Natural disasters (and other irritations)

I’m sitting here watching the nth hour of creepy Chinese propaganda on TV – today is the 60th anniversary of Communism (ahem, now “with Chinese characteristics“) in China. Every building, car and motorbike is festooned with Chinese flags. On TV, cute 9-year-old girls in colorful dresses and forced smiles dance in perfect synchronicity. The air is filled with proud nationalist song.

No wonder I’ve broken out in hives.

No seriously – I have. My arms, legs, back and face are covered in swollen, itchy red blotches. I’m losing the battle to not itch. I’m chewing antihistamine tablets like Limbaugh pops OxyContin.

Though I’d love to blame it on Chinese propaganda, I must point my finger at a much smaller and possibly more insidious culprit: bed bugs. Before the hives came, I woke up one morning covered in slightly smaller but just as itchy bites, thanks to an infested hostel mattress. I got so many bites, it seems, that my body freaked out.

So today, instead of facing the stares on the streets, and possibly being quarantined by an over-zealous and paranoid Chinese health official, I have stayed in, watched propaganda and read the sporting news. (I’m furious at the Red Sox – do they really think it doesn’t matter to enter the playoffs with an effing 6-game losing streak? Argh.)

After a night in a different bed and waking with no new bites, I’m hoping I’ve left the bugs behind. Yes, I washed all my clothes (ugh) and tried washing my bag, but bed bugs are notoriously hard to get rid of. Here’s hoping.

The physical irritation and horror at my appearance has exacerbated a simmering emotional uneasiness as well.

I’ve been away for just over 5 months now, doubling my previous longest trip. And I’m starting to get psychologically tired. One reason is just China – it’s too difficult for me here, I don’t love it at all, and I’m so happy that I leave in about a week.

Another is that I’m not just traveling, but (in theory) working all the time – thinking of story ideas, asking questions, reading, paying attention. But when you move as much as I have, it becomes an exercise in ADD – I can’t possibly learn enough and be interested enough in every place I go to come up with an idea. So I don’t do either very satisfactorily: I’m a shitty tourist and a lazy writer. I still need to figure out how to balance the two.

Even more exhausting is the transient-friend aspect of travel. You arrive in a place, meet a cool person or two, go for dinner/drinks/a tour of the sites, and just as you’re getting to know them you’re all moving on. I’m not one for home-sickness, but what I do miss is the ease of spending time with people to whom I needn’t explain myself. It’s like living life in a singles bar, or at a business-networking event. On some days, I put up my old survive-NYC walls – no eye contact, no smiling at strangers – just to catch a break.

Transient friendships can be fun at the time, but taken together they are unsatisfying and ultimately uninteresting. Many of you (as well as my transient friends!) have expressed jealousy at my so-called fabulous life: I’m running around Asia seeing eclipses, climbing mountains and eating fat-stuffed intestines (ugh) – and (in theory) getting paid for it! But there’s a a lot to be said for home life, real relationships, and even routine.

I would feel different if, like most other long-term travelers I’ve met, I planned to go home to regular life at some point. The open-endedness of my range life is disorienting and possibly unnatural. Are humans hard-wired to settle down? I wonder. Even the so-called nomads I met in Mongolia have specific areas they return to every year: the same pasture every summer, autumn, winter and sometimes spring.

But enough.

Goddamn China. It’s so lacking in soul and BORING that I’m spending all my time navel-gazing. Yeah, that’s right. I blame China for my melancholy. I’m sure it deserves it.

And like China and the bed bugs, I will soon leave melancholy behind, as I always do. I’m delighted to be headed to southeast Asia, where typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis await me. I couldn’t be happier.

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