I had an idea that I might go for a run if I awoke early enough, so before going to bed I put out my running shorts, t-shirt and trainers just in case, but actually set my alarm for seven o’clock. Despite that I awoke at 5.30 am, so got off the fan-cooled bed, put on my running kit and went straight out of my room, downstairs and onto the street, walking at first in the darkness towards the sea front, listening to the crowing of cocks. A few minutes later, where the road meets the sea by the side of the Royal Palace, I started to run. Despite the early hour there were a lot of people out exercising, some power-walking, a few running, and groups working out on the lawns between the main road and the rocky shore. This dark hour is the best time for exercise in the tropics, well before the heat of the day. This was an earlier start than my previous attempts at morning running in the last few weeks. Kuala Lumpur, Brisbane and the Solomon Islands had all been too hot, which had meant I could only run for a short time before sweating as if in a sauna, the heat sapping energy from my body.
Tonga, so close to the international date line, is one of the first countries in the world to see each day’s new dawn, and I was positioned on our rotating planet to start the day of 16th January 2018 earlier than most. I ran eastwards towards the pinkening sky. The South Pacific ocean was on my left and on my right, the capital city of Nuku’alofa on the northern coast of Tongatapu, the biggest of the 169 islands that comprise the Kingdom of Tonga. As I jogged nearer to the naval base, I could hear marines already drilling to military chants and soon I could see an orderly platoon stamping along, their white t-shirts visible in the near-dark.
Ideally the sun would have risen from a blue sea to my left, but it was not to be. Instead, today, the sun rose in the East. This bearing was slightly to the right of the road ahead, inland behind buildings and trees. Or, only slightly less impossible than rearranging the earth’s solar orbit, the island of Tongatapu might have been rotated clockwise, just a bit. Then I’d be running a few degrees to the southeast instead of gently northeast. Furthermore, in that perfect scenario, today’s dawn would have been clear, a fiery orange globe rising into a pale blue sky. In reality sunrises are often not as stunning as that, and today the sky was cloudy. As I was pondering these alternative realities, minutes passed. Neither the sun nor the island changed their minds about how sunrise always has happened and always will happen here, and the pale clouds remained.
I reflected that travelling is about discovering that nothing is quite like it was imagined before arriving. We see the rubbish that was cropped from the brochure photo, we visit during the months that the famous building is undergoing repairs and hidden by scaffolding, we encounter the scabby dogs on the street. Paul Theroux wrote that travel is glamorous only in retrospect and I would say also in its anticipation. Enlightenment, according to Zen Buddhism, is the removal of illusions, and in that sense travelling can be enlightening. For me, the value of travelling is in discovering that nothing is as imagined beforehand or remembered afterwards. It’s richer than both. Every precious moment is multi-dimensional, more complex that any photograph can capture. Each day is a stream of little experiences, most of which pass through us, unrecorded, and are forgotten, but they somehow leave their footprint in the sand of our souls. The heat, a stranger’s smile, a language not understood, the smell of food, the delays, the uncertainty of being away from the familiar, and a kaleidoscope of tiny surprises. These are neither good nor bad in themselves; it simply depends how we choose to experience them. Those who love to travel relish them all.
Soon it was no longer dark. As I was running back towards town, more and more people were coming out and going about their daily business. By now, three small fishing boats had docked and were selling their lobsters and fish to local people at the roadside. Retail not wholesale: the night’s catch wasn’t sold in crates but in clear plastic bags. Crumpled banknotes were passed into fishy hands and people walked off with their first shopping of the day. Now hot and sweaty, I finished my run and found a seat outside an early-opening cafe, to drink cold water and the coffee I usually need first thing every morning before doing anything else. Feeling good after the run and pleased I’d made such an early start to the day, I relaxed and watched the world go by. The place was awake, Tuesday had truly begun. A moment later, my phone alarm rang; it was 7.00 am.
Copyright © David Parrish 2018.