Monday, July 16, 2007

Trunk Service Phenomenon

In the end, no matter the size of a city, things must revolve around a human scale. Even if in dream I should dream about Isana, a city which I try to conceive consciously during the day, I can only dream of it as a resident - which means walking the streets, moving along borders and acknowledging their superiority, and breeding some familiarity or other with a place that does not even exist in this world.

Looked at on a human scale a city is not one entity; it is a constellation of small circles linked by known or unknown means of transportation. Sometimes it takes an unusually quiet weekend, with all the force of boredom, to make people move out of some little circle, astonished at how small a space a city-dweller can cram his life into - home, the junctions up and down the road, the nearest shopping mall. This is after all what a precinct is about.

Streets may be more boundaries than paths, as if there are some streams to be forded and some to be sailed along without crossing. This is especially true when, like Isana or my home city, we have a dense city on a plain where most high elevations are man-made. Beyond the wall of buildings across the street there may be something, there may be incredible things. But we don't normally need to know.

When we do need to know - when we end up in odd neighbourhoods - is when the Trunk Service Phenomenon can be observed. A city is a constellation linked by highways and periodic buses. So, mired for some reason or other in a neighbourhood, we see train lines through gaps between apartment towers, or see a bus number at a bus stop that we know leads to the bus stop downstairs from home. Does that not mean we have passed this place before, carried by wheels or tracks, does that not mean we have been journey-blind somehow?

Nonetheless, when sometimes even nature conspires to give a different neighbourhood different lighting, as if by wandering we have crossed city or national lines, it is these structures that anchor us. Still local. Still urban. Still now.

Sometimes the links that move from one place to another are as hidden as water pipes - as hidden, and also as ubiquitous. These are well-developed cities, where the buses and trains move so efficiently and quickly places can be missed, only to be recognised later on foot when landed in by some accident. A citizen's view of a great city.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

My daily routine includes a bus ride that takes me, for fifteen or twenty minutes, on a long road that arcs northwards through shrublands and industrial areas.

Most of the time this part of the trip will be the smoothest ride. The road was once the spine of the whole city's north-south transport, and around it for long stretches the heavy traffic was followed by construction and inventions - rows of shophouses and kiosks to serve both vehicles and their people, coalescing into several long shopping malls.

With the importing and creating of highways, this road along which there were junctions and stops was no longer nationally significant. This of course meant it lost its local significance as well, so that within a decade the lands were mostly returned to nature, and the city moved on farther north still to open its new towns. Now there are few cars, and almost no jams, even though it is a long drive with just three lanes a side.

Whenever there have been night storms I fight sleep to gaze out the window along this stretch of the journey. The winds, coming from the exposed northeast, invariably cause damage to the area around the road - trees, lights, bus stops.

Once at 10 or so in the night, after a particularly long day at school, the homeward bus breaks down and deposits us a hundred metres away from what must have been a bus stop. The great storm last night, whose remnant clouds still light the sky purple now, had wrecked the makeshift bus shelter, the great roof slanted backwards into a drain.

We did not dare approach the remains, but stood nearby, waiting for the next bus in a pool of light. All the bus has to know is that we are here, beside a bus bay demarcated with yellow paint, and stop for us, which one does eventually.