Leaving and arriving: The non-place
Writer: Sharyn Shufiyan
Published: Fri, 20 May 2011
A Caucasian couple with a toddler on tow walked out of the arrival hall. As the parents’ attention was focused on a row of men holding up name placards, the toddler, lying face down, dragged himself along the marble floor, as if licking it, then got up and mischievously scurried away.
Luckily his mother turned around just in time to run after him, before he got lost among other worn-out travellers streaming out into the hall. Airport transitions sometimes take a while, and children usually devise their own ways to keep themselves busy.
My mother is an avid traveller. Ever since we were young, we would travel during the school holidays. My brother and I used to have a blast playing with the luggage trolley, pushing each other as my mother did all the adult stuff – checking in, luggage drop, determining the gates.
To other people, we may have been a nuisance. I had never really known the airport process until my first solo travel experience at age 19. Although I was already familiar with airports, it is different when you’re travelling alone. I felt independent. I felt free. I was ready to leave home.
I love airports. I love the feeling of walking up to the departure board and figuring out your check-in counter. I love walking through immigration, past the duty-free shops and towards the departure gate. I love lugging my hand-carry around the halls and walkways. I love watching the planes take off and touch down. I even love the sound your shoes make on the aerobridge.
I love leaving every time, but most of all, I love coming home.
The Kuala Lumpur International Airport, or KLIA, is located in Sepang and takes about one hour to reach by car from the city centre. Opened in 1998, KLIA is one of the largest airports in Southeast Asia. At RM8.5 billion, the building of KLIA was dubbed Malaysia’s most ambitious and one of the biggest construction projects in the world, with 450 project teams, more than 26 design contracts, and 80 construction contracts.
The majestic structure of glass and concrete which forms the main terminal building is huge and spacious. Perhaps due to its large spaces and low traffic of travellers (although Wikipedia states that KLIA is the 17th busiest airport in the world as of 2010), it is relatively quiet, even amid the hustle and bustle of arriving and departing people. This is a stark difference to its annexe, the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT).
KLIA is the primary gateway for international visitors, and first impressions matter. KLIA appears modern, competent and stylish, the face of a developed nation. But I personally prefer the smaller and quaint small-town airports, where the arrival and departure halls are one, and when you walk out across the aircraft parking bay, the engines of the aircraft purr in the background.
Airports like KLIA see a lot of movement. It is what French Anthropologist Marc Augè termed a “non-place”, spaces of such
temporary and transient activity that do not have the significance of being called a “place”. These places retain little or no
traces of engagement or interaction.
We spend most of our time at the airport either waiting for our flight, or for family or friends (or in the case with LCCT, delays).
The infrastructure of airports is such that it is actually comfortable to be spending a lot of time there, with amenities such as VIP lounges, Wi-Fi, cafés, shops and banks.
Writer Alain de Botton even lived in Heathrow airport as its writer-in-residence, observing and documenting the interactions of staff, executives and travellers that pass through.
Airports are also appearing in movies such as Terminal, Up in the Air and Going the Distance, featuring the state of liminality as
part of its discourse. Life at the airport has also been made into reality TV in the form of Border Security: Australia’s Front Line,
which follows the work of Australian customs and immigration officers.
But airports remind me of the relationships and people we come into contact with as we go on in life.
We meet new people and form new relationships. Some of these may work, while others falter and we never see these people again. Our lives are continuously moving and changing, and while we as individuals remain unmoving, like the infrastructure of the airport building, our relationships are fluid.
Like life itself, nothing is permanent. As we learn new things from the people we come into contact with and create new experiences, we also go through loss and departures – and I do not mean only in a macabre way.
As I sit here in the main terminal building, I realise that I do not adapt well to change, especially when someone decides to take the outbound flight out of my life. You get so accustomed to having them around that when they’re gone, you feel a sort of vacuum, as if this person had never existed and you had dreamt his or her presence.
Like the person you had just brushed shoulders with while waiting for your luggage: for a split second, the person existed as you acknowledged his or her presence, but as you move on, that person is but a distant memory.
Although KLIA may be a nonplace, a transitory ground, it bears witness to a lot of emotions being exchanged, feelings of happiness, sadness, anxiety, exasperation, fatigue.
KLIA has seen some of my most heartbreaking moments, its floors has felt the wetness of my tears. I had uttered some of the most difficult goodbyes I could ever have said in my lifetime. But it is a capsule made of glass and steel, encapsulating these emotions within its walls. For as soon as you step out, you leave the emotions behind and you move on.
The state of being is temporary; we are constantly moving, leaving and arriving. But when someone significant finally arrives, that wonderful, glorious feeling of anticipation and sheer joy surges through you. Although the feeling is temporary, it is heavenly.
And every so often, the familiar jingle comes on: “Flight MH1 London to Kuala Lumpur is now arriving.”