Photograph by Ramin Talaie, Corbis
From the May 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler.
The backstreets of Chengdu meander along canals lined with weeping willows. They narrow, unexpectedly, into potholed lanes where pork sellers try to outshout vendors pushing carts heaped with vegetables and sacks bursting with Sichuan’s signature dried peppercorn, huajiao.
In search of a break from city life in Hong Kong, I had grabbed the first cheap flight that looked interesting and now am in the capital of Sichuan Province. I get up early in the mornings and wander Chengdu until the soles of my feet ache. I invent new meal occasions—pre-brunch! après-lunch!—as excuses to stop for garlicky pork dumplings or chunks of braised rabbit swimming in oil. I haggle with the old market lady selling the reddish pink huajiao. She crushes some of her highest-quality peppercorns in her palm and holds the powder under my nose so I can appreciate its sharp, tingly perfume. This is the pure pleasure of travel: To be as far from home as possible, with no purpose or goal other than to overload all of my senses with smells, sounds, and tastes that are utterly, completely, and wonderfully different from the things I am sure of.
And then, at the end of my perfect travel day, I hoof, exhausted, back to the neighborhood where I’m staying. But I don’t go straight to my guesthouse. I’ve spotted something in the distance.
My feet are on autopilot now, walking me in the direction of an all too familiar black-and-green logo. Moments later, I’m curled up in an armchair, listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing and drinking from a cardboard cup filled with dark, blisteringly hot, and somewhat overroasted Guatemalan coffee. Through a labyrinth of streets, I’ve managed to land myself in probably the most familiar and homey place an American can find in the city of Chengdu: Starbucks.
To be fair, this Starbucks isn’t your typical chain outlet found in cities from Boston to Bangkok: It’s tucked into the main floor of a restored traditional Chengdu mansion. Still, part of me feels sheepish about skipping my total-immersion course in Sichuan street food to wrap myself in a cozy blanket of American sounds and aromas. I’m always irritated when fellow travelers whinge about their difficulties getting decent hamburgers and fries in Tokyo or finding people who speak English in a remote Mexican village. Eat sushi, learn Spanish! I grumble to myself (and sometimes to them). Did you come all this way just to experience the world through the filter of what you already know?
Yet, sipping my caffeine fix in this home away from home, I remember a long-ago afternoon in another foreign place, Budapest. I had felt rather lost and out of sorts in Hungary’s capital until I discovered a leafy boulevard that, inexplicably, put me at ease. It took me a while to realize why: The grand, fin-de-siècle apartment buildings reminded me of the first apartment building, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, that I had moved into after graduating from college. Without even entering them, I could see the high ceilings, the ornate crown moldings, the parquet floors, and imagine the artists, musicians, and professionals who inhabited this bourgeois neighborhood. At last, in a strange city, surrounded by people who were speaking one of the world’s more challenging languages, I had a point of reference from home—my own small entryway to Budapest’s layered history and culture.
Traveling outside what you know is thrilling but exhausting, and can throw you off center. Sometimes you need a touchstone to help you deal with all of the new input. “Won tons are like the Italian ravioli you make, without the sauce,” I tell my 84-year-old mother, hoping to ease her into her first-ever Chinese food experience, in Hong Kong. Start with what you know and work forward. Home might seem like the polar opposite of travel, but I’ve come to think of travel and home as complementary, intertwined even. Home is essential to travel because it gives us tools to decode the place we’re in and a benchmark that lets us see how far we’ve come. The things most familiar to us are what make our most ambitious travel possible.
I’m not suggesting we should travel everywhere surrounded by a protective bubble of our home culture. But looking for a bit of the familiar in faraway places isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After days of speaking pidgin English, a fast-talking evening with North Americans can hit the spot. Similarly, weeks of traveling in Southeast Asia and eating spicy soup for breakfast sometimes make me yearn for the westernized banana pancakes they serve in backpacker guesthouses. It’s not being an unenthusiastic traveler to recognize that familiar touchstones give us a needed breather on the road, the better to help us dive back, with gusto, into cultures not our own.
The Sichuan huajiao pepper has a heady, intoxicating fragrance, but it is also overpowering—it numbs your taste buds and keeps you from tasting anything else. To really appreciate it, you need other flavors and spices for balance and contrast. Even Sichuan people wouldn’t eat a meal with the pepper in every dish. I’ve eaten a lot of huajiao today, and it’s delicious. But I know it will taste even better to me after I’ve finished my Caffè Americano.