You can’t tell by just this caption, but I am gesticulating wildly.
Faith waited nervously on the sun-dappled steps of Teatro Principal, on a busy pedestrian street in Guanajuato. She had a book in her hands and a pair of sunglasses, the afternoon sun blasting down upon the city. “I was worried you might not find your way,” she said.
My way involved flying through Houston, navigating Mexican customs, and finding a way to the centre of town from the airport. That I would need to attempt this feat completely in Spanish, despite my not speaking Spanish, was a matter of some concern. Would I get lost? Would I somehow end up stranded on the Mexican roadside, backpack straps anxiously twined around my fingers, as the exhaust of a dozen intercity buses choked my lungs? Would I simply end up wandering into the desert to be eaten alive by cactuses and supersnakes, or whatever it is that kills you in the desert?
But no, I arrived safely, thanked my driver, paid him his fare and waved him on his way. Faith shrugged. “Then I remembered that we’ve all been doing this constantly for the last few years.”
Occasionally grey skies.
There are some days when the air here has the same density as a Flintstones’ chewable vitamin.
There are days when outside there is a lazy grey fug slapped languidly across the buildings and the trees. Days when the wind smells like sawdust and plastic. Days when the sky is a hazy smear, the colour of the bottom of your shoe when you’ve been walking for too long. There are days when I can’t really see down the street and I must spend a few minutes considering whether my eyesight is bad or whether I’ll need a machete to cut through the atmosphere for my evening constitutional.
Sometimes I will wake, emerge from my bed and peer cautiously between my curtains, curious as to what condition I will find the sky above me. My vision darts around, as though searching out phantom particulates, as though they are folklore tricksters who sneak and hide and try to cheat their way into your lungs through riddles or games of chance. When the sky seems to loom too close, when the buildings in the distance become indistinguishable fog figures, a gooey water-colour wash of a steampunk London, I close up shop. Sometimes I just can’t fathom going outside, and thus the curtains are re-drawn, and I pretend that the scary air from outside has no ability to slip within the confines of my sacred, holy apartment. I erect a mental barrier around my home, through which no carcinogenic winds can blow.
Good old Anywhere, Asia. Right?
My street was lined everywhere in convenience stores. Two were physically inside of my apartment building, I could see another three from my window, and the luxury convenience store with the wide picnic tables and the jovial, buoyant staff was at the corner. They were all gleaming, well-groomed affairs: shiny shelves; shiny floors; shiny, moderately-enthused smiles. Triangles of kimbap arrayed neatly, unceasing displays of drinks in various sizes, and snacks in such plentifulness and variety that the bounty of man should surely have offended the gods.
Most of Korea reminded me of my neighbourhood, my tiny shimmering neon hamlet. Family Marts and love motels, coffee shops and karaoke rooms, the constant and effervescent hiss of fluorescent lights, wafts of dumplings and sausage and bubbling vats of oil. The truck that barrelled down my street every morning at 6 a.m., caterwauling about the quality of his oranges, seemed to be a predetermined and omnipresent facet of the Korean universe. This orange truck was the same truck that surely trawled every street in Korea, much as Santa Claus must blast across whole continents and reach every house at staggering velocity.
Wherever I went in Korea, I saw visions of my wedge of the country. Cell phone stores and cafes reconfigured in placement and number, barbecue restaurants occasionally were replaced with stew restaurants. A dumpling cart would be selling fried chicken would be selling rice cakes in piquant red tar. Family Mart would disappear and a 7-11 would take its place. Puzzle pieces were moved, shuffled around, reassembled to slip comfortably into local cartography. And underneath the same heart beat, the same comprehensible rhythm.
Wait, there’s cool stuff over here?
“Have you ever been to the famous Korean palace Gyeongbokgung?” asked our tour guide. She was in her work-mandated pink and white hanbok, delicate and gloved, her voice amplified by a microphone pack hooked to her hip. A gesture, a reference to the architecture, describing the similarities and differences between the current palace in which we wandered and its more famous cousin. Autumnal leaves trembling on the branches, attempting to shed their verdant green, preparing to make these palaces look their best, gearing up to turn this tour into something amazing. People oohed and aahed at gazebos, at purple and green cornices, at gardens and trees.
I scoffed—of course I had been to Gyeongbokgung. I had lived here before, or at least off in a neighbouring metropolis. In some primal, needy way, the way I often need other people to be aware of how smart and capable I am, I wanted the tour guide and most of the strangers around me to know this factoid. I wanted them all aware of my fascinating and worldly life. We may all have been equal in our unfamiliarity with Changdeokgung, but I was practically from here. Did they want to hear me speak my meagre and rapidly deteriorating Korean? Watch me order and devour some bibimbap? Handily navigate the mostly-easy subway?
Of course, much as I felt vastly pleased with myself, self-satisfied and redolent in my previous experience in this nation, there wasn’t a whole lot of justification. I had certainly been to the main palace, years earlier, in those fresh, wide-eyed early days of semi-tourism. In the days when I had felt a guest, before residency quashed my acquisitive, travel-hungry desires; before familiarity had silenced the wanderlust, when working rendered me more local than traveller. I had explored the palaces and the museums and the monuments in the long long ago, before a journey to Seoul necessarily included finding somewhere that made a good taco and a venue hosting an English-language rock band.
Faced with a looming weeklong vacation, I was left a little bereft of creativity. Asia, once again, lied before me: wide and open and verdant and filled with noodles of various kinds. Of course, flight costs had begun to skyrocket, friends who I could reasonably pressure into travelling with me were thin on the ground, and most of my belongings were still held somewhere in a port in Shanghai. Stunted for choice, I decided to turn to my old stand-by.
Korea, the site of my growing up, my metamorphosis from boy to manboy. Korea, the current location of a large fraction of my social circle. Korea, land of a lot of food I wanted desperately to ingest. I think sometimes of how regularly I desired to visit Canada, how frequently I had requests to return to the homeland and shower them with my presence. I realized, of course, that Korea had formed another significant portion of my life, and that revisiting it was not out of the question. No, it was actually logical, and something that I hungered for deep in the wanty parts of my spirit.
I booked a ticket, I packed a bag. I went home. To one of my various homes.
Let’s look at it.
We were in Bangkok, and had finished the lunch we cooked in the hostel kitchen. Before us were several electronic rectangles, two notebooks, pencils, pens, a weather-worn copy of Lonely Planet India, and numerous cups of coffee. Two months sounded like a long time, but time seemed to slip from us as we stretched the days across the map, alchemizing hours into kilometres.
Could we somehow manage to squeeze all of our India wish-list into this paltry collection of minutes and seconds? We drew a swirling line arcing outwards from Delhi, swooping through the lower Himalayas, into the desert and out of it, sliding across the continent until we hit an ocean. It was a clean, beautiful path.
We had no real idea of how we were going to accomplish it.
This looks like a good place to stop and never leave.
The pact was this: four months was not, actually, that long. Our time in Thailand was but a blip, our sojourn in Laos but a fraction of a blip. Two months in India sounded long on paper. On the ground, however, when the scale on the map lengthens before you, when centimetres become tens of thousands of kilometres, two months seems paltry and insignificant, barely enough time to pick up your backpack, see a Ganesh statue and eat a bowl of curry before you have to move on. We needed to move. We needed to go.
And so we went.
We had been riding hard. When we weren’t waking up in darkness to catch a train sputtering into the dawn, we were breaking free of our mosquito nets and jumping right into a hike. Faith gained the nickname “Walking Distance” as we suddenly took on hours-long slogs with our backpacks in the midday sun when she decided our hostels were close enough and when the prices for local transportation were just too expensive. We had stomach bugs that we were ignoring, mosquito bites so infected and grotesque that we were fielding offers from haunted houses to act as leprous zombies. We had long since abandoned shoes, our feet developing the hardened carapaces of crab pincers, the shape and texture and colour of a bull’s rear hooves. We ate and slept and drank and ran and danced and walked and hiked and moved and moved and moved.
We were frenetic and incapable of pacing ourselves. Every second that we weren’t going somewhere or eating something new felt wasted, a boon handed down from above that we were casting aside and neglecting like soiled Kleenex. This was our opportunity, and we didn’t know if we would ever return, so it was important to harvest as much as we could. We needed to absorb India, we needed to absorb all of Asia, as completely as we could. This was our lemon, and we were all squeeze.
It was exhilarating.
It was exhausting.
The raven thinks you should probably learn to handle your crap.
At age twenty-two, I purchased some suitcases, strapped most of my belongings to my back and moved to another country. Some days I made breakfast: eggs and toast, pancakes, artless arrangements of seasonal fruits. On good weeks, I washed my clothes and hung them on a dry-rack in the centre of my apartment, a wobbly aluminum X with straining arms, and sometimes even managed to fold and shelve each item, even the socks. I combed my hair and brushed my teeth. Once or twice I shaved.
I held down a job. With two degrees under my belt I was reasonably well educated, or at least enough that another country was willing to furnish me with a plane ticket and a studio apartment. I managed my finances and made travel arrangements and trips to the doctor. I picked up prescriptions and threw birthday parties for others, and would sip hot tea in the evenings over beloved hardcover books. I had spare keys made. I filed government forms related to my foreign pension. Other people occasionally asked me for assistance with grown-up things.
To say I cherished the accoutrements of adulthood is maybe an understatement: I revelled in them. I allowed myself occasional dalliances with childish exuberance, with slivers of immaturity. Adventure Time became a significant part of my life. While managing my bank statements and taxes, I sometimes wore prescriptionless glasses, as they made me feel more bookish and capable of money-handling. Dinners, when I made them, often resembled breakfasts, which are the easiest kinds of meals to make.
25 in 25.
Seas flow and converge into the ocean beyond a distant, rocky point. Kanyakumari consists of pastel houses, slowly decaying hotels, an enormous statue of a poet-saint who stares out across the waters. Pilgrims flock the beach, dipping hands and feet out into the water, and praying to the virgin goddess who rests here. Her home lies on the very southernmost tip of India.
When night falls, enormous vampire bats swoop and screech overhead. Ghostly music shimmies out from the coast and the temple, which stays alight. The power dips on and off, and the town is cast into darkness and into light in an irregular, unpredictable rhythm. Walking the streets becomes a journey through the black, with just starlight and reflections on windshields to guide the way.
All along the south-western coast lies a decaying amusement park. Like the houses the colours are bright and childish, neon blues and pinks and greens, slightly murkier and mossier now from age and neglect. An ancient aquarium lures a handful of bored children, and dozens of carnival rides slowly rust in the sun and the salt spray. A ferris wheel still runs, still lights up sometimes in the night, a great circle of flickering orange and yellow. The tilt-a-whirl died a quiet death eons ago.
Drifting: it’s the only way to be.
I returned from India with a backpack full of memories. I had dreams and scars, gods and demons, pictures and scribbled blue ink notes, bug bites and a traveller’s raggedy beard. I had carried my world around on my back for months at a time, hopes and wishes and plans all rolled in a thin t-shirt and packed between weather-beaten softcovers novels. I had cares in the world, certainly, but they seemed distant and small, objects passing in motion parallax, impossible to track, moving in one direction but appearing to sail by in another. What could I worry about? I had the road, and the road had me.
Unemployment seems romantic when you travel. With sandals on your feet and a week’s worth of underpants stuffed into a sack, the lack of a job is a bohemian commitment. Your sense of wonder and your lust for life are far more important than money, which you think about sparingly, and usually with a general distaste. You eat when you’re hungry, you walk out into the world when you’re bored, and you just never stop. And you never think about working, because working is a thing that you did in a past life. It’s a thing you understand on some basic monkey level, a concept that speaks to some part of the collective unconscious of your species. But to you as an individual, work is too abstract, too bizarre or bourgeoisie, something beyond the pale of comprehension. And you don’t want to comprehend it.
There is only water or sand or asphalt and your two feet. There’s only a jungle and sky and temples. There’s only rice and noodles and food you scoop up right in your hand and bring to your lips, the delicate and simple grace of taste. There’s an ATM in there somewhere, and you think of it essentially as a money tree, and only ever think of it as anything else if it suddenly spurns you.