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Home and away

Illustration: Michael Mucci.It’s not just about the journey, writes Lance Richardson, it’s about your starting blocks.
Nanjing Night Net

‘There’s no place like home,” said Dorothy Gale in 1939, refusing to see she was on the greatest adventure of her life.

Or at least it always seemed that way to me: The Wizard of Oz is a tragedy cloaked in soft-focus romance. On one hand she has monochrome Kansas, where women of the era had few options in life; on the other hand she has a Technicolor landscape of glittering cities, obliging locals, and mysterious wilderness areas where lions, tigers and bears co-exist in a single ecosystem.

Dorothy chooses Kansas. Still, she does get one thing right: there is no place like home.

Perhaps home is a dreary prairie prone to freak meteorological events, but it is a place of belonging and a crucial point of comparison (“Things are different back home,” I often hear in conversations on the road). Home can be the town a person grows up in, or the city they choose to occupy in later life.

The term is used in association with homeland, “Vaterland”, or mother country. For many people home is a safe haven, like the proverbial tornado shelter built for protection.

For travellers it is significant for two additional reasons: travelling is largely an expedition to see other peoples’ homes; and our own homes act as a sort of anchor, with every journey just a circuitous route of return.

The moment you step out the front door you are already on your way back home again.

At its most basic level, home is embodied in the house.

The human compulsion to see how people live is as old as the idea of globetrotting. Herodotus, visiting ancient Egypt, took time out from his tour of temples and palaces to stick his head in a few houses and observe the rituals.

“If a cat dies in a private house by a natural death, all the inmates of the house shave their eyebrows,” he recorded. “On the death of a dog they shave the head and the whole of the body.”

Marco Polo, meeting the Tartars on the Eurasian steppe in the 13th century, also found “plenty to tell” on the subject of domestic arrangements. “Their houses are circular, and are made of wands covered with felts,” he wrote.

“These are carried along with them whithersoever they go.”

The Tartars were wide-ranging nomads and their lifestyle was expressed through their houses.

Today, the nosiness of Herodotus and Marco Polo resurfaces every time a person goes on a tour of Sao Paulo’s raucous favelas; or visits a Maasai “boma”, where cows and humans live in symbiosis; or stalks past the mansions of Beverly Hills, a suburb transformed by wealth into a gated community. Private houses trump public museums for educational value because peeking inside one is like seeing a culture through the back door. What you glimpse there is not an official picture, sanctioned by authorities; it is culture as lived reality. Home is where the heart is, as the saying goes. It is something alive.

I have visited many different homes around the world, stayed in several, and never found the experience less than compelling, whether in Cusco, Peru, or an electrified compound in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In Vietnam, in a mountainous village of Tay people, a woman once invited me inside a three-storey concrete house that was surrounded by modest shacks. The home was cavernous. Except for a mattress and a television mounted on a wall, it was also entirely bare.

The woman lingered over the television, making sure I paid attention, and then she exhibited the empty rooms with a proud, proprietary flourish. It was a “show home” – it showed modernity, prosperity, the luxury of space.

She took me up to the roof where, because of the size disparity, she lorded over the neighbours like a queen in her castle. The home said something significant about Vietnamese aspirations; this woman was living the dream and I had been invited in to appreciate it.

Something very different unfolded in Oman, a country where Bedouin nomads still drift through the deserts in camps of carpets and tents. In the small city of Nizwa, I was once asked to dine at the middle-class home of a souk vendor. He toured me through his menagerie of birds and cats, I admired his photo of the sultan, and then we settled down on the floor for a lesson in dining etiquette. But my interest quickly drifted to what I hadn’t seen – namely, almost everything. The majlis, or sitting room, keeps living quarters completely out of sight.

There was no kitchen or bathroom or bedroom on view. And the majlis was only for men (the women had their own room, which I could not enter). Here was a home built for people who prioritise concealment from strangers. Here was a culture where doors, rituals, and veiling are common expectations.

Perhaps the most remarkable home I ever stayed in was on Kodiak Island in Alaska.

The American owner, Steele, had bought and occupied an abandoned salmon cannery in the wilderness. It was difficult to reach and all but impossible to escape from; if exposure didn’t get you, the bears would. Most of the factory had fallen into disrepair since the early 1980s, when workers put their tools down and walked away. Crumbling offices fitted out with typewriters stood beside a dusty processing floor scattered with buoys and empty packing boxes.

But Steele’s ingenuity had made it strangely homey: an anti-tank missile case became a coffee table (“I found it out back,” he told me); doors of the living quarters were decorated with the imprints of fish, dipped in ink like a stamp.

For dinner he left a roasted king crab on the kitchen bench.

I had heard that Alaska had a reputation for eccentrics and outcasts, but spending several days here helped me push past the stereotype. What I found in that unusual home was honest, unforgettable – the best travel experience of my life so far.

But what about the traveller’s home, and that “homing” impulse represented by the return ticket?

Travel, for most people, gains meaning precisely through its contrasting of strange spaces with familiar ones. Home is a necessary counterpoint.

Indeed, home is what motivates the most famous journey of all time: The Odyssey, by Homer.

Having ventured to Troy and succeeded in battle, Odysseus attempts to sail back to Ithaca, where his family is waiting . . . and waiting, and waiting.

Along the way he is taunted by a Cyclops, attacked by cannibals, confronted by the dead, lured by sirens, besieged by a six-headed monster, and shipwrecked on Calypso’s island for seven years.

But he keeps on going anyway.

Odysseus’s most telling encounter comes in the land of the lotus-eaters, where his crew are offered flowers “so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return”.

Leave off caring about home? Odysseus finds the prospect horrifying. “Though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches,” he says. A traveller who loses their sense of home is hopelessly lost. Beyond physical houses, the very idea of it orients us like a compass.

It takes Odysseus a decade to get back to Ithaca, but the memory pulls him right through to the end.

It took me nearly as long to get back to the town where I grew up, tucked away in a fold of the Hunter Valley. My family moved on long ago, but this, my first home, has been the mental contrast to many of my adventures around the world. Preparing to move abroad, I figured it was time to measure how reality compared to the dusty image in my head; a tiny odyssey of my own.

One Friday in July I climbed into a car with a friend I have known for 20 years and we drove up the highway back to Muswellbrook.

There were no sirens, six-headed scyllas or cannibals along the way but there were plenty of coal mines – monstrous black mouths devouring hills all around the town. We drove past them to happier scenes: wineries set in picturesque backcountry, and old picnic spots around Glenbawn Dam. We even visited our high school, which looked smaller than I remembered, echoing with the apparitions of deja vu.

Eventually we drove down my old street and spotted the brick letterbox my father built – a letterbox I once sat on to wait for a university letter that would be my first ticket out of there.

Perhaps there is no travel destination more stuffed with history and memorable sights than the place you set out from and call home; not glittering cities, scenic roadways, nor strange wilderness areas filed with lions and tigers and bears. And perhaps it isn’t until you go back there, putting your bags down after a long trip away, that you understand how far travelling can actually take you.

ABOUT THE WRITER

New York-based Lance Richardson is a writer and photographer specialising in culture and history, with a particular interest in anthropology.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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