Torn between

On the road again life is a procession of transportation, offices, factories, and hotels. In between each new step is a moment of carrying gear, of lugging duffle bags out of taxi trunks and yanking them off of conveyor belts, of carrying samples up chill concrete stairs and sorting them into piles based on vendor on hotel beds. Re-packing after one night in a Dongguan hotel I realize how many of the possessions spread out around the room were bought specifically for this life. This bag, bought for carrying across the Mexican border with shoes inside. The other bag, bought to be a one bag carry all for a trip to Japan. This clothing specifically chosen for weight and the ability to wear it multiple times without attracting attention. Jeans for their comfort when slept in on trans-Pacific flights. Laptop charger combined with phone charger to minimize cabling, and the cabling itself extra long, to support strangely-located outlets in hotels and airports. A toiletry kit that does not get unpacked at home, in a light weight bag from Tokyu Hands. Click pens that do not explode when pressure changes, which have replaced the Uni-balls I used to carry. A custom-made wallet for passport and larger Chinese bills.

Standing nine stories up in Chang’an, packing at eight am after swimming, my focus on gear suddenly becomes clear. So much of my life is spent moving that I have re-configured almost everything around it, often without notice.

Later, in a hotel in Shanghai for most of a week, I begin to unpack into the life of a resident. I build small habits around the coffee shop, a breakfast spot, and the comfort of a fixed hotel room. Clothes are hung rather than draped on furniture. Shoes have a spot by the door. And the lights, music, and heat are all configured for residency rather than taking whatever comes in a more transient style. Here, finally, I do laundry, and I consider how few items have made this journey with me.

At home in San Francisco, in our one bedroom with it’s limited closet space, we debate furniture. More than a year now and still no table other than in the kitchen. We have a sofa, a large purchase by both standards, bought as a wedding gift to ourselves. We have a chair, and some lights. Plants. Art. Enough, really, to fill the small space. And yet often, lying jet-lagged on the bed, I wonder what we really need, what of these belongings we’ll take with us when we leave. The three legged chair, bought as a present a few years ago. Clothes, though not all of them. Bags. Electronics, in some minimal form. And books, letters, and art, the daily acquisitions of long distance friendships.

The balance is between a garden and a backpack, between a nice library of books and an iPad instead of a laptop, between pants for every day and an “every day” pair of pants. In my desire to live with less, to travel more, is a limit on how many things I am willing to have at home, how much time and energy I have to build one.

Sitting on the roof of our apartment building a week later, as the sun sets behind the Sutro tower, I wonder if this debate is honest. Watching Tara play the guitar, watching Mr. Squish sniff the strawberries, would I really rather have less? Could I possibly handle any more time on the move?

And out of all this optimized carry is anything as important as these few minutes a day on this rooftop, watching each other relax as the sky goes orange?

The answer is obvious and demonstrates why I shouldn’t bother accumulating stuff in the first place. Living with less is just a matter of living where we are without concern for what might be, without investing emotions in belongings.

Because the people and the animals are more mobile than any minimal set of items, and they’re what I’ll be taking with me, wherever is next.

Injured travel

In a hotel room again he stretches before rising. These new actions have become a daily routine, the small pattern of curls and flexes that make standing without pain a possibility.

It is a Sunday in Dongguan, in Chang’an. In this hotel a week now he has become familiar to the staff, greeted no longer in the formal English of their training but in the Mandarin reserved for visitors from the north. They no longer try to stop him from taking coffee back to his room after breakfast. Like many foreigners here he is understood by his habits, a strange list. Cereal and coffee at breakfast. Then more coffee. Departs between nine and ten. Returns around 6. Laundry on alternate days.

In the afternoon he swims in the indoor pool, slow laps in a variety of strokes. Backstroke, measuring his place against the pool’s glass ceiling. Breast stroke, breathing out in small bubbles. Sidestroke, slowly, when his left arm is tired. Crawl only on the third day, gingerly. He moves cautiously, and holds his back frequently between lengths. Old, the lifeguard thinks, before returning to his other distractions.

Injured.

On other trips this man would have left, would have headed for Hong Kong on Saturday afternoon when work was finished. Would have spent the weekend in Shanghai with friends. Instead on Sunday he stays inside, stretches, swims, and drinks milk. Instead he is cautious with his body, avoids groups, does not drink alcohol in public.

These are the actions of recovery, of a human slowly remembering their abilities. In the morning he puts his shirt on backwards. Without pause he raises his arms, removes, reverses, and dons again. Only after does it strike him: a month ago he could not lift the left arm high enough to don t-shirts with both arms, nor bend it backwards to remove clothing.

All his small trials of stretching, swimming, and caution will one day pass. His body forgets quickly the limitations it learned reluctantly. Eventually he will have only vague memories of these days spent in Chang’an, too injured to adventure.

And scars.

Readily available cures

In my Mexican hotel room Lost in Translation plays, a mirror for those adrift. I am again feverish in a country not my own and so relish the sounds of Japan, the clean linen, the Gatorade and air conditioning. Perhaps it was the food, or perhaps pure exhaustion from a weekend spent running in the sun at Stanford and several extremely long days on my feet.

On screen Bill Murray smiles awkwardly. I shiver. In this box of manufactured air I am secure, and I heal. Tomorrow I will rise early and step again into the heat that waits outside my door, in the very hallway. Tonight, like those lost souls in Tokyo on TV, I ignore Juarez. Instead I try to find some space to breathe, and to think of how fix the problems I am here to see. How to do the right thing, once I have discovered it.

I also remember.

In the Summit, an expensive Shanghai apartment complex behind The Center, a glass tower on Huashan Lu then but a few years old, I remember a man of thirty. He lay for a day and a half in bed. He shivered and shook with some unknown disease contracted in the manufacturing sprawl outside Shaoxing. He cured it the way he was accustomed to in China, with Advil, Gatorade, and thick covers. The Saturday I remember was his one day off out of three weeks in country, and he saw nothing outside of his friend’s apartment, the guest bedroom.

Out the window in Juarez a pool glows in the evening, abandoned for the moment by hotel guests. A gym next to it features men working off business lunches by pounding their knees on an endless rubber path. I have energy for neither sit-ups nor discontent.

I am in a country without holding any of its currency. The idea of this is bemusing and inconvenient as the vending machines on the floor below might otherwise offer sustenance. I toss and turn, occupied by the soreness of sickness. Somehow all of these illnesses, all of these aching hours alone in strange countries, blur together in feverish dreams.

On an airplane across the Pacific, I remember a man age twenty eight.  He had a bulkhead seat, but did not appreciate the space. Neither blanket nor hoodie could stop the chills and the aches of the illness he had contracted in Houston and incubated on the flight to LA. On reaching home in Shanghai he would remain housebound for a week. He would learn of his roommate’s soup-making skills and see little save the sallow face in his own mirror.

At thirty two, I leave Juarez for Phoenix with the illness still inside me. Shivering in the Phoenix airport as the air conditioning floods down, almost unable to stand, I take comfort in having still never been as ill as on that flight to Shanghai.

On the flight home to San Francisco, finally free, finished with the week in the Juarez Holiday Inn Express, I count up those other lost days, ill in countries not my own. So often I have been powerless save for the cures I knew: Advil brought with me, Gatorade purchased for scant dollars, and covers of a bed briefly borrowed.

I am glad once again to be going home to a house that is not empty. Going home to someone who will aid me in ways, alone and with so little language, I have never managed to improve.

Boxes just the same

In Shaoxing it rains, and I stay in my little box, waiting for a phone call. From inside I could be anywhere in China, anywhere in the world. Hotels are designed to be interchangeable, and I forget my location.

In San Antonio a year later the room on the thirty fourth floor looks out over a pool. Lit and empty in the Texas January, the water shines green into the night. From this box the weather is impossible to discern, the pool’s lack of use a solitary clue. Through the glass of this Hyatt’s windows it is a hovering square of aquamarine composited with the reflections of lights beside the bed and over the desk. Above the rooftop the evening is still, save for planes landing far off in the suburbs.

In Japan, years ago, the room was tatami-floored, and the sliding glass of one wall opened on to a balcony. Through the laundry swaying from the rafters came the evening sun, and with it a view of the Saikyo line to the left and Mt. Fuji to the right. Shared with a dozen others, the balconies were sectioned off with partitions flimsier than the wind, so those on either side pretended for their privacy as they hung laundry in the mornings. Tiny on the inside, this glass wall gave the box a sense of the world, an ability to feel the breeze.

Two weeks later the hotel room in Washington D.C. could again face any city in the world, with the train tracks elevated beside it, clattering away as the light fades. With the shades wide the bed has a view of the sky, contrails and wisps of clouds in March, a blue that gives no sense of location. The furniture has the same sharp edges as everywhere, the same reddish brown wood.

In Shaoxing I check into my hotel in the evening, having found it via taxi from the train station. The air is gray, up above the street lights, and I am tired. There will come a time for exploring this city, for business and the lonely hours of solitary travel to foreign countries. For now, though, a little box of my own is all I desire, shelter from the weather and space to breathe.