When I was seven, I remember demanding to go to Singapore. I knew nothing about the place or the people, but I knew I wanted to set foot in that country. Why? Because I liked the name: Sing-a-poor. I imagined an old Asian man singing for his supper, and I wanted to see it. When we actually reached though, there were spotless streets, elevators that went up to the Merlion’s mouth and night safaris, but no old, singing Asian man. The disappointment didn’t last too long—seeing snakes up close tends to make up for most things.
Travel can be quite like reading. It’s an immersive process; one that pulls you inside a new world and allows it to influence you. Exploring new sceneries, meeting new people, learning something new almost every other hour. It’s a compelling space that will always leave you with something, regardless of whether that makes you tired, delighted, sad or just plain satisfied. Just like books though, not everyone takes away the same thing.
Travel, when I was a child, was more about the sense of anticipation and wonder than the items on the to-do lists that my parents made for our family vacations. My parents, both flight attendants, met while on the job, and their story has definitively shaped my view of travel. The stories and presents that they brought back were about all that was needed to affirm that aeroplanes were wonderful portals into the unknown.
What I seem to have come away with from my travels as a child, isn’t the history of the monuments we visited but instead, the unexpected discoveries I made during those trips. When I think of Paris, I don’t remember visiting the Louvre as much as I remember sitting on the floor of our bed-and-breakfast and stuffing my face with pieces of freshly baked baguettes smothered with liver pate. And while my parents gathered photographic evidence of the zoos and museums we visited on my first trip to London, I brought back the most beautiful miniature kitchen set I had ever seen.
Those plastic sardine tins and chicken legs were not only souvenirs, but flags that marked all the hours spent playing “Kitchen Kitchen” on apartment staircases in the years following that trip (perhaps even being the catalyst to my helpless need to bake so many years later). I haven’t been able to let them go: neither the toys, nor the memory of all the onlookers in the store marvelling at the three-year-old insisting that she didn’t need her uncle to procure the toys for her, she could do it herself (with her parents’ money, thankyouverymuch).
Taking that flight down memory lane is as much a journey in itself, because all those synapses created over the years are miles and miles of memories, each a destination that takes almost nothing to visit again. Each of these destinations has an emotion wrapped around it – instances of fear while walking down dark, painted tunnels in zoos in London, ecstatic joy while getting my first fitted denim skirt in Bangkok, anger in a bedroom in Dubai because I was barred from the grown-up dinner party outside, enchantment while chancing upon The Secret Garden in a relative’s basement in Canada. These flicks of memories resurface often, and I can almost feel them tightening their hold as I grow older and venture further away.
There’s no telling what a kid is going to come away with, just like with books. Maria Popova, the creator of brainpickings.org, wrote an answer to a 9-year-old’s question about why we have books. She said, “Books build bridges to the lives of others, both the characters in them and your countless fellow readers across other lands and other eras, and in doing so elevate you and anchor you more solidly into your own life. They give you a telescope into the minds of others, through which you begin to see with ever greater clarity the starscape of your own mind.” For me, this is word-for-word the wonder that travel can spark, too.
This sort of exposure is the most exciting part of travelling. The experiences I was taken to have aren’t the memories I ended up with. Among all the souvenirs from destinations I found utterly enchanting—the metal coins from the dispensers at Sacre Coeur in Paris and the framed seven sands from Dubai—are memories of unspectacular incidents that are still my most precious keepsakes.
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.