Friday, August 27, 2010

Chai: Travel Poems by Marc Daniel Nair

(Photo by: Paul Lee)

By Paul Lee

There is no doubt that travel is one of life’s best teachers and the way we see the world changes the moment we get off into the beaten track and embrace all the new and unfamiliar sights and sounds that await on the other side. 

As we return from our journeys we regale to our friends and family the sights, the sounds and the smells that leave an impression on us over beers and coffee and thanks to modern technology blog them online. 
Otherwise what would have fired up the literary muses of every literary traveller from W. Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad to your average backpacker toting his/her laptop and digital camera other than that sense of wanderlust and discovery? Thus the traveller inspired enough to put his journeys and experiences into words adds a new twist courtesy of Singapore-based poet Marc Daniel Nair in his travel anthology; Chai: Travel Poems. 

In his verses, Nair adds a novel twist to the travel writing genre as he describes those that seemed both familiar and yet strangely distant in his treks down both his ancestral India and the disparate countries of Southeast Asia; bringing both the traveller’s sense of wonder and the intimacy at the places he visited and the people he encountered. Whether describing distant villages in all their rustic ambiance ("on the island of fish sauce/motorbikes churn the roads/the sun brings a smile/and sand-flies leave their calling cards"), liaisons between foreign men and local women amidst seedy urban backdrops ("he lives on the small change of their sex/a woman’s last gamble at feeling wanted/this easy coupling of wine glass and sallow skin"), encounters with both fellow travellers in the remote fastness ("while waiting in Bondoc for a jeepney/we talk in fractured English/he twists off the end of a long baguette/spreading pate with a penknife") and the ordinary folk eking out a living ("women weave baskets around
themselves/spilling bamboo shoots into the narrow passage") as well as ruminations through long trips into half-forgotten landmarks and persons ("the gods of Gianyar line the road to Denpasar/Buddha next to Ganesh next to Rama next to Sita"); Nair brings an intimate sensitivity in his verses in describing his journeys marrying both the cynical bustle of the cosmopolitan sprawl with the pastoral timelessness of the backwaters of Southeast Asia; worlds that seemed disparate dwell in the same universe of poetry. 

On the other hand; Nair reserves some irony in describing his native Singapore ("I have seen the progress of the city/while being constantly photographed /with a skyline always under construction") as well as a longing for his ancestral India ("I am drinking chai in the land of my fathers/steeped in the aroma of time and place"). Though Nair’s trips across Southeast Asia provided enough grist for his verses; it is his first and final series of poems that resonates at his most personal and are thus the most distinct in his anthology.

(Paul Lee is a freelance writer. An Ateneo graduate, he is currently finishing his master's in creative writing at U.P. Diliman). 

(Editor's note: "Chai – Travel Poems" will be available at major bookstores at the end of August. You can order a discounted copy directly from Marc if you pop by his website at You can also email him here.)

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