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What's
unexplored

What's unexplored 01

With the exception of a handful of  places – northern Myanmar, the top of Green- land, the deepest sea – this pla-net has almost run out of untouched land. We have nearly mapped the whole of it, and this, combined with tech-nology, has shrunk it down to something so small that our ancestors would barely recognise it. Right now, Los Angeles is an 18-hour direct flight away from Singapore. That’s almost 9,000 miles covered in less than a day with no lay-over. While our hyper-connected globe makes the dream of exploring virgin land harder to fulfil, it has made travel and adventure so much easier for the rest of us. And when travel is available to more and more peo-ple, what’s left to explore for the first time becomes increasingly personal. 

Anyone who loves to travel knows that unmatched feeling of walking off a plane in a foreign land. It’s what hap-pens when a different kind of air hits your face, the language scrambles your brain and even the way people move around each other feels new. Your mind is tired but also racing – and all you want to do is hold on to that feeling, right there, of being in between two places and two time zones and two “you”s, for ever.

This exact experience, no matter how many people you might be travelling with, is acutely personal. Because all the times you’ve ever arrived in any new place are layered in a certain way inside of you, building the lens through which you are looking. All the airports you’ve navigated and streets you’ve roamed, all the expectations of a place you’ve fulfilled or had dashed are trailing behind you, this time, too, and you are the only person who has ever existed with exactly those experiences informing your here and now.

That’s how in today’s world, where “there’s nothing new under the sun”, you can still discover a place for the first time in a way no one has before you and no one after you ever will. The collision of these two dimensions – one that is utterly personal and memory- driven and the other that is physical and geographic – is where travel holds its power and magic. The drug that best soothes wanderlust is found right where those two worlds meet. 

What's unexplored 02

About six years ago I booked a flight and accommodation for a month in Sarajevo, Bosnia, to write and work re-motely from a place I knew almost nothing about. Google Maps hadn’t arrived there yet and so no matter how far in you zoomed on the map, the city remained a single dot with “Sarajevo” written next to it. My only option for getting around was to ask locals, memorise the streets and landmarks, and eventually find the one small booksto-re which sold the only printed street map of the city. Of course, all of my travels prior to the explosion of Google had been like this – dependent on maps and clumsily asking for directions – but it’s a whole other thing to go back to once you’ve had the ease of a phone to navigate for you. 

Without a GPS to do the legwork, I had to pay more attention to what was right around me, and not just because I was interested in what life in Sarajevo was like; that sort of attention you can dial up as you please when you tra-vel. This kind was turned on the whole time out of necessity. It was both more exhausting and fulfilling. It also meant that my capacity to stay in touch with my life at home  and even with myself was severely diminished to make room for everything I needed to learn in this crash course in Sarajevan life. 

I needed to remember, for example, that the market that sold the best fresh vegetables – a luxury – was down the hill past the empty lot where the stray cats sleep, then right at the first busy road and a couple of blocks past the salon that Mele owned, the woman who trimmed my hair on one of my first days there and then invited me in for tea every time I walked past. We talked through broken but expressive English about her kids, jealous women and the time she spent in America while the war raged in her city. When she returned to Sarajevo after it ended, she had to replace the large shop-front windows that had been blown out and fix up the inside, but she left one bullet hole in a wood-panelled wall as a “memory”. 
In fact, most people I met there did not want the bullet holes to be filled in and painted over. They saw value in those war scars, some of which served as markers for my navigating the city. This was memory as a weapon; a notion I had never considered before these pockmarked walls – that, at first, took my breath away – eventually morphed into something I understood to bind the locals together. 

Evenings in Sarajevo were quiet and dark. A gentle gnawing of loneliness seemed to start up once the sun went down. This should have been unsurprising based on the distance I felt in every way from my real life, but it was confusing because at the same time I felt a real sense of freedom. I’d been able to climb outside the machine I felt hemmed in by and fling wide the doors and windows of my mind for thoughts and ideas to flow in and out. But the sense of being disconnected was unsettling and sparked a drive to get as deep into the local culture as I could. I felt at the very same time completely lost and completely found.

What's unexplored 03

On this trip I realised that it’s when I travel that I feel the most me – and I wonder if that’s true for other people who also love to leave? Being less crowded by the day-to-day, aren’t we more vulnerable? Aren’t we better listeners and deeper feelers? We can do so much in a day or so very little and still feel utterly productive. And for a minute can’t we lose our ghosts by distracting them with all the new loveliness we find ourselves distracted by? I know it can’t last for ever, as essayist Adam Gopnik writes, “The ghosts that haunted you in New York or Pittsburgh will haunt you anywhere you go, because they’re your ghosts and the house they haunt is you,” but what a moment it is when you forget all about their existence. 

Today, when the world is so utterly known, where it’s difficult to find a forest without a footpath – or tyre ruts – worn through it, the notion of the unexplored doesn’t disappear, it just changes. What’s left for us to discover? Well, we are “us” in these places. And they don’t even have to be new places, because you know as well as I do that the Seine in Paris is not the same river at sunrise as it is at sunset, just like I’m not the same person today that I was this time last year. When you think about travel this way, then everywhere we go offers itself up as a brand new place to explore; it holds up a mirror and asks us what we want to know. 

Then, at the end of our time in these foreign places, there is no leaving and no going back to real life, because the journey was as much about us as it was the geography we traversed. Flannery O’Connor wrote about this in a way that never fails to move me: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place... Nothing outside you can give you any place... In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.” 

When we say there's nothing new under the sun, we have to remember that it’s only the sun with that vantage point. We have a distorted and close-up perspective on this world. What a curse! But also what a gift that can be: to see the all-knowing sun rise over the same River Seine in Paris that millions of other people have seen before, knowing that it’s the first time in all of history that you have stood right there, at that moment, taking it all in. With this perspective you see the world as twice as big, and twice as scary as most people. Because scaling Mount Everest or diving into un- explored ocean-floor caverns is really only half the journey.

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