Thursday, 19 February 2015

Travelling is all in the mind.

Do you ever forget where you are for a second? I’m not talking about the experience of being in a foreign bed and waking with a start in the middle of the night, trying to find a patch of light so you can identify a cupboard or picture that reminds you that you’re staying in a hotel or your Aunt’s spare room.

I mean the feeling where the scenery, smells, sounds, light, temperature and hundreds of other various subtle elements combine to remind you of a place you’ve visited or lived in before. These instances can be so detailed and complete that you sometimes think you’re there, even if just for a second.

I love this feeling. I embrace and nurture it. I want it to linger. (Especially now that the type of travel I enjoyed in my 20s and early 30s is on hold until I can convince my boy it’s safe to take Little Red to India, Nepal, Patagonia, Jordan, Tunisia, Estonia, Latvia, Tibet and Guatamala. And that she’d love to go down the Amazon in a boat, or visit the Mayan ruins or any other place I have on my very long list.)

So often now I am reminded of somewhere I’ve visited, be it the tropics in South East Asia and the Pacific, the jungle and forests in South America, or the suburban streets of England and America.

Early some mornings I stand out on the deck and take a moment. I listen to the neighbours’ chickens stirring. The air is still cool, but a little muggy, with the promise of the heat to come. The haze in the sky dulls the light, and there are threads of mist in the trees. It’s mostly quiet, with the occasional hum of a car or voice or the cicadas’ call.

These things remind me of India and I feel a pang of longing. Each morning of my stay in Makaibari, I’d get up early with my host family. The eldest daughter would bring me hot, sweet local tea, sometimes laced with ginger, knocking softly on my bedroom door and leaving it on the coffee table. I’d go outside and stand on the porch of their home to drink it, rugged up in my hoodie and trousers, warming my hands on their best cup (that had a lid!) and inhaling the steam. The air was still quite cool from the night, but there was a hint of the humid warmth that would make the afternoon’s home clinic visits in surrounding villages hot work. The air smelt of dust and dirt and leaves, spices and incense, and sometimes a hint of rain.

My host family lived half way up the hill upon which the village stood. From their porch, I had clear views into their neighbours’ yards, and on clear days, I could see past the prayer flags that flicked and flapped in the wind, into the valley and across to the blue-grey mountains in the distance.

I loved watching and listening to the village as it started its day. People washed themselves and their dishes in pots with the precious water their children had carried up from the spring in old plastic oil, petrol and soft drink containers. Some ate breakfast on the concrete steps outside their doors. They fed their dogs and cats scraps, absent-mindedly throwing food onto the ground at their feet. Chickens ran free in the yards, bathing themselves in dust and dirty water, and chattering happily among themselves. Some people checked the tufts of green that filled their small vegetable plots, tugging at strings that fastened stems to sticks in the ground.

The sky had a constant haze, which gave the morning light a pearl grey tinge. By lunch time, and with the aid of a breeze, this haze rose a little to allow more sunlight and warmth through. But it was always there – as it was across all of the India I’ve seen. Sadly this is indicative of the pollution that plagues the country (and leaves visitors with a perpetually blocked nose and sinuses).

Behind me, in the corridor inside the home, the family’s grandfather would say his morning prayers. At dawn he lit incense and waved it around the doors, mumbling what I imagined to be his hopes and wishes, and giving gratitude. He spoke no English, but always gave me a warm smile and nod as I passed him on his way to and from the village temple or his vegetable garden.

I miss the peace of those mornings (and having someone bring me tea as soon as I wake). Standing on the deck at home, with that certain light and cool, listening to the chickens chatter and coo to one another, reminds me of that simple, quiet time, the pause before the day busied and warmed.

Sometimes I walk around our neighbourhood and am reminded of the suburbs in London in Spring. The slow, gentle warming of the ground, still cool from winter. The dense, leafy gardens shading heavy-set red brick homes, fence lines dotted with rose bushes drooping slightly with the weight of their flowers. Daffodils popping up randomly in the grass.

When I swim laps at my local pool, I am taken back to the President Hotel in La Paz. My boy and I holed up there for a day or two when one of our flights was cancelled. To try to even out the plentiful Pisco Sours and Ecuadorean chocolate I consumed, I did 100 laps of the 10-metre hotel pool, covered by a filthy glass roof, where pigeons perched on the edge overlooking the city and rain pitted the grime. Palms stood tall, browning, in pots in the corners of the room. The tiles around the pool were cracked and their style so dated it was almost new again. I can smell the thick chlorine and feel my annoyance with the hairy-backed, big-bellied man who let his two boys jump and splash around us without any consideration.

Other times, the heavy humidity after a summer storm makes me think of the tropics, of Thailand or Fiji or even the Amazon. The air smells moist and earthy, sweet and floral. Droplets of water cling to the trees and bushes, and birds chirp happily now the storm has passed, shaking water from their feathers. There’s a strange feel of newness, of excitement and anticipation. It’s cooler, but ever so sticky. And you start to perspire at the mere thought of walking. Light filters through the clouds that are starting to break apart, and all of a sudden you’re caught in a bright, warm ray that burns. And it’s hot.

These moments keep me going when my feet get that familiar itchiness, when I get restless and irritable, and my next trip seems so far in the future. They remind me that I’m lucky to have these memories at all, to know what it’s like to have been in those places and experienced those things. They remind me to be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and the ones I will have in the future. Because I’m sure there will be many more to come (just as soon as I convince my boy that Little Red will love to travel as much as her mum does).

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