We knew there was a layover waiting for us after the 13-hour flight from SFO to Seoul before heading to Tokyo Narita the next day. The plan was to pass whatever time we had ahead of us in the comfort of United's Business Executive lounge. Surprisingly, neither of us did the math until the wait at baggage claim.
Kadri, when is our flight out tomorrow morning?
"Let. Me. Check... It says here, uh, 11 A.M."
What time is it now?
Business lounge, here we come!
Mastering travel requires one to sharpen two very important skills: acceptance and trust. Acceptance to be ready for whatever possible experiences, no matter how wild or boring, that arise from the decision to undertake the journey. Trust that the hands, other than our own, in charge of getting us there will do their job.
Baggage claimed, we exited into the main terminal. Dozens of signs were quietly waiting to receive dozens of people. None of them were for us. Despite this, we still paused for a celebratory photo, in front of the imagined thunderous roar of the background crowd chanting our names. Layover Pro-Tip Number One: Have fun. After all -- there is no rush and you couldn't read what was written on the the signs, anyway.
The reality is most travel revolves around waiting and consumption. While the end result is geographic change, we move very little during most of the experience. Standing in lines, sitting in chairs, or using one as a break from the other. Eating expensive and/or uninspiring food. Devouring entertainment while burning gas. Breathing shared air in enclosed spaces. Passing time.
Layovers drag the whole experience out even longer with the knowledge you'll be stuck in traffic for hours without any way around it. It's outside of your control, which means you are not fully in control. The only escape is time.
Therein lies the necessity for trust and acceptance. Trusting that you've brought everything you need along for the ride. Accepting the direction your journey takes when the path has been rerouted due to unexpected circumstances outside of your control. Layover Pro-Tip Number Two: Stay relaxed. If things are moving slowly, maybe you should to. Find a comfy spot as home base. Explore the terminals. Strike up a conversation with a stanger. Take your shoes off. Stretch. No matter how thick the flight bread is on your layover sandwich, don't just loaf around like a piece of lifeless meat. The human body was meant to move, especially during travel. Take care of the vessel, and the journey becomes much more enjoyable.
The Kuala Lumpur International Airport is one of the best in the world. Imagine an expansive mall with all of the trimmings. Entertainment, shopping, multiple international food courts, and the ability to catch a plane to anywhere on the planet. There is an actual rainforest in Terminal A.
I spent almost 20 hours by myself exploring that magical plane station. In addition to a lot of window shopping and coffee, I practiced yoga in quiet corners and wrote a lot. Layover Pro-Tip Number 3: Keep busy. One can learn a thing or two about staying occupied during on extended mall visits without a smartphone or laptop from growing up on Long Island. Was the experience bad? No. Given a choice, however, I will always choose "get there" over "19-hour layover in a nicely appointed mall" every time.
Why is that? Many travel to escape the boredoms of everyday life and step outside of their box. The idea of travel is romantic, and for whatever reasons may be, we often need to fall back in love with ourselves from time to time. What better way to see your self in a different way than an exotic change of scenery? I've never been one to go on vacations, but I'm all about vacating the premises in search of something more interesting.
There is no better way to test the true grit of a traveler more than an extended layover, the devil incarnate of every reason one goes exploring in the first place. This is where the glitter falls off and the magic pauses, the travel equivalent of a walk of shame. Wayward travelers are left with two things: their own thoughts and time either to think them or create distraction. Layover Pro-Tip Number 4: Be prepared to think about your life... especially once you run out of distractions.
On another occasion, I spent 12 hours in Sri Lanka's Bandaranike International Airport -- the yang to Kuala Lumpur's yin. Due to a series of terrorist attacks at the time, there was an overbearingly ominous military presence. Wrapped in fresh bandages, I was returning to India to recoup from a serious motorbike accident in Vietnam. It was my fifth airport in as many days. There was a fabric stand, a coffee shop, an outdated electronics booth, and no rainforest. I couldn't do yoga, and my mind was fried from almost a week of constant transit. The only thing I did of note was sneak into the business class lounge for a couple hours to eat bad sandwiches and check email. I did that three times, happily.
"Hurry up and wait" syndrome is a mind-killer, one that is still tested even after multi-day train rides in India, driving from New York City to Vegas in 33 hours, and trying to get a bench warrant lifted in dealing with multiple offices of the Florida state DMV. No stranger to queuing up or waiting for my number to be called, it's much more pleasurable when the others sharing in the experience are calm. Quite often, they are not.
Layover Pro-Tip Number 5: Don't be that guy (or girl). Remember #2? This takes it one step further. Remain calm. It's ok to be angry or frustrated, especially when things don't go according to plan. It's not ok to take it out on others who have no control in the situation, either. Kill everyone with kindness, including yourself.
Airport Clerk: "I'm sorry, sirs. You can't check in until tomorrow morning at 8."
Kadri: "Oh, that's unfortunate. We were told we could. We wanted to stay in the executive lounge by the gates. Eight o'clock is 15 hours from now."
"My apologies, sirs. I can't help you."
Me: "That's not you fault. Thank you for helping. You're very kind."
"No problem, sirs. You know, sirs, you could go to the sauna."
Us: "Excuse me? Do you mean a spa?"
"Yes, sirs. I'm sorry, sirs -- I meant the spa. It is in the basement."
Kadri: "There is a spa in the airport?"
Me: "This airport has a basement?"
Layover Pro-Tip Number 6: Whenever possible, spend 12 hours in a Korean airport spa (where applicable). Not only will you be able to practice tips one through five with relative comfort and ease, you'll show up to your destination smelling so fresh and so clean clean.
Don't let extra pages, exotic stamps, or a collection of colorful visas mislead you. A good traveler is not defined by the size of their passport, but how they use it. Those extras look impressive and prove how much one travels. They do little, however, to indicate how good they are getting to those places or how they flow upon arrival.
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