On the Linguistic Inadequacy of the Word “Travel”

Even as I begin to catalog the series of frustrating events that were my travel day yesterday, I recognize life could be profoundly worse than hopping on a plane from Porto and ending up in a quirky, suburban hotel near Amsterdam. That caveat noted, what I did realize yesterday was that the word “travel” seems problematically imprecise, as it’s used to describe days like my Friday, spend wandering through Porto smiling about how much I love the city and days like my Saturday, spent largely in the maw of transportation troubles and damnable delays.

My day began with a perfectly delightful conversation with my AirBnB host, who urged me to come back soon, and a great drive to the airport from an Uber driver who asked if I wanted to take a slightly longer route to see a few things I’d probably missed in my stay. While there is little doubt that there are real concerns about the impact of these sharing services on the economy and communities, they seem indispensable to the budget traveler, and I will gladly use them overseas, especially with the regulations that seem to have brought some peace between the UBER drivers and cabbies in Spain and Portugal.

At the airport, I should have known that the day was headed for a turn. One of the last things my driver told me was that he didn’t like the name of the Porto Airport because it “was named after a man who died in a plane crash.” Not a cool story, Portuguese driver man, not a cool story.

I checked in with my airline, dropped off my bag, breezed through security in about 47 seconds, and prepared to wait for the flight. I should have known it was all going too smoothly.

The first hitch in the day was that the airplane just didn’t show up. I waited, along with the other passengers at the gate, which never changed our departure time from 15:40 even after it was well after 15:40. No updates on the small screen, no updates on the airport’s big board, no updates on the Internet—and no people at the gate to tell us what was going on. While I do feel like I am developing reasonable skills as a traveler, the thought of missing a flight in a foreign country is not unreasonable, and it seems there is much less guidance in Europe about exactly when planes will leave and from where trains will depart.

Finally boarded quite late, the single traveler’s airplane nightmare began on my three and a half hour flight: I was literally surrounded by a mass of squalling, wailing, whining, grubby-fingered toddlers. Some day, but today is not that day, I am going to write about the downside of that magical connection parents have with their children in which they would selflessly do anything for their children. Hint: it’s that selflessness when it comes to their own children seems to transform into a total selfish obliviousness that other human beings, with rights and desires, exist in that same world. But I digress…

Other than the non-stop screaming, poking, prodding, and prying of children who were seemingly given free run of the plane, it was a lovely afternoon and a smooth flight.

In Amsterdam, all the usual airport frustrations just piled on: a long delay at the gate, very delayed baggage, and loud people yelling on cell phones. Nothing unusual.

The worst part of the day was to come. Amsterdam, it seems, is undergoing some serious infrastructure work, meaning that the train that would normally have taken me close to my hotel in about an hour couldn’t get me there. Instead, I had a 25 minute train ride followed my a mad scramble to board buses for the rest of the journey. At the bus scramble, my tendency to be polite cost me, twice. On the first bus, I gave up my seat to an older man even though I was carrying a big pack and offered to stand like a few others. At the last minute, we were kicked off, and told we couldn’t stand. Did the man who boarded after me, the one I gave my seat to, offer it back? What do you think?

Ten minutes later, at the second bus, people realized this was not a matter of politely queuing but a battle for life and death. As the doors opened, the line dissolved into a mass of fighting Dutch, who, like me, just wanted to get home. It was at this point, I was pushed off the curb and badly twisted my ankle. No bus.

Finally, I boarded a third bus and began the long journey to my hotel. The bus driver’s approach to braking was eccentric. Instead of easing his bus to stops, he would rush to lights and then slam on the brakes, throwing people forward in their seats. One couple eventually got off the bus, yelling at the driver, who for some reason, also periodically turned off his lights while we driving. After what seemed like an interminably long trip, we were close to our station, it seemed, and the bus passengers had thinned to a crowd of a dozen or so. We reached a stop that many of us suspected was our destination, but with no announcement and no signs visible, we assumed it couldn’t be the right spot.

We were wrong. It was the stop. When someone realized this a few blocks away and asked the driver, he began yelling at the passenger and sped off, presumably all the way back to the rail station where we’d have to repeat the trip. Faced with a mutiny rivaling the one that killed Henry Hudson, the driver acquiesced—sort of—and dropped us off at a random bus stop probably a mile from our station. Shortly after, while we were debating our options, a friendly city bus driver, whose opinions about the railway bus drivers matched ours, stopped and gave us a ride back to the our destination.

Oh, and the Dutch teenagers spitting some rhymes from gangsta rap. That.

Now midnight, I began the relatively short walk to my hotel about a kilometer away. In some degree of pain from my ankle, I hobbled my way there, only to be told that the “hotel did have my reservation, but did not have my room.” After about 30 minutes of phone calls, a room was procured, and I was able to check in.

In the end, today I am going to nurse an ankle that is not quite twice its normal size on a rainy day in an Amsterdam suburb, before heading off to Bruges tomorrow. Life is pretty damn good, even if every day is not.

Travel, it seems, is rooted in the Middle English word travail, and was originally used in the same sense, meaning a “painful or laborious effort.” My frustrating day yesterday certainly doesn’t even measure up to that description, as I doubt travelers in the Middle Ages would have seen fighting to get on an air-conditioned coach would argue I endured much effort, but there is truth in the connection between travail and travel: having the opportunity to see new places and experience cultures different from our own does—and should—involve some effort. As beautiful as Porto and Lagos were, their beauty was best revealed by long walks that were tiring, sweaty affairs.

So there is some beauty in the travail that travel can be, even if it’s not always immediately apparent. I’ll try to remember that on my next flight surrounded by children.