“I have rivers but no water; forests but no trees; cities but no buildings. What am I?”
It took a few seconds to realize that the question being asked of me was actually a riddle.
I was in Hong Kong, dining at a cha chaan teng. Literally translated as “tea restaurant,” these humble, retro diners have been serving no-nonsense comfort food since the 1950s. To the uninitiated or unprepared, eating at a cha chaan teng can be a jarring experience. You are made to share an impossibly small table with complete strangers. Servers can be a bit too brisk, too impersonal. Upon entering, one immediately feels the pressure to quickly sit, order, eat, pay and leave. Servers have no time to engage customers in idle chit-chat, let alone issue existential challenges. The fact that this server was bending these unwritten rules to ask me a riddle — so calmly and so nicely — was a surprise.
The “tragedy of the commons” — the term used to describe a situation in which individuals act in accordance with their own self-interest at the expense of the common good — is often used to explain the persistence of modern environmental problems. If only we had more data, facts and knowledge of the unintended consequences of our actions, the thinking goes, we would make better choices that would benefit everyone.
I’ve come to realize that this is wishful thinking. Even with a clear understanding of the consequences of our actions, a vast majority of people will still seek to have their desires satisfied rather than extinguished. The desire for travel is no different.
In his “Confessions,” St. Augustine prayed to be delivered from his lustful desires. “Grant me chastity and continence,” he pleads with God, “but not yet.”
To put this into modern terms, most environmentally minded people (me included) are living as if to say, “I want to reduce my carbon footprint, but not yet.”
The first three days of 2018 were unlike any I had ever experienced. I was in Laos visiting the town of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its rich urban character and remarkably well-preserved architectural and cultural heritage. As I wandered the side streets — with its human-scale temples, humble homes, cool cafes, and seamless integration with the local ecosystem — I was struck by just how good this town made me feel. It was a sense of well-being so unique that it was almost palpable, yet difficult to put into words. What I found so striking wasn’t just its visual appearance, but also its acoustic ecology, its friendly residents, and its simple cuisine. As others who have visited Luang Prabang before me have noted, I learned after I returned home, it’s the kind of singular place that can elicit this sort of response for no other reason than just being there.
The experience reminded me
of what the acclaimed architect and urban theorist Christopher Alexander
described as architecture’s ability to heighten one’s sense of being in the
world. Under ideal circumstances, Alexander contends, the built environment
could help people “feel their own existence as human beings”; a certain kind of
existential experience can arise between building and individual.
“Don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact,” I repeated to myself after realizing that the cheery enthusiasm was indeed directed specifically at me.
This may not be the type of response you’d expect to such a kind invitation. I fully acknowledge that. But it was the last thing I wanted to hear at that moment.
I was on my own, happily exploring the central plaza in Patan, the third-largest city in Nepal. This is a region where many people rely on tourism to make a living. It’s not uncommon to be hounded to buy a trinket, ride a tuktuk, take a tour. I was generally stoic about the whole song and dance. I accept that it’s all part of travelling abroad, a kind of social contract. But having to continually (and politely) decline such solicitations – as I had been for the previous few weeks throughout northern India and Nepal – can be fatiguing.
“The reason to travel: there are inner transitions we can’t properly cement without a change of locations.” – Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
The most intriguing part about traveling is how it changes your idea about that place. Before you go somewhere, you have in your mind’s eye an image, a visual impression, however vague or jumbled, of what it will be like. It’s usually a visual impression by default since we live in a very image-dominant culture.
But once you actually go to that place, all of these preconceived ideas are erased. Thereafter, you can never quite remember what you used to think of it. No matter how hard you try, your actual experience will forever tint the preconceived ideas you had before you went. Your impression will have been “upgraded” not only with the actual sights of the place, but also the smells, noises, and general feeling you had while there. You can never again gain access to that naive pre-visit impression.
In a few hours I’ll be flying to India. I’m told that as soon as I arrive late at night the next day, I’ll be assaulted by noises, chaos, sights and smells (mostly the smells) of a sort that you’ve never before experienced until you’ve actually been there to experience it. Culture shock will most likely set in even before I reach the ‘hotel’ in Old Delhi where I’ll stay for two nights before venturing further into northern India and Nepal. (The quality of this particular two-star hotel? Let me put it this way: I read the Trip Advisor reviews and wish I hadn’t.) It’s been reported how air quality in New Delhi has been particularly horrendous lately. Even still, I didn’t expect for the weather forecast to be “Smoke”. (Is that even a proper meteorological term?) Continue reading →