In a string of masochistic decisions, I decide to quit smoking while traveling: first in Bali, then in Thailand, then Vietnam, now in Turkey. So far, I am unaccomplished; it is the one routine that can bring me stability, comfort and familiarity regardless of the changing climates, languages, smells and general feeling of strangeness that comes with being in a foreign country. Also, I am in Istanbul, a city renowned for its unabashed public smoking and customary hookahs.
There was a woman on the corner next to my hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi that sold Pho, a rice noodle soup she ladled from a vat from early afternoon until the streets begin to shut down around 11 or 12 am. I sat with my legs crossed, only about a foot off the ground, on a plastic stool that looks more like a footrest. She doesn’t speak English, but spreads out chopsticks, a spoon, a tin of sliced limes and lettuce to stir into the broth. Other joiners come and go, while I sit in silence, holding the bowl close to my face, the steam creating a wet film over my cheeks and chin. The seat isn’t comfortable, but the soup is sustenance, and I have found familiarity in the corner and the habit of our exchange. While in Hanoi, I visit the soup woman nearly every day.
When experiencing the unfamiliar, the mind cannot help but seek out patterns. Like a cat, we find our way back to the same corner restaurant, the recognizable street vendor, surveying our territory, finding unusual habits and daily routines; even the homeless man becomes a landmark. It seems that the act of smoking is a comfort, where the cigarette itself acts as a kind of filter, against those sensations and dissonances our minds have not yet reconciled.
We were kicked out of the Veteran’s hospital in Chiang Mai on New Year’s Eve for a couple reasons: 1) I forgot to pick an end date for my reservation, and 2) Someone put a hole in the wall. The manager took a picture on his digital camera and approached me at the pool to ask what happened. I truly had no explanation, but offered him a plausible scenario having to do with bad sleeping habits.
In response, he tells me, “You- no more room.”
Instead of booking a room, we decide to head out for the night, leaving our bags with a friend. Though sans plan, we believe that with our charge cards and wits, we will be fine. After the fireworks were over and the floating lanterns had flickered out and fallen to the streets, the crowds broke up and we climbed into a tuk-tuk around three in the morning. I remembered there was a Sofitel somewhere outside of Chiang Mai and asked the driver if he could try to find it. When we stumbled in to ask about vacancy, the man behind the front desk looks us up and down: disheveled, drunk, and bloody feet (I had lost my flip flops).
Before we reach the front desk, he is already shaking his head, “No.”
We hail another driver from the street, hoping to find a room; any bed would do. I jump in and out from the backseat, running through dozens of lobbies, each attempt with the same result. After over an hour, I am near tears: shoeless, jacketless, and essentially homeless in Thailand. I am still not sure if we were simply unappealing clientele, or if there really was nowhere to stay, but eventually the tuk-tuk driver says, “Last stop. If no room, you sleep at my home.”
I look at my friend and shrug, unable to fathom what exactly it would look like, waking up on the floor of the cab driver’s house. On our last stop, we roll into what looks like an abandoned building, the lights are off, and there is no front of house: “This is last try,” he explains. He talks to a young man out front, wearing a leather jacket and smoking a cigarette next to his motorcycle. Leather pulls a key from his pocket and hands it to the driver.
The driver turns to us: “Follow me,” he says, and begins climbing the open air stairwell towards the second floor. When the door swings open, we didn’t even take the time to give a cursory review; we were asleep on the bed before the driver left the room.
In the clarity of morning, we discover, we were not in a hotel. A stranger’s clothes were folded in the dresser and a handmaid quilt covered the bed. The patio door opened to a back alley on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, where clothes draped on line were attached to our window sill. It was an abandoned apartment and the room was not for rent. We looked around for a lobby, someone who saw us come in, or cared that we were about to leave. Finally, we just walked out into the street without paying. Not that we were trying to rip them off, but this was not a hotel, and, we were squatters.
I am okay with bouts of homelessness, or, in travel, I am accustomed to feeling that I am lost or out of control. What is more frightening, is when I am reminded of the distance of “home.” These feelings are usually precipitated by familiarity, being brought back to a memory, a place, something so close, that it is inescapably moving. For me, the flashback usually comes in the form of music. There was the time I sat alone at a restaurant in Indonesia listening to “Here Comes My Baby,” or when the cab driver picked me up in Saigon and the radio was playing, “Killing Me Softly” by the Fugees; walking through the night market in Nha Trang listening to “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen.
The tourist industry has definitely picked up this need of travelers to find “home” even where it does not belong. There are the Western restaurants lining the streets boasting ingredients like “real cheese” and “large burritos” just to appease the tourists who are unhappy or dissatisfied with local cuisine. In Chiang Mai, there was a large Christmas tree in the lobby lined with little wrapped boxes and tinsel. When we went to Halong Bay off the coast of Hanoi, they thought it appropriate to blast the Titanic theme song from the boat (“Near, far…” etc.). To me, these Americanisms, make me feel even more disconnected: their foreignness reminds me of my own.
My last week in Chiang Mai, I had lost my wallet, my camera was stolen and my passport was being held at a tourist agency while I waited for a Vietnamese visa. The tour guide from our hotel (named “Kai”) drove me to pick up my visa and waited in the lobby while I walked up and down the street, denied time and time again by every ATM.
The emergency credit card didn’t work either. This was particularly stressful, as my Thai visa expired in only a few days. I had no access to money and it looked like I would face the additional fines of overstaying, while unable to get my passport returned. In all the commotion (my tears, throwing of receipts, and general dramatic performance in the passport office) Kai stepped up and paid the $90.00 to get my passport returned. Back in his car, I sat shotgun, like I do with my own father, while he gave me a paternal scolding and told me that I need to be more careful with my things.
After months of moving from hotel to hostel, through friends’ and strangers’ apartments, my definition of home has been reevaluated. I can’t help but nest where I land, even if only for a few days. The maids are like sisters, the manager is like my father, the front of house woman that asks questions like my mother; the back of house staff, like brothers. Some play familial roles, wondering where I have been, or what time I will be back. They tell me when my hair looks disheveled and remind me to eat fruit, instead of eggs for breakfast. There are these moments, when home is not so far away.
I made it out of Thailand, through Vietnam, and now to Turkey. There is an ebb and flow, in the current and rush of travel. Sometimes I am completely at ease, while other days, I am prepared to get catapulted to the streets, without money, homeless and/or squatting. There are also moments, I feel profoundly, like a foreigner.
And that is why, I am never surprised, every time I retreat back to light a cigarette, taking in the strange and unknown, through a filter I know so well.