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Travel

What I Did on My Summer Holiday

Two years ago, my husband and I left on a 7 month long journey around the world. Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan, US, New Zealand and Australia. I wrote about my first impressions while on the road. I tried again, a year and a half later, to take the long view. What lesson, if any, did I learn from this experience?

It’ll change your life

Lesson book
Photo album with trusty camera. Photo credit: Karen Kao

This was the prediction given to me by a writer acquaintance. Apparently, her travels had changed her irrevocably. Ergo, the same must happen to me.

There is a difference, I think, between traveling alone and as a couple. Between tottering about in your 60s versus tripping the light fantastic in your 20s. While on the road, I was a little too conscious of the fact that I might not pass this way again. That I was already too old to go tramping across New Zealand. It sounds adventurous to be gone for so long but how scary can it be when you’re staying in an AirBNB?

You’ll never forget was another promise made to me. Are you kidding? Already I cannot recall whether I saw a particular painting in Christchurch or Perth. I cannot remember the dates when Frans was in the hospital. Writing this blog series on armchair travel has helped me to recapture some of those memories. It’s forced me to go back to read my travel journal and organize the thousands of photos taken.

Thank you, Google

This was the working title of Frans’ travel reflections. It tells you how dependent we were on the internet for bus schedules, restaurant reviews and things to do when we got restless. When Frans got bit by two temple dogs in Vietnam, we went to a local pharmacy. He showed the pharmacist his leg. She typed into her phone: were you bitten by a dog. Yes!

The downside however was that we never truly disconnected. Frans was able to follow the US election as closely as he would have from home. I kept in touch with friends and family as well as filed my tax returns from the road. Five years ago when we were in Fukuoka, Japan, I got to pantomime my order at a chicken yakitori restaurant by flapping my own chicken wings. This time around, Google did it all for us.

The convenience of limitless connectivity has neatly paved over the nuances of in-person conversation, cutting away so much information and context in the process.

Jenny Odell, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House 2019)

Odell refers to the kind of information and context that only an in-person conversation can provide. But I was too cowardly to strike up conversations with strangers. If I had, I might have come home with more stories. The lesson here is: if you want to get lost, turn off your phone.

No Goals

Unlike Henry David Thoreau, I did not go on the road “because I wished to live deliberately.” There was no lesson to be learned. All I wanted was to see how it would make me feel to be untethered from a schedule, a social circle, any form of structure. Jenny Odell might call our trip a removal from our sphere of familiarity. For some, when they return, the result is radical change.

It happened to John Muir, the American naturalist. An eye accident at the wagon wheel factory put Muir in a darkened room with the fear he might emerge blind.

Mrs Yip
Mrs Yip

The 1916 edition of The Writings of John Muir is divided into two parts, one before the accident and one after […] This period of reflection convinced Muir that “life was too brief and uncertain, and time too precious, to waste upon belts and saws; that while he was pottering in a wagon factory, God was making a world; and he was determined that, if his eyesight was spared, he would devote the remainder of his life to a study of the process.”

Odell

It would be awesome if our trip changes my writing. It certainly helped my productivity while on the road. Three travel blog posts for Expat Hikers. An essay for The Common titled Going Home. Last month, my short story “Mrs Yip” appeared in print.

I don’t think the lesson here is that I need to travel in order to write. I need to be more willing to let go of a manuscript and just start all over again.

A bottle of sea water

The fact that we were able to complete our journey at all looks miraculous when viewed through the coronavirus lens. We traipsed across borders, sat cheek to jowl in Tokyo subway cars, encountered no dangers greater than our own lack of preparedness on a hiking trail.

Ethnic peoples of Vietnam
Precious Heritage Museum, Hoi An. Photo credit: Karen Kao

I am grateful to all the women across Asia who treated me as one of their own. For the chance to see my father alive. To visit with far-flung friends permanently on island or passing through. Those brief bright spots on our 7 month journey taught me one lesson: I’m not as big a loner as I thought.

Now that we have corona passes and temperature checks and vaccination wars on all continents, I find it hard to imagine ever traveling like this again.

And yet. I’m writing this blog post from a bench overlooking Lake Como. Frangipane competes with the late summer roses for dominion of my olfactory senses. The light is so low and the air so hazy that it seems I’ve been gifted with a pair of rose-colored glasses.

If our round-the-world adventure changed me, I haven’t noticed it yet. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that. John Steinbeck once compared writing to collecting flat worms.

You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book⏤to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.

John Steinbeck, Introduction to Cannery Row

I am learning to be patient.

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