Travels in my mind
May 29, 2020 - Friday 4:05 AM by Ernesto C. Abella
Pico Iyer, the British-born essayist and travel writer, crafts pieces with words that become destinations in themselves. “We travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
Some places I’ve visited are indelibly printed in my imagination, edited perhaps to enhance the pungence of the memory. My first trip outside the country was to Hong Kong, and then to Beijing, and then a five-hour jet trip to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang in northwest China. It was the end of spring, early evening, freezing cold, and I did not have hotel reservations. Not very smart, but then I was a newbie.
I ended up in an “overseas Chinese hotel,” situated in the former Soviet Embassy. Just as I reached the fourth floor by thinly carpeted stairs, the lights went out, so groping my way down the hall I found the room for two. I was alone for a while, until someone shuffled in. A young Japanese lad, probably on university break. He promptly took care of the situation by hanging a small LED flashlight from the overhead fan, and broke the dark and the gloom. I went to bed under 6-inch thick comforters, my ears next to a water pipe, and I could hear the ping-ing of water turning into ice. It was a dreamless sleep.
Before drifting off, I had asked my roommate where he was headed for, and he said, “Turfan.” The brochure described it as an oasis in the desert where he was going to take pictures. I asked if I could come along, and he agreed. When I woke up, he was getting ready. I quickly packed my meagre gear, and we walked in the clear spring day to the bus station, the air dizzyingly thick with burnt lamb’s hair and fat.
I was glad to get out of the city. The bus rolled for several hours on the highway through the desert, the landscape sere on both sides of the road. To the right loomed the Flaming Mountains, wavy walls of rock and stone that turned into fire in the afternoon sun. This was the setting of the legend of the Monkey King and the Three Kingdoms.
The road partly ran alongside the Trans-Siberia railroad tracks, down which sped the black iron horse, straight out of Dr. Zhivago. It was a breathtaking 10 seconds, a moment I realized there were worlds other than mine.
Finally, Turfan. We offloaded, and parted ways at the wide open air market, where sunburned Uighur sellers had baskets of merchandise on the ground. In the kiosks, they sold raisins, nuts, daggers. But I was just looking.
I had lunch under a trellis lined with grape vines. Their fruit is probably, as claimed, the sweetest anywhere. A couple of Kazakh girls danced in traditional costumes. They reminded me of Lotis Key in her youth. I do not remember much of the trip back.
Today I am resigned to the possibility that people may not be able to travel freely anytime soon. Travel changed after 9/11. Airfare became cheaper, but the lines at security check became longer. And now COVID-19, and the health protocols require tests and quarantine. Every country has tailor-fit requirements to contain the spread. Eventually, we will find that balance between herd-immunity and well-being for all.
One thing for sure, we all have been jolted by this common experience. The pandemic has brought us to a different country, on a journey together willingly or not. And part of the rules of travel is to see not just a new place, but to see with new eyes.
Perhaps out of this crossing we will see the importance of civility in our dealings, compassion for the vulnerable, courage in the face of uncertainty; to let go of attachments, discern what is arising, be willing to act quickly, then review the results and revise if need be.
This “new normal” has done at least one thing, it has made us “present” – aware of this moment. Because it could mean health, or loss. So keep your eyes peeled amigos.
Travel in place, in your limited space, in your mind.
Relish forgotten moments.
Fall in love with life once more.
You’ll never know.
(Ernesto C. Abella is Undersecretary for Strategic Communications and Research of the Department of Foreign Affairs)
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