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When traveling it is best to leave some space—both mentally and physically—to increase the odds ...
2022-10-25 09:00:00

Anywhere Will Do
The Art of Serendipitous Travel

“HW,” Kevin McNamee-Tweed, 2019 (glazed ceramic). Photo by Wild Don Lewis, courtesy of Steve Turner Gallery Los Angeles
Anywhere Will Do
Anywhere Will Do

I rarely plan my trips, and I always leave some space in my backpack. Lack of prior knowledge and lightness are the two patron saints of a good journey. The more open the mind and the lighter the luggage, the better the chance for a lucky coincidence.

Read in 15 minutes

When a shoe store attendant asks what I’m looking for, I tell them that as soon as I know, I’ll buy two pairs straight away. I did that once on a June afternoon in Amsterdam—I saw them out of the corner of my eye just as the store’s shutters were closing and dived in. I promised the annoyed saleswoman that if she found me a size 9.5 in the back, I’d take two pairs. Suede, above the ankle boots, with a thin sole. I trekked halfway around the world in them—Norway, the Emirates, India, and Singapore. They fell apart as I walked across the endless city of Seoul. They were my friends at first sight, companions of lonely expeditions, captured in hundreds of photographs.

Proper shoes are one of the few things that one really needs when traveling—besides some clothes, a torch, a notebook, and a book for the long hours of waiting for the bus, the sunrise, or the fishermen’s return from sea. One never knows what is going to happen—and when. That’s the whole point: not knowing too much, lowering expectations, not planning things in advance. It’s best to know little—in fact, there’s nothing better than getting properly lost. Walking down a back alley or catching the wrong train—an encounter with the unknown begins. This is how one comes across a five-legged cow, buys the perfect scarf, or watches deities emerge from straw and clay. It’s also better not to know the local language, to be unable to communicate, as this can sharpen observation skills and the sense of independence. In the dark, anything is possible.

Get Lost

Larry King was probably bluffing a bit when he said: “You cannot talk to people successfully if they think you are not interested in what they have to say or you have no respect for them.” Assisted by a team of researchers and notes—i.e., with meticulously collected info about his guests—King would often push it all aside, lean in closer, and ask a completely banal question. Did he not know the answer, or was he good at feigning ignorance? I think he was able to protect his own curiosity. It’s worth treating traveling in a similar way, especially in the era of information chaos that frequently leads to oversimplification and stereotyping. Knowing too much can limit one’s chances for new experiences. A carefully planned trip is, at best, a physical activity consisting in moving around space and time. It has little in common with travel. The latter requires nudity, a kind of poverty and humility, which begins with a lack of possessions and intentions. When I don’t have them, I want to be someone else, somewhere else—I go away.

Nowadays, in order to keep a clear head and a desire to learn about the world, one must put in some solid effort. It is paramount to escape the tourism industry that is already selling a package of “authentic experiences”—with scheduled meals and activities for each day—before you’ve even decided that you want to take a vacation. While the aforementioned model has various advantages and for some is the only way to move around the world, it’s worth distinguishing it from the art of traveling and taking advantage of its unpredictable nature. Being on the road gives the gift of seeing the world, accepting events, experiencing delight. Even if it’s just for oneself—a journey doesn’t have to be spectacular or impress others. And whether it actually happened remains an intimate matter. Only I can say whether a trip changed me and whether something clicked. We live in an era where many are more interested in Instagrammable locations (a media fiction that sets real-world travel itineraries), which is why it’s becoming increasingly difficult to follow one’s own path. The trail has turned into a highway, devouring all the side streets. When thousands of people descend from a giant cruise ship on the coast of Venice, the churches, squares, and alleys shiver as the omnivorous crowd approaches. Never mind Venice—today it’s hard to find a quiet spot even in the Amazon. I spent two weeks in a Peruvian selva with excellent cellphone reception and Wi-Fi! It’s hard not to fall into the trap of repeatability and connectivity. But it’s not necessary to hide somewhere no one’s ever been before. The point is to experience the journey in one’s own way, with one’s own sensitivity and insight. In the end, truth and beauty are in the eye of the beholder.

To everyone who goes traveling: I hope that on the first day of the trip, your phone gets trampled on by an elephant. Without easily accessible solutions, Google Maps, and lists of “Ten things you need to see and do,” you can finally look up and around. Without the uninhibited impulse of taking photos and publishing them online, the sights will be imprinted in your memory and truly seen. I also wish all travelers linguistic ignorance. A long time ago in Kosovo’s capital city Priština, I sat at a small bar that had survived the war and learned to patiently observe and understand what I saw. My discussions with the city’s intelligentsia lasted for hours, even though my Albanian was limited to “Good morning!” and “Thank you very much.” We understood the sound of our voices and gestures, which contained the essence of everything we wanted to say. And how blessed I was to wake up on a train at a small station in India, whose name was painted in an unfamiliar alphabet. The rain was pouring down, the train wasn’t moving, the passengers were sharing one newspaper and the last cone of savory snacks. We’ll leave later today, maybe tomorrow. It makes no difference, since I don’t even know where I am. I can stare at the raindrops, watch a buffalo bathe in a puddle, and wait for nightfall. Night will fall without question, and the train will move whenever the gods allow it. My will and plans have nothing to do with it. Traveling not only brings events, adventures, and impressions. It also abounds in silences and stillness, and offers the generous gift of simplicity—so long as one can accept it.

The Smile of Faith

It’s 2022, the end of February; yesterday the war broke out in Ukraine. The first victims and refugees are heading to Poland. I receive these reports with a sense of shock and fragility. I’m trying to imagine tomorrow and I cannot—plus I have a flight to Colombo booked for today. Should I stay or should I go? Sri Lanka is where the word “serendipity” comes from. Serendib, the Arabic name of the island once known as Ceylon, gave rise to the idea of serendipity, which combines happy coincidences, the ability to draw from them, and a knack for random discoveries.

It is a terrible coincidence that the date of my departure coincides with such a tragedy. I ponder whether to cancel the trip or, on the contrary, consider this a happy coincidence. Fear tells me to stay at home in Poland, because I don’t know what might happen. Intuition says trust the unknown and go. I’m not sure whether it’s worth seeking beauty when evil consumes the world, but if there’s even a slight chance of finding out, I’ll take it.

The hotel in Fort—an old and once representative part of Sri Lanka’s capital city Colombo—smells of mothballs and the AC is furiously trying to overcome the humidity hanging in the air. I turn it off and collapse into bed, tired of the heat and jet lag. From outside, I can hear the ringing bells of tuk tuks and the roar of diesel engines—the typical soundtrack of a South Asian street. The hotel boy comes in as I’m dozing off; half-awake, I thank him for bringing up my luggage and hand him a tip. Before going down to the lobby, he stares at the money for a long time. The next morning, I realize I’d tipped him ten times too much. He got lucky, and I laughed loudly at myself. Still, sharing with others is the best way to multiply wealth. Perhaps it is because of the way such energy passes between people that later on the same day, in the exchange office around the corner, a trader in a carefully pressed shirt ignores the official dollar exchange rate and gives me many more rupees than I was offered elsewhere. Money—an acquired object and one that in this case isn’t worth a lot. Following the pandemic, Sri Lanka’s economy will implode. Before I leave the island, the rupee will drop by a third and the prime minister will fly to India to ask for emergency fuel supplies on credit. But never mind such calculations. When traveling, a big wad of cash has never come in handy for me. On the contrary, the less money I had, the more immersed I was in events. No hassle with hotels, no drivers, no bed and breakfasts. Multiple bus transfers, a room without bedding and a bucket of water in the bathroom, lunch in a local canteen—preferably a crowded one, because then one knows that it feeds simple, good food. No bookings—going from hotel to hotel, checking, talking, negotiating. No cell phone telling me which street to take or how far to go. No bus timetables, just squeezing through a crowd of fellow passengers to throw my backpack onto the roof and squash myself into the vehicle. No way of knowing whether—and certainly, when—I’ll get to where I want to go.

The first long-distance bus I boarded in India screeched horribly on the winding roads at the foot of the Himalayas. The same driver sat behind the enormous wheel for 17 hours—no rest, no stops. He honked the horn, accelerated, and braked; chewed betel and spat it out the window; wiped his forehead with a dirty cloth, which he then swung over his neck to absorb the streams of sweat. At night, the bus suddenly stopped. Raised voices could be heard in the dark. I got out with the other passengers, and in the light coming from a roadside stand, watched as three boys pushed one of the wheels into the darkness. We must have got a flat tire and somewhere out in the darkness was a tyre repair shop. We sat around the stand. The following day, its owner must have performed a pooja prayer, thanking the gods for the happy coincidence and unexpected earnings. We bought all the stale biscuits and drank two pots of sweet milk tea. The wheel returned—repaired. Before dawn came, the engine roared, the driver pressed the horn and boldly took the corners, ignoring the rusted remains of trucks and buses lying in the abyss on both sides of the road. We must always believe that luck is in our favor.

The Left Side of the Elephant

I get into a tuk tuk outside the train station in Colombo. It’s hard to convince the driver to take me around aimlessly. Immediately he has a plan: first the TV tower, then the National Museum, a representative promenade… He pulls out a well-worn leaflet, “Top ten attractions of Colombo,” and waves it before my eyes as proof of his professionalism and as a guarantee of reliable service. When I ask him to just set off, he blinks without understanding. So I propose to pay him by the hour—we drive for two hours, any direction, all right? He nods, and the small three-wheeler taxi, resembling a round-shelled, agile insect that can squeeze in just about anywhere, jolts onto the busy street.

Along the way, sudden rain, a hectic market, the skeletons of skyscrapers. We get to the Buddhist temple an hour before dark. At this time of day in Sri Lanka, life slows down and becomes more festive. Neatly dressed people are heading to prayer—perfumed, their clothes carefully pressed, they emerge from the surrounding streets. Others also prepare for the evening rituals. An elephant lies on its right side outside the temple—with the tip of a hose in its mouth, it is sipping cold water as a mahout scrubs its belly and back with a piece of large coconut shell. He sharpens it again and again with a long knife, carried in a leather sack slipped behind a sarong. He scrubs firmly but gently, pouring water onto the washed areas—clearly welcomed by his charge, with whom he’s bound himself for life. One gesture from him, and the animal swaps over to its left side. An hour later, as the sky darkens and the pink glow disappears with the streams of water flowing into the gutter, they will go into the temple together. The elephant will pick up a large bouquet of lotus flowers, bend its legs in front of a Buddha statue, and offer him the gift.

This is another thing I accidentally learnt some time ago—dusk is the best time to visit places of worship. In most temples, nightfall is a transformative moment of thanks. At the Temple of the Tooth in the mountain city of Kandy—the most important Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka, famous for its relic concealed in a precious gilded case—drummers start to beat a deafening rhythm. Carefully prepared flower compositions, sprinkled with cold water, disappear from the stalls in front of the gate. Hundreds of candles burn and a long queue to see the relic forms. The monks reveal the box hidden deep inside the temple. Visitors can take a quick look, give an offering of flowers or fruits, and bow. Then the guard moves the queue on to the subsequent chapels, statues, and altars. I like this feeling—my bare feet on the hot surface of stone floors, stairs, and alleys. A warm evening, saturated with the sweetness of flowers and incense, the air swollen with hope, gratitude, and faith. 

Bathing in Butter

Just a few days earlier in Colombo’s Shiva Temple, I watched two transcendent spectacles at once. The religious complex, hidden behind brightly painted, enormous statues, was just starting to get busy after the people and gods’ afternoon nap. Two tiny cats were still sleeping on the stone steps, but the brahmins in saffron-coloured sarongs, their foreheads decorated with fresh paste and pinned hair, were already preparing a spectacular bath for the carved incarnations of Shiva. Water and milk poured out of the copper pitchers onto the stone statues, abundantly flowing down the pedestals and the floor. Flower petals, freshly-squeezed fruit juice, water from shattered coconuts, melted ghee—the aromatic blend of fluids fell on the dark stone lingam—a small pole symbolizing Shiva and fertility. Next to it a stone, bowl-shaped disc, a symbol of shakti—woman’s power—also filled with floral and fruit offerings. The Hindu gods—or in fact different aspects of one universal force—were bestowed with temporal objects symbolizing the wealth of life. The faithful brought these offerings fresh, carefully arranged in braided baskets made of leaves or in coconut shells. The food and decorative gifts were quickly divided by the brahmins—their skilful hands covered the statues with rice and water; once consecrated, they were given to the followers. Then the mixture was rinsed off, making room for further offerings. This ceremony of tender gestures, reminiscent of bathing and anointing a newborn, combines the rhythms of everyday life and the eternal, enduring nature of the universe. Every day people are born and die, flowers bloom and wither. Only the gods remain, set in stone, although following the rituals they seem to glow with satisfaction.

In the depths of the temple, on the floor, sat a young brahmin. He was reciting mantras while pouring melted ghee over the flames of a small fire, the sweet smell spreading nearby. He was accompanied by an older married couple in elegant outfits. They joined him in singing mantras, and handed him fruit and flowers to decorate a small figurine wrapped in an embroidered piece of silk. The brahmin took his time; he opened lotus blooms and arranged them carefully, but seemingly without too much thought. His gestures were full of freedom and intention. I would have liked to know exactly what they meant, yet answers, even if they exist, are hard to understand—and the longer I look, the less I need them. The world is a mystery in which today I play a part. 

The column of jeeps hurry straight ahead, and we turn into a side road. Perhaps we’ll get lucky here. It’s early, so the odds are in our favor. Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is home to dozens of species of wild animals, including leopards and sloths living in the enclosed natural reserve. For several hours now, we have been circling the area available to the public, swallowing the dust raised by the wheels. Actually, I didn’t plan on visiting here, but the smiley Nuwan, a driver who I bumped into at a train station in the nearby mountains, had such a cheerful manner that instead of just getting a ride to the tea plantation, I decided to spend another day with him, enjoying everything the road brings. Yesterday it was medieval Buddha statues carved in rock, breathtaking and completely lonely—I contemplated them in the company of grasshoppers and a stray dog. Today we got up before four in the morning, chatted about the Sri Lankan Civil War  during the drive, and arrived at the park gates just before dawn. A quick switch from a Toyota to a 4x4 Mahindra and here we are, jumping around on the potholes, in an increasingly strong sun, straining our eyes. A young sloth bear runs towards us from the direction of the lake. It has black shiny fur with some white around its neck—it looks as if it’s wearing a decorative collar. Nuwan hits the brakes, we take a deep breath, no one utters a word. We know we only have a brief moment. Sloth bears are hard to spot, and this one seems to be in a hurry to run its morning errands. It stops in the middle of the road, lifts its torso, shakes its head, sniffs around—it’s got poor eyesight, but a perfect sense of smell—its curved paws fall back to the ground, and it runs away, disappearing quickly in the low bush peppered with impressive termite mounds, its daily subsistence. Before the day is over, we’ll see slender and indifferent leopards, capuchin monkeys cuddled with their young, large sambar deer, and whole herds of buffalo and elephants. I will remember the massive elephant that wandered among the water lilies all day, fishing out their roots with its trunk. It ate slowly, as if it had all eternity and the surrounding world didn’t exist.

We had to leave the park at nightfall, but the day isn’t over yet. Back in the Toyota, heading south, where strong ocean waves hit the sandy beaches and where, under the cover of night, turtles come ashore to lay their precious eggs in the sand. We won’t be able to see that, but it’s enough for me to know that they were nearby. Their heads emerged, again and again, from the rushing waves as I lay on the sand and let the tide roll my body back and forth.

In the following days, the heat gave way to massive thunderstorms, the hotel fan went silent due to a lack of electricity, and the buses queued for petrol. In a tiny café called Serendipity, in the old Portuguese fort in Galle, the dollar still had some value and I could have a cold tea with fresh passion fruit. Life was beautiful—at least for me, at least at that moment. Next to me, Russians ate ice cream, spending their last notes, unaware that in a day or two they would be thrown out of the hotel as insolvent. On the way to the airport, I passed queues of people waiting in desperation for their propane tanks to be filled.

Soon, as a result of paper shortages, school exams will be canceled and rice and milk will be rationed. The first riots against the Sri Lankan president will break out. But not today. As long as I’m on the road, there’s no tomorrow. As long as I’m traveling, I exist.


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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Paulina Wilk

Paulina Wilk

is Editor of the Culture & Society section, as well as a writer and journalist focusing on global development. Among others, she has published the non-fiction books “Lalki w ogniu” (Dolls on Fire: Stories from Modern India) and “Pojutrze. O miastach przyszłości (After Tomorrow: On Future Cities). She has also written a series of fairy-tales about a teddy bear called Kazimierz. She is the co-creator of the “Kultura nie boli” foundation, the bookshop, café and literary space Big Book Café, and the Big Book Festival.