Many years ago there was a popular song about the siren call of faraway places with exotic names. Listening, Mike and I daydreamed about someday visiting places with magical names like Zanzibar, Kuala Lumpur, X’ian. “And Marrakech,” I added, “and Siam…”
Perhaps dreams do come true, for we spent the next five years in Thailand where the air was scented with frangipani and the canals that crisscrossed the land were bright with water lilies. Since then we have traveled to a few of those faraway places, but the lure of the mysterious remains.
Haven’t you ever heard the name of a place and imagined what it would be like? A name that whispered to you, beckoned to you, sang to you in your daydreams? Such a place for me is Samarakand, which was once the Silk Road’s central point between China and the West. Tamerlane made it the capital of his empire in the 14th century, and it is now on the World Heitage Lsist of Unesco as Samarakand—Crossroad of Cultures. Though I probably will never set foot on that ancient soil, the name sings to me of caravans and the footsteps of merchants traversing the old Silk Road.
Then there is X’ian – “Western Peace”— which also heard the rumble of caravans since it stands at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. I am fortunate here, for I have walked along its streets lined with fruit trees that were exported long ago from Persia and felt the weight of its 3,100 years of history. The terracotta soldiers still stand at attention in X’ian, having been at last rescued from their entombment in the days of the terrible emperor Qin Shi Huang.
There are so many distant places I yearn to visit if only in imagination. Marrakech, for instance. I don’t know much about Marrakech except that its name— meaning “Country of the Sons of Kush”— makes me think of spices and bazaars and magic! There is also Kuala Lampur. The word sounds like a lush tropical night and rolls on the tongue like a drop of honey, but the place sits at the confluence of the Gombak and Kland rivers and has thus earned the name which, translated, means “muddy confluence” or, even worse, “muddy river junction.” Alas for romance!
Alas, also, for canaries, for the Canary Islands—another of those places with an intriguing name—was so called not for a multitude of pretty yellow birds but for dogs which apparently populated the place. Perhaps, as some point out, these ‘dogs’ were actually Monk Seals, but I still prefer the canaries.
Mountains also have names to conjure with. Mountains like Kilimanjaro, Cotopaxi, Nanda Devi, and Obasuteyama demand attention. The last one is in Japan, and I have watched it often from the train with a mixture of curiosity and dread. Why? because legend has it that long ago old people were carried up the mountain and left there to die. Obasuteyama means, literally, ‘Throw away old mother mountain,” and the grisly story still must resonate today because a modern film, Narayama Bushiko , apparently links this legend with issues in present day Japan.
And then there are the rivers. What wonderful names rivers have—the Euphrates, the Tiber, the Danube, the Volga, the Nile—and Shenandoah. There are many theories as to the origin of the word ‘Shenandoah’, but my favorite is a Native American myth. At the dawn of creation, says this myth, the jewel-crowned morning stars gathered together at the loveliest spot that they could find on earth. Full of admiration, the stars let their brightest jewels fall into the blue waters of the Shenandoah. “Daughter of the Stars,” the myth calls this river—and that is, surely, one of the most enticing names that I have heard!
Perhaps some day…
So many places
With names that speak of magic
Call softly to me.