As a child I dreamed of time travel, sparked by science fiction classics from Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov. A few months ago, I actually did it.
Over a period of four weeks, I bounced back and forth between the 21st century, the 1950’s, the 1930’s, and even further back to eras where the automobile and even the wheel had no part in daily life. No mad scientist, no magic or mystery – just the reality of 21st century air travel co-existing with life in countries where “development” lags decades or centuries behind that of Silicon Valley.
From our spanking-new San Jose Air Terminal B, I flew first to LAX – and immediately found myself in the early 1960’s– Los Angelese International Airport with its trademark flying saucer and neon entry sculpture, offering air travelers an inter-terminal air shuttle by bus every 20 minutes or so. The shuttle alternative – a concrete sidewalk. As architecture, LAX is a curiosity; as an entry to our country for almost 12 million people a year, it is a bit cringe-worthy.
Nine hours later, I debarked from my time machine, an Airbus A340, smack in the 21st century at the gleaming Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Despite flooding that threatened to devastate the capitol only 28 miles away, the Bangkok airport worked flawlessly, with gleaming LED displays pointing the way along moving sidewalks to the connecting flights. We relaxed comfortably in the Orchid Lounge before boarding our next time machine.
Only three hours later we emerged in the 1940’s – a small airport with rudimentary radar, roll-up steps to allow passengers to disembark, and a quick walk across the tarmac to retrieve baggage from the cart. Then out to a cacophony of competing taxi drivers begging for business – no organized taxi queue here, and then on into the maelstrom of foot, bicycle, pedicab, motorbike, bus, and auto traffic that is Kathmandu.
A few days later we had left all thought of wheels behind, as we trudged up the foothills of the Himalayas along with donkey caravans, goat herds, and small wiry men carrying incredible loads of rice, food, cookware, clothing and other items for sale or barter, as well as porters carrying baggage for tourists such as ourselves.
We saw grain being threshed by oxen driven over the harvested sheaves so that their hooves would loosen the grain in the stalks. We saw women separating the grain from the stalks by tossing trays of harvested sheaves in the air over and over and letting the wind blow the chaff away little by little. We stayed in guest houses where the water for bathing was heated over a charcoal stove and delivered in a kettle to the common bath room. We were traveling as fast as our feet could carry us – about 6 miles a day max. We had been transported back to Biblical times.
But wait – in that guest house where the hot water for bathing had to be heated on the stove, the children of the house were watching Nepalese “Sesame Street” on a flat-screen TV in the corner of the dining room next to the charcoal-burning stove. And that peddler carrying an entire Wal-Mart’s worth of kitchenware – isn’t he listening to music on his iPod as he strides along? Us Sci-fi veterans know that if you introduce an anachronism from another time into the past, history will veer off into unforeseen directions. What will the end of the 21st century look like for Nepal?