Unable to travel freely, the writer returned to Tao te-Ching to find some answers
I am in a long-distance relationship with myself. ‘Myself’ lives in many cities across the world and whenever I can, I dash to visit her. From the moment I land, I become her – carefree, frugal in accommodation but extravagant at meals, always eaten solo; ‘Myself’ is less reserved and more of … everything my hometown of Karachi doesn’t allow me to be or so I say to myself in order to stay in this relationship. The longest, ‘long-distance relationships’ have been with Hanoi Muna (1.5 years), Saigon Muna (almost a year) different iterations of Dubai Muna (totalling 4 years) and, more recently Chicago Muna (1 year). But in the two decades I’ve worked in Karachi and spent most of the time trying to leave the city, I have always found my way back. To stay in love with this city – be it your birthplace or adopted home – you have to escape it to maintain some balance.
In short, this is why I travel and am always ready to leave. It is also why I knew on the flight home from London on March 20, a day before Karachi shut its airports, how the pandemic would change everything I know about travel. I did not know it from the various media screaming about the growing Covid-19 cases, or the Emirates staff then dressed in flimsy surgical masks (knowing what we know now, that was so foolish); I knew it from the Tao Te Ching I turned to, as I have often done, over 20 years to help me make sense of things.
Taoism, by its definition, is indefinable. There is no dogma, no rules; it is a simple philosophy meant to help you accept yourself and find inner peace. This makes it especially hard for people used to rules, structure etc.
“The Tao never does anything, yet through it, all things are done.” Chapter 37
Because it is so mystical and elusive, there are many interpretations to Tao te-Ching. For example, some believe Taoism is against travel.
In Chapter 80 it says: “Though the next country may be close enough to hear the barking of dogs and the crowing of its rooster, let the people grow old and die without feeling compelled to visit it.”
I had struggled to accept a passivity aspect to the Tao, this non-action (wuwei) that is the very core of the Tao philosophy but over the course of the last few months, as I found myself ‘stuck’ unable to really go anywhere save the grocers or vet, I came to accept the non-action meant no unnatural action. It meant complete acceptance, content with the present. Because if you’re happy where you are, why would you need to travel?
To leave a place because you’re feeling discontent is not travel; it’s escape.
A line in Chapter 47 says: “The further you go the less you know.”
In mid-July, I had two options to travel/escape: London or upstate New York. By choices I mean I had valid visas for both places. Both required a 14-day quarantine. Then, I was so desperate to get out that I was sure I’d be fine with the quarantine because I wouldn’t be in Karachi. I could cook, drink, watch Netflix, wait for my hosts to come home from their walks and, I told myself, it would just be for 14 days. And then I’d be free to do whatever I wanted — which in hindsight would probably still be the above. However, better sense aka seeing the economic costs of such an exercise soon prevailed. So I stayed. And marked new dates on my calendar for when I could travel to the UK or US, again. And picked up the Tao te-Ching.
“Thus the Master travels all day without leaving home. However splendid the views, she stays serenely in herself.” Chapter 26
Evidently, there was no chapter telling me it was fine to travel.
am not alone.
Sundus Rasheed, 34, former radio jockey and teacher at a high school in Karachi, gets it. She tries to travel at least twice if not thrice a year and last travelled in February, to Istanbul for work, and that too after a long gap following her father’s death a year earlier. While she was in Istanbul, the Sindh government announced the closure of schools so she decided to extend her trip by two days. The lure to keep exploring was strong, never mind that she spent a good portion of her second day at Istanbul’s airport, due to a cancelled flight.
So much has since been cancelled, especially her summer plans. “I have control on two things,” she told me on the phone when we spoke mid-July. “Money and food and after losing two jobs, I feel like I’m not in control and it’s not a nice feeling.”
She said she had contemplated going to Hyderabad when Careem resumed services and was offering that option for a “staycation”. We had such a good laugh about that idea.
“I wasn’t sure about the safety measures in place at hotels so I didn’t pursue it,” she said.
The desire to escape was a common theme among the dozen or so women I spoke to for this piece. However, none of them spoke to me about specific places or new adventures or bucket list destinations they wanted to go to because the pandemic had brought an epiphany of following your dreams. They talked about wanting to leave husbands, families, kids, controlling bosses, in-laws, the pandemic behind.
“It’s just too much,” said one 37-year-old mother of two who asked not to be named. Actually, none of the women wanted to be named, and I didn’t push them because they shared deeply personal information – about their relationships and state of mind and figuring out teens and Tik Tok. They didn’t want to travel, they wanted to be left alone. And because they couldn’t find it in their homes they felt their only option was to travel.
One woman, who lives in Michigan, said she had the luxury of doing things outdoors which her sister in Lahore did not. “That’s why she’s always telling me about which embassy she thinks will open first so she can apply for a visa,” said the 36-year-old mother of three children under 10 years of age. “I’ve been going on hikes the last two months by myself and it’s really kept me sane. I encourage my sister to try to get out of the house, join the cyclists or something but she says there’s nowhere for her to go by herself.”
“Without going outside, you may know the whole world.” Chapter 47.
Ayesha Jalil, a filmmaker, created a Facebook group Travel Etc PK in May 2015 for like-minded folks who wanted to share travel-related information — from airline deals, to hotel, restaurant recommendations, advice and support, for a discerning group of about 1,600.
A person can certainly learn a lot when they venture out to near and far off places and that knowledge is educational, worldly, even experiential. But does it bring them closer to the truth about themselves, their surroundings?
“You don’t know who has reviewed a hotel on TripAdvisor, for example,” she said, “but we’ll have some reference on our Facebook page when a person recommends a restaurant somewhere.”
The pandemic changed the nature of the conversation on the group to information on policies – both the government’s vis a vis quarantine for repatriating Pakistanis and travel advisories. Around the time of the lockdown and shortly thereafter, folks seemed to have accepted there would be no travel, but by May people began posting about where they could travel to, who was issuing visas. By June, queries about where one could drive for a break appeared, followed in July about travelling abroad as airlines had resumed business.
Jalil has had enough of staying in, she said with a chuckle, “I want to spread my wings.” She hasn’t made a firm decision on when and where to go.
She admits so many people are feeling the desire to travel. “... to get out of prison, you want to see the rainbow on the outside,” she said. Whether they travel this year or bide it out, she can’t say.
“Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?” – Chapter 15.
One couple, in their mid-40s, who asked not to be named for privacy reasons, said they were getting ready to holiday in London as they do every year, albeit usually in June. They were not deterred by the 14-day quarantine because they believed it was not being strictly enforced and if it was, when they arrived in August, they would comply because they needed the break.
“We have to learn to live with corona,” the husband said. They did not consider any other destination as they always vacation in London and “desperately needed a semblance of normalcy in our lives right now,” the wife said.
“If you realise that you have enough, you are truly rich.” Chapter 33
Zain Mustafa, 49, architect, designer and founder of Cube Edutour, a niche education and experiential agency that conducts tours around Pakistan’s heritage, has not experienced a drop of anxiety during the pandemic.
He has created a home he loves being in, and has no desire to escape it, he told me. When we spoke in the first week of August he’d travelled to Gwadar for work and flown to Islamabad to meet the elephant Kaavan (as he waits to be shifted to his new home in Cambodia) and was planning a recce trip to Mehrgarh. He couldn’t relate to a feeling of dread I, and other folks I know, feel when returning to Karachi.
He’s seen a lot of people turn to meditation or cross-fit or yoga during the pandemic – things he and a whole host of people have been practicing for years, he said. “The lockdown has forced people to face their own demons, their own dysfunctionalities, bad parenting, shitty marriages,” he said.
Why do people travel, we asked when we spoke on the phone in the first week of August. Some because they need to get away from themselves, and others to explore, to experience. This is part of the reason he set up Cube EduTours; to understand his own genetic make-up if you will, to answer the question “where are you from”. It started with a trip with his khala and grew organically, as he began to meet more people who had the same “who are we” question but hadn’t known where to go or were too scared to travel. Before the pandemic, he was travelling every two weeks within the country on these educational and experiential tours which grew to number 50 destinations in Pakistan and two international trips.
These aren’t boutique niche trips with the sole purpose of finding the traveller the best ‘Gram spots. Zain found a tribe which, like him, wanted to know “what are my genetic roots that make me relevant.”
This is not about wanting to get away from Karachi.
“Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?” – Chapter 10
Of course, travel is part of the purpose Zain’s tribe goes on the edu-tours but it’s not recreation-driven. His tribe is asking when it’s safe to go again but he doesn’t get the sense that they’re asking out of a frantic desire to get away from anything; they want to explore, they want a new experience.
Until he can do that, he’s making use of the digital space to continue the conversation around travel and storytelling; inviting people from east and west to explore lost stories and regional narratives. And continuing to showcase Pakistan’s heritage and keep people’s curiosity about the country piqued.
Because, we said, at some point, people will want to visit us.
“The Master arrives without leaving, sees the light without looking, achieves without doing a thing.” Chapter 47
Postscript: As I prepared for my trip to northern Pakistan I did so with a few takeaways from Tao. What I’d understood in the last few months was that life makes sense when it is in harmony with nature. I decided to travel with an open mind, unattached to an outcome, aware that when I got to my destination there would be no answer waiting for me there. Except there was. As cliched as it sounds, in the midst of the magnificent Himalayas on one side and Karakoram on the other, Chapter 47’s line “the further you go, the less you know” finally made sense.
Lao Tzu said we didn’t need to venture beyond our doors for knowledge, it was within us. And the Tao isn’t unique in its philosophy about looking within and not outward for answers. The psychologist Carl Jung wrote in a letter in 1916 “[the person] who looks outside dreams, who looks inside awakes.” Then there’s Immanuel Kant, considered one of the greatest Western philosophers, who reportedly never left his town of Konigsberg – a living example perhaps of what Lao Tzu meant when he said one didn’t need to travel to have knowledge.
A person can certainly learn a lot when they venture out to near and far off places and that knowledge is educational, worldly, even experiential. But does it bring them closer to the truth about themselves, their surroundings? The more I travel, the more I learn about how expansive and complex the world is, and with that, I realise how little I know. When I sat on a rock in Sarfaranga desert (cold desert) in Shigar Valley at night under the stars, having read dozens of articles about the place, the history, even the science behind shooting stars, I realised how all that information amounted to nothing because it was not absolute knowledge. I’m grateful for this experience because it cemented my love for travel and affirmed that I’m not lost.