“Travel in luxury, for free, anyone can do it!” Viewing that line repeatedly, convincing myself that “anyone” included me, came easy. The tagline rings true; making the plans can go smoothly with the right level of preparation, and finesse. The trip itself, a different story. Perhaps the tag line should include, “ and it’s up to you to make it through the journey.”
In my first year of servitude as a research analyst, the cubicle walls extended six feet high, covered entirely in soft beige cloth, keeping out prying eyes from everywhere but the four-foot wide opening. This arrangement afforded privacy unmatched other than in the closed-door offices, allowing me the freedom to browse whatever space of the internet I desired in my downtime.
Gaining comfort in this arrangement proved a naive mistake come the approach of my one-year anniversary. Couched in the ostensible name of teambuilding – to mask the desired increase in efficiency by elimination of privacy – our floor space received an “upgrade” during my second year. The open concept arrangement thoroughly eviscerated any notion of seclusion or cover from bored glances at my computer screen. Lunch at my desk remained the last vestige of comfort to read the websites I could previously browse undetected any time I lacked work or felt the need for a break. Such tendency to explore stayed within the bounds of proper office content, confined to sites granting the ability to live vicariously through the lives of internet travel writers, who documented their jetsetting for workadays such as me to envy. Images and stories, all seamlessly presented, bestowed momentary liberation from the monotony of data, charts and correspondence otherwise consuming days basking in the radiance of ergonomic lighting.
I had long ago made peace with experiencing the life of aimless nomad solely through accounts of others’ adventures, looking beyond covetous jealousy to appreciate the content for its magnetic entertainment value. Using paid vacation came sparingly in anticipation of a large payout equivalent to the accumulated unused time if I left the company. Visits to see my parents during the holidays occasioned the only deductions from my time bank. Even then, I managed to evade the concept of escape by logging as many hours as I could remotely to avoid spending hoarded vacation time.
In the weeks trailing completion of three years at the firm, a sizeable accumulation of airline miles and credit card points, the balances of which I checked obsessively over the day but never conceived of using, induced the tinge of angst. In an ironic twist, as the figures grew higher, their tangible value diminished. Sizeable distances and lavish hotels seemingly attainable, the far-flung reality of their potential detached further and further from my own. Endless permutations inflicted the anxiety that I could never optimize their potential unless trying it for myself. With the notion of departure from my employ in the near term effectively quashed by the dangling carrot of accrued seniority, and a growing restlessness induced by the apparent value of the alternate currency, the option to cash out could no longer stand by unheeded. I could replicate what I spent so much time longing for, perhaps, with proper planning, exceeding the predicted value.
A recent, unplanned, separation from my girlfriend of several years confirmed the ripeness of the timing. She, who may also have contributed to my surging angst, elected to pursue a career in another city, with another boyfriend. “Sorry” her only words, though I doubted her sincerity, having conveyed it to me over the phone, without so much as a follow-up visit to my apartment to collect her belongings. Between bouts of self-loathing, my ultimate reaction consisted only of a disaffected shrug and the realization that, without another traveler to cover, I could take the points necessary for two economy class tickets and use them for one business class ticket.
Thoughts and anxiety compelled relief in the form of planning. Minimizing cash out of pocket by using “tricks” I so frequently read about online would conform to my savings plan to purchase an apartment in the coming years. Common wisdom dictated advanced booking to have the best shot at obtaining specific dates and times. Others, or at least those writing about or discussing their own experience, made the booking process appear simple enough, and theoretically, I could not disagree. Yet my own idiosyncratic approach transformed it into a days-long process entailing a multidimensional spreadsheet cross-referencing the dates, places, approximate costs, number of airline points needed and realistic duration of stopovers.
Finally landed on the optimal combination, four hours of dedication on a Saturday morning passed by plugging in data, constantly hoping that the available supply – abundant the last time I verified – had not suddenly slipped away in the midst of dynamic travel pricing algorithms. The moment that I received an e-mail confirming the final element of my itinerary, I actually, aloud, stated “success!” to no one in particular.
Fleeting joy stemming from my accomplishment fell to the wayside by the spine-tingling of buyer’s remorse. In the span of the ten minutes to press “confirm” on each component of the itinerary, I went from flush to drowned of my stash, and of all things, committed to a plan. Reviewing the various elements of my confirmed trip alleviated the twisted sensation, and as I confirmed that everything matched what I entered, anticipation set in.
Across the Pacific Ocean on a 16 hour flight, in business class, alone, with a fully-flat bed, and a brief taxi ride would put me at the first of several high-end hotels for four days. From there, two more stops, three days each, and a final 24 hour layover – enough to get a feel for the city and satiate my curiosity. Actual cost consisting of various fees and taxes, which I did not spend the time adding from the different airlines and hotels, I estimated at about $250. The mental cost would come in the endurance of eight months waiting for the day of departure. In the meantime, I had to ensure that I would not find a new job or, possibly worse, get invited to a wedding, or anything else that might interrupt my otherwise perfectly crafted, thinly-margined, plans.
In the interim months, I pursued any opportunity to interject the fact of my upcoming travels into conversation. My neighbor, Vicky, summed up the common line of perfunctory question I got when I succeeded, “How did you choose Asia to travel solo?” she asked, seemingly with genuine interest. With contrived bright eyes, I responded, “from a young age, I’ve been inspired to go; my father used to speak of his time there in the war.” She nodded politely, dumping her trash in the chute before proceeding to carry on with her evening. Vicky’s rapid egress from the garbage room confirmed my suspicion that she would never have any interest in dating me, whether having traveled on a sentimental journey or not.
The truth, which I would dare not confess to her, or anyone, lies in the fact that my routing took shape from the best combination of dates, locations and times to maximize the spending of my miles. Sounded off within the safe confines of my own head, that reason seemed like a trite response to the uninitiated. My desire to visit Asia nevertheless unquestionable, it sat on the list among the many places I wanted to see. Facing the weight of a desire to accomplishing a perfect usage, I would have gone to any one of the destinations I could feasibly find for as few out of pocket dollars as possible.
Greater than the crutch of relieving the weight of a digital wallet, the trip fit exactly with what I needed to keep life minimally interesting. Since graduating with a Master’s degree in accounting, each day stung with the feeling of existence rather than living. Ignoring the pleas of so many others who once explained to me that it would happen, my constant yearning for an organized career transformed within weeks of starting into a new territory of dreaded monotony. Each morning, I woke up five to ten minutes before the alarm, the difference accounting for the only variance in my morning routine. In a city of eight million people, or even a neighborhood of several hundred thousand, the odd coincidence of seeing the same faces on the same subway lost its quirk the same way coffee became less of an intoxicating treat and more of a necessity. Worse yet, my pattern of hoarding vacation days facilitated the irony facing many in lucrative employment of finally having money to explore the world but without the time or energy to do so. No longer did uncertainty, once considered a burden, forge the excitement of peering forward.
Viewed from the perspective of an outsider, my regular habits fell easily within the classification of a wasting free time. At home in Manhattan, surrounded by cutting edge restaurants, innovative arts, talented actors, dynamic landscapes and endless bustle, I filled evenings after work with re-runs of animated comedies and stints on the treadmill. The laudable goal of a nightly routine of fifty pushups and three minutes of planks fell victim to complacence after no more than a few weeks, leaving time for additional syndicated sitcoms.
Weekends carried the extension of the nightly patterns of my work week, deviating by starting later in the morning and with an extra mile on my runs. Fortunately, avoiding the fate of other friends who became attorneys and bankers, I did not spend every weekend with a trip to the office, losing few Saturdays intermittently and without regularity. One weekend, in the throes of a looming deadline, I spent forty-six hours at my desk, during which I fielded no less than eight calls asking if I approached “close to finishing” with the financial models for our report. A salary has its benefits, but not reaping an extra dollar to compensate for the lost weekend left a knot in my lower intestine. Minimal reprieve came in the ability to expense $100 worth of food and taxi rides to the overtime budget, netting me bonus points on my credit card. I imagined how I might spend them, glancing at an open tab in my browser, until the phone rang again.
In my early adolescence, my father sarcastically referred to cartoons as “educational programs.” I would never admit that his apparent displeasure with my viewing habits affected my opinion, but a compelling desire to branch out, whether or not driven by my father’s disdain, struck me in the ninth grade. Combing the channels for alternatives, I landed one afternoon on a program dedicated to cooking. The exotic notion of watching someone dice vegetables, butcher meat and fry it on the stove, something that my own mother for years had tried to convince me to do, drew me in with a peculiar allure.
Upon my fortuitous discovery, I abandoned nearly all animated programming with such haste that I found myself instinctively entering the wrong channel number out of subconscious habit. From cooking shows, the pivot to travel-related cooking shows transitioned almost unnoticed. Options abound, it seemed that viewers in the appropriate demographics to affect programming content suffered a similar affliction of like fascination. On an ordinary Tuesday afternoon, one after the other afforded an entire evening traveling across continents from the static position of an immovable couch. Hosts possessed varying degrees of grit, humor, gentility and courageous stomachs. Watching others tread brashly out of an otherwise ingrained comfort zone furnished inspiration in ways that seemed not only fungible, but doable to those of us living on the other side of the screen. In high school, I refrained internally, “if only I had the cash;” years later, “if only the points;” later, “if only the time.”
Not long into the eight-month purgatory between booking and departure, an episode of one my preferred shows – one which I had seen numerous times – re-aired. One of my eventual destinations the forum, the host consumed goose from a food stall in the sort of night market that exists nowhere in America. Witnessing ineffable satisfaction encouraged pangs of anticipation in my own intestines, as if I did not then sit consuming two-day old, wilting pasta from a plate on my lap.
In due time, I would replace the host at the location on the screen, walking between those very food stalls, the sound and smell of burning charcoal and cooking oil the backdrop to the sweet fragrance of caramelizing onions, pungent garlic, effusive chillies, radiant ginger and fatty meats. Serving vessels would vary between styrofoam bowls, plastic plates and folded, patterned boxes; the utensils alternating between spoons, chopsticks and the occasional yet conspicuously out of place plastic fork. The sort of meal that, if eaten in New York from a cart, at any point before the burgeoning acceptance of food trucks, might end with gastric distress. Defying admonition from my parents to avoid grilled meat from a cart on the street, I could embrace it. The thought of returning to turkey breast and provolone on white bread for lunch, after an experience like that, forced a shudder. Anticipation slows time, the waiting grows longer and longer, the hunger inflicts tangible pain.
Truly a sign of global integration, the most difficult logistic of a trip spanning several countries rests not in securing sixteen hours flights, entering through foreign borders or communicating with taxi drivers while lacking a common language. The difficult part lies in the ability, despite not having done so in years, to become scarce from the office for two weeks. Despite multiple anniversaries with the company, I possessed the status of novice at crafting an escape. Dates placed in a shared calendar carried weight to me, but others – my superiors – paid selective attention. The fickle nature of “urgency” never failed to appear when least convenient. The weeks preceding my departure retained a cloak of lingering concern over whether a so-called “fire” would arise. My arrangements precariously lacked margin, without cushion to weather even the slightest amendment.
Ten days prior to the Saturday of departure, the front appeared calm. But I had learned, from tales of woe offered by others courageous enough to attempt vacation, that ten days clear meant little, a significant gap well too far in advance to exhale. With the hitherto unscathed arrival of Tuesday, four days prior to departure, my palms adopted the tingle of uncontrolled nervous sweat upon catching a glimpse of Rob, who defied the business casual atmosphere by wearing a tie and refusing to acknowledge casual Fridays. Rob’s years of servitude exceeded my own by three, and the prior year he unceremoniously inherited an appendage of “Senior” to our then title-in-common of “Analyst.” With that appendage came the ability, and apparently his unblemished desire, to ruin my nights.
Although we made eye contact as he approached – the lack of partitions rendering this unavoidable – Rob chose an obnoxious knock on the faux-cloth wall to officiate his arrival into speaking distance. He held a stack of bound reports underneath his left arm, the bottom two of which sliding forward out of formation. Turning to address him, my left hand remained on my keyboard; the sweat pooling between the tips of my fingers and the keys. Concluding our opening pleasantries, Rob looked down to his left arm, re-adjusting the stack of papers with his right hand, removing the one on the bottom that protruded the farthest. I recoiled as he handed it to me and started to speak again, “here’s a copy of that report we finished last week, great job, have a nice trip this weekend.” Shock-induced vomit required intentional swallowing to keep down.
Cacophonic static of music and talk radio blared from the clock radio negligently set between two stations. Having lay awake with anticipation after fruitlessly retiring to bed the previous night, the alarm jarred me awake, this representing the first instance in several months that I heard it, and by which time the radio’s digital tuner shifted from my stumbling with the dials. Forty-five minutes separated me from arrival of the car service, leaving me with ample opportunity to shower.
“It’s finally here!” I blurted to myself, looking in the mirror, followed immediately by reshaping my face to neutral upon realizing that no response would arrive. “Keep it cool.” Months of anticipation coalesced into last-minute dread with the water still cascading from the top of my head, the concern that an unforeseeable incident disrupting my carefully-set plans plaguing my considerations.
Steam escaping from the bathroom door, the day’s first rays of sun reflected from the building across the street through the cracks in my blinds. Stepping out precisely thirty minutes after entering, the intercom buzzer, in advance of the reserved time, alerted to the driver’s arrival. Thomas, the morning doorman, and the most articulate of the team of five, if not the most informal, jubilantly chimed, “car’s here, waitin’ for ya.” Shaving cream remaining on the right side of my face, I held the intercom phone inches away, “down in a minute, thanks!” Shaking the remaining water from my toothbrush, I stuffed my aftershave lotion on the top, closed my toiletry bag and slid it into the remaining space in my carry-on luggage.
The door on the elevator closed as I turned forward to face out toward the view of antiquated carpet lining the narrow hallway. For a second, the elevator car remained in place, a jarring clash of the doors fighting against resistance of the shaft, as if not properly shut, commanding an attempt to reach over and push the door close button, at first to no avail. My pulse commencing an upward ascent, the door emitted a short sound emulating that of a proper closing, and with that, the elevator began its journey down twelve flights to ground level.
With a track record of sleeplessness on planes, day flights in particular, I boarded fully prepared with downloads of twenty-three episodes of travel shows and two movies forced onto my hardrive by fervent insistence from the neighboring cubicle. Eight months in the past, selection of the airline focused on the comfortable seat and praised food, and a willingness to look beyond the reviews lamenting an abysmal selection of in-flight entertainment. Backing on-time off the gate, a cursory review of the selection confirmed what I already knew. The substandard collection, more than overshadowed by the spacious seat and five feet of separation from another soul, could do little to detract from the experience. Nearly a year since she left, the brief consideration of sitting in coach adjacent to my long-running ex brought about splitting pain to the side of my stomach, which quickly abated in view of my surroundings.
The aircraft, loaded with fuel for the sixteen hour flight, hurdled four hundred passengers, myself included, down the runway adjacent to the bay until we lifted into the air a shade beyond noon. Beyond the window, the cresting sun cast a brief shadow directly beneath us in the shape of an aircraft, surrounded by a halo of the refracting light that faded upon crossing into the first layer of mid-summer clouds. The reflecting light gave way to gray and the smooth liftoff to bumps, enough to jostle my water bottle from the armrest into my seat. Two dings of the fasten seatbelt light signaled our passage through 10,000 feet, the plane still taking the brunt of the clouds’ scattered direction of airflow. A long message in the native language of our aircraft’s home country preceded its concise analog in English, “ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard. Service will shortly begin.”
Eventually through the clouds, cruising altitude leveled the plane as I finished the bottle of water, plucked from the crack between my seat and the armrest moments earlier. Appearing in the aisle from behind, the flight attendant startled me, offering a glass of champagne and a laminated menu. She produced to me the menu clearly intended for the English-speaking passengers, with two options for the main lunch entrée – “Western” and “Asian.” The “Western” option, notwithstanding minor translation deficiencies, fit the profile of a meal I might enjoy at a decent restaurant when my parents visited: tenderloin steak, garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and key lime pie. Reflection of my reasoning recalled that the intention of this trip required leaving aside the comforts of home and a bland routine. I had chosen the second to last row in the cabin for the ability to look forward at everyone else rather than have them look forward at what I watched on the screen. The flight attendant’s direction to take orders front to rear forced me to bear the fact that my desire to indulge on the “Asian” option would have to wait until arrival, with only the “Western” choice remaining when my turn arrived.
I picked at the food, its appearance failing to conceal the steam-induced source of heat and lack of the flavor profile described on the menu; disappointing considering that the airline supposedly received accolades for its dining options. The red wine, on the other hand, served exactly as promised; the ever-attentive flight attendant not relegating my glass to fall below halfway full. Five hours into the flight, a bag of chips filled the void left as such by the disappointing lunch, as I quickly succumbed to the lull induced by a sleepness night, the pressurized cabin and the bottle and a half of Burgundy. Fourteen and a half hours of flight time logged, the start of our decent commencing, passed before the alluring aroma of buttered croissants overcame my body’s state of rest. Through the groggy haze, my prevailing emotion consisted of content at the comfort of the seat, tempered with irk that the jetlag avoidance plan of staying awake for the flight had floundered.
Arrival did not constitute my first time abroad, but did mark my first time in Asia. Indications of presence in a foreign land consumed the setting: the make and models of the cars, many smaller and more austere, others luxurious without pretense; the design of the roads, black pavement a contrasting backdrop to freshly-painted white road markings; the color of the signs, blue and lacking words, a departure from the green and reflective off-white lettering of the signs at home. Nothing about the surroundings escaped immediate attention. Architectural idiosyncrasies, even the vegetation, starkly contradicted the familiar form and function of western equivalents. Within arm’s reach, the inability of online photos and television to do justice to the sights became clear.
No clear consensus arose in pre-departure research concerning the English competency of taxi drivers in my first destination. Hopping in the first cab of an empty late-afternoon taxi line, the driver spoke English without a trace of second-language discomfort, precipitating enthusiastic thanks for helping me with my bag at the hotel, perhaps overly so. The harrowing ride met expectations of what I assumed, respite arriving only upon reaching the protective sanctity of the pergola jutting from the hotel’s grand entrance. The open view out of the hotel lobby captured the raucous traffic on the streets below, while otherwise presenting familiar patterns derived from the universal standards of hotel decor, albeit with distinctly local appointments making it apparent that I landed somewhere other than home.
Tonal approval of a luxurious matte-black keycard opened the view into a room indiscernible from the standard of a western hotel brand, with the exception of a tea kettle that would seem out of place in North America. I briefly recalled distinct disappointment with the hotel showers in Europe when I spent time there during college. Such concern vanished as my shower roared to life, the stream with enough intensity to splash water up from the basin. Revived from the duration of traveling, and fresh enough for a public appearance, I slid the keycard, magnetic stripe facing outward, into my pocket and closed the door behind me.