Sense memories are often the source of some powerful post-trip nostalgia, at least for me. Most of these are tied directly to the place where they were experienced, like the tinkling of cowbells in an alpine meadow, the aroma of grilled souvlaki meat in a Greek taverna, or the low hum of chanting monks in Tibet. But I have also formed random associations of certain pieces of music with particular places that are just as potent as these more intrinsic sounds and smells.
I have a short and whimsical playlist I associate with almost every trip I have taken and more often than not, it makes no sense thematically or chronologically. When I hear certain songs or artists, I am transported back to the strangest places – cities and countries that have no inherent connection to the music in question. One of the most recent examples is Daft Punk’s summer of 2013 hit song “Get Lucky,” which instantaneously evokes a warm summer day in Ljubljana, Slovenia, every time I hear it. This one, at least, fits its timeframe; I was there that summer, and every restaurant and bar along the Ljubljanica River seemed to be playing the catchy tune as we strolled the streets of this incredibly lovely little town. The light, peppy beat perfectly reflected the bright, energetic summer vibe of the city, and I (now annoyingly) contact my travel buddy K every time I hear the song and think of our happy time there.
A more unlikely combo is R.E.M. and the twisting, turning roads of the Arcadia region of Greece’s Peloponnese. The track I remember most, “Losing My Religion” was released in 1991, but this trip was many years later, and there was little about those dusty roads and small villages that seemed connected to the haunting, mandolin-heavy melody of this song. Nevertheless, R.E.M. is now forever linked to that road trip of shimmering hot days, with seven people packed into a van on the way to an ancestral village and home. The memory works both ways; I hear the tune whenever I look at the village photos, and I think of the mountain drive every time R.E.M. comes on.
Some parts of the world, whether through geographic or cultural isolation, are decades behind in the radio music scene. Two anachronisms still make me smile. One was listening to The Doors in remote Namche Bazaar, Nepal, on the trail to Everest Base Camp just a few years ago. On a dismal, rainy night, two of my fellow trekkers and I escaped our freezing lodge for a beer and some popcorn in a tiny bar warmed by a potbellied stove. We sat for hours, listening to the rain pinging against the metal roof and the strains of some very dated ‘60s and ‘70s songs, most notably a medley of The Doors. I may have thought about “The End” and “Riders on the Storm” at Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, but I certainly did not expect to hear his memorable voice deep in the Khumbu in Nepal!
Do you associate somber, serious Russia with bouncy Boy George? On the day of my arrival, I tried to make sense (while seriously jetlagged, no less) of the incongruous juxtaposition of “Karma Chameleon” and the austere architecture I was viewing out my sleet-covered cab window one January day. I would be hard pressed to think of a song less evocative of Soviet Russia than this, but it’s fixed now: St. Petersburg’s outskirts and Culture Club, together forever.
Aside from these random associations, there are also the songs that were playing on my own iPod on different occasions, either on purpose or arbitrarily. Pitbull took my mind off my panting on the way up the last set of steps and hills to Dead Woman’s Pass on the Inca Trail, The Fray have shut out any number of people snoring in nearby tents, and Kacey Musgraves’ country twang accompanied us on a drive all over Iceland’s country roads last summer.
Last but not least, there was one unforgettable trip on which we provided the “music” ourselves. We had grown very attached to our adorable, charming guide in Tibet after spending over a week with him in Lhasa and the Tibetan countryside. As we drove back from our expedition to Everest North Base Camp, we grew silly and sentimental about leaving him and decided to sing along to many of his favorite western artists, including Michael Bolton (had to hum that one!), Back Street Boys, and Céline Dion. I will never hear “My Heart Will Go On” again without a mental picture of a tiny Tibetan guy crooning his heart out on the Friendship Highway!
Do you have an internal soundtrack from each trip you’ve taken? Stay tuned for another post some day on all the books I associate with each trip!