Certain songs remind us of the intense moments of our lives – past loves, especially. But what about the songs that conjure the sensations and emotions of past journeys? Whenever I hear them, I close my eyes and allow myself to be transported on the melody, along the serpentine road of remembrance.
Thailand – April 1992
My last night in Bangkok. A tiny jazz bar called Brown Sugar. Everything obscured by smoke. Blue smoke in the air, purple smoke in my brain. Magic smoke. The tendrils were losing their grip on the rising despair. Please don’t make me go “home”. One of my sister’s roommates brought me to the club. I can’t remember why Pebby didn’t come, but it doesn’t matter. I sat with Steve in that darkened room, pouring alcohol over the smoke. Watching it thicken. I think we probably didn’t say much, because I was unable to. He suddenly got up, walked over to the band, and requested “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. He leaned over and squeezed my shoulders when they played it. The warmth seeped deep inside, where it still remains.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines – October 1992
Whenever I doubt the magic, that certain paths are just meant for us, I put on “Cool Change” and relive the glorious days of sailing the jewel-colored Caribbean. The opportunity had come out of nowhere. A phone call from a stranger. A risk taken on pure intuition. I was plucked out of the murk and thrust into daylight. The Dutch Captain and his wife had one CD: Little River Band Greatest Hits. It could have become annoying, but it didn’t. It was music to sail away with. I sat at the very front of the boat, my legs over the side, as we drifted. Soft warm waves reached up to tickle my feet. I lifted my face to the sun, oblivious to the fact that, in just a couple of days, when we reached Mustique, I would get news that my father had died. In less than two weeks, I’d be in the hospital. Swallowed up by the void.
Papua New Guinea – September 1995
That thick red line on the map – the Highlands Highway – turned out to be a washed-out road through the jungle and it was far too late to turn back. And neither Maya or I wanted to. Despite the threat of bandits, known as raskolls. I remember the feel of that steering wheel, trying to tear itself out of my grip. Phantom mist obscuring the way. Portishead’s Dummy album filled our heavy silence, and drowned out the jarring sound of wheels grinding along uneven ground. Leading us into our own personal heart of darkness.
When we tired of Portishead, we switched to Mad Season’s Above album. Beth Gibbons’ eerie melancholy was replaced by Layne Staley’s raw anguish. That voice. It tore right through my soul, especially on “Wake Up”. The words snaked through my mind: Wake up, wake up, wake up.* Before it’s too late.
A few days later, we dropped the Land Rover off at the airport in Madang. Without a scratch. The rental agent shook his head and told us that we were the first people he knew of who had driven that highway with no problem.
The most dangerous part of the voyage was behind, but the music didn’t stop. I have already written about “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash in an earlier post.
Taiwan – November 1995/North Korea – April 2016
Some songs are so enduring that they make encores in our lives. Such is the case with “Wonderwall” by Oasis. First time I heard it, I was once again visiting my sister, this time in Taiwan. I flew up from Guam, just before Thanksgiving. It was her boyfriend, I think, who played the song. Words of longing and mystery. We all fell silent when it came on. Daydreaming of that one we never could bring ourselves to face.
I started writing this post last night, and just this morning I received news that one of my sister’s Taiwan roommates passed away last weekend. He was such a character and the trip to Taiwan will always be more memorable because of his presence. RIP, Tim.
More than twenty years later, in the karaoke room of the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, our group of travelers sang our hearts out to the tinny music emanating from the speakers. It was the last night of the tour and we were high on soju and discovery. None of us, no matter which country we came from, had to read the words on the screens. The Korean guides sat back and watched. Sunbeam smiles. Had they ever heard the original version?
North Korea – April 2016
Every evening, as we were driven back to the hotel, our tour bus turned into a lounge on wheels. People were nominated to come up and sing a song, preferably from his or her country. Our Korean guide, Miss Yu, got it started with “Arirang”. As the bus carried us through the dark streets of Pyongyang, her words were like a soft lullaby. I captured it on video:
Mr. Pak was the first to be nominated. His parents were diplomats, so he had lived overseas for much of his childhood. Fiercely patriotic, he chose a song – “Our Country” – that would stick in our heads for the entire trip. Someone would hum it, and we’d groan and roll our eyes. So, without further ado, here’s the lovely and talented Mr. Pak:
Then it was the travelers’ turn to be nominated. I cringed and slid down in the seat. The Polish guys bribed us with chocolate, so we wouldn’t nominate them. Latvia, Austria, Canada, Australia, and Germany all took their turns. When the British couple stood up and began to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the whole bus joined in. “You guys lucked out,” I told them afterwards. I started to sweat. If called upon, I would insist on doing an interpretive dance instead. But I needn’t have worried. They didn’t want to hear from the Americans anyway.
Easter Island/Chile – October 2016
But how many corners do I have to turn.
How many times do I have to learn
All the love I have is in my mind**
It’s funny how some songs disappear, and then reappear at the times we need to hear them. Just before I left for my incredible journey to Easter Island, I rediscovered “Lucky Man” by The Verve. I had loved the song when it came out in the 90’s, but it took on a much deeper significance. It is a song of gentle wonder at this strange new sensation called joy. The kind of happiness that can only be felt by someone who has wandered alone in the wilderness and has finally found the way home. Darkness dispelled. Nothing but sunshine and blue sky above. I added the song to the iPod and listened to it as I drove around that magical island, dodging wild horses. Reclaiming lost treasure.
Strange synchronicities occurred. After my flight from the Atacama Desert back to Santiago, I was the first to enter the baggage area. The room was empty and silent. Just as I walked in, this song came on. Then, as I wandered around Santiago, I saw posters for Richard Ashcroft’s upcoming concert. He was the lead singer of The Verve, and the person who wrote the song. His concert was on the night of my departure. My ticket didn’t allow any changes, or I would have stayed an extra day.
So, I would really love to know: which songs evoke your travels or a different place than where you are now? Please share in the comments.
*lyrics from Mad Season “Wake Up”
**lyrics from The Verve “Lucky Man”