Shoe-Stringing and Getting Strung Out in South East Asia
For this first time in seven visits Bangkok felt familiar.
Within half-an-hour of touching down in the synthetic gloom of Suvarnabhumi International Airport, I’d waltzed through immigration, stashed my luggage in a locker, topped up my Thai SIM card, and boarded the subway for my first in a series of meetings. Sunshine glazed the cabin windows. I popped on the new Vampire Weekend, courtesy of my first decent data connection in months. I was midway through the third track when an older woman across the isle flagged my attention with a smile.
“How long do you plan to stay in Bangkok?”
I explained that I was just passing through. That I’d been using the chaotic metropolis as my hub to hopscotch around Asia and that I always looked forward to my layover in the City of Angels to indulge in a few creature comforts before jetting off to the less-developed cities of the world.
“How long have you been travelling?” She rephrased her question.
“A little over six months as of today.”
It was out of my mouth before I realized the significance of that statement. Six months. Half a year.
A student for the past six years, my previous trips had been limited to reading weeks and summer terms. I’d once jetted off to Vietnam for a mere 12 days. My longest trip hadn’t reached five months. But even more significant was the fact that those trips all had end dates—in essence, they were vacations.
Never before had I left on a trip I hadn’t eventually planned to return from. And the idea of infinity weighed a ton.
I was twenty-one years old the first time I stuffed my life into a backpack. With senses conditioned by 20 years off the pacific coast of Canada, the spiced air of Mediterranean Europe set my synapses alight. The acrid smoke of chestnut stands welcomed me to Istanbul, their speakers crackling Arabic as I stumbled over the cobble-stone streets of Taksim square. I was the only first-timer at World House Istanbul and was picked apart over my packing habits and that I hadn’t hitchhike from an airport rather than pay a cab. The crowd in the common room could not have been more diverse—a Dutch law-student revisiting the city where he’d worked first internship, an interracial French couple collecting world cinema posters, and a fox-faced South African model, his name—Clifford—strung around his neck in gold-leafed graffiti. Their advice differed based on age and lifestyle, but there was also one golden commandment of backpacking they all wanted to share. It's the sixth month on the road that makes or breaks you. You get tired of living out of a bag or eating Dahl every day or saying goodbye to new friends. The road can giveth and taketh, too.
Traveller’s fatigue: it was something I constantly heard about but never witnessed first hand. Each night, the law student, Rolf, and I sucked back Effes on a glowing strip of the Bospherus. On the ride home, I’d stick my head out the taxi window and let the wind fill my hair with the tepid Turkish night.
It wasn’t until day six—when World House began to turn over—that I found myself uninspired to explore the city. Tired from a week of devouring, I spent the evening reading in the air-conditioned solace of my dorm room. Only after a few chapters I realized I wasn’t alone.
“I hate this city.” Clifford sulked from a corner bed, semi-obscured by a haze of cigarette smoke.
Earlier that day, Rolf caught a southbound train to Antalya and we had the room to ourselves. Clifford rose up on his heels, dragging deep on a Marlboro Red in order to chase down a palm full of prescription painkillers. He followed with three sleeping pills and a swig of vodka.
“It’s so dirty, oh my fuck.”
I returned to my crumpled paperback copy of Factotum.
“Don’t give me that, Jeff.” He reached into a fake Gucci bag to retrieve a second blister pack. Popped two more. “This is true model behaviors right here, I tell you what. I don’t even know how many of these shits I’ve taken.”
Clifford spoke of Apartheid, Thailand, pretty girls and boys back home. He told me about his granny, his beliefs, how he was going to hell. He stopped to call his mother before going on a rant about Birkenstocks (“What an ugly fucking British word Jeff.”).
Then he grew somber and flopped down on my bed.
“I’m 26, Jeff, 26.” He tried to signal with his hands before realizing that ten digits could not suffice. “I didn’t even know until three days ago. The travel agent, she says ‘how old are you Clifford,’ and I says 25, and gave her my passport, and she says ‘Oh No Clifford, you are 26’. See Jeff Tttweentyy ssiiixxx.” He traced each number in the air. “I don’t even know if I’ll get work. I just go country to country. No home, no friends. Not like you Jeff.” He giggled and pawed his way across the mattress. “Friendly boy.”
“Go to sleep Clifford.”
I heard him retreat across the room before turning out the lights. Two hours passed sleeplessly.
“Jeff,” Clifford whispered. “Can we go get drunk?”
I left Istanbul the following evening. I boarded a dolmuse at 9 p.m., thinking I was still in love with the city I was leaving, but as the saline sun of the Cappadocia desert pressed against my eyelids, the capitol could not have been further form my mind. Four days later the cycle repeated itself. Over the next four years, it sent me sprawling through the Philippines, East Africa, Egypt and Vietnam. I began to devour cities at a frantic rate—sometimes falling in and out of love within days. And as the symptoms of addiction flared, I began to recognize travel fatigue everywhere I went. Those shoe-stringers, strung out on too late nights and too few meals. Those trill seekers, over-stimulated to the point of becoming blasé.
“Can you believe I’ve been here seven times!”
I glanced around the café where I was sharing my first meal of the day with friends I’d made during my previous travels. Each face—Asian, Caucasian, a mix of both—represented a different visit. I’d met Jason on my sixth day in the city; Ben, during the weekend of my sixth pass-through.
“I really admire what you're doing,” Ben, a fellow writer had told me a few days earlier, when I mentioned I’d be in BKK again. “But I don't think I could do it. My mind would just be all over the place.”
Jason, an entrepreneur who’d been living in the country just under a year, agreed. He needed structure—something to work toward. He was planning to return to Canada within the week to work toward his career.
For the first time I began to realize how different the circles I travelled in were from those during my first days in Istanbul. More and more I began to understand the warnings of those seasoned shoe-stringers. Of Clifford. Was I not the one flitting around the globe searching for work that wasn’t coming? How quickly would my own twenty-fifth year slip past? Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka—I’d seen eight countries in less time than it had taken me to read that number of books. Things like humidity, traffic, and excessively spiced breakfasts that had once jarred me were becoming little more than background noise. Already, I struggled to sketch scenes as vivid as those I had of my backpacking trip across Europe.
Perhaps, once again, it was time for something new.
That evening, the blood-orange sky outside the window of my 777 swallowed up the city. I tried to remember the feeling when all of this was new to me: the halogen lights and the stale oxygen. But even then, I found myself subconsciously repeating old familiar steps:
- Notebook in the flap in front of me.
- Dog-eared paperback, boarding pass as a bookmark, in my lap.
- Pen in my breast pocket, ready to circle the contact details for the editorial staff in the airline’s in-flight magazine.
- Passport, like a crucifix, hung heavy around my neck.
I was half-asleep before the stewardess announced the estimated time to Dhaka. I wasn’t sure if it was the plane taking-off or the comfort of ritual, but I felt weightless for the first time in days. Six months ago, this same airplane felt like a promise. A few hours in a dimly lit compartment and you could be anywhere else in the world.