May 23 • 10M

Couchfish: A Seed of Interest

Who plants it and when and why does it flower?

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Appears in this episode

Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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I’m working on a story at the moment and when done, you’ll be reading it here first on Couchfish. That said, it isn’t done, yet here I am writing about it.

The idea started out as the simplest of thoughts—something I rode past while on the bike trip in Java. I didn’t pull up for a better look at it as I still had a while to go, but as I rode on towards Bali, it became all that I thought about.

Since then I’ve interviewed a bunch of people—travel writers, photographers, academics, bloggers—and have more to go. With those I have spoken to, the universal reply—excepting one—has been the same. Well, not exactly the same, but the gist was.

What happens when I am not concentrating on the road. (This is in southern Laos—not Java). Photo: Samantha Brown.

“This is a super–interesting question, and you know what, it is something I have never ever thought about.” One added, “There’s a dissertation in this,” I agree—not mine though.

Now I’m not going to spoil the surprise and spill the tea on what I am writing about, but it got me thinking. As travellers, how many other things do we walk past and either take for granted or not notice? Why are we interested in this, but not that?

Particularly for travellers already familiar with the region, what is “normal” can shift. It can be something as simple as the roosters next to my office. I don’t even hear them anymore—except between my every breath when recording Couchfish [Note: they totally shut their beaks right here when I was recording!]. When we lived in Thailand, around half of Bangkok’s soi dogs lived on our soi. They were always keen to offer a noisy welcome to anybody and everybody. After being in our apartment for barely a minute, a visitor said he couldn’t understand how we could live there. It took me more than a moment to realise he was talking about the dogs.

Quite possibly the most interesting thing in Luang Nam Tha, Laos. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It’s much more than the racket of course. It’s the colours, the smells, the sights, the people, the food, and much more. I’ve written before of the first time I arrived in Bangkok and the leaden air under the overpass at Don Muang and how everyone had a motorbike. That first waft from a wok ablaze with dried chillies crackling, while smashed garlic sloshed in fish- and oyster- sauce. Hard to forget—I can almost smell it as I type today, over twenty years later.

I’ve staggered out of Don Muang’s arrivals area more times than I could count. Don’t ask me how many woks I’ve stood too close to. Yet, embossed upon my brain is that first time—everyone remembers their first time.

Yet for every first time I remember, there are hundreds, if not thousands, I don’t. What I rode past in Java, I’d walked, rode, drove and flown over thousands of times. Dwelling on it the other day, I tried to think back to my first time, my first encounter with one, and I drew a blank. So busy off to see and seek out other stuff, I was missing what was right in front of me.

Nam Nern Night Safari looks interesting. Photo: Cindy Fan.

People talk about needing to acclimatise when they arrive in a new country. For long-haulers off a dozen hours in airports and flying metal tubes, this is understandable. The form of acclimatisation though is often a curious one. A comfy hotel, a pool, a deckchair, or, if you’re flying an LCC, an eight-hour massage.

“I need a day to adjust,” people say. Sure, there is a climate time-zone sandwich to shake off, yet there is more to this. For repeat travellers, it is a bit of remembering where they are. One needs to reacquaint oneself with money’s colour-coding, rudimentary language, and the price of a beer. For first-time travellers, it is more akin to a decompression chamber. As a traveller once put it to me, flying internationally is “like changing planets.”

Once out of decompression (or is it decontamination?), people dive in, and this is where it gets interesting. Travellers are a diverse crowd, with interests as varied as it gets. Beaches, mountains, cities, temples, parties, shopping—the list goes on. The interests of no two people are truly alike, one of the reasons travellers can be so interesting—okay, not always.

This monoculture that has driven vast deforestation is interesting apparently. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Some interests though are more popular than others. Akin to fashion—in vogue and then out, cool and then uncool. The destinations pivot and adjust, looking to harness the prevailing tourism winds. Some manage it better than others—destination equals of tie-dye jeans litter Southeast Asia.

Others seem destined never to hit the catwalk. Like the cafe you love that nobody else seems to, they sit there timeless-like, tourism passing them by without even a camera click. Then something changes, often the most random of occurrences, and a place explodes. Yesterday, I rode around the corner to my favourite, near always deserted, cafe and there was a queue for a seat. Which influencer can I blame for this? Maybe it was just the death of a thousand knives, in which case some of the blame falls on me.

What makes somewhere or something interesting? Why is this cultural undertaking considered photogenic while that one is not? Why is a rice field view more desirable than one over a palm oil plantation? Why are sandy beaches more popular than pebbly ones? What is the thought process behind what gets written about, photographed and promoted. What bias is at play? What is the root of that bias? Whose interests does it serve and is that bias a healthy one?

On the other hand, this is more interesting than palm oil plantations. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The answers to these questions, well, they’re as interesting as the questions themselves. They also say as much about the traveller as they do about the destination, and as they do about those raising the interest in the first place. Yet, these are rarely asked questions—in any direction.

Who plants the seed that germinates into tourism worthiness? It’s a hybrid for sure—travel writing, social media, tourism boards, and word-of-mouth all dovetail in. Some, like avocado, take years—and much patience—to bloom. Others, well, they’re like weeds—fast-growing and easy to kill.

I went to write that some seeds are never planted, but I’m wrong on this, in fact, they flourished years ago. They’ve always been there. The trees stand before us, towering above, casting shadows we shelter in without a second thought. They’re yet to blossom though. Instead, they wait for the right monsoon storm to scatter their interest seeds afar.

When you’re travelling, what does and doesn’t interest you? Why?


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