Monday, January 20, 2014


I slept “rough” last night…no, not out in a field somewhere, but on a row of seats in Bangkok’s Suvanabhumi Airport. My flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok had engine trouble and so we were all put on a later plane that didn’t get into Bangkok until nearly 1 a.m. There was no point in going into town or even in trying to find a hotel near the airport, I reckoned.

And so I joined the motley crew of schedule-refugees who scatter themselves every night on benches around the airport to try to get some rest as they wait for late late planes or early ones, or just for an airline counter to open so they can rearrange a missed flight.

I am starting this post just before 8 in themorning on Sunday, as I sit in the plane that’s supposed to get me to Chiang Mai in just over an hour. I can’t wait.  

In the meantime I want to write down a little about the airport at night. The lights are bright and the air AC-cool, but I covered my face with a layer of dark silk scarf, wrapped the rest of me in my shawl, put my head on my camera bag, tucked my other hand-carry behind my knees, and felt quite comfortably camped. After hours of sitting on the long flight to HongKong, and more sitting in HongKong as the plane issues delayed us, my feet and ankles were swollen. Lying flat was heavenly, even if the seats were bumpy and there were people all around. And I was not worried by passers-by: The rest of the airport felt at a remove because my bench of seats was behind a post, away from the fray. The announcements of flights, very few after 1:30 a.m., were in soft woman’s-Thai. It is musical, doesn’t grate, and makes an agreeable background to thoughts and dreams…

The bench-seats’ sleep was like an extension of the sleeps I’d had on my flights, with periods of day-dreaming that slipped imperceptibly into oblivion and then back out. There were a number of men trying to sleep on other benches of seats near me. Some of them snored or snuffled occasionally, but the sounds were somehow muted in the background noise of fans and ventilation and whatever else it takes to keep an airport functioning.

As I emerged sometime after 4.30 in the morning from my longest deepest bench-sleep, about 45 minutes, the soundscape began changing. (It made me think that it would be interesting to do a 24 hour recording of the airport sounds, as it would of the sounds in other 24-hour environments such as hospitals.) There was a growing murmur and then chatter of voices, mostly women’s voices, accompanied by a light clack-clack-clack of heels as the first of the morning airline workers hurried along to their posts, all soft-voiced and full of morning energy. They must have to leave home at 4 am at the latest to reach the far-from-town airport for their early shift. And then came men and women cleaners pushing rolling carts and replacing lightbulbs and starting to mop and sweep. clean.

From there the day really began, as others like me who had spent the night, stretched, yawned, made their way to the washrooms to get cleaned up, and began purposefully walking to their gates.

The transfer staff guy at the THAI domestic desk was spectacularly clear, composed, and efficient. I met up there with another straggler/refugee from the HongKong flight delays who was also going to Chiang Mai, a pleasant young English guy who was on holiday from teaching English in Korea. And so we proceeded together to formally enter Thailand (having spent the night in the international departures area), then find our gate and put in more waiting time until our flight.

As I reflected on the streams of people in the airports, coming and going, each person with a life story and hopes and fears and ambitions, I felt disoriented, almost drunk at the scale of humanity, and its complexity. We normally deal with the scale problem by generalising and by turning individuals into a kind of amorphous object  in our heads (the words crowd or multitude are very anonymous after all), a creature rather than a huge number of fellow-humans. But in that time of being caught out of the normal expected flow of the trip and spending hours in a kind of no-man’s-land, I had time to take stock.

My conclusions about my normal assumptions were not pretty. I was obliged to acknowledge to myself that my humanity and empathy and general noticing and caring reflexes all get put on the back burner when I am in airports and negotiating the crowds and the queues. It’s as if the soullessness of these large anonymous “functional” modern spaces turns each me into an automaton, renders me somewhat soulless.

Maybe this doesn’t happen to you. But I assume, from the looks on people’s faces and the way they move, that it happens to many others.

My version of it is that, apart from the moments when I am held up in an orderly queue such as the airport security line, or the passport control line (some of those moments are great opportunities for noticing the variety of people – I think especially of the lines in Istanbul Airport), I am always navigating my way through space, threading my way through the crowd, without seeing the people at all. They all become obstacles in my path. I am thinking only of myself and where I want to get to.

I imagine that is true of many people.

And why? Why not take it easy, slow down and stroll? Why do I rush? It’s a reflex from way back, I suppose. It’s about ambition and getting there, wherever “there” is, before the line gets too long, or in case I miss something or get left out of an opportunity. But someone has to be last. And why shouldn’t I be content to take my turn at the back of the line? Why this impulse to speed things up?

Maybe it’s only North Americans and Europeans who behave like this? I wonder. But not really. Perhaps it’s a matter of temperament?

All I know is that after my enforcedly slow overnight “connection” in Bangkok, I have come to realise that my travel habits and patterns need need a thoughtful makeover. I’ll let you know how it goes, after my next long trip, which will be the flight sequence back to Toronto in late February.

Meantime I am breathing in the cool dry-season air of Chiang Mai, seeing friends, eating rice, and wearing sandals as I walk down the street. It’s a fun change after the minus 35 windchill days of early January in Toronto.

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