On travelling, or the liminality of spaces.

There is a difference between a) travelling as an activity to get somewhere, or b)travelling as an activity in its own right. While a) is important, for me travelling is best when in the course of a) there is an opportunity for b). But the spaces within which travelling takes place- airports, planes, trains, cars, train stations, Underground stations etc- are often very odd spaces that seem to belong nowhere and seem owned by nobody. There is definitely a strange disconnect between the distinctive identity of a place such as Shanghai, and the neutrality of the train station from whence I depart Shanghai to move to, let’s say, Ningbo, and later in the week, Beijing.
One reason why this has struck me so much this week is probably because of first flying from London to the United Arab Emirates to then catch a transfer flight to China, with the airports in London, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai looking disconcertingly similar, with very little that was distinctive about them other than signage becoming bilingual and some posters. Abu Dhabi in particular seemed weirdly bland; apart from the odd giftshop selling little camel toys, rather than, let’s say, teddy bears and dogs in London, or the ubiquitous panda bears in China, just looked exactly the same, with gleaming corridors, security checks and blandly pleasant anonymous waiting spaces. The only hint of ‘place’ came through the signs,which had changed from just English to English and Arabic. Yet on take off, there was not just the usual safety video, but a travelling prayer from the qu’ran, and the maps showed the direction to and distance from, Mecca.
Another type of space that seems of particular significance to the traveller are food shops, and here, all of a sudden, the great international chains such as Starbucks and Costa take on new significance. Now these really are odd places in that their very identity is based on being a non-place and an every- place in that every branch, everywhere, is denied any sense of local identity and is instead given a corporate identity. A Costa is a Costa and will never be mistaken for a Starbucks, however odd it seems to enter one of them in Ningbo and be confronted with a picture of Big Ben with tropical, torrential rain hammering down outside in a setting that could not have been less English. In the train station though, that branch of Costa ( yes, there are several branches of Costa and Starbucks in Ningbo, and they can even be found outside the Buddhist LinYin Temple in Hangzhou) becomes oddly reassuring, and comforting.
There is something else though that is worth thinking about with reference to travelling, and that is the impact travel has on the identity of the traveller itself. Travelling is a challenge to your sense of personal identity because there is little space, and little time, to establish a sense of self while in motion and with limited opportunity to express identity. And yet, travellers manage, and are desperate to be distinctive, whether through bags, clothing, food, mobiles and even demands for attention. It’s really fascinating to watch travellers who are uncomfortable with their surroundings because they don’t think they ‘fit’, and they are desperately trying to assert a sense of identity. This becomes particularly poignant when culturally a traveller does not fit and in trying to be inconspicuous just renders themselves even more conspicuous. Travelling as a fair-skinned, blond woman in China with a red- haired woman as your travel partner certainly fits nowhere, and the staring that ensues is of formidable quantity and disconcerting intensity. So, travelling becomes something of a no place, no time situation and a truly utopian experience with some travellers almost folding in on themselves and looking inside themselves- they become alone in a contemplative, reflective sense, and surely, that may be one of the great benefits of travel. In exploring other places, you learn more about yourself.
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