2 Days prior to departure.
Passport. Wallet. Camera. Phone. I repeat my packing list over and over again so that it becomes a mantra: a saying that is so familiar it’s comforting. This particular list, however, is much longer than usual and I find it hard to keep it in mental order. Bug spray. Sleeping bag. Antibiotics. Did I remember to pack shoes?
I have decided to travel to Southeast Asia, a place where I have been told to be prepared for anything. I am stuffing 6 weeks of my life into one backpack and one small over the shoulder bag, each one looking like fat, stuffed turkeys ready to explode. I have never been to the Asian continent and have never used a backpack as my only form of luggage, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. By a little I mean very.
When I’m not walking through my house going over my mental list and trying to account for the unpredictable, I’m daydreaming about what is to come. I’m imagining Bangkok: a jam packed, suffocating metropolis where virtually anything goes. I’m picturing the remote jungles of Laos, green and exotic with terrifying bugs and birds, rhesus monkeys flying through the trees trying to create a breeze and escape the humidity. I imagine Hanoi, a French influenced Vietnamese city still living under the shadow of the Vietnam War. I imagine steam hovering over a bowl of pho, plates of cooked meats and vegetables and deliciously cold Vietnamese craft beer. I imagine kids running through every street, looking up at us foreigners eagerly and confused.
This is what I have been told to think. The scenes my mind conjures when I think of Southeast Asia are a conglomerate of what I have read in textbooks, seen in pictures online and heard from people who had been there before.
As I lay in my bed and gaze at the kaleidoscope of images in my head, I can’t help but feel just a little guilty. How can I gauge what these places will look or feel like, and how they will make me feel? Why have I taken others’ travel success and horror stories and internalized them as my own? Still, I know I’m trying to avoid the ultimate worry that I might not like these magical places in reality as much as I do in my head.
Freud once said that traveling to the Acropolis was one of the more confusing, painful, and melancholic experiences of his life. He wrote, in an emotional and candid letter to a friend years after his visit, that it was difficult -almost impossible – for him to process and appreciate standing in front of the majestic Acropolis because he could not understand how something he had pictured so vividly the majority of his life could possibly exist in reality. He would call this feeling derealization; the notion that what you see before you is not real.
Of course, Freud found a way to attribute this melancholic feeling to something related to his father. While that notion to me seems irrelevant, I think that Freud was on to something. What could have made him feel such an “intense feeling of loss” in the presence of something he had wished to see for so long? Freud attempted to explain this phenomenon, this “disturbance,” to his own feeling of derealization of the Acropolis: what he had imagined had trumped his reality.
I am not suggesting that if one travels with preconceived notions that they will end up in a psychologically confused state. But the nervous traveler must remember there is a difference between healthy anticipation and false projections of reality; nothing ever looks quite like we want it to. Our minds’ canvas can only paint so many possibilities. But that is the beauty of travel. It shatters your perceptions of what you know, and changes you in a way nothing else can.
As I shove one last pair of socks on the side of my backpack, I make sure to add one more item to my lengthy list. Remember to daydream, as long as it doesn’t take the place of reality. Take a breath, and breathe in the unfamiliarity.