Saturday, May 14, 2005

Hangover Enlightenment

Walking the streets of a foreign city with a hangover is a good way to break free from the 'traveler's daze'. The 'daze' is best described by making a comparison to driving with fatigue -- eyes wide open, hypnotized by the passing landscape. All of a sudden, an hour has passed... and you're 60 miles from the last place you remember being. It's as if your vehicle entered a time warp. It's all a blur. You have road amnesia.

Today, in the fog and fumes of last night's drink, I experienced a certain sort of enlightenment -- unusual, as hangovers usually put my mind in a vegetative state. As I was moving through the Sunday crowds in the Hutong near our hotel, I realized that some time during my travels, I had become desensitized to the fact that I am actually traveling... very, very far from home. Arriving in a new place lost its zing. It's become commonplace. Things have felt familiar, whether they actually are or aren't.

I'd walked down the streets of the Hutong every other day this past week, feeling quite comfortable and familiar with the surroundings. But today, everything was louder. Sharper. Crisp.

I noticed the stares. The music blaring from the clothing shops sounded alien. The ankle-height, nude pantyhose all the women wear looked funny. The bare bottoms of toddlers with split-seamed pants took me by surprise (apparently there are no diapers in China). The men and women strolling the streets in their jammies caused me to look twice at my watch -- yes, it was noon. The featherless, beakless duck heads in plastic display cases looked like clay sculptures. The organ meet for sale on sticks made my nose crinkle. The delicate woman who noisly shot a giant loogie onto the ground startled me.

All these things had always been there, on these streets, but somehow I didn't notice them. Or maybe I noticed them, but paid no heed. They didn't seem out of the ordinary until I walked around today with a hangover, with my fragile mind.

We were headed to a KFC, as every hangover needs to be fed greasy fast food as ritual. I asked for meal #2, using my finger sign language to make up for my deficiencies in speaking Mandarin. I was still given the picture menu so I pointed to #2 instead. As Benjamin and I were eating our lunch, I looked around at all the Chinese people (no Westerners but us) and was surprised to be surprised that I was in a very foreign place. It makes no sense, but perhaps I've just grown accustomed to the feeling of being in a strange land... so used to it that I've forgotten what it feels like to feel out of place, unable to communicate, to be a tiny island in a vast ocean.

I'm glad to have had the hangover, and you'll never hear me say that again. It woke me up from my traveler's daze. I feel foreign again. It's a little uncomfortable and while scary might not be the right word, it feels a little scary and a lot exciting. It's why I'm traveling, to feel these things. Tonight we head out of Beijing, out into the unknown -- where I'm told no-one will speak English and things might be difficult... I wonder how we'll fare.


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