Saturday, April 17, 2004

New ethnic groups

Any major airport (particularly the sort of long haul airport where lots of people change planes) has a bar where people who find themselves stuck in the airport for a few hours (due to a change of plane or a refueling need for the plane they are on or similar) can spend the time drinking beer. When travelling from Europe to Australia I occasionally find myself in one of these bars. This one is the one on the roof of Singapore Changi international airport, which I visisted on the way through to Australia last week. This one is quite intriguing, because it is on the roof, and there is a small area costisting of a bar and cactus garden. (The two photos that follow were taken from approximately the same spot, but looking in opposite directions)



If you go for a drink in such a bar (as I tend to when in such airports) the sorts of people you meet tend to be thirty and forty something types who look like they have suffered from a bit of wear and tear. (This is of course at least partly jetlag. They no doubt look less so when they are relaxed and at home, wherever on planet earth that may be). They tend to be Anglophone, British and former dominions of the British empire types: English, Australians, New Zealanders, the odd South African, the very odd Canadian. (Not Americans, however). They tend to be the sorts of people who are doing okay but are not extremely prosperous, and who work at the type of profession for which the work is spread around the world and usually employs independent contractors rather than employees. (Now that I think about it, there is a lovely portrait of the type of person I am talking about in Neal Stephenson's 1996 Wired Essay Mother Earth Mother Board from 1996. He is talking about people laying undersea fibre optic cable, but the image is more general than that. In any event, such people seem to form an ethnic group of their own. The national origins become irrelevant (other than that general British Empire sort of type) and they all become relatively similar in the bar.

And the bars are very similar, whether you are in Tokyo, Singapore, Bangkok, or Manila, although in superficial terms they might have strange unique features such as cactus gardens. (They do vary a bit when you get outside Asia. The subculture I mentioned will still exist, but perhaps only in one corner of the bar). You find yourself stranded airside in such an airport, and you know that a familiar bar will be there somewhere, and you eventually do find it at the end of a dingy corridor, where you walk inside and you find the same expats as always. It will not be necessary to change your money first: the bar will take your sterling or Australian dollars, although they will frown on South African rand. You will sit down, and start a friendly chat with people next to you.

Other types of frequent travellers are not to be found in the bar. Actual employees who travel a lot are to be found in business and first class lounges in comfort, away from the hoi poloi. I used to (briefly) be one of that kind of person. I rather prefer the bar with the expats. Perhaps this is why I no longer am that kind of person.

These days, some airport terminals have a different kind of lure, which is a free internet cafe. If I have to waste two or three hours in a terminal, this can sometimes be a better way to make the time pass than can an expat bar. However, it depends on the circumstances. There is a particularly good free internet terminal in Tokyo Narita airport, even if the security requirements are irritating. There is one at Changi, but when I was there it only had four terminals, and two were out of order. This meant endless queueing for a short period on the internet, which made it possible to check e-mail, but no good for making time pass. To while the time when I was waiting, I did take a photo, but the lighting was weird, and my digital camera does not handle weird lighting very well.


While the bar would certainly have taken Australian dollars or sterling, as it happened I had spent all my sterling in the bar at Heathrow, and I didn't want to spend my Australian dollars because I still wanted to have some when I arrived in Melbourne, so I got 20 Singapore dollars (about A$20 or £8) out of a cash machine. I didn't spend all of them, because I thought it would be good to still have some when changing planes in Singapore on the way back, which I was intending to do.

As it happened, though, I have delayed my departure from Australia by four days and the only flight I could get back was via Tokyo. (I have a four hour layover in Tokyo in fact). It is quite possible (indeed likely) that the bar in Tokyo will take Singapore dollars, but it is not quite as certain. So I may have to keep the Singapore dollars in my wallet until next time I find myself in Singapore. But that will no doubt not be before too long.

And by coming back via Tokyo instead of the Sydney-Singapore-Frankfurt-London routing I was taking originally, I have lost the two days in Germany I was intending to reward myself with on the way back. Oh well. It is at least possible to buy draught Erdinger in London.

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