2016: Many Happy Returns

I rarely travel to the same place twice. With the exception of major transit hubs like London or Bangkok, it’s uncommon that a certain destination finds its way into more than one itinerary. However, this holiday season was an exception. I closed out 2015 by retracing several earlier trips I’d taken in Southeast Asia, and doing so offered some useful insights. Ultimately, I found that these return-journeys helped me see travel not as the world-conquering endeavor it’s often made out to be but as a humbling and iterative process with the potential to continually refresh itself.

The holiday season took me back to three places I’d visited over the past seven years: Myanmar’s ancient city of Bagan, the tiny Indonesian island of Lembongan, and the town of Ubud at the cultural heart of Bali. I had previously visited Ubud in 2009 on my first trip to Bali, gawking at the island’s iconic stonework and wrestling with the (not so) melodic sounds of gamelan music. Three years later I visited Bagan on a trip through Myanmar and fell hard for that country’s fascinating sociopolitical changes. And in 2013, while I was again Myanmar, I took refuge from the summer monsoon by relaxing on the quiet, unpretentious beaches of Lembongan.

When I returned recently, I was naturally tempted to fixate on what had changed about these places. Tourism was already strong in Ubud when I went 2009, but it had been supercharged by the film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love (the memoir-slash-travel-film is bookended with visits to an idyllic Ubud). The town had doubled-down on cafés and hotels and the increased traffic was palpable. I also found that throngs of new arrivers had washed over Bagan, facilitated by the relaxation of Myanmar’s tourist visa requirements. The number of craft stalls outside its temples had multiplied and a large new hostel, modeled on a sister-location in Milan, now accommodated a hundred visitors per day. Of the three, Lembongan had seen the least change, despite witnessing its own share of new construction.

Yet each place also offered something familiar to grasp onto. Ubud’s secluded courtyards still retained their quiet charm, and a motorbike trip north of town brought me back to a hilltop temple—Pura Luhur Batukaru—that seemed truly frozen in time. In Bagan, countless pagodas still offered viewpoints for privately surveying the dusty setting sun (though lonesome spots are much harder to find now). And the calm of the tide washing up on Lembongan’s Dream Beach was little diminished by the two years that had passed since my last visit.

Return-trips inspire a lot of thoughts and mixed emotions, starting with a feeling of confidence that you know the place. You inhale a gust of nostalgia and opine on how the place has changed since I was here last (to the reasonable annoyance of others). On the other hand, there is also the recognition of how little you really know about the place. For example, my shock at Ubud’s increased traffic eventually gave way to the admission that—let’s be honest—maybe it was just a slow week last time, and eventually the acknowledgment that my previous observations about the place were situational or subjective (either because Ubud is always changing or because each visit is too fleeting). The more you visit a place, the old saw goes, the more you realize how little you know about it.

That return-travel can offer deep insights is not a new idea. Paul Theroux discusses it in the opening pages of his 2008 Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, where he repeats the 1973 train journey that inspired The Great Railway Bazaar (and much subsequent travel lit). “What traveler backtracked to take the great trip again?” Theroux asks in the opening pages. “None of the good ones that I know.” But this is a mistake, he quickly points out. Theroux rightly observes the value of returning, noting that the visitor finds an entirely new internal and external environment—a changed place and changed feelings. And he wasn’t the first to notice this. It’s as old as the Greek philosopher Thales who observed that you can’t step foot in the same river twice because the water is continually moving. Today the same can be said of a city or country—if you read global travel into Thales’ metaphor, you have Theroux’s point.

And yet, despite the richness of this experience, many of us favor new destinations over old ones. Lots of well-heeled travelers hit the road and never look back, driven by the thrill of seeing it all (or the anxiety that we never will). Even as we take our time on beaches or mountains, we’re racing to capture more destinations over the course of this particular holiday, year, or lifetime. We gradually chip away at travel bucket lists—whether they include Paris or Papua New Guinea is irrelevant—and the resulting itinerary allows little time for returning to places we once visited.

Fundamentally, it may be that we as travelers are biased in favor of the unfamiliar. Travel is often romanticized as a voyage into the unknown, and we believe that satisfying this fantasy means going places we’ve never been before. In other words, travel is the process of making the unfamiliar familiar, or in normal terms, understanding it. The problem is that understanding a place less is like punching a goal and more like taking a hundred shots at it. Returning makes it initially less familiar, as we fumble with its complexities, but ultimately reveals it to us. Conversely, return-trips allow us to approach a place a bit more closely while simultaneously drawing it away from us again. This tug of war with the unfamiliar may be a more complete notion of how we to come to understand places, and the truest image of a place may be one which continuously comes in and out of focus.

Return-trips are valuable precisely because they meddle uncomfortably with our recollection; after all, travel is arguably more about facing that discomfort than it is about the particular location in which we face it. Bagan is hardly captured by a single visit and Bali is not easily summarized in a breath. By returning to these places, I found that we actually preserve their foreign-ness rather than reifying them in our memories. In fact, this is also why I find annual travel lists (kitschy as they are) actually refreshing: when The New York Times places longstanding hotspots like Barcelona in its 52 Places to Go in 2016, you’re reminded that these are not one-and-done destinations but places that warrant continued exploration. They help us remember that returning is an integral part of exploration.

So this year, rather than choosing an entirely new destination to visit, consider looking back and asking yourself where you’d like to return to. Ultimately, you may find that the way forward is behind you.

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