A love let­ter to the East

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

TO be in love with a whole con­ti­nent seems ex­trav­a­gant. But since child­hood, Asian cul­tures – whether still liv­ing, like that of Ja­pan’s Ky­oto, or lost in jun­gle ru­ins like Angkor Wat – fas­ci­nated and made me in­tensely cu­ri­ous. Fa­tally, there was a world map on the wall of my boy­hood class­room, and it ob­sessed me while I should have been study­ing maths.

You might have thought I’d be put off trav­el­ling for good. My fa­ther was a mil­i­tary diplo­mat in the US and Canada just af­ter the Sec­ond World War, but I was sent to board­ing school in Eng­land, and crossed the At­lantic for hol­i­days on fourengine Stra­tocruis­ers that re-fu­elled at ev­ery air­port. I was se­ri­ally air­sick and still equate Shan­non and Reyk­javik with throw­ing up.

But I came to be­lieve that home was bor­ing and abroad was ex­cit­ing. This was the 1940s, and I was com­ing from a war-dulled Eng­land to the neon lights of Times Square and the great lakes and rivers of Canada. Na­tive Amer­i­cans be­came an ob­ses­sion too. Not to men­tion al­li­ga­tors.

Asia, of course, is a larger and more var­ied con­ti­nent than any other. I love its chal­lenge. Europe is com­fort­able to me, whereas Asia both in­vites and re­sists un­der­stand­ing. The first Asian coun­try I en­coun­tered was Ja­pan, and I was trans­fixed by the be­hav­iour of ev­ery­day peo­ple in Tokyo streets, in­hab­it­ing a su­per­fi­cially Western­ised city but a cul­ture enig­matic to me.

I’ve trav­elled in al­most ev­ery Asian coun­try. But when peo­ple ask me my favourite, I find my­self an­swer­ing sadly: Syria. In 1965, I lived with an Arab fam­ily on the bib­li­cal Street Called Straight in Da­m­as­cus for a while. It was a hal­cyon time for me – and per­haps for the city. Its peo­ple were in­tox­i­cat­ingly hos­pitable to this naive and en­thu­si­as­tic young man. But of course na­tive hos­pi­tal­ity is a travel cliche. It can blind you. The im­por­tant re­al­ity is not how a peo­ple treat the stranger, but how they treat one an­other.

To­day peo­ple may equate Asia with dan­ger. Places once mar­vel­lously ac­ces­si­ble – Syria, Afghanistan, north Pak­istan, Kash­mir – are largely off lim­its. But re­gions pre­vi­ously half closed off – Rus­sia, China – have opened up even to the in­de­pen­dent trav­eller. So as the blinds come down on one re­gion, they lift on an­other.

When you grow fa­mil­iar with a coun­try, you tend to ac­cept its dan­ger. This can be risky. I crossed from Uzbek­istan into Afghanistan in 2006, then trav­elled west across a land split be­tween war­lords and left­over Tal­iban. It was when I reached the edge of a re­gion where the last for­eign­ers – work­ing for Médecins sans Fron­tières – had been mur­dered that I re­alised how dan­ger had crept up on me, and that it was time to stop.

Old trav­ellers moan that ev­ery­thing has been ru­ined by tourism. There’s an il­lu­sion that the world has shrunk, first through global travel, then through the in­ter­net. But once you’re off the beaten track, and away from fa­mil­iar trans­port, things re­vert to their old di­men­sions. Some of my favourite cities have been ru­ined not by tourism, but by war.

Tourism is also ac­cused of killing off na­tional cuisines. Peo­ple cite the ho­mogeni­sa­tion of the in­ter­na­tional menu or the French tol­er­ance of Mc­Don­ald’s. But cuisines can also re­vive: 40 years ago in China the restau­rants were wretched, but now they can be su­perb. They are also be­guil­ingly var­ied, es­pe­cially in the south. As re­cently as 1986 I ate in a “wild game restau­rant” which served lit­tle but snake, dog, cat and mon­key brains. I chose cat. I was un­sure what sort of cat this was, but noted its Chi­nese name. Its meat was dark and rich. Later a Bri­tish diplo­mat, who had served in Myan­mar, told me I had eaten a bin­tur­ong – a kind of ar­bo­real civet – and that I shouldn’t re­gret it. He had adopted one as a pet, and it rou­tinely shat all over him.

There are still coun­tries I’d love to visit. My only ven­ture to sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa was when I en­tered a refugee camp in Malawi on re­search for my novel Night of Fire. I had planned to spend a week here, but this voyeurism dis­turbed me, and I man­aged only three days. I could never have un­der­stood the de­tail and feel of the camp – its bru­tally cramped quar­ters, its heart­break­ing per­ma­nence – from read­ing or the in­ter­net. Men­tally and emo­tion­ally, it was vi­tal to be there.

I still feel am­biva­lent about trav­el­ling. My car­bon foot­print doesn’t bear think­ing of, but I feel that the phys­i­cal in­ter­change of peo­ples must be a soft­en­ing fac­tor in to­day’s mount­ing xeno­pho­bia, and travel still a kind of un­der­stand­ing. The Iraq war would not, I sus­pect, have been pros­e­cuted if Amer­i­can politi­cians had ever spent a hol­i­day among the cafes of Bagh­dad.

Af­ter nearly 60 years of trav­el­ling I have an over­flow­ing bank of mem­ory. When much else has faded, I will not for­get the un­der­wa­ter uni­verse of the In­done­sian coral reefs; or the brave laugh­ter of dis­si­dents in Soviet Rus­sia; or the an­cient city of Ba­gan ris­ing into view across the Ir­rawaddy river in Myan­mar, with the spires of 500 tem­ples above the misted jun­gle.

Photo: RJ Vogt

The tem­ples of Ba­gan are one of many rea­sons to love Asia.

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