Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cold wet fish

Architects take note.

I like American airports. You probably thought you would never hear anybody say that. Yes, getting through security can be a pain when you're waiting behind everyone and their grandmothers, but once you step through that last metal detector bottle neck, you enter a communal space of open seating areas, walking spaces and overpriced and tasteless souvenir shops and news stands. What I will term the "path design" of these airports (intentional or otherwise) funnels people towards the same shared space and facilitates proximity and interaction between them.

When I stepped out of the aeroplane at my connection in Thailand I realised had been many years since I had been to Bangkok. The new airport is an atrocity and a crime against humanity. I wandered through that compartmentalised steelglassconcrete prison, strewn with the most audacious advertisements that presented gold and diamond jewellery as some kind of spiritual journey.

Disgust aside, Bangkok international airport shares many similarities with Singapore's, which has security at gate, and fences off each secure waiting area with glass walls. This allows people with dangerous items closer to the aircraft and removes any flexibility of activity between the plaza and the gate. No way of walking over to the traveler in the next gate and telling himorher how much you like hisorher We Add Up T-shirt. In Thailand, security takes the same bottleneck role, and the ticket counter separates the main path from glass-walled waiting spaces: the worst of both worlds.

On the flight into India, I realised I was there already, clear from the laughing crying chatter chatter yelling of a hundred Indian children, and their grandmothers.


A storm passed through today, brief and heavy, unexpected and welcome at the end of a week of scorching weather. I watched two boys moving a small herd of cows down the street, and a parent lead a crowd of particularly well behaved children in a game of free-for-all volleyball. The children here look healthy. Seemai says that they are, and that the local government has good health programs for them. I have to remember to ask him about vaccinations.

Walking back from the office, I saw a young boy, naked, squatting in the street to add his own to the carpet of waste already there and wondered about what Seemai has said. I wondered how it's possible when there is no sewage system and most waste water empties into open drains, clogged by leaves and all manner of rubbish, perhaps even too foul to breed mosquitoes. Every morning, a member from each house dredges up their drain with a narrow rake, leaving a pile of waste on the ground.

It was encouraging, I'll admit, to note that the boy didn't have diarrhoea.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wide awake

I stepped out of Chennai airport one travel pack short of uneventful - one travel pack lighter than I left home with - but at least I had my Rough Guide on me, and three peanut butter sandwiches. Whatever you do, kids, make sure you keep your Rough Guide and peanut butter sandwiches in your hand-carry.

It's the perfect opposite of quiet and desolate out here in the village, but such is the pace and complexity of life that if the airline loses your bag, it's possible to survive with just one set of clothes. For a few days, I've washed the same shirt and underwear each night and slept naked, and wearing them the next day, crisp after a hot, dry night. It's wonderful and strange how quickly a human being can adapt to living in different worlds. After a few days, I'm at ease walking through the village, unconsciously dodging cow-pats and ducking through narrow alleys, grinning at shouting smiling playing children and bewildered looking adults.

From Chennai airport, it is a fifteen kilometre rickshaw-coaster ride to Egmore station, a gorgeous, deep red, Old-World magical steam-powered fairytale building on the front, and a hefty vaulted roof over the grimiest gorgeous, Old-World magical steam-powered fairytale train station in the history of rail travel in the back.

The first hint of dawn came at 4am as the station began to fill up. Despite being the only vellai karan at the station, I was ignored for the most part, although I did receive stares and one invitation from a priest to convert to Christianity. We read the first seven days of Genesis and he distilled "why God exists" into just one sentence for me: " God created everything, so how can there be no God?"

Saturday, May 24, 2008


In India, there are two cows for every three people.

40% of people registered as below the poverty line have paid a bribe for it.

One rough guide. Two skirts. Three pairs of underwear.

See you in India.

Okay, four pairs.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Troppo vecchio

"Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn't make any difference. I've tried all that. You can't get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There's nothing to that."

-Hemingway, speaking sternly to his tomato garden