Unreal Life


Take off your shoes and rest a while. And eat your squid pops.

We were in a fish port. The sun was beating down, and we had just purchased the distended remains of squids, stuffed full to the brim with edible packing material, which we ate out of flapping Styrofoam containers. We stood, unsheltered, and sweat and ate.The heat was unseemly. Under the burning sky, an elderly Korean woman took pity on us, and gestured us under the shade of her shanty where she sold octopi ‘n’ things. If we wanted, she suggested in her lilting foreign tongue, we could unfurl the large cardboard boxes nearby, as though preparing for a breakdancing show, to sit and enjoy our food. We began to shred the boxes with exquisite, thankful care, and laid them on the ground like picnic blankets. We kept our shoes off of the cardboard without thinking or mentioning it, because of course we should. Sometimes life is weird, but what about when it comes to no longer be in sync with the rest of the life you’ve led?

There are times in my life when I am positive that I must have suffered serious brain injury. That, years before, possibly just after high school or at some point during my university years, I was in a car crash. Or a beam fell and crushed most of my skull. I took something, or ate something, or was abducted and had large swaths of my cortex scooped out with a melon-baller by bobble-headed, mucous-slick extraterrestrials. My body was deposited and has been resting in a hospital, where it quietly ticks out the seconds of my life by creating an extended fantasy about what would happen if I actually kept on.

It was the summer of 2009, and I was 21. I was in Europe, my first time travelling basically without family supervision (that my older cousin was there, given that we were both mutually irresponsible, does not count). It was the dog days of August in Florence, and the heat was kind of unthinkable. I was swimming in the nuclear, exploding pools of the sun; I was drying and cracked and suddenly molten like rock at the bottom of a volcano. I felt like how the earth looks in the Gobi desert: desiccated, sapped of moisture and hope. I had been lost for about half-an-hour.

Florence by night

Come for the beauty, stay because you fall unconscious from dehydration.

We occasionally decided to take breaks from our travelling trio, and this was one of them. I found myself a capable and knowledgeable navigator, but for some reason, only when others were around. Alone I would often become helplessly lost.
I was in the parts of Florence far away from the city centre; the chance that people care about your dying tourist ass is inversely proportional to exactly how far away you are from the Duomo. At length, I discovered a Gelateria: glowing and succulent, I was positive I had cooked up an oasis. When I entered, the woman spoke not a lick of English, which I assured myself was encouraging about the quality of the food. I ordered the best ice cream (yes, yes, gelato, I know) I have ever eaten in my life and crouched in a nearby alleyway, by myself, in southern Italy. I may have been lost, certainly, but there was a cup of arctic chocolate clasped in my slick, clammy palms, and that was all that mattered.

How did this happen, exactly? Shouldn’t I have been stopped long before this? Surely there were capable people along the road that should have looked me up and down and said, “No, no, sir. What are you doing? This is for people who can actually manage themselves. People who are exciting, and grown-up.” Surely there must have been an adult somewhere along the way who knew me on sight, who squinted as I passed, who would have stopped me at the airplane security and prevented me from getting in over my head. Or from experiencing the weird and incomprehensible world.

We were in Thunder Bay, about to embark the rest of our journey across Canada. I was with four cousins, and we had been packed into the seats and trunk of the truck for the last 17 hours driving zig-zag through the bewildering landscape of Ontario. We sat outside of a hostel, which was actually just someone’s house. A thunderstorm gathered in the east, ominous nimbus heavy with rain and rumbling with thunder. It approached. We enjoyed a beer and toasted one another.

Is he still following us?

A creepy man slunk around the edges of our circle, and eventually integrated himself with us. He was sitting too close to Brianna, who was 19, and we grew nervous. We humoured him, and eventually went to sleep, and I spent the night moderately certain he would sneak into our tents and slit our throats. The next morning, before disappearing into the west like a bewildering silver wind, he handed us an envelope. When we pass through Winnipeg, we should take the southern highway, and stop at a fruit stand. We should hand this to the man there.

This is something that happened in a movie, or it must have. The envelope contained… what? Anthrax? A mummy curse? A confirmation that some secret mission was complete, and to destroy both the missive and its carriers? A check for one million dollars, to be awarded to such good Samaritans?

We never opened it (fearing, of course, that this would unleash whatever untold powers it held), but the mystery captivated us. Because it was so weird, and seemed like it should have been happening to other people. Other, more interesting people. People on an adventure.

Were we on an adventure?

It is Halloween. We have dressed up as Korean bottles of liquor, and in the swarming Korean crowd, we are instantaneously transformed into celebrities. People clamour for our attention, and give us drinks: they supplicate themselves before us. In the masses, we receive smiles and waves and the flashes of hundreds of cameras.

Sometimes, I experience these things as though from afar, watching twin cinema reels projected out through two eyeball-shaped tunnels. These are experiences happening to some alternate-Me. He is suave, perhaps. Certainly more handsome. Debonair. Clever, and less awkward, kind but more cool than me by at least a half. He is a globe-trotter.  He is cool. He is probably about 30, and maybe a few inches taller. He wears a fedora, and can pull of a goatee. I’m just not interesting enough to be leading a life of this caliber.

I suppose I could get used to all of this majesty.

Despite this feeling, this weird sense that I’ve been desposited in an alternate universe and am taking the life of a cooler me, I’ve come to just get used to it. You stand on the tops of enough mountains, look out across the flickering vistas of enough world cities by night. You eat weird things you’ve never heard of, and meet hundreds of people from far-flung places. You see buildings in new shapes, food cooked with and consumed via strange utensils, and your feet get more miles under them than you ever thought possible. You do it often enough, it becomes routine. It becomes the life you’re supposed to be living, no matter how weird it feels when you pierce it with logic.

It is theoretically midnight, somewhere. I am over the Pacific Ocean, in that weird bubble of un-time that comes with travelling so far, and in every direction. The sky is black, and I have just woken from another fitful attempt at sleeping. I am returning to Korea, where I live, and will continue to do so. The plane is full of Koreans, happy to be heading home. Scattered amongst those homeward-bound are travelers: teachers and explorers and backpackers, heading out to Asia on their first, second, twentieth trips. They are nervous, excited, prepared, terrified. They are cool, and interesting, and their lives are weird and probably awesome. And, I come to realize, so is mine. The one that I keep on living. I wonder about them. And I wonder if they wonder about me.

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5 thoughts on “Unreal Life

  1. I too would like to know what was in that envelope but the fact that you did not open will allow your mind to wonder forever and will make far more of it than if you ever had opened it I am sure. In this hodge-podge of writing you have captured the essence of worldly travel, of being alive and of truly living, that unfortunately so many people will never experience. Michael, you have already lived far more than most people will in their entire lives…….and yet you have so much more to experience. Cheers, Glenn

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