Skip to main content

Ears wide open

The seatbelt sign is glowing. The beautiful lights of the city spread below you are slowly dimming out. The plane has taken off, and no one is talking. Each in his own bubble. On comes the in-flight movie, on go the headphones. After all, there are only so many cloud shapes you can identify before it gets boring. 

But what if you were on a bus, or in a tube station? Scenes changing every so often, little dramas playing themselves out all around you, people talking in different tongues. The person beside you looks like they’d have a good story to tell. What, then, is your excuse to listen to your iPod? We’ve all been there, trying to block out the sound of the adolescent who insists on loudly narrating details of his failed relationship, or using our favourite song as a lullaby. But we only ever do it when we’re in transit, or waiting. We don’t think these “non-places” – a fascinating term coined by anthropologist Marc AugĂ© – are important enough. 

In fact, it is at these very moments that we should be keeping all our senses awake. Non-places are where conversation can begin easily, a simple “where are you headed next” can make the journey much more enjoyable. Don’t make yourself inaccessible: there’s nothing more off-putting than spending a six-hour bus journey next to someone who won’t take his headphones off. On the other hand, my favourite memory is of a wonderful woman whose daughters are as old as me, who made the hours at Budapest airport – the quest for the perfect postcard stands out particularly – and the flight to London so incredibly fun. 

And if you’re shy, you can simply eavesdrop. This is one of the few social situations where no one can tell you off for doing so: non-places are public. It can be very entertaining on an otherwise dull ride. My favourite eavesdropped conversation has to be the one on the 7-hour bus journey from Paris to Heidelberg between the two giggly Czech girls seated in front of me and the man seated in front of them, carried out in very broken English. They went from chiding him for having four wives (several minutes were spent on understanding the concept) to looking at pictures of his children on his laptop, and then I must have drifted off for a bit but I distinctly heard something about vacations and smiling hippopotamuses. 

Soundscapes are an essential part of soaking in the travel experience. When I look back, sounds are as much a part of my reminiscence as sights. The varied cries of varied vendors on buses in India, the realisation that Dutch sounds very much like German on the train to Bruges, the utter disconcertedness at being surrounded by a language that I didn’t understand in Prague. Even while sitting alone in a Starbucks at 6 a.m. at Brussels Gare Centrale, I had to argue with myself to leave off the tunes. The result: occasional clanging from the kitchen that went great with the smell of fresh coffee, French banter that I didn’t understand but which sounded awfully friendly, the screeching of trains and train announcements that told me the metro was now operating, and the ever so distant sound of an accordion that always plays in my mind when I think of Belgium. 

So the next time you travel, try perceiving through your ears. In fact, if you’re brave enough, don’t take your iPod at all. The worst that could happen is you’d be alone with your thoughts. 

Singapore 2011