveler liked what they saw, luring them back with a teaser of what lies on the other side of the wardrobe. It’s both your welcome-wagon and your farewell kiss.

World Fair Expositions were created in 1851. They gave the host city the opportunity to create a piece of architecture that they felt represented their nation; The Eiffel Tower, Exposition Universelle, 1889; Plaza de España, Sevilla Expo 1929 are among some of the most famous. Airports are the modern world expositions. They brand that city with cuisine, commercialism, color palettes, entertainment, and most importantly, the people flying through them. When I step off of an airplane, I imagine that I’ve just stepped off of a time machine, sometimes truly having just traveled through time (or time zones.) It’s like I’ve teleported into a new world, into a cultural microcosm of the journey on which I’m about to embark. In fourteen days, I’ve been in nine airports: nine portals into the hearts of nine cities.

JFK, New York City, NY: Efficiency

It’s one of those airports I don’t even really remember being in. Like in the humming city of Manhattan, I walk with my eyes straight ahead, set on the prize, on removing my laptop into a separate bin, on reaching gate A16, on getting to my final destination. The rest of the journey is forgotten as soon as the plane leaves the ground.

SFO, San Francisco, CA: Organic

Stepping off the plane I automatically feel cooler. The gigantic windows overlook the mountains of San Fran, and inside, the restaurants mimic the dining options of the trendiest neighborhoods. I only have 45 minutes to explore the city that I’ve always dreamed of visiting, even if it is only through wandering around the airport. I search one of the ten restaurants, all serving vegetarian and organic options, determined to find the most quintessential San Francisco meal. After spending twenty minutes contemplating whether a seven-dollar smoothie is worth feeling like I’m a part of the “juicer” trend of Northern California, I settle on a Mexican grilled fish salad, with guacamole on the side. I figure that I should indulge in the fair food after years of hearing my California friends brag about their authentic quality of Mexican cuisine. Reluctant to leave this chic persona I’ve embodied in my hour-long visit, I trudge onto the airplane, promising myself that one day, my final destination will land me here again.

SJD, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico: Bro

“Hey bro, do you mind if I charge my phone here? Ok? Cool, thanks bro.”

I’d just been called bro twice in one question. The Cabo airport is brimming with college spring breakers, each repping their Greek Letters and alma mater somewhere on their attire. The girls are dressed to a tee, with tight tops and flowing harem pants that match their flowing blonde hair. I just travelled for 11 hours, my face looks like a mess, my sweatpants and white t-shirt are wrinkled (if sweatpants can wrinkle), yet these girls look like they just came out of a beauty pageant, with their indistinguishably picturesque faces immaculately painted on like a color-by-numbers.

Cabo’s airport, like Cabo itself, runs on these tourists. It embodies the “cultural exchange” aspect of the World’s Fair, as American culture certainly has exchanged itself into their exposition. There’s a Sbarros, an American burger fast food joint, a Starbucks, and even a frozen yogurt shop–froyo: the staple diet of any college girl. The shelves in the gift shop overflow with Cabo shot glasses and fluorescent headbands to prove how much fun they had “YOLOing in Cabo.” If I could make a store called “Spring break in Mexico,” it would be the Cabo San Lucas airport.

LAX, Los Angeles, CA: Red-Eyes

“You’re going to want to just go straight to your gate. We’re under construction. There’s not much else to do around here so you might as well just wait.” The TSA Security officer told me as I handed her my boarding pass waiting to catch my red-eye back to the East Coast. The construction was everywhere leading to a chaotic conglomerate of foreign travelers struggling to read makeshift printer-paper signs. As I trudge through the security line with the crowd of other red-eyers, ready to time-travel through four time zones across the country, the TSA officer in the corner assures us that “everything will be alright” and constantly “thanks us for our smiles.” He reminds me of a children’s show host, like he’s encouraging us toddlers to Smile if you believe in fairies! He’s the ringleader of our trip to the fair, only unveiling the security x-ray machines instead of a two-headed horse. His positivity is so outlandish and unexpected, that my smile immediately mimics his infectious grin. He adds life to the monotonous security procedures and makes me laugh out loud. As he is belting out jokes to the passengers, I’m not sure if he’s looking for a good review or just a great-spirited person, but I guarantee that he makes at least 100 people smile in those five minutes. He changes from the mundane droning out of the same instructions day-in and day-out, and instead compliments me on my shirt, the man behind me on his tie, the woman behind him on how cute her dog was. Cracking jokes and making sarcastic comments, I feel like I know him at the end of our thirty-second encounter. His dark curly hair and crooked smile, the way his voice rises up at the end of his sentences, blending in perfectly to his high pitched cackle of a laugh.

He gave hundreds of strangers their only smile for ten hours, the sole cause of the one smile someone had in half of an entire day. As I wriggle back into my sneakers, I thank him for taking thirty seconds of his day to improve twelve hours of mine. And as I maze my way to the gate, I sit down and realize that the woman was right: there was nothing to do except wait and stare at the construction tape.

BNA, Nashville, TN: Home-cooked

The minute I step off the plane, live country music fills my ears. A sign with a cartoon TSA officer in cowboy boots warns “Y’all to never leave your bag unattended.” There’s a Popeyes right next to a Wendy’s, but if I want the more classy joints, “Nashville Diner,” “Neely’s BBQ,” and “Tootsie’s Kitchen” are right across the way.  I glance outside the window at five in the morning and see neon lights, everywhere. The fluorescent colors welcoming me into “Music City.”

But these bright lights are nothing like what lights up the nights of New York, Paris, or Berlin. These aren’t the individual lights of apartment and office buildings that keep those cities awake, but the unified glow of the bars on Broadway, Nashville.  The street truly is the Broadway of Nashville, the center of tourism with less flashy show business signs, and more rundown tube lights. They welcome y’all in, to sing a little karaoke or listen to live music. The intimate community this glow creates, not just the people as individual lights in windows, keeps the city alive. While I wait for my bag, I sit down outside Tootsie’s Kitchen, listening to the guitarist strum and sing about the south, about coziness, ma’ams, brick walls, and southern hospitality. The neon colors blur into one unified blaze that provide the warmth of this city, like the burn of a campfire, giving off the same intimacy as if I were roasting a s’more, or telling ghost stories, or singing a campfire song. I see my bag come out of the conveyor belt. I stand up to navigate my way back through the camouflage shirts and steel-toed cowboy boots when the name of the store on the right catches my eye: “Celebrate Life- Life is Good.”

CHS, Charleston, SC: Ma’am

I have 45 minutes to get from Gate A to Gate C. I power walk past Charleston’s cultural showcase of retail stores and restaurants: PGA Tour, Lacoste, Carolina Pit BBQ, and Phillips Seafood Shack, which guarantees to have “the best crab cakes in the world.” I wind my way through the bombard of high-school students in matching fluorescent t-shirts displaying their “Mission Trip to the Dominican Republic” or Haiti, or Costa Rica. As the classical pianist serenades the passengers waiting in the white rocking chairs under the faux trees in the center terminal, I realize that I’m doing the slow south disservice by rushing past. I reach my gate and shovel my way to my seat, the man in front of me stands up, “No worries ma’am, I’ll help you with that,” he says as he gallantly places my duffel bag in the overhead compartment, showcasing the true definition of a southern gentleman.

FLL, Ft. Lauderdale, FL: Suffocating

I swear the air closed around me as soon as I stepped off of the plane. The airport is one giant queue: a queue for the one restaurant, a queue for the NBC snack store, and a long enough queue for the bathroom, one that I would rather wait to use it on the plane (does Spirit Airlines even have a bathroom? Or do I have to pay for that too?)

Ft. Lauderdale is Miami’s bourgeoisie older brother. Housing 100 marinas with 45,000 resident yachts and an annual 3,000 hours of sunshine, the Spirit Airline terminal of its airport is quite the antithesis. These gate signs would make a picket fence look high-tech. People are sardined into the seats, on the floor, hidden in the corners and behind desks. The proximity to Miami and South American gate destinations create a conglomerate dialect of Spanish and retired Floridian. Squeezing my way onto the flight, the man in front of me is charged $100 because the handle of his backpack is above the bar of the carry-on size check. I sit down in my seat and stare out the window to see that the sky is grey for the first time in Florida for the past two weeks. I feel like I’m stuck in a snow globe with a grey screen covering the glass, suffocatingly unable to see past the monotonous grey tone that seems to surround the Spirit Terminal in the Ft. Lauderdale airport.

TPA, Tampa, FL: Nice

“Have you heard about Pat Spears? She died. Two days ago,” says the middle-aged guy on the phone in the seat next to me on my final leg home, the flight back to Tampa. I stare awkwardly out the window, feeling like I’m eaves dropping on a far too intimate conversation than the domino-row-tight airplane seats should allow. He hangs up and apologizes to us for being on the phone. I tell him not to worry, but don’t know if I should wish him my condolences for his loss. Does he know I heard? He was right next to me. It’s like that Facebook friend you’ve never actually met in person. What’s the common courtesy for acknowledging facts that were only discovered via eavesdropping?

Anyways, the man continues to spark up the conversation. Asking me how old I am, he is shocked to find that I’m twenty. He said he used to be a principal for ninth grade and was sure that I was 15 or 16. I chuckle it off as he helps me get my bag from the overhead compartment. Walking beside me on the way off the plane, he asks for directions to the baggage claim. I tell him I’m from Tampa and he tells me he’ll only be here for a couple of days, which I know from hearing his phone conversation, but pretend to have found out for the first time.

It was then I realized, after 33 hours of flying, 45 dollars spent on over-priced airport food, 18 hours spent during four layovers in nine airports, that only one man has spoken to me.

The World’s Fairs were created as advertising campaigns, the Exposition being a vehicle for “nation branding.” For these expositions, countries could spend around 47 billion dollars creating one piece of architecture that showcases their city. The most expensive airport in the world is Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan, priced at 20 billion dollars. In a word of constant globalization, this national image represented at once through World’s Fairs, is a key asset that is obviously worth the investment of a distinguishable airport as well. Don’t think you’ll ever get a chance to go to the 51 World’s Fair structures that are still intact? Don’t worry, there are still approximately 49,000 airports in the world for you to visit.

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