Monday, January 20, 2014


Sunset in Prague

 Just a quick thought, nothing terribly brilliant or world-changing, but I felt like blogging it.

A lot has been written about the benefits of travel - and there are certainly many obvious ones. Travel is not a material object so it won't bog down your life (but it's not especially environmentally friendly); money spent traveling can help local communities if done right; travel never goes out of style or gets 'worn out' the way objects do; it can be a learning experience - learning new languages, about new cultures, or just what foreign food in its original setting tastes like; you can make new friends; you can expand your worldview; you can prod yourself to become a better and more educated, worldly person; it helps people overcome fears, pickiness/snobbiness and prejudices.

Bus stop near Cafe Mondegar in Mumbai

Mountain views in Sri Lanka

That's all great and I agree with it all (although it doesn't work on everyone).

But one benefit of travel that nobody seems to have written about is how much higher quality your daydreams are when you have a mental store of 'awesome places' you can check out to! Whenever the world is getting you down, or you're stuck waiting somewhere, or "mindfulness" is just not working out for you at that moment, you have so many more daydream scenarios available than the average person.

King Boat Festival in Taiwan

Maybe I'm waiting for my number to be called at the doctor's office. Then I'm riding an overcrowded bus to downtown Madurai from the post office, crossing the dried-up riverbed dotted with grazing cattle and the ruins of a temple. Or on a bus on a stretch of road with nothing to see out the window - maybe in one of the more drab, industrial parts of Zhonghe. Then I'm taking a walk up the road and over a small hill from the small Sumatran town of Kersik Tua and seeing the volcano in the distance framed by a group of schoolgirls in long white skirts and white hijab. Maybe I'm walking down a particularly uninteresting section of road - around Wanlong on Roosevelt Road perhaps - and then I'm standing on Galata Bridge with the great mosques on one side and Galata Tower on the other, eating stuffed mussels with Brendan as the sun sets on Istanbul. Maybe I'm waiting a little too long at the supermarket checkout - except I'm not, I'm trying to throw stones into a creek near Lake Karakul so we can cross over the freezing water.

Stuffed mussels in Turkey

The Paris Opera

It's even better when you have old scenarios and situations in your head, things that went down in other places years ago that can offer some fresh new insights or ideas if picked up and examimed - like little multi-facted, light-catching crystal tchotchkes - when you have a bit of free time. What are the implications of my friend and former coworker in China being fired for being "too close to the foreigners"? Why did Amma (my host 'mother' in India) say that it's 'normal for a man to sometimes hit his wife, you just have to accept it' and what experiences in her seemingly comfortable life led her to believe that that's true? What was up with that guy in Sanliurfa who seemed so friendly until we complained that the teahouse had tried to cheat us, and in that moment turned on us?

Karakul Lake in Xinjiang

The lights in Hong Kong (probably Kowloon, not Wan Chai, but...)

Of course everyone has these moments in their pasts that they escape to occasionally when daydreaming, it's just that travel gives you more of them, and quite likely a more diverse array of memories to boot! If I hadn't been to, say, Bangladesh, I couldn't add to my store of potential daydream-meditations the memory of the Bengali government officials I had to register with on my way to Tetulia in the far north, who decided (without my ever implying as much) that I was a "journalist", not a tourist, because what tourist wants to go to Tetulia? And how I got a free "government tour" out of the whole fiasco which was actually pretty cool and fun. Or maybe they knew I wasn't really a journalist (I never said I was, because I wasn't!) but just felt it was their job to courteously show me around their prefecture? Who knows, but without that experience, I'd probably just be daydreaming about, I dunno, eating at some restaurant I usually eat at or how I'd like a coffee or that I should e-mail my mom.

Hiking in Cappadocia

Day trip to Kamakura in Japan

I don't even think this takes away from "mindfulness" (quotation marks = I'm cynical about the whole idea). The point of mindfulness is to stop thinking about the "next thing". There's nothing contradictory in taking time to meditate on past experiences - especially when you want to escape a temporarily boring situation by mentally checking out - as long as you don't get bogged down in overthinking inconsequential problems.

Boating in Palawan, the Philippines

Aswan in Egypt

I imagine all of these travel memories compiled together like a big old notebook scrawled in my own handwriting, with the pages peppered down the sides with a confetti of multicolored stick-tabs. The coding system would be completely foreign to everybody else, but is immediately familiar to me. You know, like an old notebook would be! That yellow tab there is me sitting in Cafe Mondegar in dowtown Bombay crying over a plate of masala scrambled eggs because I was flying out the next day and I didn't want to be (even though I was going to England!). That blue one is the twilight hour in downtown Prague when all of the statues become silhouettes. The hot pink one is first touching down in Hong Kong and wandering, jetlagged, through an unfamiliar Wan Chai looking for my hotel. The orange one is breakfast at Cafe Coca Cola in Panama City. The dun-colored one is wandering the ruins near Aswan, in southern Egypt, in the late afternoon and then drinking karkadei (hibiscus juice) by the Nile. That shiny black one is the shiny black onyx Buddha, the only one in a line of identical gold Buddhas, in Vientiane. That bright green one is Ella in the mountains of Sri Lanka, and the aqua blue one is riding a little motorboat to snorkeling stops on karst islands in El Nido, on the northern tip of Palawan Island in the Philippines. The purple one is hiking the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall of China with Brendan. The sky blue one is every ride I've taken up the terrifying road over Hehuan Mountain, and the black and white striped one is the face of a ba jia jiang on the beach in Donggang.

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Cafe Coca Cola in Panama City

Tetulia in Bangladesh

When I'm bored I run my brain-fingers down the side of this mental notebook until I land on a tab I like, flip open the page, and boom! I'm gone.

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Isla Ometepe in Nicaragua

Kersik Tua, Sumatra, Indonesia

Doesn't matter where I am - I could be on Ometepe, or hiking in Cappadocia, or wandering the Paris Opera with my parents.

View from Hehuan Mountain in Taiwan

What's important is that I'm gone.

View from a bus window in Madurai, India

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