Buffers, Les élus, Travel Writing

I turn my hourglass …

… and lose myself in thought about the journeys we make.

Journeys. Such a loaded word.

As I read Eat, Pray, Love –a book which I was fiercely cynical of until I started leafing through and relating to the author Elizabeth Gilbert– I wondered about my own personal journey.

During a ride back from a festival in Wadi El Gemal, down south, I began a brief conversation (more like a monologue where I was reciting the lines) with a travel companion, one which later continued on in my head, about the nature of travel, and the kind of people it attracts. I came later to the loose conclusion that the people who travel cannot be classified, simply because everyone does — in one way or another. Gilbert traveled to forget a man, to connect with God, to eat and to find love. Others do it to escape war, death or poverty. Some do it to bring those three on others.

We travel, therefore we are.

I thought of my own journeys in the now aged 2010. The Cairo-to-Shalateen trip was about the conflict near the borders with Sudan, the mystery of tribes I have not met and the companionship on that trip — I was curious, not about destination per se, but the prospect of discovering myself in the process of talking to people and seeing a place that, as me and my co-writer have put it, is stuck “between a rock and a hard place.” Perhaps, on some level, I related to Shalateen’s demise and innocence. On another I related to the journey — to the idea of crossing points on a map but not stopping on each for too long; the “not belonging” feel of a roadtrip was part of its magic. All the better, I didn’t feel the need to belong anywhere.

On my return to this spot earlier this month where the tribes of Beja (now more familiar to me) lived, I confess, part of it was about tasting again that bitter sweet Jabana coffee made with ginger, seated on the ground, in wadis between the mountains. It was also an exercise in familiarity, or rather the flaunting of it. The pride of feeling or saying that “yes, yes, I’ve been here before. I know the laws, and the dances, and the coffee — I even have my own Jabana set.”

Bedu men making Jabana, the Wadi, November 2010

Recently, a friend talked about a “treasure hunt” he had done with the Bedouins using a metal detector in the Sinai desert. The prospect immediately fired me up, and suddenly Sinai was not just a place to observe the mountains as they hug the sea, but a place perhaps to explore and search for hidden things. If he keeps his promise and takes me with him to hunt for shiny metals, it won’t be for destination –like always– but the very, very small and rare possibility of finding something precious beneath the sands. And it’s more about the process of finding, the hunt if you will, than the object sought.

Same with the desire to explore the Gilf, that stretch of remote land elevated over a plateau whose name means “The Great Barrier” and who’s been enchanting travelers like Lazlo Almasy and Mohammed Hassanein with tales of lost armies and a dried oasis hidden from our eyes. For me, it’s about the caves that have yet to be discovered, not the ones that already are. It’s also about the silence — another reason I go to places. I search for it in the hope that the silence without will create a silence within, that the gibbering voices in my head will finally decide to let go and move out.

Am I the kind of traveler who wants to stumble into places, get to know the culture and people, eat local food and take pictures of temples and revered walls? No. At least not at this stage.

A new travel idea I’m developing — a rather personal and private one which, surprisingly, I’m willing to share — is to go to Munich, where my father lived for six years as a young man. There, he knew a woman, who I believe was his first love (a very unfounded conclusion reached after listening to accounts and snippets of stories from aunts and uncles who recite them like family lore and profess knowledge that I think is beyond them, but nevertheless find entertaining).

My father (on the right, black shirt) in 70's Munich

I heard of letters (whose fate is unknown), and the investigator inside of me wants to find those letters, track down the woman in Munich and meet her — it’s a small journey inside the mind of my own father, as it is inside the city which shaped a lot of his beliefs and world-views. Needless to say, my father doesn’t get personal with me, and he would probably go berserk if he knew I’d want to go on such a privacy-inflitrating personal assignment (especially that I ritualistically lecture my parents on respect for privacy and the need for space even within a small, tight family).

It’s such an offensive on privacy, I know, to sift through someone else’s decades-old secrets.

But my nose-poking and shameless prodding is justified by one thing; I feel that my father’s history is also a part of mine. In a way, it’s part of my heritage. And yes, that includes his secrets. Even the ones that he doesn’t care about anymore. And perhaps his own father’s secrets, if I knew of a way where I could ever come to those.

It’s a flimsy argument, very shaky. And I might not even find those letters with the 35-plus-year-old-address of a woman, who might have moved out of the country, changed her name or gender, or died. It also carries the prospect of not hearing anything from anyone, having a door slammed violently in my face or ending up meeting an over-weight, foul-mouthed German who doesn’t speak English or doesn’t recognize my father’s name. The city itself has been reshaped over the years — perhaps it gained weight too, or lost it, in a manner of speaking. The Munich that my father loved is no more, and that “thing”, that needle in a haystack, which has made up a part of his inner him, may be lost even on a passion-filled, genuinely enthused, ever-optimistic seeker like myself.

My father as a young man, with his camera. He wrote letters too.

But this remains a small travel fantasy, that has nothing to do with “discovering a new place” or “flying by the seat of my pants.” Perhaps the fact that I blow its cover here, and talk about something personal to me and my father, has more to do with wanting something about my father to be exposed to the world — something that may stay on after the two of us are gone, and would keep us both alive. Perhaps it’s for my future kids, or his grandchildren. Here is something about your grand-dad, his story. The storyteller in me wanted something about him to be out there, something personal, a testimony to his presence.

“Here’s a man who loved and lived” kind of thing. “And this man is my father.”

In Wadi El Gemal, I listened to this astronomy session beneath the stars (one which helped me know where the direction of Mecca is at night for the following two days, and which works well when you want to boast about basic knowledge of star alignment to strangers). I looked up at the stars, and I wondered whether I travel because I can’t commit. My temperament is ever changing — this has been my constant– and so are my ideas. I wonder if the idea of “home” is one of them. I wonder if curiosity about new places, is actually a search for something else entirely, perhaps for a certain brand of commitment.

The journeys are personal — that much I know.

But I don’t know yet what makes them so.

Hmm, these two sentences rhyme.

Some time has passed since I began my musings. I turn the hourglass.

Listening to: Girl, the Beatles
Favorite bit: “Is there anybody going to listen to my story … All about the girl who came to stay? … She’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry. Still you don’t regret a single day.”
Mood: Happy and hopeful, perhaps without reason.
Wants from the Universe: Travel with purpose, with love.

Advertisements
Buffers, Les élus

Brooding Sentimentalities

This morning, I found a grape in my shoes.

It was a red grape. And I had a suspect in mind: my youngest cat. He likes to play with our food.

It made me smile, because it was one of those small things that reminds me I’m not alone. I remember when I lived on my own in London several months earlier, everything would remain untouched in my room until I got back. There’s bliss in that. But it also confirmed every night that I had no one to talk to, except my neighbors at halls, who just like myself were not always around.

But now, my mom moves stuff around to “tidy up the room” (despite my repeated objections) and my cats love to ruin them for sport. They kick books off the shelves, show special interest in some of my belongings by scratching them to death or hide grapes in my shoes (for safe-keeping, I’m sure there’s a good reason). And when confronted, they always look up at me with those big round eyes as I tower above them, their stares carrying a mix of surprise and disappointment at being so gravely misunderstood.

And all these are little reminders that I’m cared for, that I matter, even though those closest to me never fail to irritate me. But these irritations, and even criticism and mockery, again confirm that I’m not alone. During an interview for an acting workshop, the trainer asked me if I had any friends, I said, “not really.” A day later, I recounted details of the interview to guess who? yup, my friends, and I received a deluge of jeering and scoffing, and of course the question that reared its head was “Then who are we?”

Cornered, I responded: “You’re not my friends. You’re my best friends. Different!” And all jokes aside, part of me was very honest about this. Those friends who have known me for years and years, sometimes since childhood, are not “friends” per se, they’re more like family, and with that comes the eternal commitment to being with them, around them, even if we’ve lost common grounds and even if we’ve got nothing more to talk about. The years bind you together. Being comfortable in their company is granted, but like with family, you can easily slip into that cursed feeling of loneliness even when among them.

When I tried to explain this, one of them suggested, “sometimes I think you’re lonely because you take your problems too seriously. You think too much about them. Other people may have the same problems but then their approach is different, so they become less sad, less involved in their own worries.” She may be right.

An article by Robert Rowland Smith on being lonely said that this feeling is actually healthy because it means there’s a need for people, it means we appreciate people and that “shares a root with compassion.” Sure, it’s all beautiful.

But then what? That’s not a cure for the chronic loneliness, that might or might not go away when you’re with friends, a romantic partner, a sibling, sitting, sleeping, partying, travelling. And I’m not the only one who’s complained. People, successful, with jobs and wives or husbands, always busy, have also complained of the same problem; it almost seems like a new universal malaise (at least for those like myself, who’re living in big noisy cities, struggling for privacy and space, but also for people to *see* them). Everyone is not happy, and everyone feels alone even among people.

Do we – the lonely- hold any solutions to this? Do we even want solutions? Or is it the new “artistically romantic” thing to be lonely? The lonely successful man or woman? A notion like the “misunderstood artist”, or the “sad clown”? Are we deliberately holding on to solitude and the emptiness that accompanies it to satisfy a certain image that has been associated with being sophisticated or independent in this modern age? Is it some kind of an escape? Or perhaps a motivator for escape? May be an adaptation problem? A good excuse for withdrawing and refusing to bond with others?

At this point, I should suggest an answer or say something wise but nothing comes to mind. So I’ll stop writing

Listening to: the news on (or more likely the buzz coming from the) TV
… and this is not a song. We got a new TV in our office
Mood: wavering between bored and brooding