Behold glorious Hangzhou, city of a very nice lake, some cool pagodas, and actual woodlands! I can barely stand all the nature. Alas, like most weekends of late this particular weekend was shrouded in dark clouds and a hazy mistglob that covered all the lands in grey. Well, being China: greyer. Luckily, the Hangzh’ was still very pretty in its own dreary, spooky way, and I have collected a day’s worth of photography for you to point your oculoids at. Continue beholding.
I felt vastly unprepared for Singapore.
In the Pudong airport waiting area, burrowed deep into a quiet wedge of carpeted flooring and poorly-attended restaurants, I surfed what internet remains available behind the Great Firewall. My gentle drift towards travel slackerdom has usually left me charmingly flighty. I’ve grown accustomed to doing things by the seat of my pants, planning excursions and travel just hours or moments before I disembark. It has become so second nature that I generally assume that the world will be unlocked by a glinting smile and a double-wide Canadian passport with several years before expiry.
But saddled with a heavy workload, Singapore had completely flitted from my grip. I had a ticket and a bed, and that was the extent of my forethought. The journey from one to the other, how I might fill the days, the kinds of foods I might try to eat, the dimension and value of the local currency: all of it was pure mystery. All of it was murky and vaguely Malaysian, at least according to the foggy ghost Singapore springing up in my cortex. What language(s) did they speak there, and how kindly were they to how little I probably spoke of them? How easy was it to get around, and where exactly did I want to get around to? Were the people more Malaysian or Chinese or Indonesian or foreigners, or were they green, acid-spitting space aliens from somewhere beyond the Andromeda galaxy? I wasn’t terribly certain, and hadn’t done any of my usual legwork before stepping aboard the plane.
It wasn’t until getting on the ground, the sunny sunny ground, that I knew quite how okay I would be.
As discussed in the previous post, travel has just sort of become a fixed aspect of my life. When presented with any significant period of time off of work (with “significant” meaning “more than three consecutive days”) my fingers naturally bring up flight search aggregators. I mentally tick down the list of visited countries, and those other nations and cities nearby to which I have no trudged. I mentally pack a bag, think of how sunny and monsoony the destinations around me might be, and calculate necessary SPF. I am barely capable of planning what is for dinner each night, but I planning a vacation is as easy as drawing breath.
As such, a week-long break off of school seemed like the perfect time to jet down to sunny Singapore. Singapore: that place I realistically could not have jammed in while travelling either Malaysia nor Indonesia. Singapore: that nice-sounding city state with money and palm trees and a famously expensive and expensively famous eponymous beverage. Singapore: the place I am definitely buying plane tickets for. Away!
Let us now gather, children, around a warm sack of fermented woodlands beverage and enjoy some photographs of joyous, spectacular Myanmar. As an ornery completionist, the lack of Myanmar on my Big Dumb Asia MegaSojourn caused me great, undue anxiety. To the west of Thailand was a huge unruly blob of the unknown: dark roads, unseen temples, unslurped noodles. There were whole swaths of countryside I had not trod upon, great pools of sweat I had not yet exuded, great glories of the continent that were as yet a mystery to me. When friends from Korea declared their intention, I knew it was time to explore. Set your eyeballs on these shinies, kids. Myanmar is pretty golden. (The joke being that much of Myanmar is covered in gold leaf. Get it?)
We left a restaurant called The Love Room at 10 and walked under a pulsating LED screen, a teeming river of light in the murky night sky. Karaoke was calling our names.
In Korea, regular visits to the noraebang were a consistent part of my life. I knew their rhythm, knew their menus, knew their song books. I always knew where to look for a tambourine, knew exactly how to work the controller, even as it was swathed in Korean words I never quite learned. I had the 5-digit number for Bad Moon Rising memorized permanently, its consistent coding across all karaoke rooms bringing to mind some deep uniting truth underlying the whole of our universe. I knew exactly how many songs it would take before I could no longer belt out a high note, and how many more songs before I could no longer sing at all. Liquor was beneficial, not necessary: I could scream and sing dry, if the situation called for it.
That I had been back in Asia for two months with no songs to sing felt like a weight on my back, a badge of dishonour on my travelling feet. Was it not my mission in life to walk all the roads, eat all the things, see all there is to see, and sing like a madman the whole way through? Some part of my soul ached, like a piece had torn loose somewhere high above the Pacific and got carried away in a strong wind. I wasn’t really alive if I wasn’t periodically screaming Bohemian Rhapsody into a tinny microphone at midnight.
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.
My university campus was crawling with causes and vigorous young people supporting or decrying them, as most university campuses are. It was impossible to walk anywhere between St. George and Bay without being accosted by earnestness, without being molested by ideology. Everywhere there were plights to be consternated over, things to be enraged at, passions to fill your heart and empty your wallet.
Have you heard about the oil sands, and what various parties want to do to them? Did you know that a politician once said a thing? How about those abortions, and the current number of them, which was not very satisfying? I couldn’t emerge from a subway station without leaflets appearing in my hand as though through sorcery—eager, deeply-feeling youths who didn’t shave would somehow slip their pamphlets and brochures into my unwilling grasp at a rate that astounded my senses and resistance. Periodically they would invade classes, make heart-felt announcements to lecture halls full of people, their voices quavering with yearning, with emotion, with fire. Cartoon hearts pumped ludicrously in their chests, bounded out through their rib cages and their fashionable cardigans, exploded outward for everyone to see.
As a commuter the number of things I gave a shit about was perilously low. Rush-hour buses and subways drained absolutely all ability I had to care about much of anything, and being 18 siphoned off any remaining ardour. I had assignments and readings and plans to succeed, and combined with two hours of daily rides through busy underground public transit, I simply didn’t have it in me to care. My apathy was deep and oceanic and incomprehensible to the impassioned philanthropists, to the fledgling Marxists and the proto-demagogues and the neophyte neocons. There was a black hole where my fervour organ should have been, and to them I seemed like an abomination from a far-off dimension, betentacled and terrifying and outside of the realm of understanding. They looked upon me and despaired, as I did to them.
“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.