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Travel in order to live

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“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”. That’s what Joan Didion wrote in her book of essays The White Album in 1979, but it’s been true since the dawn of time. Storytelling is the most ancient form of connection – and also survival – that we know our species has relied on going back further than we can trace.

From myths and legends that pass wisdom down through the generations to accounts of travels in faraway lands to stories that warn of danger and teach survival, a good storyteller has not only been a fun person to have around, but also a necessary one. And because we are perhaps the only animals that create and tell stories the way we do, this tradition is one of the things that defines and binds our humanity. 

In the years that I’ve spent travelling the world, my understanding of why we travel has really come back to this simple and very ancient human need; to tell stories. My job as editor of Boat Magazine (boatmag.com), a travel and culture publication that focuses on a different city for each issue, has been to uncover stories in different cultures and bring them back to my own – to appreciate and to learn from them. 

The interesting thing about this aspect of travel is that to be a good storyteller you have to be a good listener. The person at a party who holds everyone’s attention is the one whose memory has absorbed the details and nuances of a situation so fully that to recount them is akin to breathing. The layers within those kinds of stories transport an a dience straight to that time and place. The characteristics that make a good storyteller are the same ones that make a good traveller, too. It’s that ability to listen with every sense you have to whatever culture you find yourself in. Absorbing the details, mixing them up, making sense of them; this is what makes us human. Against all the odds and despite all of our differences, this is our common ground. Not long ago I was able to visit Myanmar, a country that had been largely closed to visitors for six decades under a harsh and complicated government. Yangon, which means “end of strife”, is the former capital city, and one that I’d been dreaming of visiting for years. Since 2011, when a new civilian government was established (though not without some controversy), Myanmar has been slowly opening up. It is an unprecedented time for the country and for Yangon. 

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As someone who was sent and tasked to write about the place, it would have been so easy to go through all the ways in which you can see and sense the tension between past and present, between closed and open, between traditional and modern. Myanmar is at a point on a timeline that can only be described as “between”. And it’s a topic that every local wants to tell you about – how the traffic was never this bad before, how the cost of housing was never so high, but also how there are live music shows again, art in the galleries and even – unbelievably – some graffiti showing up on the streets. 

It was my time in Myanmar that showed me how tight that rope is to walk as a storyteller, when the stories are coming from a place and a time that are so complex and nuanced that to begin to discuss them feels naïve. The only way I could make sense of Myanmar, in my own head, was to think of it as being in that liminal stage of waking up; it’s a little bit dreamy and a little bit painful. There’s the desire to stay under the blankets but also the drive to get up and out. And beyond that, all I could gather were details of actual day-to-day life. 

The tea that’s served hot with sweet condensed milk and gives a sugary kick of energy that you don’t get a chance to crash from before you’re offered another cup. It’s the fermented tea-leaf salad and the spicy fish soup with noodles. It’s the traditional ceremonies at the temples and the importance of birthdays. It’s the glaring gold of the Shwedagon Pagoda in the early morning sun and the two million bats that pour out of its rafters every evening in search of food. The city has a magical alchemy of factors, tangible and intangible, that I have not found anywhere else in the world. It was a place that left me nearly speechless.

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One year after I visited Myanmar I moved into a new place in Los Angeles. Before I had a chance to meet my neighbours I could smell someone in my neighbourhood cooking something that was unique and yet familiar to me – like the curry I ate in Yangon, but surely not? The scent led me to my next-door neighbours’ house. Turns out their family emigrated to California from the troubled state of Rakhine in Myanmar. Their warm smiles brought me back to the week I spent in their native country and we still discuss their traditional food and cooking, the more settled state of affairs there and the fact that most people they’d met before I moved in next door had never heard of Myanmar let alone visited. 

It amazes me that the place I found the hardest to write about – the one that was so foreign and beyond me – is the one that’s made me feel so at home here in Los Angeles, some 8,200 miles away. It’s the place that connected me to my very neighbours. 

Joan Didion went on to say about storytelling that we look for the positives in a situation, then “interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices”. Travel, then, is a survival of the fittest when it comes to ideas and ways of being. We roam the globe, looking for something good and interpret what we find in a way that makes sense to us. If we implement some better way of thinking or living as a result, then what a miracle. But if we simply live to tell the story, then we connect right back to our most ancient and important of roots. Those people who talk about having itchy feet might just be sensing that age-old desire to tell stories. In a way, it’s our survival instinct kicking in. 

Indeed, there are some of us who travel in order to live.

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