I arrive at Bucharest’s Otopeni International Airport (OTP) and follow the exit signs that lead to the tourist bureau. I haven’t booked a room for my stay in advance, so I need to check on available budget hotels. Sadly, the tourist office is nowhere to be found.
I finally locate an information counter to determine my next step. Just past immigration, all arrivals are handed what looks like an adult magazine. I decline the freebie, but at the information counter, the agent is surprised when I ask for a map. “Didn’t they give you one?” she says, or something to that effect. She throws up her hands in frustration, and walks out behind the counter, motioning for me to wait for her. A minute later she’s back, with my own complimentary adult magazine.
It turns out that the magazine is actually a tourist guide to Bucharest, sponsored by the city’s adult entertainment industry. A few pages in the middle are devoted to restaurant reviews, but the rest of the guide is composed of endorsements for various personal service providers throughout the city.
Thankfully, there’s a map in the middle with a few hotels highlighted. Now I have to get to the city center, which appears to be a fair distance away. I don’t have any guidebooks with me, so I head back to the information counter.
“Hello again. How do I get to the city center?”
“You take taxi,” she says. “100 lei.”
I do the math. At the poor airport exchange rates (2/1), that’s $50. Does every Romanian pay $50 to go to the airport? Surely not.
“Is there any other way to get to the city?”
“No,” she says. “You must take taxi.”
I still don’t believe it, so I try a different approach.
“Is there a bus to the city?”
She thinks about it. “Yes, there is bus. 5 lei.”
Five leu is $2.50, which sounds a lot better than $50. I walk outside to check it out, and the bus is right in front of the departure terminal. I ride to Bucharest carefully studying the few pages of my pornographic city guide that actually provide useful info.
After exploring the city and getting lost only twice, I come back to JFK on a 10 ½ hour flight a couple of days later. Arriving here is a good re-introduction to American life. JFK was recently voted as the worst airport in the U.S., but I don’t think it’s that bad. What’s funny to me is that many of the returning Americans are in more shock than the visitors.
Everyone around me is complaining about how slow the immigration lane is, but it doesn’t seem that slow compared to a lot of places in the world. As we go through an ID check for connecting flights, one woman shows her passport, work ID, and her driver’s license to the official.
“I only need one of those, ma’am,” he explains with the patience of someone who says the same thing over and over again.
We pass through security, where this time the foreigners are the ones to be shocked. Off come the shoes, the belts, the watches. Water bottles from the flight are confiscated. TSA agents are freaking out about laptops, cell phones, and undetected duty-free contraband.
I make it through the terminal to Gate 22, where I am headed out on the final Delta flight of the day to Seattle. There is a West African lady at the gate who looks confused. I glance at the passport in her hand: Republique de Benin.
I know Benin quite well, so I say hello and chat with her in French. As I suspected, she is confused about Delta’s zone boarding system, which puts her in the same league as most English speakers. I explain it to her and feel helpful. She is in Zone 8, so il faut attendre (you must wait) while the others go on board first.
She thanks me, and then walks straight up to the front when they call for Zone 1. I find this hilarious, but it also dashes any hopes for my career as a Delta zone boarding translator.
Before my zone is called I look around at all the departure signs for international flights. Tel Aviv. Frankfurt. Istanbul. Paris CDG. Seoul. Budapest. The list goes on and on, and I realize I have been to almost every place I see.
Waiting at Gate 22, I look over at Gate 26, where I sat waiting for a flight to D.C. about this time a year ago. Now I’m headed to “the other Washington” across the country.
After we board, our flight is delayed a full hour due to the late evening traffic jam on the runway. Funny, I seem to remember the same thing happening on the D.C. flight. Or maybe I’ve confused it with another flight.
We finally leave for Seattle, leaving the New York skyline behind. I’ve been up all night, East Coast time, and we won’t reach Seattle until 11 p.m. PST. I’m looking forward to being home.