January 19, 2015

"The Shapes of my Journeys”

Images and words by Diane Durongpisitkul

Perhaps before calling myself a photographer, I identify first as a traveller. I endeavour to keep my environments changing, despite moving through my destinations at a snail’s pace. I like to understand my subjects, get to know them, even know what they like to eat for breakfast.

I’m not sure where this sense of wanderlust stems from; some say my ancestral background being Chinese-Thai, Indian-Malay, yet born in Australia keeps me culturally restless. I’m not sure if this is the case, but it gives me a range of destinations to travel to with a family base!

There is no structure as to how I choose my destinations. Sometimes it could be creating a list and having to visit every country that begins with the letter ‘M’. Other times it could be a spark of interest about how people carry out a particular daily task, such as fishing from stilts pierced into the ocean’s floor. Or sometimes, it’s about travelling to document members of my growing family tree. (I have over 700 people listed now!)

Although my travels are fairly loose, there is a general algorithm. I will have a destination in mind and usually journey great distances to get there. I turn up unannounced and find a place to stay, most of the time with a local family.

One particular journey following this method was in Iran. I had heard of Kurdish villages wedged between the mountainous ranges separating Iran and Iraq. These villages were supposedly architecturally incredible, having been built into the contours of the mountainside, with the roof of one person’s home forming the footpath of the home above.

After a long day’s travel to get to Kurdistan’s capital Sanandaj, I hired a taxi with a charismatic driver named Ali. I told him that I wanted to go to Howraman-at Takht, one of the mountainside villages in this region. We set off along thin hairpin roads and chatted in a mix of both broken English and Farsi. Between offering me pumpkin seeds and apples to snack on, Ali continuously questioned me about where I planned on staying, as to his best knowledge there were no hotels in the village. Everytime he asked, I would reply ‘family’. He understood this as ‘I have family in Howraman-at Takht’ but I was actually hoping he would help me find a family to stay with.

After close to 4 hours on the road, Ali dropped his speed and pointed ahead saying ‘Howraman’. In return I pointed to him and made the following hand gestures and actions ‘you…talk…Howraman…family’ and finished with my head resting on my hands to signify ‘sleep’. He said some Farsi words, kept smiling and nodding. We had somehow learnt to understand each other from our time spent together in the car.

Night was falling and people had retreated back to their homes. Ali had rolled down his car window and was doing his best to recruit me a home to sleep in. At one of the last houses before the village ended, Ali managed to get a woman’s attention and propositioned her with a foreigner with a backpack. She peered into the taxi and got a good look at my face, while I was doing the same, checking if this was the face of a woman I could trust. We both instantly came to a mutual unspoken agreement and before I knew it, I was whisked inside her home to meet the rest of her family and acquaint myself with the Kurdish of Howraman-at Takht.

There are many factors that shape my journeys, and mode of transport is one. I’ve spent days talking and singing to my horse while he carried me through the ever-changing landscape in the north of Mongolia, I’ve buzzed around the streets of Bangladesh on rickshaws playing chicken with oncoming traffic and when I’ve been too lazy to trek with my gear I’ve hitchhiked on the back of trucks in the Burmese countryside.

Food is an integral part of any journey and apart from my taste buds getting a workout I’ve spent time learning how to cook tea leaf salads, stained my teeth red chewing the addictive beetle nut packages on the street sides of Myanmar, and had my cholesterol shoot through the roof drinking horse’s milk at every tea break of the day in Mongolia.

In travel, the moment itself is as important as the destination. Rushing for a train in the chaos of a busy station and checking the departure times on a beautiful vintage analogue timber timetable can stop you in your tracks. Being out on the streets before dawn and hearing novice monks chant during their rounds can transmit an incredible sense of calm, and even something as simple as a formation of clouds over the ocean is what counts in my travels.

Time, money, effort and tears are put into each trip. There have been moments where I was so exhausted or pushed to my limits that I’d find my mind questioning if leaving the 9-5 was the best decision. But, after a cup of local tea to sooth the soul, access to a much-needed shower or even just a smile from a stranger passing me on the streets, I never feel regret about where I am.

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