Monday, October 20, 2008

The Curtained Wall


I've been back in New Zealand for less than thirty-six hours and already the trip back home seems buried in the distant past. Am I the only person to be struck by amnesia after a long-haul flight? I understand how a sudden change of routine - such as when one leaves work and abode to go on vacation - can have such effects on the psyche, and it stands to reason that travelling halfway around the world in such a (relatively) short space of time should make it a lot more so. And yet, whilst I'm always prepared for this occurrence, I'm also always surprised by its intensity, when all is said and flown.

It's impossible to look outside the window at the landmass and the clouds and the oceans so ludicrously far below, or to gaze at the nausea-inducing screen with the plane's trajectory and the mindless stats (it's minus forty degrees outside, you say?) without getting a fairly vivid sense of how surreal the experience is. And perhaps it's that very surreality, the sense of being without time and place, that focuses the mind so urgently on the now, at the expense of yesterday's experience. Even just the task of conceptualising why you're having breakfast for the third time today (whatever today might mean at this point) must engage quite a few brain cells. And then there are the lack of oxygen, the artificial night of drawn curtains enforced with polite severity by the crew, the procession of identical meals with the frozen fruit salads, and the films, ah, always the films... this month the line-up on Singapore Airlines included Groundhog Day, I trust it was chosen by the airline's irony department. And I'm sure it's all designed to help you cope, but there's always a point when it starts to unravel and you feel like a character in a Philip Dick novel. This time for me the cake was taken by our room in the transit hotel at Singapore airport, 'where people go to crash (in the good sense)'. Take a look at the far wall.

Unremarkable, you say? Yes, but allow me to pull the curtain:

It was all a gentle ruse, a simulation, a wall posing as a window that of course couldn't be there, and even if it could, what would you need it for, since you're there to sleep as hard and as fast as you can between flights? Meanwhile, isn't the airport too a simulation of anywhere, a place without culture, with the same procession of Tie Rack and BVLGARI and (overpriced) Duty Free shops you would encounter in identical airports around the world? And yet you do meander and sample the wares, if only to keep the circulation going in your automaton-like body, soon to be strapped onto another cramped seat for twelve more hours of jet-propelled fun.

I shouldn't complain, I really shouldn't, seeing as it is this extraordinary machinery of enterprise and steel that allows me to lead two more or less simultaneous lives at the antipodes, instead of having to choose one place or the other - a situation that has no historical precedent before my parents' generation. But that particular rite of travel, with its mind-warping and amnesia-inducing effects, is also a reminder that the geographical distance that we cover at fantastic speeds is oh so very real, that there is a whole world betwixt, and there is no fooling the mind that it might be otherwise. Curtain or no curtain.

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