In the time leading up to traveling to a new place, my mind, without any intentional action, conjures a plethora of ideas of what’s in store. It’s as if all the stories I’ve heard, movies I’ve seen, and books I’ve read create this trove of content that spontaneously materializes into a diorama in my mind’s eye. I insert myself in this mental space, observing the surroundings, maybe catching a whiff of a meal cooking. I imagine crossing a street, ordering coffee, eating dinner, all with the sense of reality we give our fading, undulating memories.
So often my perceptions of a place turn out to be so very wrong. The twinkling gloss of imagination fades with the first steps away from a plane, out of an airport and into a different history, a different culture, a different way of life. It’s leaving the warm place inside yourself where we fantasize of memories to come and entering a stark reality. These first moments in a new place incite a level of hyperawareness, and with it, an inflated appreciation of the new and novel. Oh, look! The bathrooms are different! The air! I can feel it in my lungs! Everyone is wearing this kind of shoe! That smell! What is it? Can I find out what it is before I leave? Are those people really just picking their noses like it’s nothing?
And then you remember: you’re still on this planet. People live whole lives in this place where you are a visitor. This is their familiar. This is their home. Somewhere, everywhere, people like you are living out life’s mundane bits; they’re taking out trash, washing dishes, hoping the day holds some time to relax, to sit-down and escape from reality and get lost in someone else’s story.
I just booked a ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam, and already my imagination is fabricating the experience of being there. The air will surely be cleaner, out there near the ocean. Cooler, too. The traffic must act differently, with more expectation, but with fewer pauses. Food will be glorious and fresh, filled with sea creatures and wrapped one of rice’s many forms or maybe even a baguette that’s lingered on past France’s exit from the country. Some things will be familiar–the infrastructure can’t be that different from Thailand’s, can it? But I will see it differently, carefully, because my mind bathes Vietnam in a bath of permanent twilight.
My mind’s vision of this new place and the adventures it holds will continue to morph and gain clarity as we plan out our itinerary beyond the basic route from Hanoi going south. And then, all of a sudden, this warm place, taking days, months, (actually, a lifetime) to make will disappear as the real Vietnam takes over, paving over the predictions, the images, the vignettes. I might not even notice how my perceptions adapt to the new space’s reality. My mind is courteous; it makes these transitions easy for me.
Then, poof! On April 20 the Vietnam from before will pick up and move on without a fuss as I acquire new memories. And when I’m done experiencing the place and the new, unexplored territory becomes old news, my mind will act up again, playing with the new content. I’ll adapt, edit, elaborate the real footage of Vietnam into something digestible, reinforcing these editorialized memories through story-telling, photo-sharing, and through the mental encore performances that happen in times of reflection or in dreams.
And Vietnam, the real place, will just go on being what it is. A home, a destination, a study in geography. It’s people will continue doing what people everywhere do, potty training, struggling to wake up on time, worrying, laughing, picking up dinner, and still hoping for the time to get lost in someone else’s story, as the travelers mill about, collecting memories, losing themselves in another place’s story.
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