The first country I chose to fly towards, when my wings dried, was Australia. There was no esoteric reason for this. I was turning away from a natural affinity to the UK. A friend and former colleague had moved to work in Sydney, and invited me to visit. It was as good a time as any to call up the invitation.
I had no clear idea what I planned to achieve, with respect to being renewed. But I did know that if I was making space for the new me to flex her larger self, I needed to change the venue, or I would re-script to the old norms.
How big is your house?
You can absolutely pass through change and growth while staying put.
Still, there is something to this: “travel throughout the land, that the hearts may learn wisdom and the ears learn to hear”.
Humans learn mostly by mimicry, and for very good reasons. There’s nothing more effective to quickly assimilate and acquire social belonging – and this is crucial for a social species. We absorb so much from the world we grow up in. Culture, language, immediate history, contemporary norms.
We rest our thinking selves on such copied knowledge but never realise how the structure constrains and influences our thoughts. Very likely, confining ideas beyond what they potentially really could be. So much of what we blame today upon concepts and ideas are not about the ideas at all. Rather it is our own limited comprehension for the idea’s true range. But I digress.
That the hearts may learn wisdom
I saw it manifested in the different ways people approached going abroad, when I travelled as a young adult. In myself and in others who were abroad – whether for work, for education, or for leisure.
Some carry all of it – or as much as they can – with them. I think of this group like a tortoise, or a snail, carrying their home wherever they go. Some travel in large family groups, like elephant herds or a pod of dolphins. Some in yet larger tour groups, for the comfort of like-minded numbers – like herds of wildebeest or migratory geese.
Yet others pack light and travel in small groups, in pairs, or singly. They range from those with the charisma of those used to dominance, like tigers and bears; to opportunists that swarm the system when there is imbalance, like the crown-of-thorns. Wherever they pass, the local system shifts – for good or ill. And yet others who move humble and quiet like the lizard and the ray. Engaged in the day-by-day, and sometimes lone pilgrims.
It tells you about ways people manage risk and comfort under challenge. Travel opens you to uncertainty, in a way that staying home often does not.
The depression of visiting Australia
Australia is one of those depressing countries, to a traveller from a small and manageable country. (It is also depressing for culturally non-athletic nations, but that is a separate topic). There is so much worth seeing and yet it is so large that you cannot feasibly pick up all of it – nor even most of it – in one go. Inevitable trade-offs must be made. Disappointments got over. You re-scale your expectations and tell yourself, I’m not going to Australia. I’m going to Sydney. And all is better again.
But I could not miss the Blue Mountains while based in Sydney.
To be honest the closer for this for me, was its name. In the mood I was in, trying to get to know myself all over again, I took hold of something that remained constant through the metamorphosis. My favourite colour was still blue. So I talked my friend into a long weekend trip out into the mountains.
The mountains, they are blue
I had a friend who loves mountains, who kept trying to convince me to wander about the highlands of the world. I used to tell him, my habitat is the sea – particularly the equatorial coasts.
Sometimes we tell people these limiting things, even when it is not entirely true. It wasn’t until I’m writing this, that I realised that although the sun may have set on my blue period by my beloved sea, it rose upon his beloved mountains.
And I thought I knew myself so well.
Yes, they’re seriously blue
Well, mountains in the distance will look blue anyway, because of Rayleigh scattering – light scattering by particles in the air. Pretty much the same reason the sky looks blue. I can see the distant foothills of Titiwangsa from my window right now, shading blue on blue.
Still, while I cannot swear that this isn’t just my imagination, or a trick of distance and perspective, or the suggestion of its name, the Blue Mountains really did seem a more intense blue. Supposedly the prevalence of eucalyptus trees in the Blue Mountain forests contribute to this, by adding to the particles in the form of droplets of oil.
Basically it’s bluer because the forests of the Blue Mountains breathe it so. I’m happy to leave it at that. After all, as an Asian, I can think of one way the theory might easily be tested, and I’m glad that these eucalyptus forests will probably be safe from deforestation.
Echo Point lookout
The sky was supposed to be clear enough for stars to be visible. There would be a moon, but it wouldn’t be full, so I hoped to finally get somewhere clear and dark enough to see the Milky Way. My mistake was in not booking an actual stargazing tour beforehand – these filled up far more quickly than I thought they would!
Night-time in Katoomba in March was cold for me. Had I known how cold, I would have packed thermal layers. It would have made the night more comfortable. Determined to go stargazing, I left my friend in the cozy warmth of the motel room, stoically bore her worried “she’s clearly mad” look, and went out to Echo Point.
For probably sensible reasons, Echo Point lookout is disappointingly well-lighted at night. The famous Three Sisters is spotlighted (I’m not a competent enough night photographer to show you). However, descending to the lower viewing decks, it is possible to find a spot that blocks out most of the artificial light, and then the stars become visible.
Still, I wanted to find a spot that was better. So, armed with a small torchlight, I headed a little bit along one of the hiking trails, hoping to find a darker spot.
It was not easy. The trail itself is not lighted, but the road hugs the edge of the cliff up above, and the lights spill over to spoil the darkness. A couple spots were good, particularly when clouds rolled across the quarter moon, but then the trail itself was awkward to pause at. I turned back.
There was already a bunch of people at one end of the platform who seemed to be videoing something. I was wary at first. I suddenly remembered that I was a lone female in an isolated dark place, and by reflex mentally rifled through my checklists: Which country am I in? Is my gender or my race the greater risk here? What does my silhouette look like? I figured in a hoodie I looked indeterminate but kept my distance anyway.
After a while, though, I did wonder what they were doing. And they must wonder the same about me. There seemed to be things flying about in the spotlight.
Eventually they were done. As they passed by I asked them what they were looking at. They told me there’s a resident colony of microbats in the area, and the bats were attracted to the spotlights. Apparently the spotlights made it easier to see their prey insects. So it was feasting time.
There was an information board near where they were, that I read afterwards. It’s pretty cool to see people interested in these random things, just because.
Kneeling beneath the Milky Way
Finally alone and no longer feeling self-conscious* for being out in the night to gaze at stars by myself, I experimented with a few spots, and finally found the best angle for stargazing. I turned the torchlight off and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Gradually, the powdery scatter around the Milky Way spray of brighter stars became apparent.
It was gorgeous.
You might appreciate my effort a bit more, if I told you that I had never seen the Milky Way before then. Between the light pollution of towns and cities, the thick jungle canopy, and the perpetual cloudy mist of an equatorial sky, in Malaysia you could get stars but rarely both the clarity and darkness to see the entire magnificent powdery strip.
I knew it could be even better. I knew my dad had gone to a farm in the outback once, and it was entirely dark at night, and you could see the purples as well, like from professional photographs.
But that night was the best Milky Way sight of my life. So I did my night’s worship there, beneath its twinkling gaze, shivering cold but tucked into a temporary pocket of peace during an emotionally turbulent time.
And the ears learn to hear
It is hard for the heart to learn wisdom when it does not risk, and the ears cannot listen when the self is still talking (usually about itself). You know they say that the least intelligent talk about people? Well, the least of these are those who are interested in only one person – themselves. Thankfully most of us don’t want to be the least of the least, even in this famously self-absorbed age.
How do you know how much of what you carry, is you? How much would you keep of what was copied from the chance environment you grew up in? What do you carry and what do you leave behind? The skill to pack these, is as much a part of travelling as that of packing a physical bag.
I think here is the distinction between the tourist and the traveller. It does not lie in the length of the trip, and neither where nor why. Nor is it necessarily even about what you do, for this can also be commodified. It is not even necessarily about how different it is from home, for in these times you can associate with your natural fellows through it all and remain exactly the same.
The distinction is within. It is hard and it is often slow. But the traveller leaves a lot of her “mental home” behind, and the tourist carries it with her. The traveller is a guest, trusting to be housed (physically and mentally) in the way of the land she goes to. The tourist is a customer, expecting a certain experience.
You really can never be certain which one you are, actually. And then an expectation is not met, and you know you’re a tourist still.
*This is not in reference to the batwatchers, but entirely internal to me. Raised Asian, but inexplicably wayward in character, I grew up normalised to the belief that most of my whims and notions are at best eccentric, but always some variation of insane/ dangerous/ odd/ pointless and sometimes heretical. Reconciling much of this baggage was a key feature of the Blue Period.