When travelling abroad, everything is unfamiliar — food, language, people — but this only makes you hungry for more
On the cusp of turning 31, I found myself buying travel insurance; not just for the duration of my ongoing two-week trip to Myanmar but for a whole year; a multi-trip plan that insures against various exigencies that could arise anywhere in the world. This last-minute decision ranks high up as one of the most ambitious ones I’ve ever made, and somewhat presumptive, too. But, counting my upcoming trip to Australia (visa gods willing) by the end of August, I’ll already have made four international trips this year, which, if you’re part of a corporate network or have a demanding job, seems like a very small accomplishment. But when you’re a full-time art writer surviving from one delayed pay cheque to the next, it feels deserving of an award.
I landed in Yangon last evening and happened to catch a glimpse of half a rainbow suspended against the backdrop of the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda. It was fortuitous indeed. Pic/Getty Images
I remember a letter I wrote to my oldest brother when I was perhaps 15. He’d moved to Abu Dhabi to work at Etisalat, which made him one of the most accomplished members of our family at large. Given he’s 11 years older than I, I justifiably felt as though I had to run all my big life decisions by him. I’d written to him about how I didn’t particularly fancy a life of middle-class stability, how I wanted instead to travel the world, taste exotic things, dip my feet in the waters of the Nile and traipse through borders with the practiced élan of a gypsy troupe. Obviously, he replied saying I was being airy-fairy, my head entrenched in thick, fluffy clouds. I had little grasp of the reality of adulthood.
I’m most likely the least travelled person in my immediate circle of friends. As kids, my parents usually only ever took us to Goa on summer vacations. Now almost 14, my oldest niece has travelled more than I had at 20. Though I was born in Kuwait and visited my father there when I was five, with my older brother, my first real trip abroad was when I was 25, and I’d collected enough money to go to Paris for three weeks.
The thrill of travel is a high I feel like I’ve rightfully earned. Having never had access to it growing up, or even as a perk in the few jobs I’ve officially held, each trip I have made since I was 25 has been the consequence of a lot of hard work. Most have been press trips as an art writer, the most memorable of them being a 10-day trip to Tokyo, Yokohama, and Sapporo. Next month, at around this time, I’ll hopefully be on a flight to Australia where I’ll be stationed for a month, to promote my book which Hardie Grant will be publishing in the continent, and to speak at two literary festivals about my contribution to an all-women anthology, Walking Towards Ourselves, edited by Catriona Mitchell. I don’t know what the rest of the year holds in store, but I’m really hoping to make the most of the travel insurance.
I landed in Yangon last evening. It had been raining, so when my cab paused at a traffic intersection, I happened to catch a glimpse of half a rainbow suspended against the backdrop of the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda. It was fortuitous indeed.
Everything is unfamiliar. Language has more or less been reduced to sound; human contact restricted to the act of exchanging smiles. I’ve been enjoying the gesture. People are amazingly friendly, and if you look in their direction and simply curl your lips into a smile, they smile right back at you and you suddenly feel warm and welcome. Downtown Yangon has something of a Bombay feel to it, old colonial buildings with high ceilings, a very vibrant street life, with the river standing in as a substitute for the sea. The food, though, has no parallel. It is simply magnificent, and I wonder if it is at all possible to have a bad meal. Like in Bangkok, women mark their presence on the streets and constitute a good part of the work force, which makes the city even friendlier and significantly less male-dominated. (Sometimes it seems the more you travel elsewhere, the more you realise how misogynist and patriarchal everything is back home.)
There is more to explore than the Lonely Planet has prepared me for. Cartographically dyslexic as I am, I couldn’t fathom the degree of unfamiliarity that would confront me. There are so many details to soak in, so much to make sense of, so much to absorb and internalise, so much to sample. Everything I see makes me salivate for more.
I cannot imagine a happier state in which to be.
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputed art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org