Panick Attack in Terminal 5

“Some journeys can only be traveled alone.” ~ Ken Poirot


Saying "goodbye for now" to Finisterre, probably my favorite overnight on camino.

Saying “goodbye for now” to Finisterre, my favorite town on camino. One day, I’d like to spend a summer there.

Every traveler has a subconscious switch that flips when it’s time to go home. It’s the least enjoyable part of any journey. My switch now flipped, I was in the zone and homeward bound.

As we re-entered Santiago the bus driver was kind enough to drop me near the train station where he said I’d find plenty of overnight accommodations. I wanted to be within walking distance of tomorrow’s early-morning train back to Madrid. Now running low on money and wanting to keep things flexible, I’d play it by ear in Madrid, even if it meant rolling out a sleeping back on the airport floor the night before departure. If there’s one quality you acquire on camino, it’s flexibility.

Essentially a fast-forward camino in reverse, the train trip to Madrid was nostalgic as I’d catch the occasional glimpse of places where I’d passed through on foot weeks ago. It already seemed surreal that I’d actually done it.

Even if meant there’d be no rest, I was determined to make the logistics simple and minimize any likelihood of missing an 11 a.m., flight departing Madrid on Thursday morning. The best way to facilitate the plan was to wake up at the airport that day rather dealing with big-city transportation issues from a hotel early in the morning. My spirit was oddly anxious about any possibility of missing that plane and I’d dialed up travel mode to intense.

It was a relief just arriving at the airport. However uncomfortable the night ahead might be, I’d make tomorrow’s plane and head for home. Assurance trumps discomfort in my personal travel guide most days.


Early-morning train station departure in Santiago, headed for Madrid.

Early-morning train station departure in Santiago, headed for Madrid.

Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport is huge, and geographically the largest travel facility in Europe. With five terminals spread across 3,050 square hectares, Madrid-Barajas is as big as a city and accommodates 50 million travelers a year. Manevering the airport expanse is a challenge in itself.

Though I’d heard about a hotel somewhere on the airport grounds, no one in my departure Terminal 2 seemed to know about it. I dismissed the idea as bad travel information and after a stale 10 euro sandwich and a soft drink made my way to an area outside all the foot traffic and tried out the floor using my backpack as a pillow. It was so uncomfortable I laughed out loud. The thought of alternating positions between the concrete floor and a plastic chair for the next 15 hours was less than ideal. It was there where a janitor with a mop bucket became my savior.

As he mopped the floor nearby, I could tell he felt sorry for me. He kept looking my way, and so I walked over in hopes that he might have advice about a better plan.

“Usted tiene camas en el aeropuerto? I asked.

“Si, si, terminal de cinco en autobús,” he said, so happy to help. I thanked the kind man, and with the new promise of a good night’s sleep made my way outside to find the airport bus. It was hard not to think about the prospect for a final blessing of camino magic.

It’s almost a 20-minute bus ride from Terminal 2 to Terminal 5, and I used the time for making mental notes about getting back early the next morning. I was surprised how uptight I remained about making that plane.

Air Rooms Madrid is tucked away deep in the basement bowels of Terminal 5. It features simple, no-frills rooms with clean beds and hot, private showers for a $135 credit card slide. Underground, absent a single window and with close proximity to multiple bus stops and the airport train station, the dark, noisy environment never varies. Inside the basement hotel it’s virtually impossible to know whether it’s day or night.

A final airport gift for the wife.

A final airport gift for the wife.

I was thrilled with the simple accommodations, knowing I’d step onto tomorrow’s 10-hour flight home clean and rested. My plan for not making plans came together in a way that seemed almost too good to be true. After a long, hot shower, I climbed into bed, turned on the television and passed out around 6 p.m. The next hours indulged a sleep so hard that I lost track of every sensibility – including time.

The simple recollection of what happened next makes my heart race all over again.

Groggy and momentarily unaware of the environment, a passing train roused my attention and I instinctively reached for the phone to note the time. My bleary eyes saw the numbers 10:17. It’s surpising how something as simple as the absence of a window can completely throw your sense of time. I thought I’d slept the clock around and immediately envisioned fellow passengers boarding the flight home. I was a logistical hour away from being anywhere close to that plane, and went from zombie-like sleep to full-blown panic in less than 10 seconds. Heart attacks are the products of more subtle transitions.

With heart pounding, I almost couldn’t breathe, and surely couldn’t think. But instinct had me throwing clothes on my body and into my backpack even though I knew making the plane was hopeless. Then it occurred to me. Maybe it was p.m. rather than a.m. In this dungeon without a view there was no way to know. The only thought I could fathom was the need to look outside.

The desk manager must have thought I was a lunatic. With sagging unbelted shorts, an unbuttoned shirt and bare feet I ran past her to the door looking for sunshine. Looking out to the lower-level driving tunnel toward the train stop offered still no indication. We were underground.

I turned back toward the manager. “Is it day or night?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, sir?” she replied.

“Is it day time or night time? I think I slept through and missed my plane.”

“It’s evening, sir. You’ve only been here a few hours. Would you like to receive a wakeup call in the morning?” she asked, never breaking professional stride.

“Yes. Yes, I would please for 6 a.m. Thank you.”

Clutching my shorts, now three inches too big, I returned to the room and fell on the bed waiting for the heart palpitations to cease. It was the most negative rush of adrenaline I’ve experienced, and it took hours for a return to any normal feeling.

A wake up call. Why hadn’t I thought of that?


One thought on “Panick Attack in Terminal 5

  1. I have the same problem when having to catch an early flight the next day. So I’m departing Santiago on Iberia Express at 5:40 PM arriving in Madrid at 6:50 PM where I will pick up a free shuttle to the Marriott AC Hotel Coslada Aeroporto where I’m using points (paying cash is $59), where I will leave a wake up call in time to catch my 6:25 AM flight. With a flight that early I likely won’t get much sleep worrying about whether the desk will actually give me a wake up call…given that this has happened in the past!

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