The joys of going places you know nothing about

July 24, 2019

There are, when you boil it down, three reasons to travel: to go to places you’ve always dreamed of; to go to places you never dreamed of; and Instagram.

Finally making it to a dream spot — whether it’s Venice or Paris, Machu Picchu or Buenos Aires, the Great Wall or the Great Pyramids — is like meeting a celebrity. It’s usually exciting, and probably the best thing about it how it allows your inner life to reach through the screen into the outer world. You’ll want to take a selfie. It’ll also likely become one of the signal moments of your life: that time you met Taylor Swift; that time you stood on Kunta Kinteh Island and looked westward.

The first time I went to Venice, I stayed in a transubstantiated convent. I was visiting a friend who was studying for a term there, and was pretty excited by the whole thing. I didn’t take one of those memory-making traghetti or vaporetti in. I can’t remember how I made it into old Venice. But I do remember waking up relatively early on my first morning, and walking out into the slype to find the entire courtyard covered in a low-lying mist that didn’t dissipate until I’d made it into the streets and heard a couple of old Venetians shouting a conversation across the calle stretta at each other as they slid up their respective security gates. The streets filled up pretty quickly after that, but I’d had a moment with my mist, and two isolani (even then a vanishing breed), and the Venice in front of me had neatly slotted itself into my Venice of the mind in a familiarly Oddly Satisfying way and I was — and remain — happy about it.

Going somewhere you never dreamed of is different.

The first time I did it, I was in college in Dublin and wanted to take advantage of how cheap flights to the rest of Europe were. I had a couple of weeks at Christmas coming up, so one day when I walked past a travel agency near the foot of Grafton Street with a big poster of Europe in the window, without thinking I closed my eyes and put my finger on the window and before I opened them, decided that I’d spend Christmas wherever my finger had landed.

That ended up being a town at the extreme southeast corner of Sicily called Siracusa. I booked the flight, and spent 10 of the best vacations days of my life in a place I’d never heard of before.

Though I’ve gone to a lot of the places I’ve dreamed of now, most of my travel falls into the finger-on-a-map category. I’ve not actually done that eyes-closed thing again (I was in college, I was experimenting), but a lot of the places I go now are places I only started to think about when I started planning the trip.

I know the really-a-lot of arguments against this kind of travel, but here’s my thinking: The world is fantastic, and if you’re on this site, chances are you’re as good as programmed to love it, all of it. To paraphrase Barbara Woodhouse: There are no bad places. The next country I visit I’ll have been to half of them, and I have yet to go somewhere I haven’t connected with, often pretty profoundly. And a lot of those are the sorts I’d not only not thought I’d ever go, but places people actively suggested I wouldn’t like.

Like Haiti.

I’ve written about it elsewhere, and I’ll probably continue writing about it. It’s an ideal example of the sort of place we don’t go but should. By definition, you’ll have either low or no expectations if you go, and I won’t spend much time raising them here, other than to say that whatever your expectations are, they’ll be overturned — bouleversé, as they say in Haiti and elsewhere — and you’ll be delighted.

Delight is the word for it. With its etymological Latin relationship to choosing and charm, and its later associations with surprise and even bringing to light (though the “gh” was only added in the 16th century to make create that latter association), it encapsulates the effect of landing in a place you know little about, and making those continual discoveries that come with moving through unexpected spaces.

Though it sounds like a word only one of the less closeted of Oscar Wilde’s characters would use unironically, delight is one of the things you most want out of travel, and whether you use that word, or prefer to call it your aha moment, or your still point, or reduce it to something less incriminating like, just, chill, moments of delight are the ones that last. And I’m not talking about making memories; I’m not a fan of planned retrospection. I’m talking about extending the perception of time, of making the moments themselves last, of throwing a brightly coloured square of silk over everything within sight and hearing and capturing it, as much as you can capture a moment in time with your soul.

Have you ever been to Laos? Though Southeast Asia — what Ali Wong calls "Jungle Asia" — has been popular for a couple of decades now, Laos is, at least among North Americans, still a mostly undiscovered country. Do you know anything about it at all? I, for one, did not when I found myself with a few extra days after a trip through northern Thailand, and realized a flight to Luang Prabang cost about as much as a night in a Bangkok hotel, so I caught the next one, found a hotel (pro tip: things are much cheaper in Laos than Thailand; a Beerlao is half the price of a Singha for instance).

I got to my hotel and, as I often do, I ordered the dish I understood the least. When it came to the table, it looked like a big bowl of stew, until, on my second or third bite, I got a chunk of wood in my mouth. Not a sliver, a little disc of wood like you’d burn your name into at camp. I tried to chew it, couldn’t, took it out of my mouth, looked at it; yep, wood. I assumed it was a mistake, and I didn’t want to be a complain-y white guy, so I continued eating, and of course bit down on another. I poked around in the dish, and it was full of them. So I got the server’s attention and asked. Turns out it’s a feature, not a bug. Chili wood, it’s called, comes from a woody vine. It adds flavour to food, and produces a Szechuan-like numbness on the tongue. You’re not supposed to eat them but they are supposed to be there. I realized in that moment that all I knew about Lao food I learned at the Queen Mother Café on Queen Street, and, well, it wasn’t much, and certainly didn’t include wood food.

Later, when I was walking around town, I realized something else. Though few North Americans seem to go, the place was full of white foreigners, almost all of whom were French. I haven’t been to Vietnam, but from what I hear from friends who have, Luang Prabang has retained much more of its French colonial influences (it was part of France as part of Indochine from 1893 to 1954). So there are laid back French cafes of the sort you could see old colonizers sipping Cognac in, complaining about the heat, and the bugs and whatever else colonizers complain about. Except now, the spots are filled with Lao people and tourists (we can leave the relationship between colonizers and their great-grandchildren the tourists to another time).

I spent some time in the café on the street level of the Vansana Luang Prabang hotel, airy and open enough to be streaked with sun while a very white young woman read something French on her phone for a very long time.

I walked a bit, and ran into a river, the Mekok. I’d heard of the Mekong, because all those war movies are set in Vietnam not Laos. I passed a few monuments, some of them Buddhist, others communist, looked at my own phone and, yes, Laos is a communist state, The People’s Republic of Laos. Of course, the US didn’t win that war; makes sense.

I could go on, about the river cruise I took for a twilit three hours after drinking some very potent Lao-Lao, a sort of rice whisky I bought from a buy with a rolling kiosk and bottles with cling wrap for caps turned everything amber and makes me question whether everything I think happened on that boat ride really did. Or the morning after when, walking along the same street, now lined with people, I witnessed the monk parade, when monks — forbidden from earning on their own — walk down the street and take whatever the people on the sidewalks offer them.

Travel is about stories, and I have at least three more from the two days I spent in this place I learned more about with every sip, nibble, and corner I turned. I was — pretty much from the moment my little Lao Airline plane landed and I strolled across the unguarded runway past two white kids overloaded with bags and already desperately thumbing their Lonely Planet and into the tiny airport – in a state of constant delight. I remember more about these two days than I remember about an entire week in the Alps which, because they’re one of my go-to spots, I know pretty well. I’m pleased by them, I love them, but — at least using our little pro tem definition of the word — I’m perhaps no longer delighted by. There’s little I can tell my friends about them that they don’t already know.

I made a similar side trip to Sri Lanka when I found myself at loose ends in Doha once, wound up unexpectedly in Belgrade after a planned trip to Sarajevo, and went to Izmir on the Turkish Aegean when I was sure I’d booked a trip to the area around Istanbul, and it was only when I asked why there was a big statue of Homer (the ancient one) in front of me did I learn that it was his hometown.

Few of my friends had been to any of these places (though a few have now, on my recommendation), and I had either no concept or just rank misconceptions about them all, and a dozen more I’ve plopped myself into. They’re some of my favourite places now — I’ve been back to Belgrade three more times, for instance — and they’ve convinced me that I had the right idea that winter in Dublin when I closed my eyes and pointed. It’s a delightful way to travel.

Bert Archer has nothing against Instagram; you can even follow his travels @world.of.bert.

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