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For the week of Mar. 1 through Mar. 7, 2000

The lure of harbor lights


I am awash in travel books, planning a brief return to Thailand to visit friends I haven’t 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 50’s to Ecuador where I spent a summer building playground equipment in rural Andean villages. That was my first taste of international travel, and I‘ve 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 won’t repeat them, but I thought I’d share with you some perceptions I’ve 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 sites.

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 don’t 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 Poe’s 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 didn’t 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 Ranong.

Sounds great to me.


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