IF life is a voyage of discovery, then travel must be a homage to life. It speaks of how our lives are marked by a Gatsbian longing for love, connection, and identity. Sometimes, it could even give us the gift of self-discovery, as it did for Sabrina Fairchild (“I found myself in Paris”) or Elizabeth Gilbert, who ate, prayed, and found love, as well as literary fame. For Elizabeth Barrett Browning, travel broke the chains of her home country, setting her free into her adopted city (“O Freedom! O my Florence!”).
But sometimes, this sort of idealism clouds the other side of travel, the side that readily invites prejudice, even disdain and disgust, to froth up in our hearts just because home and all that’s dear and familiar to us are far away.
It’s the sort of feeling that would naturally come to you when you suddenly find, at the Gare de Lyon en route to the Charles de Gaulle airport, that your passport’s gone, picked from a mere six-inch gap in your purse expertly unzipped without your knowledge. Your mind races back, unwinding the footage of the journey that had first started after lunch from Pigalle, Abbesses to be exact, taking in the flood of faces that streamed past you, and then you pick him out: yes, that dark-haired teen in a white tank top and low-slung cargo shorts, the one who sidled up so close to you when you boarded the train, pressing up against you, alighting just one or two stops after, walking coolly past the doors, looking left, then right, utterly nonchalant. It had to be him, but so what?
C’est du passé, as the French would say: It’s history.
All at once, the feel-so-good, the occasional envy, the starry-eyed bliss of the past nine days in the City of Lights and the Loire Valley fizzle out in the clinging summer heat, leaving only one feeling intact: a quiet gratitude that I hadn’t been mugged or assaulted, and the Singapore embassy had reopened its gates for me five minutes past five o’clock on the eve of the August 15th Assumption holiday, less than a month before the fateful events of 9/11. And if you still had a sense of humor, you could put this all down to experience, noting in your journal how traveling always surprises you with unknown challenges, the sort that teach you to practice charm and grace even in the most dire circumstances.
As much as travel opens our eyes to the otherness of foreign cultures and cuisines, languages and mindsets, it also has a way of bestowing that very same quality of otherness on ourselves—a feeling that first came to me in 1984 when I was only 15 during a three-week summer study program in Hamamatsu, home to Yamaha pianos and motorcycles, and perhaps the best unagi-don in Japan.
It was my first time so far away from home, and my first time in Japan. That they-versus-us sentiment would however diminish as the days passed, so that by the time we had to say goodbye at the Shinkansen platform, there were tears, not just among the students but the parents and teachers as well. This bittersweet farewell would play up again at the Himeji train station years hence in 1992, at yet another summer immersion program, this time over seven weeks as a university student.
Fast forward to the spring of 1997 when I moved to Long Island for a two-year stint with a technology company, which eventually ballooned into a six-year stay, the initial sense of otherness was so acute that I felt so conscious of my Asian-ness, even though the head of the company was himself an immigrant from Shanghai, and the second-in-command, a Sri Lankan-born.
I was always watchful of the way I spoke, conscious never to say “I’ll be on leave” but “I’ll be away on vacation.” It was during this phase of my life that I switched to American English from British English, triggered by this one encounter with a frizzy-haired tech geek, who marched to my cubicle one afternoon, peeved that he had to fix all my typos for a sales training Web site: “What’s this learnt thing about? Where did you learn your English, writing learned with a ‘t’?”
It seems such feelings are mutual. There have been so many times when I had forced myself to swallow my disbelief whenever new acquaintances at work would speak of Singapore as if it were a city in China, or remark with wonder, “How come you speak such good English?” to which I’d say, “English is a first language where I come from.”
Almost always, that gaijin feeling, the perception of otherness, would be colored by a certain curiosity and sense of wonder, mixed with a guarded reserve, sometimes paranoia, other times prejudice. It isn’t exactly an unpleasant or a fine feeling, though I learned, with time, that it’s all in the mind, and that ultimately, beneath the otherness, theirs or ours, all of us live under the same sky, pursuing the same kind of dreams: we want a good life, good health, happy families, friends, perhaps even spiritual awakening.
I can’t say I’ve ever heard a higher being speak to me before, or felt a flame dancing above my crown chakra, but travel gets you to hallowed places that remind you of your smallness and mortality. That was how I felt when I came face to face with Mount Fuji, as if the ephemeral and the eternal were swirling around like winds in a tight circle hugging the very soul of the universe, one never overpowering the other in speed or force.
I couldn’t help thinking of all the folks from centuries before—emperors, shoguns, samurais, commoners—who have admired its beauty and symmetry, gazing with awe upon that perfect peak immaculately powdered by snow breathed down by the Japanese Gods: a tranquil, sleeping volcanic cone kissed by the mountain-high clouds or the crisp nude air of the powder blue sky. People may come and go, but a mountain is forever, just like love, just like a thing of beauty.
For a mountain that hid behind its veil of fog in my first three trips before revealing itself on the fourth, Mount Fuji’s lesson to me was this: we may not always get what we want in our travels, but no visit is ever in vain, for that initial sense of lacking only makes the ultimate having richer. That was exactly how I felt that frigid January day in 1997 when it posed its centuries-old pose for me: first, as I glided along a ropeway; then, as I cruised across Lake Ashi.
Imagine all the world’s eyes that ever saw this majestic mountain. The feeling is similar to having read a famous novel, and discovering a kinship among a vast expanse of fellow readers past, present, and future; or seeing a photo of President Obama walking the Great Wall of China, taking in the very same vistas you took in.
Certainly, very few people in the world could have experienced that solitary stroll along the Wall as he did, undisturbed by the throngs of tourists. Fate can determine your station as a traveler, but it cannot diminish the desire to seek out new worlds and adventures or quell a restless, searching soul.
I often wish I could travel more than I do, but when that desire is more outsized than the pocketbook, I set forth on more creative adventures by turning to books which have the power to “let you travel without moving your feet,” as Jhumpa Lahiri had once observed through Ashoke Ganguli, the protagonist of her novel, The Namesake. I suppose another way of looking at this kind of travel is Marcel Proust’s idea that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Through books, I have visited Isak Dinesen’s Ngong Hills in Africa and many a Bohemian home in Willa Cather’s Nebraskan plains, galloped wildly on a sway-back mare across Central Park imagining I was Holly Golightly, chatted with Picasso and Gertrude Stein in Montmartre, had tea with Mrs. Dalloway, soaked in the romance of train travel with Paul Theroux, frolicked about Peter Mayle’s Provence, cooked and eaten and traveled with the food writers I adore—M.F.K. Fisher and Anthony Bourdain, Laurie Colwin and Laura Calder. The list can go on and rescue me from cabin fever as I travel viscerally, coming close to what Paul Theroux calls “an elaborate bumming evasion.”
Reading-travel is evidently a safe bet in times when hijackings and bombings are as real as plane crashes and train derailments. What’s more, it makes possible the added dimension of time travel. Yet its enrichment can only go so far—mind-deep, not belly-deep. After all, what is traveling without satiating the belly, exciting the senses, or delighting and challenging the palate?
I have braved stinky tofu in Hong Kong, Witchetty grubs in Australia, chicken liver and horse meat served sashimi style in Japan. It turns out stinky tofu didn’t taste of vomit or choked gutters; and pan-seared Witchetty comes close to walnuts in flavor and foie gras in texture, minus the decadent ooze of goose fat. The lessons of Elizabeth Bennett’s misguided first impressions could well apply to a modern Asian girl in gastronomic matters, but not with the chicken liver or horse meat. There were no surprises there: just a slippery tingle, a cold rawness, that got me close to gagging after just two chews.
From all the travels that corporate work once blessed me with, I have eaten far and near, in Singapore where I live, in New York which was once home for six years, Tahiti, across pockets of Asia, America, Italy, France; and here, the list doesn’t grow any longer. It is a far cry from the Traveler’s Life List set out in Patricia Schultz’s 1,000 Places to See Before You Die—a stark reminder of our mortality and how, as travelers, we are mere transients.
There is much to do, plenty to see, and too little time. Yet in such a landscape, I have learned that travel is sweetest when it is not rushed.
How could I otherwise have captured that shot of a soaring lone seagull against a cold, brooding November sky, singled out from so many others squawking and hovering by the ramparts of St. Malo? Or felt a crushing wordlessness, that Stendhal swoon, as I stood before Renoir’s Daughters of Catulle Mendes at the Met not just at my first visit, but the subsequent ones? Or befriended Sabu, my tuk-tuk driver in Kochi, the charming Eddie Murphy lookalike? Or wondered how time passes in a floating hut in the South China Sea as I lunched, over a mile away, at a restaurant in a Bintan resort perched by the cliff?
It was from this vantage point that I watched a fisherman row his long slender boat paddle by paddle, making slow yet relentless progress the way my time passed; the way we travel, step by step, mile by mile; the way we write, sentence by sentence, thought by thought; the way our travels fade into photos, words, memories—footprints that outlast the very travels themselves.