“One challenge for a foreign correspondent is to figure out how much of yourself to include: If the story is too self-centered, it becomes a tourist’s diary. These days, the general trend is to reduce the writer’s presence, often to the point of invisibility. This is the standard approach of newspapers, and it’s described as a way of maintaining focus and impartiality. But it can make the subject feel even more distant and foreign. When I wrote about people, I wanted to describe the ways we interacted, the things we shared and the things that separated us. Chinese sometimes responded to me in certain ways because I was a waiguoren, and it seemed important to let the reader know this. Mostly, though, I wanted to convey how things actually felt — the experience of living in a Beijing hutong, or driving on Chinese roads, or moving to a small town in rural Colorado. The joy of nonfiction is searching for a balance between storytelling and reporting, finding a way to be both loquacious and observant.”
–Peter Hessler, Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West (2013)
A journey is made of milestones. It has to. Without milestones, we would not be able to ponder our experiences, to stop and wonder about what we have accomplished during all this while.
One of the most shiny accomplishments of my 6 years stint on the road – on many roads, in many countries, with a particular deviancy for the shores of Southeast Asia – is to have become a published writer. And I would like to make it clear: I’m writing this post after I asked Rolf Potts whether or not he found such a display of self-promotion appropriate for Vagabonding. The answer was positive. Moreover, as my book’s not traditionally about the art of travel, he thought best to let me talk about it, instead of wait for a traditional review.
My debut novel titled Nazi Goreng has been published by Monsoon books from Singapore in mid October, and is slowly appearing online and distributed in bookstores across Southeast Asia, the USA, Australia and the UK. It’s a great accomplishment that makes the many hours spent honing the writing craft well worth. More than anything, it constitutes the greatest milestone of my past six years. And please consider: I’m not new to conquering experiences that few can boost to have under their belts. For example, hitchhiking from Singapore to Italy was one. Well, writing a book can be a similar process. It takes daily dedication to get you somewhere closer to reach your goal, your milestone that is. Chiseling a manuscript is a bit like hitching a ride: you never know what’s coming up next, nor when you will reach your destination.
Nazi Goreng talks about Malaysia in a way you never read before: it’s a fictional transposition of the racial tensions that one can only find in a country made up by different ethnic groups, where prayers are spelt to the sky in three languages, followed by wafts of sandalwood-scented smoke. It’s a dark assemblage of truths and fictional accounts based on my perplexing discovery of kuasa melayu (Malay power), a neo-Nazi group made up of brown skinned people. And most importantly, it’s a novel that doesn’t talk about the British or Japanese occupation of the country, a theme too often coupled with Malayan-based historical fiction. On the contrary, this book is the result of years of real-life observations, friendships, time spent scouring the dark halls of local underground music venues, trying to decipher the different habits and ways of thinking of three of the most diverse races of greater Asia who, somehow, had come to share the same turf. And I care to precise, mine are modern day observations. They are a patchwork of the fantastic and terrible experience that living in a country like Malaysia can be. It’s the apex of a personal trip to the inside of a particular Asian society, sung to the best of my mongrel minstrel’s abilities. It’s a way to keep myself sane after being on the road, on and off motion, for six long years.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers, and if you are keen, some more information can be found here. What I would like to communicate is really quite simple: I believe that we must use travel to open up our minds in creative ways. We must elaborate on what we have seen, smelt, touched, experienced, otherwise the sense is lost. We must find that unique angle which is ours, and ours only, and just functions as an extension of our own selves. I believe that it is only in such a case that a voyage be well worth setting a milestone. It serves to remember a particular turning point, and grow to a different level.
Truth be told, I don’t even know if I am a ‘traveler’ anymore. I feel more like I had dug up a hole in a tropical island, and had slowly covered myself under a mound of sand. But it is from the security of this new shelter, buried deep into the secrecy of another culture who seems less foreign every passing day, that I have chiseled my milestone. If you are interested in admiring its fine carvings, and see how much passion I reversed into the craft, please click here. And if you like what you see, consider giving some peanuts to the monkey, for it might keep the typewriter well oiled and always functional.
“Herodotus — who lived 2,500 years ago and left us his “History” — was the first reporter. He is the father, master and forerunner of a genre –reportage. Where does reportage come from? It has three sources, of which travel is the first. Not in the sense of a tourist trip or outing to get some rest. But travel as a hard, painstaking expedition of discovery that requires a decent preparation, careful planning and research in order to collect material out of talks, documents and your own observations on the spot. That’s just one of the methods Herodotus used to get to know the world. For years he would travel to the farthest corners of the world as the Greeks knew it. He went to Egypt and Libya, Persia and Babylon, the Black Sea and the Scythians of the north. In his times, the Earth was imagined to be a flat circle in the shape of a plate encircled by a great stream of water by the name of Oceanus. And it was Herodotus’ ambition to get to know that entire flat circle. Herodotus, however, besides being the first reporter, was also the first globalist. Fully aware how many cultures there were on Earth, he was eager to get to know all of them. Why? The way he put it, you can learn your own culture best only by familiarizing yourself with others. For your culture will best reveal its depth, value and sense only when you find its mirror reflection in other cultures, as they shed the best and most penetrating light on your own. …Thus Herodotus tried by means of his reportage to consolidate the most important message of Greek ethics: restraint, a sense of proportion and moderation.”
–Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Herodotus and the Art of Noticing,” Lettre Ulysses Award Keynote Speech, October 4, 2003
Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work almost immediately. It’s amazing how profoundly engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.
As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with a local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d taken. The clusters of pixels in my camera contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.
It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community who lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—alone at sunset.
At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.
Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.
As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research I did and the photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.
“Good writers — travel writers or otherwise — make real and tangible a world that some readers have never inhabited. Just look at the great draw of the bizzaro worlds of “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.” What turns travel writing into an ethical question that sets it apart from sci-fi or literary fiction is that travel writers take real cultures and erect them for readers who trust them to be loyal and accurate. But the truth is, most travel writers are only passing through.”
–Alden Jones, “Is ‘Exoticism’ A Dirty Word?” WBUR Cognoscenti, August 30, 2013
“Marrying into a culture is a strange pinnacle of interaction. All of these travelers and travel writers think they’re so “extreme” because they visited this place or that place or ate this or bungee jumped off that, but — in my experience — there is nothing more challenging than truly learning language and culture to the point that you can have a genuine relationship with your mother- and father-in-law. That is some crazy shit . . . trust me.” Thomas Kohnstamm, interview
Oh yes. There is so much wisdom in this quote I can almost feel it coming out of the screen and slap me across the face, Chuck Norris’ style.
In brief: I’m sitting at the table I sit at every day for hours on end, writing, researching and imagining the new worlds that hang before me, stylized into the colors of a world map. My fiancee has left for her training session on the benefits of Chinese tourism to the local hotel industry. I think I’ll have another cup of coffee as soon as I finish this post. I have a bunch of bills to settle, and I know I’ll have to explain myself in a foreign language that sounds increasingly less foreign to my ears. I don’t see any Himalayan peak nor any series of earthen huts with thatched roofs from my window. There is just a solitary row of damp saris and t-shirts flapping in the wind.
Today, there won’t be any exciting hike, nor any backpacker competition to ascertain who stayed on the road for longer and with lesser cash. However, I might end up running at the park, skirting the hungry monkeys in search of food to avoid getting a rabies-infected bite and spend the night at the hospital. Or, I could visit my friend at the Buddhist sanctuary, sit under an outgrown branch”stolen” from the original Bodhi Tree, and sip cardamom tea. I’ll leave the visit to my in-laws for later, during the weekend. Today, I don’t feel like making the drive.
I glance out of the metal bars affixed before my apartment’s door frame, and I see nothing that could resemble “traveling”. At the same time, I feel like I’m as far as possible from any traveling stereotype. Strange, isn’t it?
“Movies are used by cultures where they are foreign films in a much more primitive way than in their own; they may be enjoyed as travelogues or as initiations into how others live or in ways we might not even guess. The sophisticated and knowledge able moviegoer is likely to forget how new and how amazing the different worlds up there once seemed to him, and to forget how much a child reacts to, how many elements he is taking in, often for the first time. And even adults who have seen many movies may think a movie is “great” if it introduces them to unfamiliar subject matter; thus many moviegoers react as naïvely as children to “Portrait of Jason” or “The Queen.” They think they’re wonderful. The oldest plots and corniest comedy bits can be full of wonder for a child, just as the freeway traffic in a grade Z melodrama can be magical to a villager who has never seen a car. A child may enjoy even a movie like “Jules and Jim” for its sense of fun, without comprehending it as his parents do, just as we may enjoy an Italian movie as a sex comedy although in Italy it is considered social criticism or political satire.”
–Pauline Kael, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” Harper’s, February 1969
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Fulford Cave sits in a national forest near Eagle, Colorado. It’s huge! The entrance is an awkwardly-angled pipe, but once you’re past the uncomfortable wiggle down the aluminum ladder, the cave opens up into several enormous rooms, passages and even a waterfall. I climbed and explored for around three hours, and didn’t even reach the halfway mark. Places like this are astonishing for how well hidden they seem. Walking around the forest, you’d never suspect there’s such a cave right under your feet.
Our family has a long history of making memories instead of collecting things. We love to give gifts, don’t get me wrong, but most of them are little homemade things, or gifts of self in some capacity. Perhaps most precious are the gifts of time and of memories.
We didn’t get a honeymoon. I had back surgery instead. Long story.
So, we started taking annual honeymoons:
Year One: a road trip to Florida and a three day cruise to the Bahamas.
Year Five: a motorcycle trip through the maritime provinces of Canada.
Year Ten: Hawaii
Year Fifteen: A rainy tent in England, one month into a year long cycle trip around Europe.
Year Twenty: This coming spring (where did the time go?) We’re thinking Paris, just to be cliche.
One year we gave our kids camel rides on the Sahara for Christmas. Ezra got an elephant ride in Thailand for his tenth birthday. Hannah got a visit to Angkor Wat for her sixteenth; we went skiing in New Zealand for her seventeenth.
This coming year I turn 40. To honor that milestone I’m taking a walk with an old friend. We share a birth year, and it’s been her dream to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Something about forty, the nice round hilltop of mid-life, that makes a good place to stop and take a breath, lift our heads and take a look around: at the past, and the path before us into the future. It will be a monumental journey. No husbands. No kids. Just her and me, our boots and our backpacks.
Many tangible gifts have passed through my hands over the years, many of them treasures for a while. The ones that have passed through my heart are the ones I still hold dearest, the ones that I can unpack in the quiet of a dark moment and that bring light to my life in the way no purchased item ever has. Perhaps it makes me an oddity, but I’d always rather make a memory than spend equal money on a “thing.”
How do you mark milestones? Have you used journeys to celebrate and measure out life? Tell me about that.