The unexpected pleasures of waiting for airplanes, busses and ferries

By Steven Robert Carlson

Travel only seems glamorous to those who don’t. The reality is most of modern travel consists of waiting. Waiting to board the airplane. Waiting to get off. Waiting for connecting flights. Waiting at the baggage carousel. Waiting for passport control. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

As I write these words I am sitting at the ferry terminal at Tenerife in the Canaries waiting for the boat back to the island of La Gomera. I’m just returning from a whirlwind two-week trip to California to visit my family.

Today is already Day Three of my odyssey.

And it’s not over yet.

airport

I didn’t plan it this way!

Nothing about this journey has been smooth. I almost didn’t get to board my flight in Los Angeles. Then I missed my connection in Madrid and wound up sleeping in the airport at Tenerife. This morning I discovered this week is the Easter ‘holiday week’ in the Canaries which means my only ferry to La Gomera leaves some time in the evening.

All this means I still have several hours to wait for the ferry.

Then another hour traveling on the ferry. Then a ninety minute bus ride across the island of La Gomera to my final destination, which is Valle Gran Rey–the Valley of the Great King.

I actually don’t mind all this waiting.

I find it oddly satisfying.

Until just recently a journey half way around the world would have taken weeks, if not months. It seems to me that a few extra hours sitting in airport lounges and ferry terminals is a fair price to pay. I also have time to reflect on this monumental transition from one continent to another.

Travel delays don’t upset me anymore because I’ve come to realize I can choose how I react in almost any situation. I choose to enjoy the journey–regardless of what happens.

What I’ve also discovered is more often than not these so-called delays turn out to be opportunities in disguise.

Just now on the bus to the ferry terminal I met an 18-year-old German traveler named James. This is his first independent trip as a young adult. James is also traveling to La Gomera. We have several hours to wait until the ferry leaves and I am honored to share this experience with him.

What an unexpected pleasure!

Meeting James was an unexpected pleasure
This is not James’ first trip to La Gomera. He visited the island 14 years ago.

 

Why are we in such a hurry?

One thing I observed during my short visit to California is how much effort my family and friends invest in optimizing their time. But for what purpose exactly?

My dear father considers parking his car a competitive sport. He’s willing to spend an extra five minutes circling around the lot to find that one spot closest to the entrance. I always tease him about this. Is it really going to kill us to walk a few extra steps?

My youngest sister drives her car across town to the gym, where she sits and peddles upon a stationary bicycle facing a television. I suppose this might be safer and even healthier than biking through traffic. It might even be a more efficient workout. But really?

Whether at the supermarket, or at the gas pump, we always try to guess which line will be the fastest. And then we seethe with frustration to see somebody else reach the finish line ahead of us.

Learning to enjoy the journey

I get that people are busy. I also understand the psychological satisfaction of beating the system. But for me, this hyper-efficiency just creates unwanted stress. I prefer to sit back and enjoy the ride.

To my father’s credit, he can also enjoy the unexpected pleasures of ‘delay.’ As soon as he surrenders himself to waiting in line, he immediately strikes up a conversation with the nearest friendly stranger.

This is a quality I’ve always admired in my father. He seems to have no social inhibitions. I’ve always found anonymous crowds to be somewhat alienating. But not Dad! Everywhere he goes he makes a new friend.

My father sees every queue and crowd as an opportunity to connect with random strangers. I can do this too, but I still feel the fear of breaking the social barrier. My father connects with people immediately and intuitively. This easy sociability is an essential skill for a world traveler and a quality I am working to cultivate in myself.

What I cannot understand for the life of me is how a retired person like my father can even think in terms of delay. Nobody is waiting at the finish line with a stopwatch. Why not take your time and enjoy the journey? What else is life about?

The unexpected joy of getting lost

Oddly enough, one of the greatest pleasures of this journey across California with my mother and father was getting on the wrong freeway.

On the first day of our trip, we set out from Los Angeles to drive to Chico, just north of Sacramento. This is a seven-hour journey. For all my European friends, this is even longer than driving from Munich to Berlin.

As any Californian will tell you, Highway Five is quite possibly the most boring road on the planet. It’s also one of the most recent and modern California highways and it was built for hyper-efficiency. You can travel the entire length of California–some 1,200 kilometers–at maximum speed. It bypasses all the small towns as well as any potential sights of interest.

I had it in the back of my mind to suggest to my parents that we travel on Highway 99–the older, more interesting road. And to my amazement that’s exactly what happened. Driving down the Grapevine we somehow missed the turnoff to the Five and found ourselves traveling down Highway 99. What luck!

And do you know something? My parents enjoyed the journey at least as much as I did. We all admired the unexpected delights of the California scenery. My father was overjoyed to discover he could easily find a Costco to fill up his tank with cheaper gasoline. Unlike the Five, there are plenty of Costcos along the 99.

In the end, my father declared that not only is 99 the more interesting route but it also took us roughly the same time as the Five.

In other words–no delays!

 

The journey back to La Gomera

It’s relatively easy to reach the island of La Gomera. It’s also surprisingly cheap to travel there from most European air hubs.

But most people don’t.

For most people, the Canary Islands means Tenerife or Gran Canaria. That’s because the bigger islands have airports with runways large enough to accommodate the jumbo jets. Most people traveling to these islands just don’t bother venturing any further.

Not surprisingly, the people you see on the big islands tend to be package tourists. You can see them whizzing by on those big comfortable busses, eyes glued to a television screen at the front of the vehicle.

You can buy a cheap English breakfast on Tenerife. You can also get a room in a concrete hotel with a view of a crowded beach.

Not for me. No thank you.

La Gomera is different because it’s a ferry ride away from the bigger islands. That ferry acts as a filter.

Perhaps that extra ferry ride is too inconvenient for the package tourist. Most people come here because they know somebody else who visited the island and liked it. Or possibly out of a desire for adventure.

Consequently this island is much less developed (read: unspoiled). Time seems to move more slowly here. This island attracts a more interesting kind of traveler.

The people I meet here tend to be wanderers and travellers, poets, dreamers and musicians. And hippies, of course. You do meet a lot of hippies on La Gomera.

That one-hour ferry ride makes all the difference.

The timing of the ferries also makes it difficult to complete the journey in one day. If you plan your travel just right it can be possible. But if you miss a connecting flight–as I did–you may have to spend a night on Tenerife.

For those of you who are interested to read further, here’s how this particular journey played out:

April 1: AA 8642 from Los Angeles to Madrid (20 hours)

My ticket said American Airlines but my flight was actually run by the Spanish carrier, Iberia. This meant lugging my bags to another building. Ugh.

Turns out there’s a new rule (at least it’s new to me) that says an American traveler without residence status in the EU has to have a ticket out of Europe. I had purchased a round-trip ticket from Tenerife to LA, which meant that my return trip was a one-way flight to Europe.

The desk manager at Iberia politely explained to me that the only way he could let me on my flight was if I purchased a ticket from Madrid to Casablanca. This was my cheapest option.

Traveling back to Europe means I lost eight hours, and so I arrived in Madrid on the afternoon of April 2nd. My 12 hour flight meant a 20 hour time difference.

April 2: IB 3946 from Madrid to Tenerife North (two hours)

If all had gone according to plan, I would have made it home last night. I would have arrived in Tenerife with ample time to catch my ferry to La Gomera.

That’s not the way it happened. My 12 hour flight from Los Angeles to Madrid was only slightly delayed, but I missed my connecting flight to Tenerife. I hustled my way through EU customs and sprinted to the gate, just in time to see the plane pulling out onto the tarmac.

The friendly staff at Iberia were happy to offer me the late flight to Tenerife, which arrived just before midnight on April 2. I might have been able to find a hotel for the night, but seeing as I intended to resume my journey early the next morning, I decided to sleep last night in the Tenerife North airport.

April 3: Bus 343 from Tenerife North to Los Cristianos (two hours)

I woke this morning to discover this is a ‘holiday week’ in the Canary Islands–obviously something to do with Easter. Catholic countries seem to have more holidays than anywhere else–and this is even more true in the Canaries.

Holidays in the Canaries mean chaos for the traveler.

Nobody could tell me when to catch the bus to the ferry terminal at Los Cristianos so I camped out at the bus stop until it finally came.

The ferry from Tenerife to La Gomera (one hour)

I finally found out that–due to the holiday week–only two ferries travel to La Gomera today. I’ve already missed the morning ferry. The last ferry leaves at five o’clock. Or maybe six. At this point, I’ll believe it when I see it.

And so I find myself, sitting outside the ferry office in the port of Los Cristianos on the island of Tenerife.

Inside the ferry office, confused tourists wander about looking for information. I know a secret they don’t know. The ferry office will open just one hour before departure.

Should I tell them?

Nah …

Postscript

The ferry to La Gomera actually left at 6:30 pm.

From there I caught the last bus to Valle Gran Rey.

Home at last!