A walker in the city
There is something pleasing about arriving in a foreign land and being greeted by a card with your name on it. It confirms you are where you are supposed to be. My flight from Heathrow to Abu Dhabi had taken three-and-a-half films and crossed four time zones.
I went up to the man holding my name and introduced myself. He was smartly dressed in a grey cap and uniform. I followed him to his sleek new German-made estate car. For a few moments I was out in hair-dryer-hot air, then I was sealed in the car, speeding to my hotel apartment.
The next day, I should have been happy. I had side-stepped many of the problems often associated with modern travel: delayed flights, lost luggage, jet lag. Bright sunlight shone in through the smoky windows, meaning it must have been dazzling outside. It was morning and it felt like morning. The journey had not upset my body’s circadian rhythms. But, as I gazed out of the window at the towers of glass and cars arranged haphazardly like blocks of Lego below, I felt uneasy.
Little by little I realised it was because I did not know where I was. Of course I knew I was in the Ramee Hotel Apartments – a “world of comfort and luxury” according to the leaflet – but beyond that I was lost. The driver may have smoothed over some of the niggles of travel, but he had also intervened in my first contact with the city.
I was late for work. So I rushed downstairs and hopped in a taxi. In the evening I decided to go for a drink at the Beach Rotana Hotel, but I did not know where it was or, for that matter, where I was. So I took a taxi. Over the next few days, I took taxis everywhere: to work and back, to shopping malls, restaurants and the cinema.
“How are you finding Abu Dhabi?” said the man at reception. I didn’t know the answer. So far the city had been a compilation of generic spaces. Physically I was in Abu Dhabi, but for the most part I could have been anywhere in the world.
This idea is not new. The places where I had spent most of my time so far were, as Marc Augé defines them in Non-Places: An Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity: hotel rooms, shopping malls, motorways and airports. These “curious spaces … are both everywhere and nowhere”.
Flitting between these temperature-controlled microcosms in taxis had only made the situation worse. The city had flickered in the windscreen, a series of im- ages as engaging as a television on mute in a doctor’s waiting room. By travelling in this way, I had cut myself off from experiencing my own topography, from allowing nerves and brain to react to stimuli of the city.
The average ambient temperature, for example, of Abu Dhabi as I had experienced it so far, even allowing for intense bursts of heat, must have hovered around 19°C.
I became aware of a growing disorientation about a week after I arrived. I was sitting, appropriately enough, on a plush sofa in a cafe in Al Wahda mall sipping coffee and reading a newspaper.
The Cityscape exhibition, displaying intricate scale models and computer-generated plans of how the city would look in 2030, had just opened. And in a few days, Bon Jovi, a band whose creative zenith – if you can call it that – was the mid-to-late 1980s, were performing the largest concert ever in the city.
More than 20 years separated these events from the present and half a lifetime lay between them. Yet both were happening in the same week. It was as if jet lag, with the possibility of landing in different time zones and loosing or gaining, at most, a day, had suddenly stretched out across decades.
The question became not simply where am I living, but when am I living.
The cool air in the cafe was tinged with wafts of freshly brewed coffee and baking bread. Outside – by which I mean outside the cafe, but still inside the mall – people were milling around, gazing in shop windows and avoiding children on wheel-heeled shoes, who now and again set off over smooth tiles like gondoliers. Evidently no-one else felt like I did.
It was then that I set off walking, in the hope of dispelling this disorientation. The walk to work was only about two kilometres, but, in this city of smothering heat and giant-step curbs, it felt a lot further. Late at night, plodding back again, I started to notice little things: cats on car roofs, people languidly laid out on grass verges by the roadside and shisha cafes buzzing with chatter and television noise.
Pretty soon, I started to join the dots of my atomised city.
Walking maps out a series of pathways through a city, a collection of well-trodden routes, which spread out like neural pathways in the brain, codifying and storing your knowledge of a particular place.
Orientation begins with geography, but it is not simply answering the question, “where am I?” It also helps you to work out how you fit in to the landscape, whether you are indeed where you are supposed to be.
Published in The Review of The National on 25 July 2008.