It’s funny how my experience of airports and stations is so different from the experience of journeys and the destinations themselves. An airport visit is often an integral part of the journey and yet it is entirely separate and unique. I often pass the time writing in the notebook that I carry everywhere, reading a book, listening to music, but mostly I like to sit and watch, listening to the sounds of the terminal around me. They’re the sounds of luggage wheels on tiles, the hum of the too shiny electric lights and appliances, the clinical crackle of the artificially amplified announcements in brisk tones that break into my thoughts at intervals. I feel so very alien, apart from my fellow travellers, when I’m in airports. It’s as though I’m a ghost standing still in their midst while they blur around me in their flurries of excitement and anxious activity.
Planning a trip is filled with anticipation, the days leading up to departure have a constant edge of excitement. But once I reach the airport I fade into limbo. A very literal no-man’s land – a space that belongs to everyone and no-one, simultaneously bursting with stimuli and void of any distinctive features to draw prolonged attention. It’s a good thinking space.
The airport today is Houston International, the flight one to Guatemala City, a new destination for me and one I’ve been excited about all week. But now I find myself here, all engagement with the future or the past is suspended.
The plane is a different kind of removal from reality. The idea of distance is never far from my mind and I marvel both at the technology and at our collective indifference to temporarily ceasing to be earthbound. I have the same feeling on trains, rattling through the countryside at inhuman speeds. It’s liberating for both body and soul.
During this flight, I’m fascinated by the play of the sun’s rays on the water, smoothed somehow, as if captured by long exposure. The illumination is golden, soft, otherworldly.
As we fly further out over the Gulf of Mexico, the light begins to catch the clouds. These begin way below us and rise only a little, in tufts like cotton or the rock formations of the Arizona desert. Tiny towers, one side dark and blue, the other glowing bright, its contours highlighted and verging on translucent. I am transfixed.
The sun begins to set, and the light changes. This is my favourite kind of light. It is alive, bathing the clouds in shades of rose and orange. The clouds defy their watery constitution and are briefly aflame. It never lasts long enough, the shift in the direction of the light seems so fast at this time of day. The horizon, visibly curved at this altitude, is a bright warm line between the intense blue of the sky and the now shadowy blue-grey of the sea. The higher clouds continue to catch the light, from below it seems as we skirt the lower edges. I’m sure if I had to paint it, the contrast between the orange and purple would be too stark to be believable. I see no defining line but the two complementary colours are both unquestionably present. I’m briefly lost in thought, focussing through the clouds out to infinity.
As we fly into the clouds I look back towards the setting sun, see the halo form, grow, and then fade as the scene is softened by the mists and we cross the threshold into night. It is exactly at this time that I feel furthest from time. I’m captivated, held as a breath, suspended for a moment which extends longer than should be possible.
When I look forwards again, there is enough light to see the swirling clouds that have been reported over Guatemala City. They look exactly as they’re portrayed on the weather forecast, spiralling in an almost cartoonish way. They are thick, and it makes me briefly wonder how much of the Perseids I will be able to see this weekend.
As we near land, the Captain dims the cabin lights and we approach a towering thunderstorm. The cloud is dark, heavy and then suddenly lit from within by the lightning. I feel like I can see every harsh edge of the interior of a craggy cave. The lightning rages like a caged animal, bouncing from one edge of the cloud to another. I see out of the corner of my eye the tallest cloud of the storm looming larger and larger, brightened from within by the barrage of light. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
As we leave the storm behind, the stars begin to emerge. The lights on the ground are so few and so small that even as the last remnants of the sunlight can be seen in the blue sky near the horizon the stars I can see shine brightly. I can see Jupiter as well, making it’s stellar companions look comparatively drab. It makes my neck ache to keep looking up, but I do it anyway. I don’t want to miss even one.
The travelling part of the journey almost over, I close my eyes and savour the last moments of reflection. For now it’s all I need.