There are times when I have got up in a strange hotel room in the early hours of dawn, before the Bach melody in my cellphone wakes me up. The light is beginning to emerge at the rim where the sky meets land, and the night loosens its hold over the city.
I get up and draw the curtains, but the cityscape does not boast of a familiar landmark. A sign advertising Coca-Cola keeps blinking, as if mocking me.
When I arrived the previous night, at the airport, the money changers had closed for the day, so the currency notes I’m carrying in my wallet can’t tell me where I am. The mini-bar in my room does not offer much help: It has Heineken and Carlsberg beer; chocolate bars of Toblerone and Kit Kat, and the nuts, Planters. The newspaper they will leave outside my room in the morning will be the International Herald Tribune. If I turn on the television set, there are strange programmes in a language I don’t understand; the only networks in English are Discovery, showing me the mating ritual of rhinos, CNN going on about an American football match, and the BBC World Service needling my conscience with another disaster somewhere.
Freed markets: The fall of the Berlin Wall (top) led to the proliferation of global brands, from Starbucks (above) to McDonald’s. Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg
Where am I? Nothing distinguishes my hotel room from any other that I have slept in in the past decade. That hotel room is in fact an extension of the cocoon that begins at the airport itself: All shops are identical, selling similar perfumes, liquor, toys, and artefacts from museums. You find San Francisco’s Ghirardelli chocolates at the airport in New York; the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s shop in Singapore; you eat sushi at Heathrow Airport in London. And at the new, swanky airports in India, there is Costa Coffee, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and Accessorize shops. As Pico Iyer memorably observes in his book The Global Soul, you fret because another McDonald’s opens in your town just as a new Thai eatery opens in Berlin.
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We live surrounded by sameness, and a sense of seamlessness adds to that sameness, which spreads beyond the airports and the hotels, to the malls and the main streets, with its Pizza Huts and Burger Kings, Pizza Expresses and WH Smiths. The comfort of the familiar dispels any urge to be distinct.
It wasn’t like that a decade ago. Shops and businesses behaved like people—they knew their place, they flaunted their separateness. They didn’t venture out too far. Foreign travel was still rare. But when the Berlin Wall fell, economies opened, more people became prosperous, and more of them began to travel in vast numbers, and so did shops. It made economic sense—cultural sensitivity apart—to open an American coffee shop like Starbucks in Europe, because Americans were turning up in droves in European capitals, and there, when they wanted coffee, they wanted something milky and frothy and sugary, not the austere, strong espresso served by the spoonful in tiny cups. And so it was with Filipinos: They went to Dubai to work, and dutifully, Jollibee’s opened there, offering them their pineapple pies.
To get away from this conformity, you had to get off the beaten track. To step aside from the ubiquity and uniformity you had to discover the road not taken, the path not trodden on, and if you wanted an experience that could be described as unique, which the tourist brochures invariably promised but rarely delivered—authenticity. And as the world gets even more integrated, and as China and India, and more countries like them, try to imitate the developed world, those places that are distinct disappear fast; exploring them becomes an art. The challenge then is no longer to go boldly where no one has gone before—that’s probably impossible now, except in some remote rainforest—but to go where Lonely Planet hasn’t set foot yet. Or to create your own narrative, and not the one the guidebook dictates.
Salil Tripathi often takes too long at immigration counters deciding between ‘business’ and ‘pleasure’ when he has to state the purpose of his visit to a new country. Photo: Michele Tantussi, Seokyong Lee, and Daniel Acker /Bloomberg
I’ve tried doing that in my travels over the years. After the business that has brought me to a city is done, I try to follow the whims of authors, moving from one table to another in Paris, pursuing the lost whispers of Hemingway and Fitzgerald at Café de Flore and La Closerie des Lilas and Dome and Café les Deux Magots and Lipp. Or, chasing the vanishing shadows of Graham Greene in Saigon, stepping out of the hotel and once again imagining Dong Khoi as Rue Catinat, looking for the woman in an ao-dai and a conical hat who serves the best pho, the Vietnamese steamy soup.
And another time, in Tokyo, when a meeting gets cancelled, I have hopped in the Shinkansen, or the bullet train, and headed for Kyoto, and once there, to Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion that a fanatical monk set afire because he could not withstand its beauty, and to understand that fury, I have turned to Yukio Mishima, himself a man of passion who, many years later, committed a spectacular suicide after failing to enthuse troops to rebel and restore the glory of the Japanese emperor.
Or, earlier this year, when I was in Santiago, and I had a day to spare before flying home, I left for the Pacific coast, to Valparaiso and Isla Negra, where the mighty waves of the ocean lashed the beachfront near Pablo Neruda’s home, where you get sprinkled with drops of water, like dewdrops, inspiring a poem.
And at other times, I have followed the path of history, trying to glimpse what happened and why. In Mostar, we stood in front of a bridge that once united the Croat and Muslim parts of the city, but which was torn down by a commander during the Balkan war; in Berlin, I’ve walked with a friend who took me from one footpath to another, to metallic plates installed as stumbling blocks on those footpaths, to commemorate Jewish families who lived in buildings nearby; and in the expansive Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, I noticed an unruly growth disturbing the perfect symmetry of the garden, and a friend told me—that was the original hedge, built to keep away the khoisan, or the Khoi people, the original inhabitants who lived in South Africa, before some whites came by the sea and some blacks by land.
As the relentless onslaught of malls, supermarkets, hotel rooms and airport lobbies makes the world dully homogenous, it remains a fascinating challenge to encounter parts that lie beneath. It may be hard to remember where you bought that Ferragamo tie, those Godiva chocolates, that Glenlivet single malt, or even that necklace from Tiffany’s. But it isn’t easy to forget those basketful of poems Neruda leaves imprinted in your mind, nor the shiver other memories bring, like at the foot of the blue Ngong Hills where, as Karen Blixen once wrote, she had a farm in Africa, where “in the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”
Now, that’s where a narrative can begin; and seeing those hills, with her words reverberating, the trip becomes travel. I no longer remember what took me to Nairobi—but those blue hills will stay with me, always.