Monday, 27 September 2010

Getting There

There is almost nothing I love so much as travel. First, there is the way it makes you look at your life from the outside, so that you realise, because you are about to part from it, just how attached you are to where you live and to how you spend your days. Then there is the chance to observe the scurrying mass of other travellers gliding up and down escalators in airports where you too glide up and down escalators - and you can't help noticing that they all look as convinced by the importance of their own individual journeys as you are by the significance of your own, which leads you, once again, to reflect on the wisdom of the homily someone put up in the tea room at work recently - "Never forget that, like everyone else, you are unique" (here is the whole list from the tea room, for what it is worth:

"Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it
Generally speaking you aren't learning much if your lips are moving
Good judgment comes from bad experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment
Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day
Have you ever lent someone $20 and never seen that person again? It was probably worth it
There are two theories about how to win an argument with a woman. Neither one works [yes, I do realise that, as a woman, I should object, but it makes me laugh - and surely it is no worse than the one about men and fishing]
Never miss a good chance to shut up
Never forget that, like everyone else, you are unique
If at first you don't succeed, avoid skydiving
Remember, no-one is listening until you fart [appalling vulgarity, I know]
If you think nobody cares whether you're dead or alive, try missing a couple of mortgage payments
Some days we are the insects, some days we are the windscreen")

Then there is the opportunity travel gives you to reflect, uninterrupted, on big philosophical questions like whether the waiting area of an airport is actually a public area and therefore, if it is, should one not eat or brush one's hair in it, since eating in public et cetera is something one was brought up not to do (and, ultimately, after dalliance with the proposition that it is some kind of temporary "home", a private space shared with strangers, it has to be admitted that it is, of course, about as public as anywhere can be: not that most of the other people in it seem to let that hold them back - and, I might add, that as a result of their lack of inhibition and based on close study of three separate individuals, I can now state definitively that it is impossible to eat a banana in public without looking foolish, no matter how well-cut your clothes).

Travel also provides the dubious privilege of meeting people you would never normally come up against and discovering, thanks to their generosity in sharing their personal information, that there is actually a place called Naples in Florida (who would have thought?) and that some couples - including ones called Nancy and Randolph - divide their year between Naples, Florida and Maine, with occasional trips to Europe for their 'cultural fix'.

Finally - and best of all - there is the rare and wonderful luxury of having hours and hours and hours to read, without needing to stop to hang out the washing or cook a meal or make a bed. This allows you to discover, for instance, that there is an India quite unlike the yoga ashram circuit mystifingly beloved of so many of your friends - an India which, according to the September/October edition of Foreign Policy, contains a state called Jharkand, where a Maoist insurgency is going on. In Jharkand in fact, when you enter the capital city, Ranchi, you are welcomed to the '"Land of Coal"  and... mining underlies every aspect of life ...Seams of coal are visible in the earth alongside the rutted roads and ... about 40 miles outside Ranchi ...a freshly paved patch of asphalt veers sharply west and snakes up a smoky hill through the village of Loha Gate and into an ecological disaster zone. Shimmering waves of heat, thick with carbon monoxide and selenium, waft through jagged cracks in the pavement large enough to swallow a soccer ball. A hundred feet below, a massive subterranean coal fire, started in an abandoned mine, burns so hot that it melts the soles of one's shoes ... There are at least 80 coal fires like this burning in Jharkand, turning much of the state's ground into a giant combustible honeycomb. A fire ignited in 1916 by neglectful miners near the city of Jharia has grown so large that it now threatens to burn away the land beneath the entire community, plunging the 400,000 residents into an underground inferno.'

Without embarking on this journey, I would never have come across this extraordinary story. Sitting in a sleek steel and glass airport, I learned that on the same planet, right now, there is another way of life still going on - a world that evokes the fiction of Dickens. And, instead of getting up and grabbing the shopping list and going down to Woolworth's or heading out to the line with the basket of wet washing, I thought about mining and I wondered again about the trapped Chilean miners - what substance were they mining by the way? - and I realised after a bit what I should have known anyway: that wherever we turn in the 21st century western world almost everything around us derives at the start from the work of miners.

So travel, the actual bit that involves getting from A to B, really does broaden my mind - or at least it gives it a chance to do a tiny bit of work. Removed from ordinary existence, there is finally time to think. Which makes me wonder if I wouldn't after all quite enjoy being stuck in the 6 Clicks scenario. Mind you that is probably only the jet lag talking - just like this entire post.


  1. how long are you away for?

  2. Nowhere near long enough - I stupidly said I'd do some very boring work so I have to be back by late October. I had some mad notion about paying bills.

  3. My, your workmates are witty characters! Fascinating about the Jharkand mines. I once went to a friend's wedding in Calcutta and also found India not to be much like a yoga ashram or indeed the Jewel in the Crown Tandoori on the high street - so, so much more untidy.

  4. Have you read Travels with my Aunt?

    By far Greene's best, I reckon.

  5. Gadjo - so, so crowded, I imagine?
    Brit - yes, I have, it's the only Greene I've ever liked