THE DAY I DIDN'T GO TO SPAIN

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It was a long, hectic, tiring journey, the day I didn't go to Spain.

My destination was not only Madrid but adventure itself, the excitement of deciding on Friday to hop across the pond on Saturday. No reservations, no plans, no luggage. I was going to be an air travel courier.
 
Air courier outfits view airline tickets as a two-course delight, where the booked space in the cargo hold is every bit as valuable as the space in the passenger compartment. They buy the tickets to meet the needs of shipping clients, and then sell off the seats almost as excess.

The result: Seats are cheaper than cheap, but they're available irregularly and, of course, force buyers to travel probably lighter than they ever have.

I liked the cheap fare, of course, but I was really buying a leap into the unknown. Most of my life I'd been a bundle of fear, but slowly and with effort, the bundle had been unraveling. Travel, especially travel alone, had always been a particular terror, and I'd known for a while that doing something like this would be a certain milestone on my path. I was going to have to go somewhere where no one knew me and they didn't speak English. The bit about leaving on a moment's notice was an afterthought, a jealous tribute to my intrepid brother, who could go anywhere and do anything. Being an air courier seemed just the ticket.

The timing was my boss's. I had a week left over from the previous year, and she'd told me recently to take it or lose it. So all week, I had been calling the interminable recordings of Now Voyager, a Manhattan company that is a leader in the courier travel industry: "For destinations in Europe, press 1. For Asia, press 2 . . ."

It was like I was at Denny's: a huge menu but nothing particularly appealing. I didn't want to go to, say, Frankfurt in January, and Hong Kong, though a bargain at $750, was more than I wanted to spend and farther than I wanted to go for a week.

But each day new destinations would appear, each with its own set of restrictions: " . . . Rome is now available, for $215, a Saturday night stay required. . . . We've just added Paris, leaving on the 27th, seven- to 30-day stay. . . . " Rio, Stockholm, Singapore . . .

My vacation was to start on Saturday, and Friday evening, I was still calling. At 6:30, I heard "Madrid: one seat available, leaving tomorrow; $159 round trip." I had been taking elementary Spanish for a few weeks, and I decided that would be the one.

They don't take reservations over the phone, so I would have to hustle down to the city from Hartford in the morning to make the arrangements. I was at work, and the first pal I turned to said he was heading to Queens in the morning, and he would give me a ride; he would even leave at 6 to accommodate me. Hey, this adventure stuff was kind of fun, I thought; everything just falls into place.

First, though, I had six more hours of work. Then I had to get home and empty the trash and do all the other cleaning that couldn't wait a week. My being a leave-it-till-the-last-minute kind of guy, there was plenty of it.

And then there was packing. Taking a couple of steamer trunks is easy, but figuring out how to bring a week's worth of stuff without a suitcase is trickier. (At the airport, I would meet a fellow courier, a woman who was wearing five sets of clothing, but I didn't think of that.) I must have packed and repacked my carry-on a dozen times, and gotten to sleep at 3:30 a.m.

I was dropped in lower Manhattan about 8 a.m., and after losing my way and having to suffer the interminable recording one more time (" . . . if you need further assistance, an agent will come on the line at the end of this message.") I got directions to the second floor walk-up, a single room with space for about a half-dozen workers and a half-dozen customers. It was dominated by a gaily colored departures board and an ugly, uncomfortable, green couch.

After waiting behind a guy flying charter to LA (sold out) and an Asian woman going to Bangkok ($499, but not leaving till Monday), it was my turn. The total was $215, after a $50 "registration fee" and a $6 "processing fee." I had gotten the last of the three seats for this flight. Takeoff was about 6:30 p.m., but I had to be there three hours before to hook up with the fellow who would put the actual ticket -- and baggage tags -- into my hand.

Next I needed a bookstore, to start learning about this place I'd never been. They told me there was a Barnes & Noble I could walk to in 15 minutes. I imagined that really adventurous people never worried about things like "where am I staying tonight?" but I was still an adventurer-in-training. I wasn't worrying, but, well, I was thinking about it plenty.

Book in hand, I looked for the day's third mode of transit, a cab to the Port Authority, and my fourth, the shuttle bus to JFK. I wrote in my journal on the way out: "I'm actually going to Madrid on the spur of the moment!"

It was after noon by the time I got to the airport, and I was both hungry, from having not eaten all day, and exhausted, from little sleep and lots of nervous energy. I'd had time to burn, and could have stopped for food at any juncture, but I kept telling myself it was best to get to the airport first, just in case. Now I was there, in a smallish, '60s construction holding area, with no amenities, and no chairs. I found a spot on the floor.

I read. I paced. I sat, then paced some more. I obsessed. I eyed the few others hanging around, wondering if they were my two fellow couriers on this flight, or perhaps the Now Voyager agent came early, to release me into a terminal. With restaurants. And chairs.

I did eventually meet the Woman Wearing her Wardrobe, a retired teacher who had a free place to stay somewhere outside Madrid. Her five outfits would have to last three months, she said.

Across the room were two guys we surmised were also waiting for tickets, though I somehow didn't figure out that that made four passengers for three seats.

About four, the agent finally showed. He checked his manifest, then dealt first with the two guys. Then he squared Wardrobe Woman away. And then he turned to me in puzzlement. There were indeed only three tickets, and they were all spoken for.

But I have my receipt right here, I said. Well, yes, he said, but I don't have a ticket for you. I don't know what happened, he said, but there are only three seats on this flight, and you don't have one. Call the office on Monday morning, he said. The hell with Monday, I said, I'm calling now, but all I got was that interminable recording, but with a new tag line: "Now Voyager is closed for the day."

There was nothing left to do but find a Connecticut Limousine agent and catch a ride back home. There was one leaving in about five minutes, which again precluded getting any food; my hunger seemed to heighten my swirling emotions. I was angry at having paid my money for nothing, especially the nonrefundable $56 in fees. I was disappointed that instead of joining the jet set, I'd never made it out of the bus set. And, well, I was a little relieved to be heading home; at least I knew where I would be sleeping that night.

With a half-dozen stops along the way, the bus didn't get back into Hartford until well after dark, the same darkness I'd departed in maybe 14 hours before. I walked the last mile home.

Inside, I found a message on my machine from Now Voyager; they'd called maybe 10 minutes after I'd left the office. Don't go to the airport, the message said; there's been a mistake and there's no ticket waiting for you.

It wasn't until much later that I realized that even though I hadn't reached Madrid, I'd been adventurous nevertheless. That's the thing about adventure: You never know where it will take you.