In lockdown, I’ve been traveling in a different way. I listen to music and close my eyes, revisiting songs that bring back memories. Listening to playlists and records is my way of remembering the different chapters of my life and what they have meant to me. I’ve grown up all over the world, moving countries every few years – from India to Hong Kong to Vietnam to the US. Now I’m living in Mumbai, waiting for my next visa. Through all the changes, music has been my constant, keeping me company through every move.
There are a few pieces that transport me every time, such as the Hebrides Overture by Felix Mendelssohn, which was one of my favourite works as a music history student in high school. The piece was inspired by Mendelssohn’s 1829 trip to Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa, off Scotland’s west coast, known for its puffins and the echoes of the cave. Mendelssohn wrote it to capture the Atlantic swell, the sound of the waves crashing into rocks and lapping against each other. I feel at home when I am by the water, so listening to it takes me to sea.
Four years later, when I was an exchange student in Edinburgh, I saw a local orchestra perform the overture, which reminded me that Fingal’s Cave was not too far away. I booked a trip to go and actually see the place I had only ever visited in my mind, through music.
I took a train to Oban, where I was stranded because of the high tide, but cheered up after collecting sea glass and treating myself to chips with plenty of salt and vinegar. At 6am, I took a ferry to Craignure on the Isle of Mull, and sat on a bus that weaved through the island to Fionnphort, where 10 of us stepped aboard a tiny boat for uninhabited Staffa. As the wind whipped through my hair and I stood up to take in the view, the opening theme of the composition played on repeat in my mind. I savoured the feeling I had always imagined, of being on a pirate ship in rocky waters, with the hope and mystery of the sea, as the cave loomed closer.
Our boat left us next to the dock, where I could see smooth rocks under aquamarine water. We walked inside the cave, which is formed entirely from hexagonally jointed basalt columns, balancing on the grey rock tinged with seafoam green. I was surprised by how close we could get, stepping along the makeshift pathway just above sea level into the darker corners of the cave. Looking up, the sharp hexagonal pillars dissolved into a honeycomb structure 20 metres tall at the arch of the cave ceiling. The constant hum of the sea changed from an echo to a roar as waves passed through.
I savoured the feeling I had always imagined, of being on a pirate ship in rocky waters. Although Fingal’s Cave is 82 metres deep, it felt smaller than I was expecting, because of the narrow opening which left most of the pathway in darkness. We could only walk a few steps in, as the columns we were standing on became smaller until they led into the water. So we stood in the shadows, peering in to see the semicircle of columns at the end of the cave. Our tour guide told us that orchestras would sometimes perform the piece inside the cave itself, bringing Mendelssohn’s vision to life.
I’m the type of traveler who carries a notebook to write down fun facts, but this was a destination to experience in silence, so I spent a few minutes standing there and taking it all in. Before I left, I recorded a minute of the sea sounds on my phone as a keepsake – and perhaps inspire my next creative project.
Coming from a family that loves to tick things off the list, I’m used to planning trips based on how much there is to see, but this changed how I think about exploring the world. Since then, I’ve traveled to Morocco after studying north African music, which helped me appreciate the local culture on a different level.
Now, I understand that I can travel through art, no matter where I am. In quarantine, I’ve listened to songs that take me to the mountains or the woods – such as Sim Sala Bim and Montezuma – and watched movies to learn about other cultures. I do miss wandering through cities, but I see the world in a deeper way now that I can travel through my mind.