Today we planned on getting on our flight from Krabi, Thailand to Bangaluru, India. It was going to be another one of those fantastical days where we woke up in one amazing place, and one flight later we’d emerge, like from a dream, in another far-flung location that less than one month ago wasn’t on our itinerary. Ok, so “one flight” meant 13+ hours of travel time with a layover PLUS a delay. Truth! Google sent me the flight status throughout our day, reminding me where we weren’t.
As it turns out, a “visa on arrival” for a US citizen traveling to India doesn’t exempt him/her from the online application needed 4 days prior, a process I was unaware of until this very morning at the airport check-in counter.
Honestly I can’t be that upset. Not because I’m going to chalk this up to a “learning experience” (let’s be real. I can hear my parents voices advising me, on double AND triple checking things, especially things like visa requirements. Why are they always right?!). I take full responsibility for such a simple and preventable error. I can’t be that upset because once we were denied our boarding passes I just found myself accepting that this was our new situation and we needed to make an unexpected update our itinerary. Did I just find myself appreciating the elusive “now” I can never find in my meditation? If so, it was only a glimmer.
It was absolutely still a stressful day at the airport trying to figure out how to emergency expedite a visa on a slow mobile connection (first world problems, I know). After unearthing conflicting reports—phoned a rep at the Indian embassy in Chiang Mai who said there was no way at all to expedite a visa, while Google reveals agencies that claim they can expedite in 24 hrs for hundreds of dollars, along with many reviews warning of these as scams, as well as other accounts with firsthand experience of receiving a visa in 20 hours after a standard online application, no expediting needed—we decided to go the standard application route. And then proceeded to sit in the airport to fill out the applications on said terrible wifi. Self-inflicted punishment? No, just hoping to settle the visa thing before seeing what we could do about our lost flight. Turns out the Air Asia people have hearts and *might* let us off the hook for a the change fee and only charge if there’s a difference in flight cost.
And at long last, at the end of the day, we emerged again from a shared van similar to the one we left in, trying to avoid the pouring rain as we arrived at Toto Residence in Ao Nang, and back to all the faces that saw us off this morning, whether we noticed or not. “Oh how perfectly poetic!” some might say. No, just very wet, and just a little sad, I would reply.
“I saw you leave earlier” said the sister of the hotel owner, with an incredulous look on her face. I can’t say I had ever really met her before, but the streets are small and it’s all family-owned around here (The hotel owner is 1 of 13 children!). I had to explain our lack-of-visa-situation two times, as if to prove that yes this is real and I am actually here again, for her bewilderment to soften slightly. The cleaning lady gave us a weak smile when we saw her again (“See you next year,” she called out to us when we left in the morning). Yes, we still managed to emerge from a dream, just not the same dream we’d envisioned.
We found relief in finding a vacancy at Toto Residence, which we’ve come to see as a home base in Krabi; here we’ve got familiar, friendly faces, and lots of Pad Thai and coconut water to drown our “sorrows” in (Is being in Thailand for a few more days really all that bad?). Here we’ll be, waiting for two electronic visas to show up in our inboxes before we can see how the next leg of our trip turns out.
After noodles and more noodles of consolation, I find myself contemplating Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love. I read this book years ago, and despite finding myself seething at the self-absorption of Elizabeth’s self in her memoir, I managed to finish it and here I am, at least 4 years later, thinking about it once again.
What does this have to do with anything?
I’ve been thinking lately about how to convey the realities of travel without sounding like a Narrator of Things. Thinking about this blog now I feel like it is, it’s part What We Did Today, part Whoa, Look at This Novel-to-me Thing, part Food Diary. Most of the time I don’t really care, because the purpose of this blog is to keep in touch with loved ones and practice writing. But other times I wonder if it’s self-indulgent and sort of airbrushed to write about everything in a neat post with a beginning, middle, end, and lovely Instagram pictures.
Most of all, I desperately want to avoid being Elizabeth Gilbert in writing about my travels, which is to say, as much as this is a travel blog that helps me keep in touch with family and friends, I’m not trying to be Narcissus. Nobody wants to stare at my reflection until the end of time, least of all me.
So, I did what people do in our Internet Age. I Googled “Eat, Pray, Love criticism” to commiserate with others who also found the memoir *almost* entirely insufferable and delve into why. I stumbled upon an article which immediately drew my attention: How Not to be Elizabeth Gilbert by Jessa Crispin. She compares various travel writers, both men and women, contemporary and historical, paying particular attention to the writers with imperialistic views that lived long past their actual lifetimes through legacies (pretty much men) and the women might make a trendy splash focusing instead on “interior life” rather than the actual people and places of travel (like Gilbert). Beyond the exploration of gendered roles/expectations in travel writing, Crispin dives into what makes travel writing compelling. She brings up under-appreciated 19th Century Briton Isabella Bird as an example to follow:
Her writing restores humanity to people who have otherwise been stripped down to news reports, reduced to death tolls and photos of open-mouthed weeping. The secret to her success was listening to the people she visited and letting them tell the story.
This shouldn’t be any secret. It should be what every travel writer does. But, as many have observed, the purpose of travel writing has changed as travel itself has changed and become more accessible. Listening is less important when readers no longer rely on written accounts to transport them vicariously to places they would never have the opportunity to see for themselves. Today’s writing is more aspirational. The travel writer sells not only lovely prose and insights into a new land but also the lifestyle of the rootless and adventurous. Yet, when you establish your life and yourself as goals to aspire to, you take yourself out of the world. Every interaction is sculpted for its eventual presentation, and the aim of every presentation is to show how wonderful your life is. Since we seem these days to judge the best life not as one marked by compassion and connection but as a sensual experience of exotic foods, insider knowledge, and Instagram-able landscapes, everything that doesn’t incite the envy of the writer’s followers gets cut out. If your life is an aspiration, you are a beacon, not a human, and you talk rather than listen.
Anyway, just thought I’d share. I’ll be thinking about this more in the near future as I prefer to be a human over a beacon.