A Horizon WithinTravel Without Travelling
Some of us are born with a crack in our souls. Itchy feet. Eyes that are unable to focus on anything other than the far flung. We were folded once, and then left like that for too long; there is a line inside us. I know it is there, because it speaks to another line, outside. They whisper at one another, gaze at one another. They will never rest until they are moving closer. There can be no doubt; the line outside beckons; this simple fold between land and sky. It is the answer to a complex equation, made trickier by topography, trees, the jumble of the city, and the relative density of air. It is a trick of the eye, brought about by the curvature of the Earth, muddled with atmospheric haze. I align the fold inside me to it, just as I point my deckchair to the sea.
I have, at times, tried to ignore its call. But the horizon is demanding. Its desire to draw me ever closer gnaws at my dreams, crawls across those quiet moments where I should find contentment. It prises me open, like an oyster, and the fold becomes the crack that lets the world in. It ties strings to my insides, pulling on each one as it whispers its promises. I will pick you up, it sings, in my tumbling embrace. Rock you like flotsam on my waves. Throw you back on the volcanic sand where I found you, forever changed. It promises an undoing quite unlike any other, its fury matched only – perhaps – by the devastation of love. I stumble, squinting, bent out of shape, unable, quite, to find my way back in through doors that have grown narrower somehow, into rooms more careworn than I remember them. It unscrews the hinges on that word home.
I imagine that there was a time when people were content to live out short lives, circumscribed by the boundary of a muddy field and a scattering of low, smoky cottages, an inn, a tower. But I know that this crack in my soul is older than that. Written in my DNA is a story of migration: from hunger to plenty; from oppression to freedom; from poverty to promise; from thronging alleys to a wild frontier. We follow hummocks and hoof prints in the wake of great beasts that sustain us; the promise of gold in the hills, dreams of fortune and fame. The mud of the road is churned. Oceans become ponds. Borders swept away, languages silenced, old stories drowned out by the tramp of hoping feet. Even when dictators and despots try to tie our bodies to the land, clip the feathers at our heels with stamps and permits, watchtowers, strip searches, our minds, unfettered, up and fly away. The longing is ever present; to open our eyes, to broaden our minds, to mix our genes.
Wanderers. Pilgrims. Varanasi, Bodh Gaya, Jerusalem, St James’s Way. The Grand Tour: the wealthiest of sons, the most insistent of gilded daughters. Comfort in a welter of trunks and bags. A chaperone, a tutor, a guide. A troop of servants in their wake. A boat to Le Havre, a trip along the Seine. Genteel mountaineering, Geneva, Lausanne. The Alps at Great St Bernard’s Pass, south to Turin, Florence, Padua, Venice and its canals. Antiquities in Rome, Naples, Herculaneum, Pompeii. Back north to Innsbruck, Vienna. Theology in Munich, palaces in Potsdam, old masters in Flanders before a boat back home. Take a step off the circuit to fall off the edge; Tangiers, Marrakech, Tunis, Istanbul, Damascus.
‘Now more than ever do I realise that I will never be content with a sedentary life,’ wrote Si Mahmoud Saadi. ‘I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun drenched elsewhere.’ Si Mahmoud followed the call of a horizon south across the Mediterranean; kif dens, marketplaces, the arms of lovers, to transformation inside and out. Impoverished, outcast, estranged, othered. Carried away by a flash flood in Aïn Séfra, just 27 years after being born as Isabelle Eberhardt in Geneva. US essayist Agnes Repplier died at 95 as she had lived, wreathed in tobacco smoke in her hometown of Philadelphia. Yet, still, she claimed: “The impulse to travel is one of the hopeful symptoms of life.” Anaïs Nin; Cuban, French born, Californian, navigator of the heart: “We travel, some of us forever, to seek other places, other lives, other souls.”
1841; Thomas Cook fills a train with temperance protesters, gives them lunch, and delivers them in Loughborough. 1850; train tracks crisscross Europe. 1917; seaplanes emblazoned with Chalk’s Ocean Airways ferry tourists from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas. 1919; Aircraft Transport and Travel flies regular services from Hounslow to Le Bourget in Airco DH16 four seater biplanes. 1927; Pan Am is born, America’s Airline to the World. 1945; the International Air Transport Association is formed in Havana; 57 airlines in 31 countries.
The foot on the path is, however, only half the story. The road has its romance, as do the rocking waves that carry me to unknown shores. The thrill of waking somewhere new; the weight of a pack on my back; every thrill, every turn, every tedious moment of anticipation is matched, almost perfectly, by the joy of home. ‘Home,’ as Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote, ‘is the nicest word there is.’ This worn in, Sunday love for the place I know best – every nook, scuff, and wrinkle of it – is matched by the desire to leave it. Heimweh and Fernweh. There are days when the walls press in, when it is all I can do to stay put. On others, it takes more energy than I can muster to open my front door. These two urges circle one another, pacing. I try to bring the horizon home, weighing down my suitcase with mementos from journeys real and imagined. Photos of columns and doorways. The juicy geometry of desert plants. Thick white and blue glaze on rough terracotta. A dusty weave trapping bright threads and fragments of mirror. A wax cast, pewter mannequin, moon headed. Bone beads. Musky golden, perfumed oil. A drum. I crack seeds and fling bright thumbsfull of spices in my kitchen. I load groaning shelves with grammars, maps, journals.
When I am on the road, the opposite desire wins out. I vote with feet and wallet for homely comfort. For moments of familiarity, for putting down my bags and sinking into something that feels not so far away after all. This world responds to my desire, shapes itself in my image. Just as home becomes a facsimile of every foreign shore, so every foreign shore, brick by brick, becomes a vision of home. With a sigh, the tension gives way to irony. The path to the horizon widens, smoother with every footstep, each day, each month, each year that passes. The horizon reacts; twitching, shrinking. Soon someone will set up a lemonade stand, a tea house, a rest stop. I find myself on an air conditioned bus with snacks, free WiFi, a flat screen in the seat back in front of me; 25 channels in 12 languages. I arrive between billboards to a concrete concourse, self check in, then slumber across the face of the planet. I arrive in identikit, climb aboard the same bus and watch the same movie in a language I don’t understand to convince myself I am somewhere new. I sit in my room, surrounded by the comforts of home. I wander streets lined with coffee bars selling even better coffee. I turn back the label on a bolt of cloth, to find it was made in the same old elsewhere. I wind my tongue around a few test phrases, but the server with the smile comes from Melbourne. The crack inside me aches, and with every wave of it, the world grows smaller. Trees are felled to make way for it. Scaffolding rises on cliff tops to contain it. The streets are scrubbed clean of difference in preparation for its arrival.
1960s; the costas and the Spanish Economic Miracle, Afghanistan and the Hippie Trail. 1970s; Acapulco, St Tropez, Haiti, Burma, the Shah’s Iran. Just three people live on the Isla de Cancún. 1980s; Búzios, Bodrum, Bali, Yugoslavia, Tunisia, West Berlin. 1990s; Thailand, China, Vietnam, Laos, Maldives, Seychelles, South Africa. 2000s; Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Shenzen, Marrakech, London, Brooklyn, Costa Rica, Reykjavík, Hvar. 2010s; Cuba, Myanmar, Montenegro, Oman, Helsinki, Langkawi, Medellín. Zero price fares, zero fee overnight stays. At any one moment, half a million people in the sky. A cavalcade of desire, wrapped up in frustration, keening for comfort, trampling the very thing it came in search of.
I squeeze my eyes shut. I look inside me. Can I scrub the horizon out? Can I flatten the fold? Smother its calling, stall the yearning, stem the flood? Rewrite my DNA and find satisfaction in a muddy field and a clutch of low houses? No; this genie hasn’t ever seen the inside of a bottle; the crack inside me cannot be sewn closed. I don’t want it closed. I may as well try to dig out my heart altogether.
I sit; stasis. Two desires frozen. Will I ever move again, I wonder. I shift. I leaf through photos in albums with cracked spines; Egypt, Spain, Japan. I laugh with people, forgetting their names. The pictures from later years are missing, locked up in the vaults of obsolete hardware, safer than I ever thought they would be. No back ups, no chargers, no cables. I pull out the atlas, flip – almost painlessly – past the places I dream about; Ladakh, Sakhalin, Baikal, Nan Madol, Chiloé. I bend closer; do the calculations; draw imaginary lines streaming out from the city I live in; tot up the overland hours in blunt pencil on the back of an old, soft covered notebook. Hamburg, Copenhagen, Dresden, Hannover, Prague. I stand at sea level: the horizon five kilometres distant, more if cold air sucks the light around the curve of the globe. I set my compass; draw the horizon as a series of circles; 10 km diameter. I drop them onto the map in fine, black ink; pebbles into a pond. I imagine arriving at the edge of each one, only to raise my eyes to the next.
I sit. My mind wanders. What is to be gained? What might be lost? I count everything I learned, all the people I met. I remember the times I realised how the things that make us different are so many fewer than the things that make us the same. How many things there are out there that I will never see, never understand. The Intercity Express pulls, groaning, into Brussels Midi. The 777 balances, low and thundering, over the new build, new money suburbs of Guayaquil. The low rise, tumbled tide of Tokyo recedes, its expressways arteries, then capillaries. The brown, dusty blocks of Cairo and the slow vegetal creep of the Nile, veiled in sand and fumes. The narrow terraces of Newham clutter shabby embankments. Bricolage rings in Barcelona’s Eixample. Arrivals and departures, lit by a thousand lights in a thousand windows; lives lived out in languages I do not speak. Meals eaten around tables I will never sit at. A shadow thrown on a curtain. Three windows, a balcony, a stretch of wall; a universe unto itself; a kaleidoscope of memory, dreaming, compromise, fear. In these zoetrope moments, light flicking through grubby glass, each unknowable life unfolds; each a line between land and sky. I am a drop of water in a rainstorm. The horizons meet.
I sit, breathing hard. In wonder. In the books on my shelves; a life inserted like a pressed flower between each pair of pages. The pictures on my wall; lives captured in light and squeezed under sheets of glass. A name signed with the drag of a stylus through wet clay. Threads dampened with someone’s spit pressed between someone’s forefinger, someone’s thumb. Each spice a childhood memory. Every note sung, plucked, or struck the beat of a heart folded in two with a horizon of its own. The fold in me reaches for the fold in the other. The horizon is the point we meet. As I reach, so I am reached for. As I am the starting point, so I am someone else’s destination. I travel without travelling. I go without going. I feel myself transported towards all these unknowable others. Symmetry without rotation or return. This is the search, I realise. To really move is to be moved. Each journey can only end not somewhere, but with someone.
- Words: R Aslan