A year ago I was watching a YouTube clip of the iconic Ferrero Rocher advert of the 1980s. I was planning to fly further East than I ever had in my life. Circumstance had thrown me more than a curve ball – this was a rock solid 90 degree turn into a part of David Bowie’s Labyrinth that not even Jennifer Connelly would have ventured. Sure, like most Brits I’d done my fair share of school holidays to Europe, done the obligatory trip to Disney World; but Asia? Exotic, variegated, heady, expressive, rich, uncertain Asia? No.
Before today’s generation stood on this world stage, those labelled “worldly” were so-named because of their dedication to the experience of travel. The Anthony Bourdain-s of each town – you know them, those characters which more rooted people consider to be bohemian, expressive, knowledgeable about lands and peoples from far away places. We used to give them a hushed audience in our cafes, our bars, our living rooms as they spoke of riding a camel down a dusty, rock-littered trackway, described clambering over a thousand year old ruin, extolled the wonder in hanging out with quixotic people, salivated ad nauseam about eating food you couldn’t even dream of.
Now…today’s globalization means there is a steam roller leveling this daunting hill-scape of the human experience. Cities are variants on a theme, blueprints of consumerism; our planes, trains and automobiles easily transport us to experience these places; social media stamps on our senses everything you might wish to explore. Experience of sight and sound is now at your fingertips. Travel is now relegated to a case of satiating your need to smell, taste, feel.
Just like the great excitement and wonder of 19th century exploration (think of all those great novels by the likes of Jules Verne, of the teeming explorations into Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”) these types of people are having their uniqueness fade away; it is gone like the fervour of opening of space to Moon Landings, vanished like the last seasons of Star Trek, disappeared with the mourned passing of the Space Shuttle into a Museum…it is now time for the concept of the “worldly traveler” to become words on the pages of human history. We are all world travelers now…what our next great unexplored environment will be, only your chosen deity may determine. Earth’s oceans? Mars? Some new new technology? Something beyond Life as we currently know it? I know this because I can now claim to be a traveler; not because I yearn for it, not because I’ve jumped aboard the nearest train and headed out into the dusty wilderness to live off my wits, but merely because travel can be expedient, can be commonplace; is now just a “click” away.
I am not hastily scrawling in a battered notebook with a stub of a pencil, hollow-cheeked, sunburnt, a keffiyeh wrapped over my face. No, I reside in air conditioned middle-class-ism, venturing at times out to experience the new sights and sounds of a city. But to find that culture I am looking at the past, as I must, because the future is heading towards a commonality of Gucci and Prada where (as the idiom goes) familiarity breeds only disinterest, contempt at worst.
This is not to say the romance of travel is gone; far from it. After all romance is the child of imagination and passion and those are unique to the human soul. A place is what we make of it. An empty river becomes a place of spices, human struggle, worship, excitement, giddiness when we humans arrive at it, live on it, build next to it, trade using its silvery passage. Such a place is Bangkok. Called the City of Angels, it is a place of repetitive climate, a place of constant noise, of constant smell of either cooking of khlong; it is labyrinthine in its soi, its moo, its thanon. A vast floodplain where skyscrapers grow inexorably like bamboo, a city of over eight million people, a city that welcomes more tourists than any other. Like any other great city it is layer upon layer and the excitement is in delving deeper and deeper. Once you have run the gamut of the usual tourist venues, you get a chance to see the city as you wish. As you know, for me, that is always on a bicycle, a great way to explore the city in introverted peace. For someone like The Polyglot, exploration is in taxis and walking through crowded human hotspots, always chatting, always seeking the company of others. For extroverts, the life-beat of this city is in its people, its festivity; and the common language is food. For introverts the pulse is wholly in the quiet spaces: the museums, the libraries; and the common language is history. Either way, Bangkok, like all great cities, is a labyrinth; you simply have to choose whether to use Ariadne’s silk or not as you walk its veins.
After a lifetime of relative sedentary gazing, I find I have leapt up from my worn sofa and visited Singapore, Chiang Mai, Ko Phi Phi and Samet, Bandung, Jakarta, Rome, Kanchanaburi, Hua Hin. Trips to Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar beckon before 2013 might be out. Has it changed me?
Of course it has.
I’ve now witnessed the world from half a planet away and I have learned that no matter how strongly an opinion is expressed, no matter how much belief is uttered with certainty as though it were fact…the reality is it is as ephemeral as the Newsfeed on Facebook – gone in a matter of minutes. I grew up in a safe world of the United Kingdom, bought wholly into its Western lifestyle preaching, its “holier-than-thou” TV shows, its mores, its social strictures, its bias, its judgement, its condemnation of everyone and everywhere based on a post-Imperial arrogance. To be British is to denigrate others, to be sarcastic to our neighbours. Indeed, the latter is our national source of humour. Our newspapers and magazines build up people, only to delight in knocking them down. Our adoration of reality TV shows simply feeds our dark delight in caricaturing people’s misfortune. Yet, for all its problems, I love that Sceptered Isle, love its history, its elegance, the smiles of its people. I miss the autumnal mornings, the dew and mist in a cooling English Forest, miss the watery sun on a frozen morning, miss the bemoaning of “no hot weather”/”too much hot weather” on streets the length and breadth of the country. I love the fact our weather forecasters have no idea what’s going on and issue statements to cover every possible option. I love the fact we can’t handle 2mm of snow. And much…much more.
I think the point is that I have realised that my origins are not perfect; I understand that growing up and education is all about being able to think for yourself, to think critically and not swallow wholesale the agendas of others. The time of Bread and Circuses should be left to the Romans, not metamorphosed into Government Handouts and Sport. I see the world through more media now, am able to look at Britain, its policies, its ethics, its grandstanding from outside the bubble of the UK. And I see that, like everywhere else, it’s not perfect, its not safe. It is as dark, exotic, rich, expressive and interesting as everywhere else. That’s all.
So…one year has swept by and I am still tagging along for the ride. It’s not what I expected, but it’s teaching me a lot, opening my eyes so that I am….what’s the word I am looking for?
Thanks for tagging along with me.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?