It has been five days since I returned to Darwin after a month-long visit with family and friends in Manila, and only today do I feel comfortable with being back home and taking up residence within my old life again.
The first two days were something out of Dante’s Purgatorio…I was using the words ‘lost’ and ‘disoriented’ repeatedly, to describe the way I was feeling. Often these words were accompanied by a strong urge to cry. During the daytime I wanted nothing more than to sleep the time away…sleep as though dead; but at night I would fidget and squirm next to my husband, complaining of restlessness and imaginary discomforts.
“Oh, jet lag!” the modern world would diagnose, and prescribe pills or a bizarre schedule of waking and sleep that involved long walks, alcohol, and caffeine. But jet lag (extreme tiredness and other physical effects felt by a person after a long flight across several time zones) just doesn’t manage to explain away the full range of ‘effects’ experienced by someone who has just traveled, over the space of a few hours, from a Third-World Asian megalopolis like Manila, to the relatively sparsely populated, big empty streets of a small-scale city like Darwin in Australia…with the total time difference comprising a mere hour and a half.
Neither is culture shock (the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes) to blame when, as now, the traveler is having difficulties assimilating the details of her own home environment!
What has really been going on? The way I see it, I was traveling too fast this time, and my soul was left behind. In Singapore, actually.
Life is so short, we must move very slowly.
I have hardly ever traveled by plane. This recent Darwin-Manila (and back again) trip has required my first international flights since 1979, when my parents took me, aged 5, to the USA. Otherwise, Kris and I pretty much travel overland on foot or by bicycle…further afield, we go by bus or car; we move between neighbouring islands by row boat, pump boat or ferry, and between neighbouring countries by sailboat. The few times I boarded a small plane for a domestic flight I experienced a confusion and disruption similar to (but only for a few hours…a day, at the most) my recent condition.
In his books, essays and interviews on the subject of modern travel, Alain de Botton explains:
“There used to be time to arrive…time to get used to the idea of being in a place…nowadays, people constantly get to their destinations too quickly…arriving in Mumbai or Rio, Auckland or Montego Bay, only hours after leaving home, their slight sickness and bewilderment lending credence to the old Arabic saying that the soul invariably travels at the speed of a camel.”
My soul arrives at the speed of a camel…(may as well be a camel, then, eh? Why not? A Soul Camel) to which ancient wisdom I would like to add that, according to my grandmother, the Soul—like a small child—is easily lured away from its familiar (hence boring) body by all things new and unexplored…charming little colonial streets, marketplace tchotchkes, the beckoning wonders of a foreign land. What am I saying? I’m saying that when I took the train into the city of Singapore and got off at Bugis Station, my soul took one look at those little shops with marzipan mouldings in pastel colors, and parks full of modern sculptures, and went off to explore the place on its own…taking all of five days to catch up with me in Darwin.
Makes perfect sense. Explains a whole bunch of things that neither jet lag nor culture shock can. Alain de Botton (sort of) concurs…and that’s always a good sign. What is more, my grandmother moved through her life with the purpose and authority of a military commander—looking much less lost, insecure, and confused than a lot of so-called rational and scientific people I have met—so why wouldn’t I take her word over theirs?
What to do till the camel comes home…
Don’t fret, for it will catch up. In the meantime, don’t make too many demands on yourself…accept that you’re not quite arrived yet—not all of you, anyway—so you can’t expect to snap perfectly into your old life like a piece of Lego.
Go slowly, be patient with yourself and others, find activities that you can work on quietly and in solitude.
Activities that ground you, similar to the ones witches recommend after working a major spell or raising a cone of power, are good: gentle housework or manual tasks like sprucing up the pot plants, weeding a patch of garden, doing dishes, folding dry clothes, or an easy craft that you know well and won’t have to think too much about…anything that you can do without having to make big decisions or come up with creative solutions, can help ground you.
Such actions connect you to the physical reality of where you are; they help build mini routines, that in turn help to re-establish the bigger routines that made up your life before you went traveling. Routines are firm shells that enclose and delineate space, so that your soul camel—with its creativity and passion and expressive fluidity—can feel safe to check in, unpack, and then jump on the unmade bed until dinnertime.
I planted one packet of marigold seeds and pruned the basil………I brushed the cat for an hour each day………I did the laundry………I brought my bicycle back up to snuff (replaced two broken spokes and trued the rear wheel, changed one tube, cleaned the gears, removed a troublesome mudguard)………
I started on a journal. I worked slowly. On Tuesday I stitched the paper and wooden covers into a coptic binding. Yesterday I played with a few headband ideas that didn’t work out. No matter. I undid everything and went at it from another direction.
This morning I think my soul camel finally arrived—every hairy, harrumphing inch of it—for I was suddenly vacuum-sucked out of my lethargic and bewildered state, into an absolute frenzy for everything I was doing before I left Oz in early March…embroidery, bookbinding, writing, mail art, visual journal pages, reading, working out, designing things, drawing, gardening…oh my god, I want a finger in all these pies, and a lifetime of plums!