I am the living embodiment of Pico Iyer’s Global Soul. I spend more nights sleeping in planes and hotels than at home, more hours on flights than in my office, and send more e-mail from my blackberry than my computer. At any given time, I can tell you which champagne is being served in the BA lounge at Heathrow, the best choices for breakfast on the flight to Mumbai or the hotels with the best gyms across the Middle East. I have a British Airways gold card, a Jet Airways platinum card and a Hyatt diamond card. I was initially thrilled with this lifestyle but in a few weeks it quickly degraded into what seemed like a constantly suspended state of jet lag. Travel was not about seeing places or meeting people but simply getting business done and getting out as soon as possible. I use all my time on flights to do work on the lap-top, my time at hotels to catch up on my fitness, and my time at the airport to buy clothes, shoes, toiletries often even more mundane things like milk and bread ! All I would ever see of the countries I visited were immigration lines, hotel rooms and offices – I would seldom even see the scenery while sitting in taxis electing instead to tap away on the blackberry. I’ve been to some countries a dozen times and don’t know the first thing about the local food, language or the architecture. Such intense travel quickly become a chore rather than a privilege and left me so tired that I didn’t have the energy to do much more than watch TV or sleep during the few days when I was home.
My biggest fear while growing up was that my life will be meaningless. To compensate, I elected to work as an infrastructure financier, a profession where I can get involved in ‘big’ things in the developing world – things that make a ‘big’ difference in the places that need it most. Growing up in Sholinganallur in the constant fear of power cuts, I know first hand the difference that good infrastructure can make to our lives. I haven’t been able to help solve the electricity situation in Chennai yet but I’ve worked on power plants in Pakistan, a steel plant in Saudi Arabia, a telecoms network in Yemen, a plastics factory in Oman, a fertiliser plant in Qatar, a pipeline in the UAE and much, much more. If I cannot physically see or touch the results of my work, I feel like I’ve wasted my time. I’m terrible with numbers (as my math teachers at Sishya remember to this day) so banking was a strange choice of career but its grown on me and I suspect that I’ll keep doing this for some time to come.
Five years into this self-destructive lifestyle, I decided that this needs to stop. There is more to life than e-mails, spreadsheets and financing proposals. This morning I decided to break the trend. Rather than firing up the Nespresso machine in the room and opening up my lap top, I put on my running shoes asked the Concierge for advice on what I could do with the early hours of the morning in Beijing – a walk around the Summer Palace was recommended. When I asked for the public transportation route to get there (having seen the horrors of Beijing traffic from my room on the 43rd floor), the concierge nearly fainted – I don’t think any of the guests at the hotel have ever asked for the subway map! In any case, I persisted and in a few minutes found myself buying the CNY 2 ticket for a one way ticket across the city.
Having used public transport in London, Paris and New York for many years, I have some rather fixed ideas about how commuters behave. In China things are different, everyone walks (not pushing or shoving but all walking at broadly the same pace – almost seems like they are marching!) through the long shiny corridors of the stations and wait for the trains in the same disciplined manner. When the trains arrived, no one cut the line and people boarded in the same organized manner. When the train was full, no one tried to squeeze themselves inside but patiently waited on the platform for the next train. Based on everything I have read about China so far (normally negative on anything other than GDP growth rates), I instinctively put this perception of order down to decades of an oppressive regime leading to a population too scared to break with “how things ought to be done”. But watching people over the next 45 mins whilst I was on the train, it became obvious (in a subtle rather than an in-your-face way) that these people were perfectly comfortable expressing their individuality- men with funky haircuts, women with branded clothing (since its China, one immediately thinks ‘Fake’ but that does not take away from the fact that the common folk are image / brand conscious), teenagers with their funky cell phones and irritating ring-tones, etc. Is China being westernized or did they just never have the chance to show it previously? Their race, color and language may be different but it’s pretty obvious that deep down, these people are pretty similar to those in my world.
The highlight of the visit was watching the Beijing folk spend their morning on the grounds of the Summer Palace. Every 50m of so, some group (of 5 to 50 people) would have a boombox playing anything from traditional Chinese folk music to English classical music to the Vengaboys ! (“Boom boom boom, I want you in my room, lets spend the night together, together in my room” jarred rather badly with the serenity of the surroundings!). These groups were standing in neatly arranged grids and doing tai-chi or dancing or even simulating sword fights in slow motion. All of them, uniformly, were following the group leader who stood in front rather like an aerobics or yoga class. Some smaller groups were playing badminton, but with a pong-pong bat and no net. Some others were playing a strange kind of football / badminton combination where they kicked and colorful bird-shaped object to each other. Most of them went on with their activities despite the strange brown-skinned fellow watching them (there were, amazingly, no other foreigners visiting the Palace that morning) but several tried to reach out and invited me to join them using sign language.
The temples of the Summer Palace were fascinating. Being perhaps the only foreign tourist on the grounds, I effectively had a private viewing of every important monument and was able to climb right to the top of the Tower of the Fragrant Buddha all by myself. So much better than sharing the steps, or the view, or the atmosphere, or the wonderful silence with fellow tourists. I feel really privileged that I was able to see and feel this amazing place perhaps in the same way that its royal inhabitants did for so many centuries. Greedy as this may sound, I fully understand why they kept this place (like the forbidden city) to themselves.
This is a fascinating city and well worth a visit. I will, almost certainly, return very soon – armed with more time and a better camera.
Originally published in Frappe April 2009