Berkeley, CA

I got lost yesterday on my way to Berkeley Espresso. I left the apartment believing I knew exactly how to get there; I didn’t even bother to look at the streets. After a few blocks it dawned on me that I had no idea where I was headed. Ironic how losing my way is almost always preceded by certainty rather than uncertainty.

Sometimes I won’t turn around when I realize I’ve gone the wrong way. Sometimes I refuse to accept defeat. I insist on going forward, charting a new path with my misdirection. Each year these instances happen less frequently — stubbornly continuing in the wrong direction, I mean, not getting lost, I get lost just as often as I always have. I’m learning to accept my errors. And also to not give in to every inclination of my ego.

Instead of Berkeley Espresso, I ended up at People’s Cafe. A rather fortunate turn of events really, I have very fond memories of this place. See the parrot on the wall? There’s a drawing of it in my notebook, a quite uncanny duplication if I may say so myself. And the table in the back with the bench against the wall, there we sat when I realized you were my happy place.

I’ve been missing Berkeley these days, missing summers on Telegraph Ave when blocks would be closed off to cars to make room for the tents lining both sides of the street selling hand-made jewelry, tie-dyed shirts, ceramic bowls, and special pastries, missing those four-day weekends when I’d spend an entire day leisurely cruising through all the shops on College Ave, always pausing inside the pet store to contemplate buying a pair of birds to bring some chirp to my apartment.

An entire album of travel photos can’t compete with a single photo depicting my previous life in Berkeley. If I could travel back in time and relive one of those days again, any old Sunday, waking up with you beside me, running errands all day, and ending with a dinner among friends. Just one of those days.


To Stay or To Go

I was in the library the other day working on my thesis when a woman came in and seated herself in the lounge chair across from me. She looked familiar but I couldn’t place her. I tried to make eye contact and smile but she was staring intently at something outside the window; I might as well be invisible.

An hour passed. I noticed the woman across from me had not moved once. Still, she sat, staring out the window. I followed her gaze to the outside: nothing but trees and parked cars. I observed her, happily indulging in a distraction from my paper.

Still, she sat, not moving an inch. Resting into the lounge chair, her hands folded in her lap, she stared, not at the world outside, but into the maze of her thoughts. It’s a process, reaching into one’s own soul searching for answers. Here lied the question: to stay or to go? Still, she sat, while her thoughts revisited the aggregate of cities and places she had collected in the past five years.

Every time she arrived in a new city, she gave herself an adjustment period. It varied depending on whether she needed to learn the local dialect, how much she liked the food, how easily accessible the city was via public transportation. Just when she’s mastered it all, when she’s learned the streets and adjusted to the customs, she began to grow weary of the same scenes. “I’ll come back,” she told herself. There are so many places she hasn’t seen yet, why stop here?

How was she supposed to pick a place to stay when they all bled into one another? How could she pick the right place when she hasn’t seen them all? So she kept moving.

It can’t last forever, this moving around, going from city to city, forming intimate relations with no long-term plans in mind. She longed for an anchor, a reason to stay, without which she had only her heart to guide her. And through five years of travels, she has not yet mastered the map of her own heart. So she sat, contemplating her next moves, immobilized by all the possibilities.

I looked out the window and there you were, five floors down, in a white tee and pants the color of the Caribbean Sea, the color of your eyes. Out of a city of tens of thousands, I picked you out. I recognized you by your walk. You smiled and I knew we were kindred souls, two pieces of the same puzzle. I packed up my bag and walked out of the library, leaving the woman there in the lounge chair, with her possibilities.

Conversations with Strangers -Saigon

“Where are you from?” He asked.
“California.” It was the first answer that came to my mind. Close enough to the truth.
“I’m from Shanghai.” He said.
“Really?” Then in Shanghai dialect I asked him how long he’d been traveling.

I had just arrived at my hostel in HCMC, a mixed door room for eight, white and pristine. I was unpacking my camera when he came into the room and started a conversation. It’s rare to meet a solo Chinese backpacker in SE Asia, even more rare to meet someone from my hometown. I dropped my guard instantly, a little too quickly.

“What are your plans for tonight?” He asked.
“I’m meeting up with a friend who’s here for work.”
“Do you want to go check out the nearby street and grab a beer until then?”

I believe there is an unspoken backpackers’ code. Under any other circumstance I would’ve declined his invitation. But when you’re a solo backpacker meeting another solo backpacker, friendliness is expected. And though a red light flashed for a second in my mind at the mention of alcohol, I dismissed it, it seemed unnecessarily rude to turn down a seemingly innocent invitation now that we were conversing in Shanghainese, which just might be my most native tongue.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

I twirled the ring on my finger, a ring I had worn specifically for this trip, a ring that was going unnoticed by everyone except for me. I mulled over the question, it gave me a punch in the chest as recent events came to mind. I contemplated lying but a lie would lead to more questions and more lies and I am a terrible liar.

“No, I don’t.”

It was late. We had returned from the bar where I met up with my friend and his coworker. I had found a quiet spot in the hostel to do some writing and he had found me in the dark.

“Why not?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“I think you’d make a good girlfriend, a good wife, don’t you think so?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been anyone’s wife before.”
“I mean the overall feel you give off…”
“Can I be your boyfriend?”

I laughed, it was the only response to such a ridiculous proposal. He went on to justify his question. And even though I have no desire to be with him, found absolutely no spark between us, felt nothing except mild annoyance towards him, for a second, a second, I imagined how easy it’d be to say yes. I felt tired of swimming upstream, tired of swimming at all. It’s like that dream where you’re running as fast as you can, lifting your feet and putting them down, and getting nowhere, an invisible force holding you in place, an invisible wall stands between you and the other side, the other side being happiness.

Except in my dreams, I leap. I soar. I push myself off the ground and land on rooftops. In my dreams, acrophobia does not exist. So I declined. He asked again and again I said no. He got up to leave, standing over me and asking me again if I were certain. Whatever he thought he could offer me, I wanted none of it. I offered him a handshake. He pulled me in for a hug. I was surprised to find him shaking like a leaf. I forced my way out of his grip.

The only evidence of the episode was a message on my phone from him telling me he’s arrived in Singapore. I deleted it without reply.

All Is Bright

Sometime in the early afternoon, I found myself staring out the window and cheerfully humming “Silent Night”. The drab of the scene outside hit me like I was only seeing it for the first time: the grass sparse and yellowing in the courtyard, the pond never as clear as it should be, Thomas the cat dragging his languid, portly self to the nearest tree, the concrete, worn-down eyesore masquerading as an office building across the street…

Still, I hummed my little tune happily.

Last night, when I arrived at the Center, I saw that the halls had been decorated with decals of snowmen. Against the rigid structure of daily life and the oppressive weight of finals looming just around the corner, the decorations seemed a half-assed, juvenile attempt at spreading some cheer. Nevertheless, they worked. My spirit was immediately lifted upon seeing them and remembering that amidst papers and presentations, there was Christmas.

I was thinking about Christmas last night in the cab ride over from the train station. Specifically, I was thinking about presents. While my driver and I flew through emptied streets of Nanjing, I mulled over how many presents I should prepare this year. And while I hummed “Silent Night” and stared at the grey outside, the matter returned again to my mind. And so my train of thoughts continued until I felt overwhelmed with love and gratitude. I reached for the Christmas cards on my bookshelf and began addressing them, each one more emotional than the last.

I wonder if I’ll still be here in Nanjing next Christmas, sending cards west. I quite like that image.

Indonesia Calling

I met a guy in Luang Prabang who said the best way to see Southeast Asia was to skip Ho Chi Minh City and visit Hanoi, skip Phnom Penh and visit Siem Reap, skip Vientiane and visit Luang Prabang.

I couldn’t have agreed more. So where should I visit instead of Jakarta? I’m starting to plan for my trip to Indonesia, which means flipping through Lonely Planet for suggestions. I plan on avoiding the major cities and seeing Borobudur, if nothing else; I can never get enough of temples.

A friend I made in Chiang Mai, who is currently making his way around Vietnam, will be in Indonesia at the same time. I’m not sure if we’ll meet up for a day or join forces for the trip. I would very much look forward to another solo trip though having someone to hold my purse while I use the restroom would certainly be a plus. I kid. He’d be excellent company.