The sixth deck dining room was nearly empty as I watched the sunset through the window. The sea was calm, and the last warm rays of sunlight reflected from the water right into my chest. My tea was getting cold.
I could not look at the sea for too long though, for it made me indifferent to what was happening on land. I had no clue what presidents, kings and dictators had died or elected themselves over the past four months. I did not know who topped the Premier League. I was not even sure what day of the week it was, what time zone I was in and which season reigned over which hemisphere. The sun was disappearing below the horizon and I felt grouchy.
As I sat, my calm was beginning to mature into a new storm, but the unrest had settled long before. For the past few years, I had moved around relentlessly. Each place I visited left a mark. But since every experience was strikingly different, I struggled to piece together the whole picture of my adventures and learn anything from them. I was confused about the order, importance and reasons for my flouncing.
All I knew was that my wanderings had slit the world askew along its seams, and I felt guilty. All I knew was that the Gold Coast of Africa was somewhere over the portside. My tea was cold. The sun was setting, and time had lost its linearity.
The tea felt as cold as that New Year’s Eve spent on the Houston-bound Greyhound during the winter break of my freshman year. There, I caught a flight to Auckland, where they drive and crash on the left side of the road.
Four months before, the Great Plains welcomed me with the August heat and oppressive humidity, and I felt perplexed: I was no cattle driver, read no Bible, took no interest in collegiate sports or the energy sector. For the first time, I identified myself as a European city boy with an odd accent and no driver’s license. Moving to Oklahoma for university made me feel like a fish out of water, and only a semester later I ran away across the world, even if for a couple weeks.
My Greyhound New Year wish was to stop running away when things get out of hand, to acknowledge that problems may lie within me, not the surroundings. I was tired of getting hot and cold.
After a year in the Great Plains, I flew across the ocean, to catch my breath. Home was just as flat, but its reputation of Europe’s breadbasket suggested that its plains were much more fertile. I was taught that if you plant a seed in that soil, something will grow. You just have to stay put and hope what sprouts is what was expected.
The people of those plains have stayed put for far too long and have reaped mostly poor harvest. They grew tough and distrustful in their effort to lighten the blow when it comes. “And it will come, so you better be tight when it does,” they all said assertively, as soon as I landed in Kyiv. I saw how with each word, sharp as a blade, they kept hewing one another, trying to amass as much as they can in a lifetime. I felt cold again.
Regardless, home meant familiarity and comfort. I could be who I am without fear of being misunderstood or having misunderstood something. Besides, I could work my way around without a map and a dictionary.
Yet, home also meant bad news. Although everything looked familiar, I could sense the change. As friends were updating me on old corruption scandals, infrastructure issues and personal regresses, I could not stop questioning everything. “How come the roads are so bad?” “Where are the street lights?” “Is this what you call service?” I tried to quit comparing everything to the Land of Opportunity, and failed repeatedly. On the way back to Oklahoma in late August, I recalled why I had left home in the first place: to escape prostration, collapse, despair and … linearity.
The next school year swept by. My mind raced between academics, road trips, constant inclement weather outside and within and a sudden desire to move again — through Boston, through Paris, shuddered, shaken and abashed for another desertion.
But this time home felt even more distant and strange, almost as anywhere else. What I was used to call home was slowly, slyly transforming into my parents’ house. I recalled leaving for a boarding school in Transcaucasia, four years before. Is that when everything went astray? Is that what broke my linearity? Do I even want it back? If the sole reason for leaving home was to avoid mundane affairs, then, I have no right to complain about becoming a nomad. Perhaps, I must embrace it.
Instead of returning for my third year at the university, I flew to Hamburg, embarked on a ship and sent the whole world order to hell. What followed was yet another series of hot and cold flashes.
Hot. I peeked from behind the Jamestown lighthouse, in Accra, spying on the township’s youth. This lighthouse had been magnetizing British vessels for centuries. They would come here to barter for tribal war captives, enslave them and ship across the ocean. Now, barefoot children invited me to play beach football. I plunged my feet in heated sand and felt warm for the first time since I sat on the curbside in Aotearoa, spitting glass on the grass, recovering from a car crash.
Hot, but maybe cold. I was in Jaipur, climbing the café’s flimsy staircase across the road from the Palace of the Winds. I peered down on the busy street, where endless people, animals, rickshaws and food stalls produced that whirl of dirt and chaos that many travelers discover in this country. I felt morose and out of place, again. But as I kept observing, I became mesmerized. The whole street presented itself as one continuous, animated organism. It breathed, flapped and vibrated. Its generous perfume and manifold voice sneaked under my skin. The palace disappeared in the dusk, and I wondered whether it was built for a wife, a child, a god or in celebration of linearity.
Cold. I was in postcolonial Yangon, learning about my grandma’s passing. I recalled seeing her for the last time, before leaving for Hamburg, and it seemed so long ago. I recalled in one of our last conversations she mentioned she believed in God out of habit. I thought about paying my respect by putting a candle in her memory at the nearest church. I did not find any churches and had to climb Shwedagon, the highest pagoda in the vicinity. The air on the stupa’s terrace was neither hot nor cold that night, and I felt calm, albeit a little shaky. I figured, if there is a god it must be the one my grandma believed in. Meanwhile, dozens of candle flames fused into one, illuminating a quiet Buddha that sat across from the candelabrum.
When did this happen? Where?
Grandma’s gravestone suggests last November. But I have not seen the gravestone, and there is no other proof of what I remember to be true.
As soon as the sixth deck dining room window refracted the sunrays into my chest, I realized that the Greyhound wish has finally come true, for I was no longer running away. I felt ready to keep moving forward, backward and sideways, adamantly welcoming any weather, every crash, all returns, each palace and place of worship. Most importantly, I sought to embrace every sunset, no matter what land it falls upon.
The order, after all, does not matter. All reasons for travelling are equally valid, as long as you are not running away from but moving toward your goals. And the importance of your experiences lies within their power to produce more. Suddenly, I was curious about what adventure would come next.
The sway of the ship brought me back to present. The sun was down and the tea had cooled beyond hope. But things always get out of hand. So what?