Wherever We May Roam

“Horror and doubt distract
His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir
The Hell within him; for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step, no more than from Himself, can fly
By change of place. Now conscience wakes despair
That slumbered; wakes the bitter memory
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue!
Sometimes towards Eden, which now in his view
Lay pleasant, his grieved look he fixes sad;
Sometimes towards Heaven and the full-blazing Sun,
Which now sat high in his meridian tower.”
— John MiltonParadise Lost (IV.18-30)

Let’s face it—the June and December holidays are sacrosanct to the sanity of the teaching profession. In private moments between disciplinary routines, the marking frenzy, and lesson planning, our minds are already one step ahead of time and rife with thoughts of our next respite, our next great escape. It therefore comes as no surprise that many respond with an irrepressible tinge of astonishment when I happen to mention—with unusual nonchalance, no less—that I don’t have travel plans this holiday season. Gasp.

‘You know, it’s always good to take a good vacation elsewhere—you know, get away from work and recharge mind and body. You should consider going somewhere; it’s still not too late.’ Well-meaning advice, sure; except that I’d already made up my mind about staying put a few months ago.

These days, with a slew of budget travel options, planning a free-and-easy getaway is significantly more affordable in more ways than one: it rests easy on the mind and the pocket. Peer-to-peer services such as Airbnb—offsprings of a maturing sharing economy—provide the necessary platforms for a self-sustaining online travel marketplace to thrive. They effectively remove the cumbersome middlemen—tour agencies—and their associated costs. This is the era that marries the spirit of adventure with self-determination; never mind the ebbing tide of globalisation, the aeroplane nor automobile nor ship is going to vanish overnight. A right mind and some middle-class travel capital are all we need to traverse the shrinking world.

A right mind. The motivation to travel stems from a desire to roam away from home, momentarily, and to chart new geographies—physical and psychological. Complementary to this drive is also the undeniable posture of awe and wonder as we navigate the fringes of experience, and expand the horizons of memory to take in new sights and sounds. Travel is a renewal. One must set down old burdens and sentiments, to be made vulnerable to a reconfiguration or reshaping of consciousness; because let’s face it—encounters with the hitherto unknown changes us by virtue of prompting us to form new relationships and associations between memory and new acquaintances. Like an ink drop in clear water, we are changed, even if imperceptibly, by novel experiences. We are never quite the same after travelling.

I am never quite the same after travelling. But there is always a haunting sense in which while the periphery of experience has been indelibly altered, some deeper recess remains still unchanged, brooding. I have peered out of a train passing natural vistas roiled with hills and valleys in undulating shades of greens and whites. I have gazed out into the mist from one of the highest peaks in Europe, snow-blasted. I have mingled in museums with the souls of artists whose masterpieces have christened the golden age of Western culture and civilisation.

Yet as one standing squarely at the centre of these enveloping reels of phenomena, I cannot help but feel this unsettling sameness—a shadowed similitude that persists from moment to moment and beyond. No, it is not the proverbial Self nor some concept of identity; sure we do endure in that metaphysical sense, but there is something else amorphous, lingering, that remains unaccounted for. It is a creeping silhouette that, for all the awe and wonder I feel at sights new and majestic, eclipses the scene with a mysterious and haunting penumbra. It is always there, always waiting to be demystified—a gaping internal absence that escapes understanding, but wants to be understood. Perhaps the question has never been about what lies behind the psychedelic screen of wild images; but rather, what lies beneath the spectator.

Or else this is merely a farcical symptom of some more profound fear of passing, or some more deep-seated longing for things lost; or perhaps I have become my own world’s worst cynic, or am forever prey to the wiles of a broken-hearted memory.

Regardless, such is my dispassionate response to travelling while half the world revels in its prospect: it does not quite make the expected difference for me.

Because if we bring home around wherever we roam, then everywhere and anywhere we are still at home—for better, or for worse.

Our Revels Now Are Ended

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
William Shakespeare, The Tempest (IV.I.148-58)

It’s been about five days since Emirates flight EK354 alighted on sun-scorched Singaporean shores, and spat out from its maw this oblivious soul—a rather dishevelled, inconspicuous, and fever-blasted Ulysses; he fell right into the searing embrace of a familiar eternal summer.

And since then, I have refrained from any form of extensive reflection about my adventures. The brochures and maps and cards and ticket stubs that I had so meticulously amassed over the twenty days of wandering those European lands—I have shunned them, stashed them in a nondescript drawer with unusual haste. I haven’t touched them since I arranged them in chronological order—pensively, with a tinge of mourning—during those last days in my friend’s London apartment while he was out running errands.

***

souvenir (n.)

1775, “a remembrance or memory,” from French souvenir, from Old French, noun use of souvenir (v.) “to remember, come to mind,” from Latin subvenire “come to mind,” from sub- “up” +venire “to come”. Meaning “token of remembrance, memento” is first recorded 1782.

***

These printed paraphernalia, together with my innocuous and much-adored cast-iron Stonehenge replica, the Shakespearean spoils I hoarded from Stratford: they seem to fail—against the facticity of their origin and symbolic value—to conjure the snapshot of the memory they were invested with at the moment of purchase or collection. It suddenly seems that I could’ve procured these trappings from anywhere–here, in Singapore; the paper is simply paper. The colours, the images—I have seen them on the internet. Upon arrival, these relics, once sacred urns and monuments to Memory, have all but lost their nostalgic power—the power to evoke the memory of events, places, and people in the mind that ordained them as artefacts for that purpose. They languish in their brute ontology—symbolically consumed.

Accordingly, I have begun to doubt—not with amused incredulity, but in a very real epistemological sense—if I had ever left these tropical shores three weeks ago, to visit the new vistas of another world. I simply cannot trace my psychological or phenomenological route, from departure to homecoming; again, it is not disbelief—it is the sheer absence of any basis for belief. I seem to have slivers of epistemic material drifting about in my consciousness—visions of the sublime majesty of the Alps, the waterways of Venice, the medieval atmosphere of Florence, the ruins of Rome, the lights of Paris—but none of them can be anchored on anything in the here-and-now, in any immediate experience. Then again, how is that possible? If I truly did travel, those experiences were expended and converted to memory as soon as they transpired. Souvenirs therefore serve precisely that function of reviving—post-travel—the phenomenology of those places, albeit in a very shadowed quality that can never match the lost experience. But if even they have been disempowered, then what remains?

I feel that I am inwardly expecting myself to wax nostalgic and poetic about the sights that my humble eyes have beheld—the mountains, the snow, entire cultures and repositories of art, entire worlds! But I cannot, or else I seem to refuse to. Is this some kind of psychological defense against mourning? Because to remember is somehow to mourn the loss of the remembered object; after all, one remembers only because one has lost. If we were in possession of the object, why would there be a need for memory? Memory replaces the lost object. Therefore if I refuse to remember, I also refuse to mourn—I move on, quickly. I pass over what would have been a festering shadow of eternal loss, into that distracting, (mis)guiding light overhead—Future—like a moth to flame.

But oh Geneva, you don’t know how much I have missed you. Of all the places that have already returned with the receding dreamtide, the incredible first vision—of your highland lake and hidden city, framed by a crown of snow-capped mountains rising to meet the heavens—whether dream or not, it is the clearest and the best.