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I Just Be-s

Just back from the Ubud Festival for Readers and Writers (which is a nice way to name a literary festival)-- came back to find that my piece on moments of wonderment that steal upon you at times when travelling is just out in the NatGeo Traveller. There were a few such moments in Bali -- here is the piece.

It was rush hour for bats, burglars, owls and party animals: about 2 a.m. I was climbing uphill in deep forest, feeling my way over unfamiliar slopes and rocks. Trees took away most of the sky and from somewhere in the distance came the roar of rushing water. It was the dead of night, yet it wasn’t dark. The light was penumbral, as if it was dawn or dusk—for this was a walk through Norwegian woods in the improbable thing that is a Scandinavian summer.

The rushing sound intensified into a roar. It turned out to be a fierce little river crashing over rocks and boulders, throwing up high clouds of spray. A frail, two-foot-wide bridge plunged bravely across the raging water. Dreamlike, we stepped on the swaying bridge blinking against the cold, fresh water misting our faces. Below us were boulders and trees frayed by water. Minutes turned into eternity, with each step land was further away and our link with life—that narrow hanging bridge—appeared more tenuous. When at last we returned to firm land on the other side, the Norwegian novelist who had brought the three of us along for the night-walk passed around a hip flask and a smoky single malt curled down our throats, sweetly warm and rich.

We walked on. The dusk that was also dawn lightened further, the woods thinned and opened out onto an empty road that looped over the shoulder of the hill. The headlights of a waiting car snapped on and it glided towards us. No forbidden substances had changed hands yet everything was happening as if in a trance. As the car drove us back towards the tiny mountain town of Lillehammer, the sun, which had never properly set, shook itself fully awake again, returning us to real life.

I’m not sure what I had expected on my first trip to Norway. Certainly I hadn’t planned a walk in night-time woods, one that would turn into strange magic. In a succinct statement of how she journeyed through life, the old Queen of Tonga,was categorical: “I Just Bes,” she said. In other words, “Just chill”—and let interesting things happen. It’s not a bad motto for travel, life, and much else.

Many years ago, as a student, I was traveling in Italy and a string of missed trains forced me towards Assisi. The streets of the little town were hilly and cobbled, every stone felt storied and beautiful. Since I knew nothing about Assisi except that St. Francis fed the birds there long years ago, I was astonished to find that its main basilica was covered in frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue. I had seen the paintings on grainy postcards at tourist shops elsewhere in Italy, and here they were in life, massive and unbelievably luminous. I went back to the church again and again, cancelling other plans to be able to stay on in Assisi. 

Some years on, in 1997, parts of that church came crashing down in an earthquake, and several of the frescoes were ground to dust. A day or two after the quake, a committee gathered in the church to assess the damage. Even as they were examining the building, an aftershock surged through the town. It killed four of the experts assembled inside the church, and more frescoed walls and domes disintegrated. 

What made me miss train connections and end up in Assisi? It had seemed serendipity then, and after the earthquake it appeared even more a miracle that I had seen the frescoes when the church was still intact. In one of his books on steam trains, Bill Aitken is stranded on a mud flat in a boat, waiting for a bus that refuses to come. “Sitting on that sandy shore as the twilight deepened, a profound air of beatitude settled on both mind and body,” he reflects, “…At such moments, you know exactly what eternity feels like. Had I been in a less contented frame of mind and cursed the lateness of the connecting bus, the moment would have been lost.” 

Naturally, such moments, when infinity appears within reach, don’t time themselves to arrive when you’re atop Everest or standing before one of the world’s listed wonders, trying to feel what you’re meant to. More tourists than can be numbered have said of the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower that when, at the end of long travels and ticket queues and crowds, they were finally standing before the legendary building, all they felt was a stale sense of déjà vu and mild disappointment. 

One morning, after weeks of struggle trying to swim, I realised I was halfway across the waterfor the very first time. I had left off clutching the walls of the pool. I was no longer inhaling water instead of air. I could not pin down what was different, but the struggle was over. My arms, legs, head, lungs were inexplicably doing what they had been supposed to do all along, in sync. I no longer needed the reassurance of land.

Water was in its own way, a different planet and it seemed to me that my profound weightless, soundless ecstasy in moving through a different element altogether had been felt before only by Neil Armstrong on his first moonwalk. And by about a hundred thousand other people who, like me, learnt to swim late in life. 

To seek out such moments people dive with sharks, ski across the North Pole, and raft in white rivers. Or they try to swim. To each of us at these times, extracted from our normal surroundings and put into one where we have no idea what to expect, it is as if our minds are being spun around in a kaleidoscope to show us a world entirely new.

Travellers are often given the sense that they must consume whatever information, impressions, and sensations a place affords, click more photographs than can ever be looked at, make notes, then move on to the next place on the list of things to see. 

Yet, like inspiration or ideas or love, moments of travel magic, as in my Norwegian Wood, have a tendency to steal upon you when you expect them least. When you aren’t trying. That perfection of unhurry cannot be worked towards, it needs you to let go and, like the old Queen said, just be.

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