It happened in a deceivingly small corner of a menacingly large city. A looming realization that the designs I have imagined for my life rest on blurred lines and intoxicated dreams. Disappointment. Heartbreak. On a cold, concrete bench under a tree wrinkled with the cruel Shanghai weather. The oblique sunlight flirts with the grass. Giving it hopes of warmth. Giving me hopes of clarity.
I find that clarity, a few days later, in a small teahouse somewhere on a hill north of Hangzhou. The rain hasn’t stopped for hours. I am left sheltered in the stony confines of the teahouse. The owner, a woman slow and bent, offers me a tiny cup of a nascent, red liquid. The steam leaps out and curves around my fingers. I take a sip. The first of many that will follow. We sit there, listening to the rain lashing through the hill. We don’t talk, or rather, we can’t talk. But, somehow, it doesn’t really bother either of us. She starts cleaning the intricate table she serves tea on. Slow, veteran movements unhurried by time. I watch her for a while, admiring the cadence in her movements. I think of desert roads and lakesides. And the smell of forest mornings.
The rain leaves us as the night creeps in. I can’t tell how long it has been. Time feels irrelevant in the steamy interiors of this place I will never forget. I collect my stuff and mumble a few greetings in my broken Mandarin. She manages to understand one and her face curves into an honest, untainted smile. A smile that unties a knot and holds a promise of possibilities. I decide, as I walk away, to live for such moments. For silent conversations and unbridled smiles. To live for beginnings. At the beginnings.
“You don’t have to quit now. Wait for another six months and do what you feel like then,” my cousin, an admired elder in the family, preaches over the phone. I listen on. Patient. Incredulous. I can’t fathom this limbic aversion we have towards quitting. We treat it like a crime. “Quitting is an escape from responsibility,” my cousin continues, “you can write and take vacations while working as well. That’s what all of us do.” My patience starts evaporating. My pacing becomes urgent. I want to make him see beyond company names and salary figures. I don’t.
The Hyderabad night eases into the streets outside my hotel window. I feel an absolute disconnect with everything. It is time. I feel it. The dread of going back to corner tables and design sheets. The inviting ebb-and-flow of life on the road. Of cramped dorm beds and extended bus rides.
I am taken. Completely.
Later in the night, over dinner, I tell my boss about my plans. He doesn’t seem surprised. Maybe he saw it before I did. A colleague translates his thick Shanghaihua for me. He’s asking me if anything can be done to change my mind. I shake my head. He orders drinks.
The G40 snakes its way over murky lakes and patterned fields. The toll booth attendant, a young girl in a blue uniform and immaculate hair, has been stealing glances ever since I got here 30 minutes ago. I turn towards her just as she looks at me. There’s a hint of a smile. I nod. She looks away.
The sky is painted dull even though it’s close to noon. My backpack lies close to the automated gates. I’m standing, holding a sign saying ‘Ride to Hefei’ in amateur Mandarin, right next to the toll booth. It’s the perfect spot, I’ve learnt. Another 20 minutes go by. Feeling tired and dejected, I sit down, wondering about the point of doing what I am doing. I find solace in Dylan and Didion. And peanut butter.
Just as I’m about to give up completely and ask for help, a battered minivan stops. The driver, a man in a construction hat, reads the sign I’m holding and then looks at me. My tired boots, crumpled shorts and yellow smile. “OK,” he says, flashing his brittle teeth. I jump in, promising myself to never give up on people. The first of many promises I’ll make.
In the folded hills around Tashgurkan I promise myself to never question the reasons for wandering. In the sweeping grasslands of Langmusi I promise to learn to believe in faith. In the binding desert night in Dunhuang I promise to never lose faith in love. I promise a lot of things, to a lot of people. Promises I would never want to break.
The late night chaos at the Suvarnabhumi Airport surrounds me as I wait for my flight home. I am sifting through my notes, trying to relive the last few months. I don’t really feel like going home, but things and people gently tug at my heart. A friend who is getting engaged, a mother whose bones are giving up, a father who is slowing down, a girl who has waited a little too long. I’ve learnt to accept life’s many vagaries. The surprising twists-and-turns along the way. They are nothing different from a missed train or a crappy bed.
I’m back in my room. The sunlight filters in through the blanketed window, forming mutating patterns on the floor. It’s another small corner in another large city. But the anxiety is gone. It’s replaced by a peculiar emotion. An emotion seeped in balance and possibilities. My feet are on familiar ground; the air is heavy with memories. My backpack is slumped on the side. It’s going to be there for a while, but that doesn’t bother me. It’ll be picked up, dusted off, and packed at the right time. The nagging voice at the back of my head realizes this as well. There is no urgency. As long as the hands bleed ink and the feet consume roads unknown, I’ll be fine.
*To read about my travels, visit my Tripoto profile