Braided Streams

Reflections | Travels | Interests

On Traveling

I recently finished reading Nothing to Declare, a travel memoir by Mary Morris.  Morris details her time spent living and traveling in Mexico and Central America, and while this is a region I have only lightly explored (on short trips to Costa Rica and Panama), I quickly and easily identified with Morris's words and stories.  It was not so much about her outward journey in that region of the world as it was about her inward journey and her experience as a woman traveling alone:

Women who travel as I travel are dreamers.  Our lives seem to be lives of endless possibility.  Like readers of romances we think that anything can happen to us at any time.  We forget that this is not our real life—our life of domestic details, work pressures, attempts and failures at human relations.  We keep moving.  From anecdote to anecdote, from hope to hope.  Around the next bend something new will befall us.  Nostalgia has no place for the woman traveling alone.  Our motion is forward, whether by train or daydream.  Our sights are on the horizon, across strange terrain, vast desert, unfordable rivers, impenetrable ice peaks.

My mindset is entirely different when I'm traveling.  I forget about comfort and everyday luxuries.  While a twelve-hour bus ride from Luang Prubang to Vientiane in Laos, with uncomfortable seats, winding roads that bring on motion sickness, and no opportunity to sleep is dreadful in the moment, I remember it as a thrilling part of the overall experience, and many days I would rather be on that bus than sitting at my desk in my office.

And once I got the travel bug, I didn't want to stop.  Sure, it is nice to be home for a little while, to have my bed and my shower and my books and the people that I love nearby.  But I'm always thinking about my next adventure, when it will be, what I will learn, and how I can make it all happen.

I wanted to keep going forever, to never stop, that morning when the truck picked me up at five AM.  It was like a drug in me.  As a traveler I can achieve a kind of high, a somewhat altered state of consciousness.  I think it must be what athletes feel.  I am transported out of myself, into another dimension in time and space.  While the journey is on buses and across land, I begin another journey inside my head, a journey of memory and sensation, of past merging with present, of time growing insignificant.

I never feel as alive as I feel when I am traveling.  I never feel as stimulated—emotionally, intellectually.  I never feel as simultaneously small and insignificant as I feel capable of making a difference.  Even when I am traveling alone, my loneliness feels different.  It is welcome; it feels adventurous, confidence-building, and fulfilling.  It gives me the time to reflect, write, and think that I don't always take for myself on a daily basis.  It gives me questions and the desire to learn more about the world and its people and places.  Despite the exhaustion, illness, discomfort, homesickness, loneliness, and not-knowing, it makes me my best self.

 Pulau Bangkaru, Sumatra, Indonesia / April 2011

Pulau Bangkaru, Sumatra, Indonesia / April 2011

...I longed for what came next.  Whatever the next stop, the next love, the next story might be.

Tap tap tap

Yesterday morning, I awoke to the sound of my furnace dying.  The banging, clanking, and clonking of the metal pipe was a sure sign that the noisy furnace had reached its end.  I suffered through the noises for the next hour, failing to fall back asleep, until my alarm indicated it was time to actually wake up.

                                                                   Photo Credit

                                                                 Photo Credit

I called Mark, my fix-it man.  He called me back at the end of the day.  "What's going on?" he asked.  "It sounds like there's a woodpecker in my furnace.  It's making so much noise!" I said.  "There's a woodpecker in your furnace?" he asked.  "Not literally," I said.  "It just sounds that way."  I wasn't home at the time, but I gave him permission to go take a look.  Naturally, the furnace was silent when he arrived, so he went back home.  I got home later in the evening and went to sleep peacefully.

At five thirty this morning, it started again.  I had done some research and learned that furnaces make such noises when they are cooling down, and I thought that since the heat was no longer on, but the furnace was still running for the hot water, the constant heating and cooling was making it make these terrible noises.  I moved out to the living room to try to sleep, to no avail: it was just too loud.  Mark gets up early, so I decided to call him again.

He came over, and of course, the instant he arrived, there was silence again.  We turned the heat on and off, ran the hot water, and did any number of things to try to recreate the sound.  After about fifteen minutes of silence, when Mark was about to leave, it started again.  He looked at the furnace, fiddled around or did whatever it is that fix-it people do with their secret powers, and then walked outside.  He popped his head back in.  "There's a woodpecker on the pipe," he said.

I went outside.  I didn't see a woodpecker.   "Are you teasing me?" I asked.  "No, there was a woodpecker sitting up there.  I saw it," Mark told me.  So when I said that there wasn't literally a woodpecker, I was, of course, mistaken.  There literally was a woodpecker making all that racket.  I'm guessing I have more mornings like this to look forward to, though Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommends some visual deterrents, like windsocks or pinwheels, to dissuade the woodpecker from hanging out at the house.  I suppose we'll give those a try.

On Saturday, when I was volunteering at VINS, the Harris's Hawk was, for some reason, not happy with my fashion choices.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him lunge toward me—something he has absolutely never done before.  With his beak, he ripped my purple Ray-Bans off my head, held them in his mouth for an instant, and then tossed them on the ground.  I must have done something to the birds to make them torture me in these ways.  Perhaps I've been negligent.  Here it is, springtime, and I have yet to use my new binoculars...


After learning about commonplace books, I keep finding instances in which I have kept my own commonplace books in a variety of forms.  A document has been sitting on my desktop for months with passages from some books I read while in Australia: passages that describe the Australian landscape.  Murray Bail writes of the interior landscape of Australia as “fitted out with blue sky and the obligatory tremendous gum tree… the kind of landscape seen during homesickness…”  For me, these descriptions evoke homesickness for a place that I fell in love with but which lies in an ocean too far away to visit as much as I would like.

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail is my favorite kind of book: the kind that is equal parts nature writing and love story.  A father has created a challenge for any suitor wishing to marry his daughter: the suitor must correctly identify and name every eucalyptus tree on the property.  A mysterious man comes often to tell the daughter stories, but neither the young woman nor her father realize that by creating labels for each tree as per her father’s request, this man is the first to complete the father’s challenge.  Meanwhile, the man has won the daughter over with his storytelling.

Here is one passage from the novel:

But desertorum (to begin with) is only one of several hundred eucalypts; there is no precise number.  And anyway the very word, desert-or-um, harks back to a stale version of the national landscape and from there in a more or less straight line onto the national character, all those linings of the soul and larynx, which have their origins in the bush, so it is said, the poetic virtues (can you believe it?) of being belted about by droughts, bushfires, smelly sheep and so on; and let’s not forget the isolation, the exhausted shapeless women, the crude language, the always wide horizon, and the flies.

Perhaps this is yet another description of the vast interior landscape, but Bail also writes of “views of stony outcrops and gorges, all sharply shadowed, tracks petering out to nowhere, creekbeds with dark birds, a cliff spit asunder by the white trunk of a eucalypt,” giving a bit more variety to the endless desert and blue sky that some think of when they think of Australia.

For me, my landscape was filled with rainforest and farmland, white cockatoos sailing across blue sky, brown cows happily grazing on hilly ground, green canopy and shade, and a particular misty morning atmosphere that I haven’t experienced elsewhere.

To conclude, I will offer another description of landscape.  In Brimming Billabongs, a tale of the people and land near Darwin in the Top End, Bill Harney shares this poem:

A sand beach gleams with sun behind the trees,
Reflecting jewels in each dew drop there,
The swamp smells rising in the morning breeze,
With fragrant honeysuckle in the air.

A curlew cries, then from the marshy ground
A wallaby sits up, grey quivering face,
With eyes and ears alert, it peers around,
Then moves away with ever quickening pace.

A thin smoke spirals in the misty air,
A Blackman stokes his fire beside a creek.
Its water gurgles on, while over there
A mountain lifts on high its sun-tipped peak.

The bay of Muleoocoo lies ahead,
With sandy beach and rocks of every hue.
Its painted eaves with niches for the dead,
A home for night bats sleeping all day through…

The wind blows strong, and with a mighty roar,
The waves come in to crash upon the sand,
While I, the dreamer, rest upon the shore
Trying to read the future of the land.

Book Sale

My favorite used book sale occurs twice a year at the Sussex-Wantage Library.  I often find myself arranging visits home based on the schedule for these sales.  During the beginning of the sale, paperbacks cost 50 cents and hardcovers cost a dollar, but at the sale's closing, one can fill an entire paper bag full of books for a mere two dollars.  The proceeds support the library, and the sale has grown so much over the years that there are always excellent books and books in great condition.  I can't think of a better deal.  Today's damage was $7.50.  Here is my bounty:

  The Zookeeper's Wife  by Diane Ackerman

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

  Little Bee  by Chris Cleave

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

  The Language of Flowers  by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

  Middlesex  by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

  Outliers: The Story of Success  by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

  Another Roadside Attraction  by Tom Robbins

Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins

  The God of Small Things  by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

  Major Pettigrew's Last Stand  by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

   The Lotus Eaters  by Tatjana Soli

 The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

  Living Downstraem: A Scientist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment  by Sandra Steingraber

Living Downstraem: A Scientist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment
by Sandra Steingraber

  The Poet of Baghdad: A True Story of Love and Defiance  by Jo Tatchell

The Poet of Baghdad: A True Story of Love and Defiance by Jo Tatchell

  Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds  by Scott Weidensaul

Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul

On Reading

I just finished reading The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future by Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library.  While there have been many changes to the "future" of books since its publication in 2009, this book details many of the legal issues surrounding the digitization of our largest library holdings as well as the preservation of books, the study of bibliography, and public access to resources.

What really grabbed my attention, though, was the chapter "The Mysteries of Reading," in which the author describes "commonplace books."  In early modern Europe, commonplace books were as significant as they were unique to each individual author.  Scrapbook-like journals, these books were created with snippets of information from whatever books one was reading.  Favorite quotes, interesting facts, ideas, and beautiful passages, poems, proverbs, or prayers were transcribed.  By copying such text, readers exhibited a more active form of reading in which writing things down, taking notes, and responding to a text was more important than the simple enjoyment of a book.

In fact, while reading this book, I found myself dog-earring certain pages with passages that I liked.  And once I learned about commonplace books, I started thinking about blogs, or other forms of sharing ideas and information on social media, as modern-day commonplace books.  The art of reading hasn't disappeared since early modern Europe; it has evolved, the same way our transition from "real" books to e-books has transformed our reading experience.  But despite these changes, the reason I love books so much has not changed.  Reading allows us to learn, to see the ideas of the author and to develop our own ideas, to engage in an internal dialogue about the challenges we face, how we respond to them, what we consider beautiful, and what makes us human. 

The first passage that stood out to me is a simple one that shows a love of books in a physical sense:

It is important to get the feel of a bookthe texture of its paper, the quality of its printing, the nature of its binding.  Its physical aspects provide clues about its existence as an element in a social and economic system; and if it contains margin notes, it can reveal a great deal about its place in the intellectual life of its readers.
Books also give off special smells.  According to a recent survey of French students, 43 percent consider smell to be one of the most important qualities of printed booksso important that they resist buying odorless electronic books.

I'm guilty... the smell of a book is as important to me as flipping through its pages and absorbing its content.  But that's not to say that I don't also enjoy reading on my Kindle, which offers wonderful convenience while traveling (I would be lugging around an entire library otherwise), allows me to look up words that I don't know, and lets me highlight my favorite passages to be stored electronicallysomething of an e-commonplace book in its own section on my Kindle.

A passage about the author of a commonplace book, William Drake, shows the value of keeping a commonplace book:

Drake understood reading as digestion, a process of extracting the essence from books and of incorporating them into himself.  He favored bite-sized bits of text, which could be useful in their application to everyday life.  For reading should not be aimed at erudition; it should help a man get ahead in the world, and its most helpful chunks came in the form of proverbs, fables, and even the mottoes written into emblem books.

Darnton concludes the chapter with this:

...we may pay closer attention to reading as an element in what used to be called the history of mentalitiesthat is, world views and ways of thinking.  All the keepers of commonplace books, from Drake to Madan, read their way through life, picking up fragments of experience and fitting them into patterns.  The underlying affinities that held those patterns together represented an attempt to get a grip on life, to make sense of it, not by elaborating theories but by imposing form on matter.  Commonplacing was like quilting: it produced pictures, some more beautiful than others, but each of them interesting in its own way.  They reveal patterns of culture: the segments that went into it, the stitching that connected them, the tears that pulled them apart, and the common cloth of which they were composed.

If we learn something of humanity through reading, then surely the books we read influence our experiences and how we relate to others and the world around us.  While I certainly haven't jotted down notes or quotes from all of the books that I've read over the years, each has influenced me, if only in deciding what I'd like to read nextthe shape or color of one scrap of fabric in a quilt determining which scrap of fabric will lie next to it.

Reading is a way to learn about other people, other cultures, other places, and other ideas (whether it is through fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or another form).  It is a way to orient and situate ourselves in our own individual worlds as well as the entire world.  I am more than happy to "read my way through life" even if it does create problems of storage and a small but somewhat dangerous addiction to used book stores.  Active reading, and commonplacing in its traditional form or in some modern-day variant of its traditional form, can only make the experience of reading more fruitful and valuable.