It’s just after five pm, and I’m sitting on a hotel bed in my boxers, staring out the window into downtown Yangon, Myanmar. The window is but a thin barrier between me, my person, my body and legs and ears, and the outside, the concrete of the streets and the tip of a high reaching steeple that faces me, its peak culminating in a small golden cross that would look more fitting on a Christmas tree than here on this old green and white building surrounded by hotels. And while the barrier of the window is thick enough to keep the hot air and the bugs out, it isn’t so impenetrable as to keep out the music, the bizarre choral singing that has overtaken Yangon for the last two hours.
“Do you think that’s real?” my girlfriend asks. “Are people really singing? Or is it a recording?”
I don’t know. Neither of us do. We’re like children watching a movie and thinking the CGI effects are real. There might be people out there chanting away, but it seems so much more likely that this is something prerecorded and played loudly, probably daily, for reasons only the people here understand. I ask my girlfriend if she wants to take a walk and find out, see if there are crowds of people circling the pagoda or if instead there is one great enormous speaker, a choir replaced by a basket and cone the size of a jet engine. She declines the invitation. We continue to sit in the hotel room and eventually the music stops.
I get to thinking. Tomorrow I will be returned to my familiar setting, my home in China, away from all the weirdness of Myanmar. I will see friends and I will, as they are friends, speak to them. The conversation will likely go like this:
“Hey man! How the heck are you?” “How was Myanmar?” “Gee, you’re really red, man! Ever heard of sunscreen?”
Or something like that. We will talk about the different countries we’ve gone to over break. The conversation could last anywhere between two minutes and two hours. It’s hard to say. I adjust my boxer shorts, pulling down the fabric that is suffocating my scrotum like someone might smother a person with a pillow, and I try to plan out my answers.
How was it?
There are things I need to pluck out. Extract. I can’t ramble on endlessly about everything I saw or that I did. I need to locate the interesting stuff, and so I start going through my memory with a highlighter. Entire passages end up getting omitted during this exercise; full days snipped out and dropped onto the editing room floor.
This is what you do when you return from traveling. You truncate everything. Somewhere along the line, after I’d been bouncing through different countries for awhile, I realized that my travels lacked the kind of narrative arc that I wished they had. Putting together a short synopsis of any certain place was tough because there was no concise beginning, middle, or end. In a literal way there was – starting with arrival and ending with departure – but that seemed arbitrary. What I had to work with was more a series of images, sounds, tastes, and feelings; not a group of events that formed a coherent sequence that moved forward with any kind of logic.
This is what describing one’s travels becomes. It’s difficult. If I were in a college course and the professor asked me for a descriptive essay, man, I would ace that. I could describe and describe, go into vivid details recreating temples or sunsets on the beach. But that’s not really what people want. People want narrative, and if that fabricated college professor asked me for a movie script or something, I would have to hand in a real test of audience patience, a clumsy group of scenes in which not much happens.
Because, really, there’s not a great deal of excitement when you travel. Not excitement another person can appreciate through you. The things that stick with you are actually pretty mundane. The food you ate on the street. The argument you had with your travel buddy about taking the bus. The guy you met at the bar who was alone and latched on to you, talking about the people he knew back home, maybe imagining you’re them.
To the average listener, this would be kind of dull. This is what I decide, sitting on the bed in the hotel. That I will keep traveling, and when it’s all over, I’ll end up being incredibly boring, because all I’ll talk about is food and hostels and quirky conversations I had with strangers. People will dread asking me about the places I’ve been, worried that I’ll lull them to sleep with a detailed travelogue about public transportation and tipping in the Philippines.
Oh well. If I live an exciting life but end up boring, so be it. The sounds on the street are more common now, car horns and the white noise of the city. My girlfriend pulls down the window shade.
We’re just two people, in a room, and we could be anywhere.