Notes from 10,800 metres above the Sahara

For twenty minutes, traveling at 500mph there is nothing to be seen that even suggests human existence. Endless ripples and waves of sand eventually give way to fractal like river beds which etch out the surface giving it a land like structure – but no straight lines.

In the distance a patch of ground (probably a huge expanse of land) is a different colour. My mind tells me it is green and fills in lush vegetation, trees and shrubs. But getting closer it seems to be just a different colour of sand and desert pavement, just as empty as what I saw before.

None of the rivers seem to carry water. It is as if the finer sand here flows over coarser sand, finding its level, making its way to the ocean of dunes.

I spot a straight line below – certainly a sign of humanity. Is it a road or a pipeline? It seems to straight to be a road, because where I live landscape and history would be tugging a roads course in multiple directions. Down there, I suppose, if you want to get from point A to point B you go straight. There is no C or D to distract you on your journey. Deviating from the fastest route would mean lingering in the dry sunshine.

The electronic map on the screen in the seat ahead tells me that if I stare out far to the west I might catch a glimpse of Timbuktu, but the sky seems to hazy to let me see, or perhaps it is over the edge of the earth.

The sun reflects from a pool of water – there is something else out there other than sand and rock and sun. In the distance a few more glints. Perhaps I will start to see settlements now. These water sources are like islands in the sea – life is possible. It can be sustained there. But as we fly over the glints disappear. Perhaps these oases are just damp patches, the water quickly draining away, or evaporating. Or maybe just a shinier kind of sand.

Where the world is wildest the signs of human life are orderly – a straight line across a desert. As the world becomes more friendly to us, the marks we make become more haphazard – a village is more confused than a hamlet, a city more chaotic than a town. Complexity is difficult, but simplicity is not necessarily the sign of an easy life.

As we reach the edge of the Sahara, trees begin to appear, dotted and grouped, looking like poppy seeds scattered on the surface of a bagel.

Getting off the plane in Ouagadougou, first I was hit by the warmth – not heat – followed by the smell of burning charcoal…

Notes at Paddington Station at 4:30am

I was not greeted by any bearsPleasant Bangladeshi taxi driver from Waterloo charged me £18 to go from Brick Lane to Paddington Station.  Somehow this didn’t seem reasonable, but who am I to argue?  The guy likes to travel, but four kids (12, 10, 8, 6 – evenly spaced) so it is too expensive for him.  He did manage to visit Bangladesh regularly though.

The station is deserted, apart from a scattered collection of homeless folk, sleeping in chairs.  Even though the chairs are designed to be uncomfortable to rough sleepers, somewhat like the spikes designed to discourage pigeons from landing on window sills, there they are, in their sad greasy coats, unlaced boots, and matted woolen hats, snoozing in the cold air.

Costa coffee – the guy behind the counter is telling friends that a head waiter in paid £1500 a month at the Ritz.

Heathrow Express – brightly lit and warm but with noisy annoying TV screens showing speeded up footage from the worlds capital cities, and silent infomercials telling of the security precautions at the airport, including the warning that train passengers may be “subject to a search”.

I wish I had taken some photos of these two stark environments.  One supposed to be unwelcoming, yet populated; the other intended to be welcoming, yet somehow tainted with threats of danger, and seats and lighting equally unconducive to sleep.

There is a £2 premium for buying tickets onboard.  Why do they do this?  Penalised for not using a machine.

“Quiet zone – entertainment free carriage” I am told by the infomercial.  “Next time you travel, why not treat yourself to first class – wider seats, complimentary magazines and newspapers, and tables you can work from!”  15 whole minutes of all this luxury for only a premium of £10.

ARS Finland

ARS ArtSpent last weekend in Finland, visiting my cousin Catriona, who as an artists residency in the small town of Rauma. Went to one of the opening nights of the ARS2006 art show in Helsinki. Rather excellent! Outside in Helsinki the temperature was well below zero. Minus 16! Icicles formed on my eyelashes, and the moisture in my nose was freezing hairs together. Quite amazing. We stayed with some friends who lived on an island. Normally it is necessary to row to the island, but the Baltic was frozen over so we had to walk across the ice. Fantastic.

Rauma itself was like something from an Aki Kaurism�ki film – rather grey (ok of course it was clouded over and freezing cold) and depressing. It has a historic centre with streets of colourfully painted wooden houses I found quite remeniscant of Vermont and New Hampshire.

Photos of the trip can be found in a SmugMug gallery I made.