Living in Airport Terminals

Well I’ve learned to roll with the punches in India when it comes to traveling so I wasn’t really all that surprised that my plane was delayed four hours in Mumbai. Nor did it particularly bother me that I got to Ahmedabad too late to catch the train to Udaipur.

So I spent an unintended night in Ahmedabad, which isn’t as bad as Lonely Planet makes it sound. After buying another rail ticket, I hired a rickshaw and went to a few mosques; saw two of the gates to the city which are all that remain of what must have once been an impressive city wall. I also had dinner at the marvelous Agashiye restaurant which was a rooftop retreat from what all the guidebooks refer to as one of the smoggiest most congested cities in India. City Gate Ahmedabad IndiaI’ll grant them the smoggy bit; I’ve never experience air that bad, far more than even Mexico City. Two blocks of walking and I would have a coughing fit and then tears would be streaming out of my eyes. All in all pretty miserable place to live, but it wasn’t so bad for one day. I figure if you’ve seen the worst it’s all uphill from there.

But the thing that has stuck with me for the last two days are the airplane terminals. Airport terminals are fast becoming my favorite part of traveling. When you stop and observe them closely as I have been forced to do on this trip, terminals are actually quite beautiful weird places. Terminals inhabit a unique space in the architecture of humanity, perhaps the strangest of all spaces we have created; a space that is itself only a boundary that delineates the border between what was and what will be without leaving any space at all for what is. The spaces we use to move through space have no space of their own.

Something about the mirror polished floors and the ceilings they reflect so that there is no definite up or down, both up and down a reflection of the other, and the traveler never can be sure which is which. And everything in this directionless landscape points to or revolves around the central edifice of the present, the traveler’s god, the unadorned but prominently placed clock. It is always high on the wall with lines of sight from nearly any and often all angles of the terminal, not watching over, not even observing objectively, simply present, perhaps merely as a marker of dimensions in a place where space looses it meaning and we must look elsewhere to understand where we are.

According to author Nathaniel Mackey¹, Sun Ra once remarked that word should be spelled “wered,” as if all language in essence creates the past, that word is the past tense of are. In terminals the clock becomes a measure of the wered, for there are often no other words in terminals as if language cannot stand up in this dimensionlessness, instead we rely on simple and universal pictograms and hieroglyphs to indicate the uses of various subdivided spaces like bathrooms or restaurants. All language is swallowed here by a kind of immaculate emptiness that has no past save what we contain within us.

Even the people moving through terminals quickly loose their words in the reverberating echo of polished stone floors and unreachably tall ceilings so that there is no distinct voice but a murmur of many languages that ceases to be language at all, merely the echoes of our passing. The words that slide off our tongue can find no past to move into here, no space to inhabit and make their own but can only drift about seeking the sliding entry doors and when the doors open to admit that there is world beyond this one the words escape out and are lost to us forever.

The partitions in the spacelessness of terminals are most often glass walls rather than anything solid so that scenes of outside are projected and bounced around in mirror images, a banner advertising an international film festival that outside hangs over a cement railing and cracks and whips in gusts of wind, becomes for those on the inside only silent motion, the reflection of the banner, its scrambled illegible message moves up and down in the breeze, but all accompanying sound has disappeared so that it merely waves like a loved one saying goodbye and watching as we disappear into a space they cannot, are not allowed to inhabit. But the glass is usually slightly smoked or tinted glass as if to keep the outside world at bay. Not even the heat of the sun could penetrate here and yet light is allowed, for this is no subterranean, Fritz Lang world, but one of light, filtered light. A space that is often the only one for miles to have the antiseptic, centrally cooled air that it has, air lit by tubular light fixtures from the future of light, florescent to add to the effervescent cool whiteness of the terminal.

Airport Terminal Goa, IndiaThe floor tiles of the main lobby are polished white with inlaid blocks of rusty brown that form geometric patterns, rectangles and squares, the only corners to speak of are here, and carefully placed so that one may not hide in them, but step over them as if they did not exist and indeed here they do not. Cigarettes are for sale in a Plexiglas case with machine cut curves and a smoothness that belies the idea that the world might have corners at all, as if to work our way into the future must begin with the surfaces of the objects we inhabit; to bend them like we bend time and the smoothness of the curves on the armchairs and smoothness of the curves on the cigarette display might allow us, from the proper angle to somehow glimpse the future around the bend.

Terminals seek to eliminate corners in their quest to bend space and time, there are no angular corners at all, save those out in the middle of the floor and those are after all only corners of color, not true corners that can be felt or nudged, no dust can be swept into them, no cowering is possible. All cowering must be done in the middle of the floor beneath the moving hands of the clock.

  1. 1 This quote was brought to my attention by Laura in a recent and as always timely email. So if it’s me quoting Laura, quoting Mackey… well you’re now four generations removed from old Sun the one.


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