There's always a quiet spot in an airport, if you look hard enough.
Most people who wander the gleaming white corridors and settle briefly in arm-rested chair rows aren't in need of somewhere calm: they're about to board a plane for somewhere new, foreign and exciting, and peace and quiet is the last thing on their mind.
But then for other people, there are the journeys that aren't about vacations. The ones that require a bit of space to think.
By the time I arrived into Atlanta's International airport at 9am on Saturday morning, I'd already flown from Cusco to Lima, spent three hours sitting in the corridor floor in Lima's airport, and dealt with a further six hours in the air on the connection to Atlanta. But the hardest part was still to come: thirteen hours spent in Atlanta airport, waiting for my third and final flight.
Flying out of Peru and up into the United States was merely the start of a very, very long transit day.
But why am I flying out of South America in the first place?
Over the last year, I've come to fall totally in love with the continent of South America, and my time here has always been open ended. When I first left for Ecuador I bought a return ticket (now expired), but only because it was cheaper than a single – and also because I'd heard stories about needing proof of onward travel when crossing borders.
I wanted to travel through this continent free from the idea that the trip was finite, and I have. Not being bound by a return date – and a specific return destination – has been immensely freeing, and has caused my plans to be in a state of constant flux, as I allowed new meetings and other people's suggestions to influence the route I took and the lengths of time I spent in different places.
But now I've had to take an unexpected decision. And it means I'm leaving South America.
The reason I'm flying back to England so suddenly is because of something much bigger than travel.
On the 9th of January, I returned to the world of wifi after three days hiking in Colca Canyon, and flicked through my emails. The one from my dad with the topic 'Urgent' obviously caught my eye straight away – and as I read, I discovered that the father of one of my closest friends had suddenly passed away.
She's like a sister to me; I grew up with her family and always had a special bond with her dad, so the news threw me into something like a state of shock.
My immediate reaction was that I had to be at home and be with her.
Hours later, totally unable to sleep, I lay on a top bunk in a Peruvian dorm room with a cacophony of snorers around me, and google searched every combination of flight I could think of in an effort to get myself back to London as soon as possible.
In the light of day, I had to reconsider what I was actually going to do. Being in the middle of South America in early January, a very popular travel season, the chances of finding an affordable flight home within a few days were slim to none. But a few more sessions on various flight comparison sites and I managed to snag an impossible deal: Lima, Peru, to London, England, for just £432.
When I talked to my friend in England and slyly suggested the idea that I might fly back, the reaction was exactly what I'd hoped for – and so, within a week of hearing the news, I'd made my decision. London, for a few weeks, and a chance to be with the people I love without feeling guilty that I was so far away.
38 hours in transit: the breakdown
Of course, it's not as easy as simply being back in London. The ludicrously cheap flight I found had a catch. While my two connections totalled fourteen hours in the air, I had to face the same amount of waiting time in Atlanta Airport.
Have you ever tried to actively waste thirteen hours before? Particularly when you've only got yourself as a distraction?
Here's how I did it.
- 15:00: leave Cusco city centre for the airport.
- 15:10: start a fight with the check in staff who want me to switch to a later flight because my one is “a little bit full”. Turns out they regularly overbook their flights and try to switch passengers. I have none of it, and get the flight I paid for.
- 15:15: wander Cusco airport, discover how small it is, and settle down on a chair to wait for my flight.
- 16:50: flight from Cusco to Lima.
- 18:00: arrive in Lima airport and collect my checked bag.
- 18:10: realise I can't check in for my next flight until 10.30pm, and wander around the very busy and loud terminal looking for somewhere quiet to sit. Begin to develop a headache.
- 18:30: take up residence on the floor outside Lima's airport chapel. Rather poshly dressed Peruvians throw unimpressed glances my way.
- 20:30: dinner of pasta at a restaurant where the server sympathetically asks if I'm travelling solo – which immediately prompts a torrent of explanatory Spanish about my current situation.
- 22:30: check my bag at the Delta desk, where I'm informed it will go the whole way to London. One potential stress is effectively out of the way.
- 23:30: brush my teeth in the nearest bathroom then fall asleep under eye mask at my departure gate. Good old travel emergency kit!
- 01:00: board my flight with my stomach full to bursting after being forced to either throw out the vast majority of my 1 litre water bottle or down it. Apparently Delta won't allow you to bring any water onto the plane.
- 01:30: flight takes off. I belatedly realise I really need the bathroom, and continue this trend constantly for the next six hours because the man next to me pops a Valium and is out for the count.
- 04:00: after watching two films back-to-back, I realise it's probably sensible to attempt sleep. This doesn't really work that well as the need for the bathroom has reached breaking point.
- 08:15: arrive into the US for the first time in four years. Get hugely confused by strangers speaking English around me instead of Spanish, and the rather aggressive officer shouting at too many people attempting to use the bathroom at once in the immigration hall.
- 09:00: pass through the terror of US customs and immigration, and promptly get overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of Atlanta Airport. The fact that it has its own subway system to get between concourses is a little hard to deal with after two hours sleep.
- 09:30: settle down at a random departure gate with comfy seats.
- 10:00: commit to spending $5 (£3) on a 24 hour internet pass. The next two hours pass surprisingly quickly.
- 12:00: eat lunch at TGI Fridays, chat to very friendly waitresses and become overtly aware of how posh and British my accent now sounds.
- 13:15: long overdue Skype call with my friend in California.
- 16:30: awake to the discovery that I inadvertently fell asleep for an hour on the with my body curled around my various bags/charging iPad. Score!
- 17:00: head to the food court for a large coffee and a bit more internet time, where I watch an adorable middle-aged American woman playing a grand piano and taking requests from little kids. Pack up my things as she starts a blues version of 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star'.
- 20:00: walk excessively slowly to my departure gate but find I still have at least an hour to waste. Duly spend a good half hour quizzing an overly keen Body Shop salesman about my skin, and end up with a bag of free samples.
- 21:10: I board my last flight of three, and delight in the knowledge that, despite being in the middle row of the plane, I still have a seat to myself. I subsequently keep a crossed knee/foot/sprawled leg across said seat for the remainder of the 8 hour flight.
- 08:00: awake to the tiniest of breakfast rolls being placed in front of me. I also discover we'll be landing 40 minutes early. My dad is meeting me at the arrivals hall and I don't have his mobile number to explain I'll be there ahead of time. My tired brain is not ok with potential panic, and forces me to forget it.
- 10:40: wheels touch down on the runway and I'm finally back on English soil, almost a year after I left it. I take my time with customs and baggage claim, and end up in the arrivals hall exactly when our plane was supposed to land.
- 11:00: I meet my dad as he's coming through the hall's automatic doors – much to his surprise.
- 11:15: we find my dad's car, put my stuff in the boot and set off for my dad's house. I fight passing out from tiredness as I talk to my dad about my journey back from Cusco. I'm finally home, and it's great, but somehow it doesn't seem the time to start discussing my entire year of travel.
Almost a year of travel, huh?
That's the thing that keeps running through my head. Since the start of last February, I've worked at a Bolivian artificial limb clinic and taught in an Ecuadorian high school, swum with sharks and walked alongside dinosaur prints, and learnt Spanish in Cartagena and La Paz.
I've slept in hammocks in the mountains and tents in the jungle, taken part in ayahuasca and San Pedro ceremonies, and explored the favelas of Medellin and Rio de Janeiro.
And as often seems to happen in a year filled with so much activity, I've found myself in quite a few tricky situations too. Broken collarbones, visa issues and involuntary treks due to citywide road blockades all feature highly – but one particular situation I actively decided to leave behind in Peru, the one with a beard and a backpack and a bike lock around his neck, probably surpasses them all.
So thirteen hours in an airport might sound like a hellish experience to some, but in a way it's actually something of a luxury for me. In between the internet browsing, the impromptu napping, the oddly timed meals and the piano playing, it's given me the chance to do a hell of a lot of thinking about this last year and my ultimate decision.
Coming back to London like this is a shock to my system. I'm not sure how I'm going to handle carrying house keys and an Oyster card and nobody speaking Spanish – particularly when I've had absolutely no time to prepare myself for the idea of being in England again.
But on the other hand, it's a really incredible chance for me to do all the things at home I've been pining to do – like eating real cheese and good quality bacon, visiting Boots pharmacy for the various medicines I can't find anywhere in South America (though not for lack of trying), grabbing a few clothes I woefully missed off my initial packing list, and being able to see so many of my friends for catchups that I didn't think I'd have for at least another six months or more.
Most of all though, I get to be there for some of the people I love the most in the world, who may not be related to me by blood but are absolutely the closest thing I have to family.
And then, before the thrill of being home starts to dissipate, I get to fly straight back.
Well you didn't think my time in South America was over just yet, did you?
What 2014 holds for Flora the Explorer
At the moment, I'm planning to stay in London for around three weeks before returning to South America. The question, though, is where exactly I'll be flying to.
At some point I'll be moving to Medellin, Colombia, where I have a position at an English speaking newspaper. For at least four months, I'll be working with the paper as a reporter, writer and editor, and making my first real foray into the world of journalism. I couldn't be more excited: firstly to return to Colombia, a country that I fell in love with as soon as I arrived, and secondly to expand my writing in a way I've never thought I'd do.
On the other hand, there's the choice of a few weeks respite on the beaches of Peru first. After being thrust back into a freezing English February, I could easily be tempted. Particularly as that bearded guy will be there too.
So before I book a one-way flight back to my favourite continent, I need to choose: is it going to be a Peruvian or a Colombian airport?
Musings on this new, strange year
As I waited patiently in the quietest place I could find in Atlanta airport – the back corner of a departure gate – I got to thinking about what this sudden departure from travelling really meant.
A large amount of travel is about waiting. It could be the hours spent in bus and train stations, the tapping fingers in suspense of the next big adventure, or the ending of a Skype call with the sad knowledge that you won't see that person in the flesh for a long time yet.
The last year of my travels has been amazing, and I'm so happy and proud that I've experienced it to the fullest I possibly could have. But in the back of my mind has always been the worry that I'll be losing something hugely important back in England as a result: the relationships I've forged over the years dissipating because I'm no longer there to support them.
What I realised in Atlanta airport is this. Travel is incredible, and is a lifestyle I am utterly in love with. But there is nothing comparable to suddenly being with the people who mean the world to you. Those who make up your family, who make you feel like you're home, even when the concept of 'home' doesn't have as much grounded meaning anymore.
Having an unexpected injection of the familiar, the close, the personal, in the midst of such a long stretch of travel is something to be cherished. It's made me more grateful than I thought I could be to have these people in my life.
And it's nice to realise that from time to time.