“Travel returns us…to sharpness of notice; and to be saturated in the sight of what is entirely new…is to revisit the enigmatically lit puppet-stage outlines of childhood; those mental photographs and dreaming woodcuts or engravings that we retain from our earliest years. What we remember from childhood we remember forever-permanent ghosts, stamped, imprinted, eternally seen. Travelers regain this ghost-seizing brightness, eeriness, firstness.” - Cynthia Ozick in her short entitled “The Shock of Teapots”
I’ve just finished reading a few travel narratives. I particularly enjoyed Rory Stewart’s book on his solo travels in Afghanistan in 2002, “The Places in Between”. Good travel writers capture the sense of wonder and innocence to which Ozick refers. Good travel writers are unpretentious; they are ready to learn from every encounter, ready to see new things. Perhaps my aunt, who has spent years studying travel writing from the turn of the century can attest to whether or not this has always been the case. I suspect that travelers of the past have looked down at exotic cultures from their perceived high place of enlightenment and civilization. I suspect this may have been subtle in some writings and more blatant in others, but always there. Maybe it still exists, but I can’t see it.
Much of the travel I’ve done in Pakistan has taken me to places I was before. But I was a different person then. My “mental photographs”, “dreaming engravings” and “permanent ghosts” grew up out of experiences I had as a child in the same places I now visit as an adult. Yet I try to maintain the innocence of a traveler, an alien, and overlay my childhood memories with new ones, fresh experiences of places seen, now with different eyes and an older mind.
I’ve stayed in the town of Karimabad many times. Now I traveled up from the town to a different place and I looked down from a vantage point previously unknown. I sat above the town and remembered walking its streets with my family and friends. I remembered the restaurants we frequented; the hikes we didn’t take because I objected; tea in the sun; parathas and eggs and chai in the crip mornings at the restaurant on the side of the mountain; the lights of the October festival. Then, I sat and looked up at the burning tires rolling off the mountain sides, now I walk among the burning tires of the same festival and hear the laughter of the young men lighting them and tossing them off the precipice. Then, I stayed inside the hotel room, drank tea with my family, and played Lists with my sisters. Now, I hover above the town and drink in grander views of the mountains and the stars through the thinner air. Then, I relished a school holiday. And now I relish a life holiday. I stay by myself and think slowly, processing light and colour and sound like a delicate, hand-made truffle. Then, I thought life would never end. Now, I look back to the life before and the life now that’s a circle of friends in an Indian restaurant. New and old, superimposed, make a picture of ghosts and life.
Travel is a series of simple, everyday encounters that jump out at the traveler because she’s looking for them. I took a short cut on my hike back up to my hotel on the afternoon of the day before yesterday. I clambered up a dusty slope with loose rocks. At one point, I realized I’d have to cross over a low stone wall where a gap in it’s crown of thorn bushes had been left. As I climbed the wall, I realized I was stepping right into someone’s yard. A small stone and mud plaster house has been squeezed onto a terrace. There was a fruit tree in the small yard. I felt bad for trespassing, cringing at the image I must present: ignorant, insensitive white person, ogling quaint native domestic scenes. I hurried over the wall and up a stairway set in a wall, eager to exit the property. Suddenly I heard someone call out behind me. I turned, embarrassed. But the ancient Hunzakut woman who had called out was smiling and insisting that I take an apple from her hand. I retraced my steps, wishing her peace and thanking her. As I accepted the apple, she called out in the direction of her house. A younger woman appeared carrying three more apples. She didn’t cover her head and approached me with self-confidence and dignity. She, like the older woman, spoke no Urdu. I accepted the additional apples graciously and tried to thank them. I felt foolish for having no gift to offer them in return. I smiled again, bowed and climbed up and out of their sight.
I’m an invader, an imperialist, whether I like that or not. Some would argue that by dropping the equivalent of a decent month’s salary into the local economy over a period of two days, I am contributing to the one thing that can help these people: economic growth. I wish development was that simple. Everything is complicated. Poverty is subtle, especially in such a beautiful place. From my perch this weekend, I looked down on a scene of breath-taking beauty. I traveled the mountains by water channels, carefully and painstakingly built to bring life-giving water to the valley. The water erupts in the fragile beauty of fruit blossoms in the spring, bold green in the summer and the dazzling earth tones of fall. Neat stone houses and dry stone walls dissect the fertile bowl into pleasing shapes. From high above, where I watch jet airplanes burst over sun-drenched peaks-my escape vehicles-I look down and see beauty and not the poverty, desperation and the fragility of livelihood that exists there. From the seat of my CIDA and DFID funded jeep I struggle to see it. I squint through the fog of privilege and the haze of worldly wisdom to try and see the opposite.
“Traveling is seeing; it is the implicit that we travel by. Travelers are fantasists, conjurers, seers-and what they finally discover is that every round object everywhere is a crystal ball: stone, teapot, the marvelous globe of the human eye.” – Cynthia Ozick
Pretty words, and true, but travelers pass by and leave.