I guess I was lucky once Charles de Gaulle airport finally opened after five days of flight ban in Europe, I was able to get a seat on the plane and make my way back to Indonesia. All in all I was only a couple of days behind schedule and being stuck in Paris in Spring for an extra couple of days was actually an agreeable predicament to be in, especially since my accommodation need was taken care of.
And now, less than twenty hours later I am back in my hometown of Jakarta and gone are the balmy long days of April and the pleasant strolls on cobbled streets, to be exchanged for the heavy humid air of unbearable heat and dust that rendered me paralytic for anything other than stretching my legs in the comfort of my air-conditioned room.
To be sure there is little joy in travelling long distances these days. Least of all when confined to a narrow space on a plane and in an economy class seat for long hours with nothing to do other than watch one endless video after the other or put up with your next-door neighbour snoring with mouth open and hogging much of the armrest.
As a matter of fact, if I hadn’t been able to get a seat on the plane, I was toying with the idea of taking the train to the south, say to Nice, or even further, to Rome and catch a flight from there. I liked the idea of enjoying the French countryside through the train window and to the chug-chug rhythm of the moving rolling stock. And may be, if the airspace continued to be closed indefinitely, I would be forced to make the long trek eastward by land and boat like they did in the old days when travelling was an art in itself. And who says that it would be such a bad thing? It might even be a thoroughly pleasant way of getting home.
Indeed, why shouldn’t travelling be an art? Surely the excitement in travelling is not just reaching the destination but the process of getting there. If anything, it is the actual motion of getting somewhere itself that constitutes the idea of travelling rather than the process of arriving: The witnessing of the changing landscapes, the different signage in unfamiliar languages, the people with different clothes, faces and expressions.
In a way flying takes away a lot of the magic of travelling very long distances. From the departure to the arrival there is nothing in between other than a vacuum of characterless and soulless tedium. Indeed, even airports are becoming similar all over the world, whether you’re boarding in China, Europe or Asia. Even the process is the same: the checking in, going through the x-ray, the stamping of the passport at the immigration and then the rituals on board the plane, the safety instructions, the clanking of the meal trolleys and the tepid tea in plastic cups served by uniformed ladies with heavy foundation and forced smiles.
And when you land, it’s more or less the same thing. The long lines at the immigration and the queue to retrieve your luggage and then the taxi or car ride into town on roads that look eerily similar to those back home. And you’re invariably exhausted and far from exhilarated because the queues, the waiting to take off and the sitting around for hours tens of thousand feet above ground in a pressurised chamber choc-a-bloc with fellow travellers can sap whatever energy left in you, unless you’re one of the lucky travellers who could afford to pay over three times the normal price for a more spacious seating, better meal choice and less people snoring within your personal space.
It’s a pity we’re in so much of a hurry to get from A to B these days, even at times when we’re supposed to be enjoying the travel such as during a holiday. A trip spanning the continents such as from Singapore to the middle of Europe could be reached in a mere twelve hours these days.
To think that when Jules Verne wrote his novel ‘Around the world in eighty days’ a century ago, the idea was absurdly impossible, in the same way that scouring the world under the ocean was a thing of fiction. Phileas Fogg and his sidekick Passepartout used every transportation available in those days to get from London all the way to China, India and the United States and back to London again with barely any sightseeing in eighty days for a journey that would normally take a good half a year.
But then, what is the point of voyaging across the world if we cannot really see where we’re going? One minute I’m enjoying the warm spring air in Paris and watching an old artist chalk a masterpiece on the pedestrian walk not far from the Pompidou Centre. The next I’m stuck in the back of the car in the middle of the rush hour traffic in twilight Jakarta with the cold air-conditioning blowing in my face.
Somehow, something is missing in between.
(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)