Aug 29, 2020 • 7M

Couchfish Week 22: Why do people travel?

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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 met Kate * in Battambang, a city in Western Cambodia. She was, I guess, in her late forties, and had lived her life in Vancouver, Canada. We got talking at a breakfast cafe and shot the breeze about Battambang and what we liked and disliked. I asked her if she was travelling alone, and she said no she wasn’t alone—she was travelling with her daughter.

Take the leap. Kids goofing off in Battambang. Photo: Nicky Sullivan.

People travel for an endless variety of reasons. Some to discover the world, others themselves, others still, something else. Some are running away, others towards—but they don’t know towards what … yet.

I like travelling alone—and almost all the travel I do is solo. The loneliness doesn’t bother me much and I enjoy the self–reliance. The irony is, in travelling by myself, I meet people more than otherwise. A stream of other people’s lives I can dip my hand into as it flows around me.

Pick a lazy corner with lazy cafe, sit and chat. White Rose, Battambang. Photo: Nicky Sullivan.

So often, I sit in a cafe or food stall; alone, nursing a coffee, watching life slide by. Then a complete stranger will walk up and ask if they can join me. Hell, some don’t even ask.

There was a spell where I met so many people with stories that I started to think of travel as a confessional. Phones have changed this to a point, but it still happens. As I wrote last week, travel can change people’s behaviour and have them do things they’d never contemplate at home.

My earliest memory of travel is part real, part a recurring dream I’ve had throughout my life. I was eight at the time, living on a small island in Japan’s inland sea. I went to a Japanese school there, one of two foreign kids.

Author and Ava, Innoshima, 1978. Photo: Mum or Dad!

In real life there was a field near my house, and one side had a steep drop–off—in summer, pretty little flowers grew by the edge. In the dream, I sit by the precipice with the other foreign child from school, a Swedish girl named Ava. We’d daisy–chain the flowers into bracelets for each other, put them on, and fly away.

Always travelling.

I don’t know how many travellers I’ve told of this dream—a lot—and many travellers have told me theirs. The stories people tell.

Pilgrims—both religious and other—tracing routes across the region. The New Zealander trying to walk the Angkor Road springs to mind. The couple who bought a sampan in Stung Treng and piloted it themselves to Siem Reap.

Grab a boat and go. Riverside, Stung Treng. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Sure, many have simple desires—a palm tree, hammock and a cold drink, but even these can be life changing. Others don’t want to change, rather they want to change where they are—some for the better, others for the worse.

Some are unsettling. One followed me in secret for a week before buttonholing me in a Chanthaburi cafe. That was a short conversation—and a meeting that developed into a stalking problem for a spell.

The unusual stick in my mind, but they’re often sweet. There was a woman who had taught herself basic Thai in her home country, then flew to Bangkok. Her one rule, was she had to learn how to cook a dish in each town she visited. That’s slow travel. She’d never been to Thailand before. When I asked why she picked there, she said she liked the name of it. That was her sole reason.

The people you meet. Chanthaburi back road. Photo: David Luekens.

I’ve met many older travellers—whose kids have flown the nest, and a lifelong partner has passed away. “I’m starting my life over,” one said. “I loved my old life, but fate has dealt me a new hand—who says we should live only one life?”

There are plenty of others travelling double lives. One guy described the liberation that he found with travel. That moment when you walk through immigration and disappear from view.

“It is like changing planets,” he said, “nothing else comes close.”

Changing planets. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Kate said she was travelling with her daughter, but, as I found out later in the day, that wasn’t exactly true. Her daughter had been a keen traveller and Southeast Asia had been her stomping ground. Back home between trips, she died in a tragic car accident. Kate was a single mum and she and her daughter had been as close as close gets. A year after her death, she kept bursting into tears as we talked.

After the funeral, Kate had been sifting through her daughter’s possessions. Deciding what were keepsakes and what had a home with others. She found a cardboard box full of diaries. She’d never known her daughter to keep a diary, and the secret horrified her.

“I didn’t know what to do with them,” she told me, “Should I open them, read them? Would she be angry? What had she written? What did she think of me?”

The secrets people keep. Kids at Wat Banan, Battambang. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

She kept the box of diaries in her bedroom for months, torn on what to do. In the end she opened the first one and started reading.

“There were years of diaries, they were so beautiful and so full of love for here and the people she met on her travels. I binged on them, and would call in sick for work so I could keep reading.”

The diaries were part personal and part travelogue, all in a tiny cursive script. They were full of people’s names, with business cards and tatty photos glued in. Kate said reading them was the best thing that could have happened after her daughter’s death. She felt like she was with her, reading over her shoulder.

What mask to wear this trip? Photo: Nicky Sullivan.

Kate had never travelled to Southeast Asia before, and she made a decision on impulse. She bought a plane ticket to Bangkok and started retracing her daughter’s steps.

When we met in Battambang, she’d been underway for months. She was staying and eating in the same places, retracing her daughter’s steps as close as she could. When her daughter named people, she would try her best to find them—and read them what her daughter had written.

“I didn’t expect many people to remember her, but I guess that shows how much I didn’t know about her. Over and over people knew who I was talking about within seconds—and then we’d cry together. She was such a shiny coin.”

“She had touched so many lives and them hers—and what better reason for travel is there than that?”

* Kate is a pseudonym.