From my travel diary – written on 14 June, 2011.
Again it happens: I am strolling through town, happy and without a worry in the world, and everywhere around me blonde tourists in states of distress, looking at maps, asking for directions. I know where I’m going, they are completely lost.
It occurs to me, finally, that it’s the strolling that makes the difference. I’m wandering, not trying to get anywhere, which is why I’m not lost. But the more I think about it, the more it seems that the two go together in a much more fundamental way – that city-as-surface is a city that requires strolling, and that city-as-lines requires purposeful travel. There is no way to wander through a city built around linear streets (Australian, British, and I imagine American cities) – you cannot take any random corners, quite simply, because immediately you’re off the main line, and into suburbia. In their dense centres to a certain point you can, but even then the excitement is mainly in linear or transversal movement (arcades, lanes) – in getting from A to B, on a large scale. On the other hand, a city which is a dense mesh of small streets, courts and squares, like Bangkok or Venice or Split, is a city where you can circle the same area for a long time before you have to repeat a stretch. In other words, wandering is not only the best way to experience such an urban fabric; it’s also the best way to get to know it. Once you’ve walked all the streets and made as many connections as possible, you know your area. You have learned it.
If I extrapolate from this, it makes sense that Americans/Australians/the British have such trouble strolling, wandering, or whenever they have to meander unpurposefully (trust me, they do). Where would they learn, if their cities guide them into another kind of movement, linear, and away from unstructured and into purposeful travel?
On another note, today I covered the last kind of public transport: motorcycle taxi. I went from Victory Monument to Rajadamnern, to see muay thai, crossing some enormous roads at acute angles, and wiggling between cars at formidable speed. Since I’m shaky even on a bike, it was a terrifying experience, and I did have a lot of time to consider my habit of not getting travel insurance. On the other hand, I generally live my life according to the rule that you can do anything, however risky, regardless of how unskilled or untrained you are, and you should be safe as long as you do it in a super-cautious way. I gripped myself onto my driver, and of course I was fine. Even jumping over potholes and having to circumvent the yellow shirts’ protest, which has been going for at least 24 hours straight.
Muay thai was extraordinary, although I saw no blood and no KOs. (I was hoping for both.) The skill, the kicks in the face, the elastic bodies of very young men. At first I thought about the possible similarities between watching this particularly violent kind of boxing and, say, gang rape, but then I realised that, for most people attending, the interest was in the betting, not in the fighting.
Today it rained furiously. The old town has very European proportions and, with steel shopfront grilles and very narrow cracked footpaths, feels even more like Lisbon.