Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Travel thoughts

When I am traveling, my mind seems to work overtime, and I find myself contemplating all sorts of stuff. Mostly I think this has to do with the fact that I get extremely motion sick, so whenever I’m on the road/air/water, I am forced to do absolutely nothing except maybe listen to a little music—a far cry from my normal state of being, when I can barely think straight because I am usually busy accomplishing about ten different things simultaneously. I am, by nature, full of curiosity, so with the unusual amount of mental freedom afforded by long-distance travels, my thoughts wander far and wide. In addition to all the normal thoughts in my head (the book I’m reading, the last movie I saw, my research project, etc.), there are also many ideas related to the new and interesting things I’ve been exposed to during my trip. Having just completed 37 long hours of travel (that’s 5 hours on the train, 18 hours of layovers, and 17 hours of flying, in case you were curious), I currently have a very tired brain.

What was I pondering during that long trip? Well, for starters, I started wondering about geography after I checked out a map of the flight route between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur. I realized that I wasn’t really sure if Malaysia and Indonesia were both countries or whether one (or both?) of them was a collective name for one or more of the archipelagos in the region (it’s the former; and, speaking of archipelagos, would you believe that Indonesia comprises 17,508 islands?!). I also noticed that Singapore was at the tip of the Malay Peninsula—this leapt out at me because that’s where my husband is right now—and it occurred to me that I didn’t really even know what Singapore is: a city? a territory of another country? a country in and of itself? When I looked it up online, I discovered that it’s a city-state, which then made me wonder how many other city-states there are in the world (apparently 2—the Vatican and Monaco). As you can see, I am woefully ignorant when it comes to geography and world history, which is a shame; I really find all this stuff fascinating, especially because I like to apply that kind of knowledge when I travel. Every time I discover yet another obvious geographical fact that had previously escaped my attention, I cringe at the knowledge that I am proving true the stereotype that Americans only know about their own country.

I also think about cultural stuff, for obvious reasons—when you are in an airport, you are bound to run across someone who is “different” in some way. When I was in the Kuala Lumpur airport, for instance, I encountered more Muslim women than I have ever seen in my life (the only other place I’ve observed multiple burqas in a single day/location is Minneapolis, Minnesota—weird, huh?). Given how few burqa-wearers I’ve ever seen, it is perhaps unsurprising that I’d never noticed how the women often decorate their otherwise bland outfits in order to spice them up a bit—many of the ladies had beads or sequins placed around the edges of the headpiece, or along the trim of the sleeves and dress; some had also pinned their scarves in place with jeweled barrettes. It was quite pretty, and I was surprised to find that such a practice was allowed, given how solemn that particular mode of dress is. I also noted the striking eye makeup that all the women wore; they all looked quite beautiful, though of course it is difficult to make those judgments very accurately when all you can see is someone’s eyes. That made me wonder what courtship is like in areas where the women always wear burqas in public: Is there ever a time when their husbands-to-be get to see their brides prior to marriage, or does the literal unveiling only happen on the wedding day? If it is the latter, one would imagine that some men are in for a serious disappointment, if their brides’ eyes are their most attractive feature. Perhaps you will forgive me for being so shallow when I tell you that my Muslim-oriented thoughts also drifted to a wonderful book I read in high school, called Daughter of Persia. It is the autobiography of Sattareh Farman Farmaian, the daughter of an Iranian prince and a humanitarian who lived through the turbulent, US-aided regime change in Iran. I had always meant to re-read that book, but never did; now I’m feeling inspired to return to it. Back to a bit of semi-shallowness, I was also trying to remember the names for the different parts of Muslim women’s headwear. I recently read an article about the different components and how they all fit together to make the final product, which usually looks as though it is all one piece. I was totally convinced that one of the pieces was a habib, but when I looked it up, I discovered that habib meant “beloved.” The word I was trying to think of was hijab, which can be used to describe both the head covering itself and the modest Muslim style of dress, in general.

By this point in my contemplation, I was feeling pretty stupid, which prompted a whole new flow of ideas—about Americans and their general ignorance about Islam. This was a particularly timely topic, topic given the recent events with that idiotic pastor in Florida who threatened to burn the Qu’ran last week. It occurred to me that, while Americans have become more aware of Muslims and Islam since 9/11, most of us haven’t really become much more knowledgeable about them. As someone who’s taken some history courses examining Muslim countries, who has read up a little on Islam-related history and current events, who has some Muslim friends, and has been to places where multiple Muslims can be seen at any given time, I would say that I represent the American median, in terms of Islam-savviness—although a part of me suspects, with a bit of dismay, that I might actually be slightly above average in this respect. Either way, that means there are actually people who know less than I do, and that is pretty scary. What is even scarier is that I was having these rather deep thoughts at what was, to my body clock at least, 3 AM.

Of course, at that time in the day, it’s a miracle that anyone can think straight at all, and I will admit that my mental stability was waning. That’s another interesting thing about travel-induced meditations. They are not only affected by my surroundings, but also by my state of being. There always comes some point when I am running on empty, and when that happens, I find everything funny. This is dangerous because I keep wanting to chuckle to myself, which probably wouldn’t do much to endear me to other nearby travelers. I’m also often highly caffeinated, since I am an avid tea drinker, slurp down Cokes in order to minimize motion sickness, and take caffeinated headache pills. All that caffeine makes my thoughts race—not only am I constantly thinking of something, but I also jump from one topic to the next with amazing rapidity. For instance, the following is a fairly accurate representation of a sequence of thoughts that actually went through my head during my recent trip: (listening to iPod) “Wow, this is a great song, I’m glad I bought this album. I wonder if Mom would like this? Well, she would, but she might not have the time to listen to it. I wonder what kind of souvenirs she’d want me to look out for? I could buy her something with my own money, maybe as a Christmas present; or, I could use her credit card and she could buy it herself. I wonder how much money is her limit? I should buy Dad something, too, but that’s harder—what would Dad like that I could fit in my suitcase? What am I going to get Dad for Christmas? I should go shopping for myself at Christmas, too, and take advantage of being able to spend in dollars instead of sterling. I definitely need some pants. But no sweaters—I have too many sweaters. I’m going to need to reorganize my clothes when I get back home. And clean. I need to vacuum and do the bathroom and dust. Ugh, I hate dusting. Why can’t they sell Pledge in the UK? That’s what I really need but they don’t have anything that good…” I could go on, but I won’t bore you; it’s boring even to me and they’re my own thoughts.

When I get to this phase—the uncontrollable-racing-thought phase—I often am overwhelmed by the desire to list things. I think that may be my coping mechanism to prevent myself from coming totally unhinged. Sometimes I make to-do lists; other times I make grocery lists or plan out travel itineraries in more detail. Occasionally, I record all of the questions I’ve pondered during my trip (e.g., Malaysia vs. Indonesia, names of headdress components, etc.) so that I can remember to look them up when I get to a computer; likewise, I also write down words whose definitions or pronunciations I’ve realized I am unfamiliar with. Since starting the travel blog, I’ve also started writing down all the topics I could discuss in future entries. That’s what I did this afternoon at the peak of my over-caffeinated, under-rested mental overload. I made a list of all the bizarre things that happened in the day and a half since I’d left Cornwall. Thus, some of my most recent travel thoughts have ultimately proven to be useful, since they will help get this blog rolling again. That just goes to show that all this cogitation can sometimes be good for something, as when I catch a little inspiration, remember a vital piece of information, or, on the rarest of occasions, have an epiphany. But, most of the time, my mental chatter is relatively pointless--I have fleeting thoughts that keep me entertained for a bit but then vanish into the mists of my mind, never again to resurface. I think maybe there is a metaphor somewhere in there, but my brain is just too tired to grasp it right now.

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