x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

The women’s majlis: There’s a world full of wonder out there

After a trip to Japan, Maryam Al Mehairi suggests that we should all try to expand our horizons.

When the 27-year-old Frenchman Xavier de Maistre was confined to his bedroom for 42 days in the late 18th century after a duel, he took a journey within his four walls. He described his experience in a book entitled Voyage Around My Room.

What did De Maistre see in confinement and how did he travel standing still? The paintings on his walls, the mundane objects that his eyes were accustomed to for years, his dog and blankets and clothes; they were all elements of his great v­oyage. Others, unlike De Maistre, travel far and often, but fail to leave home behind.

A few days ago, I returned from a 10-day trip round Japan. One of the questions that I was asked upon my return was: “How did you accept their strange culture?”. To my surprise and disappointment, the question was mostly asked by those who have already been to Japan.

Stereotyping the unfamiliar and rejecting it is a common human trait. We’re accustomed to the familiar, the safe, the static and stable. We’ve created this bubble of comfort around us, blocking out and eliminating everything that we deem risky and foreign. As a result, our tongues will only taste what we’ve been accustomed to expect and our eyes will only perceive within default ­parameters.

The unfamiliar is intimidating; it’s strange and daunting and it takes away our sense of equilibrium and clarity. It’s that persistent fear of the unknown; a fear of what we might find and learn if we allowed ourselves to absorb somebody else’s world. But travelling is all about that; to be vulnerable and bare, expose ourselves to the good, the bad and even the mundane: lost luggage, missed trains, blisters and miscommunicated conversations. These are the things that make it real and whole.

On my first night in Japan, I had dinner at a restaurant in Shinsaibashi, the heart of Osaka. As I was about to dig in, pretending to be an expert with chopsticks, I was stopped by a tourist sitting at the table beside me. He gave me a knowing smile and pointed out that sticking your chopsticks into a bowl of rice vertically is a morbid symbol in the Japanese culture, used only in funerals. I was startled; not because I wasn’t aware of the Japanese dining etiquette and manners, but because I was hit with the sudden realisation that I was in an entirely different reality.

Here I was in a small restaurant thousands of miles away in a foreign city with people who have their own detailed set of dos and don’ts and all the common-knowledge titbits that only they know the reasons ­behind. I loved that. It gave me an amazing rush; a jolt of excitement at all the things that I can still find out about this new environment. I wanted to dive right in, speak to every stranger on the subway and indulge in the beauty of a language that I don’t understand.

It took De Maistre a leap of imagination and a mind-stretch to make the most out of his confinement. Sometimes that’s all it takes to feel alive: bravery, curiosity and an endless sense of wonder.

Maryam Al Mehairi is a 25-year-old Emirati with a passion for travel and adventure who works for an airline.

weekend@thenational.ae

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