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Published: January 16th 2013
Istanbul to Kiev – an hour layover – Kiev to New York. I was going back West, and that was how I was getting there. On paper, at least. I got as far as Kiev before things came to a screeching halt; the airplane’s questionable brakes were only the beginning of the problem. Airport employees were being vague to say the least, but from what I could gather, AeroSvit hadn’t paid their docking fees. Or they hadn’t kept up the maintenance of their aircraft to American standards. Either way, all of their flights out of Kiev were canceled for all foreseeable future. It sounds like the beginning of a bad story, but it’s actually the tale of the single best airport experience I’ve had – ever.
Misery loves company, and in this case, it made for great company. The first to be heard amongst the stranded travelers was Genette, a spirited, little French Canadian. All five feet, 90 pounds of her shook with indignation when our bags managed to lose themselves somewhere in the 20 meters between the plane and the airport. Her years of teaching English in places like Shanghai and Kazakhstan haven’t helped accustom her to inefficiencies such as these, but a pack of cigarettes calmed her nerves and allowed her heart of gold to shine.
By all appearances, her boyfriend, Lincoln, was just a grizzled ex-pat with long, scraggly hair, a backwards baseball cap and a marijuana pendant hanging from his neck. One wouldn't normally expect much from him. But armed with a disarming charm and fluent Russian, he knew everyone in the airport by first name within an hour – and became the savior of the day. It was most likely his appearance on the Ukranian news that finally got our plane off the ground.
Grace, Sam and John formed a young American trio returning home after a year of studying abroad in Istanbul. They had made it as far as Turkey, but had never head of Costa Rica. It was a great reminder that in all my years as a student in California’s public education system, I never once took a class on geography. Then, there was Reggie, the self-proclaimed “token black guy.” A Stats professor from Virginia, he funds all of his vacations by signing up for credit cards with free air miles, then canceling them before the annual fee comes up. If I were better at paperwork, I would totally try this stunt.
The dearest to my heart, however, was Fariz, a Syrian escorting his two young daughters from their war-torn country into the safety of America. With the strength of a tank, he juggled bottles, baggage and the babies all across the airport displaying an unflagging energy. His two year-old, Mahdiya, had already caught my attention at the airport in Istanbul. She had the most beautiful hazel eyes and her recently brushed hair shone even under the florescent lights of the terminal. I’d like to say that I helped take care of her, but really, she took care of me. She pulled my head down into her lap and rocked me like a baby; she patted my back, kissed my cheek and whispered to me, “Habibi.” Sweetheart
. On the floor of a Ukrainian airport, in the arms of a Syrian toddler, the last thing on my mind was how long it was going to take me to get to New York. The only thing I was thinking was how thankful I am for all the love in my life.
I continued to allow myself to be cradled, while the others flew in a flurry of motion around me. After a few hours and countless phone calls, they had ascertained that AeroSvit was bankrupt. All of their flights had been grounded indefinitely, leaving us two options: wait in Kiev and pray that another airline would appear with a flight to New York; or fly to Paris courtesy of the French government and buy a new ticket to our final destination from there. Either way, I couldn’t imagine seeing any amber waves of grain or purple mountain majesties anytime soon. But after only five fast hours we were told that our flight would be boarding in another two hours. Everyone was shocked; I was even a little disappointed. I had just been dealt a great hand in Hearts when the game was abandoned for a position closer to the gate.
Airborne, our company was spread out all over the plane. I found myself in the middle of a group of middle-aged Russians who either couldn’t or wouldn’t accept the fact that I don’t drink. “Vodka not alcohol,” they said, “only Russian water.” I haven’t been to Russia, but based on this experience, I’d venture to say that the water there is more hazardous to your health than the water in India; I spent a good portion of the flight in the toilet, vomiting up freeze-dried fish swimming in Honey Chili Vodka.
Empty of the vile victuals, I passed out and didn’t wake up until the plane touched down at the JFK airport. Passing through US customs, the official actually sang to me Oh Canada
as he stamped my passport and welcomed me into the country. I must be dreaming still. This can’t be real. Yet, here I am, in the U.S. of A.
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