One of the intriguing things about modern airports, which are coming more and more to resemble giant malls where the parking lot happens to be full of airplanes, is that some things can still be had for free. While some of the essentials of life – food, and Internet access – are charged at twice what you would pay elsewhere, others are not. The profit-maximizers haven't yet dared to demand money for access to the toilets, for obvious reasons. More surprisingly, free electrical power is also available to anyone who cares to look for one of the huge number of outlets scattered through the average airport, no small blessing to those of us who stagger through life accompanied by an increasing number of power-hungry gadgets.
Waiting out a five-hour layover in Bangkok, I decided to head back to the transfer desk where I'd seen an unoccupied power outlet that would be just perfect for recharging my iPod in preparation for the long haul back to Tokyo. When I arrived, however, I found that someone else had got there first.
The women wore black robes and headscarves, the men were stocky with scrubby gray beards, dressed in gray salwar suits and white skullcaps. To my eye, they looked Central Asian, but they might have come from almost anywhere across a wide sweep from the Fertile Crescent to the Cham Muslim districts of Cambodia. The women sat cross-legged in a semi-circle on the floor, with their bags of provisions open beside them, filling hand-beaten copper beakers with hot water from an electric kettle that was plugged into the wall outlet. Sitting on the gray nylon carpet next to the bank of desks with the names of airlines and the flatscreen television showing CNN, their appearance and posture conjured up images of caravenserais and yurts, of the black wool tents and bazaars of an Asia that has yet to be entirely erased by modernity.
I stood watching them with my electronic toy in my hand, while outside the great planes came and went. And the women in black sat in a half-circle around their kettle, as others like them have done for centuries, and will probably continue to do for centuries to come.