I jammed a piece of gum into my mouth, chewing furiously. I heard the sound of my ears pop over the roar of the engine. As I stared out the window into the dull gray clouds of the Portland sky, glancing down to get one last look at the bustling city I call home, my mind was flooded with a million questions. “What is going to happen? Can I catch all my planes on time? Will I remember any German?” But it was too late to worry. I was off, just weeks after my sixteenth birthday, on my own and on my way to a new country, to start a new adventure.
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My first stop was the Seattle-Tacoma airport. I hopped off the plane and sprinted down the terminal toward my gate. I had just 15minutes before my plane took off, and I was far away from my gate. As I hurriedly made my through the crowds of people, I was suddenly hit with an overwhelming urge. Nature was calling, with a good degree of urgency. I looked around quickly and spotted a bathroom over on the far side of the terminal. As I rushed over towards it my heart suddenly sank. Protruding from the bathroom was a line, the line exited and looped around the door. I took a deep breath, suppressed my urge, and continued towards my gate. They were already boarding. I took my middle seat, squished in between two hefty men. I forced myself to focus on details—any details, including the flight attendant’s safety demonstration—to distract myself from the repeated calls of nature. It must have been nearly an hour before the captain turned off the seatbelt sign and I could make my way to the plane’s bathroom. Only after that could I relax and remind myself that I was really, truly, on a flight to London.
I spent much of the next eight hours jamming my face up to see the tiny TV in my seat, with the droning snore of my southern Florida seat partner competing with the musical score of the big-budget action movies I watched one after the other. I also enjoyed the free sodas—and a few more trips to the bathroom.
As I stepped off the plane in Heathrow, everywhere I looked there were Indians, the people getting off my flight, the airline workers, the baggage workers, even some of the flight attendants and pilots. After reassuring myself that I was in fact in London, and not in Ahmadabad or Mumbai, I continued toward my next gate.
The British seem to be fond of their security systems and use them often. After passing through security about five times, and after riding three different underground trains, I found myself in the terminal my plane was supposed to depart from. This place was more like a supermall than an airport. All sorts of restaurants and fancy clothing and gift shops cluttered the walkways. I looked up at the sparkling video equipment that displayed the gate number that each flight was supposed to depart from. At first I couldn’t find my flight and I worried that I had taken the wrong train, but then I spotted a little sign that said flights would only be displayed during the 45 minutes before they were to leave, because of the sheer quantity of planes leaving from this terminal. I looked down at my ticket, and could not believe my eyes. My plane was scheduled to leave in six hours. Here I was in another country, all alone, with about ten pounds to my name, which I had gotten back in Portland just in case I wanted something to eat, and it was about two in the morning for me, and I had to stay awake for the next five hours and 15 minutes until I could even find out where my plane was going to be. Of course, I hadn’t slept a wink on the plane over, due in part to my excitement, and in part to my neighbor’s noisy nasal passages.
I was already falling asleep just standing there, so I quickly made my way to a little cafe and ordered myself a small breakfast. I chewed each bite as slowly as I could, watching people pass by and the flight numbers slowly click upwards. I swear it took me 300 bites to chew up my piece of bacon, but by the time I had finished my meal and paid, only one hour had passed. And thus I began the long trek. Back and forth along the terminal I stalked, past the same crying babies, past the same weary storeowners, past the same suspicious security guards, again, and again. Occasionally my legs would give out and I would try to huddle onto a bench with 15 other passengers, each mumbling “bloody American” as I squeezed myself between them. Yet soon I would catch myself drifting off, and back up I would go, returning to my pacing.
Somehow I managed to stay awake those remaining hours. I finally noticed that it was only 30 minutes until my departure, but my flight still wasn’t posted. Had I misunderstood something? Was I in the wrong terminal? I approached a British Air agent to ask. “Oh, sorry about that!” he said, “Guess we forgot to post that flight.”
I stumbled sleepily to the correct gate, dragged myself aboard the plane, plopped down in my seat, and was snoozing before we had even taken off. I arrived in Hamburg a little later and was picked up by my host family; the entire drive home is just a blur. I was showed around the house. All the while I looked on and nodded with a glassy stare in my eyes. Finally I collapsed into my bed, and thus began my first night in Germany.
In some ways, the twenty-some hours it took me to get from Portland to Hamburg was the least important part of the trip. I packed so many memorable experiences into those five weeks. I went to school with my host siblings and befriended many interesting individuals. I faked my way through speaking German and increased my understanding tenfold. That summer, Germany played in the European Cup finals, and I watched and celebrated and commiserated alongside the Germans. I traveled across northern Germany, visiting castles, monuments, and museums. I learned about the division and reunification of Berlin. It was an amazing time.
When I look back now, however, I see that long airplane journey as a metaphor for the entire experience. I started out as a nervous kid, never having traveled without my mom at my side, worried about falling asleep in Heathrow and missing my connection. I ended up tired and exhilarated, with a new picture of myself as an experienced traveler who could cope with unexpected challenges. It was with my first solo adventure. I have always wanted to travel and loved my earlier family trips, but I was never sure what I could do if my parents weren’t making the decisions and solving the problems. This trip was the proof I needed that I could do it, that I thrived on seeing all these new places, listening to different accents, and experiencing a new culture. This trip brought me my first taste of independence, and I will always remember it, no matter how many trips I take, and no matter how accents I hear, and no matter how many new cultures I experience.
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