“Haces tiempo mi amor que no me dices nada…”
– Oh Mami, Amaro ft. Zion y Lennox
I have a semi-chronic problem that, if my friends could render it a name, I’m sure would be called “unreachabilitis”. This problem stems from my desire, at particular moments in time when I am traveling sola in search of solace and solitude, to reduce my phone simply to its photographic functions, completely ignoring all of its communicative potentials.
During the course of the three nights I spent in my Airbnb in Riga, I never bothered to ask my host for the wifi password, because there is nothing that needed urgent communication; my faithful friends here know to wait for the stories and photos from my travels for when I return to Cambridge, when I will surely spill all over a cup of coffee or a pot of peppermint tea. While I know they are concerned for my safety and well-being whenever I am off on my travels, they also thankfully show great respect for my desire for some space to do my own soul-searching, and are content to bid me adieu and “À bientôt!”.
My latest expedition sola was to the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — last December. During my travels in this region, it occurred to me that I could not have picked a better place for an anti-social vacation –the locals, while warm once you break the ice, were initially quite reserved, and seemed almost reticent to express any curiosity towards foreigners. This made me miss the Mediterranean warmth I was met with in Spain and Italy. I also could not speak Russian, Estonian (one of the hardest languages in the world, I was told), Latvian, or Lithuanian, which limited opportunities for communication with the locals. While I was sitting next to the elderly ladies with their shopping trolleys who were waiting for the same local inter-city buses in the small Lithuanian town of Šiauliai, I kept glancing at them, and was also reciprocated with similar curious glances. The anthropologist in me was simply bursting with the desire to ask questions, which I’d had to suppress, because the things I wanted to know — about life in the Soviet and post-Soviet period; about marriage patterns, the local job market; about their faith, the weather, and whether it might snow today — weren’t easily communicable through sign language.
But here, too, is where I felt I’d found some sense of solitude. I spent my mornings waking up late — because I wanted to savor that feeling of “waking up in a foreign country”, as I told my host in Riga — and my afternoons wandering in and out of coffeeshops chosen on a whim, writing in my Moleskine and reading Mikhail Lermontov’s witty A Hero of Our Time. In Tallinn I was charmed by the quaint and vibrant Christmas market; in Riga, I had the time of my life exploring a well-stocked map shop which sold me “top-secret Soviet military maps” of the countries I’d lived in. The rain forbade me from enjoying Vilnius in all its glory, but I left taking with me the memory of quite possibly one of the best Airbnb sojourns I’ve had, even if it may be for one night.
None of these places amazed me as much as the Hill of Crosses, situated some 12 kilometers outside of Šiauliai in Lithuania, did:
Getting here itself was an adventure. I departed Riga on a 9am bus to Šiauliai, from where I took a local intercity bus on the Šiauliai-Joniškis route. On the bus, I notified the driver of my intention to head to this site, and he promised to drop me off near the village of Domantai. When he did stop the bus, he gave me a bizarre look, which wordlessly communicated, with no pretensions whatsoever, “You must be bloody crazy.” Indeed, the fact that I was perhaps the only Malay, Malaysian, Muslim, veiled woman traveling unaccompanied within a hundred mile radius did not escape me. As I disembarked the bus, which soon drove off, I felt an odd mixture of elation and disbelief and excitement: “Holy crap,” I thought out loud as I started walking the two kilometers to the site, “I’m in the middle of Europe, on my way to a bizarre place no one else I know had ever been to, and worse — my mama doesn’t know.”
All good reasons to keep trudging on, I told myself.
When I arrived, it was sunny but bloody freezing, filled with more than 40,000 crosses of all shapes and sizes but not a single soul was in sight. I was in fact grateful for the solitariness, which heightened the thrill of mystery and isolation of being in such an unusual site. The Hill of Crosses resembled to me a graveyard, and indeed many of these crosses were erected in memory of deceased loved ones. I was fortunate to have been received in fantastic weather; any gloomier, and it would have been even more macabre and perhaps slightly depressing.
I travel alone because I have gathered an unquenchable desire to hurl myself into the unknown, time and time again. If I wanted to travel to see tulips in bloom and have fun in Disneyland, I’d take my mother to Keukenhof or rally with a group of friends to pay Mickey Mouse a visit in Paris. But some paths are meant to be treaded alone, and this is what I seek — the opportunity to test how far these boots will take me along unknown roads into uncharted territories. Every time I look at the map to trace the journey I’d just taken, I feel as if I am also looking at a cartographical representation of my own soul and how much of it I’ve passed through. So yes, while traveling is about discovering what’s out there, I would propose that it is also a journey into unveiling what’s in here.