The Doubtful, Fearful

 

‘She’s a stranger,’ I think, staring at myself printed on a semi glossy magazine cover, leaning against a wall with my arms casually crossed; a woman smiling as if she’s got it all figured out. I’m seated in a sparsely furnished hotel room with a magazine in my lap and a cooling, untouched cappuccino balancing atop a stack of magazines on the coffee table.

I’m unsure how I believed that success would transform me; that I could become the self that I so meticulously get dressed in every morning, and be allowed at last to discard the doubtful, fearful creature within. That becoming successful was not so much a moment in time, but a finality, an existence that when reached, would also be maintained. I thought ‘making it’ in the eyes of others would feel much like reaching a summit, gazing down upon all the others still bickering along the uphill climb, meanwhile exchanging celebratory handshakes and nods with the other successful ones stood on their respective pedestals.

Instead of waking up and getting dressed in the skin of the woman of untapped potential, I now get dressed in the skin of someone who has made it, leaving the skin of the old me in the closet. Within this new, paper-thin guise still crouches The Doubtful, Fearful; a gnarling creature, louder and more vicious than ever, warning me that now there is not only more to aspire to, but that there is so much more to lose. There is self-loathing woven into the fabric of this new guise, sprung from the failure of my transformation – a butterfly entombed in its cocoon.

I imagined all would become clear when I reached my goal, that all noise of everyday life would fade, and that it would feel natural and right that I became someone people sought for advice and inspiration. Instead I’d become a false prophet, conceitedly believing that I was embodied by elevated insight to help others in reaching their own goals – and that it was my right to offer it to them – to sprinkle it down the mountainside like water in a drought.

My assistant pops his head through the door, a smile already on his face. He’s a man fuelled by youth and belief in his own potential, a climber in the infancy of his journey. He reminds me of an appointment for an interview, and I thank him. He glances at the full cup of now cold coffee that he had procured upon my request, and I pick it up and cradle it as if it still holds warmth, and he seems contented. When he leaves I put it back down, accidentally spilling foam over the side that dribbles down onto the topmost magazine, distorting my smiling face. I don’t wipe it off.

We all have climbs to undertake and the greatest deception of all is the notion that there is an end to be reached. The human urge to expand and improve is a curse dressed in blessing, and we all fall victim to it. Somewhere enjoyable will never feel like the end of a line. Not only do I remain a captive of my insecurities, I now have more to lose, and there will be an audience for when it happens. Defeat no longer feels like a possibility, but an inevitability – no longer, ‘if it comes,’ but ‘when it comes.’ My fear of failure no longer crouches beneath my bed; rather, it sits at my bedside.

Following a quick sequence of sharp knocks, my assistant enters again, trailed by a woman dressed in a grey business suit. She carries a clipboard with empty pages in one hand and a tape recorder in the other. She makes quick, dainty steps in her bow kitten heels in a way that makes me think she believes it will make her more endearing to me. They both smile the smile I curse myself for having worn so readily in the past. It is the humble, strained smile of a climber; antelopes entering the lion’s den, unaware that I, too, am an antelope, dressed in the pelt of a lion. I think about all the offices I have entered, believing that those within were somehow elevated kinds of people with a clearer view of life’s meandering chaos than the rest of us.

If I wanted to, I could tell them. That I am still climbing, too, and that I have no answers to give. I could tell them that all of life is swamped with uncertainty and that they won’t find the happiness they seek by abandoning themselves in the climb. I could tell them that whatever they feed The Doubtful, Fearful will only make it louder, that it mustn’t be satiated, it must be starved.

But I don’t. I’ve come too far to give up the act.

Instead, I stand up and pull my hand through my hair with a trained air of je ne sais quoi that I know will not go unnoticed.  My disguise fits so snugly over The Doubtful, Fearful, that also I can sometimes believe that they are one. I shove the cold coffee into the hands of my assistant, mumbling something about the sweetness of it. He apologizes and leaves shortly, and I sit back down in my chair as I gesture for her to take the chair opposite. I can see her hand is trembling as she works the buttons on the recorder, and in a sick sort of way, I take enjoyment from it. The frustration from reaching the summit only to realize it is a pit stop is dulled by kicking pebbles onto those below.

“To what do you owe your success?” she asks.
I flash my most brilliant smile before pretending as if my rehearsed reply is a product of the moment, my cocoon hardening with every word.

Great Civilizations

I watch the man discreetly as he’s sat on a seat across the tram. A newspaper lies folded neatly in his lap, where his bony, khaki-clad knees meet like two knuckles in greeting. He stares into the air, not focusing on anything particular. He doesn’t look like most people in crowded places – who are aware they might be watched. I imagine he imagines he isn’t worth watching, which is why I can’t help but to do so.

A pair of glasses lie tucked away in his breast pocket, glimmering occasionally as the tram shakes down the tracks, and the light of the setting sun squeezing between the passing buildings and people on the tram just so for it to reach him.

His checkered business shirt is buttoned all the way save the top button, where the fabric hugs his slender throat. If the last button hadn’t constricted his breathing I’m sure also that would be buttoned up.

I imagine him in his office cubicle, strangling his frustrations in silence as his hairline recedes. As the sun dries up he clocks out and catches the tram home, an electrical device in search of a socket.

Suddenly, I come to think of the Colorado River, rushing through deep canyons in wild pursuit of the ocean. If the width of a river is any indication of the force passing through it, his neck is but a creek.

Great civilizations were never built on the banks of creeks.

Dengue, Dengue

“Eat something,” he commanded. His lips were a firm line.

“No thank you, I’m not hungry,” I said, with a meek smile, hoping to seem as if I knew what was best for me. I was in a hospital bed in Cambodia, a 20-year-old white girl scared and alone in a place with no room for self-pity.
“Eat something,” he repeated, louder – his narrow eyes widening behind his glasses. I was glad the old Cambodian man in the bed opposite was sleeping. He slept most of the day due to nights spent with violent coughing fits sounding as if his lungs were trying to squeeze through his windpipe. Following five or six coughs, he would spit in a tin bucket. An American patient said he believed the man suffered from tuberculosis. When I arrived, he was relieved to see another English speaker, but I had very little energy for speaking. I don’t think he liked me much, and I didn’t blame him – I didn’t like myself with dengue either. I could only afford short sentences and nods, and his attempts at communicating died quickly.
“Where are you from?”
“Norway.”
“Travelled for long?”
“Yeah.”
“I’ve got salmonella, what are you in for?”
“Dengue fever.”
He left sometime while I was sleeping.

“Okay,” I said to the doctor, defeated. “Noodles.”
I hadn’t been eating much for a while. It was as if my stomach had fallen asleep and didn’t speak to my brain anymore. It never told me it was empty – that I needed food. I’d later learn that it was caused by an E.coli blood infection. I suppose bad news travel in pairs. Bones began showing, starting at my hip, then my shoulders, lastly my ribs.

By extreme misfortune, it was my second hospitalization caused by dengue fever in my six months of traveling, and with the little English the doctors knew, they assured me it could be fatal. They said the second round was bad news. Blood could start to wander in places it shouldn’t. Once I told my parents of my situation, my dad packed his bags – disregarding any protests as he had whenever I had been overtired as a child. I was mortified that he had to save me from my own adventure, yet relieved for feeling less alone.

“Is not food,” he said, but still jotted something on his clipboard. I shifted in my bed, and felt the needle move beneath my skin. I didn’t know it was procedure to insert drips at the crook of the arm, nor pinning it down using bulky layers of sports tape. At least I’d never seen it done on Grey’s Anatomy – which was as far as my experience with hospitals went. Like so many things, this was done a little different here. At the slightest movement, the needle would dance, toying with the elasticity of my vein.  I grimaced, but knew there was no sympathy found in this building.

The room was white and bare, and the windows were frosted and barred – only allowing for the illusion of daylight. Aside from the man with the cough and me, the rest of the beds were empty. I doubted that there was a lack of sick people – only a lack of wealthy, sick people. With a long fingernail, the doctor tapped the suspended bag of antibiotics above me. The tube connecting it to my arm stirred briefly. I knew from my first round of dengue that antibiotics had no part in the treatment, but my respect for white lab coats and bespectacled stares was crippling.

At the previous Cambodian clinic, I had attempted to learn what medicine they gave me.
“What is this?” I gestured towards the needle they prepared.
“Yes. No. Yes. No. Medicine. Injection,” they said, and nodded once before they inserted the needle into my arm, the medicine burning and bulging as it went through. I cried from the pain and for feeling so helpless. They giggled at my tears, instructing me to massage along the blood flow to relieve pain. Any preconceived notions of being independent and world-savvy were scattered and hiding – remaining was a frail, bony thing in a bed across the world at Christmas, wanting nothing but to snap her fingers and sit beside the tree at home. This time around, grateful they didn’t inject me with fire, I objected to little.

The doctor left without a word, his feet clacking against the marble floor. He was the only one with noisy shoes, announcing his arrivals and exits like a fanfare. The nurses and cleaners moved about on silent feet, the only sound being the swoosh of the glass doors separating the sick from the rest of the world. The doors opened as his clacking feet approached and hot air rushed in to meet the cold. Fever ridden and freezing, the warmth felt like a hug in a snowstorm.

Before dengue, I worked at a hostel on an island called Koh Rong. Reachable by old, wooden boats burbling into the ocean, it was situated a couple of hours off the coast of Sihanoukville. Paradise on land they called it, and there was no name more fitting. Here the jungle kissed the ocean, separated only by a strip of powdery sands and a handful of shacks strewn about. Sans roads, sans stress, sans ATM’s, one merely kicked off ones shoes upon arrival and left barefooted. My boss was a man named Bunna – an orphan from a river delta in northern Cambodia – Illiterate in every language, but fluent in four. He had a young daughter in England, and sometimes we would practice writing in my notebook, so he could write her.

It was the beginning of rain season and business was slow, so I spent the days snorkeling, exploring the jungle and picking seashells, shards of glass and garbage on the beach. Cambodia is a dizzying concoction of beauty and horror, pristine and polluted – conches and syringes side-by-side. Having coaxed Bunna into adding some color to the place, I had taken it upon myself to paint the naked boards of the hostel bright blue. Balancing on a red, plastic chair shivering under my weight, I painted with sweat dripping from my forehead until the heat became unbearable and I jumped in the sea.

I thought it had been the island bug when I first fell ill – just a passing cold. I had a few mosquito bites, but thought little of them. People said dengue wasn’t present in paradise, but everyone’d caught it lately. They retreated into dark rooms with fans whirring loudly to relieve the heat whenever electricity was available, which it very rarely was. It started out softly – a fever so mild it felt like a hangover. In the day, my dorm room was a sweltering box, and in the silent absence of the fan, the pitter-patter of rat-feet running along the floors and hanging-beams grew into thundering noises. Instead, I occupied shaded hammocks and wicker chairs, leaning into travelling breezes whilst waiting for the bug to pass. Except it didn’t. Defeated, I left the island. Just for one night, I told myself, looking back at the people waving on the dock. Just for one night, I swore, as the island became a speck on the horizon.

“Noodles.” I hadn’t realized I’d fallen asleep – my eyes readjusted to a nurse hovering over me. The smell of spices made my stomach turn. Between hourly blood pressure measures, endless trays of pills, and cleaners leaving lights on and doors open at night; the force-feeding proved the most difficult. My stomach had forgotten how to stomach, and they seemed to blame it entirely on me. In Cambodia being sick was a matter of blame, not sympathy.
“Thank you.” I made no reach for the cup on my bedside table – but the nurse seemed in no rush to leave. I suspected the doctor had told him of my ways. Eventually I picked it up, ate a few mouthfuls, and watched him leave before putting it back down. I noticed a rash forming on my arms and my palms, they’d warned me that might happen – blood seeping through the veins – I decided not to investigate my legs. Instead, I dialed my mother, but the connection failed. I felt like an island.

During my last meal on Koh Rong, a fishbone lodged itself horizontally in my throat. “Eat,” Bunna said, and handed over a ball of rice. The bone didn’t budge. “Drink,” he said, handing me a bottle of water. “You cry too much,” he complained. Truthfully, I hadn’t noticed I was crying. “Eat,” he repeated, handing me another rice-ball. I was reduced to a blubbering toddler. Finally, the bone broke and I laughed, relieved, cheeks wet with tears. I wondered how I’d ever believed growing up in Norway had prepared me for the world, when a fishbone felt so final.

The IV-pole doubled as a crutch as I walked down the green-lit corridor towards the bathroom. Here were linoleum floors, and bare feet would stick. Blood traveled up the intravenous tube at the change of pressure – a red snake fighting a yellow one and winning. Keeping my arm low prevented blood from escaping, so whenever no one was around I walked hunchbacked with my arm stretched limp towards the floor.

I flushed and shuffled back to my bed, where I noticed the frosted windows had blackened. About to drift off to sleep, I heard a voice I knew so well, yet it seemed as if it travelled to me from another world. I turned to see my dad standing in the open door.

“Let’s go home,” he said casually, as if I was eight and he was picking me up from school, and it felt like I had waited forever.

The Monkey and the Man

“I’m telling you, Monkey. Nothing has ever happened, but everything already has. It is the fact of life,” he said, twirling his handlebar mustache absentmindedly. “The sooner you come to know it, the better off you’ll be. We are simultaneously never born and dead long ago. Isn’t it simply a marvelous thought?”

Monkey looked up from his stomach from which he was busy pulling fleas, slowly raising two fingers to his mouth and inserted them, his eyes blank.

“What am I saying? You are a monkey, you wouldn’t know how to contemplate life any more than the lifeforms you are pulling from your pelt could. Please do carry on,” he said with a huff and a sweeping hand gesture, and the monkey went back to its business.

The Melancholic Man

329

 

“I miss Montreal,” Richard said with his French accent. We were seated on a bench outside the recently closed Victoria marked with a quarter of a watermelon to share and no eating utensils. We realized it would not be pretty. We had met on the street in Melbourne a few days in advance. He was Canadian-Lebanese, and  prior to coming to Melbourne he lived in Montreal, which he had now called home for a number of years. About Richard I had come to learn that there were three things about which he was very particular. His coffee, his bicycles and his cameras. These three things would never be compromised by bad quality.

“I want to go back.” His eyes retraced the lines of his memories, the streets of the place he longed for, the way of the people he had left. Above us the leaves on the trees shivered slightly in the wind, drawing dancing shadows across his face.

“Why did you come here then?” I asked. Usually, fellow travelers had a longing not only to venture out, but to leave behind that which was familiar.

“I wanted to become better at making coffee. Melbourne is renowned for its coffee.” It was all very matter-of-factly. it sounded rehearsed. He shifted his paperback copy of Shantaram from his lap to the bench. He said it had stirred in him a longing to go to India. I nodded but said nothing, and in the silence, his walls crumbled.

“Also,” he said before he paused. The words struggled to form and I realized whatever came next was not spoken often.

“I suppose I was lonely there. I realized I’d rather be lonely someplace I didn’t know, rather than a place I did know.”

The Motorbike Crash

“Ollie, NO!” It was the only thing I could scream as the inevitable happened. When thinking back to these next few seconds, I realize that what is said about everything moving in slow motion in moments of danger, is absolutely true. I always thought I was going to be the one backpacker in Asia not to crash on a motorbike. But then again, so says everyone.

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Let me take you back a couple of minutes. We are cruising down the Laotian country road under a baking sun. One german, one Aussie, two Canadians, three Gibraltarians and myself. We had all met up within the past couple of days, which in travel-time means we were well acquainted. My head feels heavy with the large helmet placed upon it, and I humor myself by bobbing my head from side to side like a metronome. I see my face appearing in the mirrors in turn as I sway on the back of the motorbike behind Chris. My eyes  hiding behind sunglasses, my forehead and chin tucked behind the padded helmet, and my cheeks undeniably squished. I slightly regret being talked out of the lightweight pink helmet painted with lilac flowers lying back at the rental shop. It looked to have been carved out of a coconut, and would have been much lighter on my head, and much cuter in the mirror. As my head keeps bobbing, I wonder if this is what it would feel like for the women of the Kayan tribe with their elongated necks, had their neck rings been cut.

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It is a little past ten in the morning when we pass stall upon stall of watermelons piled high in large pyramids, watched over by somber-looking old ladies with sun streaked faces sheltering from the sun beneath woven roofs. Being a little behind schedule I had my bag slung on my back instead of having taking the time to strap it down on the bike with the unskilled hands of a western person having rarely done so before. In it was everything I needed for the next few days, leaving everything else behind in the hostel storage room, where I hoped they would keep from looking through it all. Apart from my computer there was not much of value left behind, and with the carefreeness that comes so willingly with traveling, I did not care. I was vaguely bothered by the chafing the straps left on my shoulders. It is funny how irrelevant things can seem so important at times.

My camera hangs around my neck so I can take pictures whenever something catches my eye, and in the Laotian countryside, my eyes are constantly caught. Endless fields off yellow crop stretch in every direction like a golden liquid, and containing this liquid are rows of tall limestone mountains looking like they have been painted with wide stripes of whites and blacks, stretching from the ground to the heavens wherever vegetation has not claimed them. Perhaps they were weeping.

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As my eyes travel in waves along the ridges of the green mountains in the distance, some deep-rooted animalistic part of my brain notices commotion up ahead. It is instinctual, as my eyes seek the danger, and my whole body tenses. Everything begins to slow down, my breath hitches. I see a small child standing on the side of the road in a ragged t-shirt, waving his arms over his head as he yells intently at us to stop. There is an urgency about him. My eyes flicker ahead to Ollie being close to a standstill in the middle of the road – most likely to see what the child wants – his foot shooting out to meet the ground to keep the bike from falling. All thoughts are broken down to fractions in my mind. He has no break lights. We could not see him break. The panic courses through every vein in a split second. My warm skin feels icy cold. Ollie cannot hear us.

I feel our bike reacting, but we are too close. Much too close. Chris is hard on the breaks, but they are not cooperating and our bike seems eager for a crash. In a moment of crazy hope I think maybe Ollie will turn to the left and out of our path, but instead he pulls his handlebars to the right towards the kid – and us – and the inevitable is a fact.

“Ollie, NO!” I yell as our bikes collide. There is the screeching of metal and plastic bending in ways they were not intended, and I feel myself thrown from the bike. I am surprised at how long I am suspended in air, and wonder if perhaps I will never touch ground. I suppose I have always dreamt of flying, but I never imagined it quite like this.

The asphalt reaches up to kiss my body, and tenderly strips away skin as I tumble shorts- and tank top-clad in the hands of some wicked fate. As I land hard on my shoulder mid roll, my eyes open to see the heavy bike crashing toward me, but as quickly as I am tumbled back around again, the bike is out of my head. In my mind there is only air and asphalt. There are no coherent thoughts, only ancient instincts trying to remember what to do. After what feels both like an eternity and an instant, my body finally rolls to a halt. The bag on my back takes much of the fall, along with the helmet smashing into the ground twice – so loud that it sounded like the earth was split wide open. Lilac flowers would not do much for me now.

I scramble up, panicked, and realize I feel no pain, but I see blood seeping steadily through my skin in several places. I feel nauseous. There is blood and gasoline on the ground creating some macabre painting. I am fascinated at how red blood really is when spilled – it looks fake. Plastic and shards from mirrors are sprinkled everywhere. I check everything on my body, expecting to find some bone or the other protruding from my flesh in a horrid angle. My visor is smashed in half and barely hanging onto my helmet, and I begin to realize just how lucky I have been. I quickly turn on my camera, and find it is undamaged, by some luck I did not know I had, and I kiss it thankfully.

I look around for Chris, who seems to have taken the harder blunt of the fall, but also he is up. Ollie hurt his foot, but was merely pushed aside as we barreled through. The kid is nowhere to be seen. I am only half aware of all the swear words leaving my mouth. Tears stream down my face, and I am not sure if they are from shock or relief. I feel so silly for crying, but nothing will keep the tears and cusswords back. I only realize my sunglasses fell off my face mid-crash as I am handed them by Caitlin, and to my surprise they are still intact despite their cheap origins.

Pain begins setting in as we do some vehicular damage control with shaky hands, meanwhile trucks driven by Laotians pass us slowly as they hang out of their windows laughing at our distress. Apparently seeing the westerners, the falang involved in motorbike crashes is the most humorous thing. I almost feel like laughing along with them, and realize the shock has truly taken over both my body and mind. I put my glasses on my face and bend the broken visor all the way up to be able to better see, leaving it towering from the top of my helmet like a single, mangled antler.

After having bent back the gearing pedal in a fashion that would definitely not be accepted in the west, and scrubbed our sores raw with alcoholic wipes, we get back on the bikes. My leg burn dully as I raise it to straddle the seat. My knee is already beginning to swell beneath the bruising and the wounds. I could feel several pairs of eyes on my face and I knew I did a poor job at hiding my pain.

After a short discussion whether we ought to go back or keep on, we point our noses to untraveled terrain for another three days of motorbike adventures. As our bikes once again gained momentum on the hot pale asphalt, I hold tightly onto Chris’s shoulders and say very quietly,

“Please drive carefully.” It is almost more a prayer than a request. My body still shakes with fear and adrenaline, but there is no other way I want to go but onward. Pain will dull and disappear with time, and to help it along, the best remedy is always adventure.

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The Great Detour

We were walking someplace in Copenhagen and hours had passed since I last truly knew where we were. The streets were empty, the only sound being the reverberation of our laughter and footsteps hollowly bouncing around between the stone houses. High on life and weary from walking we meandered our way through cobbled streets, narrow alleys and along sleeping canals. It was the last night in Denmark before I was headed back to Norway, with a weeklong festival in my back pocket, and a head giddy with lack of sleep and the feeling of being young. The beauty of being 21 is that there is no bedtime if you say so.

 

We were two Norwegians and two Swedes newly acquainted, and were switching between Swedish, English and Norwegian so seamlessly, we could not notice the switch ourselves. One swede was especially insistent that we stuck to Swedish and Norwegian, and I made sport out of trying to sneak the conversation over to English without him knowing it. My wide smile while he was midway in an English sentence made him throw his hands up in the air exclaiming “you did it again.” I knew I would again.

 

Clown like I was holding a map much too big for its purpose, holding it at arm’s length to better see where we were headed. I was unsure whether we were trying to find our way home or trying to get lost. I suspected it was someplace in the middle. I refolded the map after we had decided that we were probably, most likely heading in the right direction, and we walked down a road that we an hour later would find out was quite the opposite.

 

The smooth transition from day to night to day again always manages to surprise me. In a world where everything is defined, morning always has a way of sneaking up on you in the early hours, coaxing you into believing it had really been there all along. Especially here in Scandinavia during summer, when the sun ever truly sleeps with one eye closed.

 

Sometime in those hours of aimless walking and deep conversations through the streets of Copenhagen the sun finally did fully reclaim the skies, and somehow, unbeknownst to me, our feet brought us back home.