This story was written by Gillian Pressly, the proud owner of What I Don’t Know (About Anything In Asia).
She always forgets something when she travels. Or loses something. Leaves something behind.
She travels a lot. Twenty-one countries and counting.
No, really, really counting, like it’s a Bucket List or something. And maybe it is. Because if you ask the medical professionals, or pay attention to statistics, you’ll find that people like her don’t live very long. Relatively speaking. And all things are relative. No such thing as absolute truth. Or so she learned at uni. So there you go.
So, twenty one counties, and that’s not counting road trips in Vietnam, her current adoptive country. Coz that’s another thing. Eternal expat, this girl. Hasn’t lived in her ‘own’ country since she was eleven years old.
The people here, they don’t get around so much. Always asking, where are you from? Man, she hates that question. Has no answer, it’s too complicated. And these people, most of them have lived the same place their whole lives, or at least their families have, and the ‘hometown’ is the be-all and end-all, well, they just don’t get it.
Way she figures, instability feels like stability to her. Move around that much when you’re a kid, and pretty soon moving begins to feel normal. And not moving leads to drastic, gotta-move, gotta-move itchy-feet syndrome.
So she moves. And travels.
And forgets her shit.
One of these days it’ll be her own name, most likely. And would that be such a bad thing? She’s changed it twice, no, three times, already anyway. Also complicated. Nothing to do with marriage, leastways, not her own marriage.
That being about the third question the people here, the Vietnamese, always ask: are you married? Because, you know, a woman really should have a family, be producing sprogs, to be worth a damn. Just by the way.
Out here, she mostly goes by her nickname. Poppy. Because people can actually pronounce it. She likes it better than her real name anyway. And she can explain it. Hoa Anh Túc. A dangerous flower. Một bông hoa nguy hiểm.
So anyway. If she hasn’t completely lost her identity yet, and that’s a big if, well she’s sure as hell managed to lose or forget a bunch of other shit.
There was that time in Brussels she forgot her hairbrush. No big deal, they were only there for the weekend, for a Prodigy gig. Seeing as how one of the band sports dreads, with an overall scuzzy look going on with all of them, a big heap of matted, rats-please-build-your-nest-here hair was no big deal.
They also lost their hearing on that occasion. Surprise surprise. The Prodigy not exactly being known for soft, sweet little land-of-nod lullabies.
Another time in Brussels she almost lost her partner in their upgraded, size-of-the-room-they-shared-at-home bed. Middle of the night she wakes up. She’s never been good at the whole sleeping thing, it’s just not a skill in her arsenal. Gropes around that massive football field of blankets and pillows in the dark. Where the hell was he. Located a long, hairy leg, finally. The relief of that.
The whole reason she knows Brussels so well? Sure as hell is nothing to do with the EU. Or maybe it is, indirectly. Coz the lost her Dad to that country when she was, what, ten? Only then she found him again, as a University student. Found him and his fabulous second family, bonded over Belgian Art Nouveau, what remained of it, because would you believe that the Belgians got so sick of it, they tore most of it down? There’s loss for you. Tragedy to send Lear limping on his undaughtered way.
Also found an alternative history of her own childhood. Still hasn’t found a way to convince her Dad that none of it is his fault though. This cannot be reiterated enough. Though no amount of reiteration seems to have any effect.
Another thing lost on her travels, another man. That guy, her partner or boyfriend or like-married-but-not. The one she lost in the bed that time. The one who would sit round a bar table with her and her Dad, the two of them so well-matched, down to the facial hair. She often wondered if there was something Freudian in that. That guy. The best.
Not gone exactly, they’re still friends. But missing and missed.
The occasional Skype séance all she’s got left of him. And the fact that such a guy loved her once, or cared about her. But has moved on, now. She guesses, but doesn’t know.
She lost him because she moved to China. More or less. Easier to simplify, not think about the hows and whys. Because they always said they’d go together, but never did. So finally, she went alone.
China. Where she also lost everything she owned.
No really. Quite a feat, without the intervention of storm, fire or other unspecified Acts of God. But she did.
Back in London she’d packed everything up. Everything she hadn’t thrown or given away. Payed a transport company a hefty sum to shrink-wrap, pallet, and shift it, by tanker, all the slow way to China. But when it got to China, the Chinese partner company demanded another extortionate fee to clear the stuff from customs, and ship it the rest of the way from the port to the city where she was living.
So she let it go. A few desultory emails with a Chinese woman named Lavender, and that was the end of it.
Her sewing machine. Books. Clothes. The dried rose from her grandmother’s funeral, which she hadn’t been able to attend. Her carefully packed Christmas ornaments, collected over years, cocooned in tissue paper, newspaper, bubble wrap.
Also in China, she almost lost her liberty. Because they wanted to hospitalise her, on account of the disease that had been living and breeding in her lungs since probably Morocco.
Morocco, where one night she forgot to buy bottled water, and, sweltering, so thirsty, she risked the tap. And lost her health. What was left of it.
Acquired, by way of exchanged, a tubercular-type hole in her lungs, which lay undetected, doing its tubercular thing, a black hole, secretly growing under her ribs and skin, until the x-ray for her Chinese visa winkled it out.
It’s true what they say, about the cure being worse. Chemo made her feel sicker than anything. Worse, a year spent without coffee. Coffee, that ambrosia, that nectar of the sleep-deprived.
Which brings us neatly to the road-trip, the intended, aborted road-trip, where she left her meds, her other meds, her happy-pills, behind.
Happy-pills being something of a misnomer. They don’t really make her happy, per se. Not the way that one Australian boyfriend she had, back in Uni, always seemed to be happy. More of a leveller. Meant to even out the (sometimes catastrophic) mood-swings.
A handy side-effect being, they also cause drowsiness. Or they used to. Lately, not so much.
And on that particular trip, of course, not at all. Because she’d forgotten to slip them in her bag before burning rubber out of town. Heading north on her motorbike. The objective being to drive all the way from Hồ Chí Minh City to Hà Nội.
The first sleepless night, tossing and turning, was ok, was not so bad. But by the time she arrived in the next stepping-stone town, things were starting to slide.
Early evening, the next day, or maybe the day after that. A cup of bubble tea at a roadside stall. Accompanied by a chat with the stall owner, so delighted that this foreign girl was bothering to (struggling to) learn her language. Could communicate (roughly, more or less) in Vietnamese.
On the tail of that tea, the onset of nausea. A return to the hotel, an expansive top-floor room, with a view from the balcony, across the road, of a patch of yellow-grassed waste-ground and the distant roof-strings of the seaside town.
Two nights and a day in bed. Sweating and shivering. Dozing, fitful with fever-dreams, broken by urgent, toilet-bound dashes. Light-headed, light-as-a-feather, alone. A texted conversation with her friend. Using her English-Vietnamese dictionary App to look up the terms. To explain. Bị sốt. Fever. Tiêu chảy. Diarrhoea.
Her friend’s sentences, telling her what to say when she’s finally strong enough to crawl from the bed. To get on her bike, turn the key. To back out of the hotel lobby, across the slippery, marble-look floor, and down off the pavement, into the road. To pull a U-turn, and drive the short distance to the nearest chemist. To stumble over the difficult sounds, all for a clear plastic bags of pills.
Take this one three times a day. This one once a day. She can understand. Not all, but enough.
That night, back in the hotel room again, in the hotel bed, her sweat-soured sheets rumpled and twisted around her, it occurs to her. She’s a bit slow on the uptake, for sure.
She googles the name of her meds. Meds she’s been on for over ten years. Googles the name, with withdrawal symptoms. Discovers that coming off these things is akin to going cold turkey for a heroine addict, someone with a regular cocaine habit. Who knew?
No way is she going to make it to Hà Nội.
Next day, the meds from the chemist seem to be working. She turns her bike around. Three days will see her back to HCMC, back to the other meds. The happy-pills she needs to rebalance the chemicals in her head.
Only, apart from the fitful, feverish sleep of her sick-bed, she hasn’t slept. In nearly a week. And she can’t. Can’t sleep.
So she’s on the homestretch. Fading, but nearly at the town, about 30 miles from HCMC, where her friend lives. Salvation, of a sort.
So close, when there’s sand on the road, and a kid on a bike. A little girl with a black plait, wobbling and weaving, that she skids, tried to veer round, to avoid. Which the sand, and the tyres, don’t much like.
So she looses the skin off her knee. Which is ok, she has another knee, other skin, elsewhere.
By the time she limps up her friend’s backstreet, she is dazed, can’t focus, has nothing in her head. Exhaustion. But her brain won’t shut down, won’t tolerate the proposition of closed eyes, refuses the remotest suggestion of sleep.
As if her brain has mistaken itself for the Jacobin Council under Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, or perhaps had an identity crisis, confused itself with that devil in a frock-coat, Robespierre himself, and has outlawed sleep as a bourgeois concept. Off with their heads!
Or off with her head, more like. Which would have had that added bonus of detaching her brain, her own personal, portable tyrant, from the rest of her.
Her friend drove her the remaining distance to Hồ Chí Minh.
Then there was the time in Japan when she discovered that her bank, back in England, was also her nanny. Acting in locos parentos, she can only suppose.
Just off the plane at Tokyo, Narita, and her card doesn’t work in the airport ATM. She changes what cash she has, navigates the subway system, and makes it through the bitter (to her, acclimatized to Vietnam’s tropical heat) cold, to her hotel.
At the check-in desk, her card is accepted. She has enough for a coffee overlooking the famous – infamous? – swarming Shibuya Crossing, enough for a strange plum cocktail, for dinner from a Seven Eleven.
Agonising attempts to contact the bank. Locked out of her online account, because, of course, she forgot to bring the details she needs to log in, and naturally she cannot remember them. An email from the bank in response to her own fraught missive: she must call the bank, across the world in England, to prove that she is, in fact, herself. Which she can’t do.
Catch 22: her phone is Vietnamese, she has no spare money to purchase a Japanese card, no spare cash for an extensive overseas call, that will probably, no, certainly, involve a fair amount of expensive time sat waiting, frustrated and hair-tearing, in a queue. Listening to the same tired old muzak through waves of static. She doesn’t have money to call the bank, because of what the bank has done.
The next morning, no dice with the card. Worse, almost no money. Enough to limp through the day. Just as well she enjoys loafing around, hanging out in coffee shops. Just seeing what there is to see, soaking in the sky-scrapery, industrious hivey-ness of the city. Tokyo, the most expensive city on the planet, with no money.
Lucky for her, she was due to meet one of her Japanese students, who she teaches on Skype, the next day. Lucky for her, that woman, taller than expected, and with an equally unexpected floppy hat, was understanding, sympathetic. Who lent her the money, enough money, more than enough money, to make the most of her remaining two days.
Or maybe it was nothing to do with luck. Or maybe it was. That this kind lady, recommended by another Japanese student, was also her student, at all.
The call to the bank, on returning to Vietnam, simmering with rage, while the bank’s security department made her jump through hoops, made her feel like the guilty party, for the whole fiasco. Because she should have notified them of her intention to travel, apparently. For her own security. Apparently.
She always notifies the bank, now, before she travels.
Which is just as well.
Because in India it turned out that there was nowhere to change her Vietnamese currency. Not a bank or a travel agent would so much as sniff the stuff. There she’d thought she was being so clever, carrying enough cash to see her through. Wrong.
In the course of her perambulations over the years, she has also managed to mislay, lose, or forget, her passport, earplugs, several cake tins and some jewellery, a favourite jacket bought at Disneyland when the sun went down and the desert chill struck home, and two beds.
The last of these have led her to be superstitious about buying another one. She circumnavigated this problem, most recently, by designing one, having her bed custom built. Result: the mattress where she currently lays her head, when not on her travels, is a fantasy bed, irreplaceable, entirely her own. Even if there are nights when her brain still refuses to acknowledge sleep as a fundamental human right.
She has had one motorbike, a phone and a tablet stolen. Accompanying the latter two, taken from her room while she was, for once, sleeping, was her sense of security and trust. For a month or two, all people were hateful. She didn’t want to talk.
Add to the list, her home. Twice in her current adoptive country, twice more before that, when her Dad left, when her partner and she went their separate ways.
Also gone, three grandmothers, and her mother. All of them while she was on the wrong side of the planet, further than a more filial, devoted relative would or should have been.
For two years, her creative mind upped-sticks, while she worked like a drone, a teaching machine. Perhaps that was the worst. Sleep, teach, sleep, repeat. If creativity had always been her most treasured quality, her motivation, her reason to bother with the whole living and breathing ordeal, who was she anymore? Teaching her own language, while when faced with a blank page, language deserted her. The thrill of cooking reduced to throwing yogurt, fruit and nuts in a bowl. Painting, a foreign concept. Paint what? With what? How? Learning a new language, Vietnamese, just to feel she was using her brain at all.
If there is a moral here, she doesn’t know what it is, has failed to identify it. They like morals in this country, their children’s cartoons, which she has tried to watch for listening practice, are tedious with them.
Is it just that life is a journey, not a story?
Or, be more careful.
Or, care less.
If she is travelling to find herself, to find something, anything, it would appear, on the face of it, that she’s going about it the wrong way. Achieving the exact opposite. Losing, rather than finding. Unless there is something to be discovered through loss, that is.