Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Travel Is Fatal

I shoot film. My camera doesn't have an LCD screen, any megapixels, or even zoom. It was made in the USSR, out of black gritty plastic, and it has a wheel to wind on the film that I turn with great satisfaction after each shot. I carried my camera around South America and Cuba this summer, and I got the photographs developed during the week I spent in England on my return. They look pretty nice. Lots of vivid blues, glowing sunshine, tasteful vignetting and dark shadows. Still have six photos left on the last film, which means I left for Abu Dhabi with a roll full of Cuba, so no pictures of Havana, Trinidad, Camaguey, Santiago or Baracoa developed as yet. Which also means no mention of any of the Cuban cities on here. It's been a while, and I can't manage three weeks in Cuba, a week in Blighty and three in Abu Dhabi all at once. So we'll save Cuba for a rainy day, but don't worry - there's sure to be plenty of those out here.

I can say that Cuba was hot. Let's stop walking for a cool beverage every quarter of an hour hot. Hot enough that the cigar smoke was cool. It was warm. But Abu Dhabi? A new world no-one's brave enough to walk around in. The air's like a swamp. And the buildings have a clinical coolness to them that rivals every morgue you've never been in. I'm in here in the requisite cardigan and chinos, while outside even the birds are sweating. Coming from a country where we swoon at even our moderate, maritime climate, I've always found there something quite disturbing about the hot sultry night, and never more then when I first arrived, waiting for my transfer from the airport to the accommodation with a half dozen Californian gurls who were eleven hours out of their time comfort zone and a little freaked (as they'd put it) by the chirpy Englishman whose upper lip was not only stiff in the face of jet lag but also shaven after two months of hiding behind the gap yah 'tache.

Austen was going to call Pride and Prejudice First Impressions. S'pose there's not that much difference between the two now, having been through nigh on three weeks of the former, all based on the latter. Nothing nasty, of course - we are very nice, friendly, intelligent, tolerant people, or so the prospectus would have you believe, and we'd never be so cruel as to judge other kids by where they're from, what they're wearing, how they talk, &c. But just watch us. You can talk all you like about us being one-hundred-and-sixty young global citizens,  Belarusians and Bostonians, Muslims and Christians, future world leaders, but in the end we're a bunch of teenagers thrown into one tower block left to our own devices. Go figure, as my American colleagues like to say. Not for long though - the establishment spent the first week shepherding us from enriching experience to enlightening lecture, and you better not stop smiling, because this is full-on social interaction at its globetrotting best.

The faculty like to point out how many countries we're all from, how many nationalities make up our graduating class, and just quite how many languages we all speak between us. I'm not that cosmopolitan (key buzzword) myself, so expected they'd like to blend me in with some really culturally diverse flatmates. But no, they like to keep the old colonial brothers together. Meet, George, my American buddy; Paul, my Australian mate; and John, my South African bru. Affectionately known as 'The Empire'. We moved as an old-world wolfpack, those first few days, and escaped most awkward introductions with wit and continual blathering. This did cover most of the silences, but means I don't really know anyone's names. Still. I think I also scared most people off introducing themselves to me after I stood up with some comedy at a variety show that first week; turns out everyone else was just as entertained at being asked the three same consecutive questions - name? nationality? intended major? - as I was. Go see it on YouTube.

I suppose there's more to us all than just facts on a spreadsheet or attributes printed in a specially-bound commemorative book celebrating the class of 2015. I hope so anyway. Coming from an all-boys boarding school in the south of England, the world's honours college was always going to be different, but of course it's also reassuringly similar. Thankfully all the male posturing of the first few days wasn't wholly homoerotic this time, and at least jokes about my own social inadequacies become self-contradictory when girls laugh at them. Sort of. Socialising aside, the kayaking trip through the mangroves at half past six in the a.m. was a nice wake-up to the fact that I wasn't going to university in London town, though I suppose the complete absence of a world outside my little ivory tower/fishbowl has also been a rising sensation. Not that I'm complaining.

Sorry. Back now. Just went to listen to 'The Boy In The Bubble' by Paul Simon. ('These are the days of miracle and wonder / This is the long-distance call ...' ) Most of the music we were exposed to during that first week was all terrible dance music, as seems to be par for the course for organised parties. We were all shipped off to the Hilton for the night and left to steam for a few hours on a rather wet dancefloor. We'd been warned by the current sophomores that the Hilton dance party was a night in which relationships were born and friendships cemented; tongues were waggling for hours during and afterwards. We enjoyed (?) no such shenanigans, but it was a possible high point in the absurdity of our welcoming week. Throw in Ikea and Ferrariworld and you've got freshers' week, Abu Dhabi-style. 

Now how about university academics AD-style. Try a four-day week, with an eight-hour working day on a Sunday and a four-hour Tuesday morning class that starts at 8:15. Elementary Arabic carries a heavy workload, and I do happen to be taking two of the most notoriously intense classes this institution has to offer. One's taught by the university's president, and for the other I've already read the Song of Songs in various translations, The Upanishads, and listened to three hours of Radiohead. When people come into the room and I'm sitting in the dark drinking water out of an unfortunately shaped glass bottle listening to Thom Yorke wail, they do form a certain opinion. It's working well for the flawed tragicomic image. 

And then there was a fire. Unfortunately I'd already drunk all my water, so I couldn't rush up the thirty-odd floors between where I live and where the smoke was coming from, but I did rush down the eight between our flat and the lobby after realising that the whole system wasn't just going haywire and that we shouldn't be playing laser-tag in the corridors. So yes, we did see the beginning of September 11th standing outside in a parking lot watching our American university's tower block burn in an Arab country. What of it? We sweated it out for an hour or so outside before heading down to the campus and sitting rather damply for a few hours having looted the cafe and found the most comfortable sofas. Turns out that no matter how many Tic-Tacs you eat one night, they'll never be an alternative to toothpaste. Especially not at four in the morning.

With no classes the day after - giving me a four-day weekend, if anyone's counting - I even found time to go to the gym after I'd finished reading the US Constitution. The treadmills in Japan have nothing on these machines. All decked out in glorious purple, our colour of choice, full colour screens and the option to plug your iPod into the treadmill itself for ease of use... I'm already smitten. No existential crises as yet (see below), but no doubt we'll have them before long. Even already worked out rotas as to who is allowed to go to the gym at when, because no-one wants to watch my masochistic adventures with the free weights. Pretty much covered the blog's standards by now - crippling insecurities, reference to global news, gym sessions, awkward (pop) culture references, and terrible wordplay. I suppose all that's left is the meaningful sign-off. (See? This is meta-blogging.)

My academic year is divided into three semesters - 'Fall', January, and Spring. 'Fall' and Spring are fourteen weeks long with a week or so's break in the middle. My January Term (J-Term) is three weeks long, and of the four I'll pas before graduation, I can spend two abroad. This year, I'm looking at either a course based in the then-balmy Abu Dhabi, London, Florence, Buenos Aires, Shanghai or New York. We had the requisite talk this evening about how to best appreciate our time abroad, and how to better ourselves as citizens of the world. They had a Chinese proverb ('It is easy to see, but difficult to learn.') but I'd always prefer Mark Twain's to any other two-bit epigram. Recognise the post's title yet? 'Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrowmindedness'. Maybe. Comes from The Innocents Abroad, published way back in 1869. I didn't realise they'd invented humour yet. Read it while finishing up in Cuba, and thought its closing sentiments captured nicely the gap year and the years to come; for although we were, are and will be 'merely pausing a moment to catch fitful glimpses of the wonders of half a world', we will still have been there, and laughed, and tried to dance, and we'll remember that, so - well - why not?