Beginnings and ends, plans and memories

Three months there, about 24 hours back.
Three months there, about 24 hours back.

This weekend I booked my first train and my flight from Bangkok back to Edinburgh. It’s really real FO-REAL now. I just have to fill in the middle bits.

I’ve been waiting SO LONG to start doing the proper booking it almost feels fake actually doing it. But it’s paid for and in the calendar and on the spreadsheet and all that. Done and done.

With this (and pretty much every other) trip, the lead-up and the time I spend thinking about it afterwards far outweighs the actual three months I will spend away, and I have been thinking a lot about how much travel is about what happens in your brain, almost more than it’s about the physical act of going places and talking to people and eating things.

There was recently a New York Times article being passed around the interweb on what your holiday says about you, and how the planning bit has been, in some cases, proven to be more satisfying than the actual holiday because planning a busy and intricate itinerary is incredibly rewarding whereas actually DOING something so full-on is exhausting and stressful.

Well. Obviously.

I’ve tried to make my plans for this trip less about pinning down a detailed itinerary and more about amassing possibilities. And there IS a lot of joy in planning for me. Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I am A Planner and Organiser By Nature. I do think this reputation does me a disservice in obscuring the fact that I love spontaneity and surprises, and I often wish there was a little more of that getting thrown at me in my life. So part of this adventure is avoiding the temptation to plan the entire route in detail and keeping things a bit open-ended in places.

I will be booking my trains ahead of time through to Beijing, but after that, I only have rough ideas of where I want to go, and rough estimates of when I need to be crossing certain borders (mostly based on visa requirements). But I still have all sorts of lists of cool things I’ve heard about that might be worth seeing if I’m in the right place.

I should also say that the actual booking-of-tickets part of the planning is IMMENSELY satisfying because it means I AM GOING. And also coming back.

I think when I get back is when the trip really does its work.

Memory is a bizarre thing. Somewhat accidentally, I’ve been consuming a lot of media about it lately. I’ve just finished the memoir of a woman caring for her mother-in-law who has Alzheimer’s called Keeper: A Book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordworth and cake…. The book is half personal experience of the difficulties of caring for someone who is basically losing who they are and half musings on the research the author has done into how the brain actually works, how the disease breaks it down, and the history of Dementia, its treatments, and pubic attitudes towards it.

What we recall isn’t a matter of units of memory, but rather our brain pulling together a story and reconstructing something for us every time. We may think it’s the same always, and we may even think it’s the same as what actually happened, but really it’s probably not. Not the same as what we actually experienced and not the same recall all the time. Sometimes you remember slightly different details of an event and surely that shapes what you see in your head a little differently every time. It’s like watching a play instead of a movie.

From what I understand, Alzheimer’s breaks down the connections that allow your brain to pull memories together, so things disappear at different speeds, but you essentially lose the things that make you who you are, because that’s what memory is. Your personality comes in large part from your experiences and how you process them, and memories aren’t a digital things, they’re a constant, analogue process.

I also just saw Inside Out (how could I NOT?) which shows us Pixar’s vision of how memories and personality work. In their version, memories ARE actually units, but they’re kind of evolving marbles rather than static rocks. The way they portray memories having completely mixed emotions as their foundations and how they combine to create who we are is fascinating (islands of personality!) and gut-wrenching because it feels so accurate. And per usual with Pixar, EVERY ADULT in that cinema with me was all teary at multiple points from being hit hard in the feels.

Between the book and the film, I’m now walking around thinking about HOW my brain is pulling together the memories I’m flipping through at any given time. (Because I don’t have enough buzzing around in my head without getting all meta on top of it.) So I wonder how close the memory and the event are, and how they change depending on what mood I’m in when I recall them. BRAINS. They’re pretty cool.

The constant evolution of my travel memories connects those experiences to whatever present circumstance I need them to inform or whatever feeling I need to associate with them. This is true for a lot of experiences though. You do something you think is a bit rough or difficult or whatever, but when you look back on it you feel like it was maybe a lot greater than you gave it credit for at the time. Some of this is hindsight and analysis and, in my case, the fact that I have a hard time relaxing or not being a ball of anxiety about everything that’s happening because I can’t often quiet my brain down long enough to stop and really see what’s happening for two seconds.

But I sort of love this about travel. My memories of trips are things I call up and scrutinise on a regular basis, sometimes for daydreaming or escape, sometimes for self-criticism, sometimes for other things entirely. I’m sure they change a little every time, but I also know that it grows the experience to something much richer in my history.

And then there’s one trip I took just before a pretty traumatic life thing that I never got to think too much about in the weeks after I got back because I was Dealing With Some Hardcore Stuff. I honestly think this affected my ability to commit a lot of that trip to long-term memory in the way I usually do by mulling things over for ages in the background when I return from a place. I don’t have a lot of solid memories of that trip the way I do with every other trip I’ve ever taken, which is too bad, because it was a fantastic holiday and I know I had a lot of fun with my friend Sara who I went with. But it only exists in kind of pixelated bits in my head instead of rich dancing colours the way the rest of my travel inventory does.

In contrast, there’s the trip I took to Paris earlier this year. It was such a fast one, and full-on, and manic. And I had a good time while I was there, but when I think about it now, it’s grown into something so much more amazing than I thought it was at the time. Sometimes it’s good to plow through things and work them out afterwards. All the processing is a big part of who I am, and it’s changing all the time. And I love that. It’s what builds bits of those islands of personality.

I think the fact that your inner landscape is such a major part of your travel or anything you do is why it’s so difficult to explain the full experience of your holidays and trips. You can tell stories and try to draw parallels between them and the stories of others, but I find it nearly impossible to impart the real impact of any trip. It’s so wound up in the rest of my life. I kind of just have to trust that people get that. I think at least most of them who’ve done a bit of traveling do.

If memory was made up of discrete units we’d probably be able to explain our feelings on ANYTHING a lot better than we can. It would be like being able to hand someone a book off a shelf instead of attempting to pull up a 30-year-old tree at the roots and show them what bit you mean.

But I think it’s kind of nice you can’t sum yourself or any of your experiences up simply, even if articulation can be a completely awkward and uphill human endeavour. After all, if it were that easy, what then would we talk about in the pub?

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