Each month, from the time Mint was launched, I have been writing this column in Lounge. While it wasn’t intended to turn into reality the Frostian ideal of travelling down the road not taken, unconsciously, that’s the path the column has taken. Whether “that has made all the difference”, as the New England poet said, I don’t know. It is for you, the reader, to decide.
But taking the non-linear route has made many of my trips more interesting than the sum total of the photographs. Sometimes, words giving voice to memories are worth more than hundreds of pictures. Is there a logic, or magic, to this? Does every place have fascinating history? Aren’t familiar locations uninteresting after a while? And, what about the truly godforsaken places, which you wouldn’t have thought you’d visit, and then you do? What happens then?
Off track: In Vevey, Switzerland, visit Manoir de Ban, Charlie Chaplin’s home.
I don’t have the answers. But I like the questions, and each individual will have a different question, and a different answer, and maybe those will change over different times. But let me attempt mine:
I like going to places I have not been to before, and I like to prepare myself not with the Lonely Planet guidebook or the Rough Guide, but by reading up some of the history of the place, and some literature. I realize that sounds pedantic, and that’s not the point. Making a broad generalization is like tempting fate, but almost always, every place I’ve visited has attracted some poet, some painter, some writer, or a dreamer, making it unique. In Montreux, I once sat in a chair in a hotel where Nabokov used to sit; in Paris, cafés eliminated all guess work, placing plaques with names of writers and philosophers who used to sit there for hours, once upon a time.
Some places have hidden histories that only someone who lives there will tell you about. Last December, I visited a close friend and his family in Eastbourne, not expecting to make discoveries. I had a vague recollection of Virginia Woolf having lived in the region, and I knew of the women’s tennis championship held there each year as a warm-up to Wimbledon. It was only after my friend took me to its desolate, windswept cliffs and pointed out the harrowing sadness about the place—the loneliness of that landscape made it Britain’s suicide capital—that I began to think more about the place, and I found that Lewis Carroll and George Orwell had left their mark here.
Then again, once I was in Dakar, a sunny town facing the Atlantic on the West African coast, a place where French-speaking tourists come to shed clothes and inhibitions and to acquire tan. A casual conversation among friends led me to the house of slavery, and the poignant and painful door of no return. I had the freedom to go home; those who left from that narrow hole, marking the middle passage, did not.
There, in that New World, I do love the energy of New York’s Fifth Avenue. Paris’ Champs-Elysees is enchanting, and Boston’s near-European charm is instantaneous in infecting you. But, cities become more interesting when you can stay alone in a crowd, and so I lost myself in the leafy environs of the Central Park in New York, and attempted to get excited at a Red Sox baseball match in Boston. The game did not do much, but the atmosphere certainly did. And in Paris, I retraced the route Ernest Hemingway took. I merged with geography; where possible, I like to relive history.
This is not an inverted sort of snobbery; I have had great fun at safari parks in Natal and the wine estates of the Cape Province—I went to Neethlingshof and bought several bottles of excellent Sauvignon Blanc, and marvelled at the sight of two oceans merging at Cape Point. But, I learnt more from the harrowing reality of separateness that South Africa perpetuated. That a hedge meant to divide people still stands at a breathtakingly beautiful botanical garden was illuminating.
A guidebook will not capture the fragrance of the guava tree in Barranquilla, invoking the magical realm of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And yet, a trip to Colombia would be utterly devoid of meaning if you did not take a detour. Some detours are presumed to be dangerous: Most travel advisories will tell you not to go to Sarajevo, the Niger Delta, parts of Cambodia, and Kenya today. But if you were to read the travel advisories foreign governments issue about India, you would think it is an unsafe place with the kind of cultural restrictions that would make India look like a West Asian state. We learn to ignore what they say about us; why not ignore what they say about others?
So, cast aside that travel advisory, ignore the concierge at the hotel. Sure, stay safe; don’t go out when you can hear gunshots, or if there’s fire visible from your window (unless you are a journalist, in which case follow the fire and get out on that street!), and take that road not taken. And, you will see the Mostar bridge rebuilt, linking once-broken communities again; experience the exhilarating feeling of emerging alive from a hair-raising boat journey in the creeks of the Niger Delta; or walk carefully behind a soldier in Siem Reap in Cambodia to ensure that you don’t end up as another victim of landmines; or, finally, even see the heart-stopping sight of countless flamingos soaring in the sky, their shadows playing hide-and-seek with the calm surface of the lake.
I have had more than my fair share of trips—too many—where I have woken up in the middle of the night in a strange hotel, staring at a TV screen which shows a familiar film with characters speaking in some strange language instead, and the occasional siren of a police car disturbing the tranquillity. At such times, I have no idea where I am; it takes a few moments before realization dawns. Such trips get blurred in memory. But not when fiction, poetry or art have guided me, urging me to look at a landscape differently. Is there a point to such journeys? That would be like asking if there is a point to reading a poem or humming a tune.
We do certain things because of sheer pleasure; in some instances, the pleasure arises from the more conventional things—shopping, sightseeing and eating out. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But you won’t easily remember the taste of the sauce on a fish at the restaurant inside Galeries Lafayette in Paris. And you won’t easily forget the flavour of mee siam, or Siamese noodles, put together by a hawker in Penang, on a sultry evening, with the mild breeze from the Bay of Bengal making the evening somewhat bearable.
It is not as if the mee siam is superior to the fish made by a French chef. But it is the experience, which cannot be replicated elsewhere, least of all at home. And that’s the whole point of travel, of collecting nuggets of experience and vignettes of life, absorbing them, to make our own lives fuller. Thanks for being my companion.
Write to Salil at firstname.lastname@example.org