Hong Kong. 2 a.m.
The neon sign cast a fragmented glow that emanated from surrounding puddles. Droplets fell from the roof and further shattered the light, spreading swirls and rhythms upwards from the sidewalk through the dark alleyway. I tugged on my rain jacket redirecting the rain off of my clothes.
I examined my companions, their ecstatic, upbeat expressions distracted from the surrounding downpour. They all stared at Minh, who was completely unbothered by his soaked hair. It clung to his forehead, snaked down his nose. I tried my best to show intrigue in his speech, an elaborate, optimism soaked monologue on the community outreach of his art gallery.I found it idealistic; my captivation diverted to swift grey currents disappearing into the gutter. My companions were absorbed, nodding, grinning, but most notably demonstrating their interest through punctured stares. Their eyes didn’t even blink when droplets hit their faces.
Minh concluded his speech with “Art brings us together. For any period of time. For an evening, for a lifetime. We are friends”
The sentiment appealed to me. I respected inclusive embraces.
We continued through the streets, dodging waterfalls pouring from rooftops. Cantonese characters, deep maroon, shone softly through the fog. Only passing taxis created noise in the street. The sputtering of a splashing puddle and the accompanying whoosh echoed between the high rises.
One of our crowd- a Frenchman named Rene – offered me a cigarette. A cocksure painter in his 30s, his eyes glared with a hormonal hunger through his fogged-over glasses. Flames, crosses, and blackwork style tattoos snaked up his arms. He spoke with a thick accent and puffed the cigarette animatedly, purposefully exaggerating each exhalation. Sex fantasies spit from his mouth relentlessly. They mostly involved Angela, an older woman accompanying Minh.
“She’s old but I’d love an Asian Dragon”, he said.
Up ahead, we heard a clamor of shouting, and sirens; the engulfing tone of a mob. Serpents of smoke slithered from Rene’s mouth, and I watched as the wind blew them back and forth. Thankfully, his words started to dissipate within the noises of the crowd.
Minh approached me, raising his voice in my ear.
“Thank you for joining me Nikita! When I talked to you in the gallery, I knew you would enjoy the evening with us. Let’s get a beer.”
We entered a 711 on the corner, a familiar respite in an evening of otherwise uncanny settings.
“I seek to meet anyone with a common sentiment.” said Minh. “I saw you walking by the gallery, the small backpack draped on your back, I figured you’d fit with our people.”
My conversations in the gallery had kept me engaged and interested. There was the duo of Russian filmmakers, an Italian photographer, a friendly traveler named Pierre, who now stood right behind us.
We exited the 711 and proceeded down the street, closer to the crowd. Conversations dissolved in the commotion. A robotic, inhuman slogan expelled from megaphones stationed around the block. The repeated Cantonese mantra, while unintelligible, instilled subservient fear. Unwieldy steel barricades forced us densely into the crowded avenue. Police in full riot gear; shields, batons, and visors stood unflinchingly at the end. Their black armor, steadfast stance, and concise formation projected oppression. Around us, people ducked into bars, ordering shots, throwing empty cans into the street. Rain drained unconsumed alcohol into the gutters. I couldn’t make out any words. The megaphones pounded into my head. I felt violence. The mob stirred uneasily, right on the edge of rupture. A young man next to me expelled a guttural roar. I looked at my companions, their hands and feet moved, but expressions froze in passivity. A passerby clunked my beer can, spilling some on my shoes. The mob acted as a pressurized chamber. Some collapsed inwards. Others exploded into the street. A young woman twisted her body, spraying sweat, rain all around.
I rotated my head back and forth, only registering the actions of others around me, no longer considering their absurdity. The overstimulation imploded me and I became one of the transfixed onlookers. Lost in the crowd. Lost inside the mind. Only watching.
I wish I could recall more memories from that street.
I don’t even remember its name or location.
Perhaps if I were to revisit it now, I’d find a boisterous, dirty, yet boring avenue.
My sensations plucked me from the crowd, off of Hong Kong island, and into where I become lost the most easily.
I didn’t shout because I didn’t have anything to say.
I still wouldn’t know the words.
Cambodian soil is a deep orange, rusted color burnt by the sun and condensed by humidity. The jungle vegetation, while lush in volume, droops with exhaustion onto the sides of the road. I sat in a minivan speeding through the thicket. The vehicle teetered persistently, the driver would spot a ditch and jerk the van into the other direction, pressing me into my neighbor. I was on the third row, an elderly woman and her son to my right, and a middle-aged man on the left. The van, a crude, plastic-coated Chinese model, would normally hold a maximum occupancy of 7 people, but on this journey held 10. It was the only transport departing towards the remote mountainous villages I hoped to explore – there were no seat selections.
Durians reeked from behind, two cases full of foul green spikes deposited in the trunk. The strength of the aroma wafted into my nose rhythmically. When the car moved slowly, it grew with intensity.
I was fighting a stomach ailment, without a doubt, food poisoning. The refreshing mango smoothie served by the scruffed, trembling hands of an elderly lady the previous night was the culprit. The discomfort lodged into my large intestine mid-morning and its grasp never relaxed, instead slowly crawling through my torso. Every bump in the dirt road meant another waft of the durian. I strained hard to distract myself, but each inhalation surged a wave of discomfort. A cloud of large orange dust trailed behind the van, dispersing my remaining grains of composure. We entered a village, a cacophonous burst of activity outside of the car. Chickens pecked, squawked, and leaped out of the way. Small children poked sticks into roadside streams, turned and looked at our car with twinkling, beautiful stares. Stilted houses, while simple, were all uniquely colored, with ornate wood engravings on their facades.
The car circled the village repeatedly, twice, three times, always plunging into the same unavoidable potholes. The driver held a phone up to his ear, singing the rhythmic, gentle tune of the Khmer language. I naively hoped he was searching for the buyer of the durian, depositing the shipment, dropping off one of my neighbors, and speeding to my destination.
After 10 minutes, the anxiety in his tone intensified. His intonations sounded tenser, choppier, and the clicks of syllables more definite. His free hand nervously wiped sweat drops off of his forehead.
Finally, the car stopped. An elderly woman with a large bag appeared right outside my window. The driver ran outside, opened the trunk, threw her bag in, and opened the passenger door. The second row already contained 4 people sitting on 3 seats. I assumed there would be a trade of places. Instead, a wife climbed onto the lap of her husband, and the elderly lady entered inside.
By this point, my nausea was approaching high tide, clasping towards my throat, receding back into my stomach, pausing, and approaching again. I fixated my attention towards guitar riffs in my earbuds. My whole body writhed with discomfort. I no longer felt my knees pressured into the seat in front, or the thick, unbreathable air. Ultimately, the wave broke through. I lunged over my neighbor, cranked the window down, and expelled the poison overboard. My head was blasted by cool air, a momentary rush of clarity. The long-forgotten sensation of normalcy lasted a blissful few seconds. I convulsed again, accompanied by laughter from inside of the vehicle. My neighbor compassionately tapped my back. The driver wasn’t happy with the whole ordeal and accelerated the car. We were passing a wide, fast-moving river. Through the dust, I caught sight of the rapids. The swift mass of moving liquid invigorated me for a few seconds. I ducked back inside of the car. I receded into a dreary state of painful delirium. Jungle landscapes blurred behind windows, dust accumulated on my forehead, and the tick of a second doubled in duration. I envisioned a crisp shower back home, my large bed. Repeatedly, I blamed myself. My insatiable restlessness dragged me into villages with unintelligible names, down uncomfortable roads. I forgot where I was sitting, and about my mental tally of kilometers until the destination. Geographical coordinates meant nothing in the countless orbits within my lucid state. I revolved in dreams of comfort, fantasizing on a domestic place unfathomably far away. For an indeterminate amount of time, I was rocked into a rhythm of insatiably glimpsing at pleasure.
The car screeched to a halt, across from a row of large hotels. The driver looked at me, gave me a gentle push, and nodded. I collected my bag, shut the trunk, and heard another laugh coming from within the van. I didn’t know if this was my destination.
I stumbled across the street, unsure of where I was at all.