Friday, December 14, 2007

My Odyssey

I told him Afghanistan was the missing section of my walk, the place in between the desert and the Himalayas, between Persian, Hellenic and Hindu culture, between Islam and Buddhism, between mystical and militant Islam. I wanted to see where these cultures merged into one another or touched the global world.

I talked about how I had been walking one afternoon in Scotland and thought: Why don't I just keep going? There was, I said, a magic in leaving a line of footprints stretching behind me across Asia.

—Rory Stewart, The Places In Between


In May, the prospect of graduating scared me. I didn't want to let go of everything I'd come to learn so well—the newspaper, my classes and just the school itself.

The time after graduation is, as David Brooks so eloquently put it in his column, "odyssey, the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood." He goes on to describe it as a period of trying and delaying: with so many different options, there's no rush to settle.

I am in the middle of my odyssey. Soon enough, I'll be in the real world dealing with real things, like salaries and rent and insurance.

I always had vague ideas about what I wanted to do in life—something involving writing, something not typical. In college, I came to realize that I wanted to do journalism—reproting on the unseen and unnoticed, like exploring the rivers of Bangladesh like the BBC did or how the television blackout affected Pakistanis during martial law, those are the articles I want to write.

New York is too familiar to me. This idea haunted me throughout my last year of college—I needed to get away.

At the time, I was finishing up my senior work, a collection of poetry and essays about traveling presented in a nicely-designed booklet. Reading about my previous trips mad me realize how much I missed traveling. I thought about my friend Jon and how he planned to move back to China, which he did. Then I thought about my professor, Peter Godwin, and how, after he graduated, he and his friends bought two former-military British cars and drove from England to South Africa, while writing and submitting articles to publications.

I needed something like that, something epic, where I could and actually be abroad. I needed an adventure to look forward to, a time where I knew I would be gone. I wasn't going to school, I didn't have a permanent job, I didn't have any obligations. I could be gone for as long as I wanted.

With this idea stuck in my head, my only question became, where?


I'm not sure how I came to decide on South and Southeast Asia. It was between that area and South America, but I was pulled more towards the former. Once I had that thought in my head, it was set: I would spend at least four months on the other side of the world.

I told my advisor, Rob, about this and asked what he thought about it. He said it sounded fine, but I needed a mission, a reason for going. Considering he's a freelance writer, it made sense he'd say that. If you're going to do something, you need a purpose, no?

I needed a purpose.

I learned as much as I could about the area. I kept up with the news, from both local and established papers. I read books, some recommended and others that I stumbled upon. I read Richard Lloyd Parry's In the Time of Madness, where he saw Indonesia fall apart in the late '90s amidst a corrupt dictatorship and vicious ethnic battles between the Dayaks and the Madurese. More than just simple reporting, Parry describes actually being there and witnessing pure savagery: decapitated bodies being dragged by motorcycles, heads displayed prominently along the road and cannibalism, while dealing with his reactions (fear) and his own life (broken heart).

I read Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana. While he doesn't travel to the areas I planned on (instead he stirred a new obsession with Central Asia, anyone want to go to Iran with me?), he trekked across Afghanistan and Iran and wrote about his experiences, which is exactly what I want to do.

Next on my list was Rory Stewart's The Places In Between, an updated version of Byron's traverse. When I finished reading, I realized what my mission was.

This idea of interaction of cultures is why I picked Asia. I already have my own identity: a Bengali Muslim (though I'm not really much of a true Muslim, but that's besides the point). In South and Southeast Asia, there is a whole array of cultures and religions: Muslim, Hindi, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Indian, Bengali, Pakistani, Indonesian, Madurese, Javanese, Thai, Dayak, Chinese, Catholic, Confucian and more that I'm not even aware of. Indonesia's official motto is even "Unity in Diversity."

Observing these exchanges and writing about them is what I want to do. There are so many different places to start. In Malaysia, Indians are protesting because they feel marginalized. After the Burmese protests in September, Bangladesh housed refugee monks. I read an article in the International Herald Tribune about Indians who pretended they were vegetarians so they could stay in their apartments and just imagine the lengths they went to hide their meat-consuming ways. Imagine having to do that in New York. You really can't.

Being South Asian, I wonder how that will play into my interactions, but I'll never know until I'm there.


Originally, I planned on going to Bangladesh first to reacquaint myself with my extended family and country. I read an article about the Moitree Express, an old train that used to run between Calcutta, India and Dhaka, Bangladesh. Being obsessed with transportation in between countries, I had my heart set on taking that train into India.

That idea has been scrapped, though, because I'm going to Bangladesh this winter with my family.

Now, my journey will begin in Calcutta, India. Taking the train, I'll stop in major and random cities—I've yet to set a solid plan—but I know I'd want to stop by Mumbai and Agra for the Taj Mahal. If possible, I'd like to make a short trip into Pakistan, or, at least, witness the border ritual.

After spending a month or so doing that, I'd fly out of New Delhi and land in Jakarta, Indonesia. Since it's the world's largest archipelago country, I would stick to the island of Jakarta and maybe hop on over to Sumatra.

Then, because of my love of boats and a need to vary my travel methods, I would take a boat into Malaysia. After exploring the country and visiting Kuala Lumpar, I would cross into Thailand by bridge, either taking a bus or train, or even walking if possible.

In Thailand, I'd judge their beaches in the south (which are supposed to be the best in the world) and work my way north to Bangkok, where I'd get a taste of the urban bustle.

My dad doesn't know about my plans, though he knows that I wanted to go to Bangladesh sometime in the spring/summer. He thought it suspicious and probably has an idea as to what I'm up to. When I tell my parents, though, I won't be asking permission; I'm merely telling them.

I already have contacts in those areas of the world, thanks to friends and editors, but there is more I need to do. I need to have more concrete ideas about what I want to do and see. I have all my travel guides (I swear by them) and I'm constantly on the look-out for anyone who can guide me, whether from experience or knowledge.

This all feeds into my larger life goals: writing and traveling. Being there, I know I I will constantly stumble over stories that I will be itching to share.


The idea of wandering alone resonated with me. I've done it in spurts—my first solo trip to San Francisco two summers ago comes to mind. Before that, I was too used to being with other people. Now, I can be alone, and sometimes, it's just better.

I want to do, as Robert Byron said, "wonder at a forgotten world." Though mine isn't as forgotten as his world of ancient mosques and villages lost within the barren deserts of Iran and Afghanistan, I will be in worlds that aren't often thought about.

Another book from my travel reading list was Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, where I found this quote:

We talked late into the night, arguing whether or not we, too, have journeys mapped out in our central nervous systems; it seemed the only way to account for our insane restlessness.
—Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia
That insane restlessness brought Chatwin to Patagonia from England. That same restlessness drove Stewart all across Asia. The same, exact insane restlessness will take me to wherever I end up, hopefully.

There are many reasons driving my need to get away, some of which I just can't out it out there in actual words, with others including my fears of being stuck in a job I don't love.

I hope my fears and unidentifiable feelings go away once I buy that ticket and know for sure I will be gone.


赵晨威 said...

That's so fucking exciting.

Nadia, I really admire you-- I think you've got a great mind, great ambition, great spirit, and a great capacity for sharing in the world.

Asia is waiting expectantly for you! 快点儿,快点儿!

bkmdano said...

Nadia, this really is an exciting idea and you've got your travel guides with you, so that's good. Heed them.

Can I, as someone who has travelled frequently to Indonesia, also encourage you to be especially wary as a woman travelling alone there? You're a Bengali Muslim, so you'll be aware, I hope, of the need in many neighbourhoods (in Java especially) to wear a head covering and dress conservatively in order to avoid harassment. A helpful word in Bahasa to know: Jangan! (Don't!)

Save journey!