For Just One Breath Of Fresh Air

After all the trouble to get there, it was ironic that I was counting down the hours and minutes to leave. 

It was my fourth visit to Beijing, and this time more than ever before, it was miserable. I feel like I have just had a glimpse at a terrifying foreshadowing of our future on this planet if we continue the way we are going.

Beijing is a city with no skyline. There are many acclaimed modern skyscrapers, but you can’t see them. While I was there, the visibility was barely over 100 metres. Everything disappeared into a stifling grey-brown, toxic shroud of air pollution. The outdoors no longer felt expansive in this bubble of limited visibility. I literally couldn’t see the buildings around me. Even across the street things began to be obscured. Everywhere life seemed difficult and depressing. The trees seemed stunted and withered. I remember gazing up into the sky at noon to see a red patch in the sky above me where the sun should be. In fact they had just cancelled a marathon a few days earlier due to the air pollution.

“Two years ago things started to get bad.” Eileen, one of the meet organisers answered. She also admitted that that was her English name.

“People complain, nothing happens, it’s from the factories and power plants around,” she remarked as she defeatedly dropped her small shoulders and lowered her chin.

There was to be no reprieve from the smothering pollution indoors either. Large open indoor spaces like the atrium in the Holiday Inn where I was staying and the giant expanse of the Aquatic Center were hazy, with the lights illuminating the misty air in halos around them. At night I longed for just one deep, cool inhalation of fresh air as I lay in a hot hotel room that bore the stench of stale cigarette smoke. I guess I am spoilt. I come from a place where it is still possible to breathe the air and drink the water but for the 21 million people who live in Beijing, this is their daily reality. 

This apocalyptic urban environment is more than just an image problem for Beijing. By the second day this insidious haze manifested itself as a very sandy, heartburn-like sensation deep within my virgin lungs. 

In the pool I couldn’t hold my breath as well as I was accustomed to. It crossed my mind that perhaps strenuous exercise in the form of all-out racing was not the best thing for me to be doing in that environment. But I figured if the Chinese were doing it then so could I. 

Beijing’s pollution particle readings are more than 20 times above the safety limit set by the World Health Organization. According to a study from the British Medical Journal (BMJ), this cuts the life expectancy by 15 years. Would 15 more years of very hard life be worth living in such an environment? Is this to be our future? 

Face masks were prevalent everywhere. They even seemed to have been accessorised into local fashion as an element of mystique. I remember seeing well-dressed women with long hair strut by in tall boots, scarves and black face masks, leaving only their seductively made-up eyes exposed to interact with the world. 

My arrival 36 hours before the competition provided me little time to prepare, but by the second day of competition I had gone to great lengths to procure a face mask too. I no longer felt awkward wearing it, but instead was comforted by the notion of protection.

In Trinidad, when the western peninsula is not inundated with smoke from the burning Beetham landfill, we can go outside and the sky is blue, the trees are green, and there are white clouds floating by gracefully above. Enjoy it while you still have it! All the talk about our negative effects on the environment and climate change falls on deaf ears. According to the United States Statistics Division, we in T&T have the second highest greenhouse emissions per capita in the world, way above China. We are rushing towards a Beijing like existence. Is our notion of progress worth this price?

The wind really picked up last night. This morning, as I dragged my suitcase down the crowded windswept street to the bus, a group of teenagers captured my attention. They were huddled under an outstretched phone, pointing and peering up at the sky. I looked up and to my surprise there was a gap in the smog and a sunbeam shone down on a little white cloud drifting across the patch of blue. “What are they doing?” I asked one of the Chinese organising officials. 

“They are photographing of the cloud, it’s very rare and special here,” he responded in broken English.

As long as I live that memory will haunt me. Do you want your children to be mesmerised by the rare sighting of a cloud? As Gandhi says, be the change you want to see in the world.