The Curious Monkey

Curious monkey
Curious Monkey. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Meet the Curious Monkey. He’s going to be my avatar for the next 7 months as my husband and I travel the world. If you live in Amsterdam, you might recognize this little guy as Artis de Partis, the mascot of the local zoo. Artis de Partis is a strange sort of monkey. According to his official bio, he has neither a voice nor an opinion. This lack of opinions is supposed to make everyone like him. An odd avatar for me.

My Curious Monkey has plenty of opinions, most of them wholly unfounded. My monkey also possesses many voices. He’s a storyteller and an essayist and a teacher and a reader. Sometimes, he’s a critic. I’m taking him along on the round-the-world adventure to remind of the point of it all: to be curious.

A Child’s Eye

Curious Wally
Martin Handford, Wally & friends. Image source: Wikipedia

Remember the children’s book Where’s Waldo? It’s designed for pre-readers. The task is to find the eponymous Waldo (or Wally, depending on where you live) wearing his striped shirt and knit cap.

Each page is packed with things to see, whether Wally is in downtown Manhattan or on the slopes of the Swiss Alps. A child has the ability to see everything on the page. To ponder each item with an equal amount of attention, regardless of the task ahead. A child is, by nature, curious.

When my own children were young, my husband and I used to take them to the Rijksmuseum. Their favorite painting was of the massacre of innocents in Bethlehem. They loved examining each of the corpses pumping blood. Counting all those decapitated heads.

Michael Erard was writer-in-residence last year at the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen. Erard sees a link between the Dutch zoekboek (like Where’s Wally?) and the great Dutch artists like Hieronymous Bosch. Both contain massive amounts of details. Neither uses words. And while Dutch children’s books are not quite as bloody as the massacre at Bethlehem, both are invitations to tell a story of your own without words to cramp your style.

But the cramming is, in truth, transcendent, this gentle collapsing of time and bending of space to capture worldly things in their everyday profusion. These detail-laden scenes defy both photography and film. They’re human constructions for satisfying the cognitive pleasures of collecting clues, exploring and telling stories.

Michael Erard, “What Adults Can Learn from Dutch Children’s Books” in The New York Times, 14 July 2018

Training Wheels

When I first wrote in this blog about our round-the-world venture, I said I wanted to get lost. Now, it occurs to me that I will quite literally be lost for the next 7 months. Neither my husband nor I have ever been to most of our destinations. We can’t rely on muscle memory or automatic pilot. And if the task is to decide which exit to take in the Tokyo subway, not even Google Maps can help us. We’ll just have to open our eyes and look.

In The New Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes about looking without seeing. For example, if I’m biking to teach my writing class, my attention is focused on avoiding the tourists in the Vondelpark trying to take selfies from their wobbly bikes. I know where to slow down and which red lights I can run. The trip takes me 15 minutes flat and when I arrive, I will have seen nothing at all.

It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new to find in a place which we have been living in for a decade or more. We have become habituated and blind.

Alain de Botton, The New Art of Travel (Hamish Hamilton 2015)

So, this is the task ahead of me. To look and see. Navigate using all of my senses rather than stare at an app on my phone. To marvel at all the wonderful complexity of each new corner rather than searching only for the shortest route between A and B.

This is where my Curious Monkey comes into the picture.

Where is Karen?

My plan is to blog while on the road. I’m making no promises about frequency or length. And I seriously have no clue what I might be writing about because who knows what / who we’ll run into?

Curious monkey at home
Curious Monkey at home. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Maybe it’ll be fun to write about eating. Food porn is how one friend put it. I’m pretty sure we’ll be running into some amazing eats and possibly some curious ones, too. And since I’ll be cooking in most every country we visit, there’s the adventure of trying to buy ingredients in languages I don’t read or speak.

It’ll be like the bad old days when I first moved to the Netherlands. Every day, I would go out grocery shopping and try to place all my orders in Dutch. Every day, I came home with something I didn’t want.

Hopefully, what I send to you while on the road will be satisfactory to you. These travel updates will go out in the form of a revamped newsletter under the title The Curious Monkey goes to …. If you’re already a newsletter subscriber, no worries. If you’re not yet a subscriber and cannot stand the idea of missing a single step of our journey, you could sign up for my newsletter using the pop-up form or in the side bar.

Alternatively, you can follow me at:

  • Instagram where you’ll see the Curious Monkey displayed in my photos;
  • Twitter where you’ll see the hashtag #curiousmonkey; or
  • Facebook when and if I find the time to post there.

So there it is, folks. The goal, the game plan, and how to keep score as I make my way around the world. Next stop?

The Curious Monkey Goes to Taiwan.
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