As I write this, I’m reclining in the front of a coaster bus somewhere west of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. I make the journey from Perth to the bush a couple of hours east of Kal each year with a class of young people, and each trip I awed by the scale of the Australian outback (which is no mean feat considering I have been driving through the Aussie desert since I was six – 26 years ago). An eight plus hour drive has certain restorative qualities that I’ve never quite understood. Ever since I could drive I have been attracted to overland driving and the boundless opportunity for uninterrupted reflection it affords. From the cab of a truck or from behind the wheel, the intricacies of daily life seem distant and the trials of life in the city are that little bit easier to bear. Perhaps it’s the golden eucalypts or the endless line of bitumen stretching towards the horizon, but driving the goldfields is far less coma-inducing boring that one might expect.
The idea of travel as a concentrated form of reflection – detox for the soul if you will – is by no means revolutionary – anyone who has left home for much more than a weekend is likely to have found themselves contemplating existence while staring at themselves in a mirror – hotel, review, bar-side – but there are also moments of traveller reflection that tend to stand out. The latest for me involved tangled power lines, fantasies of the clandestine and a fourth floor balcony above Vientiane.
My tour of Laos was drawing to a close and we had set aside a couple of days to explore the capital and tick off the obligatory sites in the surrounding area (which will no doubt appear in future posts), but nursing a – not unexpected – bout of traveller’s belly as I was, we found ourselves resting in our room as the excitement of an oncoming festival build below us. I’d been woken by the nips of a bedbug alarm and decided to seek the refuge of our small balcony as Linh slept on against the onslaught of bloodsuckers. It was the eve of the opening of the Lao boat racing festival that marks the end of the planting season and the close of the rainy season (dragon boats had been training up and down the Mekong and every temple had a boat in some stage of construction) and I could feel the energy rising from street level even four floors up. I closed the door on the sound of a struggling air conditioner and settled in to listen to the cacophony of sound that only an unfamiliar city can offer. I sat on a sun-weakened plastic chair that felt ready to collapse into dust and surveyed the scene from my five foot by three foot cement balcony as I waited for Linh to awaken in time for the evening’s activities (on a tangentially related note, I’ve recently become a strong supporter of afternoon naps – perhaps that’s another by-product of being a part of the thirty fraternity, (https://einsteinsbarbershop.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/the-thirty-fraternity/) but it’s certainly one of the more pleasant changes).
The late afternoon haze and the familiar humidity of equatorial evening created an odd cocoon around my cement bastion and – as a balcony can sometimes do – it helped to remove me from the tide of afternoon business flowing below me, unaware that I was peering in on a few moments of their lives. Reclining on my death trap of a chair and peeking through the cinderblock railing, my senses reached out to take in the sights and sounds.
From four stories up, Vientiane seemed surreal – just as Cairo seemed to me when I visited in 2009. Both cities felt alive to my structured, ordered idea of Australian cities that it tapped in to my subconscious, awakening those boyhood dreams of 1001 Arabian nights where roof-hopping urchins run riot above a sprawling labyrinth of markets, and the allure of forbidden artifacts and deadly danger lurks around every alleyway. (It’s a shame that we associate such romantic ideas of adventure and exploration with youth rather than striving to live swinging from the trees – it explains why I keep saying that I’ll never, never grow up!) Tahir Shah’s ‘In Arabian Nights’ really captures (for me) that atmosphere and I’ll write more on the subject before long I’m certain.
On this occasion I was initially caught up in fantasies of being a foreign agent running surveillance and inventing back-stories for passers-by. Here was a local Mafioso with one too many machetes and suspicious crates in his pickup. There was an expat American veteran who couldn’t bear to leave after Laos’ secret war (a thrilling and tragic tale if you’ve not heard it) and now wears his Panama as armour against the scars left on his soul. Here again was a group of former Party members, secretly begrudging Sayasone’s commitment to the stabilising political status quo in the country which only adds to the tapestry that is Lao politics or diplomacy (it seems that in Laos the two are inexorably linked). Such flights of fancy, of storytelling, inevitably lead to self-reflection. Why was I not living the role I was so romantically envisioning? It really didn’t matter, but it kept my mind active.
Gradually the traffic began to build and the energy from the street rose to find me in my fortress of solitude and distracted me from my clandestine mission. Instead, I turned my attention to the nearby monastic temple and the building excitement of the festival opening. The annual boat races, which coincide with the tourist high season, were set to begin that night (although that was unknown to me at the time, I thought they were a week later) and people began to head towards the temples where my mind was now lost in worlds of orange robes and morning alms – another evocative ideal that Laos had projected into the most romanticised part of my mind.
Throughout all of this, my eyes kept coming back to a utility pole (or at least that’s what I’m suddenly calling it), around which coiled a tangle of electrical and telegraph wires. This – as much as my imagined forays into the lives of Vientiane’s residents – really struck me the essence of this particular trip. It was the standout moment where my mind clearly saw why I travel. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, that clarity passed and I’m back chasing that feeling again. I had been looking for an escape in visiting Laos – much like the one I sometimes find on an outback road – but this time I found something less familiar than a red dirt-lined horizon as a backdrop for my mind’s wandering. Perhaps, as a thirty something, my taste for travel is changing. Where once it was the journey and the action that drove me, now it is the imagined world through which I see the mundane that frames the experiences I crave.
Justifying my trips or explaining my need to see the world has never been important to me – nor have I really tried to chase the ‘perfect moment’ while abroad, But I am starting to realise that even if I found such a moment, my imagination and whatever drives my impulse control would only use such clarity to build another goal to chase – or set another horizon to drive towards.