“There is an old Chinese proverb that says one should travel ten thousand miles than read a thousand books. Following the advice of the ancient sages, I usually try to do both at the same time when I travel, carrying a good book that’s apropos for my destination to while away those long hours in various airport lounges. But what I truly love about travel, is the actual process of discovery. Travels opens our eyes to a world beyond our own, delivering surprises, challenges, laughter and confrontation, sobering our senses with stories of tragedy, misfortune and oppression.
I was a traveller ever since I could remember. In 1987, my parents took me from my birthplace in the mega-metropolis of Hong Kong to the quiet, sleepy city that was Sydney at the time. It was the ultimate trip, beginning with the overnight, 9 hour flight on Qantas, which actually provided edible food back then (I still remember that it featured balls of mash potatoes!). I discovered that in Sydney at the time, stores don’t stay open later than 5pm on weekdays, and that, unlike Hong Kong, grass is grown not to be ornamental but to be walked, run and laid on. All without a fine.
Once we settled in, my family eagerly adopted the great Aussie tradition of the annual Post-X’mas Road Trip. We had our share of mishaps: In the days before GPS – ending up in Wollongong when our destination was meant to be the NSW North Coast. We – my parents, my little sister and I – slept in our tiny Ford Laser hatchback one night somewhere near Ballarat, Victoria – because we got lost and couldn’t find an open motel. We discovered places before they become trendy: Bundeena in the Royal National Park was a toilet-less campsite and Byron Bay was a backwater coastal fishing town, without a single ‘alternative’ cafe to be seen. We drove across the Nullarbor Plain – and discovered that the thrill of driving on Australia’s longest straight road dissipates very quickly, even without a speed limit. We followed the coast to Broome, where we met an old (inebriated) pearler who sold us a black pearl the size of a fingertip for AU$50.
My professional life later took me into an Aboriginal community in the depths of the Tanami Desert. I saw socioeconomic depravity on my own doorstep – Sydney, now a vibrant Olympic city, was only three-and-a-half-hours flight time away from a world where ethanol is not bioenergy, but the fuel for violence that shook the entire community. A world where children still become deaf because of untreated ear infections and adults still went blind from trachoma. A time when I watched the skies anxiously for the arrival of a Royal Flying Doctors’ Service plane to take a little girl, gasping for breath from asthma, to Alice Springs. A world where the average life expectancy is no more than 55 years old, but where there was a culture that pre-dated my own, one where Hillary Clinton’s phrase “It takes a village” (to raised a child) is literal: Kinship comes full circle, so that no one is ever an orphan. I discovered spirituality whispering in the orange desert sands, and adopted the local tradition of referring to a deceased person by a pseudonym so that their souls may rest in peace. I even discovered some culinary secrets: that kangaroo tails make a great dish (stuff the whole thing, skin and all, under the sand with a smoldering fire – the meat just falls off the bone), that goanna does taste like chicken and witchety grubs are an excellent source of low-fat protein (not surprising, given their resemblance in texture and taste to egg yolk).
In immediate post-911 New York City, I shared in the palpable grief that gripped the city, marvelled at the people’s irrepressible spirit and almost obsessional belief in an undefinable entity chanted as ‘freedom’. In Xian, China, I discovered how one man could forever shape the course of history, melting what were a dozen races, cultures and languages into one and creating what would become the world’s only continuous empire.
In contrast, across on the other side of the world, in ancient Rome, I learned how the cradle of western civilisation grew up to diversify into the fascinatingly different nations which generated enough internal conflict to fight two world wars but also created some of the most beautiful music, perplexing artworks and awe-inspiring architecture.
In Burgundy, France, I discovered that the last wine in a wine tour always taste the best (!) and on an Intrepid trip across the Silk Road, we found out that even chives can be deep fried to be sold as a snack on a stick, that painted statues of uniformed policemen are deployed strategically at intervals on highways instead of fixed speed cameras to deter dangerous drivers and that consuming an entire cumin-roasted sheep between 12 people can make most of the group violently ill from over-indulgence.
In Tibet, I discovered a litany of contrasts: a timeless spiritual sanctuary and a place in rapid transformation, a source of ancient wisdom and a focus for new-age beliefs. It is barren earth from which the life-giving waters of some of Asia’s largest rivers originate. It is peace and turmoil, and it’s a place that transcends the commentary of western journalists and interest groups, one that remains beyond our understanding.
T.S. Elliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” I’m not sure if I have reached that place yet – so for now, I’ll keeping travelling. And discovering.”
Angela Lam, Intrepid Express reader.
* photo by Daniel Gisby – Intrepid Photography Competition