Taking Home the Intangibles
My friends from faraway have exactly 36 hours before they have to go back home, and they know it. In the department store tonight, they race through their shopping â€”buying a camera, two mobile phones, a wristwatch and a yearâ€™s supply of eyeliner and mascara in the space of an hour, and they still need to get the LCD TV and the extra suitcase. The shops are about to close; itâ€™s almost 10 pm. We get back to my place where theyâ€™re staying, we cook a meal, and by midnight, the day has finally ended. At home, they sit on the floor discussing how to pack, surrounded by stuff.
I used to buy souvenirs from places Iâ€™d been. I have photo frames from Sydney, a â€œYak Yak Yakâ€ t-shirt from Nepal, a capiz shell fruit plate from Cebu. Scarves from Bali, a couple of Burmese lungi, a kameez salwar from Rajasthan, the kind with mirrors on the hem. In my closet there are three umbrellas from Chiang Mai, a tie-dye shirt that says â€œKoh Samuiâ€ in fading letters, and fisherman pants from Had Yai. The list goes on of items that I grow tired of keeping. They sit in my closets, unused.
I donâ€™t buy souvenirs any more. But I still have the memories.
There is nothing else like the tinkle of those old tokens we used in New Zealand to buy fresh milk. It was my job every evening to drop a token into each empty glass bottle and place the bottles beside our mailbox in Island Bay, so in the morning the milkman could come by and replace them with bottles full of fresh milk, the kind that leaves froth on your upper lip after a long cold sip.
When we travel we are perpetual strangers, and maybe experiences in a place compel us to buy those souvenirs, little bits of an experience, tangible things we can take back with us and maybe use to recreate what we felt.
Maybe I just like taking home the intangibles.
Like values humans share. The photo of a Muslim girl learning about the intricate relationship between monarchy, religion, and nation at the Thai Grand Palace is precious to me. It speaks about scaleâ€”the comparison between two things of different sizes. The size of the idea of culture, and the size of the idea of one personâ€™s joy.
From Burma I take back contrasts. A worker hard at his carpentry repairs the wooden beams at a temple: a man laboring in the heat for a few kyats amidst a glittery splendor.
In another town, I sip the bland loneliness of a tree, flanked by chedi containing stones proclaiming the secret to life.
On a boat in the Shan State, with no stores for hundreds of miles, I float past the isolation of a humble house in the middle of water and storm clouds, summoning a forgotten but beautiful sentimentality.
Some moments are like gems in a secret pocket, worn close to the heart.
I sit with my friend Ye Myint. Weâ€™ve been telling each other stories all day, for several days. On this day before I fly to another city, we sit on the roof of an abandoned temple in Bagan. Silently we watch the sky release its chorus of light above the pagodas lining the landscape. All I have from that moment is the song the sky sang, for a few minutes uninterrupted, shared, frozen in a photograph.
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