The almost indescribable power, and joy, of discovery
What’s the best part about traveling? Of course, there’s no right or wrong answer. But I do think there is a somewhat universal truth – the sensory-heightening process of discovery. It’s like the grown-up version of a most amazing scavenger hunt. You decide on a location, maybe from a glimpse through a travel magazine or travel show, or upon someone’s recommendation. Perhaps you make some plans – in my case, usually extensive, in-depth plans! – or maybe you’re more of a ‘wing it’ kind of traveler. There’s likely a period of giddy anticipation, while you wait for your well-deserved holiday to finally arrive. No matter your style of travel, it’s that delicious discovery of a place once you actually arrive – its people, the scenery, cultural nuances, local cuisine, the feel of a place – that’s so incredible, you just can’t fully appreciate without seeing it, tasting it, experiencing it, for yourself. And somewhere at the intersection of luck, an open mind, and immersion, your travel experiences may just change you, or at least how you view the world.
I adore travel. I would even go so far as to say I live for it. Really, everything I do is so I can provide myself opportunities to travel. Moving to the other side of the planet from New York to Hong Kong has also massively reinvigorated my appreciation for how impactful a change of scenery – and culture – really can be. Two years after beginning HongKongFong, which has been an incredible, eye (and mind)-opening experience, I now feel compelled and very excited to broaden my content and reach. And it feels apropos to give my blog an overhaul, in every way. I hope you enjoy reading and viewing WanderFong – my relaunched blog and go-to site for immersive travel musings and imagery, now from around the globe! New name, new look, and new content to come!
Sweet, sweet memories
To kick things off, I thought I’d first share some inspiration from my years of globetrotting. These are a few of my most memorable, travel-related experiences to date, and all have contributed significantly to my ongoing obsession with travel and heartfelt passion for capturing incredible encounters and adventures in destinations both near and far. Somewhat selfishly, these are also pure joy for me to remember and share.
I have many food-inspired memories. Making (and of course, eating) fresh tortillas with a mother and daughter in their home in Costa Rica. Just-plucked-from-the-ocean sea urchin melting in my mouth at Puerto Fuy in Santiago, Chile. Devouring just-crispy-enough thin-crust pizza and creamy gelato in Rome (and Florence). Emerging from the metro in the Latin Quarter of Paris for the first time, with the sweet, buttery smell of freshly made crepes and Nutella wafting over me. Savoring my first crock of rich cassoulet in a little spot in Paris where sausages hung from the ceiling and not a lick of English was spoken. Tasting the most mouthwatering chicken tikka masala – at a truck stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Rajasthan. Finally experiencing real sushi in Tokyo and authentic prawn summer rolls in Ho Chi Minh. Queuing outside in the dead of winter in Shanghai for a basket of steaming, broth-filled xiao long bao dumplings. Nearly making myself sick from overindulging in ridiculously tasty, unexpected apple fritters in Sichuan. Drinking butter tea in Kunming (it’s an acquired taste). Tucking into my first bite of BBQ pork buns at Tim Ho Wan in my now-hometown of Hong Kong.
These were pinnacle culinary experiences that piqued my curiosity about food and expanded my understanding of and interest in local cuisines. But as foundational as food itself is to most cultures, it’s really the experience of making and enjoying food with others – and all the surrounding experiences and encounters – that really matter the most. And as much as I seek out and love a great meal, my most cherished memories are really not about food.
The scale, history, diversity of geography and people, and varied pace of China mean you could travel through it for years and never really see it all, never experience it in quite the same way from visit to visit. I’ve had opportunities to traverse China several times. And each time, it’s been different, sometimes strikingly so.
It’s arguably at its most cosmopolitan in Shanghai, with clear leanings toward modernity and significant western influences. Between the art deco architecture of the Bund and the glitz of its futuristic Pudong district is an odd tunnel meant for tourists. On first glance, it seems a must-miss – a cacophonous affair that is both less efficient and more costly than its alternatives. But that didn’t dissuade me. I had a feeling about this strange sight during one of my trips there. On board the train making its way from one end of the tunnel to the other, I was amused by the flashing lights and instinctively began photographing. This long-exposure image has become a favorite of mine. In some ways, it represents my personal journey with photography and travel. Photographs can be created anywhere (often, and sometimes especially, en route to a so-called destination). Travel provides inspiration. As a large canvas of this image hangs in our flat, it reminds me daily of the possibilities and surprises just around the corner.
Then there are other places that seem completely stopped in time – peaceful, untouched villages without the trappings (or conveniences, depending on your perspective) of contemporary living. That is, until an enthusiastic fleet of Japanese photographers/tourists congregate all at the same time, in the same spot – which is what happened at dawn one beautiful but freezing morning in Hongcun, China! And I thought I was being unique, pulling myself out of bed insanely early to capture a cool blue image of the serene village. No matter – it was still worth it!
In one of my more risk-taking (read: less intelligent but well-intended) travel moves, I hunted down a hot air balloon ‘pilot’ in Guilin, China, who I saw land following a sunset flight one evening in a field nearby. I convinced him to take me on a sunrise flight the next morning. If you’ve been to Guilin, you know that the morning fog is part of its beauty and charm. But it’s not really the best backdrop for a hot air balloon ride. After about 2 hours of near-panic, barely able to see the famous jagged mountain peaks in front of us, with a frantically beeping altimeter reminding us of impending doom, and our ‘pilot’ attempting to reassure us since he had done this twice (!) before – we initiated our descent into a small village that had never seen a hot air ballon before. On our final approach, when I could finally start breathing normally again, we were treated to a vista over the landscape and gleeful villagers running to meet us. This is one of my coolest memories.
A striking landmark, as beautiful as it may be, doesn’t always make travel a true experience. It serves usually as a destination, an anchor for a trip. But sometimes, the sheer visual impact of a place can knock you over. Such is how I felt when I visited the Taj Mahal in India just after sunrise a few years ago. I don’t consider myself a romantic in the traditional sense. But it’s hard not to be bowled over by the (royal) love story underpinning this gorgeous building, and of course, the building itself. It is a true stunner and must be seen in person to be appreciated fully.
But India is also so much more than the Taj. It’s not a destination for the faint of heart. Everything you have heard about it is true. It is a land of stark contrasts – mind-blowing beauty and monstrous wealth, abject poverty and squalor like you don’t see anywhere else, the proud aggression of the north, the almost hippie-like ease of the south. Nothing prepares you for your first visit. You go there for an experience, not a holiday.
There are these little moments that percolate up during your visit to India that you never forget – some you probably wish you could (speaking honestly), some that joyously stick in your mind for years to come. En route by car in Rajasthan (itself a spine-tingling experience, as Tata trucks loom large and miss you by inches on a regular basis), we briefly stopped to say hello to a lovely family standing by the road. I gestured that I wanted to photograph them, and they happily obliged. As I took my shot, I noticed this gentleman, just as fascinated by me as I was by him, whip out his smartphone to snap a photo of me. It was a mutual admiration moment, I suppose – but more importantly, it was a fun exchange. Somewhere in his archive, perhaps there is still a photo of me, a curious stranger that rode into his world for just a few minutes. The possibility of this makes me smile.
And of course, I would be remiss not to mention that India is where I got engaged to my now-husband, Mark. One star-filled evening in the middle of a desert in Rajasthan, at the impossibly romantic Rohet Garh Wilderness Camp, Mark proposed! It was quite magical, I must say. We had the great fortune of being the only people staying at the luxe camp that evening, so we had the run of the place, with staff hosting us who had no idea what was going on – but smiled nonetheless. This is me the next morning…
During our trip to Cambodia a couple years prior, we were so fortunate to have an incredible private guide named Nu Tarth. A wonderful and proud gentleman, he expertly showcased Siem Reap and its finest offerings, the famous Angkor Wat and all its numerous, glorious temples. But what was most impressive about our visit was Nu Tarth himself. A man of great humility, one afternoon, he confided his personal, horrific experience with the Khmer Rouge. As a small child, he watched members of his family, including his father, literally get hacked to death in front of him by the corrupt, despotic, genocidal regime. Tears rolled down his face as he told his story. Yet despite all his pain, he remained an optimist for Cambodia and its future. He sold his house, his only material obsession, so that he could fund clean water wells in his hometown of Siem Reap and open a school there that educates about 200 students with no other means and in some cases, no parents. Nu Tarth remains perhaps the most remarkable individual I’ve ever met in person.
Later during the same trip, we visited a hillside village just outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was not on our itinerary, just a last-minute stopover recommended by the driver we happened to hire for the day. Just minutes after arriving, a young girl strolled up to us and offered to guide us around her village. With great pride, she paraded us around to all the types of spots you would never find on your own, or feel brave enough to step into as tourists – the local elementary school, the football field where a heated game among teenagers was ongoing, even her home. The latter is a rare kind of invitation for a total stranger anywhere, and in some places, an outright red flag. But in a little village in Thailand? It’s an honor and a treat.
Just over 10 years ago, I backpacked for 4 days across northern Vietnam in the area just south of the Chinese border, near Sapa. One particular, fleeting moment from that trip will resonate with me for a lifetime. As I arrived at my first homestay locale in a small village called Tavan, 3 beautiful children ran up to me. Disheveled and dusted with the earth, they naturally assembled in front of my camera – so close I had to step back to focus on them. Five seconds later, they were gone. This image, which now also hangs in my flat, saddens some people who view it. True, it’s not a traditionally happy image of carefree children. Quite the opposite, as these were children who were left home everyday to fend for themselves while their parents were off in the rice paddies working. But for me, it is a great source of inspiration. It shows the power of family, the strength of sibling love – it is a picture of strength and resilience. And it serves as a reminder that I am truly lucky for what, and who, I have in my life to support me. An enlargement of the photo hangs where I used to work in NYC. One of my friends and former colleagues once offered me what remains the highest of all compliments – she told me that everyday, this image inspires her to be a better mother.
If you have an open mind and heart, it’s not just people that can inspire and remind you of your humanity and place within the universe. Animals can, too. Even if you don’t consider yourself an ‘animal person’ – I challenge you to sit with monkeys for a while and not be simply mesmerized by how truly similar they are to us. Their mannerisms, their bonds with each other, their protective instincts over their families – and food! While in the Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali, I accidentally sat in an adolescent monkey’s lunch, the indiscernible (to me) remnants of a coconut he had apparently been noshing on for some time but temporarily abandoned. When he realized where I had planted myself while trying to photograph his brethren, he nipped me in the leg! Harmless, really – but I admit, it did throw me off for a moment. Hey – when you’re on their terrain, you live by their rules!
Nearby, another monkey was overtly mourning the recent loss of a member of his family – and at a shrine, no less. I was so moved by his clear sadness and entranced by the way he pined for his loved one, just as we do when someone we love passes on.
Without a doubt, the absolute highlight from all of my travels thus far has been going on safari in South Africa. If you’ve ever been, you know what I mean. If you haven’t yet, do everything you can to make it happen. Somehow, a safari done well has the power to be simultaneously incredibly exciting and peaceful. Not an easy balance to strike, but the juxtaposition of its stunning, open, completely natural landscape especially at sunrise or sunset, with the jaw-dropping, slightly unnerving sight of wild animals mere feet from your open vehicle – well, it’s nothing short of breathtaking.
The first part of our 3-day adventure began during a typically glorious sunset over the private game reserve at Londolozi. About an hour later, I heard the sound of dry grass crunching lightly behind our vehicle. As our guide reminded me not to turn around and make direct eye contact (seriously), I silently gasped and held my breath, as a lioness pawed alongside our vehicle. At her closest point, I could have reached out and pet her head (not advisable, by the way). I don’t think I will experience a chill quite like that again. And to see lions together as a pride? Unforgettable and so touching, it’s impossible to articulate.
In the context of the South African bush, elephants loom much larger and more powerful than you’ve ever really thought. One late afternoon, my camera slipped just so slightly from its perch on the side of our open Jeep. As it clunked lightly against a metal bar, a mother elephant guarding her baby swung around to face me to identify the sound – and I swear, my heart stopped for a full 20 seconds – until she determined me innocuous and turned the other way, lumbering off into the distance with her gorgeous baby safely in tow.
I’m convinced there is no other experience quite like a safari. It is, in a (hyphenate) word, life-changing.
(De)parting thoughts – for now…
Dare I say these experiences, and many others, have helped shape who I am and my perspectives on the world – the diverse people, creatures, places, and things it comprises. They have laid a foundation to inspire me to keep exploring, persist in pushing beyond the boundaries of my everyday, understand more deeply what I see and experience and why. And they have left indelible impressions and memories in my mind. Ones that I will reach for, time and time again. And isn’t that what travel is really about?
What does travel mean to you? Where are your go-to places to escape or explore? What are some of your most memorable travel moments? What locales are on your bucket list? I look forward to hearing your thoughts – as you, my fantastic readers, also help inspire me!
All images © 2015 deb fong photography