it is perhaps telling that the prevailing smell in this city the last few days has not been of baguettes being pulled fresh from an oven, or meat cooked to perfection, or even the acrid wafts of cigarette smoke, but instead, of piss.
i’m currently sitting inside of a coffee shop at an airport lying an hour outside the mess that is kuala lumpur. earlier today on the bus ride from singapore rain came down in sheets and pounded against the windows with a force that not even wipers could really do much against. typical of this area though it was passing, and the while the majority of the day has been spent sitting inside moving vehicles, clouds roll overhead dark with the threat of more rain.
singapore was bizarre. the city was opulent and generic, a costly representation of abundant wealth and the dissolution of national identity. it seems a place where the local people have been dealt the role of serving those who have turned their country into something grand and rich. drivers, owners of restaurants, fruit sellers, construction laborers. it’s a confusing place to be in and to see. i am happy to have left.
it strikes me now as i’m sitting here that this will be my exit from asia. a day i’ve thought about many times in the last few years with a constantly changing attitude concerning it. i’ve spoken with many friends about ending this self imposed asian exile of sorts with excitement and dread. i have talked it over alone and in my head during late nights sleeping in damp beds in thailand and others curled beneath down comforters warding off the cold in the mountains of japan. i’ve decided one way and then the other about it, a constant source of internal confliction. it’s something i put off and off telling myself i would endure when the time was right, when i felt like it was time to leave, and now here in this out of the way airport in the sticks of malaysia it seems to have come sneaking up, almost surprising in its unexpected finality.
i don’t want to be comprehensive about all this time spent in this part of the world here and now because i think over the next few weeks the reality of the situation will set in and only in parts and pieces will the whole picture come to together. it’s been since january 2010 that i’ve called my home america and in these past years i’ve lived a life i never thought possible and through that, become changed.
my last night in japan, i ate chinese food in tokyo. fried rice, liver and sprouts, dumplings and yakisoba. it was delicious. i drank beer in the street and put the can under a light. i said goodbye to the city and the country and the year i spent wrapped up there and got on the subway leaving for the airport.
the plane left around midnight, it was larger than i expected. my previous flights on air asia had been on smaller planes and i had assumed this would be the same. but the flight from tokyo to kuala lumpur is over seven hours and very popular. the plane is huge. we are driven from the terminal, over the tarmac, weaving between planes in varying states of park and taxi.
around what i think is four am i begin to feel sick. while the plane is large the seats are small and surfacing from the constant waking dream i’ve been having the last hours doesn’t take much: a whining baby, a man’s mumbling, a shake of the wings. i don’t know why, but i don’t feel well. in the bathroom i kneel and vomit into a toilet five miles in the sky, surrounded by complete darkness somewhere above the ocean.
morning comes and we land in kuala lumpur. it’s hot, it reminds me of thailand. i feel at home in this heat, am reminded of a year and a half spent only a bit further north. but i am not at home, and this place is foreign after the numbing orderliness of japan. i take a bus into the city center, sit behind a family with two small children sprawled across parent’s laps, breathing softly in the cool air.
i wake in the city. we are in traffic and motorbikes flash by, lines of buildings rising from the ground. the bus stops underground and after following poorly lit signs for almost twenty minutes i emerge into the malaysian morning, already fully immersed in the sun. the monorail takes me between buildings, flying above the ground. a blind couple makes their way onto the train and strangers take their arms, lead them to seats that have been made available, and then return to their own preoccupations.
on the curb i wait for a bus that will take me to singapore. in the shadow of a huge and gothic building, blotting out the sun, i feel sweat inside my jeans, down my back, and can’t remember the last time i brushed my teeth. this is the discomfort of true travelling i am reminding myself, something i have missed as much as i have not. the lost feeling, the displacement of arriving somewhere you have not been before.
tomorrow around midnight i’ll board a plane flying to kuala lumpur and leave behind a year in japan. living places for a specified piece of time is strange in many ways, one of which is the ability for an almost scheduled sense of retrospection.
this isn’t always afforded yearly because things don’t drastically change that much. of course this is a generalization, people get married, people move to different cities or different jobs, people have children or lose a family member. all these events provide an opportunity for reflection, i know i’m not special in this regard alone.
the process of deciding what to take and leave when gearing for two months out is hard. i’ve given much more away than i’ve sent home in a couple boxes and still there is a lot. packing a life is heavy, to risk sounding cliche, in both figurative and literal terms. in the end i make space and allowances for the things that are important to me, whether it’s an extra flannel or another lens, and though they weigh me down, i’ll bear it all on, because it’s my life, and it’s here in sharp relief against the backdrop of the last year spent in these mountains.
i’m in tokyo now. in two days i’ll be in singapore, and a few after that, paris. i’m happy and i’m nervous. i’m excited and i’m expectant. i want things to work a certain i know they can’t, but it won’t stop me, because there’s nothing to do at this point but continue on.
i’m off to do laundry, i’ll be seeing you shortly.
we walk from your house on talbot to the cemetery at the end of the point. white and naval, a thousand and more crosses are scattered through the hills. they slope gently down the side towards the rushing ocean. they’re in lanes neat enough to have put there with a ruler. they probably were.
on the way up, past the university you still attend, we pass to-scale models of large navy warships, airplanes the size of beds, and destroyers bigger than me. they are behind wire fencing, atop a cracking parking lot, broken glass shattered around. it’s obvious they’ve been there a while, a thousand signs of age have been painted on their surfaces but even so, even dirty and forgotten, there’s something unsettling about their presence.
it reads “his wife” on a cross, nothing more but the dates she lived. how fucked you say, and begin walking home, alone.
a block or two away is brainwash cafe, a laundromat/cafe/bar that serves coffee in pint glasses that badly burn the overeager hand. while waiting for your wash to finish you can play shitty video games, eat a sandwich, or have a beer.
i walk there some mornings, no laundry to be done. it’s the closest place you can get coffee to go but more often than not i skip the coffee and get a pbr. and it’s cheap and it’s cold, with non of the hand scalding business.
walking in the morning sun, fading in and out of shade beneath old school, bay area apartment fronts, i make my way.
The sky has given over its bitterness. Out of the dark change all day long rain falls and falls as if it would never end. Still the snow keeps its hold on the ground. But water, water from a thousand runnels! It collects swiftly, dappled with black cuts a way for itself through green ice in the gutters. Drop after drop it falls from the withered grass-stems of the overhanging embankment.
saturday night, cleaning out my apartment. finding things that i brought from thailand and stashed in the closet never to look at again. nikon boxes that i can’t bring myself to throw away and so will break them down and pack them up and ship them to northern california. there is a small mountain of photographs that has been slowly built upon in the last years, on paper and in my hand. there are jade rocks i found in a stream along the east coast of taiwan, coins and paper money from several different countries, two passports, one filled and expired through use. there are clothes for snow and clothes for the beach, several pairs of shoes and some very heavy camera equipment. notes and cards written in four different languages, addresses from places of residence across three different countries, gifts from friends now spread out across the globe.
i was standing in my hallway earlier this evening with a fish tank full of rocks that i was getting ready to dump in the bushes outside when i realized, truly realized, that i was packing my life up in japan. that i live here, have lived here, have been gone for so long. it’s a beautiful part of life, the small insights that light upon you when you’re in the middle of doing something banal, mundane, regularly occurring.
there is a postcard on my wall bought from a store in portland while on a trip down from where i was living in seattle almost three years ago. it’s since been across the ocean with me and hung in several different houses. it will soon be making the trip back, over the pacific, to be hung again on the walls of another place. it’s incredible to me how not only our memories follow us everywhere we go, but our things to.
i don’t have much, i really don’t. when i came to japan i had a backpack and a duffel bag. now leaving, i will have less. i don’t own much anything of value besides camera gear and even then, it doesn’t add up to much. i don’t own a car, i have no furniture, my entire life can be put into a bag that goes on my back, and still, there is room for this postcard, these pictures to remind me of where i’ve been when i have gone and lost track.
we hear so often that home is where the heart is, but what happens when your heart is left in so many places it’s hard to keep count? talking with my parents earlier i listed off all the places i’ve lived in the last six or seven years and it was easily more than a dozen. maybe this is unremarkable and i still don’t truly know what it means to me, but i think it might just mean that home is less of a place than an idea, an ability to carve a life out for yourself anywhere you might be.
i have left parts of myself in many places, with many people. i have many homes, and here’s to many more.