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Swanning Around the World

From Notes from 39,000 Feet

by Dale Rominger
Publisher: Xlibris Corp. UK Sr (Nov 2010)
ISBN-10: 1456802453
ISBN-13: 978-1456802455
Xlibris Press

Georgetown, Guyana, June 2006

On the Glamour of it All

This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time.[1]

I found myself sitting in the Georgetown, Guyana airport at 4:30 in the morning wondering if it was not time to start looking for a new job. I'd been in worse airports, but this one wasn't great.  I got up at 2:00 a.m. to have enough time to check out of the hotel, take the forty-five minute taxi ride to the airport, check in, get my boarding pass, make my way through passport control and catch a flight to Kingston. I had packed the night before and got little sleep. I stood in the line at passport control (yes, there was a line at 4:00 a.m.), but I hadn't realized there was an Airport Departure Tax (you should always ask before getting to the airport!). The nice man at the passport desk kept my passport and sent me back to the Departure Tax window where I discovered I didn't have enough Guyana cash. That nice man sent me out of the airport to a rundown café across the street with two sad looking customers where a not so nice woman gave me Guyana dollars for U.S. dollars. Her exchange rate was breathtaking.

This trip could have gone better. My schedule: London to Barbados to Georgetown (where I discovered half the people in the meeting thought I was there for an entirely different reason); Georgetown to Kingston (where I inadvertently offended one of my colleagues because I was too damn tired to get up early the next morning to see him in his new ministry - remember I had started that day at 2:00 a.m.); and finally Kingston to Havana (where I was robbed of all my cash on a late night taxi ride from the airport to the hotel).

It was the connecting flight in Barbados on the outward journey that got things off to a bad start. I arrived in the airport at around 3:00 p.m. and was told I had to go through passport control and customs (thus entering the country) even though I had a connecting flight. It took me an hour to get through the system at which point I walked five minutes back to passport control and then into the departure lounge (thus exiting the country). I think I spent ten minutes in Barbados before re-entering the "non-place" of the airport departure lounge. Once in, however, I still had three hours to wait for my flight, which did not come. There were no announcements, no explanations. I finally heard two airport employees discussing the fact that the runway lights had mysteriously gone out and there were no flights landing or taking off. By 10:00p.m. a crowd of people wanting to get home to Guyana were furious. A man in a bright orange shirt rallied the crowd and marched them to the information desk. I followed assuming this would be at least entertaining enough to kill some time. And it was, though I really felt sorry for the woman at the desk. She simply had no information as the airline was apparently  unable to tell her, or us, where the plane was, whether parked on the ground somewhere or flying high in the skies.

Havana, Cuba

At 11:00 p.m. we finally boarded, being told to take any seat we could find. I arrived in Georgetown at 1:00 a.m., made my way through the system and grabbed a taxi. The driver told me to sit in the front and started a running commentary the moment we drove off. At first I wanted him to shut up; I was tired and had no energy for a taxi driver conversation (you really do have to be in the right mood). But within ten minutes he had won me over and it was a great ride to the hotel. By the time I checked in, unpacked, and showered, it was almost 4:00 a.m. I had a meeting at 8:00 a.m. with a 7:30 a.m. pick up.

It is fair to say that the ministry of international relations is perceived as something far off and for the very few, understood by most people as church executives "swanning around the world" to meet other church executives in exotic places. I have often said that you need to deal with at least two of three things to do my job: the non-places of airplanes, airports and hotels. I can still tolerate airplanes and I often like hotels, but I hate airports.

On Airplanes

The charm of travelling is everywhere I go, tiny life…Fold into the standard airplane seat. You're a giant. The problem is your shoulders are too big. Your Alice in Wonderland legs are all of a sudden miles so long they touch the feet of the person in front. Dinner arrives, a miniature do-it-yourself Chicken Cordon Bleu hobby kit, sort of a put-it-together project to keep you busy.[2]

Clearly the word 'non-place' designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations the individuals have with these spaces.[3]

 I read Fight Club on a flight from London to Kingston and upon reading the above words I had two disassociated thoughts. First to Palahniuk: “couldn't have said it better myself.” Second to my airplane cup of coffee: “whether you are served in first class or economy, you are utterly horrible.”

Yes, I have had coffee in first class. The full shock of the revelation that I flew first class on church business leaves people in church pews across America and Britain horrified. So deep runs their dismay upon hearing the news, the British can only image Joseph Conrad's Mr. Kurtz's "cry that was no more than a breath…'The horror! The horror!'"[4], while wide-eyed Americans see Francis Ford Coppola's Colonel Kurtz emerge from the darkness whispering: "The horror. The horror…"[5] Death is too good for me!

The first class story is this: I was on the back end of a five week trip that literally took me around the world. However, I still had three days of meetings in Taipei followed by the journey home to London. I was exhausted and so called Marilyn (my superstar travel agent) and asked if my ticket was upgradeable. She said it was, but unfortunately business class was completely booked on my return flight. There was one seat left in first class which was, we both agreed, out of the question. It's one thing to upgrade to business and quite another to first class. It's all a matter of place and perception.

The next morning I went to the airline's headquarters in Taipei. I gave my ticket to a very nice young agent and asked if I could have an upgrade to business class. She disappeared to confer with her manager and was gone for about twenty minutes. Upon her return she said I could have an upgrade for a small fee, which was in fact a very small fee. I said great, gave her my credit card and she issued me a new ticket.

Just as she thought her business with me was completed, I asked if she could give me a seat assignment since I was there. Of course she could so she turned to her computer. In a matter of moments her face became transformed into a combination of alarm and embarrassment. She asked to be excused and once again sought out her manager. She returned in five minutes with a smile telling me that there were no more seats available in business class, but that there was one seat left in first class and the airline was happy to give me that seat for no extra cost, if that was acceptable. I humbly and gratefully accepted the airline's offer.

There is a moral to this story: it never hurts to ask for an upgrade. The worst that can happen is they say no. Often, however, they say yes. Sometimes it will cost you air miles. Sometimes it will cost you money, though never an amount even approaching the cost of an original business class ticket. Sometimes it will cost you nothing. If they don't give you an upgrade they may, if you ask nicely, block the seat next to you in economy.

As we all know there is a social order in airplanes with clear rules of behaviour, a social order based exclusively on money. The more you pay, the better life is, and believe me it is better if you pay more. Those of us who travel a lot can sidestep the hierarchy of wealth by using air miles, but even so, once you have stepped into the higher classes you are treated better.

The rules are clear. First class is at the front of the plane and economy class at the rear. Those in economy class cannot enter business class. Those in business class cannot enter first class. Those in first class can walk "down" through business and economy class. Those in business class can walk "down" into economy class. Those in economy class need to stay where they are. There are drawn curtains to divide the classes and flight attendants to guard the borders. After 9/11 U.S. carriers had eliminated the curtains and it was a joy to watch the attendants trying in vain to guard the borders. People can't be blamed for wanting a better life. People sitting at the front of economy look wistfully look into business class and people in business look just as wistfully into first class. We can only wonder what people in first class are wishful for. But whatever their wishes and desires, it is a truth that first class would not be as rewarding if there weren't business and economy classes. The comparison is part of the point. A Marxist airline would be a nightmare for a rich person.

Along with greater comfort, better food and warmer smiles people in first and business classes also get on and off the aircraft first and can use the lounges in airports. These are no small benefits, particularly when you fly dozens of times in a year and visit several countries at a time. The truth is, money delivers.

There is a telling scene towards the beginning of the film Jerry Mcguire which sums up the difference between the travelling haves and have nots. Jerry Mcguire (Tom Cruise) is sitting in first class while Dorothy Boyd (Renee Zellweger), a staff accountant in his office, sits with her son Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki) in economy. Jerry Mcguire working on his lap top, newspapers and magazines at his side, sitting next to a wealthy beautiful woman (of course), is served drinks and fresh fruit. The woman is on the phone, her conversation overheard by Jerry as he turns off his lap top and prepares to sleep. Despite himself he strikes up a pleasant conversation with the woman.

She laughs, it's an infectious laugh -- two strangers enjoying the good life -- as we RIFT BACK three rows, past the panel separating the cool comfort of first class from the stuffy airless and uncomfortable world of coach.

We meet DOROTHY BOYD, 26.  A harried passenger on this bus in the sky.  Her clothes are part-contemporary, part mother-functional. She is never as composed or in control as she wants to be. Right now she is devoted to the sneezing kid in the wrinkled white-shirt sitting next to her.  It is RAY, her five-year old son. Dorothy is                covered in toys and books...The easy laughter from three rows ahead washes over her like cold water, as she rings again for a Flight Attendant.  The                overworked ATTENDANT arrives, pissed, snapping off the bell.


Look, my son is allergic to the material in these blankets -

That's all we have.
The Attendant offers a bundle of soggy cocktail napkins and is about to exit as Ray makes a gagging noise.  He's about to get sick. Both women reach for an airsick bag,               and get it to his mouth just in time. Their faces are now inches apart.
I'm sorry I was rude just then --
It's okay.  We're in it together now...
The Attendant now exits helpfully with the bag.
Don't take anything I say seriously! I love to flirt!
Dorothy, irritated, leans out into the aisle to look for the heads that belong to these voices.
(The scene continues with Jerry and the woman talking about their respective relationships.)
She is now craning out into the aisle to hear this story. The plane is now quieter.  She listens to the easy sound of Jerry discussing his charmed life.
(waking up)
Mama –
Shhh.  Mommy's eavesdropping.
He sneezes, three big ones in a row.  She hands him more kleenex, riveted on the
story.  And listens.
(Jerry is speaking of his proposal to his fiancée and their upcoming marriage.)
Dorothy laughs to herself, somewhat derisively.  She tries to share the laugh with her son, who stares at her.
(Jerry continues telling the story of his proposal.)
She takes one of her son's kleenex sheets, as an elegant Flight Attendant shuts the curtain to first class. Dorothy blows her nose, moved against her will.
What's wrong, mom?
First class is what's wrong.  It used to be a better meal.  Now it's a better life.[6]
Don’t kid yourself, it is a better life, at least while you are airborne, and I, with disturbing ease, slip into that better life in airplanes and airports any chance I get. Anything to make the travelling more liveable.

Americans, more than the British, seem to have a better understanding of the exhausting effects of extensive air travel on the body and soul. The British are positively horrified to think that a minister might fly business class when travelling for the church. I went to a birthday party of a colleague held in a hotel dining room and sitting at my round table was a retired church executive. When he discovered what I did he let it be known to all at the table that he too had travelled extensively for the church during his ministry and he always, and he meant always, travelled economy class. There was a moral intensity to his statement akin to declaring his marital fidelity or his prima facia duty not kill another human beings. I said: “Yes, I agree totally!”

In my own defence, let me offer some flying facts, obtained mostly from InterHealth, which is a "medical charity providing specialist healthcare to people working primarily in the aid, development, mission and voluntary sectors both in the UK and overseas."[7]

In its newsletter Frontliners Spring 2006,[8] InterHealth listed the following health problems experienced by frequent travellers:

  • ·       Raised blood pressure;
  • ·       Weight problems;
  • ·       Raised cholesterol from unhealthy snacking;
  • ·       Insomnia;
  • ·       Chronic stress;
  • ·       Abnormal liver function;
  • ·       Irritable bowel;
  • ·       Migraines;
  • ·       Premature heart attacks.

Depending on personality types and personal values, people also have problems with:

  • ·       Overeating;
  • ·       Over drinking;
  • ·       Smoking;
  • ·       Abusing drugs; and
  • ·       Unsafe recreational sex, with the risk of HIV, Hepatitis B and Chlamydia.

Those two lists are about health issues and don't directly deal with jet lag. The NHS Direct Health Encyclopaedia has this to say about jet lag:

Jet lag happens when you cross over a number of time zones and disrupt the body's normal 'circadian' rhythms or 'biological clock'.

Your internal body clock controls when you are sleepy and when you are alert, as well as hunger, digestion, bowel habits, urine production, body temperature, secretion of hormones and blood pressure. This biological clock is normally synchronised with your local time so that you feel hungry in the morning and sleepy in the evening.

When you travel across time zones, the body needs time to adjust.[9]

The body needs time to adjust. Quite. Those who travel frequently know that our bodies never have time to adjust. It's often off the plane and into a meeting. Jet lag symptoms can include:

  • ·       Insomnia and/or highly irregular sleep patterns; feeling sleepy during the day, but not able    to sleep at night;
  • ·       Feeling disorientated and/or clumsy;
  • ·       Loss of appetite;
  • ·       Disrupted digestion and bowel habits;
  • ·       Nausea and/or upset stomach;
  • ·       Cold or flu-like symptoms;
  • ·       Dehydration;
  • ·       Headaches;
  • ·       Sinus irritation;
  • ·       Fatigue;
  • ·       Lack of concentration;
  • ·       Feeling less alert;
  • ·       Lack of energy;
  • ·       Feeling weak and light-headed;
  • ·       Memory problems; and
  • ·       Irritability and irrationality.[10]

And if you don't think any of that matters, jet lag can reduce your:

  • ·       memory by 20%;
  • ·       communication skills by 30%;
  • ·       capacity for decision making by 50%; and
  • ·       attention by 75%.[11]

Most air accidents occur during take-off, when the aircraft is under the most stress, and during landing, when the pilot is under the most stress. That means, there are only six minutes of real worry time on a flight. Actually, I don’t worry about dying in a plane crash anymore. If I die on the job it will be in someone's taxi or car or mini-van. However, I do wait to remove my shoes until we're some minutes into the flight and the seatbelt sign is turned off. While it’s true that it is very unlikely that I will survive a crash during take-off, if I do I would rather be running through the rubble and flames with my shoes on. In flight I do what I'm supposed to do, though I do drink alcohol. I drink water and walk around, but I can't sleep. Even in business class on a flat bed I can't sleep. If I do get an upgrade I can at least plug my laptop into the seat for power as long as I want.

The trick is not to think about what you are doing or for how long you have to do it. I don't think about the fact that I am in a relatively fragile metal cylinder flying at high speeds and high altitudes. I don't think about the ten or more hours I am imprisoned in this tube. I eat, drink, work, read, listen to music and talk to the attendants, if they seem in the right mood. On most airlines the attendants are great, but I am very slow to approach attendants on U.S. carriers. Not a happy bunch.

A good international itinerate minister has to be prepared. You need equipment, lots of equipment, when boarding an aircraft for a long haul flight. Here is what I carry on a flight:

  • ·       Laptop computer (work supplies me with an IBM ThinkPad);
  • ·       Airplane seat connecting kit to plug your laptop into the plane seat (I've opted for the Kensington kit);
  • ·       Mobile phone (for me Nokia E65) and USB port connection to recharge your mobile on your laptop;
  • ·       MP3 player (Creative Zen) and a USB port connection for recharging on your laptop;
  • ·       Headphones (Definitely Bose Acoustic Cancelling® headphones);
  • ·       A couple of good books are essential, and, of course, the Good Book. Mine is small with a plastic water resistant cover which fits in the smallest outside pocket of my suitcase. So far it hasn't been stolen; and
  • ·       A carry-on suitcase; no matter how long I'm away or how wrinkled my clothes will get.[12]

I only watch movies on board when the time is dragging, or rather when time has stopped completely and I realize I will never escape the tube. “In flight” is what Marc Augé calls the "urgency of the present moment." Marc Augé's Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity had been sitting on my shelf for a long long time. When I was packing for the trip to Kingston, I pulled if off the shelf. Being unread and potentially interesting, it was also only 122 pages long and easy to carry. So I stuck it in the outer compartment of my suitcase next to Flight Club, which seemed a good combination. Sitting on an airplane for twelve hours and in airports for several more is either the worst or the best place to read this book. Try it. Augé has this to say about time:

The present of the journey, materialized today on long-distance flights by a screen giving minute-to-minute updates on the aircraft's progress. From time to time the flight captain makes this explicit in a somewhat redundant fashion: “The city of Lisbon should be visible to the right of the aircraft.” Actually there is nothing to be seen; once again, the spectacle is only an idea, only a word.[13]

Actually, the onboard flight information takes three minutes to circle through its routine. Altitude and flight speed may be interesting, but what I'm looking for is time to destination.

I was once on a flight from Bangkok to New York that lasted seventeen and a half hours. My travel itinerary from my travel agent included the air time for each leg of my journey. I hadn't looked at the time for this flight until I was sitting on the plane waiting for take-off. I almost cried when I saw the flight time. I didn't know commercial aircraft could fly that long without falling down. Fortunately I was on Thai Airways with gracious and friendly attendants.

Maputo, Mozambique

Whichever way you look at it, flying is bad for your body and soul. Frequent flying is worse. And more than not, my journeys are overnight flights which means I leave the airport at my destination and go straight into an itinerary that will last most of the day, if not into the night.

I flew on an overnight flight to Johannesburg where I then sat in the airport for a few hours waiting for a flight to Maputo, Mozambique. This was my first visit to Mozambique and I arrived in Maputo on a Saturday morning. I got through the system fairly quickly (if I get off the plane among the first passengers there is a good chance I will be first in line at passport control. Because I'm white I rarely get stopped by customs officers, and I always carry my suitcase on the plane so I don't have to wait for the bags to appear on the moving belt). Outside the airport were four delightful men from the Presbyterian Church in Mozambique. We walked to a truck with benches in the covered flat bed, but I was asked to sit in the front. As we drove off, Mario handed me the order of service for the next day's afternoon's special worship service, explaining that some five thousand people would be worshipping together in an annual gathering. It sounded exciting so I looked down the order of worship, until I came to "Sermon: Rev. Dale Rominger."

I turned to Mario and asked: "By 'sermon' you mean a greeting from the United Reformed Church?"

Mario smiled (he always smiles) and said: "No. You are giving the Sermon."

First I had heard about it!

"How long are your sermons in the Presbyterian Church in Mozambique?"

"You should preach for 45 minutes to an hour."

"Could you please take me to my hotel?"

"Yes. We planned for you to rest at the hotel until it is time for the service."

Let's see. No sleep on the flight from London to Johannesburg. Exhausted. Wrinkled clothes. Churning stomach. 20% loss of memory.  30% loss of my communication skills. 75% loss in attention. Go back to the above lists and read them again. That's me, but with a difference. I now have a sermon in my head that can run 15, 30, 45, or 60  minutes.

On Airports

If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.[14]

The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relationships; only solitude, and similitude…What reigns there is actuality, the urgency of the present moment. Since non-places are there to be passed through, they are measured in units of time. Itineraries do not work without timetables, lists of departure and arrival times in which a corner is always found for a mention of possible delays. [15]

The non-place is the opposite of utopia: it exists, and it does not contain any organic society.[16]

An airport is certainly the opposite of utopia. I hate airports. Where else can someone take you into a little room, stick their fingers up your ass and not get in any trouble. In fact, if anyone got into trouble, it would be you for resisting.

Airports are not places to stop and stay. They are places where personal and corporate history lose their meaning, where relations are not only irrelevant but a waste of time. They are places best described as mechanical, not organic.

Airports are paradoxical. Paradox one: time is completely irrelevant and absolutely relevant. You can sit in a café and see someone having coffee, orange juice, bacon, eggs and toast, while someone else is having a beer, hamburger, fries and chocolate cake. Time is without meaning because it depends upon where you have come from and where you are going. And yet, time is crucially important because you just don't want to miss your flight and become stranded in this non-place, particularly if they won't let you in the business or first class lounges. While, sitting on an airplane delayed for departure because one or two passengers were "missing," I asked the attendant why we just didn't shut the door and leave. She told me the obvious dilemma faced by the captain: which will delay the plane the least, waiting for the passengers to show up or finding their luggage in the hold and removing it? But then she told me something I didn't know. She said some 80% of flights are delayed because of missing passengers and removing luggage. I would guess that most of them are late because people are sitting in an airport bar or are shopping. 

Paradox two: in an airport your identity is meaningless and utterly crucial. Nobody cares who you are. You can disappear into the crowd. You are the crowd. I found these words of Augé, quoted above, interesting: "The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relationships; only solitude, and similitude…" It is true that while in airports I am willing give up my "singular identity" and pretty much want to be left alone. To the people who work in the airport, including the airline employees, I have no identity, I am just like any other passenger. All I need is the correct documentation for I am nobody. I looked up the word similitude and found: one closely resembling another; a counterpart; a duplicate copy. That about covers it. I'm a copy of most everyone else in the airport. Not in the literal sense of appearance or background, for both are unimportant, but in the sense of existence in a non-place.

On the other hand, your singular identity is vitally important to the officials in charge. Before you can go anywhere you have to pass through passport control. At this point you can be stared out, finger printed, eye scanned. Your details are either written down or scanned directly into the computer network. Your name, address, phone number, credit card numbers and God only knows what else is sent directly to the United States where they are stored. You've been had.

Lose your passport and your right of movement will be lost as well. The bizarre story of Merhan Karimi Nasseri is the dramatic case in point. In 1988 Merhan Karimi Nasseri was stranded in Terminal One of the Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris. A refugee from Iran, for ten years he sought asylum in Europe. In 1988 his briefcase holding his refugee papers was stolen in a Paris airport. Regardless, he boarded a plane for London where Heathrow Airport officials sent him back to Charles De Gaulle because he did not have a passport. Upon arriving in France he was arrested for illegal entry and then, given the fact that he had no documentation and thus no official recognised country of origin to which the French authorities could deport him, he took up residence in Terminal One until August 1, 2006.

Steven Spielberg's film The Terminal may have been inspired by Nasseri's real life situation, but Spielberg made no mention of Nasseri and reduced his story to a sentimental filial quest slightly complicated by romantic love, ignoring issues of identity, home, justice and international politics. He also did not mention that the life details of Viktor Navorski, the Nasseri substitute played by Tom Hanks, had been placed in the computer system of a privately owned company which was working for the United States government. It is Nasseri's story, not Navorski's, that grabs our imagination. It challenges belief (surely they didn't really make a man spend eighteen years in an airport terminal?). It sobers the soul (surely bureaucratic legalities cannot override human rationality and compassion?).

As our beliefs are challenged and our souls sobered, we are also shocked because airports are not for living in. They are for passing through. To be trapped in the non-place of an airport is a Kafkaesque nightmare.

I was once stranded overnight in the Lagos airport. I honestly don't know how Merhan Karimi Nasseri survived. I was flying from Luanda, Angola to Accra, Ghana with a connecting flight in Lagos. Unfortunately, it was the last flight from Lagos to Accra that evening and it was cancelled. I did not have a visa to enter Nigeria so had to stay in the airport. It's an horrible feeling, slowly walking around an airport as it shuts down for the night. It gets darker, colder, lonelier. It's being far away from home. It's being helpless with nowhere to go. It's an airport for God's sake.

I finally convinced an airline representative to give me a pass to the business lounge where I sat and slumped and tried to sleep until 1:00 a.m. At one a small woman in an airport uniform told me to get out. She was going home for the night and I had to get out. Why? The damn place was empty! “Get out!” “But I have nowhere to go.” “Get out!” She walked me to the door and I walked off, but returned in a half an hour, put two chairs together and tried to sleep. I wasn't alone. There were two men, whom I assumed worked in the airport, doing the same. In the morning the same woman found me and reduced me to an adolescent boy. I had no defences. I was shamed by her rebuke. I slumped out thanking God I didn't have a tail. I wandered around for three hours until an airline rep found me and gave me a new ticket for the first flight to Accra that morning. He took me to the window and pointed to the actual plane that was to take me away from this horrible place. He even pointed out that they had just started loading the luggage, which we could see clearly. I watched until they were done. My luggage was not to be seen. As far as I know, it was stolen in Luanda because I never saw it again.

Airports are anxiety producing, high tension environments where people use alcohol and shopping to dull their senses. They are often crowded with long lines and draconian security measures. We used to be checked for weapons and bombs and now we are checked for liquids. Off with my jacket, shoes, belt, out with my liquids and laptop. The shopping is not soothing or distracting but frenetic. I hate airports. I nurture my frequent flier memberships, desperately wanting to hold on to my gold cards so I can use the business lounge, even if I'm flying economy. In the lounge you find  free food and drink, comfortable chairs, internet access and fewer people. In the lounge is the reminder of civilization and sanity. In the lounge are the rich people of whom I am so critical, but having no personal integrity to draw upon when I'm in airports, I pretend I am one of them. I'm worthless in airports and come the day of reckoning I know I will have to pay.

In many countries passport control offices are rude and purposively slow. On a journey that includes two, three, four or five countries hours can be spent in passport control lines. My passport has numerous stamps and additional pages added and often the officer, he or she behind the high desk, and I standing passively trying to give off no vibrations or clues to my mood, will slowly look through each page. It takes for-bloody-ever. It is maddening and a challenge to my calmness, but these people are not the people to antagonise.

The Angola airport is the worst I have ever experienced. Avoid it if you can. The soldiers, police and security personnel do all they can to intimidate you. The passport control officers are deliberately slow to annoy you, for no one could actually be that incompetent. Once you pass through security, belt and shoes off, bags through the x-ray machine, a policeman will more than likely take you to a little room. What he wants is money. One such encounter went like this:

"How much money do you have?" the policeman asked. I looked through my travel wallet.

"I have one hundred U.S. dollars and sixty British pounds," I said looking at him.

"I want it," the policeman said looking as intimidating as he could. In response, I could not believe the words coming out of my mouth.

"No way!" I said angrily. As I said these words my mind was saying "Dale, don't be a fool. This is his country and his airport and he is in control."

He just looked at me surprised and said, "Go." I did.

That was stupid. It's their world and they are wearing the uniforms. Once when leaving Israel I marvelled at the power emanating from the uniformed people checking bags and interrogating passengers. They were just kids. Mostly passport control officers are just unfriendly, but some are rude, and many simply must enjoy slowing us down. Some find it necessary to take off all our clothes and stick their finger up our asses. If this ministry has taught me anything, it includes patience and calmness and how to display a complete lack of interest, regardless of what I am feeling inside.

I hate airports.

On Hotels

The charm of travelling is everywhere I go, a tiny life. I go to the hotel, tiny soap, tiny shampoos, single-serving butter, tiny mouthwash and a single-use toothbrush.[17]

A paradox of non-place: a foreigner lost in a country he does not know (a 'passing stranger') can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, big stores or hotel chains.[18]

I don't hate hotels. In fact, I like them. As a frequent traveller I have joined hotel schemes similar to frequent flier schemes and these, more than not, get me a free drink or an upgraded room, but always a warm smile. I've stayed in nice hotels and I've stayed in shit holes, but I always go back to the same hotel if I can. InterHealth tells me that I should seek routine and familiarity to reduce the stress of travel. It works. When arriving in Kingston or Johannesburg I know precisely what to do, where I'm going and what I will find when I get there. So it is the Hilton in Kingston, the InterContinental in Johannesburg, the Holiday Inn in Maputo and Bangkok, the National in Havana, the Traders Inn Hotel in Yangon, the Golden Tulip in Accra, and so on.

These sound like good hotels and some of them are, but given the local economy and the exchange rates they are fairly inexpensive for me. Be assured that the Hilton in Kingston is a very different experience from the Hilton in London or New York. However, the world is unfair and I know that many of my colleagues and friends in countries I visit cannot afford a drink in some of these hotels, let alone a stay in them.

I have a friend in Washington D.C. who would criticise me for staying in these hotels simply because they are so far removed from the life of the people I am visiting. He is right. However, when I am visiting for only two or three days to arrange or evaluate programmes I am not going to burden my hosts with the expense of keeping me in their homes. I am not going to wade into the complications and sensitivities of insulting their hospitality by offering money to compensate them for my stay. And the bottom line, I want some comfort, internet access in my room, safety, room service so I can hide away if I so desire, and laundry service. I'm away from the office for long stretches of time and need to keep up with the email. People don't expect me to be out of touch when I'm gone. They expect me to keep doing all of my job, not just part of it.

While hotels are non-places, they can be a home, of a sorts, though it is to be sure a strange kind of home, a fabrication. First is the familiarity. When I know what I am walking into there is a kind of coming home quality to it. It is a quality that makes my job easier also makes being away from home easier. It's about not being a stranger, though in reality you are a stranger to the staff you meet. In most hotels I know what the hotel and its grounds look like, what my room will look like, where the restaurant and bar are, what I can expect from room service, whether there is wireless internet connection and so on. It is a deception, but they feel like my home away from home. It's is all about playing the traveller's game: existing in the artificiality of non-places and feeling organically real.

Hotel relationships, if that's what we can call them, are artificially contrived for a specific purpose. When I arrive at the hotel in Kingston, walk to the front desk, say I have a reservation and give my name, a young and usually attractive woman or man looking at their computer monitor will say something like: “Mr. Rominger, it is so nice to have you back with us. How are you?” Of course they don't know me and I know that they have just seen on the monitor the number of times I have visited the hotel, but I go along with the social deception of familiarity because it makes me feel welcomed. After ten hours in the air, I want to feel welcomed.

The relationships are task based and superficially friendly, perhaps sometimes artificially friendly. However, they feel friendly and that's what counts. Artificial relationships at home are unacceptable, but while travelling they are necessary. I have defined relationships with waiters, managers, barmen and barwomen, housekeepers, and front desk staff. We all know what to do and how to do it. If they don't know how to play their role, it is unlikely I will return. These relationships don't mean anything beyond the task, but without them I would be lost.

There are times when you actually think the artificiality of it all gives way to a touch of genuine human interaction, as if both parties actually want to be friendly within their respective roles. I was staying in a hotel in downtown San Francisco and went down to the bar with a book in hand for an afternoon drink. The barman came up to me:

“Hi. I'm Harry. How are you today?”

“Hi, I'm Dale.”

“Nice to meet you. What will it be?”

“I'll have a rum and coke.”

“Is Cap Morgan OK?”


“Coming right up.”

The next afternoon I was back down in the bar and Harry came up:

“Hi Dale. How's it going? Cap Morgan again?”

I felt absolutely great. He was doing his job well.

However, if ever I forget the defined nature and limitations of hotel relationships, there will be someone to remind me of their non-place contractual realities. The hotel in Accra has a pool, an outside restaurant and bar, a small stage for local bands, and beyond trees and walkways. I do not sleep well and a night walk in these grounds is safe and pleasant. However, within a minute or two of walking in the grounds I will be joined by a young woman who will say, "Do you want a friend?" The first time this happened to me I was startled. The second time I asked how much friendship costs and the answer was fifty U.S. dollars. Fifty dollars is a lot of money for a woman in Accra but not a lot of money for a businessman alone in a hotel. During another stay at this hotel a young woman actually sat down at my dinner table while I was eating and asked if I needed a friend.

I can't count the number of times women, usually young and attractive, have approached me while I was staying in hotels. One night at the hotel in Johannesburg I went down to the lobby around 10:00 p.m. looking for a newspaper. Returning to my room a woman joined me in the elevator, leaned up against me and said she wanted to have a Red Bull in my room. In Taipei a woman soliciting for others just outside the hotel door asked if I wanted a young girl. In Georgetown I was approached by a woman who asked if I wanted sex and pleasure. When I said no, she looked genuinely surprised and said with an intonation of disbelief, "You don't want sex and pleasure. Why don't you want pleasure?" I just looked at her and said I didn't know and she walked away with a bemused look on her face. Sometimes the approach is much more direct: “Do you want a suck and a fuck?” Sometimes it is more subtle. In Prague a middle aged women with her elderly mother in tow asked if I wanted to have a drink. As I said “No,” the mother looked disappointed. The daughter gently persisted saying that after the drink…All this attention is not because I am charming or good looking. It is simply that I often travel alone and a man alone in a hotel is a good target. If they didn't get business they wouldn't be in business. 

On one of my visits to Maputo I returned to the hotel after 10:00 p.m. after a day that started at 7:30 a.m. The restaurant was closed and the bar had stopped serving food. I went to the bar and got a brandy to take to my room. At the bar sat an attractive woman in her mid-thirties drinking a beer. She smiled at me, I smiled back and went to my room. The next day, after another long day, she was once again at the bar and once again she smiled at me, this time with a bit more warmth. I went up to my room and emailed my wife. The email exchange went something like this:

Dale: There is a woman working the bar downstairs.

Roberta: How do you know she is a sex worker.

Dale: I'm in my mid-fifties, a bit overweight and beginning to lose my hair. When a woman smiles at me like that I know she wants money.

It has nothing to do with my sex appeal and everything to do with travelling alone, money and injustice. At times these hotel advances can be annoying, though if truth be told I don't begrudge women in these circumstances trying to make money with their bodies. I travel in desperately poor areas of the world where the poverty is crushing and the opportunities are almost nonexistent. Before you condemn me, visit an African township, Brazilian favela or Indian chawl[19].

I accompanied a group of United Reformed Church ministers and lay people to the World Council of Churches meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2007. A few of the group spent a day visiting a church project in the favelas near Porto Alegre. A women minister at dinner that night described how she met local women who spent their days on huge garbage mountains sifting through the waste of human existence. This is their job. This is how they provided for their children. From the trash they find items that can be reused, fixed, sold. My female colleague asked the question: “Would I rather spend my life digging in a garbage dump or selling my body to get the money to feed my daughter?” She answered her own question: “I think I would rather sell my body.” Before you are overly critical, spend even five minutes in one of the thousands of huge waste dumps around the world digging with your bare hands.

Whichever way you look at it, it's unacceptable to have to work on a garbage dumb or become a sex worker. It is, however,  politically, socially, economically acceptable that uncounted numbers of women live this way. If it were not, they would not be faced with these choices. This is the world we have created and the world we purposely maintain and protect. It takes an act of a certain kind of will to do so. We do not lack the intelligence, energy or resources to change the world. We lack the will. Poverty pays for the very few. It is not an accident.

In 2005 it was estimated that one billion people lived in slums making up an amazing 78.2% of city dwellers in the least developed countries in the world. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme described slums as places of "overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure."[20] For those keeping records, Mumbai is the slum-dwelling capital of the world with 10 to 12 million people squatting or living in run down tenements.[21]

It is now estimated that the planet accommodates 200,000 slums "ranging in population from a few hundred to more than a million people."[22] Informal housing means homes made of any material available: wood, cardboard, scrap metal, plastics, stone, bricks, tree branches, car doors, wire, rope, twine, newspapers, whatever can be found. In Cairo's City of the Dead one million people have taken up residence in the city's graveyard. Cenotaphs and grave stones are used as desks, tables and shelves. Laundry is strung up between grave markers. Vaults are turned into homes.[23] People live on rooftops, in boats and rafts in city rivers, in "hand-me-down" overcrowded and dilapidated tenements and colonial mansions, once occupied by the middle classes and the rich who deserted the city. Or, people simply live in the city streets, probably close to their work, if indeed they have work.[24]

From my hotel window in Kalkata I watched as each evening a family camped out on the sidewalk across the street. They came with blankets and some clothing, slept through the night and disappeared in the morning. From my hotel in Luanda, I could watch children gather at water tanks filled with water trucked in from the outer regions. While eating breakfast in a Havana hotel, an old man came up to the window and gave me the finger. He no doubt lived in, or on, the city's cuarterias.

One day Mario of the Presbyterian Church in Mozambique and I took two of my colleagues from the United Kingdom on a tour of Maputo's surrounding township. After several hours I suggested to Mario that we head back to the hotel. He agreed, and then with a smile said: "It's time to return to the First World." He was, of course, right. We were staying in the Holiday Inn.[25] The hotels I visit are First World intrusions into Two-thirds World realities. Often the boundaries are well defined and protected though not sealed. While local people are welcome in the restaurants and bars, people selling local goods are not allowed into the hotel or its grounds. Every time I walk into a hotel, I know precisely what I am walking into and why I am doing it.

In order to do my job I stay in First World hotels. Or, in order to survive my job I compromise my integrity on most every trip I take. For me and the church I work for, it is not actually about the money. As I said, given local economies and exchange rates the hotels are reasonable. It is about keeping going. Most trips are planned to include two, three or four countries whenever possible. That only makes sense. But that means jumping from one place to another, from one hotel to another, from one oasis to another. I have to work, I have to sleep, I have to clean my clothes and I have to feel as good as I can.

In the film Lost in Translation, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, Bill Murray plays Bob Harris a movie star on the backside of his career. He has come to Tokyo to make a whiskey commercial. We see a man weary with jet lag, unable to sleep, uneasy about the food, offered a sex worker, calling home from time to time. In one or two scenes we see him sitting at his hotel bar by himself sipping a whiskey. I saw this film with friends and afterwards over dinner one of them said how terribly sad (with a tonality that implied pitiful) it was for a man to be sitting in a hotel bar drinking by himself. For a moment I was startled. Then I laughed and said: “Hey, that's me, that's what I do. It's not so bad.”

Actually it is and it isn't. At times, not only do I enjoy the solitude of a hotel, I need it. And at times, sitting in the hotel restaurant with a book or newspaper, eating by myself, or eating a room service meal on my bed watching TV, I do wonder what the hell I am doing. At times the aloneness feels good. But at other time the loneliness feels horrible. It is, after all, just life in a non-place.

In Conclusion

It seems only fitting to close with word from Augé and Palahniuk. Augé first:

When an international flight crosses Saudi Arabia, the hostess announces that during the overflight the drinking of alcohol will be forbidden in the aircraft. This signifies the intrusion of territory into space. Land = society = nation = culture = religion: the equation of anthropological place, fleetingly inscribed in space. Returning after an hour or so to the non-place of space, escaping from the totalitarian constraints of place, will be just like a return to something resembling freedom.[26]

It is true. Being away with all its problems and challenges is a form of freedom. Often returning to "normal" life feels oppressive: office politics and realities of a declining church. The non-stop all-embracing Church arguments about sex, a topic always avoided in international ministry. Faulty plumbing and grass to be cut. Demanding people. And never-ending challenges about programme budgets and travelling expenses. At times non-place space doesn't seem all that bad, particularly when you spend a healthy part of your year pitching your tent there.

Finally Palahniuk:

I look at God behind his desk, taking notes on a pad, but God's got this all wrong.

We are not special.

We are not crap or trash, either.

We just are.

We just are, and what happens just happens.

And God says, 'No, that's not right.'

Yeah. Well. Whatever. You can't teach God anything.

God asks me what I remember.

I remember everything.[27]

Either none of us is special or we are all special. But the point is, the universe, global economics, global warming, international injustice, contemporary slave trade, sex trafficking, disease, poverty, HIV/AIDS, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts and warlords, don't give a damn about us. If God does, he/she/it keeps it a good secret. That friend in Washington D.C. who would mock me for the hotels I stay in, well he travelled for the church more than I ever have and has been around the world a couple more times than I have. I asked him once if he were happy. He said that he wasn’t. That he'd seen too much and knew too much. And like me, he couldn’t forget a damn thing.


[1] Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. London: Vintage: 2003, p. 29.

[2] Ibid., p. 28.

[3] Augé, Marc. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London: Verso, 1995, p. 94.

[4] Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. David Campbell Publishers, Ltd.: London, 1967, p. 98.

[5] Apocalypse Now, Redux: 2001.

[6] The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb)., April 7, 2007.

[7] InterHealth., March 31, 2007.

[8] InterHealth has replaced Frontliners with E-Health Newsletter.

[9]National Health Service Direct., March 31, 2007.

[10] Google "jet lag" and you will find any number of symptoms that include those listed here.

[11] Frontliners, Spring 2006.

[12] This list is, of course, now outdated, but at the time of writing was state of the art.

[13] Augé, p. 104.

[14] Ibid., pp.  77-78.

[15] Ibid., pp.  103-104.

[16] Ibid., pp.  111-112.

[17] Palahniuk, op.cit., p. 28.

[18] Augé, op.cit., p. 106.

[19] Chawls, once dwellings for middle class Indians, are often now "dilapidated, one room rental dwellings that cram a household of six people into 15 square meters; the latrine is usually shared with six other families." Davis, op.cit., p. 34.

[20] Ibid., p. 23.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., p. 26.

[23] Ibid., p. 33.

[24] Many street dwellers are living in the street to be near their work. For example, of the estimated one million people living on the sidewalks of Mumbai, approximately 97% have at least one breadwinner in the family. See Davis, op.cit., p.36.

[25] Now the Southern Sun Hotel.

[26] Augé, op.cit., p. 116.

[27] Palahniuk, op.cit., p. 207

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