Remember back in 2009 when I warned about the dangers of apathy in travel? It was then that I realized no matter how savvy you think you are as a traveler, casual complacency will almost certainly return to bite you in the ass.
I was in Malaysia. I loved it there; it was easy to get around and I felt very comfortable. There was delicious food to be had, a seemingly endless cornucopia of tastes from the country’s dominant ethnicities. Kuala Lumpur was where I choose to indulge my taste buds as strategically as possible. Chinatown was full of crispy pork, Little India served up plates of lace-thin tosai and there was a Hainanese chicken place that knew me by name because I couldn’t stay away.
It was, of course, that comfort that led me to stop really paying attention to where I was going. Instead, I drifted aimlessly from place to place and plate to plate, confident in the knowledge that I could figure it out. What could go wrong?
It was only on my way to the Perhentian Islands that I realized how my cockiness would prove a disservice. I almost missed my bus because I cast a fleeting look at the bus station name, decided I knew where everything was and proceeded to take a train an hour out of town in the wrong direction entirely. I was with my friend Allen, a more-than-seasoned traveler himself. Neither of us noticed we were headed the wrong way from our hostel, but as we stood at the right bus stop an hour later, breathless and wheezy in our sweaty run from the other side of the city, we vowed to stay vigilant in our respective travels from A to B.
Apparently I needed a reminder.
Tuesday afternoon, I almost missed my flight from New York to Montreal. After a busy month, almost all of it involving me, my computer and an increasingly scrawled-upon draft of my food book, I was set to fly home from New York. My friends Cheryl and Brian were kind enough to offer me a ride to JFK and we took Atlantic Avenue all the way from Brooklyn, the back roads traffic-free and ensuring that I made it to the airport with time to spare. I waved the car off, glanced at the departures board to find my check-in counter and realized that something was amiss.
I was at the wrong airport. My flight was from LaGuardia, not JFK. Had I taken my original flight a week prior, it would have been from JFK. But I never even glanced at my ticket once I extended my stay in NY; I just assumed it was the same airport because the time of the flight was identical.
Staring at the departures board for another second, I finally roused myself and took out my phone. It was 650pm, my flight was at 850pm at a different airport, and it was rush hour.
I did what any self-respecting, disturbingly rushed person would do: I broke the rules.
I ran out to the drop-off area of the departures terminal and skidded to a stop in front of a smiling cabbie with two blond gentlemen paying their fare.
“Please” I gasped “can you take me to LaGuardia? I … I went to the wrong airport.”
“I can’t ma’am” he said slowly, shaking his head “it’s against the rules.”
The two blond men watched this exchange warily, money in hand.
“I know it’s against the rules but if I go downstairs to wait for a cab I will most definitely miss my flight.”
Impasse. The older blond slowly handed over a tip without taking his eyes off my suitcase. His friend turned on his heel to enter the terminal but the older blond stayed put, awaiting a resolution to my frantic conversation. Blond number 2 pivoted and came back to stand beside his friend.
“Are you sure you’re not an undercover cop?” the cabbie asked with a half-smile.
I laughed. “No, just an idiot who can’t read her ticket right.”
He caved. “Fine. Get in, but remember – I can get in big trouble!”
The blond guy clapped in approval and offered up a high-five, I gave a loud “yay!” and swung my bag up and into the trunk, pausing in motion to accept a high-five from the other blond.
In the chaos, I forgot this wasn’t Asia and I hopped straight into the front seat. The cab driver, already mystified by our interaction, smacked his hand to his forehead, shook his head and got in the car.
We were off.
My cabbie, it turned out, was from Ghana. My brother used to live in Kumasi with Engineers without Borders, which proved to be an excellent point of connection and reduced the side-eye I was receiving by approximately ten percent. Most of the ride involved me laughing at myself and furiously texting my friend Cheryl to let her know that somehow, despite going to the wrong airport, I was on my way to LaGuardia. All the while, the cabbie laughed at me.
“You are thinking too hard!” he exclaimed, pointing one finger into the air, ”hard-thinking people always make the stupid mistakes”.
I explained that my ticket was originally out of JFK but I just forgot to check the changed version.
“You’re funny” he said, “most people would be so angry but you sat here laughing at yourself.”
Is that true? I think a lot of my friends would have reacted as I did, because at that point what can you change? Either he would get me to the airport on time or he he wouldn’t. And if he didn’t, well, then I’d have to figure it out from there. In the grand scheme of things, it was a rushed and adrenaline-filled hour, but it wasn’t the end of the world.
We continued talking. He asked me questions and I answered them in half spurts, sentences punctuated by giggles. He wanted to know what I did; he announced that reading was his favourite hobby. I talked about food and travel, he talked about living in Bangkok and then Japan. We compared soy sauce in Asia to soy sauce here. We evaluated the food in West Africa versus East Africa.
Next thing I knew, I was in front of LaGuardia with an hour to spare before my flight. Slamming the trunk, the cabbie shook his head once again and shook my hand.
“Good luck to you bright spirit!” he shouted. And then he was gone.
There was no line at the counters. I just checked right in, sped toward security and – no joke – within twenty minutes of arriving at the airport, I was sitting at my gate. Still amazed, and still giggling to myself.
Clearly, I forgot the important lesson I learned in Malaysia: indifference makes for an unruly travel day. Then again, both hectic trips reinforced another valuable maxim, applicable not just to my travel misadventures but to my travels overall: it often does work out just fine in the end.
I’m safely in Montreal and about to get back my edits on my food book. Next Wednesday is my birthday and it will be the first time in a decade that I get to spend it with my best friend Nadia, who I met on day one of school in 1996. (Truth be told, I met her because she was sitting with a boy I thought was really cute, and I figured “hey, get to know the competition!” In the end she and I quickly realized we’d be besties, and though he tried to ask us out separately, our friendship already trumped any potential relationship with him. Ah, adolescence).
I’ll be in Montreal for a few weeks, then back to my dad’s to relax in the mountains (and see Zack!), and then it’s back to Europe until the book launches in October.
Exciting times ahead!