Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Problem with Travel – Leanne Waters

When I first arrived in Vietnam, my own arrogance inhibited my ability to predict the very weighty effects the country itself would have on me. After all, I had traveled before, had seen poverty in all its extremities, had tested my body physically (as is required I am told for the sake of mental flourishing) and surely, had already met the greatest of people. Nam wasn’t going to have a scratch on me, I was sure of it.

Hoi An, Vietnam
The ‘traveling bug’, which we have all heard of so many times before is just an idea we are aware of when in the complacency of our own homes. It is only when we actual make that definitive trip that such a disease becomes reality. You catch it like you catch a common cold in winter. And by God, I caught it this time round!

In many ways, I suppose it’s a trap you fall into while away. The given destination initially presents itself as a temporary escapist route, which you have surely earned for one reason or another. And yet, when cast under its spell, a profound trick is played. Said destination seduces you into believing that your escapist environment is in fact a reality to which you could commit yourself fully. In this way, I abandoned almost everything I had left behind in Dublin. I had little interest in them anymore because Vietnam was far too beautiful to wish for anything that could be offered outside of its golden cocoon. But I think travel itself, no matter where the place, has that effect on people anyway. I was living in paradise and a lifestyle too simple to allow struggles of the past to infect its splendour. That’s why it’s wonderful though, right? Because everything of who you were and the life you lead back home is thrown by the wayside and forgotten at too rapid a pace to care for why it now means so little. It was just too easy to forget everything back home. So forget I did.

Taking such trips, I believe, also encourages you to see the best of people at times. For a start, the Vietnamese as a society are the most gentle, docile and accommodating people I have ever come across. They made it impossible to want to come back. But more than this, the conversations I had with other travelers and the camaraderie felt between us all on our journeys was something that could not be found in any circumstance but the given. As travelers, we convince ourselves of our own worldly enlightenment and worse still, feed off one another on the matter. Sure, it can only prove to heighten the hazy ecstasy of your trip, but will undoubtedly make the return journey all the more depressing. Never a good thing when you don’t have a choice in the matter!

I met two other globe-trotters while away who have had more of an impact on me than I believe anyone has had in years. The first was a 73-year-old man from Belgium that I met in Hanoi in Northern Vietnam. He partook in a three-day trip to Halong Bay in which I had the absolute pleasure of his company and many wise words. How very cliche, I know but it’s the truth. An educated man who spoke fluently in five different languages, he was traveling alone and doing the same route I had just finished in reverse. His youngest child was 20-years-old and the man himself never failed to make friends along the way. I wouldn’t dare so much as attempt to convey the wise words he passed along to us all on that trip, as to do so would surely be inadequate and thus undermine the weight with which they were first delivered. All I will say of him is that this man simply astounded me and I am sure of the fact that I will remember him for years to come.

The second was a teacher from Leeds, with whom I shared a hostel in Hoi An and was fortunate enough to meet again up the north of the country. Remarkably sharp-minded and utterly charming, he showed a substance to his character that I have yet to see in any other person I have met. He was the most alluring of persons with a shrewdness so penetrating I many times thought I would crumble during our midnight conversations – carried out always on a Hoi An balcony and after a few Tiger beers. My time spent with this teacher remains the nostalgic inspiration for my regular day dreams and indeed, holds a most special place in my memories.

I spent some time in Thailand on the usual beaten track of Bangkok and the islands. My older brother has raved about these places since he himself traveled there almost ten years ago. What he described to me then and what I myself discovered are two very different things. But then, I suppose a lot of time has passed and it has changed greatly. Thailand was an incredible place; a bit of a rush if I’m being honest. But I dread to think what we will have done to the place in another ten year’s time. Equally, I’m afraid to think what will happen to my beautiful Vietnam in years to come. That haven, which I escaped to at such a young age will surely be unrecognisable in time. I’d hate to think of it changing at all.

So I’ll keep it as I have found it; my Vietnam.

And in doing so, will never alter the very pristine picture of its memory in my mind. I can’t escape the reality of being home but at the very least, will be obscured from that inevitable truth. I found it terribly difficult coming home again. On this, my friend reminded me that such trips were ‘a fantasy’ and that I had to let it go now. This is the problem with traveling – after the long journey hours, the incredible sights, the precious experiences and all the amazing people you find along the way – sooner or later, we all have to leave. The circus finishes, the fantasy fades and eventually, we must all return to the lives we left behind. It has been a very hard goodbye.

- Leanne

“Names get carved in the red oak tree of the ones who stay and the ones who leave. I will wait for you there with these cindered bones. So follow me, follow me down”

Leanne Waters' memoir 'My Secret Life: A Memoir of Bulimia' is due to be published in October 2011. 

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