I cannot recall when it happened – the turning point or a defining moment. Change crept up slowly, like a degenerative disease. As a kid growing up in the 90s, well before the age of smartphones and social media, I could easily sit for hours in a bookstore, poring through an entire series while my mother did her shopping. A cousin remembers how my mother used to chirrup triumphantly how low-maintenance a kid I was, by being able to dump me at a bookstore for no charge while she ran her errands. If her parenting methods unwittingly contributed to the demise of the brick-and-mortar bookstores that are few and far between today, I do apologize.
These days, I can hardly last two stops on a subway ride without checking my phone. A walk from the train station to a destination is precious screen time for a post on Instagram. An elevator ride down two storeys is time to hit a couple of ‘like’ buttons. We (or me at least) are constantly engaged – or disengaged, depending on how you see it. We are rarely present in a moment. It’s like going through life in little fishbowls on our heads without even realising they are on.
All that, weirdly enough, changes when I travel. I am switched on. I am aware of my surroundings. I am constantly observing, absorbing, digesting. The same number of hours in a day tick by, but the way they are lived? Completely different.
From the moment my plane landed in Iran, I felt something imperceptibly shift in the air. The women, who moments ago had been lounging insouciantly in their seats, were now busying themselves with a task at hand – rummaging through their handbags, pulling out an array of scarves, and then carefully wrapping it about their heads, neatly tucking in strands of loose hair. As I watched (presumably fascinated and mouth agape), and as they spotted me watching, several broke out in long-suffering smiles. One even chuckled resignedly and said “Welcome to Iran!” I too rummaged in my own bag and gingerly pulled out my own chosen hijab, a sombre-coloured scarf carefully selected after much research online on what fabric and colour would be most appropriate. With the echoes of concerned friends’ warnings sounding in my head, “Wear it properly or they’ll throw you in jail!” I secured the venerable garment around my head with much solemnity and fastened it tightly under my chin after meticulously ensuring that all offending strands of hair had been safely swaddled away. The women nodded at my efforts, seemed amused even, and we all exchanged conspiratorial smiles. In those wordless moments much was conveyed – the frustrations, the resignation, and the humour one could draw from a difficult situation.
In a day job where much of my time is spent labouring over the written word – drafting, reviewing, amending, and generally obsessing over how anything in an email or letter can be used against you in court – moments like the one I experienced in Iran, reveal just how foolish of an exercise lawyering can be. Words can often be unnecessary, and usually, downright insincere. It is humbling to witness how so much more can actually be conveyed between two people without saying much. In times like this, I am convinced of the existence of an other language, one that transcends linguistics and dictionaries, and which emanates directly from the human soul.
Six years ago I found myself in Rio de Janeiro, famed of course for Carnival, samba, and all-night-long parties. I was not in fact, bikini-clad and dancing up a storm on Copacabana Beach, but had instead arrived for a week long of religious festivities, all to be conducted under the watchful eye and outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer (the statue).
My friend and I had signed up for homestay accommodation, which meant that we would be staying with some generous church parishioners who were opening their homes to the millions of catholic pilgrims who were travelling from all across the world into Rio. Our hosts were two little old ladies, long-time friends who lived together with their little dog, both not speaking a word of English. It was challenging of course, with a week of miming and charades (try asking for toilet paper). This Lost in Translation debacle was made harder by the fact that Portuguese is not one of the languages with words pronounced like how they are spelt. But we adapted, as humans do, setting up a laptop on the dining table and having an internet browser opened permanently to Google Translate. What however would normally be tedium turned out to be a laugh every morning, with conversations made only possible with four grown adults crouched over a tiny laptop watching as one person typed in their native tongue, and all breathlessly waiting for the magic moment when the translation would appear in a BIG AHA! moment (this was punctuated with lots of fingers being pointed in the air at the eureka moment), and then to have the exact same protracted process repeated as the other pair sought to respond in their own language. A conversation, albeit clumsy, but no less genuine, made possible only by the wonders of The Internet. Thank you Google.
One evening, my friend and I returned to the apartment drenched, having only had thin jackets to shield us from a sudden downpour. No explanations were needed as we stood dripping on the carpets, while our Brazilian mothers towelled us off despite our protestations, all while tittering away in Portuguese in what I can only imagine to be the same maternal fussing that happens all across the world. The next evening, we returned home to a similar flurry of activity, only this time, our entry to the hallway was completely blocked. I had the sudden impression of the contents of a souvenir store being emptied on the carpets, before realising that before me, was enough paraphernalia to shield me from a season of typhoons. Umbrellas emblazoned with Rio’s best-known tourist sites, rain ponchos plastered with I [HEART] Rio – and in clear evidence that the ladies had veered off-course while shopping – notebooks, pens, key chains, magnets. No Googling or internet browser was needed this time. As they excitedly held up the items one at a time, doing a little infomercial style show-and-tell on how each item ought to be used, it was clear what they meant to say, and what they did otherwise to convey their thoughts and feelings. I opened my new notebook to find that alas, Google did work its way into this touching spectacle after all – scrawled in the first page of notebook, in a slightly uneven hand, “You will always have a home in Rio.”
It is perhaps fitting that the only Portuguese word that I managed to take away from my time in Brazil was saudade. This is best explained as a profound, melancholic, longing for an absent something or someone, with the accompanying knowledge that the object of longing might never return. The best of my travels have left me with this. Travel is, being fully present while living. Travel is, connecting with a human being in a manner beyond words. Travel is, leaving a piece of my heart behind in every place I’ve been to, and taking away much more.