Friday, June 27, 2014

Deadend: Palermo

Oh, the games we play. Mostly variations of ‘Where is Waldo’, the role of Waldo played either by some parking garage. Or the Travelodge. Or, here, by the sea. For geographical reasons, many airports are located at the sea, but they try to pretend that they are not. Getting from the airport to the sea is akin to getting from the Earth to Xanadu or to Atlantis or to the Disc World or to some other fantasy land.

When arriving in Palermo, the first thing I tried is to walk out of the airport and towards the sea, ignoring the convenient shuttle bus to the city centre. But I didn’t get very far. The feeder road is short and ends at a busy motorway. On the other side of the motorway: the sea, protected by death, death, death. And barbed wire. People park at the point where the feeder road meets the motorway, to pick up their relatives. Why the hell not. Garbage is everywhere. The Sun is merciless. I give up, for now.

Four days later. Upon departure I’m more or less acclimatised. Or the temperatures have dropped. Or I don’t care anymore. My objective is the backend of the airport. From the terminal, via the car rental chaos, further and further I push. On the way some tall pyramid structures with several floors and piles of, well, dirt on each floor. Whatever, Palermo. And after only ten minutes of exploration I reach not the sea, but the end of the world. And empty space, empty not literally, but empty of purpose, parking lots without parked cars, some buildings without walls, a street lamp, and a broken sign that says ‘Q ICK’. A long row of brandnew bollards is parked here, still wrapped in plastic.

Qick, the land of nobody, is right at the sea, but separated from the sea by a four foot fence plus barbed wire at the top. Beyond that the sea is unprotected and inviting, although probably disastrously polluted. A long bridge stretches far out into the Mediterranean. The area is CCTV free and unsupervised. In the dark, perhaps with a helpful companion, it would be quite easy to get across. Interesting, as well.

These are the places we are looking for. Undetermined, undervalued, underused. Empty spaces, frequented by nobody, ignored by everybody. In many ways this is wilderness, spots that do not properly exist, if existence is defined in a certain way and doesn’t include, you know, concrete, plastic and atoms. A space that nobody is paying attention to, is it really a space? This is an area the airport hiker can fill with meaning. Here, the airport hiker can create his own wonderland. Here he can feel completely at home.

A huge fire truck appears on a dirt road on the other side of a fence, beyond my neverland. Apparently there is life beyond the end of the world.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Perhaps Travelodging is just a short-lived trend, perhaps it is a proper subdiscipline of airport hiking. Perhaps it is a new hobby in its own right. But it is starting to feel all right. Get off a plane in darkness, check quickly on Google Maps in which direction the Travelodge is, and then navigate there without any help. Travelodges are too cheap and too recent to be located directly at the terminal. Instead, they are often just outside the airport boundary. One has to leave the airport in some way, with all the usual challenges.

This time: Travelodge Gatwick-Central, not to be confused with Travelodge Gatwick Airport. Gatwick Central is not central, but at the northern fringe of the airport. Gatwick Airport on the other hand is in the south. Whatever. In any case, by a stroke of luck I land at the North Terminal. I know that I have to negotiate first a parking area, second a river (yes!) and third, well, that's it. Outside the terminal, I turn left, follow the feeder road, then around the aforementioned parking space towards the north. I'm saying towards north, but there were no stars out and the only reason why I'm saying this is because I could already see the bright lights of the Travelodge. So it has to be north.

The only thing between me and my destination is the River Mole, surrounded by thick plants. I hit the northern periphery road of the airport, which runs parallel to the river on its south side. From my glimpse of Google Maps I seem to remember that there is a bridge, somewhere to the west. The periphery road is quiet. I'm passing some water treatment areas, probably the plumbing of the airport.

It's a pleasant walk, in the dark, on the grass, completely anonymous. There is nothing better than leaving the airport on foot, in the dark. It's a silent protest against this monster which tries to keep you in its mouth the entire time. Of course there are shuttle buses from the airport to the Travelodge. But the shuttles are part of the monster. Here, alone on the North Perimeter Road, I'm free. Not in the sense that I can do whatever I want. I'm bound by various constraints here, one being the barbed wire to my left, the other one being my tired legs. But all decisions are mine. Making autonomous decisions to negotiate a world full with limits and boundaries, that's as good as it gets.

And after half a mile the bridge. The River Mole is barely visible in the darkness, it's a black, smooth mass. The poor thing has been modified many times to make way for the airport. I turn east on the other side of the bridge, now walking straight towards the Travelodge. Apparently people live here. It's the Povey Cross Road and I meet a few of these strange airport almost-inhabitants. We don't exchange any words. We have nothing to say to each other. I treat them as wildlife, they treat me as nuisance. Okay.