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June 15, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Sunday: Beginning and end

Only someone who has tasted loneliness can fully understand the mesmerising joy of crowds. A thousand feet walking in every direction, faces smiling, grinning, scowling, or blank of any expression, bodies of all shapes and sizes, the scent of perfume and perspiration.

After my teenage travels through Africa — especially the vast empty Great Rift in the continent’s east — I took refuge in Japan, and found pleasure in the press of commuters at Ikebukuro Station on a Friday night. It was like a powder keg in those subterranean tunnels, the sound of birdsong blaring through speakers, a psychologist’s solution for keeping crazed minds calm.

There were so many people, a streamlined mass — black briefcases and rubber-soled shoes, striped neckties and poly-wool suits. I used to wade into the middle of the frenzied rush, splay my feet wide and bend my knees to be rooted to the spot, and enjoy the surge of life all around. There was no feeling on earth like it — a sense of invisibility — while being buffeted by humanity.
I have spent almost twenty years searching for the perfect crowd and have been sucked down in them all over the urban world: in Rio de Janeiro and New York, in Lima, London, Calcutta, Cairo and Rome. There’s something almost supernatural about a good crowd: something complex, random, dynamic.
Think of it — our rural ancestors could never have understood the raw energy of ten thousand, or fifty thousand people, all packed into a tight space. I can hear you cursing — ‘Well, lucky them!’ That’s wrong. They missed out. Because there’s something intensely human about a good crowd, an experience which reminds us of who and what we are.
Of course, when you have struggled across Mumbai’s Victiora Terminus at dusk, you know you have found it — the greatest crowd on the planet. For me it was like the moment when a surfer has tracked down the most sublime wave: the perfect swell. There was a sense of silence at the heart, a terror beyond all terrors and, at the same time, satisfaction like nothing I had ever experienced.
Half the world was right there, touching me, brushing past. There were beggars and commuters, dabawallas, salesmen, students, ladies in sweeping saris, fortune-tellers and godmen, eunuchs and pickpockets, and a seething blurred mass of legs and arms, and dark glistening hair, satchels and nylon socks.
But then, the other day, I found myself in Jma al Fna, the vast central square in Marrakech. It’s name translates as ‘the Place of Execution’, and hints that it was once far more than place de touristes. The sun went down and the air was touched by the muezzin’s call. Then, as if arranged by an invisible conductor, hundreds of stall keepers set up their food stands. Each one was illuminated by a hurricane lamp, eerie platinum light radiating out with the smoke and the chaotic sound of feet.
I stood there, right in the middle of the square, smoke racing,  swirling, twisting, mixing with the incandescent light. There were so many people squeezed in that I felt myself overcome by claustrophobia for the first time. I choked, my eyes wide with fear. Forget Mumbai, I thought to myself, this crowd may be smaller, but there’s something ancient about it, something so powerful as to defy description.
You are probably tied down in life, caught in a spider’s web of bills, chores and responsibility. If there was any way you could break free, I’d counsel you to make a beeline for that square. Spend the afternoon under the shade of a nearby cafe. Then, as the sunlight ebbs away, venture out. Wade into the ocean of people, and prepare yourself for the greatest show on earth.
TS