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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

The Washington Post

How airport layovers can be a good travel opportunity

May 17, 2012 

By Eric Goldscheider

Love and travel are two things you shouldn’t hurry. And if you love to travel, then detours are the elixir of delight.

That’s why, whenever I fly somewhere, I look for the worst possible connection. An eight-hour layover is enough to explore part of a city. Overnight interruptions are even better, whether or not the airline picks up the hotel tab.

I got into this habit when I worked in Kenya from 1995 to 1998 and had to commute to Vermont semiannually. It didn’t take long to figure out that the KLM night flight out of Boston got into Amsterdam in the early morning hours, missing the single daily connection to Nairobi by six hours. That translated into 14 hours (even allowing for passport control and a train from Schiphol International Airport into the city and back) for Vermeers, canals and window-shopping in the red light district.

I spent most of the day laughing on the inside about being a brief interloper on European soil. I walked and walked, haunting bookstores, department stores and galleries and gawking at the street life. I was primed for a good upright sleep on the second leg of my flight.

The layovers in the other direction were shorter but still allowed for a walk and a Dutch meal. By then I knew the city well enough to feel more secure about getting back to the airport without stress.

So when I took my son for a CouchSurfing (that’s the name of a Web site) tour of Europe upon his high school graduation, I couldn’t have been more pleased to learn that the Iberia flight from Prague to Boston required an almost 24-hour layover in Madrid. We had to claim our bags. Depositing them in a locker involved an X-ray security check, but it didn’t take long. Then, with a day pack and the address of a woman whose couch we had arranged to surf, we spent the entire afternoon and the next morning exploring a sliver of the city.

Don’t ask me where we were. We had just spent a few days each exploring Munich, Vienna, Prague and Ostrava, Czech Republic. Madrid was an interlude. We didn’t research restaurants or museums. We emerged from the Metro in the city center at a station called “Sol” and started following our noses. We never went indoors except to eat or sleep. We just walked and walked with our heads usually tilted up at a slight angle, drinking in the architecture. Balconies with a brilliant sun raking gilded balustrades framed narrow streets. At eye level, a Fernando Botero sculpture of a cartoonishly large and voluptuous nude woman stretched out on her stomach and peering into a diminutive round hand-held mirror demanded attention.

I snapped pictures the entire time so that I could later identify famous places we had seen. I was struck by the grandeur befitting the hub of an erstwhile global empire.

Dinner was at a simple restaurant that served paella with sangria. It had a TV in the corner for the all-important European soccer championship semifinals in which Spain trounced Russia, 3-0. Spain went on to beat Germany three days later to win it all. Massive television screens had been erected in parks and plazas. We heard the collective roar go up for each goal.

Our host, a German woman who has been teaching in Madrid for years, is identified as a “family ambassador” on the CouchSurfing Web site. She totally got it when I contacted her and explained the nature of our stay. She told us that if we could come to her apartment in a bohemian section of town after she got off work and leave first thing in the morning, we were more than welcome to a mattress on the floor and a shower. We shared a glass of wine with her that evening and accompanied her to her favorite coffee shop in the morning before resuming our unguided wanderings around the city, this time keeping an eye on the time to get ourselves back down into the Metro and to the airport comfortably.

Three years later, as a junior in college, my son returned to Madrid for a semester abroad.

* * *

Two summers ago I took my daughter on a roots trip to Kenya, where she was born. I researched the cheapest flights and found that Qatar, a small but wealthy emirate on the Arabian Peninsula, is vying to turn its expanding airport into a high-volume hub. The Middle East has always been a global crossroads, and these days it’s probably cheaper to refuel in countries on the Arabian Peninsula than in other parts of the world.

Qatar Airways was undercutting the other airlines. But, the travel agent I was working with added apologetically, a flight from New York to Nairobi would necessitate an overnight stay in both directions. Darn! By way of consolation, she added, the airline would pay for a visa, transportation into Doha, dinner, a hotel room, breakfast and transportation back to the airport. Well, oookaaay. I pulled out my credit card on the spot.

Doha is the third Arab city I’ve had the opportunity to explore. I’ve walked its streets twice now, but never during daylight. The Royal Qatar Hotel had a tasty Middle Eastern buffet waiting for us. My daughter was most impressed by the Internet jack in her private, albeit small, room and opted to stay in to scour Facebook while I roamed.

I didn’t know much about Doha other than that it’s home to the satellite news network al-Jazeera. One of the stereotypes I carry around about cities in Muslim countries is that they’re generally very safe. The clerk at the front desk laughed when I asked whether I should be concerned about taking a stroll. The Royal Qatar Hotel, which is circular and about 12 stories high, is the tallest structure in its vicinity, so I could range widely without getting lost. I carried a photocopy of my passport and, since the airline had taken care of all my needs, I didn’t need local currency. As in Madrid, my camera was snapping most of the way.

The store windows included one with a forlorn-looking model of a 10-tier wedding cake. It was a bakery away from the higher-volume foot traffic. I happened upon an ornamental arch over a busy boulevard that consisted of two swords meeting tip to tip high overhead, fused by the circular State of Qatar logo, which features a sailboat and a pair of palm trees.

From there I was drawn to a brightly lit spire that looks like a snail gracefully coiled around a minaret reaching for the heavens. I learned later that this is a cultural center dedicated to informing non-Muslims about Islam. I passed a small park with swaths of grass, streetlights and an open stone plaza. It was full of well-dressed young people, some holding hands in understated gestures of courtship.

Through an empty corridor of tourist shops closed for the night, I happened on the center of Doha’s upscale night life, the Souq Waqif. It has dozens of restaurants, some with outdoor tables extending far into the flagstone pedestrian street. Large fans with nozzles attached to the sides blast a mist over the patrons. (In Vermont they might be mistaken for snow machines.) People in Western garb mixed with men in long white robes and ogals — a black band around the head to keep a tailored piece of cloth in place. As they puffed on their hookahs, they lent the scene before me a sense of exoticism heightened by the scent of spices mixed with the aroma of rich coffee.

I went into the Isfahan Garden, perhaps the gaudiest restaurant I’ve ever been in. It was empty except for a few members of the wait staff cleaning up for the night. The manager nodded with a smile when I motioned to my camera. A fountain at the center of a room encircled by an upper walkway reached upward to meet the chandelier. The ceiling and balconies were encrusted with jewels and small mirrors. Much of each wall was painted gold. One banquet room in the restaurant, which features Iranian cuisine, looked like something out of the Arabian Nights. The furnishings of other side rooms were just Persian carpets with overstuffed pillows leaned against plush walls that led up to murals of peasant scenes. Food was served on a separate, smaller carpet at the center.

The souq had a Dunkin’ Donuts as well as souvenir shops selling such trinkets as bobblehead dolls of bearded sheiks with sunglasses, clad in white, and women in traditional black coverings. The venerable antiquities shops, for which the market is known, were closed.

On the return trip, four weeks later, I started my rounds where I’d left off, continuing my nocturnal introduction to a city that the globe will get to know better when it hosts the World Cup soccer championships in 2022. For me, Doha was the slice of bread on either side of a sandwich, the meat of which was a month in East Africa.

Other people’s worst connections are my best ones. Had I rushed, I would have missed out on these random romances with three cities that weren’t even on my dance card.

I’m still enough of an infrequent flier that racking up points makes less sense for me than finding interesting layovers. So next time I go somewhere, I’ll still be on the prowl for bad connections.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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