I’ve never really been much of a one for big things. Even though I come from Queensland, the lure of big things, grand vistas and sublime moments has never really been felt. I have always focused firmly on the small, the domestic. It is this perspective which grounds me, and which I always find most fascinating.
So when I travel, I always involve myself, almost from the instant of my arrival, in checking out small things, noticing the bizarre but commonplace and establishing some sort of everyday routine that I know will soon reward me.
The grand things are always filled with tourists. Mostly these tourists are irritable, intent on taking photographs and complaining about the cost of food. I would much rather spend an afternoon watching Indian soap operas with a friend’s granny. That way I feel I have really lived, have made a connection, and approached some kind of human understanding.
I was in Singapore recently, and I am sorry to say I didn’t take in a single sight. I was far too busy having a good time. I went shopping for cologne with a friend; I visited a tongue-speaking church with a student who had invited me and I spent long afternoons eating peanut butter toast and milk tea (who knew they were Singaporean delicacies?) with a gang of chain-smoking philosophers, retreating late at night to a Ukrainian vodka bar in Little India. I am happy to report I didn’t feel the want of “sights.” I was having far too fascinating a time. An Englishwoman at a university told me there was an inflatable rabbit called Walter to be found at an art gallery somewhere, and I spent almost a whole day looking for him, thereby learning much more about Singapore than I ever could have.
When the writer travels I think they should be taking copious notes, and copious notice, of the small things, the quotidian (surely one of the most beautiful words in the English language?). The fascinating is always in the detail, and you can bet that your small things are quite distinct, quite unique and totally reflective of your experiences and interests. You could happily forego the organised tour to a scenic waterfall with a busload of backpackers. That way lies boredom, frustration and not a single usable story. Instead take up the invitation of a waiter at a winebar and go and visit his sister who sells noodles at a market in a distant village.
The notebooks I fill when I travel are fascinating documents, and often filled with silly things that will never make their way into a story. I am always observing people’s collarbones, for example, because I find them entirely captivating. But there are only so many collarbones you can work into a book. Hairstyles, though, can make a story, as can frayed collars, scuffed shoes and the brand of energy drink someone is consuming.
In my latest book Destination Cambodia I describe a visit to a fortune teller in Phnom Penh. He was an extraordinary figure, but most intriguing for me was the fact that he kept by his side a small container of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder which he shook, at intervals, over his plump neck to soak up sweat. He was a colourful and exotic character in the extreme, but what made him perfect in my story was the exact brand of baby powder he chose to use, and where he applied it.
Small things make us happy, and they make travel stories perfect. And if we are writing any kind of memoir, it is the small tales that will most delight the reader, most perfectly fill in the portrait you are painting. I see writing as a kind of pointillism, as is life. Forget the broad strokes, or use them sparingly. Great swathes of flesh are always ho-hum. Concentrate instead on the exact way to sketch the shade of that collarbone.
Walter Mason is a writer, blogger and part of the Writing and Society Research Group at the University of Western Sydney. He is the author of two travel memoirs, Destination Saigon and Destination Cambodia. Walter will be presenting as part of the Life Writing/Memoir Bootcamp happening soon at the Centre.