A Tale of Holiday Aviation

Christmas 1997, in the days before online check-in, airport and airline apps, and mobile phones cheap enough for a student to afford. Yes, this is relevant. Bear with me.

I was preparing to spend the holiday with my parents in Toronto. I’d booked a relatively inexpensive flight; I’d learned the best and cheapest way to get to Heathrow from Oxford (the Heathrow Express coach– this has not been a paid advertisement); I’d filled my rucksack with clothes, presents, and library books (I had a degree to get); and had tickets to fly out of Terminal One. I was getting ready to go when one of my flatmates stuck his head around the door.

“Have you heard the news today?”

Well, no. I didn’t have a television or a working radio, and I’d been too busy packing to look on the Internet.

Which was when I discovered that this was the day when a deep-fryer caught light at a Heathrow branch of Burger King, leading to the Great Terminal One Fire. Firefighters had been at it all night, and it was still ongoing.

The BBC was recommending that travellers contact their airlines. I rang up Air Canada, but the lines were busy. I tried again, and again, as the clock ticked closer to the point at which I’d have to leave if I was going to catch the bus. With no mobile phone, in the end I decided to just go to Heathrow and risk it.

Upon arrival, I got a front-row perspective on how aviation authorities handle emergencies.

In the first place, all flights had been redirected to other terminals. All North American and some Middle Eastern flights were now running out of beautiful, brand new Terminal Four, and I couldn’t quite believe my luck in getting to see what was then a huge attraction for anyone who likes airports.

(Yes, that’s me, in case you haven’t guessed. No apologies for that.)

But the queues for check-in were gigantic. And that was just for check-in. I shuddered to think what awaited passengers once they got into Security.

I asked one of the attendants what I should do. “Join the queue,” she told me, so I did.

A few minutes later, I heard a boarding call go through for a flight to New York.

Immediately, the attendants swung into action, running down the queues, shouting, “New York! Anyone travelling [flight redacted] to New York?” If someone indicated this was so, they were immediately yanked out of the queue and hustled to the front, where they were speedily processed and rushed through Security.

So it was all going to be OK then. I relaxed.

Sure enough, when I was about two-thirds of the way up the queue, a call came for my flight. An attendant snagged me, dragged me to the front, and I was processed, stamped, and throwing my bags through the X-ray machine in minutes.

I made the flight with a quarter-hour to spare.

So I did make it home for Christmas after all, thanks to quick thinking and efficient emergency operations. And I got to do it through Terminal Four.

I’m going to be taking a posting break over Christmas, obviously. See you in the New Year!

Beijing, 2006: A Photoessay

I’ve made multiple visits to Japan and Singapore, and had a visiting fellowship in Taipei for a while, but only ever visited Beijing once. This was in 2006, when the city was clearly well on its way towards becoming a glass-and-chrome metropolis, but really wasn’t all the way there. Looking back, it occurs to me that it’s changed a lot, and people might like to see some of what it looked like at that complicated time:

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Many rickshaws:

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(seconds before the photo below was taken, the chain came off the gears, and the driver literally hooked it back on with his foot)SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

A blacksmith fixing a wheelchair:

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Old buildings and mosaics, probably gone now:

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The old site of the Pan Asia Games:

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A Christian wedding at a church:
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Dong An Market…

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and a state “Friendship Store”.

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Man selling rabbits in the subways under the road:
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Man selling books off the back of, yes, a rickshaw, above the subway:
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Gas masks in the closet in my hotel, a little bit scary:

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Finally, fish. Every shop had its lucky goldfish, this jade retailer was making them do marketing work too:

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Haw Par Villa, Singapore: A Photoessay

I go to Singapore to teach at least once a year, which is good, because I like Singapore. And one of the most amazing things in Singapore is Haw Par Villa. Which, because it largely defies description, I’m going to show you in pictures rather than telling a funny story.

What most people know about Haw Par Villa, if they know anything at all about it, is its famous set of dioramas depicting the Seven Hells of Buddhist folklore. And yes, you certainly can see the damned facing horrible forms of punishment:

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Which, apparently, their victims can watch before going on to their own judgment, which seems rather schadenfreude-heavy to me:
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But that’s, if anything, the most conventional part of the park. For one thing, the park was set up by the people who invented (or packaged and marketed, anyway) Tiger Balm, and one can occasionally run into the ghosts of Tiger Balm mascots past:
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Or a pitched battle between the rats and the rabbits, no, I don’t know either.

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Or scenes from Chinese legends, some recognisable, some less so (even to people in the relevant culture; Malay Chinese friends I’ve asked have struggled to explain some of these).IMG_0552IMG_0567

(this one’s from Journey to the West: Pigsy at his most terrifying)IMG_0639

(According to the plaque, this one depicts the Seven Lucky Gods doing battle with Neptune, who must have wandered in from some other mythological canon)IMG_0667

Then there’s the anthropomorphic animals, similarly ranging from the cute to the disturbing:

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OK, mostly the disturbing.IMG_0610

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There are also more conventionally represented animals, albeit, one suspects, rendered by a sculptor who’s never actually seen one:
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Along with some really quite beautiful gods and heroes

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And, finally, you can take a trip round the monuments of the world!IMG_0668

If you’re in Singapore and want to visit for yourself, here’s a map. There’s way more than I could put in a single blog post, so do go see it.

Homecoming week

One night in the summer of 1994, around 3 AM, I woke up to the sound of a key in the lock of the door of my room.

This was when I was working for a Public Sector Organisation. It was headquartered in a town that had a Budapest-like divide between the wealthier and poorer sections. My main concern at the time was rent, so naturally I was living in the latter. But I also wasn’t unaware of the risks that would come with that.

However, there was also a nursing college in that part of town. Which had a residence, and which also happily rented out rooms to non-nurses if they had some available. A friend who also worked for Public Sector Organisation had stayed there the previous summer, so it came recommended. It seemed like the perfect solution: community, solidarity in numbers, the presence of other people working in the Public Sector who were new in town. And a security guard on reception.

Who didn’t work nights.

So I sat up in bed saying something that probably sounded like “whazzafluck?” Heart pounding, trying to cope with the fact that, despite all my security precautions, someone, someone who was not authorised to do so, was not even breaking into my room, but was actually. Coming. In. With. A. Key.

The door swung open, to reveal, not burglars, rapists or emergency services personnel, but two girls in their late teens.

The first one looked me straight in the bleary eyes and said, cheerfully, “Oh, hello. I didn’t realised they’d rented the room out again. Mind if I show my friend around?”

And then, while I sat there in bed trying to figure it out, she literally gave her friend a tour. It wasn’t a big room, so the tour was along the lines of, “this is the bed, and this is the cupboard, and this is the bookshelf, and this is the window and this is the desk…”

She then smiled, said goodbye, and walked out, closing the door behind her.

The next day the security guard was very apologetic, swearing blind that he hadn’t know she’d kept a copy of the key (I believed him, but not so sure I believed the building manager’s similar denial), and agreeing both to move me to a different room as soon as possible, and to keep my laptop in the combination-locked secure room until that could happen (1990s laptops being expensive and huge).

The story, as much as I could tell, was that she was a local girl who had run away from a bad home situation and used the nursing residence as a sort of halfway stop between getting away from her family and actually getting out of town. She’d just moved out one day, presumably having found a way to do just that.

So that explained the surreal reunion tour. With a biography like that one, the desk, the cupboard, and the bookshelf– your own desk, cupboard and bookshelf– do rather become very significant things.

And if somebody who’d lived in my house back in the day came by and wanted to visit, I’d be happy to let them in to relive the old memories.

Not, however, normally at 3 AM!

Returning from Amsterdam: An Italian Comedy

In the summer of 1999, I had a newly-completed M.Phil. degree from Oxford, severe burnout, and no money. I had gone to Amsterdam to celebrate the first and recover from the second. To address the third, I had travelled by bus.

The bus back was on the final leg of a journey up from Italy, and so was full of happy Italian students, heading back to the UK. Which, under normal circumstances, would have made for a fun atmosphere and a nice end to the journey. The problematic element was that the driver was also in the mood, and wanted to play his video collection. On the bus’ internal video system. At inescapable volume.

Here is one of the films: https://youtu.be/xll47sY_AvU

Here is another: https://youtu.be/84VpGffhmgs

[side note: the author of this blog claims no responsibility for the content of external links]

Nowadays, in this era of Google and Wikipedia, I am aware that the driver was a consummate fan of 1980s Italian action-comedy legends Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. At the time, all I could think was, “who exactly are these two gentlemen and why can I not escape their wacky adventures?”

And then came the border crossing at Calais.

We all filed off the bus, stood in a queue with our luggage, then stood in a waiting room until given permission to return to the bus.

Did I say “we?”

The sole exception had two thumbs, no money, and a very new Oxford M.Phil.

Now, it’s perfectly understandable why I’d been “randomly selected” for a bag search. I’d just spent a week sleeping in the communal dorm of a youth hostel, and looked it; I was carrying a much-worn rucksack with a Canadian flag on it (you have to have the flag, if you don’t they revoke your citizenship and ban you from buying maple syrup for life); I was wearing my last reasonably clean clothes, which were a pair of stripy linen harem pants, Birkinstocks, and a T-shirt advertising the Toronto Lesbian And Gay Pride 10 Kilometre Road Race. The T-shirt might, in hindsight, as well have read “I went to Amsterdam for the drugs, and I just might be stupid or naïve or overprivileged enough to try and bring back some snacks. Please search me.”

Furthermore, with the adventures of Signori Hill and Spencer on my mind, I was thinking of all the ways this could go wrong.

Maybe the box of tulip bulbs that the shopkeeper had assured me had all its certifications to return to England would turn out to be a rare specimen stolen from the Botanical Gardens, and I’d be arrested for trafficking….

Maybe the souvenir teddy bear from the youth hostel would turn out to have been stuffed with hemp fibre and set off all sorts of alarms…

Maybe the customs inspector would get entirely the wrong impression from the amusing souvenir T-shirt, or the box of cookies I’d bought for my friends back at college, or from the Charlie Chan mystery novel I’d book-swapped for or…

…well. Lack of sleep and three hours of Hill and Spencer had me convinced I’d be fleeing Calais on the back of a hippopotamus. So I just sat down and watched the bag search with detached, if slightly fatalistic, interest.

Partway through the bag search, the inspector said to me, “you know, you’re the calmest person about this that I’ve ever seen.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Normally people just stand there looking scared and guilty. But you’re not.”

So we got to talking, and I asked him what the weirdest professional experience he’d had was (unpacking the bags of a young couple and finding it full of used baby diapers, as it happens), and then he asked me a question and so I had to explain what anthropology was and why I was studying it, and I was back on the bus before long.

The Italians, still being happy, forgave me for the delay, and the trip back to Oxford otherwise went smoothly, to the merry sound of Miami Supercops.

If Hill and Spencer ever needed a scriptwriter for an English Channel customs-agent comedy, I was on it.