The idea of travel takes on a whole new meaning in the world of COVID-19. To travel beyond a 1 mile radius of your home is a mission – full of trepidation, uncertainty, maybe even adventure.
When we think of travel, of holidays, of trips beyond our normal routine, what is it that we look for? What does travelling mean? For me it’s adventure, new experiences, discovery, and the unknown.
But, a moment of thought; when we think about our love for travel, some of the words and ideas can be problematic, especially coming from the space of western privilege where we can travel on our passports with ease and even a carelessness that many other countries don’t share.
Why problematic? Because travel can exoticise. It can make something that is not familiar to you an ‘other’. Of course travel is also about learning, sharing and widening our understandings. And so when we travel we should think about the lens through which we see new landscapes, so that we can avoid perpetuating damaging othering narratives.
I have always had family who have lived far away so for me travel has also always meant family. As a child in Kuching I had family that lived up river in Sarawak, it would take a day or two to get to them; then I moved to New Zealand and my dad in Sarawak was even farther away. Now, my mother lives in New Zealand, one sister lives in Australia, and my father is still in Sarawak. All these trips home are full of adventure, new things – food! – and the possibility of many new experiences. It is still travel even when it’s going ‘home’.
Now, the idea of just travelling across London to see my sister, or go to a restaurant sounds wildly exciting; I wait in anticipation for that day.
Small things that I took for granted, which I cannot do at the moment, remind me how much we need the sense of adventure and discovery that ‘travel’ gives us – and the anticipation of those things! In the routine of your own space it is hard to find those moments.
Books, tv and film offer escapism and new knowledge, but the thing I have found that comes closest to the idea of discovery has been podcasts, specifically the podcast Take A Bao. There is a viscerality in audio that is missing in books or the screen – I think because it is an intimate format (I listen on my dog walk with earphones) and it allows your imagination to work, to visualise what you are hearing.
Each episode of Take A Bao looks at a specific Asian topic around food or drink – place, ingredient, dish or beverage – and explores what it is, what it means, and its history. The host, Jun, interviews people from all over the world. The combination of specificity and understanding the topic in a wider context, plus meeting new people, feels like all the things a good trip entails. It is a weekly show, so I wait in anticipation for the next episod, and I never try to find out what the topic will be so that I can be surprised and excited when I discover it!
What makes this podcast a balm for the current world is its gentleness; that doesn’t mean it lacks punch – it asks awkward questions too (does the latest coffee trend actually taste good!?) But what makes it great is that it approaches the idea of ‘travel’ through a lens that is not othering or exoticising. From the way the topics are explored we can learn how to travel respectfully, to decolonialise the way we see other cultures that we travel to.
The podcast is for a global, English-speaking audience but it is not Western-centric. This sounds like a natural stance to take for an Asian-focused podcast, but actually it’s hugely refreshing. Even in Malaysia there is much media and culture that looks to western norms; I get shocked each time at the amount of whitening skin products when I go home! The language and tone is never othering because it is always from the stance that this food is someone’s ‘normal’ and someone else’s ‘adventure’. I also love all the different accents you hear, because of the range of interviews on the show. (I have written here about Take a Bao in reference to why language and talking about unknown things without othering, is important.)
Jun, the creator of Take a Bao, is Malaysian based in Malaysia. He studied Chemical Engineering at Cambridge, then went to culinary school, lived in Paris, worked in America – including staging at Blue Hill – and has written for a number of publications, globally.
The first episode is about durian, which I love, but has a complicated reputation outside of its South-East Asian home. In the West, writing and talking about durian can veer sharply into racism. But in this episode of the podcast, durian is spoken about with joy, whilst still acknowledging that it might not be for everyone. By talking about the details of farming durian, its history and talking to a durian farmer, the fruit is given a value that ‘weird’ food rarely is.
The second episode is about kopitiams (kopi = malay for coffee, tiam = haka for shop), cafes in Malaysia and Singapore that sell predominantly breakfast foods, with a few vendors selling their specialty dishes. The podcast takes a look at how society builds spaces around food and drink, and helps you to begin to understand the space of Malaysia. It also reminded me that Sarawak is very different to West Malaysia – which is evident in the way the kopitiams are structured. Our kopitiams have more vendors, and vendors from different backgrounds, selling roti to laksa, whereas in West Malaysian kopitiams the cuisine offered is only Malaysian Chinese. This is because of a different social history in Sarawak, which is less segregated and has a large indigenous Christian majority population, unlike West Malaysia which is predominantly Malay (and Muslim); I’m abridging a complicated Malaysian history, for brevity!
I won’t tell you about the other episodes, as I hope that they will offer you the same joy of discovery I have had – little moments of travel and gentle adventure.
Outdoor images taken by Anna on local excursions to walk her dog, earphones in and podcast on. Take A Bao images courtesy of Take A Bao; photography credits to Trisha Toh and Calvin Goh.