Half my 10,000 steps were taken in Vancouver Airport’s Arrivals Hall. The Pacman Dance, as I named it, was intimidating, but well-organized and efficient. There was always at least a bit of movement – little shots of dopamine creating hope and optimism. The process was inelegant, but reasonable, since 500 or 1,000 passengers had arrived on several flights, more or less simultaneously with mine. It seemed like a lot, but I remembered reading that the North American flight traffic control systems handled 2.7 million passengers a day and that more than 4 billion passengers flew last year world-wide. My measly thousand was a drop in the bucket.
“Visitors to the left, Canadians to the right,” the uniformed young lady repeated with a pleasant and inviting smile. Her Chinese accent and the vast space made each repetition no more comprehensible than the last. “What did she say?” one woman said to her partner and I mentally acknowledged that it had taken me a few iterations to decipher her message and confirm that it was in English.
She did seem genuinely pleased to welcome us as she separated the few Canadians from the incoming horde of “visitors” – us. Our catwalk passed above the departure gates and I noticed that none of them were crowded. I guess no one wants to leave Vancouver at noon, though obviously a large number of folks want to arrive then.
We were directed into a large open space defined by stanchions with adjustable tape dividers, cleverly engineered to be instantly adjustable – the kind you see at stadium concerts or an IMAX theater. The crowd was transformed from a chaotic mass into a very, very long, winding, single-file line which repeatedly doubled back on itself, Pac-Man-like. There were many additional stanchions waiting to be deployed to create lanes and expand the enterprise if needed.
The snaking lines of people trundled along, first in one direction, then in its opposite. It reminded me of mazes I drew when I was bored in class. Since you construct mazes backwards – from End to Start – you knew that as a minimum there is at least one successful path from at least one entry point. In life, hindsight always beats foresight for accuracy – one reason why the past feels safer and comforting, while the future appears confusing and unsettled.
There was only one clear and certain path forward on the way to the Arrivals Hall, still an escalator away, with plenty of time for rumination as we wound our way back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
An eight- or 9-year-old red-headed boy and I locked eyes for a moment as he reached up towards the tape clip mechanism just above his eye level at the top of one of the stanchions. He paused to see if I would reprimand him, but I just smiled and we became momentary allies.
“You should leave that,” the father said gently and the boy dropped his arm and moved on, studying the next of the innumerable connection points, each apparently just as interesting as the previous one.
Dad glanced up and noticed me watching, both of us amused by the child’s curiosity. “Always an engineer in the crowd,” I said. “Always,” he replied. Their 12-year-old was quiet, his mind focused on other things as his family wound back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Perhaps Finnish, I thought, trying to parse their incomprehensible chatter. They sounded amiable, unfazed by the process and confident that it would eventually end. I was surrounded by a mélange of languages, only a few of which I recognized. There were interesting variations in tonality, rhythm, and pace. Some were percussive and chattering, others sibilant and languorous.
The only whining I heard came from Americans, though I suppose it’s possible that everyone else was also complaining and I just couldn’t understand them. “It’s so disorganized,” I heard one woman say. “Even Mexico was better.” Actually, it was not disorganized at all. Rather, it was highly structured and seemed an efficient way to address a complicated challenge. More likely, it was too complex a problem for her to comprehend.
It smacked of the Dunning-Kruger certainty that comes with ignorance. It irked me and when we were in the proximity that occurred with each turn of the line I took out my phone and pretended to be telling someone, “Oh, it’s very well organized. You wouldn’t want 500 people with rolling suitcases all converging on one escalator at the same time. That would be chaotic and dangerous.” They may or may not have heard – they were pretty self-absorbed. Yes, it was passive aggressive and juvenile, but I had nothing else to do at the time and, well, simple minds, simple pleasures.
Another American “ahem”ed me because I had lost focus for a moment and there was a few-person gap ahead of me. We were still hundreds-of-people distant from the actual customs are, so it made no practical difference. It reminded me of the instant and insistent honking of the car behind you in Boston traffic when you fail to hurtle forth the moment the light turns green, immediately joining the unmoving traffic across the road.
I tried to look Canadian, but that, of course, was impossible since they had been siphoned off by the Chinese lady long ago. They were long gone, having coasted through customs, collected their baggage and probably on their way home, leaving us to shuffle back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, doing the Pacman Dance.