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Stranger thoughts

Written onboard flight 5J 814 from Singapore

Despite my years of travel – inextensive by many standards – I still haven’t gotten used to the feeling of going back.

Always, on the eve of a return flight, I get a sinking feeling and I develop an unexplained attachment to the hotel room, however bad it is (like the one I shared with a friend in Seoul one time). A certain sadness accompanies the act of packing, for me at least. It’s not that I dread the idea of coming home – my home is as comfortable as anybody could ask for. It’s also not that I wish to stay forever wherever I find myself on a trip, thinking life is better there.

No, I’ve seen enough to know that life anywhere is easy only for the tourist who sleeps in nice hotels, eats at the top 50 restaurants, and wakes up with that happy, singular thought: What shall I do today? Days – and nights – are kinder to the transient who is unaffected by things like work, rush-hour commute, unpaid bills, endless cleaning, and caring for a household.

Breakfast pastries at Origin+ Bloom in Marina Bay Sands

But this detachment from my normal is precisely what I like about traveling – this part where I am the guest. A stranger, at once seeking and rejecting the familiar, finding my way and losing my way, and delighting in both.

I have found that traveling is an irony of sorts. It requires all of our wits, for how else will we bring ourselves and all our post-pandemic paperwork from one immigration gate to another, especially at this time when traveling is not too different from being released from prison: you come out with papers, a duffel bag and a dazed look.

And while it requires a heightened awareness, traveling also demands abandonment – of the home and its 6-foot pile of laundry (or 6-foot tall teenager); of the job that pays and deadlines that bind; of the roles and expectations that define our every day.

This abandonment of what is ours allows us to be a guest in what is others’. And being a stranger somewhere lets us feel a sense of wonder again, to marvel at the way the world works outside of our realities.

One of Singapore’s super efficient and clean train stations

We are naturally wired to take the familiar for granted, which makes it hard to truly experience things again for the first time. It gets harder to be in awe of anything, the more you see, the longer you stay. After all, how many times can you cross a street in London and feel like the Beatles, or get lost in translation in Tokyo like Scarlet, or bite into a Gray’s Papaya hotdog and feel an affinity to New York – before it all becomes familiar?

Traveling presents a chance to have our firsts again, to be enthralled by new places that demand nothing from us but our presence. It is this opportunity to reconnect with the part of us that can be amazed once more – even if only at ourselves – that is the true gift of travel. It is this that makes me sad to leave anywhere – this comforting irrelevance that allows such reverence. This promise of possibilities and the freedom to live outside your life, if only for a while.

A mural in Chinatown

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