When I started college, I took a plane from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon—Alaska Airlines! how exotic! how great!
As soon as I fastened my seatbelt, I burst into tears. Some of my high school friends had seen me off at the gate, along with my parents and brother. I’d been cocky, chirping good-bye! I’ll miss you! as I eyed the departure gate, ready to dash off to my new life. I wanted that new life desperately. Yet I felt such terror that I couldn’t admit it until I was alone in a window seat.
That’s what travel does, even if a given trip doesn’t symbolize the before and after of a major life event. This week, after returning from four months with my family in Singapore, I’ve been thinking a lot about travel and why I do it.
“I’d love to know how writing in Singapore is different than writing in Boston,” an email correspondent asked me recently. “Your writing, your sense of the familiar/unfamiliar.”
I like this way of framing the question. Getting to know a specific place like Singapore through small details—the hawker stall with the best chicken rice, the scent of durians piled in the heat near our subway stop, the kingfisher gleaming on a cable wire above an artificial lake—illuminates it far better than news reports about no jaywalking or gum chewing.
But from a writer’s standpoint, it’s the inner space I’ve traveled that makes the most difference. Time away from home is wonderful but it can also be an internal rollercoaster—yet here’s the surprise. It’s the hard part of traveling that I’ve found most valuable. Good for the soul? Maybe. But what really matters to me now in middle-age is getting a closer look at the mess inside.
I can do this in Boston, too, and sometimes I manage to carve out time and space for that kind of writing. But only sometimes. Travel is a far faster route to developing The Rough Guide to My Unconscious. I leave many of my usual distractions behind. I’m forced to open my eyes and pay attention.
Otherwise, I’ll miss my subway stop, I’ll lose my way—or in losing my way, I’ll stumble on a madrasah in which the boys wear purple-and-white uniforms or a Buddhist monastery right beside a Hindu temple, neither of which I intended to visit, but here we are. My ten-year-old son clutches my hand, and I squeeze him back. He wants water, so we try an unmarked café by the monastery, me cautious, thinking we have no right to be there, wondering if they’ll understand my English. But they’re serving tasty vegetarian lunches. They are gruff but sweet. We are okay again. Better than okay.
What I’m talking about is not exactly a guidebook—too organized—but a compendium of unpredictable experiences that hit all my hot buttons:
- Ecstasy: Yes, I’m enthralled by the sunset purples and reds, sipping wine with my husband on the Sentosa Boardwalk.
- Rage: I hate that jackhammer outside my front door; it’s crashing through my skull.
- Terror: What if my son gets lost on the subway? What if I lose my keys?
- Despair: I’m trapped forever. I’ll never find my home.
When you go to a new place, you’re more vulnerable. It’s as if a crack of light opens in the clouds, illuminating your inner landscape as well as what’s passing outside. That’s not the relaxation I seek when I’m on a beach vacation. But when I’ve living somewhere else like Singapore, even if I’m on a sabbatical from normality, I’m writing. I have to write. And for a writer, feeling that stark glow within can be as heady as swimming with the dolphins.
These days, I need that sense of vulnerability. It’s the spark for my best writing. It brings back the tears I cried on Alaska Airlines at eighteen, when a kindly flight attendant gave me tissues and orange juice in a plastic cup. It conjures my three-year-old self on my first cross-country flight, charging up and down the aisles singing, “The clouds are moving! The clouds are moving!”
It awakens me to the familiar places in my life, past and present. Just last week, on another plane to California, I’d been wool gathering about Singapore and what we’d left behind, wishing I was still there rather than on this flight to the Bay Area, my childhood home, where I often travel to see my frail parents.
As the plane came down at SFO, I realized that travel can be addictive, allowing you to skate on the surface from one place to another—but then I saw the carpet of yellow wildflowers along the runway, the hills on the horizon, golden with patches of dark green on a hazy late spring day. I felt a thrilling wash of feeling and memory, of love, of grief. I began reinventing everything that used to seem so ordinary when I was a child.
I’d arrived. I’m a traveler in my own life now, and I love it.
Thanks to Arlene Mandell for emailing me such an intriguing query.
Also, see “Can You Capture a Volcano with an iPhone?”, my Editor’s Note to the new issue of Talking Writing, in which I reflect on my ambivalent response to Bali.
- "Everybody" © Martha Nichols: From conceptual artist Lee Wen’s exhibit "Lucid Dreams in the Reverie of the Real" at the Singapore Art Museum.
- "My Shadow Self" © Martha Nichols: Taken outside Westminster Abbey in London on our way home.
- "Sentosa Boardwalk in Singapore" (below) © Martha Nichols: Our last evening in one of our favorite spots.