Little Pockets of Limbo

Bearing witness to strangers

Hello and welcome to the 49th issue of Place! As hope for a return to travel emerges on the horizon, most of us are most excited about the destinations in store: idyllic beaches, foreign cities, unexplored trails. However, in the anticipation for these places, it is important not to overlook the joy of the minutiae of travel, argues Madeleine Bazil. On a trip from the US to South Africa, through a layover in Istanbul Airport and time coasting over the Hottentots-Holland mountains, she reflects on the journeys that we share with ourselves and with strangers when venturing out once again.

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One Small Bubble Amid Multitudes

Airports bring out the more bizarre and incongruous elements of human behaviour, and I quite like being beholden to nobody within this twilight zone. 

Often in airports I want to do things like stand in a bookshop aisle for two hours reading a book that I won’t purchase from cover to cover, or drink a pre-departure beer at 6am, or perform elaborate skincare rituals. These things are easier when you don’t have to explain yourself.

There’s also a hyper-awareness that comes with the uninterrupted solitude, the time allowed to observe how strangers behave in their own little pockets of limbo. Flying from my lockdown home of the United States back to my chosen home of South Africa—my first and only flight during the COVID-19 pandemic, with everyone wearing masks and keeping to themselves—that sense of many separate, enclosed bubbles was more heightened than usual.

During my layover at Istanbul’s airport, the international departures terminal felt relatively populous. Most shops and restaurants were open. But amidst the crowds, the unusual elements stuck out: Turkish Airlines’ flight attendants wore  Hazmat suits instead of their usual tailored uniforms. Or perhaps it was me who felt unusual, sporting a KN95 mask, a face shield, and the lingering scent of hand sanitiser, intending to ensconce myself as much as possible from the outside world - a world which, when travelling alone in normal times, I relish being a part of.  

The people around me seemed to build their own bubbles, too. Walking to my gate, I encountered a striking image. A family—a father with five or six small children—sitting on the floor in the shadow of a large pillar, all happily sharing a single large takeaway container of kebab. They had arranged themselves in a circle around this shared styrofoam box: one symbiotic multigenerational entity, armed with forks. Their luggage sat behind them as both backrest and ringed fortress, a formation familiar to me from years of camping out in unwieldy corners of airports and train stations for hours.

Whether the kebab shop wasn’t offering seating, or the family just felt safer away from the crowds, I can’t know. There was just something about the way they were, literally, a self-contained unit: their backs to the terminal, their faces turned inward toward each other, a nucleus of quietude within the larger, wilder mechanisms of the airport and a discomfiting world. I suppose I’m always struck by the myriad ways that humans make homes even in unlikely places. 

Many hours later, I looked out the plane window at the vast arid expanses of the Karoo desert. I realised I had forgotten the exhilaration of seeing new terrain from the sky. And as my flight began its descent toward Cape Town, I again looked out the window; this time, at the diamonds of farmland latticed together in great vacant plains beside the Hottentots Holland mountain range. Ochre, burnt umber, sap green: paint shades to name an aerial landscape resembling the neat rectangles of a watercolour palette. The plane dipped down lower, abruptly, and when my stomach dropped I realised I had forgotten what that feeling was like as well. 

These are the tremendous joys and privileges of travel, these instances of experiencing unexpected sensations or views or of bearing witness to the specific lives and actions of strangers.

In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes about the gulf between what we remember of travel and the tangible particulars of it, the latter of which have a tendency to get lost in remembrance. Largely this has to do with the fact that we bring ourselves—our bodies, anxieties, hopes—to destinations that we have envisioned in our minds’ eye. As the hackneyed expression goes: wherever you go, there you are. Anyone who has looked through a photo album from a past trip knows that in hindsight we mostly remember the scenic views, not the mosquito bites or the pick-pocketed wallet or the stress over a missed train. The same cherry picking phenomenon occurs when planning or imagining future travels, de Botton says. 

“It is easy to forget ourselves when we contemplate pictorial and verbal descriptions of places,” he writes. “At home, I could concentrate on pictures of a hotel room, a beach or a sky and ignore the complex creature in which this observation was taking place and for whom this was only a small part of a larger, more multifaceted task of living.”

Particularly at this moment when travel is so fraught and difficult, I wonder what gets lost or misinterpreted when we omit or forget the minutiae of the journey in all its complexity. And I wonder what we stand to gain, more generally, by acknowledging it.

I spent most of my 30-hour journey, and its preparation, preoccupied by physicality: the surfaces I touched, my proximity to other people, the layers of protection I and those around me were wearing. Essentially, the same concerns (albeit with a heightened stress level) that I’ve thought about daily when operating in this miniature world. New sensations, new ways of being, new aerial views of new landscapes were all novelties, puncturing a carefully sanitised bubble of self-awareness. These days there isn’t very much new. Many of us are living lives that are—necessarily—more constrained than we ever have, and over twelve long months we have on the superficial level become accustomed - or at least anaesthetised - to this smallness. It’s refreshing, if bittersweet, to be reminded of the larger world of experiences out there. To be reminded that somewhere in the cavernous liminal expanses of Istanbul Airport, there is a family sitting quietly on the floor, sharing a meal before boarding a plane to elsewhere. 

“It is unfortunately hard to recall our quasi-permanent concern with the future, for on our return from a place, perhaps the first thing to disappear from memory is just how much of the past we spent dwelling on what was to come; how much of it, that is, we spent somewhere other than where we were,” De Botton continues. “There is a purity both in the remembered and in the anticipated visions of a place: it is the place itself that is allowed to stand out.”

Late in my first afternoon in Cape Town, I gave up on unpacking and—in an effort to combat jet lag and stay awake until nightfall—went for a golden hour walk. I strolled through Deer Park: a sprawling network of trails, in the foothills of Table Mountain, which links the residential suburbs ringing the city bowl with the mountain and its wild beauty. I felt relieved to have been returned, after many months away, to this familiar environment of verdant fynbos and dappled light. Overhead, the mountain was gently subsumed in a windswept tablecloth of cloud.

It was a moment I had imagined many times during my long absence: what it would feel like to be back here, the sensory detail of it all. And so it was immensely gratifying. But it wasn’t surprising; I had perfected my mental postcard image many times over. The surprising thing, rather, was the visceral experience of the two days I spent in transit on my way here. How real and new it felt to experience the highs and lows of travel and to once again feel a part of a larger system: one small bubble amid multitudes of others, each on our own wavelength, carving out spaces and experiences and homes in tandem, all moving in the same world, all at once.

-Madeleine Bazil is a multidisciplinary artist and storyteller. She is interested in memory, intimacy, and the ways in which we navigate worlds — real and imagined. Madeleine lives and works in South Africa, where she is a master’s candidate of Documentary Arts at the University of Cape Town. She publishes a weekly newsletter, Cold Brew, which combines cultural criticisms and half-baked musings on life/love/art/current events. Her visual work can be found at madeleinebazil.com.


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