The Allure of Airport Rhythms
By Juan Miguel Leandro L. Quizon
Travel entails expectations, musings, and meanderings. The moment travelers make final confirmations of flight bookings, their minds begin to explore the countless possibilities of their new journey. However, this year reminded us how a pandemic can seize travel instantaneously. This year witnessed a paralysis of travel: from nationwide lockdowns, to airline closures and tourist restrictions, all of us were forced to explore the most familiar space of all – the innermost hearths of our homes and ourselves. In a way, this also reflects how gateways of travel, airports, have also changed. From busy infrastructures of surveillance and transition, airports transformed into medical facilities that also filter and efficiently guard nations from further spreading the virus. In this text, I look back at the last time I experienced the airport before the pandemic struck.
Delays. Queues. Movements. Announcements. When that familiar sound of an airplane taking off or landing fills the background, it means that you are within the vicinity of constant transition and movement – an airport. The airport, as a liminal space, offers countless binary moments – arrivals and departures, embarkation and disembarkation, foreign and national, migrant and immigrant, leaving and returning. Its liminality provides tension – one is both ‘nowhere’ and ‘now (time) here (space)’. As a Filipino traveler and a resident of Manila, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, locally known as Paliparang Pandaigdig ng Ninoy Aquino, is the airport I am most familiar with. Baptized eternally as the spot where national hero Ninoy Aquino was shot and where democracy was eventually reborn, I look at this airport as the broken dream and empty promise of the dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos: an edifice that stands as a mirror to what the ‘City of Man’ has become. In a way, Ninoy Aquino, tagged by some as the best president we never had, terminated the authoritarian and military government of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Another five to six minutes pass by before I arrive – there is a rush hour of passengers, yet again. I am hurrying, though, in order to get the best seat, a good vantage point in the airport to be immersed, become enthralled, with its rhythms. As I exit my cab, giving the driver exactly 250 pesos, I remind myself that there is nothing to get from the car’s trunk – this time, I am not leaving.
Right beside me is a family of four, stepping out of their old-model Mazda. They help each other carry large, black luggage, a medium-sized North Face backpack, and two huge boxes. From what I see written on the boxes, the father is bound for Saudi Arabia – another Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW), another dream fulfilled, another figure in the statistics, another sad family member on the way to greener pastures, another incomplete Christmas family picture, another heart-wrenching story. They try cherishing the last few moments, but time is not on their side. How can you bid farewell to your beloved on borrowed time? In that moment, those who say goodbye, a few meters away from me, are absorbed within the pluralities of delays, sounds, dynamisms, and rhythms (including those of the body). But do they even notice or know these things except when they need to go back home, missing their father, and counting the days until he returns? Amidst the scrambling of the family to carry the baggage (physical and emotional), only bodily movements are seen: a hug, a kiss, a whisper, and the mano. Manila is known as a city with no mercy or respect for pedestrians, who are under threat of taxis, cars, vans, jeepneys, ready to charge. Hence, there is a qualified stillness in this family – a recurring silence of the psyche: a moment of easy whispers, oftentimes manifested through tears – a tranquility that begs to erupt.
I proceed to the departure lobby, a row of steel chairs, uncomfortable, covered with bags and boxes, while travelers, soon-to-be OFWs, pick their spot on the floor. I also choose to squat on the floor – a better perspective to see and feel every roll of wheels from carts, the different tempo of travelers’ brisk walks, each gallop, skip, and stride. Consequently, inside this structure of concrete, steel, and glass, people produce different noises, depending on their purpose and manner of leaving, through limbs and language. A young adventurer stands still with his green gym bag, removing his black jacket after realizing that the air-conditioning system of the airport is struggling, and stares at the departures screen, his eyes moving through the list of times, flight numbers, destinations, and statuses. A second of silence, and another rush begins. The young adventurer gets lost through crowds of OFWs queuing up to their assigned lane, bound for who-knows-where: Hong Kong, Dubai, Tokyo, San Francisco.
After announcing the arrival of flight KU413, Kuwait Airlines, a new batch of travelers, this time a group of yuppies, charge towards check-in counter 6, which services passengers bound for Singapore, flight 3K766, via JetStar. A new check-in counter finally opens, and almost everyone seated in the metal seats in front of me rushes towards the counter as if a million-dollar prize awaits the winner.
The noise grows and intensifies. I close my eyes and lean back against the pillar behind me. After a two-minute interval, I recapture (and am recaptured by) the rhythm. Travelers from faraway provinces in Luzon – Cagayan, Camarines Sur, Nueva Vizcaya, La Union – pass me. Many among these journeyers walk, walk, and walk without break, adrenalin alone energizing them. But they also stand in endless queues, especially during the airport rush hour, which begin with the payment of travel tax, and are followed by checking in, the payment of the terminal fee, clearing immigration and customs, the security check, and the final embarkation. One of the more anxious sections inside airports is the immigration line. When I’ve been a foreigner visiting a new country or place, I’ve felt anxious. Every time I am about to face the foreign immigration officer I know that he or she can say: “Sorry, but I cannot let you enter.” My heartbeat increases in tempo, molto vivace, as I give the officer my passport and boarding pass, and note how these people are trained to observe the bodily rhythms of foreigners and locals, aliens and nationals, of those who are innocent and those who are guilty. They search for dilating pupils, fidgeting, looking elsewhere than the officer’s eyes, uncontrolled sweating, and, of course, increased heart rate.
A Filipino term, kaba, encapsulates the feeling: a combination of anxiety, nervousness, unease, apprehension, and worry. I still feel a gush of apprehension every time I face an immigration officer. No matter how many times I pass and encounter them, there is always a first time for something new to occur. They move their eyes from left to right, look at my arrival card, and check the pages of my passport inked by past travels. I anticipate their first questions: how many days here, what is the itinerary, and where is the lodging? This is quite different from being afraid, which is takot.
The carefree bodies can be those who carry diplomatic passports (they even have a separate lane), passengers with recognizable surnames and connections to the place of arrival, or someone who is about to take off with a first or business class flight. The nervous bodies could also include the anxious and depressed, or the bereaving. Maybe these are people who await the dead body of a relative from the Middle East, a paranoid wife who thinks that her husband is cheating, or someone about to do a cross-country trip for something illegal. Each passenger, each body, has a different flow, a different story.
At the boarding gates, sounds that penetrate the auditory senses originate not from the passengers awaiting embarkation, but from aircraft engines. Seats at the boarding area are relatively more comfortable than those at the departure lobby. A more relaxed and slower pace inhibits this part of the airport, except when there are passengers running for their lives, their names announced for a ‘final call’ before the plane leaves without them. These passengers gallop and weave their way on carpeted floors and escalators, unsure if they will make it. Once they are safely in their assigned seats, it dawns on them that they have to catch their breath and normalize their heartbeats.
After the announcement of their safe landing and immediate disembarkation, passengers – foreigners and locals, vacationers and returnees – pass through a hallway, with only transparent glass separating the tired from the excited. Inside that man-made structure of constant passage, opposites re-discover one another. As I make my way back to my own Ithaca, as steel and concrete giants impose their presence on a major thoroughfare my cab drives along, I recollect my thoughts and fixations on airports. An intense force of longing charges airports and reminds us that we are all homo viator: always on the move, either flowing with or against the current. And this kind of longing leads to a hopeful insight – soon, the clouds will again hug the wings of aircrafts that take us to new destinations and on new adventures.
 Mano or pagmamano is a Filipino tradition involving either the kissing of an elder’s hand, or raising their hand to touch one’s forehead, which shows respect for these elders.
Juan Miguel Leandro Quizon specializes in comparative Southeast Asian cultural studies. He received his MA in literary and cultural studies from the Ateneo de Manila University. Before leaving for further studies, he was an Assistant Professorial Lecturer in the literature department at De La Salle University in Manila. He is currently finishing his PhD in cultural studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, under the Postgraduate Studentship Scheme. He was a research fellow at the Asia Graduate Student Fellowship, part of the Asia Research Institute – National University of Singapore, in 2015.
Citation: Juan Miguel Leandro Quizon, The Allure of Airport Rhythms, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.09.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/31073.