Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Bird? Plane? No, It’s CamelMan!

There is nothing quite like the sense of helplessness that you experience when you’re stuck in a traffic jam in downtown Jakarta. It’s late at night. You’re hungry enough to be discomfited, but not quite enough to feel starvation pangs. The air-conditioner in your taxi is on. But the only reason you know that is because the LED is glowing green. You can feel the first drop of sweat begin to form under your skin. You try to make up your mind whether to feel irritated (which will give you something to do) or feel resigned (which may make the time pass less slowly). Either way you’re screwed because it’s at least another hour before you get to your hotel.

I bet all superheroes were conceived in traffic jams. I bet they’re born out of the frustrated fantasizing of their comic-book creators.

You’re motionless and everyone else is motionless around you (wouldn’t it be cool get out of the car and fly faster than a speeding bullet). There’s a space opening up ahead but another car is blocking your way (when I get really angry I turn green and chuck cars about like snowballs in a schoolyard). You’re past caring now and step on the accelerator to try and muscle into the empty space first. But you scrape the other car and brace yourself for a heated scream-off (I’ve got these metal spikes that when I ball up my fist they shoot out of my knuckles and I can impale you on them with a single upper-cut).

(Yes, I do think Wolverine is cool).

(Yes, parentheses are my thing right now).

(Yes, they are getting a little old).

(But indulge me for just a little longer).

You just know. When you get ushered into a taxi by a guy who tells you “If you want toilet then tell driver because there is traffic jam after the rain”, and you exchange looks with your fellow passenger who just bought a big glass of fruit juice, you just know it’s going to be a tense ride. Twenty minutes later while you’re whizzing through an empty highway, you want to not remark on the welcome absence of traffic. You realize that will jinx your trip. But the neural pathway that allows your brain to control your tongue was severed earlier in the day. It had succumbed to the sheer stress of telling a colleague (with infinite politeness) that he’d just demonstrated the intelligence of an earthworm with a head injury.

“Hey,” says your tongue, “this traffic isn’t so bad after all."

(“Idiot”, thinks your ever-eloquent brain, “idiot idiot idiot idiot idiot. Idiot.”)

Your fellow passenger gives you a dirty look and clenches his stomach muscles because he knows that you’ve just doomed him to a very tense car ride.

A long time later the two of you gratefully check in and go to your rooms. You now have a relaxed air.

He doesn’t.

One day you'll look back on this and laugh. But not this week.

Monday, 21 January 2008

You're Odd. I'm Weak. We're Doomed.

The last place I'd have thought to look for words of wisdom is the mouth of Kevin Federline. But Mr. ex-Britney Spears surprised me with his observation on the tabloid frenzy surrounding the custody battle over his children: "I think that the infatuation with the whole thing is that watching us go through things makes other people feel normal."

I've done my share of sniggering at the eccentricities of celebrities. I used to wonder whether their behaviour was rooted in some insecurity that comes from fame. Now I'm embarrassed and wondering what my smugness reveals about my own insecurities.

I'm pretty sure I don't have a strong need to feel normal. I think normality is a just a powerful fiction. And yes, I am convinced it is a fiction. If you believe that everyone is unique, then you can't possibly believe that "normal" is anything but an abstraction.

I think "he's normal" is really a euphemism for "I don't feel threatened by him". It's only the people who make us feel uncomfortable that we label as "not normal". Maybe their personalities differ from ours. Or their beliefs. Or their abilities are so different from ours that they make us feel vulnerable. (When I was in school I was sometimes taken to visit a home for spastic children. It used to terrify me to consider that I myself might one day experience some form of disability.)

Maybe that's it: by declaring ourselves as normal we can fool ourselves into feeling invulnerable. It's way to say to ourselves "that will never be me".

What scant security if it comes from such self-deception! It would be so much more honest to admit that "there, but for the grace of God, go I".

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Leaves Stirring In The Darkness

There's a tree outside my window. It's silhouetted against the lights from the apartment block across the courtyard. Its leaves tremble faintly in the rain, which is finally flagging after pouring down for the better part of the evening. It's quiet, both inside my apartment and outside. The gentle tapping of raindrops against the window pane only serves to amplify the silence. I feel peaceful and cocooned.

The feeling won't last.

In a matter of hours the darkness will be bleached out by the morning sun. Voices will rise up again in the streets. Neighbours and strangers will walk past each other, oblivious to anything outside their own thoughts. I'll look outside the same window, at the same tree, and I won't even see it in the bright light of day.

My eyes will be too wide open to see, my mind too alert to notice what surrounds me. When I pass by the neighbourhood playground maybe the bench by the jungle gym will be empty. Or maybe someone will be seated on it in solitary stillness. I won't know, just as I did not know this morning or on any morning last week, last month, last year.

Another day will pass in three long strides of morning, noon and evening. I won't be older and I certainly won't be wiser.

Then sunset falls. The darkness draws a soft curtain over dusk and wakes me up from wakefulness. The seconds slow into minutes again and minutes magically dilate into hours. I can hear and I can see once more.

The rain is quickening again, and the branches outside my window sway in response. There's a barely audible roll of thunder somewhere in the far distance. It reminds me that I am in a cocoon, awake but peaceful, and I'll enjoy the feeling all the more because I know it won't last.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

The Lament Of The 'Real' Traveler

While planning my next vacation I discovered an interesting debate on the forum at the Lonely Planet website. Come to think of it, it wasn't really a debate. It was more like a collective diatribe.

In one thread the 'community of independent travelers' lament the changes taking place in Laos. Some of the gripes are about the developing tourism industry and the growing number of hotels and guesthouses. Others decry development in general, with the dark prediction that soon Laotian homes will be just like the ones across the border in Thailand - made entirely of brick and equipped with televisions and refrigerators.

I feel a little sorry for these people. They are willing to travel thousands of miles from Europe or the US just to get away from their appliances for a couple of weeks. How they must feel cheated when they arrive in Luang Prabang only to find that they still have the option of watching TV.

How inconsiderate of the Laotians to refuse to remain a rustic, tribal backwater despite the obvious charms that that holds for the first world "eco-tourist".

Eco-tourism, now that's a term to warm the heart. It sounds so righteous and well-meaning. And to be fair, if in the name of Eco-tourism more travellers choose to travel over water by canoe rather than speedboat or jetski, then I am all for it. But it riles me when these same eco-tourists complain about the spread of roads which make travel "too easy". Sure, travel that is "too easy" makes tourism a little less romantic. It also gives the local population access to a better livelihood. Unromantic, but so much more valuable than a pretty picture or two.

There was a particularly fascinating discussion about the newly built railway line to Lhasa. "Tibet will be overrun by Han Chinese" complained some; "this will lead to colonisation" predicted others (presumably ignorant of the fact that Tibet is already administered by China); and my favourites were the pompous, self-righteous oafs who declared that they would not travel by the train because to do so would be tantamount to supporting the Chinese government.

Apparently it is irrelevant that the same railway line now makes it much cheaper to bring into Tibet such essentials as food. Or that this line now gives more Tibetans the option of migrating out in search of better incomes. Apparently Tibetans are not supposed to want better incomes, since richer Tibetans don't make for a very good tourist attraction.

I have an idea. I have a yearning to experience what Europe in the middle ages was like. Maybe all of Europe could oblige by giving up electricity, cars and even potatoes (imported from South America in the 16th century). Maybe they can go back to being a society of a few nobles living in wooden forts while the rest of the population sinks into serfdom. If they do that for me I promise to practice 'responsible tourism' while I visit them.

And then I will come back home and use the Internet to tell all my friends in Asia what a quaint, delightful, utterly charming experience it is to spend week in the citadel of London, where you wake up to the sound of cocks crowing outside your door and sleep as soon as it is sunset because sometimes there are wolves in the street at night.