Any traveler knows that a trip is not just about the encounter of a new place but, equally, a journey into the self; and that the more foreign the place, the more profound the journey. In our memories, a trip becomes a series of small, vivid moments, sometimes mysterious for their apparent banality. (One of my enduring memories of my first trip to New Delhi is a clot of brightly colored tinsel I saw tangled around a telephone wire — at night, as the van I was in hurtled down the dark, smoky streets, its sudden presence, moving in the humid air, seemed to promise both merriment and malevolence.)
Our experience of a place becomes inseparable from our recollections of who we were at the time. When I think of Luang Prabang, Laos, for example, I remember certain sights, certain sounds, the dampening, enervating heat, but also the person I was: someone in her early 30s, trying at all times to hide how timid she was.
For this issue, we asked three writers to revisit a place they had seen when they were somebody else. The poet Louise Glück famously and beautifully wrote that “We look at the world once, in childhood. / The rest is memory.” And while that is usually true, it’s not completely so, and certainly not for Thomas Page McBee, who returns to the Grand Canyon, a place he’d not been to since childhood, and which he sees again as an adult, in his 11th year on testosterone, in a different body, but also the same one — the same blood, the same bone. It’s not completely true, either, for Maaza Mengiste, whose return to Mount Pilatus outside of Lucerne, Switzerland, is an opportunity to reflect on her last trip there, also in childhood, that resulted in the loss of both her innocence and her mother’s.
And it is most certainly not true for Aatish Taseer, whose grand yet intimate re-encounter with Istanbul is a reckoning with the city’s revolutions — from rigorous secularism to populist ethnonationalism and religiosity in just 15 years — and his own, as well. As Taseer writes, when he was last in the city, he was an aspiring writer who had just quit his job as a reporter; he was living in London but on his way home to India; he was gay (though not yet out to himself) but dating a woman. Why did he come back, he wonders, now as an almost 40-year-old New Yorker with a husband: “Was it to look again at what had become of me? Was it to use the idea of returning to a place one has known intimately as the means to travel not merely through space but also through time — to revisit a former self, perhaps even to confront him?”
He cannot answer, but the reader might be able to on his behalf. After all, we travel for the same reason we read: to remind ourselves of the existence, and also the inexplicability, of other lives, to recognize ourselves within that which is foreign to us. We are one person when we begin a trip, or a book or an article; we are another person when we conclude it. Another person, but also the same — we take the journey to see ourselves.