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Something in the air

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaBreathtaking travels in the modern world from Delhi haze and Beijing smog to the Pacific Garbage Patch. And selfies with masks.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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New Delhi smog - India Gate December 2017

Delhi's India Gate on a 'good' day in December 2017 with the pollution index in the 200s/ photo: Vijay Verghese

THERE'S something ineffably romantic about winter mist, with trees rising in mysterious silhouette and shadowy forms gliding about. Your world closes in and you're left contemplating the world, your finances, or your navel, in solitary splendour. Growing up in Delhi, winter was the time for snug walks and stolen kisses (always on the cheeks) with promises not to breathe a word to anyone. Nowadays things are simpler. You just don't breathe. Not when the air quality index shoots off the scale at 999 as it did in some areas in November 2017, prompting school closures, sports cancellations, and a rash of masks promising salvation and sartorial flair.

Having been through the 2003 Hong Kong SARS epidemic – which also saw a spurt in designer masks from LV to DIOR – I can assure you that there is actually nothing safe about a surgical mask across your face when combating stealthy suspended particulate matter. You can prevent someone from sneezing on your face, certainly, but air gets in from the sides unless your mask is perfectly sealed, which few are. And, observing the many state-of-the-art masks that emerged on the MTR in those days I had a chance to observe their efficacy up close as startled commuters got a dose of their very own weapons-grade garlic breath.

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Particulate matter under 10 microns (more slender than average human hair) is particularly dangerous as it tends to lodge deep in the lungs causing all manner of complications over time. The finest PM2.5 suspended particles are the most dangerous as they not only lodge in the lungs, but can slip into your circulatory system as well.

{My grandfather taught us deep breathing. Hong Kong taught me the merits of shallow breathing while SARS demonstrated the virtues of barely breathing

My grandfather taught us deep breathing exercises in the Indian hills. Hong Kong taught me the merits of shallow breathing while SARS demonstrated the virtues of barely breathing.

Travellers battling with terrorism and random carnage and overbooked flights now have a new, formidable, and entirely manmade challenge to deal with. It may be the price of progress but an average December 2017 reading of the Delhi pollution index hovering at a 'hazardous' 425 (with Gurgaon at a 'very unhealthy' 250) is not the stuff of winter romance. India Gate and Rashtrapathi Bhavan were barely visible through the murk – this on a good day. Lutyens' Delhi was under siege.  

Much derided for its egregious black spikes the Beijing air pollution index in December hovered around a seemingly attractive but still 'unhealthy' reading of about 170. Wind shifts, inversions, factory emissions, bovine indiscretions, car pollution and, in Delhi, the burning of crops in surrounding farmland, are all contributory factors. Beijing has come down hard on vehicular pollutants with odd and even car license plate systems (something Delhi has copied, if less successfully). But even half the cars on the roads (and there are many ways around license curbs with greased palms and deft plate changes) are too many.

By contrast a premier Far East city, run with considerable resolve if decreasing flair, Hong Kong has an air pollution index averaging 80 in winter but is still regarded as a health risk by jittery expatriates who chase off with their families right into the arms of Singapore haze as Indonesia spontaneously combusts each year. The Hong Kong air pollution index can be seen live here in comparison with say the London pollution index (a chest expanding 30 in December 2017), and Singapore, which is almost the same with its tropical sea breezes helping flush out bad air most times.

How do travellers deal with pollution? Masks are a seemingly sensible – though not the most attractive – option. They are not really effective. And they can horribly mess up your selfie unless you wish to hide bad teeth. Travelling to remoter parts is possible if adventure is what you crave, often at a price. Yet, the sea too is subject to the indignities of human waste. Midway Atoll, a 6sq km outpost in the north Pacific is largely uninhabited but bears mute witness to washed-up detritus from around the world.

Then there's the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with an estimated size similar to Texas that could one day warrant continent status for those who prize plastic. There are in fact five such patches trapped in current vortexes in various oceans.

Perversely, the best thing a traveller can do to limit waste is to not travel at all. Of course, this runs counter to the human imperative to explore and grow. Iconic hotels would perish without patronage and local communities would suffer. Travel is the ultimate cross-pollinator of ideas, art, invention and endeavour. The world cannot thrive without it. Yet one can travel smart with a smaller pollution footprint. And it starts at home. That plastic you dump in LA or HK may end up in the gut of some hapless seabird or be served in Tokyo as sushi. Take your pick. The hotel industry can play its part too by plugging into soup kitchens and distribution channels that would welcome the tons of food that is casually tossed away each day. Happy New Year. Do breathe in, carefully.

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