There is an odd dynamic in the trenches aboard the hulking jets that trudge the transnational routes. As conversations strike up amongst strangers after a personal portions and plastic ware dinner, Michael McIntyre cartwheels his stand-up comedy across the personal TV’s, and 300 people, at once, reveal their stashed Fiendish Sudoku books, there is a ticking time bomb in each row, and it has nothing to do with terrorists. The word of the day, after a full meal preceded by orange juice, accompanied by wine and followed by coffee, is BLADDER.
Yet, the airplane escape is not quite as simple as that from a table at a restaurant. Each row of the plane is undergoing a battle of wills for freedom of movement. Some are full of the iron-bladdered blokes determined to wait out the rush, if not the landing. Other rows are made up of women and children who, from the moment of take-off, appear to be performing a kind of country line dance, rising from and returning to their seats with impunity. An hour into the flight, you begin to realize what a fateful decision was that of the online seat choice. The decision for Window or Aisle will dominate your experience. How do you know which to choose? Where does your bladder perseverance rank relative to the urinating public? You don’t want to be caught at the window with two hard-core types between you and relief. Neither do you want to be disturbed every 5 minutes by Peeing Penelope two seats down.
In smaller planes, you can get away with a mistaken window choice because there is only one obstacle between you and the aisle, who will eventually fall asleep, enabling you to climb over like them like a subway turnstile. Flying internationally, however, there’s no margin for error. Too many passengers on the hump. So here I sit, 4 hours into the flight, Tamanrasett, Algeria somewhere below, and the guy next to me has skipped dinner and made for his sleep mask and ear plugs….no end in sight…
The sun rises over Kensington Gardens as pairs of joggers, bundled against the cold in winter hats and nylon, squeeze in their early morning exercise before work calls them away. The sound of crushed gravel streaks through the air, interrupting the water frolicking from a group of fountains nearby. My writing hand protests against the cold as the sky grows brighter, breaking through a dense, morning fog typical of London. The same fingers complain of dragging my rolling suitcase through a quarter mile through the dangerous (look left or look right?) West London streets. It is the only discontented part of my body, my mood rising with the sun after a long 24 hours of travel.
It feels something like a homecoming, although my “Louisville Slugger” pen might object. I love this city. I used to jog these same paths over ten years ago, my obsession with traveling still in diapers. Perhaps, I’ve only been looking to come back here all along. There’s something about this city, so old and traditional, yet so alive in modernity. So globalized and diverse, yet so locally British posh. There is an unseen connective tissue linking them all—the students prancing about to stay warm, the determined business woman in her black wool knit, the Indian jogger and the Japanese tourists. It’s as if the towering architecture steadies the throng, emits a foundational drumbeat, granting all of the riff raff a relation to the throne.
It all seems so serene—can a big city be serene?—but perhaps it is just the oasis effect of green after a day in a cramped plane. From here, London looks simple, even quaint.
From an American perspective, the Old Kingdom is like Middle Earth, or Star Wars. A dream world invented from the imagination, just close enough to fit all of the existing paradigms of the original. Everything fits the prevailing logic, only a few exotic degrees askew.
I saw two movies in the days before leaving the U.S. that help to express two poles holding the tension into which I make this trip.
“Up in the Air” is about a frequent flyer whose home is in the airport lounges, hotels, rent-a-cars, and one night stands American business travel. His life goal is to make the 10 million mile club, and he forsakes all true relationships in his quest. Along the way, important questions arise about the definition of success, and the proper use of one’s time and energy on earth, and the purpose of relationships. It appears to be leading toward a cathartic and pedantic moral lesson as the protagonist begins to fall in love, only to find his fears affirmed: love leads to hurt. The movie ends poignantly nebulous, with our frequent flyer staring up at the Departures Board, hitting the road once again. His boss jests at him, “send us a postcard if you ever get there.”
Invictus is about the ascension of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa. Mandela was a reconciler. As many black South Africans understandably cried for revenge for years of oppression, Mandela steps in with support of the country’s rugby team, long a symbol of white Afrikaner pride. Mandela memorably states, “Forgiveness is the most important tool in our possession.” His determination and vision unites a nation.
These two movies frame my fears and aspirations for my year of study in South Africa. On one side, I fear becoming the man from Up in the Air. I have some of his tendencies: confidence, independence, and self-reliant to a fault. I have made semi-conscious decisions to sacrifice relationships, specific and general, to the god of travel, adventure and transience.
Invictus, meanwhile, lies at the other pole. An image of what can be accomplished when you give your whole life to a cause of justice, when you are acutely aware of your vocation. Furthermore, Mandela was spiritual in his leadership. I hope to be able to attach and communicate the spiritual foundation for my drive for social justice and vagabonding.
Perhaps it is as simple as selfish versus selfless.