Letter #4 from the Munich-to-Berlin overnight train

On slow travelling, being alone in unfamiliar places, and talking (or not talking) to strangers.

You can also read this letter online at bit.ly/emydeewritesletter4
Throwback: Wending through the Tabernas Desert in Almeria, south of Spain.

It’s possible that it’s the getting somewhere I anticipate the most. That may explain why I tend to make as much of the journey as possible, draw it out so that it unfurls more momentously towards its destination, especially after I’ve been stationary for a while—as long as practical considerations allow, like when it isn’t a lot more expensive to take the train than to fly.

It’s not that I don’t like flying; in fact, a period of absence from airports makes me quite fond of them. Being sucked into one and spat out another—transported with relative immediacy to different sights, sounds, and smells—jolts you into reorienting yourself and recalibrating your perspective, even if initially only in the most literal of ways. Generally, though, I prefer watching landscapes undulate past me on trains, buses, and boats that I can board directly with minimal fuss: no check-ins, no worrying about losing my luggage, no having to separate liquids and electronics for security scans. I figure the extra hours added to the extended journey equal the hours of procedural tedium at airports anyway; and they feel earned, somehow, as if I’ve bought myself more time in a day to read and write and just sit and think. And in the time of climate change, going the long way round eases the guilt of travel at least a little.

So I made my way from Munich to Berlin on an overnight train ride—the ten-hour meander, not the four-hour express. It was the cheapest leg available, since I was buying tickets at the last minute; and I thought I might as well save on a night’s accommodation. That morning, after checking out of my hotel in Munich, I left my backpack in a locker at the central station, took the 10 a.m. train to the alpine town of Berchtesgaden near the Austrian border to reach the Eagles’s Nest—a mountain retreat once used by Nazi party members—and returned to Munich the same way, arriving at 9:15 p.m. I took a hurried shower at the station—look out for Mr. Clean!—and caught the 9:51 p.m. train out, arriving in Berlin just before 8 a.m. the next day, and waited two hours at a cafe before I could check into the Airbnb my friend, who was flying in from London to meet me, had booked for us.

I find it weirdly satisfying to put myself through the paces when I travel. The demands of being on the move invigorate me. There’s something about straining my body that makes me feel used, and useful—a welcome reminder, perhaps, that I’m in control of it, that I can make it do what I want it to do, and that it can withstand some wear and tear from sustained, concentrated activity. The tightness in my right shoulder from always carrying my backpack on that side. The claw-like sensation in my feet and the swollen feeling in my calves from really using my legs again—I make myself walk as much as possible so I pay closer attention to my surroundings. The lack of sleep from trying to squeeze in too many activities in a day while keeping up with other time zones for work outstanding and trying to accommodate the sleeping cycles of others when I stay in hostel dormitories. Even the occasional angry red spots that mar my skin from bug bites of undetermined origin (luckily so far, nothing antihistamines can’t help)—not letting them bother me too much can feel like a small triumph.

All that contrasts with the practised ease of routine at home, which I equate with comfort—the kind that can gradually slide into complacency if I’m not mindful. It’s all too easy to take home for granted. I don’t always feel the urgency to explore as much as I can, because I can put it off until tomorrow, and tomorrow again. There are things I cease to see because I see it every day. I once wrote of home: “KL is KL. Something else tugs at me here, still, even if I’m not quite sure what it is yet. In a way, maybe it’s the absence of an easy, taken-for-granted love for it, despite it being home, that makes me want to find even more reason to love it. It must be because I just haven’t seen enough of it yet, I tell myself. Maybe my perspective has been blunted by familiarity, and I’ve yet to open my eyes to this city fully.” Luckily, reporting and writing forces me to keep my eyes open, and to try to understand the things I see. It re-attunes me when I start to coil, too much, into myself.

So getting back on the road is a chance for me to break out of my routine. A few years ago, after I made a ten-day journey by dugout canoe through the Amazon jungle in Peru, a friend wondered at how I could swing so effortlessly from the comfort of home to the discomfort of such adventures from one day to another. (More on the Amazon journey further along this letter.) I guess it’s just a way to mix things up, to keep myself ever sensitised to the world, to force myself to notice what I might otherwise overlook. It’s one way—and surely not everyone’s way—to feel alive: to keep, as a mentor once said, “a keen eye and a full heart”, and not just in writing. These words serve as an ongoing ideal for me: this is how I would like to be, always.

This is how I travel when I’m on my own. It’s different when I’m with friends and family—more relaxed, more about their company than the place. (I am capable of having relaxing, fun trips, yes! Don’t forsake me yet as a travel companion!) Neither way is better than the other. Just different.

Kehlsteinhaus, a.k.a. the Eagle’s Nest: once a mountain retreat for Nazi party members, now a tourist attraction.

The Eagles’s Nest is often referred to as “Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest” because it was a present to him from his Nazi party members on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday. But despite how the Kehlsteinhaus is advertised to tourists, it seems that Hitler never actually spent all that much time there. Completed in 1938, it’s perched at more than 6,000 feet on the peak of a mountain, which had been hollowed out to build a marble tunnel more than 120 metres long and an elevator shaft of about the same height, which provided access to the house. It looks like a grandstanding lair of some James Bond villain—yes, I thought that and others have thought that; it’s true!—calculated to induce awe, and maybe not a little fear, in visitors.

In hopes of getting more detail on the history from my trip there (I have both a working and personal interest in WWII), I had signed up for a tour, which turned out to be led by a young German-American who looked to be in his early twenties. It’s been his summer job for several years now, and I overheard him say to an elderly American couple that what he really wanted to be was a journalist because he was interested in history and politics. They were impressed by what they saw as his budding worldliness—partly to do with his being both American and European, I sensed; we seem to think of being born into certain places as a personal achievement, rather than a lottery—and by his boyish cheekiness. I’m reminded of myself at his age, when the world feels like a map you can pin your hopes and dreams on, if you only hope and dream hard enough, brightly enough, and when your choices have not yet determined, in some way, your life. I know, I know, I’m only in my thirties, but it made me feel a little wistful, though also optimistic. I silently cheered him on.

At the end of the tour, I got talking to a travelling father-daughter pair when we both missed the 5:30 p.m. train from Berchtesgaden back to Munich and had to wait for the next one. They invited me to sit with them when we found ourselves in the same restaurant next to the train station, and I found out that he’s a lawyer in Washington D.C., and that she’s a university sophomore, likely to follow in his footsteps. We engaged in small talk, mostly: our respective experiences in Germany, my work as a writer and abandoned career in law, his work and her studies. And then, when she went off to the toilet, and because I had asked about the rest of their family earlier, he confided that he was divorced from her mother, and that normally he would rope his three other children along—but, really, accommodating all of them can be difficult, especially when their other halves come along, because he would feel obliged to pay for their trip too. He laughed, not a little sheepish, when he said this, and I laughed back, appreciating the winking honesty.

Then, when the train arrived, we left the restaurant and went our separate ways. We didn’t sit together or share contacts or even last names that could be Googled, and I’ve actually now forgotten their first names. But meeting strangers is one of the most rewarding aspects of travel for me, even when I only get the most fleeting glimpse into their lives, and the mutual feeling of goodwill doesn’t extend beyond the present moment, and there’s absolute nothing to remember them by beyond the fallibility of one’s memory. I think I find it comforting to think of all these people scattered around the world, trying to live their lives the best they can—just the idea that life goes on, everywhere, no matter what happens to your life, no matter what happens in any one part of the world.

So I was generally feeling good, and self-assured, and all right with the world as I embarked on my long train ride later that evening. Travelling solo has its downsides, but it also feels liberating in a way that nothing else quite approximates. And I suppose the solitude is mostly self-imposed, which is quite different from that forced by circumstance. Though paradoxically, at the same time, being a lone figure in a crowd also opens you up to unexpected human interactions. So you have moments of solitude, and then you don’t—should you just smile more, speak more, make more eye contact. Like the New York Times’ 52 Places Traveler Seb Modak wrote in this piece:

loneliness is surprisingly rare when you're travelling alone. And two, people are just the best. Loneliness happens, but it can turn. It can turn quickly

But it does take more conscious effort to open up myself to conversation with strangers now than it used to, when I was in my early twenties and wandering around Central America. Perhaps it’s got something to do with knowing from experience that out of ten people you come across you’ll maybe really only connect with one or two, so you become more reserved, less willing to engage further when rapport doesn’t come quickly. I’ve made good enough friends from my travels that I should be more optimistic on this point, but I still have to remind myself to be.

Throwback: Staying with the Simo family, of the indigenous Bidayuh community, in the village of Ulu Bengoh, Sarawak—a Malaysian state that’s part of Borneo.

And there is a process of easing into an unfamiliar place, for me, while travelling alone. I start out more quietly spoken, more tentative, as if feeling for the next foothold in the dark. Going into crowded restaurants or shops alone and having to ask for something, where English is not the first language, can feel awkward and daunting. I feel like everyone must be staring at me, when no one is. It feels like entering someone’s house as a guest, but in the macro sense—their country is their house, and you’re just coming and going. I recall the things my mother used to tell me, whenever I stayed at someone else’s home as a child: Don’t be an inconvenience. Do what your hosts do. Leave the place the way you found it. The residue of childhood lessons can carry over into adulthood.

When someone was rude to me on the train, I was so taken aback I didn’t react in the way I wish I had.

Having found what I thought was my carriage and seat (the ticket was detailed in German), I found a pale, long-haired young man sitting in it. He was plugged into his earphones, did not look up at me. I said “Excuse me” a few times, with that tentativeness I was still feeling. When he didn’t respond, I tapped him lightly on the shoulder. He ignored me for a few beats, then yanked off his headphones with an exasperated flourish and said, “Are you in comfort?”

“What?” I said, not understanding, still tentative—wondering if I had so misunderstood something as to incur, reasonably, this person’s annoyance.

“Comfort!” he said again, now slapping his hands on the seats and the backs of the seats in front of him in emphasis, his scraggly curls flapping—at least, in my retrospective imagining.

Ohh. I mean, I don’t remember a “Comfort” class" when I was booking my ticket, but perhaps he meant First Class; I was meant to be in Second Class. If that’s what this was about, well, what an overreaction.

I wish I could say that I said something so harsh it knocked him sideways. But in truth, I was still confused by his outburst in the moment, and just walked away after aiming a quizzical eye roll at him. (I think I’ve quite perfected the unhurried, unfazed saunter from more than a decade of travelling solo—in reaction to sexual harassment on the streets, for one.) At fortunately rare moments like these, I often think back to one memorably glorious occasion when I told a rude cyclist who had yelled at me and a friend to get the fuck out of his way in Chinatown, London—no, we were not obstructing the bicycle lane—to “Fuck back off!” and his satisfying silence. I guess how I respond to these situations often comes down to my mood in the moment. I’m not proud of it, but that time I slung back, it did feel good.

The train incident brought home again to me how dependent the travel experience is on the kindness of strangers. And honestly, I did wish for a moment, right then, that I was back home in the familiar embrace of family and friends. Why do I do this to myself? I thought. Wouldn’t I just like to find someplace I feel I completely belong to, and pitch up and start building a life in one place, instead of fragments of it in multiple places? It’s a thought that occurs not infrequently to me. And yet, the kind of stories I’m inspired to tell seems to encourage a peripatetic existence, and usually necessitates travelling on one’s own. And I think, while I haven’t found that person or other reasons to compel me to make a home, shouldn’t I continue to do this as much as I can?

I don’t have the answers. But this passage by Susan Orlean from her first collection of travel stories, My Kind of Place, helps me remember why the pursuit of my desire is worthwhile, despite the episodic loneliness:

There is nothing that has quite the dull thud of being by yourself in a place you don’t know, surrounded by people you don’t recognise and to whom you mean nothing. But that’s what being a writer requires. Writing is a wonderful life—a marvellous life, in fact—but it is also the life of a vapour, of floating in unseen, filling a space, and then vanishing. There are times when I’m travelling, when I’m far from home, that I am so forlorn that I can’t remember why I chose this particular profession. I yearn to be home so fiercely that I feel as though my heart will pop out of my chest. And then I step out to see the world spread around me. I know where I’m heading: I am heading home. But on the way there, I see so many corners to round and doors to open, so many encounters to chance upon, so many tiny moments to stumble into that tell huge stories, that I remember exactly why I took this particular path. The journey begins again; the story starts over; I gather myself and go out to see what I can see and tell it as best I can, and the beckoning of home is always, forever, there, just over the next horizon.

And soon enough, as the train approached Berlin and the morning, my doubts slowly evaporated.

Six hours before we arrived in Berlin, a stranger had stepped onto my carriage, looking like some velvety hip-hop prince. He was wearing a dark wine-coloured bomber and socks pulled up to his calves with black tracks tucked in. He had a ring pierced into a pugnacious nose, counterpoised by a surprisingly narrow chin and a tall frame. He looked around for a spot to park himself for the night’s journey, and seemed to decide on the seat next to mine.

He had his earphones on; I had my earphones on. He dipped his chin regally and smiled, just a little—in greeting, in question. I dipped my chin back and smiled, just a little, and brought my backpack closer to me. He raised his hand and patted the air—No sweat, he seemed to be saying. At some point during our train ride, my backpack tipped over to his side, and he stayed it with his knee; when it tipped back over to my side, I stayed it with mine. And it sat like that between us the whole time, in a state of perfect equilibrium. Hours later, after we had both slept and woken, a few stops before Berlin’s central train station, he stood up, and before he got off he turned, nodded in that same regal manner, smiled again, and disappeared. And I thought, It doesn’t take much to move through the world with grace.

We had been wearing our earphones the whole time, never exchanged a single word. And my faith in strangers was restored by a silent non-encounter with one.

Arrived to gorgeous summer days in Berlin.

Later, in Berlin — It’s early evening and the police block off a road in the Friedrichshain neighbourhood. No one seems concerned. Led by an invisible collective impulse, people take it as an invitation to sit on the pavements, beer in hand, while a cafe party with a DJ spinning outside spills out onto the street. And then this song plays, and despite myself (and my usual indifference to techno), I’m feeling the beat.

— August/September 2019


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Some things I wrote recently

On a related note to my letter: I was asked by The Lily, Washington Post’s newsletter for women, to write a mini essay on travelling alone. You can read the published version here, alongside essays by fellow freelance journos Meg Bernhard and Didem Tali.

Or you can read this version I edited retrospectively, which is slightly longer and ends differently:

Throwback: Santiago and Maritza, my guides through ten days in the Peruvian Amazon.

At the turn of 2015, when I was between endings and beginnings, I felt an urge to look out onto the world once more—its immensity, its unknowability—to find a way of seeing it anew. In search of that tiny shift in mind and heart that is capable of changing one’s life, I had travelled to Peru, and thought to end my trip with a five-day journey by dugout canoe through the Amazon jungle in the north. I had met a group of travellers headed the same way with the same idea, and thought I would join them.

Then, I saw the map of the river. It covered one wall of a small travel agency's office in sleepy Lagunas—the gateway village to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve—and five days would take me barely halfway up it. Instead, I followed the bright blue rivulet right to the edge of the ceiling, where it pooled into a lake: Cocha Pasto. “It’s pure wilderness there,” Miguel said, with a whispery reverence that made an impression on me. But it was at least a ten-day trip, which was exactly how many days I had before my flight home. I decided that’s where I would go, though it meant forgoing the group’s company. I wanted a challenge, an old-fashioned adventure; I wanted to feel awe. Later, I learned that I was only the eighth person that year to make the same journey.

I say it now like I had made the decision just like that. But I agonised over it. I had seen enough movies to imagine the Amazon’s possible horrors, and the fact that there would be zero means of communication after the third day weighed on my mind—even as I texted my human ports-of-call and told them not to worry unless they didn’t hear from me by the eleventh day. Still, Miguel had talked about Cocha Pasto in terms eminently doable, with a safe return seemingly taken for granted. I dared myself to go ahead, but, erring on the side of caution, asked if he knew a female guide—and was surprised when he said yes. The next morning, I found out that he had simply asked the guide to bring his wife. "Two for the price of one," Miguel said cheerfully. You can imagine how it looked: like I was being chaperoned. With some hilarity, I thought, That’s not the kind of traveler I want to appear to be! And yet, as a woman traveling alone, you feel obligated to take all the precautions you can.

In the end, I couldn’t imagine those ten days without my guides, Santiago and Maritza. The way he teased her about her less-than-stellar fishing skills, and the way she giggled back—it was like they were still the teenage sweethearts they had once been. And despite the ordeal that it sometimes was—the eighty or so mosquito bites I counted all over my body (it’s an approximate number; I did actually count them), the flooded cabanas (it was the rainy season; we had to sleep on a roof beam once), the way we had to relieve ourselves just by backing our butts out the stern of the canoe (the jungle was flooded; often there was no land in sight to perch on), and the fact that we never made it to Cocha Pasto (the timing of the rains stymied our way in; I had limited time)—it’s a journey that, four years later, I still think about.

I think about how—clichéd as it sounds—it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters. How the colour of the river changed from tea brown to polished black as we went deeper into the jungle, reflecting perfectly the world above. How the “kutu-kutu” (that’s what Santiago called it), with their stubborn water roots, blanketed the river for miles, so that it looked like we had been transplanted to some kind of surreal golf course. And I think about the many portentous stories Santiago told of the dangerous beasts we thought we heard but ultimately never saw: a reminder that for a sojourner in the jungle, at least, your imagination might be the wildest thing there is.

For a sojourner, too, a self-imposed aloneness lets you enter strange worlds more fully, and lets you check out when you want to. Nelson, a ranger we met who spent forty days out in the jungle at a time in complete isolation, didn't have that choice, and I will always remember him for his chipped front tooth—a memento, he said, from when he had woken up one night shuddering from a bad dream and found himself gnawing on his rifle's barrel. As we chugged away from his lonely outpost one morning after spending a night, he made a mock sadface and said, “I’m going to cry when you all leave.” But I sensed a welling sincerity, and imagined he might have done just that when we rounded the bend, out of sight.

P.S. I’ve yet to write up the full travelogue from that journey, though I’ve got a draft going. But if you want to read more about that trip, I’d written another short piece about the experience for Roads & Kingdoms—on eating piranhas for breakfast. Read it here.

I had been nursing the thought of doing a series of photos and short narratives about young refugees coming of age in exile in Malaysia. I was interested in how they were coping with the trauma of conflict and displacement, and balancing all that with just being a teenager. In the end, I wrote a news feature about how two Rohingya friends are rebuilding their lives in Malaysia. It’s not the first time I’ve written about Hasson (right of photo), having first met him in 2015 at the Langsa refugee shelter in Aceh, Indonesia, after the smuggler’s boat he was on sank in the Andaman sea during that year’s regional refugee crisis; and in this new story, I pick up his story from where we left off. Tobarik’s story, too, is particularly poignant, and I came away from talking to him (left of photo), while we sat on one of those concrete construction boulders in the coming rain, feeling a lot of goodwill for these kids who have had to flee everything they know to find a safe place in an inhospitable world not of their own making.

Read the story at PRI The World.

Kuala Lumpur’s downtown Petaling Street area, known colloquially as “Chinatown”—it was the landing point of many Cantonese and Hakka settlers from China during the tin rush of the 1800s—has long been popular among tourists for its namesake market, Chinese and Indian temples, hawker food, and budget hostels. For the city’s inhabitants, however, the area has been plagued by the impression that it is seedy and unsafe, and that it has lost its local character due to an influx of immigrant workers.

Valid or not, this perception may be slowly changing. I wrote about the new entrepreneurs setting up shop in the area who are bringing crowds back by flagging its rich cultural and architectural heritage (albeit imperfectly), and about the creeping gentrification of the neighbourhood.

Read the story at South China Morning Post.

I wrote about the problems with Malaysia’s legal system that make the continued application of the death penalty dangerous, as well as the government’s proposed reforms, discussed through the lens of the case of Mainthan Arumugam—a man convicted for murder who has been sitting on death row for fourteen years, and whose repeated pleas for royal clemency have been rejected. Several lawyers and human rights activists have highlighted his case as an example where fresh evidence needs to be reconsidered in light of the ambiguity surrounding the identity of his alleged victim, but there’s been no progress as yet. His wife Gunalakshmi Karupaya (see photo above) continues to lobby for his pardon and release.

Read the story at New Naratif.

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