Friday, February 18, 2011

Notes From the Desperate Capitol of Somnopolis

It reeked of sleep … because we are all poets or babies in the middle of the night, struggling with being.” Martin Amis, London Fields

Because with a suddenness, you are at the airport. Oh sure, you could recollect the pre-dawn of the traveller moving through empty suburban stations with bleary expectation. But this isn't Somnopolis. The stone-faced check-in chicks, the avenue of surly security guards, the glistening valleys of duty free goods you never expect to buy but hope, someday, to take advantage of – these are the forgotten suburbs of Somnopolis that demarcate the approach to the capitol. It is my intention with the notes that follow to capture some of the inner quarters of this well-lit, desperate city. To portray like deja vu the strange quarters of this secret metropolis.

The Lightness of the Waiting Lounge

We all have everyday luggage. Not just our keys, wallet and phone – we wheel around our culture and our language as if they were backpacks full of curios and unwashed jeans. This is why sitting at the airport cafe in Phnom Penh I so understand the French couple twisted over their coffee and carry-ons. Somnopolis makes real a weight you have felt all your life and unburdens you from it at entry. We watched them, Lara and I, these ancient twenty-somethings as they bickered about what to remove from their taped trunks to squeeze under the twenty kilo limit. They were sharply dressed but their well chosen ensemble was slung from their shoulders in disrepair. In the waiting lounge I watched them drift at hands length but without touching, tender faces turned to each pictorial menu in turn. Hungry. Broke. Zombified.

Meanwhile Lara complains about the cost of her food, the duty free, etc. and I agree with her in a far-off way. Our clothes and books were squashed against our ankles as we ate. We work together as good travellers do – taking turns to break down or complain, cheering the other up. But here, in the departure lounge, we are wilfully and painlessly delayed. And why? For our lack of responsibilities, for our lack of baggage. It's all there in that French couple staring at a silent TV sipping their black coffee, waiting out their weightlessness.

Which Airport is This Again?

It was in Kuala Lumpur this time that it struck me – the approach to the airport, the method of transportation, even the gates outside bespeak the land you are in. But within the food court, looking towards arrivals there is a simulacrum of airports. I look at my tuna salad sandwich and the plastic triangle casing and think, where am I? Where am I going? I look over to Lara and she is not as lost as I, pointing out a man unceremoniously driving a cherry picker through the crowd, stopping to change some light bulbs in a departures/arrivals sign.

Short on cash but big on hunger, we crawl through security and scan the Duty Free Shops, broke but with nothing else to do. We come across a candy store that prices by 100 gram increments. Lara and I pace up and down the frosted displays picking from the sampler trays, circulating into the dried fruit and herbal jelly section (dried rose sap? Ginger flavoured dates?). At last we weigh a woefully small amount of candy and Lara heads to the counter. What seemed like seconds later she returned.

“Sorry that took so long. The guy in front of me was taking forever. I think he was arguing about the price at first, and then about his card.”

“He was?”

“You didn't notice?”

“No. I was just standing here. Eating candy.”

Lara had most of the jubes to herself. I was full.

A World Lost to the Earth's Dimension

Above the world and through a porthole the red wing-tip dipping as a bubble in a level gauge. The clouds iridescent below mapping undreamt of lands – of a forest whose tops are freshly crowned with snow, sloping down to frozen rivers; of fire, fine finger-like tendrils of ash thrown over the earth; of river deltas choked with alluvial mud, broad fans mixing into the dark blue deeps below; of dunes of purest white sand in endless coruscations reaching to a horizon shielded by alabaster peaks. The clearest sensation of passing above a bright map below.

Fury Like a Line of Distant Mountains

Lara is stopped for a search at security, her bag picked like fish at a corpse, and I watch a young Korean woman lose her shit entirely at the carry-on counter. Toting a massive army-green gym sack she is waving her arms back and forth at her two friends whilst a massive security guard stands behind.

I have no idea what she is saying but it is clear she has been pushed beyond the edge. Her friends try to take her arms, hold her shoulders down but they are flung up like banners above a crowd of fingers. I do not bother to hide my interest like the family climbing the escalator, keeping their curious toddler in front of them. The girls are looking around for somebody clearly lost and a second security guard comes to join the first, shrugging his shoulders in an impassive semaphore.

“Doesn't look like she's getting that on,” Lara says beside me.

“Look at the size of it though. Unless she was preparing to stow herself in the overhead locker, I don't see how she thought she could get it on.”

“Maybe she could climb inside it, like a sleeping bag.”

“What, and sit on the seat like that policeman from Noddy? Mr Glob?”

“Mr Plod.”

The security guard approaches us, I flash him my ticket and he takes one look at my backpack and waves me along. We watch the scene sinking below as we rise toward departure.

That Quote From Pynchon

Earthbound, we are limited to our Horizon, which sometimes is to be measured but in inches. We are bound withal to Time, and the amounts of it spent getting from one end of a journey to another. Yet aloft, in Map-space, origins, destinations, any Termini, hardly seem to matter – one can apprehend all at once the entire plexity of possible journeys, set as one is above Distance, above Time itself. Thomas Pynchon, “Mason and Dixon”

Daniel East is a Rocket Man. And it's gonna be a long, long time.

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