I boarded the flight at the end of what seemed like a long week. I was going away for a few days, and the preceding weeks had been hectic and frenzied. It felt good to finally stretch one’s legs (as much as an economy seat would allow anyway), relax one’s senses, and stretch one’s mind.
The flight felt strangely beautiful. In the evening, and as the plane took off, we left behind a sparkling firework of lights. The vast, urban sprawling city and its surrounding areas looked kindlier from above. The freeways glowed like veins, throbbing with cars as they crammed their way home for the weekend along packed highways. I have watched ants with interest as they scurried around accomplishing tasks. Looking at the cars along the highways, I felt that we must look like ants, if someone were to be observing us from afar. I wondered if scientists who were in charge of monitoring satellites felt this way from time to time. At night, the bay area looked beautiful from an airplane, though all sense of ethereal beauty is lost when one is down below navigating along its crowded highways.
I fell into an uneasy slumber once we passed the populated areas of the bay area. I looked out of the window hours later, and was pleasantly surprised by the beauty that greeted me. The plane was gently reverberating with the satisfied sighs of sleep from passengers around me. A few were watching brightly glowing screens. I peered out of the window, at first unable to see clearly, since it took me some time to adjust to the sudden lack of light. Once I did though, it was marvelous.
I have always loved gazing at the moon while traveling. The feeling of us moving in tandem, with our beautiful cosmic neighbor has always been surreal.
I could not see the moon just yet, but I recognized the belt of Orion. We were flying alongside the big hunter as he made his way in his pursuit of the seven sisters across the skies. It was a strange feeling to watch the stars and a familiar constellation accompany us on the trip while we journeyed through the stars.
The Pale Blue Dot, as Carl Sagan so beautifully christened our lovely, if sometimes crazy planet, seems wonderful from high above. It helps us forget how judgmental, critical, harsh and war-mongering a species we are. While up there, borders and countries seem like a strange concept, like a tiger marking its territory. Can the tiger determine where life can flourish, where the weeds grow, or how many gusts of wind may swish through the bamboo groves? Our borders mean much the same especially when surveyed from the stratosphere; meaningless asks from an arbitrary marking.
Musings from the wonderful book, Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris, took me to an uneasy land of half slumber in which strange dreams accompanied unknown stars through a flight that even a 150 years ago would have been nothing but a flight of fancy.
Kate Harris’s work is one for every traveler’s soul. The author writes of her journey across the oldest and possibly most famous road in the world, The Silk Route. Wanting to lose herself in a unique experience, she finds herself on one of the oldest roads known to civilization.
Along with her friend Mel, the two women cycle through Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, the stan-countries after Russia’s disintegration (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyztan, Uzbekistan), China, Tibet, Nepal and finally India – camping by roadsides, accepting the kind hospitality of friends and strangers along the way, navigating border authorities, paper work and visa restrictions. As the author and her friend cycle through lands fractured by war, torn apart by hardship, and held apart by rigid, if frail fences of barbed wire, it begs us to evaluate the meaning of borders.
There were many instances when I nodded along emphatically with the sentiment she expresses, like how the only borders that mean anything to her are the natural ones:
“Mountains and lakes and rivers are the oldest kinds of borders, and maybe the only sort I fully respect.”
The true voice of an explorer, her clear heart blurs borders while sizing up people.
I may not get on a biking trip to travel the Silk Road myself, but I am grateful to my father who took us traveling to far off lands as much as his budget and salary as a school teacher would allow. “Travel is a form of education,” he would say in his deep voice with conviction.
So, what does travel teach me? It gives me an appreciation for the place I call “home” for sure, but more importantly, travel allows me the luxury of contemplating an alternate mode of life: a what-if angle to life – what if I had been born elsewhere, what if my circumstances had been different, what if my religion were different, what if I had not been born female, what if I had been born in a different era – the list of “what-ifs” were endless.
A sense of empathy and compassion comes from interacting with people vastly different from us, and yet are the same in innumerable ways. The warmth of a smile, the contours of worry, the pangs of hunger, the exhaustion and exhilaration of sharing the same planet unite us in as many ways as they divide us.
Now, I appreciate more fully Mark Twain’s quote on travel:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
I stirred from my corner of the airplane seat to see how far we had come. The skies were brightening welcoming dawn, and the moon was looking slightly alarmed at still being up and about when the sun was rising. The pink, and orange skies twinkled benignly upon the clouds below, and all the world was still full of promise. The blush of joys unknown.