At 24, bones still wet with dew from the dawn of adulthood, I took an adventure.
And by adventure, I mean vacation. For the price of a month’s rent in Boston, I had purchased the illusion of adventure, bookended by cushy, leather airline seats and documented by a camera with more horsepower than the Apollo missions. My destination? Iceland.
It was an altogether serendipitous affair. Two months earlier, a casual chat with a close friend from college had set the clockwork in motion. She was finishing up a master’s degree at Oxford, and would have a mere two weeks of freedom before kicking off a busy summer which would terminate at Stanford medical school. I had been in dire need of vacation, after nearly three uninterrupted years of work on a company I had started while still a lowly undergrad. Two would-be adventurers, we discovered a mutual interest in visiting Iceland, and – perhaps most importantly – an overlap in availability. Planning would commence the following day.
Our audacious trip itinerary, an excel spreadsheet coordinated via Google Docs, dictated that we were to meet at Keflavik International Airport (KEF) and hop a shuttle into Reykjavik. We would then explore the capital for a day before renting a car and driving Route 1 – the ring road – 2,000km around the island (I prefer to say two megameters). This route afforded us four days of all-you-can-see buffet: lava craters, glaciers, mountains, geysers, hot springs, and more, before finally settling back into the relative comfort of our Reykjavik hostel. From there, I would catch a jet back to New England, while she planned a return to London.
The morning of my departure arrived sooner than expected, and I followed suit by arriving at Logan International a full three hours prior to take-off. I was never one for cutting things close – especially when air travel hung in the balance. A vestige of my father’s influence, I suppose; he was a “measure twice, measure twice again, once more, and only then consider cutting” kind of guy. On my person I carried a lovely, dark green Fjallraven Kajka hiking backpack, which held 75 liters of shenanigans and sported more straps and zippers than a BDSM convention. Walking through the terminal, pack hugging my shoulders and weight balanced neatly upon my hips, I fancied myself a rugged adventurer. Passersby would certainly never imagine that my pack contained not one, but two blazers, a sewing kit, and a pair of stiff hiking boots I had hurriedly purchased the previous day. Like I said, rugged adventurer.
Eager to unload my bag, I strolled to the Icelandair ticketing desk, where I encountered four agents helping no one in particular. A kind-looking Persian girl named Farah waved me to the counter and requested my passport. I complied and reached to my back-right pocket, where important documents always found their way. “Always put things where they belong,” my father’s words rang truer than he’d ever know. I passed Farah my documents, and she deftly set to work on her computer. The way she pecked that keyboard, one might believe she were breaking into the NSA mainframe while simultaneously transcribing the complete works of Herman Melville. After no less than two minutes of furious typing, she paused and held up my passport, holding it as if she were adjusting her makeup. Farah’s eyes met mine and flitted back and forth from her hand. I was met with a quizzical look.
“This doesn’t look like you…”, she trailed off.
First reaction: alarm. Followed by a flash of understanding. I took off my glasses, matted my hair, and looked as angry as possible.
Five years earlier, my father had told me to look serious as he aimed the camera for my passport photo. At 19, I had just received a buzz cut, and sporting a blank stare, I appeared the way a refugee might look in documents that could only be called “papers”. It was truly an Oscar-worthy performance, which served now only to leave me flustered and trying to convince the ticketing agent that I was indeed Daniel Jaehahn Choi. After an prolonged moment of examination, Farah shrugged and returned to her typing. I supposed I had passed the test.
As we inched closer to a (hopefully, successful) check-in, I tried to make some small talk with the other ticketing agents. My identification exercise, it seemed, had drawn the attention of other unoccupied folks working down the counter. A petite, dark-skinned man named Matthew asked what race I was. I replied Korean, and Matthew responded with a gaspy “oh!” accompanied by an excited golf clap. Apparently he had picked up quite a bit of the Korean language while frequenting Allston karaoke bars, and he didn’t hesitate rattling off what words he could recall:
“Annyeong” (안녕) = hello
“Chingu” (친구) = friend
“Gamsahabnida” (감사합니다) = thank you
“Gogi” (고기) = beef
Within seconds, the man had legitimately threatened to exhaust my knowledge of Korean. I nodded politely in acknowledgement of each impeccably pronounced word, wondering whether I’d have to eventually point out and apologize for my second grade vocabulary. As Matthew continued bandying words about, I realized that my beginner’s Korean was suited for only one singular purpose: to humor English-speaking acquaintances with a basic understanding of Korean words and phrases. It was a sobering realization. Before I had time to contemplate it further, though, Farah had completed my check-in and handed me my boarding pass and “papers”. I offered hearty goodbyes to her and Matthew, and made my way post-haste to the security line.
• • • • •
Completed back in the seventies, terminal E at Boston’s Logan International Airport was reserved primarily for international flights. Expectant families and chauffeurs with signs that read Mr. or Mrs. So-and-so could be found littering the arrivals gate at all hours of the day. Oddly, it also housed smaller, domestic airlines like Southwest, which I had often flown from Boston back home to Akron, Ohio, and with which I had formed a love-hate relationship over the years.
My first experience with the airline came at 14, when I flew from Cleveland to Midway International for a student council convention at the Hilton Chicago. It was my first time flying without parental supervision, and I was exhilarated. Southwest had also had a now-defunct tradition of serving fresh baked chocolate chip cookies while at 35,000 feet. As far as I was concerned, this was as close to heaven as man could get. Over the years, however, service and flying experience had taken a back seat to expanded flight routes and increasingly creative sales tactics (“pay an extra $40 to NOT sit next to the lav!”). At the same time, the novelty of flying had worn thin, and it was hard not to feel jaded about the entire method of transportation.
As I headed toward the security line for the international gates, however, I couldn’t help but feel the giddiness that had once coursed through my veins as a younger traveler. International flights were as comparable to domestic flights as Soul Train to a coal train. I imagined Icelandair Flight FI635 replete with gorgeous Scandinavian flight attendants and free-flowing scotch, zinfandel, and whatever other social lubricants one could imagine. Not wanting to miss out on the full experience, I had upgraded to Economy Comfort to experience lusher, roomier leather seats and complimentary meal service. It’s the little things that matter on a 5-hour transatlantic flight.
Head abuzz with the possibilities, I had but one remaining obstacle to achieving aerial bliss – the Ellis Island of air travel: the TSA. The checkpoint guarding the bevy of international gates was sparsely populated. As a handful of passengers made our way through the unnecessary twists and turns of the security line, we were eclipsed by a large crew of Japan Air pilots and flight attendants, escorted via the expedited airport personnel line. They were dressed to the nines – men in pressed suits and flight caps, and women in working heels and strikingly red neck scarves. For a moment, I stood in awe of the spectacle and recalled those “good old days” of air travel that I had never experienced, when flying was more than just a quick way to get from point A to point B. International airlines, I believed, remained the last bastion of those former glory days.
Before long, I found myself at the front of the security line. The male TSA agent idly checking boarding passes was a portly fellow by the name of Todd. His patina’d face featured a Hulk Hogan-esque handlebar mustache and the air around him smelled strangely reminiscent of seaweed. As I approached the checkpoint, I offered my passport and boarding ticket and prepared for another round of ID charades. After a moment’s examination, though, Todd surprised me by exclaiming, almost incredulously, “All these asians going to Japan and you’re going to Iceland!” I reacted instinctively and retorted, “Hell yea I am!” followed by muttering something about my first vacation in years. Todd was unamused. We made eye contact for a brief, awkward moment, before he waved me through to security. Undeterred, I continued past the x-ray machines and cross-armed TSA guards to emerge into the sweet, duty-free air of the departure terminal.
I checked my wristwatch – a touch over two hours remained until my flight would depart from gate E8-B. I decided to saunter over and check out the scene. Gates E8-A and E8-B were parked on the far west end of the terminal, and true to Todd’s word, were swimming in a sea of asians. It appeared that an impossibly large jet flying direct to Tokyo had just begun its boarding process at E8-A. I switched into reverse and headed away from the kerfuffle; no doubt a seat would open up post boarding and take-off.
My roaming eyes settled on the Hudson News across the terminal. I had neglected to packed any non-electronic reading materials – a cardinal sin for long flights – and so I sought atonement at the meager best-sellers section in the back of the newsstand. Myriad book covers stared at me, emblazoned with review snippets that yelled in silence.
“A Best Seller! Now a major motion picture!”
“Gripping – five stars!”
This was going to be a difficult choice. I wasn’t used to making selections without access to unbiased customer reviews; nearly all of my recent purchases (including some rather dashing cologne) had been made on Amazon, purely based on review data. My rational was rooted in a mixture of laziness and the theory that the wisdom of the crowd trumps that of the individual. Results had proven successful thus far – my Mont Blanc cologne had already netted me infinity times more compliments than my natural man musk. Alas, Amazon had yet to augment my reality with real-time product reviews, so I was left with book covers and dust jackets.
“Attention: this is the final boarding call for flight JA143 to Tokyo. Will all ticketed passengers please proceed immediately to gate E8-A for boarding.” The announcement crackled over the easy listening muzak in Terminal E.
I selected a collection of essays by David Sedaris, mainly because the cover art was interesting and it didn’t look to be about anything in particular. Traded cash for the book, and I headed back to gate E8-B to grab a seat next to three restless Scandinavian teenagers. The departure gate area was decidedly calmer than it had been just a quarter hour prior. I settled in and cracked open the book. It was good. I enjoyed Sedaris’s writing style and as expected, the essays were engaging, but not really about anything. Or maybe I was just missing the point.
“Kyle Suzuki, please report to gate E8A. This is the final boarding call for flight JA143 to Tokyo.”
I buried myself in my reading. Sedaris was describing his experiences vacationing around the world with his husband. It had caught me by surprise, honestly, finding out that he was gay. Over the years I’d learned that I lacked a functional “gaydar” – the ability to divine whether or not an individual is gay. It had simply never mattered to me, and I had always (somewhat proudly) ascribed my defective gaydar to choosing not making any assumptions about people. Upon further reflection, though, I realized that assuming everyone was heterosexual was an assumption, too. This vexed me. Was it hetero-normative to be surprised upon finding out someone was gay? Was being hetero-normative in this case necessarily a bad thing? The questions hung in the air like a naked wang…
“Are you flying to Tokyo?”
I looked up from my book. The question had been issued by a woman with far too many layers of clothing and an appearance which made me uncomfortably certain her name was Doris.
“No, I’m going to Iceland.” I managed to reply, though it sounded more defensive that I had anticipated.
“Damnit.” Doris muttered under her breath as her hips sashayed aggressively past my unsuspecting head.
I took a moment to survey the terminal and noticed that a number of other uniformed persons were making rounds, searching for a missing man named Kyle Suzuki. Over the next ten minutes, I was approached two more times by increasingly urgent airline personnel, each asking if I were en route to Tokyo and had somehow missed the announcement and ensuing circus of a search effort, despite sitting within spitting distance of the departure gate. It was a ludicrous sight, really. I had always believed that flights were like important package deliverymen – if you’re not ready and waiting at the precise moment they offer themselves to you, they would disappear into the ether, never to be seen again.
“Alright, it’s too late – we need to get in the air. Close the gate.” The decision was handed down by an official looking man who had just climbed up the boarding ramp. Shrugs and sighs were shared by all, and Doris followed orders by shutting the gate. The search for Kyle Suzuki had been unceremoniously terminated.
As the commotion died down and airport personnel returned to their routine responsibilities, I couldn’t help but be struck by a thought. For a brief period of time – and only for a moment – everyone in that terminal was wondering the exact same thing:
“Where in the world is Kyle Suzuki?”