Monthly Archives: August 2007

Air travel and dehumanisation

We had a wonderful weekend in England. London is a fantastic city where I’d like to spend more time. But our departure from Stansted airport did much to cement  certain views I’ve held about air travel for some time now.

Modern air travel is cheap and quick. It also used to be fairly simple but in the last year or so, it has become an increasingly complicated way of travelling. The trouble started with check-in. We joined the queue for our flight shortly after check-in opened. We spent about an hour and a half queueing because of the ineptitude of the woman at the easyJet desk. She was phenomenally slow and left her post for nearly half an hour after claiming that a passenger with dark skin didn’t have the correct documentation. His Spanish passport was eventually, grudgingly accepted and the queue continued to shuffle on at the rate of one passenger served every five minutes.

A sign by the check-in desk warned passengers to allow at least 40 minutes to clear security – making clear that the onus is on the passenger to make sure that (s)he gets to the gate on time. In this case, though we had joined the queue as it began, we cleared security with about 10 minutes to spare. At least five passengers toward the end of the queue checked in but were then delayed in the security check phase. They were kicked off the flight and the flight’s captain gave us a patronising lecture about leaving enough time to get onto the plane. Perhaps he didn’t know that the five passengers whose luggage had to be removed from the flight were delayed because of one of his own colleague’s ineptitude.

Next, we approached the security check. This is the biggest recent change to modern air travel. Apparently, current rules (introduced in the wake of various terrorist attacks and attempts), insist that every passenger be put through a series of humiliating trials which test whether they’re a terrorist or not. Herded like cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse (or at the very least, the dipping tank), passengers wait in line until shouted at to proceed. Queues appear and disappear as stewards marshall people this way and that like shepherds call sheep. Belts must be removed, jumpers and jackets too. Personal possessions are laid out for all to see in black metal trays for the x-ray.

Next, we are forced to walk guiltily through a metal detector so inefficient that it failed to detect my wedding ring, 2lbs of coins and bulky metal watch which I had elected not to put through the x-ray. The girl in front of me had three bottles of sun cream which were confiscated, obviously because they might have been used for the production of high explosive. After the indignity of dressing myself again in public, I was herded down the next roped-off passageway only to be told to remove my shoes. By this point, I was getting really annoyed. “For Christ’s sake!”, I said as I pulled my trainers off – all the while being told by the woman at the shoe checking desk that I should ‘move out of the way’. This woman obviously noticed my irritation and said to me in a very obviously challenging way, “You seem very angry, sir”.

That short sentence made it clear that the exhibition of emotion of any sort was suspicious and deserved being challenged. I have no doubt whatsoever that if I had remonstrated with her over that fact that only half of the passengers were being screened in this way (the rest were allowed to just walk straight past), I would have been questioned – and probably by one of the police officers armed with huge semi-automatic rifles.

My problem here is not with security per se. I’m aware that there’s a small number of people out there who want to blow aeroplanes up. I’m also aware, however, that 50% of passengers could just walk through the shoe-checking phase. That I carried loads of metal through the metal detector without it noticing. That I could buy a tennis racket or bottle after security which could realistically be used as a weapon on an aeroplane. That it’s by no means inconceivable that a terrorist network could infiltrate airport shops and make sure that a bottle of water, perfume or shampoo that actually contained the ingredients for explosive were placed on shelves for the right person to buy. In short, I don’t believe that the security in modern airports is particularly effective. It still contains multiple holes which could easily be exploited by a committed terrorist cell.

In truth, I believe that these security checks we all have to undergo are part of a campaign of psychological warfare, the object of which is not to protect us but to cow us. The series of controls act more than anything else as steps in a process of dehumanisation and humiliation which never fail to conjure up the feeling of the emotions we might experience as we queue for access to the camps.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Tibidabo from behind - a very welcome sight!

One of my favourite pastimes is walking. It’s an agreeable, physically stimulating exercise which gives one time for thought (or debate, if you’re not alone). So it was with this in mind that I set out at midday today, to walk from Cerdanyola to Barcelona. Solo.

It’s a walk I’ve done several times in a group, and it involves walking out of our front door and ending up at Tibidabo. I’m not sure about the distance but I reckon it’s about 18km – pretty short really. The route takes you across the Parc de la Collserola, the green, forested ridge behind Barcelona, and offers stunning views and lots of nature to see.

I divide the route into 3 unequal parts. The first part takes you from my street via the headquarters of the Catalan handball team, into the Collserola and eventually the picnic area at Can Coll. This part is hard in the sense that you’re just getting into the swing of things. There are a couple of steep hills that never fail to make me feel knackered, but there are also some amazing views of unspoiled forest, as well as lots of flora and fauna. Today I saw a butterfly which was significantly bigger than my hand. It scarpered too fast for a photo, unfortunately.

The second part of the walk is by far the hardest. It takes you to Can Borell, an old fashioned Catalan restaurant (the path actually leads through a dining area!). And then (after a weird sort of zoo in the middle of nowhere), you have the biggest uphill/downhill part of the walk. I had to get a stick to clear undergrowth and brambles on the decent; it was really hard work. Finally, I stood looking up at the path cleared for electricity pylons before me. The ascent (believe me, it warrants the name) is a steep hill consisting solely of rock: I considered turning back but decided to press on. No point, you see.

At the top, where even in May or October, I feel hot and tired, I realised that I was certainly beginning to suffer from heat exhaustion. I was out of breath, nauseous and my pulse was very high. It was at this point that I decided to break away from the path in order to find a shortcut (rather than do yet another descent/ascent as the path dictated). As I broke away from the path, I saw that the forest creates a lot of shade! I picked the nearest spot and sort of collapsed. Actually, it wasn’t so much a collapse as a very fast, arbitrary lie-down. I actually wanted to call my wife and let her know that I was potentially in trouble but I couldn’t even speak. Besides, I was lying under a bush in the middle of Collserola: who could help me, anyway?

When I picked myself up, I felt terrible. I considered throwing up but I didn’t want to waste any fluids, or throw up. I pressed on with my made-up shortcut and within minutes found that I was on the right path! I probably cut half an hour off my walk, and probably avoided a very embarrassing and potentially lethal dose of heat stroke. Yay!

The 3rd and final part of the walk is much easier, but always goes on for longer than expected (all walks end like this, though, really). You hit the path for Tibidabo very quickly, and after a lot of twists and turns, you cross a beautiful viaduct. My trusty hat (which I credit along with my stick, my iPod, my choice to find a shortcut and my body, for saving my life), chose this moment to blow off my head and sail down under the viaduct. so I had to get it (honour trumps all), and pretty much crossed the valley, negating the need for the viaduct.

The rest of the story is pretty simple. I got to the drinking fountain just before Tibidabo and moaned ecstatically as I doused myself with cold tap water. I filled my belly and my bottle with cold water. Then I got to Tibidabo and stopped at a bar for a beer and some more water. There are few things that have tasted better in my life than the ice-cold Voll Damm I had at that bar. I was a mess. Stinking, covered in earth from my very fast lie-down, cut by bramble and thorn, I didn’t cut a very heroic figure. But I felt great. I had beaten the mountain. Sure, I’d nearly killed myself, but isn’t that what being 27 is all about?

Moral of the story: Noel Coward had a point. That walk is far more enjoyable in May or October. But nowhere near as rewarding.

UPDATE: some pictures of my trek can be seen here.