Every fall, the monarch butterfly begins its 3,000-mile journey to Mexico. In the spring, sandhill storks congregate in Nebraska. During the summer, a large population of the two-legged creatures climb into metal tubes, change longitude and latitude, and check into hotel rooms that are often decorated in earthy hues. A soul-sucking palette that has only one advantage: It deposits ketchup, crushed chips, sweat and semen on carpets and walls, all but invisible. We walk into the bathroom without jet spray, stocked only with toilet paper. We pile empty water bottles near the sink instead of a lotta, only to discover at crucial moments that housekeeping has chewed them up once again.
Armed with our cameras, we participate in these momentary migrations for the same reasons we marry. It is based on the hope that by entering another state of existence, or by transcending municipal boundaries, we will be immediately fulfilled and satisfied. It seems to be of no relevance whether or not we were satisfied and satisfied before entering the institution or the credit card-guaranteed room. The statistics for disappointing marriages and vacations are roughly the same. Despite this depressing fact, there are plenty of reasons to lose out on savings as you jostle through crowded museums trying to catch a glimpse of Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.
As the guards at the Louvre will tell you, even the most beautiful pieces of art become invisible when you watch them move around the same place every day. The brain ignores the familiar to conserve energy. Familiarity, contrary to the popular saying, does not breed contempt, only indifference.
Take the same painting, put it on another wall and we’ll appreciate the details again. Reclaim the ability to see transportation partners, children, friends in a different location and the macrame pattern of relationships instead of just holes.
If we are the sum of all that we remember, it seems that traveling creates the strongest memories. The unknown and the unusual takes us back to our primitive selves; The sound of a rattling twig that signals a predator or prey. The senses engaged in the present form a vast net of neural impressions, which bind memory firmly at the centre.
My fondest memory of eating litchi is not at my dining table this summer, but three decades ago on a swing in Jaipur. I remember the metal chains of the swing pushing into my back. My fingers pecked at the top of the brick-red, rough skin until it split, revealing the gelatinous, sweet flesh inside. The juice spread in my mouth like I’d put on lip gloss, the old roll-on ones that smelled of orange blossom and astringent air freshener. The yellow flesh is eaten until a shiny brown seed is visible in it. I remember turning it around in my hand and thinking it looked just like a cockroach without antennae. And I remember Uncle, Manju Aunty’s husband, although his first name was lost in the past, wearily going to the market once again because I had eaten the whole bushel of litchis that he had bought that morning. When we travel, we change form. From stable to stable.
Sitting on the morning train, my head hitting the window, I see the man in front of me. Sunken eyes and puffy cheeks. Not the pink of youth but broken nerves and that comes with time. I’m curious about the wedding band on his middle finger. Widow or weight loss? He collects his coffee cup, the torn sugar pouch, makes a small, contained pile of trash, picks up the pieces and drops them into the cup. Widow, I decide. A man used to clean after himself. Ask me to describe what my accountant wore last week and I would be hard pressed for an answer.
To observe, we must be still. Paradoxically, it is easier to stand still when we are on the move. Airplanes, trains, automobiles, and wild walks force the mind to stop its endless exercise of jumping rope—three jumps in the future, two in the past—to get tangled up and stumble again and again. Routine is usually described as a fixed amount of time for doing certain things. An elixir to increase productivity, and a cage. When we travel, free from routine, we wander, look and wonder.
We see Gray River turning into a wrinkled, embroidered navy with threads of glittering sequins. The bloated Buck Moon hangs above the water, teasing the sun with its size. When was the last time we saw the moon in our own city, we ask each other, shaking our heads in disbelief.
We return changed and committed to embrace the change. Instead of taking the shortest route back home, we should rediscover our neighborhood. Talk to the cobbler down the street, the way we asked so many questions to the Maggi point guy in Mussoorie. Have dinner with your partner every week in front of a candlelit table. Spread out on a bench and watch the clouds roll by just like we did in the Jardin des Tuileries. We manage for a short time. Essentially, we fall back into the straitjacket of the structure.
Then we wait. To book tickets and board the metal tube. Searching for pieces of ourselves buried beneath the longitude and latitude of our lives.
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