All the Beauty in the World.

vietnam, hanoi, lake, temple, ngoc son, trees, scenery, city, serene, flowers
Special Tet blossoms in Hanoi.

One thing I regret from my travels is that I never kept a journal, in which I could detail the many sights and thoughts and experiences that occurred to me. Sure, there was a time when I hastily scribbled out some self-indulgent whines so they wouldn’t bug me while I was trying to sleep — rarely works, bee-tee-dub — but the common theme from these entries was me. “My relationship troubles are really bugging me,” “I got lost and sweat buckets trying to find my hostel, and that really pissed me off,” “I can never seem to be content with anything, or live in the moment — what’s wrong with me?”

I’m starting to get a pretty clear picture why, just by writing that.

The problem with the theme of me — you know, being in one’s own sitcom where people come in and out, and things happen, but it all ultimately reverts back to the star of the show — is that it puts a curtain up. This curtain is made of some futuristic, reflective material (okay, so maybe it’s tin foil or something) on which I can see myself, and how day-to-day interactions hinder or benefit me — but they conceal what’s going on behind it. Something really beautiful, tragic, fascinating, or downright strange could be happening, and I wouldn’t necessarily see it.

And when I got sick of the sound of my own voice, I shut up, and didn’t bother to write anything down at all. This was a mistake.

My aim in writing this is not to self-deprecate (although I am extremely proficient at that, if I don’t say so myself — modest, too), or imply that people should never consider themselves to be important. That’s not the case at all. But when self-importance becomes a tin foil curtain through which we judge situations, we’re going to miss other equally important things.

I want to record the other things before they’re lost from my memory forever.

I never want to forget the woman from Saudi Arabia who sat next to me on a ferry, offered me biscuits, and showed me pictures of herself without her burqa — she was stunning; the amused and exasperated conversations that ensued from carrying around a travel book that weighed at least two kilos; the Vietnamese fisherman who led me to a tomb in the rice fields near Hoi An, and lent me his conical hat so I wouldn’t get rain on my face; the Malaysian taxi driver working two jobs to support his family, who schooled me for half-an-hour on the country’s multiculturalism; and Kailash Akhara in northeast Thailand, which always gives me what I need at the right time (usually sleep, new friends, and my health back).

I want to remember Asia’s love affair with Gangnam Style — how it played absolutely everywhere — and the blindfolded Muay Thai boxers who tripped over one another to this soundtrack; sitting on the back of countless scooters, eventually learning to drive one myself; Tip, Chiang Mai’s fruit muesli lady, making me and Dan some delicious, fiery Thai dinner at her stall one night, because she was excited to see us come back; drinking Chang beer and laughing with the volunteers at Elephant Nature Park; leaning over the edge of a corn truck, feeling the wind in my face; free Sambuca and Limoncello shots at my favourite Italian restaurant in Chiang Mai; taking goofy pictures behind the bar with a sassy restaurant owner; and seeing an elephant be sung to sleep.

Likewise, I’ll never forget hurling water from the back of a ute during Songkran; unintentionally hitchhiking in Vietnam, then sitting beneath a hut on the wet sand after heavy rain, and nearly being washed away by a wave; helping Hanoian students practise their English by Hoan Kiem Lake; knocking back potent rice wine on a mat in Norah’s family’s house during Tet; interviewing an inspiring war photojournalist, and countless other travelling characters; motorbiking from Hue to Hoi An; staring into the horizon on Wat Phu Tok; hiking in Norway and munching on wild blueberries; sitting in the doorway of a train, weaving up through the lush mountains of Sri Lanka; and being invited to a Malaysian wedding reception, four days into our visit to the country.

How could I not detail the time I walked across Little River Kwai, and laughed as a local violinist busted out tunes from Lady Gaga and Frankie Valley, in-between renditions of the British March; seeing the tail of a blue whale in Mirissa; lounging around in a hammock and drinking coconuts; being practically dragged into a hut in Sigiriya and force-fed egg hoppers and sweet tea; geeking out over the Monopoly streets of London; countless sunset and nighttime ferry rides between Butterworth and Georgetown; getting tattooed in the middle of an elephant field; having kittens climb all over my back while I was volunteering with animals; the perfect pink and orange sunsets in Koh Lanta; and watching monkeys steal Snickers bars and handbags at Batu Caves?

The crazy thing is that I can list all of that, and still know I’ve missed some things. I’ll have to add them in time.

One thing that always helps me transcend the tin foil curtain is art (not just visual art, although that’s plenty inspiring, too) — beautiful films, paintings, performances, music, and literature that remind me how much I’ve yet to see and experience. I watched the Book Thief last night, American Beauty a few days before that, and read Shantaram, and found myself pulled out of whatever funks I wrangled myself into.

It’s art and travel combined that make me remember why I have to get out of my head, get out into the world, and get experiencing everything this wonderful world has to offer — pausing only to write it all down, so I never forget that life is so much bigger than just me.

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