Travelling and waiting

I was cycling across London the other day when rain suddenly pelted down. There were all of about three warning drops and then – kaboom – I was under a power shower.

The only thing worse than being out in the rain, is cycling in the rain. One gets about three times as wet, one’s vision is severely impaired by the water flying diagonally at one’s face, and braking suddenly becomes a fair bit skiddier.

So, as I was in no particular hurry, I hopped off the road and decided I’d wait it out under a leafy plane tree that was conveniently offering shelter by the roadside. I stood there and realised I had nothing to do other than wait. It would have looked a trifle eccentric to read a book on the street corner (mind you I probably looked a trifle eccentric in any case), and I didn’t really want to phone somebody up for a chat in the middle of the afternoon just to tell them I was marooned.

Waiting was rather pleasant. I watched cars zoom past; traffic lights change colour (many times); a disgruntled Asian gentleman sheltering under the newsagent’s awning opposite; a woman whose blonde hair had turned brown from all the water, marching determinedly through the monsoon; a couple of men carrying two crates of beer, semi-running, semi-hopping down the street, squinting through the downpour.

It occurred to me that it is very rare, really, to be on a street corner in London with nothing to do other than have one’s eyes upon the street. (Jane Jacobs take note.)

It reminded me of being somewhere else, somewhere foreign, on holiday, travelling. It was partly the severity of the rain. It was like an Indian monsoon, in which stepping out in it means getting soaked to the bone, so, when I was in India during the rainy season, I whiled away many hours doing not very much in various cafés. But it was also not being in a hurry, being able to just idle around for ten minutes or so.

Part of the whole travelling ‘experience’ is learning to kill time – to sit and watch people, or a street, or nothing much at all. But the place where most time is spent looking out at the world drift past must be on a train.

I’ve just read Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, his account of travelling all over Europe and Asia by train. It’s a very funny book, not least because he is clearly a complete and utter (sorry, I hate to use this word) twat. His manner of observing and casting judgements upon people, places, sometimes entire nations, is at once unbelievably patronising and stuck up but also rather astute.

Take this passing description of Bangkok:

Bangkok, a hugely preposterous city of temples and brothels, required visitors. The heat, the traffic, the noise, the cost in this flattened anthill make it intolerable to live in; but Bangkok, whose discomfort seems a calculated discouragement to residents, is a city for transients. Bangkok has managed to maintain its massage-parlour economy without the soldiers [from ’nam], by advertising itself as a place where even the most diffident foreigner can get laid. So it prospers. After the early morning Floating Market Tour and the afternoon Temple Tour, comes the evening Casanova Tour … As Calcutta smells of death and Bombay of money, Bangkok smells of sex, but this sexual aroma is mingled with the sharper whiffs of death and money.

It’s an outrageous description: ‘Preposterous, anthill, intolerable, discomfort, massage-parlour economy, a place where even the most diffident foreigner can get laid, smells of sex’. Ouch. But he’s got a point. Bangkok does thrive off its sex industry, and mostly thanks to tourists turning up for its sex shows and brothels. I suppose at least it doesn’t smell just of death, like Calcutta apparently does.

Anyway, I digress. What really struck me about Paul Theroux’s book, other than how he manages to be rude and funny and insightful at once, is how little he does. Life on a train consists of sitting around in a sleeping compartment and sitting around in a dining car. Occasionally there’s a ‘lounge car’ in which one can also sit. While sitting around, one can read, converse with fellow passengers, eat, drink, and look out of the window. Well, at least those seem to have been Paul Theroux’s options in the seventies. Nowadays one could probably spend a twenty-hour journey completely absorbed in various apps on an iPhone.

Theroux recounts conversations and drinking with other passengers – especially the brilliant Molesworth, who only drinks alcohol aboard a train, reserving his single bottle of Perrier for brushing his teeth. But he gives the distinct impression that he’s not the friendliest of passengers, not often keen to chat. This encounter with a Mr Radia is reasonably typical:

I saw he was trying to read the cover of the book I had opened. It was The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, a parting gift from Mr Gupta of the Simla ashram.

‘Are you interested in yoga?’ asked Mr Radia.

‘No,’ I said, studying the book closely. I wet my finger and turned a page.

‘I am,’ said Mr Radia. ‘Not the physical side, but the mental side. The benefit is there.’

‘The physical side is the best part.’

‘Not for me. For me it is all mental. I like to exercise my mind with debates and discussions of all kinds.’

I snapped the book shut and left the compartment.

Theroux spends a great deal of time sleeping, occasionally reading, writing (of course), but mostly not doing very much at all.

I had to stop cycling, stand still, and look out at a perfectly unremarkable scene to remember that travelling can be as much about staring vacantly at not very much and letting one’s mind drift onto higher (or lower) planes, as getting from one place to another. And when it eventually brightened up and I got back on to my bike, just in time for a viciously steep hill, to be beeped at by a grumpy taxi driver and nearly taken out by a car turning left without indicating, I remembered that, when cycling, one usually does need all one’s concentration just to get from A to B.

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