The Great Affair

Why do we travel? 

About three weeks ago, after much deliberation, hemming and hawing, I embarked on a trip. Contextualising it in the time frame of other friends who were also going overseas at the time,  my trip may have been mistaken (by others and myself) for what is commonly understood these days as a “grad trip”. I’d like to think I didn‘t actually go for one. 

What are grad trips? Supposedly, they are “crazy” adventures one undertakes at the end of one’s university life, to ostensibly mark the transition between the carefree halcyon days of studenthood and the impending years of adulthood. The last calm before the big storm, apparently. 

This does not sit well with me. I had been having “crazy” adventures for years, sometimes solo, sometimes with friends. I’d gone up the sides of many misty mountains; I’d walked small in the shadow of ancient trees; once, I’d even beheld the superlative majesty of the pyramids, sublime in the Cairo/Giza dawn. It isn’t that the idea of a “grad trip” doesn’t appeal to me; it’s just that I have always sought to apply the rationale of the Adventure to every place I go. Go further, listen carefully, observe slowly, and then cook all the experiences in the stew of reflection. It didn’t happen if you didn’t sit and think on it awhile afterwards. 

Furthermore, the finality of the “grad trip” unnerved me. As if nothing lay beyond the horizon of Adulthood, once you found a Job, took on Responsibilities, became Successful. Going by some anecdotes and accounts, embarking on a “grad trip” implied, to some extent,  the end of spontaneity and adventure, in this very last act of spontaneity and adventure. 

This is the idea: finally, after years of being repressed, silenced and held back, the middle-class Singaporean Youth is supposed to give play to all the fantasies s/he has imbibed from their Facebook and Instagram feeds! Er..  Just the wanderlusting ones, of course.  Fantasies of other natures are hush hush..Anyway: To go out in a flash of defiance! To finally do something non-boring! Adventure of a lifetime! 

If you peer a little closely at this idea, don’t you think it’s all a little sad? To have had your Grand Adventure at the tender age of 25? To have nothing more vivid and exhilarating to look dream for thereafter? 

It all sounded very desolate to me. 

And perhaps I speak from a position of privilege, or overthink, travelling as I do simply every year on a budget.  I know of no other way to travel comfortably, except uncomfortably. The idea of paying for a flight to a faraway place simply to indulge the stomach and the (manufactured) consumerist urge makes me uncomfortable. 

“You mean you actually flew here,”  I once asked a friend incredulously, “just to spend 4 days shopping in one mall?”  My friend nodded. This mall has four levels. One day one level la, she pointed out.

People travel differently, for different reasons. Far be it for me to judge what people do with their hard-earned money. But I just wouldn’t shuttle between nex in Serangoon and Platinum in Bangkok like that, in one continuous air-conditioned transit, that’s all. 

So why do we travel? To relax la. To shop la. To eat good food la. Enjoy the slow life, after 8 semesters of running around like a stressed, headless chicken, desperately screaming SO WHAT IS SOUTHEAST ASIA?! 

Why do you need to keep running around, I can imagine my parents nagging,  reading and finding out so much? Do you think you’re Indiana Jones?

Indeed, we all need some kind of downtime. It may simply involve doing nothing in a new place for a while. Slowing down in Siem Reap, but perhaps. Adventure is overrated, oversold, attention-seeking. Can you just chill, a friend complained. 

Why do we travel? I actually weary of travelling after a few days. For all my wandering, the longest I’ve ever been “on the road” continuously, by choice, is 18 days. Making up a schedule every morning can make the spirit long for routine in a very strange way.  But routine likewise scratches at me. After a few months I want to go away again, craving the embrace of the unfamiliar and the uncertain, the sleep of exhaustion on strange floors after days of rolling around on bad foreign roads. The romance of roads less-traveled always seduces me in the end. 

And so this year, after I’d submitted the last essay of my university life, and then got thoroughly fed up of saying my goodbyes and being morose about finishing my undergraduate career, I filled my backpack and booked a flight to Bali, the Haven of all Euroamerican “backpackers” bent on eatpraylove fantasies. 

No, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t bound for Bali. Bali was only the beginning, the capital letter of a sentence of unknown length, the gateway into the East.  I had no intention of spending any time in this Indonesian Phuket, this twisted island idyll which had long been warped by the delusions of Western tourists still in search of their East Indies, their Paradise Lost, their Native, Exotic, Brown Eden. And the predatory touts long used to ripping tourists off, and demanding more, more money. 

Instead, I was eastbound. A story a teacher had once told me, and a picture on a map, had captivated my imagination. It had galvanized me. I was headed for Pulau Rote, the southernmost inhabited island of Indonesia. 

And I wanted to get there slowly: oversea and overland. 

And so, in the wee hours of the morning, on a ticket I’d bought at a last-minute discount sale, I flew southeastward, down to the Indonesian city of Denpasar, Bali. 

From there, the plan was to push east, island-hopping across the Nusa Tenggara islands of Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores and Timor, until I arrived at my end point, Rote. Along the way, I intended to climb some volcanoes, see some sights. 

My ambition, thus,  was simple: to go, and to see. To set eyes upon one of the many ends of the world on my own power and imagination. 

Someone had once defined an expedition to me as a long journey with clear objectives which are rich in learning and adventurous in nature. 

After being folded neatly into the cramped corridors of Singapore for so many weeks and months, laboring over so many menial and often meaningless errands, I was ready, very simply, to Go. 

Why do we travel? 

Perhaps for the sheer, singular joy of going

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move. | Robert Louis Stevenson

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, 

Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, 

Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, 

Strong and content I travel the open road.” | Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road


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