Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
Here we were at last. After countless hours on fitful flights, teetering tuk-tuks and rickety river barges, my wife and I were finally clambering up the last few steps of Ananda, one of the thousands of terraced temples that are scattered, as if by gods in a giant game of dice, across the sun-scorched plains of Bagan.
Travel books had, in part, coaxed us here: their siren song of glossy photos and beguiling captions had long lulled us to Myanmar, seducing us especially with the promise of a spectacular sunset over some of the world’s most resplendent ruins. Now, at the top of one of these towering temples, we jockeyed, as if on a crowded bus back home, for a sliver of space amongst the huddled masses of fellow travellers; and waited.
And then the sky, gloriously, fell. As the sun slid ever closer to the arced abyss, it set the hovering haze alight like a seething brushfire, washing all in a fiery blanket. Shadows danced in the crevices of colonnades, rioting in an underworld of beautifully grotesque gargoyles. Like a golden ocean liner sinking from sight, the sun tugged beyond the grasp of last lingering looks – its exile hastened, perhaps, by a rush to flee the flash of phones and the coos of the crowd around us.
But something was missing. While the scene was surely stunning, something seemed coldly synthetic: too shared, too curated, too anticipated. Too many of us there had clearly read the same note in the same guidebook and made the very same plans to see the very same thing.
Myanmar had been an entry near the top of my bucket list for years, and I’d blithely expected something more momentous here, something more meaningful. Instead, as I surveyed the sea of tourists around us now decamping toward wherever our dog-eared Lonely Planets beckoned us to next, I felt hollow and humbled. I wasn’t on the Road to Damascus waiting for some kind of awakening after all; only a fool on a ledge, waiting for Godot.
And so while this sun set, a new one dawned: the realization that my conception of the bucket list itself was profoundly flawed.
For years, I’d viewed it almost as a glorified grocery list; something to be completed, even rushed. My wife and I would scratch out exquisite-sounding names – Machu Picchu, Iguassu Falls, Ngorongoro Crater – and then proceed, as much as our means could muster, to check them off like Aisle 5 forays. But, oblivious to me until that point, we weren’t really on a grand journey of exploration or self-discovery at all. Instead, we were blindly assembling the travel equivalent of an Ikea desk: so focused on each next step and an elusive end game that we’d unwittingly walled ourselves off from the wonders around us.
The more memories I mined, the more I realized that travel’s most memorable moments aren’t really about Top 10 lists or Wonders of the World at all; instead, they are the “shocks of beauty” that, without warning, grab and shake you. I recounted, for instance, the time we were hopelessly lost in the backroads of Cambodia, miles from whatever we were looking for, and how we stumbled across four young Buddhist monks caught, unguarded, by our unintended intrusion. Far from the madding crowd of the tourist trail, they stared at us, and we at them – the stony silence belying our wordless banter, each of us fluent only in our shared humanity and common curiosity. Who were these people, so fantastically foreign, yet fraternally familiar?
I recalled, also, the time we chanced upon a herd of elephants while on safari in the savannas of the Serengeti; nothing else in sight but their slow caravan, lapping like waves across the brush. I awed in their oneness: with the surroundings, with each other, and even with us. I felt tiny and trivial, yet strangely freed, too, from the bonds of banality that bind back home. Were all those things I worried about – that misstep at last Monday’s meeting, the long line at Starbucks – really that important?
And so I reassessed what, in life, is really worth recording. I didn’t need a bucket list any more – one directing me where to go and what to do; what I needed was a “marvel list” – one reminding me of the magic there is to be found on this planet and the moments that make me most alive.
All that truly matters, as the sun goes down on whatever temple-top I find mind myself on now, seems surprising simple: less list, more marvel.
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