My favorite part about being in a new place is paying attention to when it becomes meaningful to me. Formerly ordinary, non-distinct streets and shops that at first blend together, gradually begin to conjure memories, experiences, emotions, familiarity. When I’m traveling I’m like a newborn, soaking in and filing away all the new information about my surroundings, my new city, the people, the buildings, the food, the traffic, the tourists, the locals. Snap, file, snap, file.
When you first get off the bus in the hustle of downtown, or in the backstreet neighborhood where your hostel is located, it’s not always apparent that you’ll find a place for yourself there. You don’t know where anything is, you wander, you get lost.
But then places start to become special and recognizable. The street stalls on the corners aren’t in fact all the same. This one sells roasted peanuts, and this one sausages dipped in honey and lime, and this one bottled juice, and this one chicken rice balls, and this one homemade sweets. If you turn to the right it’s no longer just a street that connects the two main streets. It’s become its own place of interest because the unassuming café there sells the best local coffee and halfway down the lane was where that cute guy who runs the import shop stopped to chat with you and direct you to the best pork buns and dim sum of your life (you have to get there early before they run out.) And now you’re on a street that you realize is the location of your very first delicious lunch in the city, that bowl of laksa that you never thought you’d find again. Now the pieces fall together and a segment fits into place as two parts of town connect in your mind’s map. *Glow*
Traveling is me as a dog, plunging my head out of the open car window in goofy ecstasy as I race down the highway. The wind whips through my teeth, my eyes water, I howl at the moon. It’s wild pleasure; it’s freedom!
…Until someone slams on the breaks and that dog’s body, so gleeful in the fresh air, is thrown full force to the foot of the car. WHAM! Spell broken, stars in eyes.
Travel: 1 / Me: 0
That’s the thing about travel, it really puts you through the ringer. Emotions come in surges of such intense satisfaction and discomfort. One day you’re basking by a river, exploring a wonderful market, tasting mysterious and delicious food, meeting interesting people, and the next you’re hot and hungry at a dirty bus stop with no ticket anywhere and limited means of communication. The moment you start feeling like you’ve hit your stride is the moment Mother Travel reminds you that that never happens. Travel man! So peculiarly luxurious and tricky.
After a hectic and wonderful week in Malaysia the three of us were traveling back to Singapore to catch our flight home. Singapore and Malaysia are divided by a straight so this in effect creates two borders, and a streamlined but cumbersome two-pronged border crossing that necessitates a stop on each side of the water. Malaysia stamps you out of their country and then Singapore stamps you into theirs once you cross the bridge. Pedestrian crossing is prohibited, confining everyone to their respective vehicles which they alight from to pass through the checkpoints.
Everything is cement with a metal escalator connecting the two levels. It’s desolate, feeling more like a remote parking structure than a site of cultural significance. With my last trip to Baja fresh in my mind, I can’t help but compare this border to the dirty and colorful version that separates California and Mexico. That line in the sand is crawling with people hawking food and goods, begging for money, directing traffic, playing and laughing on the beach, preparing meals, listening to boom boxes…. The border agents on this side of the world are distinctly friendlier but the place feels mundane.
We filled out our forms, passed through Singapore customs and chatted with each other as we descended on the outdoor escalator toward the exit. It was after midnight. Then we watched in horror as our chartered coach, the one that was supposed to take us from Melaka, Malaysia all the way to Singapore City, closed its doors, backed out of its space, and speedily quit the border area. There were anguished yelps, harried footsteps and waving limbs but these sounds and movements simply mingled with the rumble of the departing engine and then slowly settled with the dust that lingered lazily in the humid night air.
Our packs and documents were with us but our dinner of fresh mangosteens, langsats and local baked goods bounced away into the gentle night. Would anyone consume them? Over the sound of the passing cars I could hear our bloody bus driver smacking his lips.
It may be midnight in Singapore but it’s humid as all hell. Sweat streams down my back and I feel like I walked through a hot shower with my clothes on. Fuck. The golden moment of consuming cold beer and delicious laksa in the breezy humidity of a historical town is now in the past. These moments threaten to send all of the other lovely travel experiences, now crystallized in our memories, shattering to the floor in a pile of misery and frustration. I chose this! I traveled over 24 hours by car, plane and bus to arrive in this particular part of the world, to be right here! The romance is diminished.
But sometimes I think it’s only in moments like these that you’re really traveling. When you have to hit the ground running and rely on your resourcefulness. You’ve got to bounce back and start scrolling through your options. Taxi into town: too much money; wait for next chartered bus: futile; take public bus into town: yes, now which one, to where, when does the last train to the airport leave Lavender station…. Roll call.
And then you’re on the bus and the movement in the air cools you down, and you reach China Town where the food stalls never close, and there’s cold beer, and old men playing chess, and pepper crab and spicy noodles and your hostel bed a block away. You’re the cool traveler again.
The solution: Rest, rinse, repeat (and hop on the next available bus).