Never Judge A City By Its Airport

I’m writing this from Salt Lake International, which got me thinking how often an airport tells me everything I think I need to know about a place.

1. Sydney, Australia

Last autumn I had a brief layover in this major international airport. It’s a gigantic airport that was surprisingly easily manageable despite the lack of signage. I made my way to a small gate and waited, and waited, and waited. Finally a flight attendant showed up.

I asked if it was okay for me to leave the gate.

She said, “Make sure you have your passport and boarding pass.”

Her accent was strong and strange to my oh-my-god-English-wait-what-did-you-say ears. I nodded smiled and walked away from the gate.

I came back from the loo to an extremely small, extremely angry Australian TSA man yelling about the left bag. A nice black back pack I recognized.

“Oh, that’s mine,” I stammered.

He cursed me out, handed me my bags and left me with the equally stunned attendant. I learned two things that day. One, never, ever leave your bag unattended in any airport anywhere, especially not the Western ones. Two, Sydney is most likely an awful city full of angry people.

Realistically I know Sydney is probably like most major cities of the world and full of diverse people, but that one angry encounter has turned me off the whole country.

2. Bali, Indonesia

You have to pay to get in, but once you’re in it’s heaven.

This little airport next to the water is so indicative of what is to come in Bali it’s comical.

There’s no getting into baggage claim without a visa, which must be purchased in cash upfront at the airport entrance. I was detained until I could get my card working, take out a bit of cash from the ATM and handed it over to a security guard for a travel visa. However exiting and entering the airport from there on out is the easiest, breeziest, most relaxed travel moment ever.

Once you hand over the money, everyone is happy.

The situation was very nearly repeated at a bus stop in Ubud. The frustrated driver stopped somewhere in the city at a busy intersection. He looked at me, smoked a cigarette, mumbled then asked where I was going. I said I wanted to get to the airport. He named a number, I nodded. He slowly started the van again and took me to the airport cash in hand.

3. Salt Lake City, Utah

I love Salt Lake City. There is something about this city I just can’t stay away from. But this airport blows.

It hasn’t been renovated since the 1950s. The shabby carpet and walls are showing their age. The ticketing agents and security guards seems so pissed off all the time. I hate having Salt Lake International as my home base airport. I can’t wait to get through here as quickly as possible, which makes for a bad start to any travel day.

Can we please cheer up, SLC?

Pssst….and maybe get some comfier chairs.

I come here far too often and live to close to really judge whether or not the city lives down to the airport, but I do know I’m always slightly ashamed of the airport because Salt Lake is better than this. It has to be.

4. New Orleans, Louisiana

Have you watched “Treme” yet?

You really, really should. In season one there is a brief scene with musicians playing at the airport filmed at Louis Armstrong International. And it is exactly the way I experienced NOLA International.

There is something amazingly awesome about a jazz band playing, the smell of beignets wafting and the relieve of having safely arrived in a new city that combined to let me know instinctively New Orleans would be a fantastic experience.

5. Chicago, Illinois

O’Hare may be one of the busiest airports in the world. It’s gigantic. There is a lot of walking involved to get anywhere. Like NOLA and Bali, it was also extremely indicative of the city to come.

When I finally found the terminal to the L after deplaning, there was a huge queue clustered around ticketing booths. The booths were not working quite right and only accepted exact change, only there were not ATMs nearby. A friendly airport employee was heading up the mess of boisterous humanity with tips and tricks to get the machines to work correctly while simultaneously directing lost souls to the right train.

“Welcome to Chicago!,” cackled another employee when confronted by an angry traveler about the limited and mostly broken ticket dispensers.

Chicago’s like that–old, messy, loud, a little angry and a little crazy, but for the most part things work the way they are supposed to even if it takes the long way around and patience to get there.

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