On the walk home from a new job in my old city, I pass through a park of naked, rangy trees. Parks are among the things I missed most living away from Melbourne for three years. I missed contemplative walks without constant traffic, or the need to weave between motorcycles, bajai and an endless sea of cars; without the metallic taste of diesel fumes always at the back of my throat. In the hours I spent stuck in Jakarta’s gridlock traffic, I told myself I would never again take for granted the quiet, regulated streets of my own city.
But after only a few weeks at home, I found myself impatient at traffic lights that took five minutes to change. The drug of reliable public infrastructure blunted my senses, making me distracted. I stepped into the road at the sound of lights changing. A car swerved and tooted and a tram clanged its bell – the beeping green man wasn’t for my crossing, but the one diagonal.
In the same week a tourist asked me directions to a central train station, one I’d been to dozens of times. I couldn’t picture where it was in that moment, as if a fog had settled over my mental city map – a city I have known my whole life. I left her confused (hopefully to get a second opinion) and felt a mild anxiety rise as I wondered whether this disorientation and distant, almost detached feeling – like a dull vertigo – would eventually dissipate.
I was asked what it’s like to be back. It’s a good question, but one I didn’t have any clear thoughts on. Some travel bloggers describe returning home as the greatest shock of all their travel experiences, dealing with feelings of being misunderstood or alienated in ways they never expected. A prime example of travel writing cliché: “When the initial hugs are hugged out, the reunions over, many of us find that coming home isn’t really coming home. Our true home is being surrounded by the unknown” (Nomadic Matt).
My return home wasn’t like this. I was relieved to find old friendships came with an ease I had forgotten – the time apart becoming quickly inconsequential, rather than creating distance between us. The bewilderment and fogginess I felt even after months of returning home was more to do with the way other things had changed, in almost indiscernible ways, from how I remembered them.
That the differences between reality and idea were minute made them almost more disconcerting. Innocuous things, like frustration at how automation in supermarkets pushes plastic bags on people. That wearing fur is back in fashion. That Uniqlo shirts and puffer jackets are in, and that skinny jeans have become a signifier of age – the only people left wearing them seem to be over thirty, myself among them. Girls in their twenties are wearing loose boyfriend jeans, and flares are creeping their way back too. Nutella-filled donuts are new. As is the willingness of Melbournians to line up for ice cream even in winter, and video game bars and sea-punk hair – silvery greens, blues and pinks.
The drug of reliable public infrastructure blunted my senses, making me distracted. I stepped into the road at the sound of lights changing.
After a few months passed I lost the acuity that comes with travel and stopped making inane observations about my new-old city. This is the contrast between the experience of travelling and living in a place – travel heightens the senses, while staying allows them to grow dull.
Psychologists like Jeffrey Kottler have figured out that, when travelling, “our senses are at optimal functioning”. We expect or are seeking some kind of change in ways we might not at home. Travel removes obstacles to growth; the routine and norms of one’s home country and culture are factors that “can serve to shield or deflect urges toward deeper self-understanding”, according to John Lyons.
Travel offers stimulus for change largely because we open ourselves to it. More difficult is being open to change on home soil; being a traveller amid routine, convention and the grind of real life. W. Scott Olsen believes we should seek to be tourists every day: to find things to wonder at and appreciate.
“Each day creates a new terra incognita out of the whole universe, each morning a new and unexplored venue for the Tourist,” he writes. “To be a Tourist in the way I mean is to learn a new way of seeing freshness, a way to value the smallest and most perfunctory actions of our days.”
As summer settled in I looked for ways to do this – to make transformation happen at home.
Recently I discovered a river not so far from my new city to camp beside; a tributary of the Snowy that sluices through forested mountains, which fold one into the next. The river runs clear, slicking granite and pebbles that catch sunlight in a thousand brilliant colours. Birds whose songs I don’t know make this place alive day and night, reminiscent of the Indonesian city I have left. The water is ankle deep and metres wide with a lazy current, forced in parts through narrow rock or over shelves to create pools deep enough to dive in.
At night a sound of movement drew me from my tent. I ran torchlight over the dense forest. A lean fox stared back, his furred ears pricked, frozen in the spotlight. Like him, I realised, I don’t really belong but am a species noxious in this place. I know almost nothing of the people, ecology or the history of this ancient landscape. In sating my travel curiosity I fuel it also, determined to learn more. To be, at the very least, an informed voyeur.
Tessa Toumbourou is a writer and researcher from Melbourne who has lived in Indonesia on and off for years. Her writing has been published in Inside Indonesia, Crikey, Voiceworks and other places.