Woke up this morning in another hotel, this time in Chiang Mai, Thailand. For an instant, before the vertiginous sense of unfamiliarity set in, I had the distinct impression I was in a place that I remembered. It felt safe, secure, like I knew where everything was, and who was about. The impression only lasted a second or two, long enough to be jolted by the memory (?), but not long enough to place it. Was it the home of my childhood, in Little Rock? Was it New York, where I came to love a place for the first time? No, and no. Frustrating.
This has been happening more often lately, even in my apartment in Bangkok, in the bed that I bought. I wake up around 11, and like Proust and his madeleine, I’m struck, as by a lightening bolt, by a feeling that is halfway between dream and memory. I call this the “instant-place” feeling.
And like Proust, I experience a flood of memories, both ancient and immediate. Of things I haven’t thought of in years and of friends I saw yesterday. It’s like my memories have been shaken loose for a moment, with recent and long-past events floating to the surface together like soap bubbles, lasting only long enough on the surface to be seen and then … pop! They’re gone.
But for me, these memories are not of “home”, in Arkansas or New York. I don’t now where they’re from or what place they evoke. Maybe it’s a place I haven’t been to yet. But I’m sure of one thing: the instant-place is “home.”
If I could remember/discover/imagine where this place is, I would move there tomorrow. I suspect this is the driving force behind my restlessness and travels—and perhaps behind those of other long-time travelers as well. After reading Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel, most long-term and incessant travel writers are, well, pretty weird. As he recounts, David Livingston was a “manic-depressive, obsessed with his bowels.” William Burroughs traveled the world looking for the purest drug high imaginable. (He found it in a South American jungle in ayahuasca, or yagé.) Graham Greene was a manic-depressive and had an irrational fear of birds. And Sir Richard Burton, who was the first—and perhaps only, still—non-Muslim to sneak into Mecca for the hajj and return to tell of it, was famously anti-social. His biographer Mary S. Lovell wrote: “He either lacked the patience, or he could not be bothered to pretend to like, or work with, people he did not like or respect, no matter what their station or influence.”
And so, as Theroux himself writes, “In the pathology of travel, many journeyers who seem in pursuit of a goal are driven by demons, attempting to flee, often unsuccessfully, some condition of the mind. Burton also said, ‘Travelers, like poets, are mostly an angry race.'”
While I wouldn’t put myself in the categories of any of these writers/travelers—either in their pathologies or in their skill with the written word—I do relate. I have often felt like I didn’t fit in, where I was, and now, I’d like to know why. Sure, many driven travelers want to see more of the world, but at the same time, we want to find our place in it. Where do we belong? Perhaps over that next ridge or in the country, over there. Ultimately, we ask, “Where is home?” For me, I don’t know, but I have a feeling I’ll know I when I find it.
Not every traveler is looking for “home” of course. Some are just along for the ride and revel in the seeing new things. I’m on that train as well, but I do have a deeper purpose for this pilgrimage around the world. Until today, however, I wasn’t sure what it was. But now I think I know.
I’m going “home.”