Get a Room. The Gift of Freedom
Click. Seatbelt fastened. With a 300-kilometres-an-hour roar, the Los Angeles-bound 560,000-kilogram Airbus A380 hoists itself skywards, pressing nearly 500 of us back into our seats. Later, levelled off, cruising over the Pacific, the pressurised space patrolled by hip Qantas staff becomes a vast, high-altitude mobile bedroom, filled with strangers sharing a crowded, less-than-comfortable sleeping space. Strangers secure in knowing that on arrival 13,000 kilometres away, after passported entry into the USA, they’ll collect luggage and soon find themselves in more agreeable rooms, with contented, safe slumber guaranteed.
Room. Say it slowly. Open at the beginning, it elongates then closes—like walking through an unlatched door and shutting it behind you. A generous croon of a word—ending with lips touching and an extended hum—it speaks of comfort, of shelter. Add ‘bed’ to ‘room’ and it’s an invitation. An invitation to a place the fortunate know—somewhere safe to stretch out, relax, sleep, make love, and call their own.
The language of a bedroom’s parts—ceiling, window, wall, door, floor, bed, and so on—are universal elements that take form in local architectural and decorative vernaculars worldwide—from caves to high-rise apartments to yurts. Bedrooms are essential private spaces in the diverse dwellings that grow out of available materials, landforms, climate and culture.
We furnish and decorate our bedrooms to create restoring, reliable places to sink into. The things we choose—bed-linen, curtains, paint colour, lighting, furniture, art and ornaments—become anchors, ways of attaching ourselves to our safe space. But when we’re on the road, as I am now for two months in North America, rooms become borrowed refuges from an unfamiliar outside world.
The urge to soften strangeness and make unfamiliar temporary accommodations our own is powerful. Why do we do it? In these small, non-permanent spaces in strange lands—even in functional, comfortable, minimalist-yet-anodyne hotel rooms designed to compress cultural differences into recognisable but bland uniformity—it’s important to recreate a psycho-geographic sense of safety. Like dung beetles, we spread our stuff out from tightly packed bags. We hang clothes, lay out electronic devices, books, papers, photos, rearrange furniture until feels right—claiming the space; our things become our reference points. When we leave, like a reverse dung beetle, we pack it away again.
Away from home, we make conscious and unconscious comparisons with what’s familiar. On my current trip, in hotel rooms and at friends’ houses, North American plumbing has amused me. Lever taps are everywhere. The first ones I came across this visit looked like a lugubrious antlered animal. Now I’m photographing them wherever I go. I love this strangeness. Comparisons wake me up from too-complacent relationships with what’s at home, helps me see and appreciate things afresh when I return. My journey, bookended by pass-ported exits and entries, will end with a flight to my own non-strife-torn country, shuttle and taxi rides and finally a walk through my bedroom door where I’ll lie down in comfort and safety.
But imagine never being able to return to your room because your house has been destroyed or for fear you’ll be killed. By the end of 2014, according to the UNHRC, due to violent conflict and persecution, close to 60 million refugees and internally displaced persons could no longer call the places they used to live home. In 2015, an average of 42,500 people a day—half of them children—are forced to leave their homes to look for protection elsewhere. Not for them the freedom and pleasure of travelling with a passport to safe and enjoyable places.
Most will never return to the rooms that once sheltered them. Not for them the enjoyment of views from familiar windows, art on walls, local birdsong, the rustle of leaves on nearby trees, the sound of breakfast preparations and a loving voice calling them to table, or the warmth of a blanket hand knitted by a grandmother. No more rooms where every corner, every surface carries memories. No more comfort of long-cherished people and places. Uprooted lives. Shattered certainties. No more reliable work or income. Unfamiliar languages in their ears. Stripped of everything that used to define and reassure them of their place in the world. At the mercy of the kindness, or otherwise, of strangers.
Unprecedented numbers of refugees—without the right to further travel—face uncertain futures. They live indefinitely with strangers in unfamiliar places, in miserable, resource-poor, cramped camp conditions. Or make perilous escapes through inhospitable terrains, or cram desperately onto boats that belong on scrap heaps. We must keep our hearts open to their plight.
If we’re blessed to travel without restriction to places where we’re well received, and to return home safely, we have responsibilities. We need to write in support of fair treatment for refugees and immigrants, and to join community initiatives to welcome and support those who have experienced such grave suffering, dislocation and loss. We must speak out fearlessly and often against any negative ‘otherising’ talk. Remind people that from the earliest out-of-Africa journeys of our common ancestors, migration is the history of humankind, and that ultimately, willingly sharing resources is the only way to peace. Chest-thumping, angry xenophobia solves nothing.
If we live in countries where our ancestors spoke and acted against oppression and lack of enlightenment to give us the freedoms we now enjoy, it is our time to carry the flame of freedom and equality, to advocate on behalf of new immigrants, to show them the welcome we’d be thankful for if we were in their place. To do something, not just to think or talk about it.
Let’s remember them when we’re safe in our rooms, when we turn out the light and slip into a comfortable bed to sleep, knowing that everything we count on still awaits us when we wake.
Feature and photography by Susie Surtees