Ottoman coffee house, Istanbul

Between two continents and homes: doing the limbo in Istanbul

Around the world in nine months: sekiz numara

I left Bangkok at the tail end of Songkran, the Thai new year. At some point, Songkran was mostly about various Buddhist rituals of cleansing and blessings. It’s since evolved.

For three days, the entire country erupts into a massive full-scale waterfight. It was impossible to walk to the nearest 7-11 (in Thailand, this is always only a minute walk away) without being soaked through and covered in chalk, which strangers smudge on your face and arms like warpaint. In Bangkok, a city that’s blazing hot year-round, I swear the temperature shot up ten degrees the first day of Songkran. It was fiery out. The water, ice-cold at times, felt pretty fucking great. The whole city feels like it’s on holiday. Everyone reverts to acting like a five-year-old. Everyone is laughing and playing and running about dumping water on one another. There’s no notable difference, at least in my neighbourhood, between the Thais and the farangs. Everyone’s fair game.

I’ll admit I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Bangkok, and Asia in a larger scope. A lot of messed-up things went down during my time there, and I often felt disarmingly out of place. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about Thailand, but I’m immensely glad I stayed the four extra days to catch Songkran. I’ve never seen anything quite so mad: it’s Thailand simultaneously at its best and at its worst. On the positive side, it’s delightful, childlike fun, and everyone forgets to be so guarded all the time. Of course, in Thailand, this means there are boatloads of fatalities from road accidents and insane drunken revelers. I read some pretty insane stories of people being stabbed when they didn’t want to play.

Songkran in Din Daeng, Bangkok
The only photo I got of Songkran, mostly because I quickly became very protective of my electronics and kept them hermetically sealed in super-resilient ziplock bags I’d bought for the Amazon. This is before things got really rowdy, so imagine the truckload of people spraying waterguns at the people on the street, who in turn are pitching buckets of water from those huge buckets at the passing vehicles. Also, make sure everyone’s covered in chalk.

Somehow this seems perfectly in line with my experience of Thailand and Southeast Asia. When I left Bangkok, I’d had three absolutely delightful days in which I finally stopped working. (And on a weekend, no less!) I relaxed, played, met new people, and generally fell in love with the country, really for the first time. There was some drama around my leaving that made it bittersweet. But then maybe that’s just how Thailand works: like their food needs to balance sweet and salty, sour and spicy, the experience never excludes the nastier aspects. Everything is balanced.

So I left with a bang, but ultimately made it out in one piece. I left for the airport, still soaked through and covered in chalk, with my giant suitcase and as many belongings as I could stuff into it. For me, this is “moving.”

I spend a lot of time thinking about the concept of home. It’s always been fluid, to some degree or another, but as I’ve become more and more a drifter, it’s become even more intangible. For me, all these places are home, even if they’re only temporary. Even if it’s only three months. Even if I have an end-date in mind. Even if I have an onward ticket (which I never do, because I’m a raging commitophobe).

These places are my homes because, in that temporary space of time, they’re where my life is. I develop routines, I work, I create my own space, I learn to salvage food from whatever I can find at the markets, I make friends, I form new habits. My life changes every time I move, because everything around me changes. But in that moment that’s who I am and that’s what my life is—there’s no sense that part of me is somewhere else, or that this specific moment is temporal and will pass.

And so every few months, I pack up and leave, and my whole life changes.

Turkish coffee in the Ottoman coffee house
Turkish coffee in the Ottoman coffee house in top of a hill on the Anatolian side of the city: delicious sludge.

It took me ten days to get from Bangkok, one temporary home, to Barcelona, my new home-for-a-while. I ended up in limbo. I spent eight excruciatingly painful hours stuck in the Mumbai airport, a little over a week in Istanbul, and fifteen hours in Athens en-route. In every place, I felt truly and utterly adrift.

I suspect that my sense of “roots” is different from most. In the past year and a half, I’ve made my homes in five different countries on four different continents. Travel has become an integral part of who I am: when I say I’m a vagabond, I really do mean it. I haven’t stayed in one place much longer than a month.

But in all that time, I’ve always had a “home” that anchored me. Even when travelling, I’d have a home to return to. I often have a matryoshka doll system of keys, where one key opens a room that contains another set of keys, and so on. In Istanbul, I didn’t even have keys, only couches and people’s telephone numbers. I didn’t have a place that was mine, and nowhere felt like home.

It was a truly bizarre feeling.

El Raval in the rain
Barcelona is gorgeous at all times, but I think it’s prettiest at night, in the rain. In El Raval, where I live now, there’s beautiful old buildings covered in gorgeous graffiti everywhere, and a million tiny winding side streets to explore everywhere.

A lot of people travel to explore themselves. This is especially true for people on a gap year, or people who’ve recently been fired, or people facing some kind of life-altering crisis. It’s a cliche to say that in exploring the world you’re exploring yourself, as mirrored in your own interactions with said changing world. But most cliches are true for good cause (and I believe that in itself is something of a cliche, and here we are with the infinitely looping mirrors and matryoshka dolls again). And it’s true: pushing your boundaries and exploring things outside your comfort zone teaches you more about yourself than it does about the world. It’s impossible to face so many external changes and not change, fundamentally, inside.

I’ve travelled 30,000km around the world from where I started out in October, leaving one home for a new uncharted one. (That’s just point-to-point, home-to-home, and doesn’t include all the offshoot trips I take from these homes. The map of my journey looks like a series of distracted loops blooming around fixed points.) I only have 6000 more kilometers to go before I reach my next home, months from now, and I don’t know who I’ll be when that happens.

But I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned my limits, and the things I need to stay (relatively) grounded. My original plan was to stay in Barcelona two months, then couchsurf my way around Spain/Morocco/Portugal/France/Iceland for the last month or so. But I’ve learned my limits, and I’ve learned how important it is to my mental well-being that I have a place, however small, however temporal, however tenuous, that is my own—that I can call home.

So as rootless as I thought I was, there are still anchors that hold me. I’d love to be a true vagabond woman, but I’m ready to admit that I’m not, really. I’m just forging my own strange path, as convoluted and seemingly random as it may be.

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