Can you time travel? I can. I can’t control it, of course - though I certainly wish I could - but it happens on a fairly regular basis. Without warning, a scent takes me captive, hurtling me back across miles and years, and I momentarily find myself in another time, another place.
Wood smoke always does this to me. Its drifting tendrils never fail to transport me to Kashmir, where, crouching on a flat stone on a houseboat, I struggle to light a fire under blackened pots of rice and dahl. Never mind that all that happened four decades ago, I am instantly there once again, irritated about the soot on my salwar kameez and the damp kindling. The same happens when I get a whiff of the spicy breath of whole cloves or cardamom. I am once again back in an Old Delhi market, haggling over prices with a grizzled merchant, fighting flies and the heat, wrapping my purchases in newspaper and guarding my purse.
It’s not only smells that send me back through the wormhole. I cross years, miles and cultures if I catch sight of a sky so blue that it makes me inhale sharply in wonder. I’m once again at the New England farm of my childhood on a warm summer morning, and I can almost hear my grandfather pounding the anvil outside his work shed. The sounds of temple bells rocket me to the narrow alleys of Kathmandu, a mosque call whisks me off to the sleepy suburbs of Jakarta. Bird calls at dusk bring me back to Srinagar, where I glide home in our small shikara, paddles dipping the water in steady rhythm. The gentle lapping of ocean waves transports me once again to that small island off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, where I hold a lantern high against the darkness and wade into the shallow water to search for anemones. My lantern is pummeled by tiny colorful fish who leap out of the water towards the light, and I step carefully to avoid lurking stone fish. I’m there again, it seems, and then I’m gone.
I suppose that sort of time travel happens to everyone. Sights, sounds and smells conjure vivid memories of family, friends, childhood or travel which momentarily seem so real, transporting us into the past. But I wonder if those of us who have lived in numerous cultures and assorted worlds might experience such moments more intensely. The jolt of returning to a previous life, in such sharp contrast to the one we live now, can be poignant, as well as pleasant.
Do I miss those places? Yes, of course. You might call it homesickness, but it’s an ache and a longing that’s more difficult to define that that. It’s the kind of nostalgia that can’t usually be satisfied by returning to any particular place, for the place may be the same, but I have changed. Often, the people I knew are no longer there, the circumstances are wholly different, and the life I once lived no longer exists, outside of a memory. I have heard other nomads say they feel the same, and it can be a bittersweet experience. Yet my moments of time travel help me experience, once again, the colorful mosaic of my life, and I’m very glad for those glimpses of other worlds.
Excuse me, I just caught the scent of cumin and roasted meat coming from the oven. If you don’t mind waiting, I should be back from Pakistan in a few moments.