Monday, June 22, 2009

Airport Buddies

Everyone is familiar with the concept of “airport buddies.”* Not only the fellow sojourners one converses with on the plane, but also those people one meets for the briefest of moments in airport waiting rooms, gates and international terminal coffee-shops. A quick, surprisingly-sincere conversation, and then never seen again. The proverbial “ships passing in the night” without the sexual connotations, of course.

*These used to be referred to as “bus buddies” back in the days when people still traveled by bus. Perhaps in some parts of the world they still do, but not anywhere I’d want to go. Greyhound is bad enough; I can only imagine what the buses in a places like Guatemala are like.

Traveling in the West has become a streamlined, sanitized affair of Starbucks lattes, automated people movers and cushy, insulated executive lounges. In places like Afghanistan and the Middle East however, airport travel, even at the high-end airports like Dubai Terminal One,* is still a difficult and Byzantine process.

*As distinct from Dubai Terminal Two, which is a Chekovian nightmare of arbitrary mismanagement and inefficiency.

This results in being thrown together with fellow travelers in bizarre and unpredictable circumstances. Now I’m no “people person” and I take no joy or comfort from interacting with my fellow man, especially when that fellow man speaks only Arabic and smells like a fishmonger with full-body halitosis.

However, as a heavy smoker (heavier since I got here), there is one element of air travel in the Middle East that appeals to me, and it’s something one can’t get in the supposedly more civilized airports of the Western world. I speak here of that vanishing institution, the airport smoking lounge.

As everyone knows, Arabs and other Middle Easterners are the last of the unreformed smokers.* Rare is the Afghan who has never smoked a cigarette. Many smoke as much or more than I do, and that’s a lot.

*Yes, I know, Afghans are not Arabs, but I’m speaking broadly of the entire Middle East, from Islamabad to Casablanca.

Anyway, I had the pleasure of sampling airport smoking lounges in four different cities on my last trip: Kabul, Dubai (Terminals One and Two), Amman and Beirut. This cursory sociological survey has revealed to me two basic truths:

1. Middle Easterners, perhaps because of the volume of their habit, do not consider airport smoking lounges as places to meet fellow travelers. There’s none of the camaraderie of those oppressed by the neo-fascist system that one finds outside pubs in London or restaurants in the States.
2. Westerners who travel through these airports, if they are smokers, can’t get enough of the smoking lounge, and indulge their habit copiously with wicked little smiles the whole time, as if they’re remembering their first guilty cigarette at the bike racks behind their grade school.*
*No, my first cigarette was not at the bike racks behind my grade school. It was under a pine tree in someone’s backyard on Ruby Street. I was ten.

In total, I can conclusively state that smoking lounges in airports make travel much more enjoyable, not only for me and my fellow puffers, but also for those who have to travel with us. Next time you pass the crowd of smokers outside of Heathrow or O’Hare and later bump into surly, hostile travelers with nicotine-stained fingers, remember how much more pleasant the whole experience would be if they could just have a smoke before they board the plane.

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