The lure of harbor lights
Commentary by JOELLEN COLLINS
I am awash in travel books, planning a brief return to Thailand to visit
friends I havent seen there since I left my Peace Corps village almost 10 years ago.
If you have read my columns before, you are aware of my almost physical need for travel
or, as my former mother- in-law said, the fact that I have "wheels on my feet."
I hanker for the lands I read about in my childhood filled with bright
illustrations of Japanese babies, Dutch wooden shoes, Hans in liederhosen, Swedish flickas
and proper little damasked ladies frolicking in lush English gardens.
I yearn for the "Harbor Lights" of the popular song of my youth.
Taking "A Slow Boat to China" still would top my list. I always yearned for the
manifestations of the figures that peopled my imagination.
As soon as I could find the means to fly away, I did, taking a plane in
the late 50s to Ecuador where I spent a summer building playground equipment in
rural Andean villages. That was my first taste of international travel, and Ive
never lost the addiction. My next journey a year later was to India for the most profound
experience of my life, bar none. Since some of you have heard my travel stories before, I
wont repeat them, but I thought Id share with you some perceptions Ive
gained while planning for this latest foray.
One is that I adore travel books and atlases. I still feel the pull of
magic with encountering place names. Just those on the title page of a travel book about
Singapore and Malaysia are magnetic to me: Kuala Lumpur, Klang, Melaka, Ipoh, Penang,
Langkway, Alor Setar, Kota Bharu, Tioman, Kuala Terengganu. How one can resist stepping
into the origins of those musical syllables beats me."
I like the sounds of language, and I figure any country that uses those
mellifluous tones to name their towns and cities is worth exploring. How unlike, for
example, Auschwitz and Buchenwald, names whose harsh and cacophonous syllables match their
Of course, we all know beautiful place names can mask hideous events, the
lovely named village of My Lai coming to mind as an irony beyond imagining. I dont
know anything about the language of Vietnam, but I would imagine that the beautiful sounds
of that village name perfectly expressed its communion with a peaceful earth until war
ruined it and gave it connotations forever negative.
Carl Sandburg noted the irony in his poem bewailing the massacres of World
War I: The grass dares man to keep killing because he will cover the dead so successfully.
He says, "Pile them high at Gettysburg
and pile them high at Ypres and
Verdun." As a result of studying poetry, I have never been able to hear those place
names as they must have originally denoted places of rural beauty and grace.
Edgar Allen Poe found great pleasure in combining the letters of the
alphabet into poetry, and he explained his understanding of the power of language in an
essay called "The Philosophy of Composition." Here he proposed that poetry was
the best way of exciting emotions, and that certain themes and sounds communicated
emotions more intensely than others.
The death of a beautiful young woman was the most tragic subject, to his
thinking, and one needed to give these lovely and ethereal creatures the most profoundly
affective names. In Poes lexicon, this meant names using the letter "L",
the most beautiful sound in the language, he thought (I think of "lullaby". and
"Toora-loora-loora," the lullaby my mother sang to me).
So we have Annabel Lee, the lost Lenore, Ulalume. What stirrings of the
imagination those names afford!
As I was writing this, a friend called and we were talking about names.
She said that as a land bound child she dreamed of Honolulu, a place of amazing exotic
appeal. Did the letter "L" help?
When I worked and lived in Thailand, I loved to board a bus or train to go
to some remote corner of the country to visit my young Peace Corps friends. I would leave
my quaint village and its school, named, delightfully, Nongsuawittatyakorn, throw a
backpack on my shoulders, forget I was 50 years old, and take the leap of adventure.
I didnt know that I could communicate better in Thai than I
imagined, so there was always a corner of me that thought I would get lost, go in the
wrong direction. I could talk with old lady passengers on the buses without strain. All I
had to do was tell them how much I liked Thai food, and the sentences strung together
easily. And, even when I alit in the middle of the night in Buriram Province looking for a
village near the Prasat Meuang Tam ruins, I always got there.
So I will continue the quest for the fulfillment of my thirst for
adventure. I think the place names will always pull me to the harbors lights. This
time, my friend and I plan to go as "locals" back to Thailand. No Hiltons for
us. We will sleep on bamboo mats in the homes of my friends in places like Mae Hong Son,
the River Kwai, the som-o plantations of Chachoengsao, Sukothai Province, Khuraburi and
Sounds great to me.