A Guest Post – Airports I’ve Known

Jenni Gate has guest posted for Communicating Across Boundaries before and today I’m delighted to welcome her back with this post that will resonate with travelers world-wide – Airports I’ve Known. Enjoy and feel free to tell us your stories through the comments!


Jenni Gate - birthday“Happy birthday!” Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I looked up from my nest of flight bags on the airport floor to see Mom holding a cupcake out to me with a lit candle, my sisters belting out the birthday song loud and clear. Heads turned as other passengers looked on, and an Arab man nodded behind Mom, a smile broadening his face as he took in my growing excitement. I don’t remember where we were going or where we were coming from. I don’t remember the particular airport. It was not my first birthday in an airport and it would not be my last.

Whether moving, going on home leave, or on vacation, my family traveled a lot. Mom always said she could write a Mother’s Guide to the Restrooms of Europe, and that includes airports. Every few years, Heathrow, Rome, JFK, Dulles, and National sprouted new terminals. By the mid-1960s, we could choose flights routed through any of these major hubs, and we grew up knowing airports better than my parents’ home towns.

Jenni Gate - Lagos

Moving from Libya to Nigeria, we became well-acquainted with Lagos and Kaduna Airports. I was little more than a toddler when we landed there, but my older sister still talks about the smell, the muggy heat, and the press of humanity as we got off the plane. In 1966, the first eruptions of violence signaled the Biafran War. In 1967, my family was evacuated. I still recall the fighting in the months before our evacuation and the dead and injured on the tarmac as we boarded the plane in Kaduna.

It took days to travel from Washington DC to Kinshasa, Congo. At least one of us got locked in a bathroom while a flight was called. Between gates from JFK to Athens, we ran to keep up with Dad’s long legs. In Athens, I stared dumbly at the heavily armed soldiers who boarded the plane. Landing at the small, dusty terminal in Kinshasa, we were exhausted. We were dirty and sweating in the equatorial heat. Our apartment was on the fourth floor of the UN building in the center of Kinshasa, and the thick odors of the Congo River wafted up to us in the heat. We were too jet lagged to pay attention to the cockroaches skittering across the floor in the night. The next morning we awoke to learn there had been an uprising against Mobutu and thousands of people lay dead and injured in the streets below us.

Jenni Gate - Passport

In my teen years, we moved to Pakistan via Heathrow, then Karachi International Airport, finally arriving in Islamabad. During the years flying in and out of Pakistan, I had a flight canceled because rats ate through the wiring. One flight was delayed while the airline attendants tried to convince a family they could not start a fire in the aisle to cook their dinner. Inevitably, we were strip searched by Pakistani officials when entering or leaving the country.

As a senior, my class took a trip to the pristine Swat territory of Pakistan a week before graduation. We all got giardia from contaminated water. On the way back to the US after graduation, I left Islamabad for Karachi and went through a full strip-search in Karachi Airport. Landing in Heathrow looking like a hippie, I was searched again. Flying out of Heathrow on a British Airways flight, the wheels fell off the plane on take-off. We flew out over the English Channel, dumped our fuel, and turned back for a belly landing. The airline put us up overnight, and we flew out the next day. I spent the following week in Ocean City, Maryland, with friends from Virginia who just graduated. Still on giardia medication, I stayed sober while my friends partied on. They knew little of life in the wider world. It was an epiphany for me.

My travel bug drives me to take the ups and downs in stride. Excitement builds with the smell of jet fuel and the revving of jet engines as I anticipate arrival at the next destination. I love the sound of my bag’s wheels clicking along behind me as I walk to my gate, off to the next adventure.

What are some of your stories? What airports have you known that have made lasting impressions on your life story? 


About the author: With a childhood enriched by travel and diverse experiences, Jenni learned early that the only constant in life is change, and she developed skills to manage each change as it happens. She has worked as a paralegal, a mediator, a small business consultant, and a writer. Her published work includes several articles for a monthly business magazine in Alaska and a local interest magazine in Idaho. She has written several award-winning memoir pieces for writing contests. Jenni currently writes fiction, drawing upon her global experiences. She blogs at nomadtrailsandtales.com.


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33 thoughts on “A Guest Post – Airports I’ve Known

  1. Our family smiled the other day as we remembered how my daughter celebrated a birthday in 3 countries on the same day! Who gets to do that? I was relieved that she also smiled and joined in the fun of that day because there is that nagging voice that wants to say that I should have changed our plans so that didn’t happen. So, it was encouraging to hear your fond memories of a birthday in an airport. Thank you for sharing!


    1. Thank you for commenting! I have a summer birthday, so I felt lucky to celebrate it in airports because most of my friends were gone all summer anyway. There is something about being travel fatigued that makes it special.


  2. Jenni, thank you so much for this post! It brings back so many memories!

    I have two to contribute: the complimentary TAP bag that we were given in 1972 had a long strap which my mom was afraid my 6 year old sister would trip on as we descended the long flight of marble stairs in Lisbon airport, and when Mom lunged to grap the strap, she slipped and fell herself, sailing out and down and making “a three point landing, like an airplane” (she said laughing, later) on her two wrists and her teeth–she fractured a front tooth. The amazing rapidity with which it had happened, as I stared for a split second of utter horror at my mother’s prone figure, simultaneous with the realization that I had now been put in charge of our little threesome, and questions–was she dead? how would I get in touch with Dad in Angola to tell him? what should I DOOO???–stunned me into inaction, and two sailors coming up the stairs picked her gently up and carried her to a leather ottoman where they solicitously cared for her, while I trailed along behind, feeling utterly useless and like I had let the family down in some way.

    And I remember getting my wings in a PanAm propeller plane as we crossed from NY to Ireland. The seat was like an armchair, with wide pale green upholstered armrests, fitted with an ashtray on the one between us. I was about 6, and felt like a grownup next to my mother, who was seated by the window. There were only the two seats each side of the aisle, and the noise from the propellers was a constant heavy thrum. On the next leg, we flew British Airways, and I was given a red plaid lined hat like an airman’s cap which folded flat and had a short black grosgrain ribbon hanging down the back. Unfortunately both these objects have been left behind somewhere along the trail of my childhood travels. But the pleasure at receiving them still lasts!


    1. Maureen, I think you and my older sister have a lot in common. It’s amazing how when these sorts of accidents happen, the oldest sibling feels guilt and wonders what they could have done. And the useless feeling persists even when it’s clear it was an accident and you didn’t have the knowledge or experience to help.

      I remember getting some caps from airlines as well, now that you mention it, but nothing so fancy as one with a ribbon hanging down the back! That’s wonderful. :)


    2. This brought back so many memories Maureen! On one occasion we were in Frankfurt airport and I was a pre-teen. My younger brother had all his matchbox cars in a special case – it fell open on the escalator and these little cars were strewn all over the stairs going up to their ‘landing spot’. Being a pre-teen, I wanted to distance myself from him as much as possible. How embarrassing for me and it was obviously all about me! Poor him and bratty me. Thankfully we both lived to laugh about it.


  3. I think my mother still has one of those Pan Am bags somewhere. My children got big drawstring bags from British Airways that were pretty cool too, once upon a time.

    My favorite thing was when they’d still let us children go up to visit the pilots and they’d give us wings! Ah, those were the days. My mom always dressed us in matching outfits so we were easy to find. Which was kind of a joke since we three little blondies stood out most places we lived and traveled to anyway.

    About the insecticide spraying in the plane, the last time I landed in Australia, and it wasn’t so long ago, they were still doing that!


    1. I remember going up to the cockpit to shake the captain’s hand, and I think I still have my wings somewhere! Oh how times have changed. That’s just one of the reasons Airplane, the movie only makes sense to our generation. :D

      I relate on the blondness! We always stood out as well.


  4. Thank you for this post – so easy to relate to, smile and reminiscence as a TCK! Everytime I am at an airport I feel like I’m in my “natural habitat”. Funny how many TCKs feel like that. My sister struggled for a long time to travel by train (back in Germany). She said she’d rather fly all around the globe than change trains in a little village! And whenever we run TCK camps it is perfectly normal for TCKs to register and call about their arriving times at the ‘airport’ (when they mean train station).

    One of my favorite memories of airports is the African airports. No gateways, you simply walk onto the field. Especially the airport in Entebbe/Uganda is beautiful since it overlooks Lake Victoria. I remember having to say goodbye to this beautiful country. At least we were treated by a beautiful sunset over the lake as we took off…


    1. Awww, and that’s a whole other topic in our TCK lexicon – seeing a world we loved disappear out a tiny airplane window as the plane lifts off and flies away. If we’re lucky, it circles once so we can take in one last full look at a place we once called home.

      I was not lucky enough to have lived in Uganda. My dad was there when the Rwanda/Burundi conflict began, and of course Uganda was impacted. He always tells me how beautiful Uganda is, and I would love to visit at some point.


  5. Do any of you remember landing in Pakistan and the plane getting sprayed with disinfectant before the doors were opened for us to disembark?


      1. I can’t remember but it must have been in 70’s (BEFORE your time) or 80’s. Perhaps Marilyn’s mom can remember. I thought some of you who would have been children might remember.


      2. I was there in the late 70s, but I have a feeling some of my friends who were there before me will remember this. Marilyn might. I would love to know exactly what they were spraying and why. :)


  6. I recently found a journal from when I was in about fourth grade. Inside was a drawing of the Heathrow passenger terminals and me writing about how while I was excited again, how much I hated that long terminal walk from terminal four!!! I also have memories of flying primarily on 4th of July or holidays where there was less people. I stayed at a nice hotel for a couple of nights and they asked us as we were checking out ‘will you be traveling to the airport’. I was with Lydia (she’s in 4th grade) and we both burst out with “we wish we were!!!”. Since working in international schools, I often have to fly back to work on my birthday. I guess I never realised plenty of other people have to fly on their birthday too! Thanks for sharing. Your airport adventures make me itchy, but I’m not flying international again until next month!


    1. Ha ha ha! I don’t remember that, of course, but I can remember getting stuck and having to crawl under a door. I also remember Trina getting locked in a bathroom once or twice when the pressure was on to get to a gate. It’s funny. It probably happened a lot. :D

      On Tue, Feb 4, 2014 at 2:03 PM, Communicating.Across.Boundaries wrote:

      > Christina commented: “I recently found a journal from when I was in > about fourth grade. Inside was a drawing of the Heathrow passenger > terminals and me writing about how while I was excited again, how much I > hated that long terminal walk from terminal four!!! I also have memor” >


    2. Christina, I apologize. My comment above was meant for another spot. I’m not quite sure how it ended up where it did.

      I do remember those long walks through Heathrow. What a great memory with your sister.

      I hope you have a chance to travel again soon!


      1. No worries! Thanks for your well wishes about my next trip. I just booked ICN – BKK today!! My students came back at the end of the day to give me hugs and gather their things. They saw I was on the phone and the minute I said ‘Korean Air’ they all shushed immediately and finished getting ready giving me hugs and whispering goodbye. They’re in second grade, and they’re all international school kids who fly all the time so they show great respect for people waiting on hold for air tickets! I found it very cute and endearing!


      2. That’s sweet! I can picture it. How wonderful to be teaching in that environment with kids who travel a lot.

        I figured out what happened with my misplaced comment. My dad e-mailed me back the post I had forwarded to him with a comment about my older sister getting stuck in a bathroom as a flight was being called. Your reply hit my in box at the same time as I started to reply. When I replied to the message, it posted here. Yikes! His comment was pretty humorous anyway, so here is what I was responding to:

        “We were leaving Milan, Italy when Susie went into a bathroom locked the door and could not unlock it, dropped the key. In the meantime our flight was being called. I finally got two janitors to go into the ladies rest room and kick the door down. As we ran for the bus, Susie about 4 years old was crying and saying, “those naughty men kick sand in my eyes.”


  7. Two things stuck out to me. First, giardia! I haven’t heard that dreadful parasite mentioned in eons
    And secondly, the memories of Nigerian airports. I haven’t been through Nigerian airport since I was a toddler so my memories are few but your sister’s descriptions most certainly remind me of my experiences in the airports of its neighbor, Cameroon. Oh, the humidity and the sheer humanity..is indescribable (in an overwhelming yet wonderful way) :) – Amanda


    1. Oh, the giardia was terrible. The trip to Swat was worth it though.

      The humidity and humanity. That would make a great title! It was also the same in Kinshasa. When I looked at a photo of Kinshasa airport recently I could almost feel that sticky heat. It is indescribable, yet wonderful!


      1. Ha..I can’t think of anything more that describes the heat and the sheer throngs of people :)

        Same feeling here. Many a picture of a West or Central African airport triggers memories.

        I was very fortunate to never have giardia, but several friends did. My mom was a nurse so I unfortunately heard the stories. Ugh.


  8. Jenni, I’m not a TCK and can’t truly relate based on my own personal experience . . . BUT I LOVE seeing it all through your eyes! Reading your own, Marilyn’s, Robynn’s and other TCK’s stories of lives lived far off the beaten path is wonderful! I am grateful that you shared your airport stories, especially those from places I’m not so likely to land :) What an amazing world.


    1. Thank you, Cathy. It means so much when someone who is not a TCK connects to my posts and has a glimpse of what it is like to grow up globally. I’m glad you appreciate the stories. Thanks for commenting!


  9. The memories of Pakistani airports and flights are too amusing. Many of us probably have loads of similar memories! I remember waiting in the plane after we landed in Karachi for about an hour because they “couldn’t find the aircraft stairs”.


    1. That’s hilarious! I’m sure a lot of TCKs have memories like this.Thanks for sharing. It was pretty typical for something like that to happen when I was there. I have a feeling it’s changed a lot.


    1. I’ve been wanting one of my TCK friends to do a post on airports for a long time! You are the perfect person. These stories are a great reminder that life is surely stranger than fiction!


      1. That is so true! Our TCK background can be hard for people to relate to. Some of the things we encounter are so far off the beaten path there is no reference point for a person who grew up in one place. Airports and air travel shaped our lives. Remember the little travel bags PanAm used to give as you boarded the flight? Amazing how quickly the world has changed. :-)


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