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When a city makes you reminisce…

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(timcarterphoto.com)

Watch the way a city wakes up, sometimes ever so quickly, when there is no light, only the errant coughs of an early riser, the quick footfalls of someone rushing to work, the mad rush for early morning transport, the loud whistles of a steamer setting off, the creaking of old beds and older hearts, the silence of subway stations and the slight noise of just-open breakfast joints, the smells of fresh bagels and something slightly sweet,

and then, and then, you decide.

Watch the way the light falls on a building sometime just past 9am, watch the way the windows of a brownstone catch this light just so, watch the way it illuminates the railings along the fire-escape, watch the way the building receives and settles into being,

and then, and then, you decide.

Watch the way the traffic in a city builds up, watch the driver honk at the pedestrian who flips him a finger and tosses her hair, watch the lunch crowds settle in squares, watch the people rushing from store-front to store-front, watch the Big Apple come to life mid-day amidst the flurry of snow, watch another driver curse at a pedestrian,

and then, and then, you decide.

Watch the way the sun sets right over the park, watch the way the barren trees laden with snow glisten, bejewelled during the witching hour, watch the way he clasps her hand just a little tighter and the way she leans into him just a little closer, watch the park hold the families and the couples and the animals firmly in its embrace as it too, watches the setting sun,

and then, and then, you decide.

Watch the way the buildings so tall, so tall, glimmer and shake and shimmy in the night-time, watch her with the reddened cheeks and redder lips pose before the Broadway sign, watch the way the lights seem to get brighter as the night gets darker, and the buildings, so tall, so tall, watch the music grow louder and louder as the performers wow a crowd, and then two,

and then, and then, you decide.

If someone tells you that cities do not have souls, don’t believe them. At least, not immediately.

You find love lessons in the strangest places. This time, by the lakeside.

A travel journal entry from the city of Shuang Nang, China. 

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We are sitting on a wooden construction that serves as as a docking bay for boats, but really, is just a convenient structure for eager travellers to park themselves by the lake. There is water for miles, and miles around. The sun is beginning to set. 

We were told that we would be visiting a seaside town. We found out, only after we had arrived, that there was no sea, only a lake, a lake so big, so fresh, so blue, that the people of the city had started calling it a sea. 

Welcome to Shuang Nang, where rolling hills and the sea-which-is-a-lake greet you for days on end. 

If you had told me several years ago that I would be sitting by the edge of a limitless lake in a small city in the Southern province of China watching the sun set, I would have scoffed in your face and flounced away.

(Such is life. You never know what is going to happen to you.) 

The wind is strong. The tide is rising. Each time a big wave comes to rock our proverbial boat (so, to speak), we shriek like children. The waves are relentless, singleminded in their movement of heading towards the shore, eager tourists be damned. The water sprays us each time a wave dissolves against our legs. 

We are in the middle of our journey. (This is a strange pattern I have, picking out the middles and telling the story from a point of nowhere, which is really, somewhere). We have been on the road for some time now, traveling from one city to another, as one does on road trips. Shuang Nang had been a pleasant, relaxing surprise after the hectic cityscape of Hong Kong, the nothingness of Kunming and the serenity of Da Li. 

The day we had arrived, I had picked up my ever faithful pink-checkered backpack, and scooted up to the balcony of our hostel. There was some shade. There was a pleasant view of the lake. There was a place for me to sit, stretch my legs out, plug in some music and sing my heart out while I wrote. It had been a good start to our two-day stay. 

(It’s only when you spend a lot of time moving around, that you start becoming grateful for the smallest signs of permanence. Like the vendor opposite your hostel. The shape of the unfamiliar bed that is more familiar than most faces you see on the street. The time the sun sets every evening. Little things.)

Back to the scene by the edge of the sea-which-is-a-lake. 

I am here with my best friend and his partner. We are sitting together, huddling against the wind, giggling, watching the sun set. 

And how wonderfully the sun sets. Backlit clouds, singular light rays falling onto the lake like stairways to heaven, the hills slowly being shrouded by the evening mist. The sky starts turning colours I have no names for. I find myself clutching my heart, as if I don’t know what to do with all this beauty. 

This will go down in my life as one of my most precious memories.

Love does that to you. It shows you how absolutely wondrous it is, just to witness to some of the simplest, everyday things that make up life.

Love. 

It took me some time to understand that this trip was not about finding myself, or about escaping from the mundane routines of life, or about taking 500 pictures for me to populate Instagram with in the coming months.

This trip was a huge, smack-in-the-face reminder about Love, which I had started losing sight of. 

When you travel with others, the biggest gift you can get is being able to observe and learn from the people you’re sharing your time and space with. 

My best friend and his partner showed me that love was at its brightest in the small, daily choices of life. Like eating together. Walking hand-in-hand down unknown streets, goofing around. Being silent together. Putting another’s needs before yours. Sharing a smile. Not taking yourself, or your other half too seriously all the time (because what is life, without laughter).  Arguing, then making up, because no morning deserves to begin on a sour note. Forgiveness. Acceptance, because everyone’s learning, just like you are, just like I am. Reaching out. Constantly reaching out even when you don’t want to, because everyone is going through his or her own version of darkness, and everyone likes being reached out to. 

Love – the willing choice. 

These are things I’ve known, and lost sight of, along the way. The problem of becoming too immersed in a daily 9 – 5 lifestyle is that you start thinking that that’s what life is all about. You think that your work emails, and your house bills, and your daily commuting woes are big milestones, and that it is okay to constantly operate from a space of frustration, irritation and cynicism all the time. It is also very easy to think that you are the hero, heroine and supporting cast of your life. (You aren’t, just so you know). 

Sitting with my friends by the sea-which-is-a-lake, watching the magnificent sun nestle between the hills, was a beautiful, necessary perspective, that no amount of riches could provide. 

The tide is rising higher. I’m shivering in the cold. There are many eager tourists who want to take our spot and take selfies. 

Naturally, we beat them to it. 

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There are several long bus rides I remember.

2011: Girona to Barcelona. Fields of golden flowers, and sunshine in a shade of yellow I don’t know the name for. Watching the way the flowers and fields seemed to move to a tune only they knew (or maybe I was the one moving, I couldn’t tell).

2014: Pokhara to Kathmandu. Listening to music, surrounded by strangers, watching peaks of mountains rise and fade with the clouds along the river side. A gushing rapid, white foam angry and loud, roaring. Trickling to a placid stream at the place we stopped for a toilet break. I can still remember the arrangement of rocks along the river edge, as if handpicked by Mother Earth herself.

There is something almost comforting to be in motion. You are stripped of all responsibilities that arriving entails. You are stripped of all responsibilities that leaving burdens you with. You are in the in-between, a head space of freedom, and quiet. This is where I think the least. This is where I think the best. This is where sometimes, when the bus is moving so quickly that the outside world reduces itself to a blur, I don’t think at all.

2015: I am writing this in a bus. It is 9am in the morning, and there is one other passenger in the bus besides me. His head is lolling to the side, he is asleep, lost amidst the deep indigo of the bus seat, and the morning sunshine flickering through the windows. The bus ride continues.

Taken in Pokhara, Nepal.

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I spent an entire day in Hanuman Dhoka, Kathmandu and its surrounding areas, with a one-litre water bottle, my camera, and a black and white patterned travel journal. It remains a special memory.

And all day,  lines from Ranjit Hoskote’s Traveling Light echoed in my mind:

Eat slowly. Read what you can by available light.

Take nothing with you

except the sky stencilled in the window

to picture the next stage in this journey

that will carry you past the poplars of home,

past scrub and palms to the unyielding sea. 

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Written in today’s past: the red.

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In the morning: the red of Merlot tea, the red of a skirt skimming ankles, the red of swollen lips, the red of Jog Raga in Adi Taal. Same red.

The red of my tea reminds me of you. Sometimes, I don’t know what I am looking for when I look for red. 

The music changes; now it is a sitar concert by Anoushka Shankar. She introduces her pieces in French, thanks the audience for listening. The words are melodic, mellifluous; I think of Edith Piaf’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. At that moment, a familiar feeling brushes past. Yearning. Then, immediately after, a picture. The red of Moulin Rouge stark against the dark of the Parisian sky.

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I was in Paris once.

Anoushka Shankar begins to play her piece; the sitar music is comforting. The red in the Jog Raga is not unfamiliar. The Merlot tea is cooling. Red tea, with two sugars. That is how it began. I still remember.

A breeze lifts the hem of my red skirt slightly. The red spills over from my lips.