My first impressions of America were made in Atlanta, on arriving there from England for the very first time in April 2006. I was going to spend ten days with my Fanstory friend, L and I was very excited about it.
Atlanta airport is massive and I, having been detained in the immigration office for four hours, was unsure of where to go next. I was alone with my carry-on bag as I found my way down the long escalator to the two waiting underground trains.
I had no idea where they went. In my mind, I thought they probably went to downtown Atlanta and that was definitely not where I wanted to be. I needed to meet up with L and as quickly as possible. Would he still be waiting for me, after four long hours with no communication? He would know that the plane had arrived and must be wondering where the hell I was since everybody else had already come through the International Arrivals.
I discovered all too late in the immigration office that my English mobile phone did not work in America, despite the fact that the young man in the telecom office in my local shopping mall in England, assured me that it would work!
I decided to ask the immigration officer if he would be kind enough to phone my friend and let him know that I had been delayed. He did let L know, but not by phone, so at least L knew I was in the airport, but other than that, L would not know why I had taken so long to reach him. Perhaps he would guess what had happened or perhaps not. I had no way of knowing. I began to worry that L would get tired or fed up waiting and return to the hotel he had booked for us to stay in that night.
I looked at the two trains and decided not to get on either of them. I would ask directions first. There was no-one around down there in the train hall so I went back up the escalator to find the Enquiries Desk and asked one of the airport officials if they could tell me how to get to the International Arrivals desk? They looked at me as if I was stupid and indeed I did feel stupid. On the other hand, I had never been to Atlanta before or America even and I was not familiar with the airport or the systems they had in place there. They told me they couldn’t help me, which to this day I find remarkable, so back I went down the escalator again. Since there was nowhere else to go but onto the train, I tentatively got on it and went a couple of stops. Then I got off.
I looked around, but could find no map of the airport to help me and still there was no-one else around to ask. I decided it was pointless to ask a fellow passenger, who would probably be as befuddled as I was. A cleaning lady, pushing a large trolley full of mops and buckets and cleaning equipment came into view. I asked her for directions.
‘I want to go to the International Arrivals,’ I told her.
She was more helpful than anyone else I had so far encountered, telling me to get back on the train and go to the Baggage Hall, which was at the end of the train ride. I was relieved to hear that. At least I wouldn’t find myself in the middle of the metropolis, out of the airport and completely lost.
I got back onto the train.
The stops on the train ride are labelled in letters of the alphabet and a mechanical voice tells you where you are, not necessarily where you want to be.
‘This train is now stopping’, the disembodied voice kept telling me. ‘The next stop is Concourse C’….
At the baggage hall I felt my feet getting sore. I was wearing high-heeled shoes and they had begun to pinch. I looked around for the console containing the luggage from flight BA226. There was none. I concluded that everyone else had already got theirs and mine was who knows where! My heart sank. My new camera was in that bag. Again I would have to find help and ask where the bag was likely to be.
All this took more time than I wanted it to. Eventually, I was told that my bag would have been taken to the B.A. office at the front of the airport and I would be able to claim in the next day after 12 o’clock noon. I did a quick time check. That would mean that L and I would have to stay near the airport in order to pick up my bag from the left luggage after noon, when the Check-In office opened. That meant that we would not be able to leave the airport when we wanted to, but would have to wait at BA’s convenience. ‘Could this get much worse?’ I wondered, scenes from the movie ‘Terminal’ playing in my mind. Perhaps I would be marooned in the airport forever more unable to find a way out or locate my friend. Plan C suggested looking for food in rubbish bins in order to stay alive and sleeping in corners where no-one would see me, but the mind was playing tricks because I was tired.
Fighting off the need to cry, I saw another escalator ahead of me. Surely this one would lead to the Arrivals Hall? If I didn’t see L soon, I would go mad. There is only so much one person can stand and I was reaching that limit.
I walked towards the escalator, clutching my carry-on bag tight. Stepping on, the escalator began to ascend. I could see an enormous mural at the top, welcoming new arrivals. I must be in the right place, but would L be there for me or would I be all alone in this new land?