She Reads to Travel, & Travels to Read

When she said that perhaps she would see you in another season, she never thought it would be so soon.

Spring flitted by and in no time, she was acquainted with the summer sun torching down relentlessly before pacifying with episodes of intermittent rain. Coming back felt like a warm and teary embrace. The first time she met you, a storm had just passed and she was lingering on the periphery of waiting for the dust to settle and an impending deluge. Funny how a year of new beginnings would launch her into a period of returning, to finish what she had once dreamed to start.

Walking past familiar lanes, she realized how acutely aware she had become, her senses somehow heightened this time – streets pulsing with sounds and bright lights close to midnight, salespeople hell-bent on brandishing sample face masks under the noses of defenceless customers before whisking them away into an array of beauty products, ochreous shophouses unfurling along steep, narrow hills and forgotten corners, the intermingled smell of heat rising from pavements, oily street food and sweat wafting through the air, the slapdash, chaotic houses tucked away in obscure alleys as though someone had assembled these cement and bricks in a disorderly and thoughtless manner before deciding to call it home. Then there were the unrecognisable shopfronts hidden behind tangled power lines. Strange how in less than a year some places have vanished while some remain changeless. I guess the only thing permanent is the impermanence of spaces, the only thing certain is uncertainty.

It was the weekend and there was a quick drizzle minutes past noon. They took respite in Café Comma which was steeped in that quintessential vacuum-sealed calm she loved. She thought of how the name itself reflects an anticipated pause, a temporary halt from the listlessness outside with the familiar tinkle of cups, fresh smell of coffee beans and calming jazz lightly playing in the background. It was her favourite café, unquestionably, for the interior was floor-to-ceiling chock-a-block with books, books, books. It’s the kind of space she didn’t mind being trapped in a day entire. Sometimes she chatted with A about life and the city and what they love about it. It isn’t the facade they’re enamoured with – having no deep-seated interest in its pop music or dramas – but it’s the self-effacing charm that spills in the niceties, an unparalleled efficiency in connecting with the world, cafés punctuating the streets where ideas mingle and meet, where solitude is somewhat celebrated and company is welcomed, and the uncanny way the city mirrors this insouciant, unassuming self that lay privy beneath layers of language, history, skin.

In the early hours post-breakfast, she would leave the house for a while to read in the coffee chain across the street. For a brief moment, between waiting for her latte to arrive and opening to the dog-eared page of the bildungsroman she last left, she understood how incredibly lonely it can be to stay in a foreign country. But it’s the kind of lonely she never minded. At least for a while. She loved feeling lost in the language and unfamiliarity of things. The low hum of excited-seeming conversations that bounce off walls, and thoughts bouncing off the spaces in her mind were company enough. The aloneness was more pronounced at night; lying in her bed staring at the ceiling inches away and entertaining the final thoughts running in her mind before drifting into a dreamless sleep. She shook it away by reviewing the day’s discoveries, particularly the cat bookshop that had magically unfolded in her path by happenstance while waiting for the cold sweeps of summer rain to recede; a cosy space she had once fashioned out of a daydream.

Her almost-asleep stupor was interrupted by a stray voice in her head – the one time a friend had exclaimed “-but Seoul is so boring!” when she told him of her travel plans. She had resisted blurting out that the value of a place reflects that of the person – if a place reeks of boredom, guess it says as much about you. She knew efforts in explaining her reasons to people like him would be futile so she didn’t even try. Beneath the pulchritude of the city lies a pedestrian, nonchalant flow, a kind of passivity she didn’t mind floating on. Perhaps it speaks to her introverted disposition, perhaps she simply enjoys the little surprises that await in corners, the quotidian things that are often unexplainable to those who don’t appreciate the glory in ordinary.

But just as soon as she had returned, it was time for her to leave. The fleeting sadness of the departure was magnified by cascading sheets of rain soaking the city in a long, hard cry before the leaden skies heaved their final drops of tears and the dimly lit pavements grew to dry. By the morning, things were settling; sunscrubbed and sedate. The plane descended right as she read the last line in the most depressing chapter of the densest novel she ever owned.

She thought about the question a friend once asked her: Why travel? Sometimes the most common answer one can come up with is “To escape.” Or “To get to know other cultures, other lands, other people.” All of which parallels a sense of briefly suspending reality and exploring an unknown territory. Her answer came to her in a slow unravel like the baggage that only appeared after ten hypnotic rounds on the conveyor belt as she stood, huddled together with other bleary-eyed passengers, some of whom were assiduously on watch, in an ever-ready (rather comical) crouch to pounce on their belongings the second it emerged, embracing them with a sigh of relief. She conjured the thought in her head and mouthed it out just to make sure it’s real. She did that sometimes whenever she felt her thought was too abstract, too airy, too gossamery it could slip away.

I travel to read and I read to travel. To come back richer with more stories to share. With more words, more zest, more love, more life. This is why. She thought of all the plans she would make, all the plans that may be thwarted, and all the plans that would turn out perfect in the end.

“Haven’t slept a wink but I’ll be there tonight!”, she hung up the phone and smiled. She remembered the air of wistful transience that hung lightly as they ambled past quaint houses of character lining the quiet lane, while very aware of the convivial get-togethers privately unfolding within families. She could hardly wait for the festive gathering with her family that night where they would regale a spread of homecooked food and pleasant chatter.

She made a silent prayer for these things to never change.


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