“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” ~ St. Augustine.
When I first picked up photography, I didn’t want to see people in my photographs. I remember I would compose my shot and wait till not a single soul was in the frame before I would click the shutter.
And then, something changed. I don’t know when it happened. I began to find beauty in the bits and pieces of everyday life. The common people. The person whom you’ve just walked past. The person whom you can’t be bothered to take a second look at. Him. Her. You. Me.
Perhaps it was travelling that changed me. I feel like I am on a quest to document life, to tell the stories of people and to show the world how beautiful the world is.
I used to be rather talkative in my school days. As I entered adulthood, I became a quiet person over the years. Interacting with people became a chore. I don’t feel like meeting new people nor opening up to anyone, especially strangers. Yet, when I travel overseas alone, it’s a different story.
Some people say that when you are in another country, you adopt a different personality. To a certain extent, that might be true for me. Perhaps it’s because when I am in another country, no one knows me or my past. It is as if I have left my old self behind the moment I fly out of my home country, and I can “start anew” the moment I land on another country.
I had no qualms approaching and striking up conversations with people whom I didn’t know from Adam. Even during those times when language differences were a barrier and all I could do was gesticulate awkwardly, they felt like heartfelt conversations with new friends. And at times, a smile was all it took to make that connection.
All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.” ~ Samuel Johnson
Travelling has taught me a lot of things. It goes beyond the usual sight-seeing and the been-there-done-that. It has given me lessons, at times when I least expected it. It is humbling. It makes me see how small my own world is and that I, along with my problems, am just a miniscule fragment compared to what is out there in this world.
Once, I travelled to Hanoi, Vietnam on a company trip. As a corporate social responsibility effort, the company I worked for at that time arranged to help repaint this village called Phuc Xa Village, which was supposedly in one of the poorer areas in Hanoi. I had brought along a video crew to help document this event for the company.
Whilst everyone was busy in action, painting walls or otherwise, I wandered off on my own into a small little back alley. Then I saw this elderly, silver-haired Vietnamese lady. She was marked with years across her deeply tanned face. I smiled at her and meekly asked, through gestures, if I could take a picture of her. She kindly obliged.
After taking the picture, I ran off to grab hold of the video crew members and ask them to interview the old lady. We came back for her and through my Vietnamese colleague, asked her what she had thought of the repainting for her village.
She replied that in her ninety years of age, she was happy to live to see the day the local government did something good for her village. (We didn’t tell her that it was done by a corporate company, and not her local government.)
And just like that, her remark reminded me of all the things which I have taken for granted back home.
“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don‘t know and trusting them with your life.” ~ Paul Theroux
During my travels, I seemed to have an affinity with elderly folks, or perhaps it’s the other way round. Somehow, they could sniff me out and surprise me with acts of kindness. Like the big-hearted old man who caught me unaware by giving me a ticket to watch a New York Philharmonic concert in Manhattan.
There was another incident which happened when I was exploring the Poblenou neighbourhood in Barcelona. A man, perhaps in his 50s or 60s, saw me taking photos in a small alley and started speaking to me in Spanish non-stop. I shook my head to indicate that I couldn’t understand a word but I was pretty amused. He kept pointing at an apartment above us. After some time, it dawned upon me that he was trying to tell me a photographer was living at the same block where we were standing at.
He then made a hand gesture, seemingly asking me to wait, and disappeared into his own house. He reappeared with a book in his hand. It was a book about the Poblenou neighbourhood. The man handed me the book and indicated that it was a gift for me. I was touched.
It was a sweet moment, shared between two strangers who had conversed without a common verbal language.
“The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.” - Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Uzbekistan left a deep impression on me. It was probably the most unforgettable trip I’ve ever had.
En route from Bukhara to Samarkand, the group I was travelling with stopped along the way at what appeared to be a small village in a rural area as the two men in the group needed a toilet break. The men went for their break and when they returned, I, who has always been living an urbanised life, asked them out of curiosity, “How did the toilet look like?”
“You know, that scene in Slumdog Millionaire when the boy fell into a pool of shit?” one of the guys replied. I nodded.
“Yeah, it was something like that.”
That was a hint of how simple life in rural Uzbekistan was.
As we hovered around a man who was shearing a sheep, the locals started to come out of the village one by one to join us. They were curious about us as we were about them. Even though we were strangers, they were very warm and welcoming. We chatted with them through our local guide. In spite of the simple life they were living, they looked so happy.
Before we left, they even gave us some local food (which I had no idea what they were). It was hard to say goodbye to them.
We Are One
“Travel far enough, you meet yourself.” ~ David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Many of these connections I had made while I travelled left an imprint on my heart and touched my soul. They showed me the breadth of humanity and taught me lessons I won’t forget.
I still have a long way to go though, in terms of learning about life. And, I intend to teeter into the unknown, make my journey seeking lessons through my travels, maybe by a path less trodden, and while I’m at it, make new friends in the great big world out there.