The last few days have seen a bit of a sense of humour failure. I’m currently in Hong Kong, after parking my bike with a friend-of-a-friend in Lanzhou and sitting on trains for almost 48 hours. The 30-day visa I was given in Islamabad and the 30-day extension I obtained in Urumqi were only enough to get me halfway across China, so I was obliged to follow the example of many of the country’s foreign workers, and skip across to Hong Kong to get a new one.
My first application (through an agency, at great expense) was turned down, and I’m currently waiting to find out the result of the second. When I submitted it, the agent took one look at my form and told me I’d only be eligible for another 30-day visa, despite three months being the minimum option I could apply for. (Exactly the same thing happened in Islamabad – she glanced momentarily at the first page of my form, and said ‘sorry, you’ll only get 30 days’. I have no idea why. Because I’m British? Because my name’s been blacklisted? Because I used the wrong colour ink? (This actually happened to me once, applying for an Indian visa in London.))
This causes untold logistical headaches. If I enter China in mid August on a 30-day visa, then I’ll have to find somewhere to extend it in mid September (probably sacrificing a few days of cycling). And even then it’ll expire in mid October – just as two of my friends arrive from London to ride with me for a couple of weeks.
(Incidentally, organizing visas has been the most stressful, expensive and annoying part of this trip so far, and I can’t wait to get to Japan, or South Korea, or Alaska, or wherever I end up next, since I can get into all these places visa-free.)
Everything else seems to be going wrong at the moment too. I finally gave in and splashed out on a cheap laptop – and the keyboard’s faulty, so I’m going to have to take it back and make a fuss, and in the meantime it’s driving me nuts. The $5 sandals I bought in Karimabad finally fell apart, so I decided to be grown-up and responsible, limped round several different shoe shops (one of my least favourite ways to spend an afternoon) and spent about £50 on a pair that I judged to be both durable and well-fitting, because it’s important to look after one’s feet, especially when they’re as highly strung as mine. And after just a few hours, I had blisters the size of grapes, and walking was agony. They’ll go down, of course, and once my skin has toughened up the sandals might be a bit more comfortable, but in the meantime I wince every time I have to put them on, and am trying to avoid leaving the house.
The house itself is pretty nice, admittedly – in fact, I’ve fallen on my feet yet again. Lazing around beerfully in the hostel in Kashgar, Michael and I got talking to a very charming Spaniard called Sergio, who lived in Hong Kong and was currently taking a holiday from his family and his extremely stressful banking job, pretending for a couple of weeks that he was still young and footloose and fancy-free, and had nothing better to do than sit around in backpacker hostels, sipping beer and making friends with whoever happened to pass his way. Of course he invited us both to stay with him in Hong Kong, should we happen to pass that way, and of course I accepted immediately, already knowing that I’d have to do the visa-hop at some point.
Sergio’s house is halfway up a hill in a leafy (well, jungly) suburb of Hong Kong, with views over other jungly hills, and a short hike over the ridge to the beach, where I went for a swim yesterday, delighted to see the sea again for the first time since Istanbul (although it would have been even better if I’d reached it by bike). The rest of the family (Sergio’s wife and their three kids) are in Spain for the holidays, not back for another fortnight or so, so for now it’s just me, Sergio, two rabbits, two hamsters, two very nervous cats, several goldfish, and Milu the dog. My concerns that I’d outstay my welcome quickly evaporated when Sergio insisted that I hang around at least until the family get back – because feeding and watering and walking all those animals takes a long time, and he’s usually at work from before I wake up till after I go to bed.
So it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. I have free accommodation in this very expensive city; he has someone to look after the menagerie, water the plants, and keep an eye on the lazy Filipino handyman. And the other 22 hours of the day are mine, to do with as I please. I should be happy, but I’m not. For the first time in my life, I’m wretchedly, wrenchingly homesick.
It’s a novel experience. I’ve never experienced or understood homesickness in the past, because wherever I’ve been in the world, there’s just too much going on to distract me. There aren’t very many tangible things about the UK that I miss (I can live without Marmite and Branston Pickle very happily), and given the misery being inflicted on my poor country by its current government, I often feel I’m better off out of it. But I guess it had to happen sooner or later, in some form, and I’ve been away from home for nearly a year now.
The familiarity of Hong Kong (a former British colony, still full of English speakers) is both fuelling and comforting this homesickness. Yesterday morning I popped out to the local supermarket, and found myself following a European couple up one of the aisles. They were probably in their early thirties, both tall, dark, sleek and good-looking, her in immaculate running kit, him in khaki shorts and a well-laundered, open-necked shirt. Two well-behaved toddlers sat in amongst the imported organic produce in their trolley. I knew them instantly, even though we’d never met. Like so many of my contemporaries, they will have graduated from Oxbridge or Durham, or perhaps LSE, with degrees in law or economics. Somewhere in their polished expat mansion will be a framed photograph of them in wedding clothes, standing in front of a stone church in the Home Counties, or in the quad of their old college. I always encounter such people with a curious mix of recognition and curiosity. We have chosen very different lives, of course, but we came from the same place. If I’d really wanted to, if I’d been more career-minded and made more of an effort when I graduated, perhaps now I’d be buying expensive groceries in Hong Kong or Singapore or South Kensington with my banker husband and my well-behaved, privately-educated children.
I remembered a day last summer, where I dropped into the Sloane Square Marks & Spencer to annoy my housemate Sophie, who worked there, and the woman in front of me at the checkout was someone I recognized from Cambridge. We’d never met or spoken, but I knew her name, and remembered seeing her around college, always with her tall, sleek, well-laundered boyfriend. I was in my sweaty work clothes, buying the cheapest clump of calories I could get away with; she was in business casual, doing her weekly shop, and I don’t think she recognized me. It occurred to me that one of the many privileges of being a cycle courier was this constant illumination of the decisions and differences that make up our lives; this constant exposure to what might have been, what might yet be.
Half-following the Hong Kong couple along the aisles, I overheard snippets of conversation, in cut-glass English accents whose familiarity was almost as jarring as the strangeness of China.
“We’re in charge of bread – do you think we should get butter as well?”
“I’m going to get frozen sausages, and they can defrost on our way there.”
It was Saturday morning, and clearly they were going to a barbeque or a brunch later on. And perhaps even another one the next day. I grabbed my two packs of noodles, added them to the jar of pesto and box of cereal in my basket, and headed for the checkout, where a similar couple (tall, dark, sleek, English-accented; two well-behaved toddlers) had run into a friend of theirs, and were having a well-fancy-seeing-you-here conversation about their plans for the weekend.
And I knew for sure that, seven hours later, London would be waking up, slightly hungover, making a coffee, and heading out to the newsagent to pick up the papers, to the farmers’ market to find a nice crusty loaf of bread for lunch, and then to the wine shop to get something to take to that evening’s dinner party. A year ago I’d have been doing the same. In fact, given that in my final few weeks in the country I was trying to make the most of all my friends, and wouldn’t let myself turn down a single invitation, I might well have been shopping for several different get-togethers, and happily anticipating the companionable gluttony and drunkenness that was to follow. Now I was on my own, treating myself to pasta and pesto for dinner , because I hadn’t eaten it for almost a year, and wanted it more than all the world class dim sum I should have been eating, and not actually knowing what I’d be doing with myself for the rest of the day – because what do people do when they don’t have a bicycle to ride, or friends to cook for?
But the most poignant thing about this homesickness is that I know it can’t be cured by just going home, much as I sometimes long to. For a start, once I’d spent a couple of days wallowing in the familiarity of London and Wales, going to the pub, and reacquainting myself with my family and friends, I’d wonder what I was doing there, and where I was going next, and wish I was back on the road.
But also, the London I long for is now just a fiction or a memory. My housemate doesn’t work in Marks & Spencer any more – in fact, a few months after I left, that houseshare was dissolved, and now a family with three kids lives there. My social circles have changed in my absence; people have drifted apart or grown closer together, moved into or out of London, married, qualified, gone up in the world. To my dismay, I find that I’ve forgotten the names of half of the streets, even though I assumed that, after three years of couriering, they’d be emblazoned on my brain forever. And anyway, I’m told that parts of London are now unrecognizable – they’ve changed the one-way systems, torn down old buildings and built new ones. I looked at photos of a recent courier get-together just now, and discovered that a significant percentage of the workforce has changed since I left. If I ever went back, they’d look at me like I was the new one.
I’m reminded of the post I wrote almost a year ago, about my unplanned daytrip to pick up my Pakistan visa. I’d already let go of London by then, and already it had started to slip away from me. “My old haunts will hold onto their old ghosts forever, but often they’ll be drowned out by the din of all the new people who’ve taken their place”, I gloomily predicted. That’s probably happened now. Perhaps the most painful part of homesickness is knowing that, much as you sometimes long to, you can never go home.