San Salvador Airport, El Salvador.
Airport Time. Timeless time. Tired and impatient in the no man’s land between timezones and nations. Between the Here that we wished you were at, and the There back at the start of the journey. The sleepers on the airport floors and benches experience perhaps an even more extreme time dilation, as they fall into the death-sleep of exhaustion and wake intermittently, having not felt the passing of time while they were out. This journey, from Belfast to Managua in Nicaragua, has already warped our body-clocks and we still have one leg to go.
We left the house in Belfast by car at 11:00 on Friday, tired and hyped with adrenaline. We had been experiencing one of the best summers in memory, staying dry, bright and mild right into October. But that morning was the first time it felt like the seasons had finally ticked over. Grim, low clouds filtered the daylight away and brushed the city with squalls of rain. We exchanged our farewell kisses huddled in a doorway to stay dry. Then through that grey world the Airporter coach charged down the motorway to Dublin. From its shaking interior we felt the adrenaline fall away and clasped at brief moments of joy for the adventures ahead, as they came and went from our minds.
Six hours to New York, JFK. Ten hours to kill there. We took overland and subway trains to downtown New York and started to beat our way through the streets with no plan. Somehow we just kept walking, stopping only for a disappointing chicken wrap and a quick beer. Walking on concrete and asphalt in tingling hot shoes with feet swollen from the flight. For three and a half hours. We had to fight hard to stay awake on the trains back to the airport. I failed, it was impossible. But then our tiredness peaked when we had to queue for an hour and a half at the check-in desk, despite there being five desk clerks for only about 40 waiting people. I can’t well remember when I have fallen asleep standing up, at least not sober. But in that queue, any time I stopped pacing about my eyes immediately rolled and I awoke to a sense of falling over. When we finally got to the check-in desk we were told we couldn’t take the flight as we didn’t have evidence of an onward journey out of Nicaragua. We were beaten. But at a nearby desk we were allowed to buy fully refundable flights out of the country so we could cancel them later.
On the plane at last our heads bobbed immediately and we fell asleep, stirring occasionally to the surprise that we were still stationary. This sense of having been asleep longer than we had added to our temporal confusion. But the reality was that the flight was actually delayed on the runway, by an hour in the end. So when we landed a couple of hours later at San Salvador we had missed our onward connection. Now we’re in yet another airport, on a new set of chairs on which we can’t get comfortable to sleep, waiting for the next flight at 14:35, another five hours having been added to the trip. Now I’m under the effects of Transit Time, ebbing and flowing in waves of tiredness. Now I can’t keep my eyes open. I’m going to pull my hood over my eyes, tip my head back against the seat and fall away again, for a bit.
Wake. Wander the airport shops, do a crossword, watch the looping ads on the TV. When our flight finally came round it was cancelled ten minutes before the gate would have opened. When you buy the cheapest flights from the most basic airlines you have to just suck this kind of bullshit up. But we were to be pleasantly surprised. The airline bussed us off to a plush, four-star hotel nearby, where we were given a room and vouchers for lunch and dinner, plus $150-worth of flights as compensation. Lying down for the first time since Belfast, our racing minds shut down instantly and we died for two hours, before hauling a buffet dinner into us and returning to the airport for the 20:40 flight. It was now dark and Saturday was nearly over. The sky was flashing like a faulty streetlight as a storm passed nearby. Soon the power went out in the airport and we were waiting under the gloom of back-up lighting, thinking, “this kind of thing shouldn’t happen in an airport”. But then we were on the plane, falling asleep again for the final short hop to our destination.