Sunday, April 30, 2006

Those far away places, with strange sounding names

It’s that time of the year again. It starts small. There’s a poster in the window of the travel agent you pass every day on the way to work. Then a photograph of a wood as your screen saver. One morning, a sudden flashback of a landscape you may have seen through a train window sometime. Your shower starts to sound like a waterfall. Maps start to become 3D. Suddenly, the internet is buzzing with anticipation, the emails are full of plans, the travel sites are full of advice.

The travelling world seems to be divided between Lonely Planet enthusiasts and Everyone Else. What inspires this “love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it” reaction? The price? I used to be one of those who took the price as a personal insult to my ancestors, descendants, hometown and myself, until I had to plan a budget holiday in Scandinavia. After exhaustively researching Norway on the Internet and exhaustingly sifting through folklore for a month, I began to see why a Lonely Planet is worth its weight in gold.

But browsing through a row of Lonely Planets in a bookshop is as bad as looking at an atlas. You change your mind every 30 seconds. It could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome, cause Rotterdam is anywhere, anywhere but here.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Bus No. 402

Public transport drivers have to answer questions all the time. “Does this go to Al Khoz?” (Yes, fool, that’s what it says on the front.) “Is this the Crowne Plaza stop?” (Do you see the Crowne Plaza anywhere?). It usually never gets more complicated than “Why did that bus go by without stopping?”, and very rarely goes beyond the realm of timetables and driving. Unless you’re the driver of the bus that goes to the airport.

The driver of Bus No. 402 is a flight information centre, confessional, nanny, behavioural scientist, expert on the vagaries of the Dubai Airport Random Rule Making Committee and a linguist who knows the slang for these vagaries in the streetspeak of at least seven communities. He also has monumental patience and a fair amount of clairvoyance.

One anxious passenger is meeting someone at gate 16 but doesn’t know which one that is. I wonder how he has his gate number before checking in, but it emerges that the pillars outside the airport are called gates by a certain section of the airport-going populace, and have unwritten numbers. Another man wants to know if his flight is on time and he wants to know this every ten minutes. A woman confides that it’s her first trip home as an expat and worries about her excess baggage. The driver says: “The flight’s not crowded, you won’t have to pay.”

A sunburnt tourist finds he has no local currency left for bus tickets. The driver pretends he can pay in foreign coins and issues a ticket anyway. I want to know how to get to Arrivals from Departure and he gives me minute directions. He clairvoyantly knows that the minuter, the better.

His attitude is actually reflective of Dubai’s general kindness towards people with luggage. Anybody on the way to the airport is every one of us. I think that’s why personnel in the Gulf airports seem more human than most others. They smile when they greet you, they listen when you talk, they act like they want to help. (So it’s quite a shock when you land wherever it is that you’re going or when you get on the plane, depending on the airline.)

The certainty of that last trip to Terminal 1 binds the woman in the Cayenne to the boys in the hard hats in the non-air-conditioned bus next to her at the traffic light. They will, one day, leave the labour camps behind, just as surely as she will the tax-free Porsche. Perhaps that's when the field is finally levelled.

It was forty-five minutes to the airport.

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