Mixed Blessings


 

On a flight from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport to Dubai Airport – 8 hours – I thought about the logistics of modern air travel.

To get my flight out of Schiphol, I had to sit around for a few hours before my flight departed. It was June, tourist season, and Schiphol, even by its own standards, was busy. It took me quite a long time to check in and get through security. The length of the cues and the number of people crowded into a confined space was daunting. Even to buy a sandwich and something to drink afterwards, I had to stand in another long cue.

Schiphol was one the busiest airports in the world. On average, 150,000 people a week passed through Schiphol. There were many busy airports in the world of course. Dubai was another one.

Once in the air and mercifully away from the thronging crowds in Schiphol, I reflected on what I’d experienced.

I was just one person in a vast operation which involved millions.

Every day all over the world, people arrived and departed from airports, some big, others smaller. Planes were constantly arriving and departing, often having to cue before they did so. On a short flight, it could take you longer to taxi into and out of an airport than the time you spent in the air.

Every day all over the world, in a thousand different airports, passengers checked in, their luggage was tagged and put on a conveyer belt, they were processed by customs and security; they arrived somewhere, picked up their luggage and were processed again through customs and security.

In the air, they were fed and used the toilets, were pampered by air flight attendants, amused and distracted with movies and music delivered through headphones, and continually reassured by the captain that all was well.

Mountains of luggage found its way into the holds of airplanes and very little of it ever went missing, no matter that it had to be transferred on the way into the holds of other airplanes from different companies. Bar coding, first developed for use in supermarkets, ensured that luggage almost always arrived at its end destination (and indeed, the comparison between the modern air travel industry and a supermarket was an apt one).

Air crashes were few and far between. When they occurred, they drew a blaze of international publicity. No expense was spared in determining the causes. What was often forgotten was this: air travel was by far the safest form of transport.

The most dangerous was the automobile. If the deaths and casualties from air travel were a fraction of those incurred on the roads, no one would fly.

When you looked at the size and extent and efficiency of the global air transportation industry, you began to get some idea of the truly extraordinary capacity of the modern human race and its technology to solve the most daunting logistical problems.

Every day, 365 days a year.

On the flight to Dubai, a thought occurred to me: just imagine, I mused, if you could apply this logistical brilliance to the task of feeding, clothing and educating every single person in the world irrespective of their race, colour, religion, place of domicile and social economic background?

I suspect that this thought cropped up in my mind because only a week before, I had travelled in Southern Italy at a time when a new anti-immigration government had taken office in Rome. To loud international criticism, this government had refused to allow ships bringing asylum seekers from Africa to dock in Italy. Shortly before I had left Italy, I had spent time walking around the areas of Palermo, Sicily, where there was an overwhelming concentration of immigrants: Africans, Indians and Arabs.

It only required a cursory look at the modern air transportation industry and you realised that the task of combatting global social economic equality was, in principle, was well within our means; it could be done, nothing was surer.

It was an exciting idea. We had this enormous logistical potential at our behest. It could be used for other purposes besides transporting millions of people in luxury from one end of the globe to the other.

 

After a two hour stop in the early hours of the morning in Dubai, I boarded a flight to Adelaide, South Australia: a 13 hour flight.

It was a turbulent flight (it was monsoon season in Asia) and several babies howled the whole way there.

In the process, the idea of fixing the world’s social economic problems, began to lose its allure.

Running the world was a lot more difficult than transporting millions of people safely through the air.

There was a lot more involved than logistics.

The problem was, the world was organised and run on the basis of nations. And national governments, especially those in the areas of the world where poverty, underdevelopment, overpopulation and gender oppression was the worst, would resist any kind of meaningful attempt to minimise global inequality.

Corrupt, self-serving dictatorships, would resist any kind of international campaign to organise assistance no matter how objectively it was organised. They would talk about about ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’. The only assistance they wanted was the kind which could be milked and fed into off shore banking accounts.

So there we were.

We had the means to solve just about any problem in existence: the modern air transport industry was overwhelming proof of that.

Yet we had no hope of applying our know-how to the problems which really mattered.

Barriers were coming down as more of us travelled and experienced other cultures and other people.

Yet nations and national borders were stronger than ever.

So we were flying into a future of mixed blessings.

 

‘A Song to the Lord is Worth Twice a Prayer’

See also preceding blog: https://serioustravelblog.com/2018/02/19/immigrants-part-1/

 

 

 

 

When she left the village and went to join her husband in Rotterdam, together with her 3 children, Anya’s mother didn’t have much to take with her: clothes and some plates and cutlery.

Her prized possession was a bible.

Not that she was religious. By then, that was all behind her. During the Nazi occupation, she was a believer and even got baptized. Understandable. You sure as hell needed something to hang on to during those terrible years.

After the war however, she lost her belief. If there was a God, she asked herself, then why had he allowed the Second World War to happen? For 6 million Jews to be gassed?

The bible was precious to her because of what it represented: history, family.

 

It was very small; smaller than a pocket- sized novel, although a good deal thicker. It had a black leather cover and a silver clasp. The ends of the pages were dark yellow. She inherited the bible when her mother died and she in turn, had inherited the bible when her mother had died. The rule was: the bible was passed on to the eldest daughter in the family.

It was a link between generations of women.

 

For years the bible lay on a shelf in Anya’s parents’ apartment and later, after her father died, in her mother’s apartment. I saw it countless times but never once tried to pick it up and examine it closely.

I regret that.

In the autumn of 2011, it suddenly appeared in our apartment when Anya’s mother died.  

Shortly afterwards, I picked it up for the first time and looked inside.

I was surprised by what I found.

 

On the opening page it stated the bible had been printed in ‘The States General of the United Netherlands’. The publishing date was 1835.

The bible was 176 years old.

Inside the front cover, on two blank pages, were the names of the women who, over the years, had inherited the bible, along with the date they had taken possession of it. The names and dates were written in an elegant cursive and in ink.

I found the bible difficult to read. The print was very small, the letters were gothic, and the Dutch was very different to the contemporary language.

1835: images flashed through my mind of what the world looked like then. In Europe, most people lived in villages and a stranger was someone who came from another village a kilometer away. In 1836, a year after that bible was published, British settlers departed London and sailed in wooden ships to the southern coast of Australia to establish a new colony called South Australia. A pitiless destruction was unleashed on the original inhabitants, who had lived there for well over 20,000 years.

Turning the pages of that old bible, I wondered too about all the women who over the years had used that bible before passing it on, baton-like, to the next generation. None of them had come from a wealthy or privileged background: on the contrary. Yet they had been able to read Dutch and they had been able to read music too: the bible, in a strict sense, was not a bible. Less than a half of it consisted of the New Testament and the rest, psalms. There was no Old Testament; no fire and brimstone, no authoritarian, sexist, vindictive Jehovah but instead, the message of Jesus: love, forgiveness, tolerance and non-violence.

The psalms consisted of long horizontal lines of bars and notes and beneath them, the words.

This was a book meant for singing. It was not designed to be left on a shelf inside a home; it was meant to be a ‘portable bible’ which could be taken to church on a bike.

Inside the back cover one of the women who had inherited the bible had written in fine cursive:

‘A song to the Lord is worth twice a prayer’.

And then I remembered it: during the last weeks of life, as she was being injected with ever higher doses of morphine, she sang.

No one knew what she sang, no one could identify it.

I’ve got a funny feeling that the songs she was singing came from that little portable bible.

To endure the horror of the Nazis, she sang.

And as she departed this life, those songs came back to her.

‘A song to the Lord is worth twice a prayer’.

Even for a woman who didn’t believe in God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quiet Places

 

Sometimes

Travelling this land

Scarred, plundered, desolated

 

It is possible to find

Quiet Places

Beyond the noise of civilisation –

traffic, TV, mobile phone, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, trail bikes –

 

Where you can lose yourself

And see Them

 

Drinking the Sacred Water

 

Worshipping the stone cliffs

 

Dancing naked

Under the shelter of the night

The stars and the moon

 

Their bodies painted

In the ochre of the The Earth.

 

The Street Vendor

127

 

At first light the boy brought him two plastic sacks of sweets –
Orbs of puffed rice glued together with toffee –
In preparation for the holiday to commemorate God
When street vendors could expect to make some extra rupees

I watched him struggle to keep those sacks
On his tiny bicycle-wheeled trolley along with his
Iron scales and weights, a stack of paper bags made from old newspapers
And a small mound of unsold rice balls left over from the day before.

I watched him that bent old man in his cotton kurta
Juggling the means of his survival at the start of the day.

In the evening I saw him again
When I bought a bag of those sticky sweet orbs –
four for a rupee –

The street was noisy, crowded
It was hot
The air foul with fumes and smoke

The two big plastic sacks were still on his trolley
Only half of one sack had been sold

And he was still standing there
Juggling his survival
Fourteen hours after I first saw him
That old street vendor.

 

 

For photos and stories about street vendors from many different nations, see Serious Travel Images:

https://serioustravelimages.com/2016/02/24/street-vendors/

https://serioustravelimages.com/2016/03/08/street-vendors-part-2/

https://serioustravelimages.com/2016/03/27/street-vendors-part-3/