“For every traveller who has any taste of his own, the only useful guidebook will be the one which he himself has written.” – Aldous Huxley
My life has been a story of travel, yet to travel assumes expelling myself from a place that is ordinarily called home. They say “home is where the heart is” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. If this is the case, does an absence of place heighten our sense of home? If absence is defined by the lack of presence, can the heart truly know of the home it yearns for?
What is home? Is it a place that we go back to, or is it a place we are constantly finding? Is it a place we already know? Home was once a three-story house. It was a June afternoon in a tiny room, tucking my bruised elbows in beside my brothers and sisters. Home was roaming in the grass when the sun is dripping gold, and it was the sweat on my skin at dusk when the light has faded into magenta. Home was the drooping palm trees that towered over me; home was stretching my rib cage to reach them. It was under a blanket during the monsoon when the thunder is clapping on my window. Memory works in marvellous ways. So much of what we as adults understand about the world is developed from our experiences as children. How we define ‘home’ pays testament to these memories.
The word ‘nostalgia’ comes from the Greek term nostos, which means to ‘return home’, and algos, which is ‘suffering’. Our memories are inextricably bound to feelings of nostalgia – the suffering caused by a yearning for what has passed, the yearning to ‘return home’.
But if home is where the heart is, what happens when one has a change of heart? What happens to home when it no longer feels like one? One day, I was peeking through the car window, still half drowsed, at the hypnotising sunrise creeping through the smog. The sound of blaring jeepneys screeched through the air as the bulky motors rattled against each other. The hazy, maroon light gave me warmth. The cold air from the evening’s rain embraced. My body was still heavy from yesternight’s slumber. A woman knocks on my window. Separated by the tempered glass, she unfolded her stained hands in front of me. A wrinkled man, latched onto her arms, stared at me vacantly with his opalescent grey eyes. I sat in the car with my head leaning against the window, while her thin, delicate fingers tapped against it. Before I could turn to face her, the lights flashed green and the wheels reeled up the highway. Their figures became infinitesimal as the lofty skyscrapers crowded the horizon. Billboards ascended from the rubble where a labyrinth of aluminium homes stood. I was on my way to the airport. I was seventeen.
Where I come from, poverty plagues the sickest of ills. As a child, I had little understanding of this world. But as I matured, when I can have a better sense of it, this understanding was reduced to a cynical kind of apathy. The metropolis often has this effect. Modernity conditioned man to reserve himself at the face of others where he becomes estranged from his primordial virtues. Meanwhile, the labour through which he struggles to develop himself sees no sign of slowing down as he longed for a life more bounded with the Earth. The humming which comes from living with two million others, it excites the young and jovial. But what do you do when your mornings are greeted with such neurosis?
Have you ever taken a moment to think about airplanes? In a void plot of land, the terminal stretches wide into the panorama. The sunlight drapes over the window glass where the seemingly endless runway disappears into the vista. When the hypnagogia is in full force, consciousness dissolves into the sonic roar of the plane engine. At 30,000 feet, the clouds make these gorgeous, spiralling shapes that remind me of the way water swirls when you push your hand under it. Such formations can envelope like a billow, pulling me with its undertow. Indeed, there is something about the act of travelling that provides this unique kind of consolation. To travel assumes restlessness. The opposite of restlessness is settlement — that is, to remain static. Settlement begets restlessness, thus travelling becomes the means through which we relieve it, by escaping from the familiar. With nothing but a suitcase, I was unhampered by my possessions. On the plane, on the train, on the bus, I sat alone beside everyone.
There is a cliché that says conversations — with other people, places we visit, encounters we chance upon — put us in better touch with ourselves. They make us realise we are more alike with the world than we are sometimes willing to admit. It is during these moments that we fall in love, only to have our hearts broken again. We find ourselves, only to be lost once more. The wasted hours spent under bridges, down canals; wrapped around the arms of a lover or having a heart-to-heart with a stranger; these memories engrave themselves onto flesh. These exchanges, these people, their voices, are fierce and exhilarating, charging our life with more meaning than we will ever fully realise.
But now, I think there are more voices than there are people. These voices speak to you in the grocery store, in the mall, on public transport. They’re in the wires that dangle from the ears of passengers. They’re everywhere. Relentless. When I turn the television on, the voices clamour in my living room. They’re telling me to buy this, buy that. They’re telling me to go here, go there. Do this, do that. In fact, these voices have found impressive new ways of broadcasting themselves.
Have you noticed how the television screen has become so much smaller in the past few years? They fit in your pockets. These voices even have faces now. You caress them with your thumbs. Sometimes they’re white, sometimes black. Male or female. They remind you of people you’ve met. But most of all, they are a dark, rectangular void that disappears in your hand. They speak to you, they console you. They make things feel much closer than they really are. These voices feed off our collective psychosis. They disease us with this crippling schizophrenia — some kind of socially-engineered ADHD — that seems to be unique to urban populations.
The voices that once filled me with joy have infected me with a vicious, unremitting dread. And so I search for a new place, a place that is much quieter. But this means wearily packing my bags once more. After a few years, even the most luminous valley is not assured of my adoration and I lust for some other distant landscape. In my dreams, I am standing on top of a cliff where the water rumbles. Ruthlessly, the tide creeps to the shore, swallowing the beach whole. In the horizon, a voluptuous rock is wrapped in an ominous fog, like a stone swathed in chiffon. In my dreams, the light is dying; the ocean raging. There is this word — ‘lachesism’ — which comes from the Greek myth of Lachesis: one of the Three Fates, who measured the length of the thread of life. Lachesism refers to the human longing for disaster and chaos; the hope, the thrill, that a tempest would unveil its menacing wrath over you. It is when packing your bags that you realise how far away home has become.
In travelling through and between these paragraphs, we return to our essential question: what is home? If home is not the place we’ve been assigned to at birth, it’s a brief moment when the world has extended its arms to you. Comfort. Home. The two are synonymous. When home no longer feels comfortable, you search for a place that is. “I feel at home here” you probably once said. But is it really home when you’ve only just arrived? Absolutely.
Anna Isabelle ‘Sai’ Villafuerte is a writer and photographer. Her primary medium involves analogue photography techniques paired with an affective approach to prose and essay writing. She is also an MPhil candidate at the University of Oxford’s Department of International Development where she is researching the impact of the Internet on value-creating activities in the Philippine film industry.