Like many travellers, I have a bucket list. (Or wish list – whatever you wanna call it). Mine was never physically written down until recently, but I’ve had some kind of mental travel list since I was a teenager. The kinds of destinations that make it to my bucket list are places of outstanding natural beauty, relics and ruins of past civilisations, stunningly beautiful landmarks.
The bucket list ebbed and flowed through the years as my interests changed, expanded, or contracted. But when I wanted to make major travel decisions, I consulted the bucket list, even if I couldn’t yet afford to pick one of those places. Long-range travel for an Asian, in the Gen X era, is an incredible privilege even if you were middle class.
- The Universe ordered me to Barnsley.
- Parental disapproval: My boss-dad goes ballistic
- How to recognise a sign from the Universe
- A feeling of homelessness
The Universe ordered me to Barnsley.
Near the beginning of my Blue Period travelling, I did not know what I was supposed to be doing with my life re-boot. I just had a vague thought that perhaps I should simply travel more frequently. Re-capture my mojo. I guess the idea is that if I trained to do it, then it gets easier to deal with my swing between wanderlust and inertia.
So I assigned myself a bit of travel every long weekend I had, linking up public holidays when I had to. Short trips, one Malaysian state at a time. Next up, was Penang.
I was still working full time that year, so my days off were precious. I intended to try out volunteering that year as well, and had applied for a program (I ended up going on two that year). This will eat up a sizeable chunk of my leave days. But the universe thought it was not enough travel.
Just when I was about to embark on my Penang trip,
the universe one of my oldest friends brought up the subject of Barnsley.
But Barnsley is not on the bucket list!
Where even is Barnsley??
A lot of my friends are doctors. Why? [Insert Asian stereotype. Or watch 3 Idiots, it’s iconic.]
One of them had yet to pass some kind of super-tough medical examination of that qualifies her to become a specialist. It’s quite common to fail several times.
She was gearing up for her next attempt, and the place where she could sit it next, was – of all places – Barnsley, England. She could not bring her family with her, as it was so far. But she didn’t like going solo, either, since she does not generally travel very much.
But I do. So she asked me to keep her company for the two weeks she would be there. To maximise the visit, she planned to attend a short medical course at a Manchester hospital first, then move to Barnsley, have her study days, and take the exam. Would I travel thousands of miles to keep her company?
Seriously, though, Barnsley?? That is so not on the bucket list! Neither is Manchester for that matter – and besides, I’ve already been.
I struggled between my loyalty to my friend, and having to spend vacation days on Barnsley. I told her I’d think about it, that I’m focused on my series of travels first. Focused on Penang.
The angels followed me to Penang
Travel in this period of my life had a surreal feel. Like I was present and not present at the same time. Like my mind is fused somewhere else and it’s entangled. In superposition. While in Penang I received news that the last chapter in my life, the one that began the dark period before my revival, was finally formally closed. I was well and truly free again.
Anyway, that day I ended up at a beach, at the far end of Penang State Park. It looked like it was going to pour with rain, and I was contemplating the hike back through the forest. There was a good chance of being caught in the thunderstorm.
At this point a park ranger greeted me and asked if I might want a lift back to the entrance. He was off duty and needed to go home. A buddy of his was bringing a boat round soon to take him there. (Sometimes there would be boatmen to ferry tourists back from the turtle landing beach). I quickly said yes.
When the boat arrived, a bunch of other tourists – British, by the accent – begged to come on the boat as well. So everyone piled in. On the ride, we got to talking. And I discovered that they were
the universe medical students.
In fact, they were from the very Manchester hospital my friend intended to visit.
“It’s a sign!”
I thought it was serendipitous and told my friend. She insisted that it was a sign from the universe telling me I should come with her.
Once upon a time, rational me would have a more than even chance of shrugging it off. But after metamorphosis, I knew what it was to receive signs in the darkness. I’d just come out from it that way. I learned something about how to recognise them.
I wondered, what would happen if I followed a sign, when I was not desperate? Just because, I was open and willing?
I suppose we could transfer straight to Manchester International. And I guess, while my friend was taking her course, I could pop over to Bangor to visit my alma mater and catch up with diaspora Malaysian friends still working there. While she studied for her exam, I could hire a car. There are bound to be things to see around Barnsley. One need only start looking, surely.
It was done. I was actually about to put down precious vacation time, on Barnsley.
The bucket list is out the window.
Parental disapproval: My boss-dad goes ballistic
My boss at the time was an Englishman, and he considered me basically like his daughter. When I told him that I would be taking time off to go to Barnsley, he went absolutely nuts. It surprised me. I mean, I get away with almost anything.
An indulgent boss, he was not objecting to my time off. His objection was to the destination. It turned out that the reason the destination was objectionable, was that it was in ‘the North’.
I reminded him I was until recently married to a Northerner. He cited that as further evidence in favour of his case. He was convinced that I would somehow return attached to another unfit Northerner, and my difficulties would return all over again.
I knew it had affected him, to see me go through my difficult period. Nonetheless, I did not think it was plausible to ‘pick up’ a man like catching the flu, especially since my trip purpose is completely unrelated. I conscripted a colleague to my aid to make him see reason. An American, she first tried to understand what exactly was meant by ‘the North’.
The Turtle of Acceptability
An engineer, she loaded Google Maps, in order to factually delineate the boundaries according to his description.
With a fervour only achievable by an Englishman who identifies as southerner but whose family originally came from the north, my boss co-operated (albeit grumpily). We drew a loose line around the area of England he deemed acceptable as a source for husband material for me. I may return with some guy from within this zone.
My colleague looked at it. “Huh, it looks like a turtle.” And we christened it the Turtle of Acceptability [Turtle map not enclosed for diplomatic reasons].
My boss did not find it amusing. Barnsley is definitely not within the Turtle. But he still approved my leave.
The friend from Derbyshire
Once the major preparations were made, I looked up the area for things to do. I mean, aside from bringing her awesome Indian food. (To be perfectly honest, some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had was in England. And this is counting while actually in India, on later trips. It’s true!).
A different colleague who was from ‘the North’, suggested the blue john cave in the nearby Peak District National Park. It appealed to me because I remembered my blue theme from Australia. Inspired, I thought maybe I would look for bluebells, even though it would be late in the season. An internet search led me to Chesterfield for a plausible location.
It was then that I remembered a consultant who was sort of a friend, because we worked on an incredibly high pressure project together. These things can bond you like gunfire, especially if you happen to be on the same sort of wavelength already. One of the first things he told me when we first met in Jakarta, was that he came from Derbyshire, smack in the centre of England. From Chesterfield, to be exact.
Upon learning of my plans, he suggested I rent the car from the airport and drive the scenic route to Barnsley, passing through Uppermill, Greenfield, and then Holmfirth. (My initial plan had been to take the train, and hire the car in Barnsley). And it was he who suggested offbeat places in the Peak District that suited my quirky tastes perfectly. Through the run-up to the trip, he gradually tailored a rough itinerary for me.
How to recognise a sign from the Universe
Reams can be written about this question, and fail to convey the feeling once you understood. It’s like finally working out how to solve a subtle riddle, and then you can’t unsee the answer separate from the riddle. But you can’t quite explain the answer to someone who hasn’t navigated the riddle, why the answer is the answer.
So it is that many people will insist, there are no such thing as signs. Just like, there are no miracles.
But for those readers who are curious and open-minded, read on.
The thing is, it’s not just about what the sign is, nor even how unlikely it is. The credulous and the sceptic both fixate on these qualities and think that’s what makes something a ‘sign’. The former get excited over random shapes on toast and vegetables. The latter insist nothing is a miracle because how the phenomenon happens is, or can theoretically be, understood.
The two are actually very like each other in missing the point. [This is very common in humanity. You will find that the two camps most bitterly opposed to each other, actually think and believe in more similar ways than with anyone else, but they will die before admitting it.]
Yes, every physical thing that happens in this universe, will obviously have a chain of causes that emanate from this universe. Consequently the mechanics of its occurrence is explicable.
But not everything that is explainable the same way, has the same meaning.
Are you talking to me?
I can explain how my throat makes the sounds, and how my brain formulates the message I speak, when I speak to you. But how do you know I’m speaking to you? How do you know if a voice isn’t just background conversation – a waiter querying an order in the nearby restaurant, a mother cautioning a child as you pass them by?
They’re all voices, aren’t they?
Yet we all know how to tell the difference. The one who is speaking to you, replying to you, is timed for you – that’s how you know you’re being spoken to. That is, assuming you were listening.
If you are lucky enough to understand this, then you will automatically understand why miracles are not replicable and so cannot be studied scientifically. And why there’s no point in talking about it to people who haven’t got it yet.
It’s also then not difficult to realise that if you persistently refuse to listen, the message sender will conceivably stop sending signs to you.
A feeling of homelessness
There are some things in my life that I’ve long felt, and can’t explain.
It is the honest truth that I’ve never felt ‘at home’. Not in the warm, rooted way that is described in literature, that utter belonging to a place down to its very soil and landscape and winds and waters.
Though I feel more like it along shorelines, overall I still feel as a stranger, just passing through. It is so even in all the places I ‘ought’ to belong to, all the places that have valid claim to being home. But I still believed that ‘home’ was a real feeling, because of how vividly it is described and how frequently it drives culture and behaviour all around the world. Surely, it must be a real feeling.
I’ve travelled quite a bit even in those times before travel became accessible. I’ve been lucky indeed. Some of the places I’ve been are incredibly beautiful, others incredibly hospitable. Some have been cozy and others interesting. A few made me feel as though I should like to stay.
But still, none of them felt home either. In time, I could make some of them home, perhaps. But they weren’t already home, in that inherited, visceral sense.
I’ve even been to many parts of Britain. Not just London, the sacred pilgrimage destination for Malaysians (hah, you thought it was Mecca?). But also its countryside and its villages and towns. If anything, of all of these it should be the hamlets and villages of the northeast that have claim to feel like home, since I actually have in-laws there.
But though I’m exceptionally fond of England, none of those places felt like home either.
Yet or some reason I’ve skipped out the middle, until the Universe called me there.
The Universe has a better bucket list than you can compile
Call it what you will – Deity, Universe, the unfolding of the equation emanating from the Big Bang, the weave that connects consciousness. I don’t really care what you call it.
But here’s my advice: if ever the Universe steps in and firmly suggest you go somewhere, check your values, decide based on the noblest of those, and ditch your bucket list. I chose based on loyalty to my friend, and ended up in Barnsley and Derbyshire.
There is absolutely no reason for Derbyshire – of all places – to feel like home.
That it does, is among the profoundest, most inexplicable things in my life.
For more on this Odyssey: