Dreams die

[She said] “These cars don’t make any noise.” “Someday all cars won’t make noise,” he said.

Harold Robbins, in The Betsy

My cousin was a great car enthusiast even before he learnt his Ambassador, Buick, or Citroen. When he went missing from home once in early childhood, he was found standing by the nearest big road, looking at cars. Safely back home he reeled off a list of all the car makes he’d seen. A couple of years ago, driving on the highway, he said that we’d just passed another cousin’s car. There was a lot of skepticism in our car: “How could you recognize it? It is so dark”, “There are a hundred cars on the road like his, and we are going so fast”. But he was right. The other cousin reached the destination a few minutes after us. If I can’t recall from the hood ornament which car I’ve photographed, I just have to ask him. The featured photo is of the hood of a Dodge, from the late 1940s, if I remember right.

It’s just that when I die, I dont want to leave any enemies, and I figure the only way to do that is to outlive them all.

Harold Robbins, in The Carpetbaggers

The first internal combustion mechanism, fire pistons, may have been developed about 2000 years ago in Borneo or Sumatra, but it was only about two hundred years ago that it became a pillar on which trade and industry stood. Take the Pamban bridge. It was constructed in 1914 as part of an ambitious imperial scheme to connect India with erstwhile Ceylon. What drove it were dreams of trade: from Britain’s overseas factories in India to Sri Lanka, first, and then over the ocean to Singapore, Hong Kong, and east. Every phase of this dream involved internal combustion machines. A supercyclone ended the dream. But in the 21st century this dream of a world-girdling trade route has been recycled by China. And part of the route is exactly the same as the century-past-its-date-of-expiry dream of the British Empire.

An aircraft against the IBM building in Chicago

Every man has his price. For some it’s money, for some it’s women, for others glory. But the honest man you don’t have to buy – he winds up costing you nothing.

Harold Robbins in The Carpetbaggers

Walking on the streets of downtown Chicago, I looked up to see an airplane coming in to land. I could quickly grab this photo where the two icons of the world’s 20th century superpower are juxtaposed (the tower was designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and is located at 330 North Wabash Av). The dream of world-spanning trade routes fulfilled. Another dream: an endless frontier. Alexander of Macedonia is said to have wept after he thought there was nothing in the world left to conquer, but his nightmare descendants of today want to place their cut-price mercenaries and miners on new worlds. I suppose rockets are also internal combustion devices, though they have to carry their own oxygen.

The reality of living was never greater than when you held death clutched tightly in your hands

Harold Robbins, in Stilletto

Trying to think of means of travel which do not involve burning fossil fuels, the first one that comes to mind is the bicycle (so green, in the middle of rice fields in the Sahyadris). That, roller skates, and pedi-scooters. Have I missed something? Yes, horse or bullock drawn vehicles (also dog, mule or rabbit drawn: thinking of Radagast in the movie version of Hobbit). Not electric vehicles, nor modern trains, because in those you just burn the fuel elsewhere. Unless you live in a country which generates electricity mostly in nuclear plants or through renewables (in other words, France) I doubt I have missed anything except walking.

Bebelplatz with bicycles

People are not like a business.

Harold Robbins in Never Leave Me

Which is not to say that modern day trains are a disaster. The German experiment with the 9 Euro tickets is a success, I read, since it is beginning to wean people off driving and flying. I’ve always traveled in Germany by train; it was a quick and cheap way to travel, and it got you into the heart of a town with lots of public transport options at the destination (or bike-tours, if you were a tourist). The cheap worked once if you took the pain of traveling off-peak, and that is the threshold that the 9 Euro ticket lowers dramatically. It is a great way of subsidizing (relatively) clean travel instead of air pollution. Of course, there is something to the experience of driving on an autobahn, especially if you are driving a beat-up Volkswagen which stalls if you push the speed to 150 Km per hour. I never missed roller-coaster rides in the days when I did that.

We had to be free of the fear so that we could think of tomorrow

Harold Robbins, in A Stone for Danny Fisher

China was once the world’s bicycle capital. In making a transition to a middle-class economy, it decided to pursue a relatively cleaner path by subsidizing electric scooters and high-speed railways. They are more polluting than bikes of course, but they are less polluting than a car or two in every home, and frequent air travel. I loved those trains while traveling in China. I also love the new electric buses on Indian roads, and the idea of slowly replacing the two-stroke engines on three-wheeler taxis (auto-rickshaws or autos to us, tuktuk to tourists) by electric-autos. The road to cleaner travel is hard. We all know those terrifying moments when a dream turns into a nightmare, you want to wake up, but you find it so hard. Who says it only happens in dreams?

Roma Termini

It is hard to travel to Rome without encountering the chaotic central railway station called Roma Termini. Vittorio de Sica and Federico Fellini have both filmed the station. It also appeared briefly with George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Twelve. On previous trips to Rome I’ve always told myself that I would come back and photograph this awful monstrosity. This time I tried.

I’d thought that the grandiose and rather thoughtless terminal was built during the Fascist times. But it seems that the history of this station is more interesting. The first construction was started by Pope Pius IX just before the storming of Rome and the unification of Italy, and finished by the new Italian government. The grandiose side wings were indeed built during Mussolini’s rule, but the rest of the plan (image above) was never completed. The front hall was completed in 1950.

View of Roma Termini

On airport shuttles it is perfectly acceptable to let out your inner tourist. My phone was charged and ready to take photos. The last hundreds of meters as a train pulls into a major station are always terrifically photogenic in a way. The industrial landscape of merging tracks has a charm of its own. I arrived on a bright and sunny day, so the overhead equipment threw nice shadows on to the tracks. I was quite please at having taken the featured image.

Just outside the side galleries of the station are two tall towers. They look like something de Chirico could have painted. I managed to catch a photo as I passed (above). I would have liked to walk back and taken some from closer in. The towers surrounded by electrical wires and tracks are intensely photogenic.

Roma Termini shadows

The tourist information centre in the station is in one of Mazzoni’s galleries. The cafe next to it serves much better coffee than the shops in the front arcade of the station. I had my coffee and then walked into the information centre. The stairs climbing up towards the high vaulted roof is another thing one can photograph. There were people doing that. As I took out my camera and looked, two policemen came up to me and told me to stop. Italy is not as colour blind as Portugal.

From the main concourse one can still take photos that say something about how Mazzoni conceived of the station. The huge shadows on the marble walls (above) remind us of Mussolini’s delusions of grandeur which Mazzoni tried to transcribe into stone. Another example of this thinking is the difficulty of finding a toilet in the station: you either have to go up to the restaurant level and wait in a long queue, or go down to the metro level.

In other ways the station has improved tremendously since I was last here. There are ticket machines everywhere; they can be switched to English, and they are very easy to use. Since you can choose your train timing from a scrolling list, you don’t even need time-table information from the web. I walked out after a short stop at the three story high bookshop, Borri’s, which stands in the entrance lobby of the station. I’ve come back to it many times over the years, and I’m happy that it still continues to do business.