Memories and Travel

“Elliot had in his memory so many jokes
They seemed to breed like microbes in a culture
Inside his brain, one so much making another
It was impossible to tell them all:”
-Robert Pinsky, Impossible to Tell

Sometimes our memories fail us. We don’t remember things as they happened, and sometimes we have false memories. Lately, I’ve had faded memories, or rather blending memories.

A wholly unremarkable street in Rome. Where was I going at the time?
A wholly unremarkable street in Rome. Where was I going at the time?

After a year and a half of wandering around Asia (and that little bit of time in Italy), things have started to look and feel the same. For most of the first year I had a set routine during the week–work all day and go for a walk around the neighborhood in the evening, and then take in the sights on weekends. Most of those days spent wandering around with little direction led to wandering thoughts along the streets.

A game of croquet in the park in Seoul. I forgot about this until I perused my photos
A game of croquet in the park in Seoul. I forgot about this until I perused my photos

I’ll find a spot in a city and believe that it’s familiar–it looks like somewhere I’ve been before, but I haven’t been to this place, have I? I’ve returned to Tokyo and Taipei, so I’ve revisited neighborhoods, but are these the same? And how have neighborhoods changed since my last visit?

I know this is Osaka because it's saved in my Osaka folder
I know this is Osaka because it’s saved in my Osaka folder

When I wander neighborhoods, I rarely pay attention to street signs (assuming they even exist in some places) and I never carry a map around. This makes it difficult to identify where I’ve been–I have dozens of photos of places I can’t recall; they’re surrounded by identifiable tourist sites, which gives me a general idea of location.

This feeling of déjà vu of sorts happens more now than it used too. I’m lost in thought and something in the surroundings catches my attention and brings me back to memory of a place and time that is not recognizable. Sidewalks along rivers as traffic flows past and children play in the nearby park–the river is from one journey, the park another, and traffic is everywhere.

Bet you didn't know Saigon had such a pleasant riverside walk
Bet you didn’t know Saigon had such a pleasant riverside walk

I know that much of the problem is that I’ve been traveling mostly around Asia–the temples and mountains look the same, and even the languages and cultures have similarities. Was I walking through Saigon that day or was it Seoul in summer? Did I see that in a market in Siem Reap or Taipei?

These memories and moments of travel déjà vu bring me back to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and the impossible stories of non-existent cities Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan. There are impossible, or improbable, tales travelers tell to audiences–over time those stories become blurred and we associate one story with another, thus leading to the confusion of places. It’s not the image of the place that we always remember when reminiscing; it’s the experience of that moment in the surroundings and the internal monologue we have when there’s no one around to share that experience.

Shanghai People's Park in 2006
Welcome back to Shanghai (the air was only this clear 9 years ago when the photo was taken)

There are stories of places and experiences that I have yet to write on this site. Those stories float in my consciousness but haven’t yet materialized on the page. Perhaps in time they’ll return for another story for you to read, or maybe they’ll fuse with other stories and turn into tales of what may or may not have happened on the journey.

How do you remember everything while traveling? Do you wonder if your memories betray you when telling stories?

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