To be sure, until I left home for university, I had never travelled outside the borders of my homeland. Not if you count Singapore, and since my parents were born in the 50s and they still think of that little island as a neighbour we lost in a sad and brief tempest of politics, I don’t. The night I left there were the prerequisite airport tears, a number of well-wishing relatives (whom I suspect had a secret running bet on how long I would last on my own in a foreign land) and the awkward little national airline button on my blazer that said ‘student’, as if my terrified and bemused face said anything to the contrary.
We had learned in prep college that Australia was made of mostly empty desert land and dry cold, and although Melbourne was situated by the sea, there was little rain to expect. The bus ride from the small Tullamarine airport was made easier by the group of fellow students who were chattering excitedly, pointing out of windows at the odd smooth-barked trees and the near empty highways, all so unfamiliar and subdued. I wondered if this was how it was to travel – to feel detached and calm, being stuck in a foreign land while surrounded by conversations in one’s native tongue. This barely felt like a foreign experience; all it felt was new.
Although I had made it a point to travel home only for summer – even as I debated what home meant with each passing year – plane rides became a sort of ritual. I fell into my polite semi-enthusiastic travelling face every time I strolled into an airplane with luggage. Nonchalant smiles, experienced walks, kiss kiss hug farewells, warm mocha in hand. My passport collected the stamps of only one country but it didn’t change the fact that I tried to rein in my clumsiness to look the seasoned traveller. So when my roommate’s good friends started talking about travelling to the UK during one of my few sleepovers, I eagerly stuck my nose in and offered myself to the party. “Count me in,” I said.
I ignored the uncertain looks on their faces; focused on the fact that they were trying not to let them show. “Well, we’re going to visit out friends, and going to a bunch of places based on that –”
“No matter,” I insisted, squirming around in my sleeping bag to hide the fact I didn’t sleep well on other people’s floors. “Just count me in. I’ll go anywhere.”
And I did. I shamelessly let Yani and ‘Izzah do the planning and I provided my thoughtless approval on tickets to wherever it was they wanted to go next, knowing full and well that for all of my acumen as a traveller, I was willing to simply go along. It felt a bit like taking advantage, but as we learnt later on during the trip itself, my ignorance of geography was a trait best left out of the equation.
Our Christmas/New Year trip was a bit of a blur, to be honest. Did you know that Europe pretty much shut down for all 12 days of Christmas and New Year’s? Not being Christian myself, it didn’t occur to me, the significance of the old carol. All the things I had found myself excited about, such as peeking at the Magna Carta at the National Library and crossing the London Bridge (although I hated the rhyme) were made more difficult, if not impossible. Instead, we spent our time in London passing fellow countrymen on Oxford Street during the Boxing Day sales and running away from rabid ducks in a park behind the London Mosque.
And then, true to their word, my friends rallied us forth to their high school girlfriends in Manchester (we stayed on what I fondly call ‘Halal Street’ due to the halal Subway right next door) and Dublin (iced chocolate in dead winter was a surprisingly good idea). The geography is a bit of a mess in my head, even now, since I am most unreliable when it comes to directions and not laughing during dire situations. The two ladies even once jammed their backpacks filled with my things on one of our flights, and all because I had mispacked and the antique teacup I had bought for Mama could not be crushed under my books under any circumstances. They were very game to take on a complete klutz such as myself, for which I am forever grateful because for some reason, they decided to make Edinburgh the penultimate stop on our list. And that was where I fell in love.
How do I begin?
It had snowed when we arrived – proper snow, different from the one I’d experienced with my friends one late afternoon atop Mount Bulla after I had fallen on my bum several times on the slope. Edinburgh’s snow had happened sometime between our bleary morning flight from Dublin and had ceased by the time we landed, leaving the cobblestone roads and fresh gardens with a layer of fluffy ice. This was our third country in a week and we were tired. Edinburgh seemed small enough for our weary muscles, and I trudged along behind my companions who had a map and directions in hand and a destination in mind.
Our hosts were three girls of our age, the main host being Yani’s boarding school friend. There are some people whose spirits propel your own, even when your bones feel funny from a mixture of odd-hour flights and awkward sleeping positions, and Mai was one of them. She made us dry our feet by the heater in her warm room and chattered about all the things we could do. What my friend had not known was that Mai had just bought a digital SLR camera and had a mission: she would capture her Edinburgh in the snow and with us tourists in it.
Their flat was lovely and quietly romantic, perched atop flights of crooked stairs, and it faced the University’s Faculty of Medicine. It was a tall, old, greying building that one imagined was in abundance all over Great Britain (they really aren’t as many as you’d think) and when the snow started tumbling again in sideswept falls, it looked quite picturesque. Mai positioned us within view of the building and took our photos incessantly, telling us when to smile and when to walk and although none of us bothered to check on the camera display if our smiles were wide enough for Facebook, they all were. She had a gift you couldn’t fake with Instagram.
Then she told us to climb a hill.
Like I said, we were tired and rather dependent on Mai, and we followed behind her, her face constantly behind the camera, and we walked around the city, past the castle which anchored it to the island, and came to a cemetery. To this day I’m not sure which hill it was exactly, but it was covered in snow and although you can trudge through in trainers, it’s rather hard to do in knee-high boots with almost no grip sole. My friends half-pulled, half-dragged me up the hill, looking only mildly annoyed and mostly concerned, while Mai ran ahead, her rose-coloured headscarf a dot in the plentiful white.
I stamped through the snow, slowly, slowly, until we reached the tree. “Smile, Syaz!” Mai yelled from where she was, way up high. I stood there in the valley (was there yet more uphill?), wondering how I would look in her photograph. When she passed the file to us later I was gratified to find that I was a tiny grey and blue figure under a shadow of what would be beautiful shade, its gnarled skeleton spread sideways and the tops of its branches stubbornly brown. There was barely any of me in it at all. It felt appropriate and right.
Then I followed the girls to the top of the hill. I have found that there are times in life where you can sort of expect a Moment before it happens – like the world buzzes a whisper in your ear and tells you to watch out and slow down because this only happens sometimes, and physics obeys and you can feel the air change and melt instantly, even as you know that this change in the laws of nature was meant for only you.
Let’s not kid ourselves: when we go up summits, we expect beautiful scenery when we’re up there. To want anything less is just shameful.
So I made those last few steps, chest wound tight, heart braced for the skip-jump…
And there it was. There was Edin. It was mine, and I was hers, and I knew then.
My camera was too simple to properly capture what I saw that day as my eyes took in every angle greedily. I sat down on a bench and told one of the girls to capture my profile there – a sort of contemplative pose if you will, ideal for obscure online albums – but when I sat there I sat a moment too long, watching the snow-dusted roofs set against red, pink and gold of the late-morning sun, the light catching on the dark grey seas in the distance and marking them all with soft shades that faded line by line. I believe I prayed in the way you do when you feel so close to everything you ever wanted. I cried. I smiled. Under my woollen coat I could feel my heart expand and my lungs absorb this loving air and I was made anew.
Leaving Edinburgh was like saying goodbye to a dream and leaving behind a promise – my vow kissing the cobblestone streets, the winding lanes, the open doors and the light burr, as we walked quietly, guided by the moonlight and the map in Yani’s hands. The wheels on my luggage whirred and clunked against the stones, and then went silent once we boarded the train and its rubbered floors. All our short ride to Glasgow I stared out the window, seeing nothing but dark and the reflection from within the carriage, wanting desperately to see a path back, as though to say a proper lingering goodbye. But we had left Edinburgh at the train station and would go back to everything we knew and had grown achingly tired for, even as we left behind hot chocolate and laughs and dimpled smiles and quiet conversations about Doctor Who with kindred hearts till late at night.
Five years on I still remember Edinburgh in blurs of snow, damp cold, grey waters and icy familiar wind, and I carry these memories all melted together and tell myself that I will go back one day, inshAllah, inshAllah. I told myself this more often in the early months of my postgraduate course, telling myself that this was one way to get there, and I have forgotten this promise more often than I would wish, since. Each step leads me there and I sit here and work. And in the moments where I forget to work, I wait.
Syazwina sometimes forgets that she’s still studying while she works. And then her mother asks her about her exam results and then she’s 10 again and absurdly terrified. She rants at her blog and, let’s be honest, on Twitter too.