Click to watch video: Departures

Parting is such sweet sorrow

Letting go of a place may be the most emotionally intense thing travelers do.

I am staying in a seaside town in southern India that is practically a textbook definition of bliss. Cool breezes on the beach—check. Fuchsia- and tangerine-tinted sunrises—check. Bungalow with thatched roof—you've got it.

The ticket in my hand states that I have a reserved lower berth, "Second class, A/C," on a train leaving Friday for Madurai, one of my favorite Indian cities. I know the details of my reservation well, since it took some work to arrange—a two-hour taxi ride into a nearby city followed by a chaotic press through a sweaty crowd of other would-be train travelers at the station. I'm fortunate: I got the last berth reservation available this week.

But as I sit at a nearby café sipping the juice from a green coconut, I'm not feeling blissful at all. Actually, I'm having a minor meltdown.

It's time to go, I know. I've hung out in the sun long enough here that wonder has faded into routine. The first morning after I arrived, I meandered down the dirt road of a nearby village, pausing to look at everything along the way. I poked into shops, bought rare spices and bags of chickpeas toasted with cumin, and chatted for hours with the shopkeepers. But the villagers are no longer novel to me and I'm no longer a novelty to them. Dogs that used to bark and snarl when I passed now run up to me, tails wagging. All the signs are telling me: Move on.

Still, the idea of packing up, leaving behind the dogs, the cool breezes on the beach, the chatty shopkeepers, and the spectacular sunrises puts my stomach in a knot. Even after thousands of miles and hundreds of trips, there is one thing that completely fazes me whenever I travel to a place: the leaving of it.

Arrival, not departure, is the dominant theme of travel. We travelers are supposed to go forth, and forward—exploring, discovering, having marvelous adventures along the way. This is the narrative that runs through hundreds of years of travel literature, from The Canterbury Tales to The Great Railway Bazaar.

Yet as my own real-life travels unfold, I find myself thinking less about my comings and more about my partings. Arriving somewhere is easy. Separating from a place you have settled into, a place whose culture and people you have gotten to know, a place you've grown attached to—that's complicated. How do you decide when to depart? What do you take with you, and what, if anything, do you leave behind?

I have searched in vain for a literature of leaving. These traveler's feelings of mine seem to find their most beautiful expression in songs that, interestingly, are all by Canadians (does Canada have a cultural edge on farewells?). Joni Mitchell's "Urge for Going," Kate McGarrigle's achingly lovely "Talk to Me of Mendocino," Ian & Sylvia's "Four Strong Winds," each have expressions of parting that are pretty much guaranteed to make me melancholy; the letting go of a place may well be the most emotionally intense thing I do when I travel.

Leaving a place gradually, thoughtfully, and with time to let the mixed emotions settle in your heart is a luxury, I know. It can only happen when you're traveling without (too much) time pressure and on an open-ended schedule. How often does that happen these days? The slow, emotionally laden departure really belongs to a bygone era when travel was difficult and less certain and travelers had to set aside weeks, even years, for their journeys.

Nowadays I don't have to fret about when and how to leave a place because departures are no longer very open to negotiation. Once you buy your tickets, the decision has been made: You have to go. The flight leaves at 9:25 p.m. sharp; check-in is at least two hours earlier. And if you want to change your reservation, you will have to pay a $300 fee. Modern travel gives us certainty and well-defined timetables—and sucks all of the sentiment out of our departures.

Maybe that's a good thing, for if we went through a fraught, protracted farewell each time we traveled, we probably would not have the fortitude to travel at all. A friend of mine says he is almost relieved when, after a packed ten days of exploring every backstreet in Berlin, Paris, or Rome, it is time to head to the airport. "By that point I'm depleted," he says. "As for saying goodbye...I guess I don't."

Sometimes I too am a no-goodbye (and even a "thank goodness, I'm outta here!") traveler. Although what usually happens when I'm forced to cut and run is that I go through my departure let-down when I arrive back home. For almost a week after returning home from my first trip to Bali I felt depressed, didn't want to leave my house, and couldn't sleep. Jet lag, I thought. But now I wonder if jet lag really is our inner traveler trying to process the renegade emotions that don't know where to go when we don't get to experience that long, measured leave-taking.

In India I allow the restless, disturbing urge to bolt, flow over me then ebb back again, like the soft waves on the beach. The following two days I skip through the village with the now-devoted dogs, buy more cumin-spiced chickpeas from the chatty shopkeeper, inhale the sandalwood scent of my laundered shirts, change my plans several times. Gradually, gradually my inner sea calms, and what comes next is easy. A few hours before another fuchsia-hued sunrise, while the shops are still shut and the dogs still sleep, I fold this lovely place into my heart and catch the train to Madurai.

Asia, Imbibed

In my conversations about travel adventures, I often mention how I like to sample the local brew (or grape) when I travel--it's one of the fastest ways I know to dive into another culture.

Usually, I'm doing my tasting in the same place where the drink is made--wine tasting in Mendoza, warm cans of beer at a football match in London, tequila in Mexico, etc. But recently, in Hong Kong, I used spirits to explore other far away places.

Hong Kong doesn't really have an alcoholic drink to call its own. (In this hyper-intense business and finance city, the hometown drink of choice is yun yeung cha, coffee mixed with tea and boiled milk. It's like Red Bull times twenty). When cocktail time rolls around, I drink the rest of the world. The British left their mark on local drinking culture--beer is the number one choice for "Happy Hour" (which has the distinction of being the longest such "hours" in Asia-- in my favorite hang-outs, most bars clock HH from 3pm until 9pm).

But, thanks to my adventurous pal from Malaysia, I've found a new drinking culture here. That's why, on many a warm night, you'll find me sitting at the horseshoe shaped bar of an Okinawan izakaya, hidden away on the 13th floor of a non-descript office building in Causeway Bay, holding a hand-tinted blown glass tumbler containing ice drizzled with an extraordinary clear liquid made from distilled rice: awamori

The appeal of Ku-Suya Rakuen (that's the name of this place) isn't just the wonderful drink, which looks like clear sake but tastes like a light herbal whiskey. (Awamori is around 25-30 proof, stronger than wine and sake, but far less alcoholic than scotch or vodka). It's the atmosphere. From the moment you step into the place, with its rough-hewn wooden bar and stools, and its collection of ceramic jars holding 100 different kinds of awamori, Hong Kong disappears. A buzz of Japanese fills the air. You are in Okinawa.

Hanging out at Ku-suya has gotten me to thinking about the way we travelers never stop traveling, even when we're supposed to be settled down somewhere. Just like in San Jose, I seek out those dark little corner bars and diners where Hispanic working men drink Presidentes from the bottle, while they fill the jukeboxes with quarters, playing their favorite bachata tunes...I am in virtual Santo Domingo. Other friends sate their wanderlust at downtown Irish pubs where the Guinness flows freely. Or cultivate their Francophilia over Cote du Rhone at a pitch-perfect Parisian-style corner bistro on Market Street in San Francisco.

Let me digress to share a funny story … while traveling, I sometimes set my phone numbers to call forward. Despite the expensive roaming charges, I find this connection gives me a sense of security and enables me to respond to unexpected home emergencies. My cell ring tone is the theme music of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”  When the phone rings, I often get a lot of stares, questions, and laughter about the music. On this particular trip, my phone was ringing constantly. When it did, it opened a door for me to meet new friends and impress the waite staff with my Mandarin (despite in this region of China they speak Cantonese), and travel stories. I gave everyone a copy of my latest DVD of Asia. As a result, the hotel barkeep named a green colored concoction after me, “The Frogprintz.” I don’t know what was in it, but it was very powerful and tasted amazing.

I love being in Hong Kong, where I find a little adventure nearly every day. But every now and then it's nice to have a shot of something--and someplace-- else. And so, awamori. Though I’ve been to Japan many times, I haven't yet been to Okinawa, but I have to say that, thanks to the local drink, it's now on my top ten "next trip" list.

And, speaking of great local drinks...what makes them taste even better is when they have a cuisine built around them! Ku-Suya Rakuen is as much about the food as it is the drink. There, you can order some really extraordinary little dishes to accompany your awamori. My least favorite menu item is: "Mascarpone Cheese with Fish Guts"...

And my favorite: pickled sea grapes. They look like little jade pearls and taste salty like the
ocean. When you wash them down with awamori, it's like inhaling the fragrance of herbs on a moist summer breeze. Eat, sip, savor the spirit...ahhh, Okinawa.

                         Pickled Sea Grapes