Sunday, May 9, 2010

Flight and Arrival

From the second I left my apartment in DC last Friday, I hadn't a single doubt that adventure was soon to follow. After spending several extra hours with a few too many people all anxious to make their respective connections out of New York, the plane finally took off. The time I spent awaiting my departure to JFK was roughly equivalent to double the time I actually spent in flight...maybe I should have just walked!

John F. Kennedy International Airport is an experience all by itself. As I was walking around looking for the departure/arrival screens to direct me to my next flight, I was amazed by how many languages were being spoken around me. While it was no surprise that a myriad of cultures should be meeting at an airport that serves most all countries around the globe, it was interesting however to witness the recent expansion of the service industry to encompass these multi-linguistic and cultural demands. When I spotted what I believed to be the gate and waiting area for my flight to Amman, I decided to check in with someone at the front desk just to make sure. As confident as I normally am in my own ability to read flight information off a simple digitalized screen, I wanted to be 100% sure I wasn't going to end up in Djibouti or Turkmenistan, not that I wouldn't have just as many adventures over there. To return to the topic, I first noticed this expansion in customer service when it was my turn in line at the front desk, and the young man about to assist me seemed slightly confused by my presence. He looked at me for about five seconds and then said "Salaam Aleikum" or "peace be upon you" with a bit of hesitance in his voice. Despite my improving Arabic skills, I was sleep-deprived enough to recognize that I was not going to comprehend flight numbers and letters in a foreign language at that point in time. Then responding with the same amount of hesitance in my own voice I said, "hello?". After hearing my response, he seemed a bit unhappy that he had misjudged my first language. It is my guess that he decided I was Arabic speaking based on the modest clothing I was wearing, the color of my skin, as well as the fact (unknown to me in that specific moment) that I was standing in a line almost completely filled with other people of Arab descent. After telling me, in English, that I was indeed at the correct gate for my flight to Amman, I walked away from "the Arab line" which was on the left only to look to my right and see "the American line" comprised of mostly business men and women and military personnel.

What was most interesting to me about my short conversation with this man at the information desk was that he seemed unhappy with himself not only because he had incorrectly assumed my first language, but because he was so keenly aware that these linguistic and cultural faux pas are now just as crucial in determining a persons "overall customer service experience" as are any other major factors (in-flight service, meals, etc.), and this reality was most obviously present in his facial expression as I walked away to board my plane.

As for the actual flight from New York to Amman, it is a bit difficult to describe this 13-hour, 350 person phenomena. I would love to say that "it is what you make of it", but really it is quite a joint effort. Four main cabin bathrooms, five crying babies at any one point in time, military personnel, Jordanians, international business men and women, and tourists from everywhere imaginable. Although it can be assumed that the majority of the people on the flight were extremely exhausted and not to be found in their most patient state of being, there was still an overarching feeling of tension between most everyone aboard. In International Business-101 we are taught that "different cultures produce different people", a fact obvious enough not to be paying $50,000 per year to understand. Obvious and general knowledge aside, a Muslim man praying in his seat on my Friday evening flight holds an ideology greatly differing from that of a U.S. contractor typing up a business memo on his Blackberry. Travel and airplanes, however, have an unavoidable way of squishing everyone together regardless of these differences.

13 sleepless hours later, I walked out of the air-conditioned airplane and into 95-degree dry heat, my favorite type of weather to be perfectly honest. After walking from the plane to the corresponding terminal, it turned out that we couldn't get anywhere near our checked baggage until we had exchanged money, and then used that money to obtain a Visa for the duration of our stay. While standing in the dreadfully long Visa line, I had the pleasure of conversing with two middle-aged Americans who took me under their wing almost immediately. This wonderful couple then made it their mission and responsibility to wait in every line in which I had to wait, to help me when carrying two 50 lbs. boxes full of art and music supplies off a crowded luggage conveyor belt , and to confirm my traveling safety with regards to my departure from the airport to where I would be staying. As my newly adopted family and I were getting towards the front of the Visa line, many began wondering, some even panicking as to where we should go to get our luggage. I already had a plan. If we followed the few people who were so very panicked and determined to find their luggage, some because they thought it had been stolen or because the luggage fairy had sent it on to Djibouti or Turkmenistan, we were sure to find ours as well. We would just do as they did, minus all the worry and panic...and it worked! Once my airport parents and I had all of our luggage and boxes loaded onto a cart, it was off to customs where they would then be taken off the cart. The man at the security and customs counter asked to open my boxes, and of course I said yes. He then starting asking me a round about circle of questions including but not limited to the following. What is in these boxes? Who are these boxes for? If they are for children are they for your children? If their not for your children then what children are they for? Where is the address of these children? Why are you bringing these children these things? What is in that box? What is in this box? Why are you bringing musical instruments here to Jordan? What is a harmonica? Finally, but believe me it took quite a while for the man to realize he was still talking regardless of whether my answers made any sense, he said "Okay, thank you. Have a good day and welcome to Amman".

As the woman who runs the the center for which I would be working came down with bad cold the night before, a friend of hers Mr. Sulliman came to pick me up at the airport. I am not exactly sure how he knew it was me since he did not have a sign or my picture, but some how he just knew. As my airport parents and I were walking to the arrival lane just outside the airport, a man looked me straight in the eye and said "Meera?", and I said "yes?". Although his English was greatly limited, he found a way to convey to me the fact that he knew who I was as well as Sasha, the woman I would be working with here in Amman, and that was enough for me to be convinced. My new parents had me double check just to make sure their newly adopted child wasn't getting in the car with a complete stranger...except I kind off was!

While I am completely grateful for this protective instinct that human beings, especially parents posses, there is another side to this story. Travel and trust go hand in hand. Traveling requires building long-term trust in the form of relationships as well as some degree of instantaneous trust. Many people assume the ultimatum that says that if one trusts, he or she gives up safety and/or security. Furthermore, because he or she has already prioritized safety or security at the top of the list, that person is then hesitant to trust based upon this ultimatum. I have found that one cannot have safety without trust, and in return trust creates a much safer environment. If my new airport parents had watched me get into "Sulliman's" car back in the U.S., I highly doubt that their level of concern for my well being would have matched that equivalent situation here in Amman. This simple experience with my new family and Mr. Sulliman illustrates for me, how important it is to trust and to trust fairly. Trust one stranger as you would another, and impose judgement only upon yourself, for your own actions, as that is all you are able to control.

1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful piece, I especially love the section on trust.