x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The new climate of travel

Arab life In the past, I imagine, to get from A to B, people would have spent enough time on the way to take in the geography and some of the history.

One minute you are in A, the next you have arrived at B, and though it has been ­terribly unpleasant on the way, you have had neither the time nor the peace of mind to register what is happening.
One minute you are in A, the next you have arrived at B, and though it has been ­terribly unpleasant on the way, you have had neither the time nor the peace of mind to register what is happening.

There is something ­asthmatic about flying. In the past, I imagine, to get from A to B, people would have spent enough time on the way to take in the geography and some of the history, registering the gradations of the land and the shifting humours of the sea. They would have had any number of encounters and experiences over the course of the journey. It would have been time-consuming and exhausting. People might have felt bored or dreamt of instantaneous transport. But while they travelled, they breathed in the earth's ­atmosphere, filled their lungs with the oxygen of A, the oxygen of B and all the oxygen in between. In travelling, they ­exercised their lungs.

These days, it is all about ­climate control. The duration of a given journey has been drastically cut, but so has the capacity for contact with the atmosphere. Both geography and history are codified in the form of billboards, tax-free souvenirs, conveyor belts and escalators that look exactly the same the world over. Very seldom do encounters go beyond fielding the suspicious looks of an immigration officer or ­exchanging a polite greeting with the person sitting next to you. A journey that would have taken weeks, perhaps months, ends in half a day, and yet the hours you spend on it are worth weeks, perhaps months, of boredom. All it takes is a drive to the airport, the flight and a drive from the airport at your destination, but the mere thought of it is a self-renewing chore. All it takes is half a day, which you set aside knowing how unpleasant it will be: the enclosed, heavy-security space of the airport, the even more claustrophobic space of the plane, the shoving, the pushing, the heaving - and more queuing once you get there.

Yet the most disturbing part of it is that it involves no transition whatsoever. One minute you are in A, the next you have arrived at B, and though it has been ­terribly unpleasant on the way, you have had neither the time nor the peace of mind to register what is happening. The result is that ­everything takes you by surprise: the look of the streets, the currency, the language, the climate and the sense of place. And the ­chances are you have barely arrived at your destination when you end up back where you started, by the same slow-fast route, through the same oxygen-less spaces, your lungs gasping for the atmosphere.

yrakha@thenational.ae