Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Terminal Zen

I was once warned by an experienced traveller about the seductiveness of Asian airports as a way of life.
Simulacra of an idealised outside world are cocooned within clean, white and silver spaces, so seamless and antiseptic they're soothing. Their various functions are well organised and clearly designated. Nothing is overlooked or excluded – even smoking and (in the case of Hong Kong) sex. There are no real-world distractions to dining, shopping, or solitude, no poverty, no mess, no bills, no interruptions. They are great places in which to meditate and think, especially when you know how to use them. Like a global fast food chain, once you figure out the rules, navigating each one is the same. There is an odd sense of peace. Each person knows why they are there, and has, for a time, a solid sense of direction.
The person who first taught me how to travel is a long-time 'initiate' to constant, long-distance flying – one of the so-called Kinetic Elite, as the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, calls them. Travelling with him was like being let into some arcane secret that made it all easy. We were guided past queues – waiting in line even to check in no longer existed. We never sat in public lounges. We were ushered into still, luxurious spaces with comfortable sofas, fresh, free food and cool drinks, showers, wireless connection, and solicitous, helpful staff. After the flight, there were always chauffeured cars waiting and hotels always offered the best rooms – at their lowest rates – even when they were supposedly booked out. There were never any customs problems. Everything, including the other passengers, seemed automatically, to part for him to make way.
Nowadays, I travel alone. I am not so well-insulated from some of travel's bleaker moments but I still enjoy the privileges of lots of frequent flier miles, especially on Asian carriers, and I know enough of the loopholes and dodges for it all to be less of a hassle. I have Business Class lounge privileges. I walk through where others are stopped. I am smiled at and helped.
It's all very seductive but in a more powerful way than I had realised. Now, when I make mistakes or don't manage things as well as I need to, I find myself longing for airports. To sit, undistracted by life's annoying necessities, by the past, even by myself, in what I've come to think of as a gleaming, self-organising, reassuring womb.

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