Pack your bags

“Traveling light” isn’t a term that used to exist in my family. Every summer, we’d load up our car, and inevitably, those in the backseat (and sometimes in the passenger, too) would have bags in their lap. Call it hoarding, call it the aftershocks of growing up with shortages, but we hated to throw anything away, or buy things that we could bring ourselves. Buying food on the road wasn’t always allowed, which is probably why now I find the Starbucks lattes at the train station taste better than any other.

Six years of living abroad, of changing houses, of constantly having to throw stuff away, and with all the short-term travel I’ve done in the past six months alone, and giving my wardrobe a full KonMari treatment, I *think* I’ve got the packing light thing down. I think. We shall see.

I’m heading to a five-week vacation with only one small backpack, and I will try really hard not to ask my Dad to use the space in his suitcase. So… make of those tips what you will.

Here are some tips I’ve cobbled together from sources such as “Rising Strong”, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying”, and my own bitter experience of hauling too-heavy bags at the airport. Adaptable for air- and rail- and bus- travel.

Before buying luggage, consider your trip

Are you going away on business? For pleasure? What are you going to be doing? At any point during your itinerary, are you planning on visiting a fancy restaurant, or does your trip involve lots and lots of walking? Do you have shoes that would do for both?

Are you planning to do lots of shopping? Do you plan on bringing lots of liquids with you? Do you have clothes and equipment that simply cannot handle a carry-on? Are you going to carry your bags for a long distance and/or up and down flights of stairs? (Not every building or station has an elevator, as I found the hard way.) As a general rule of thumb, the more budget your carrier, the more likely you are to travel a long distance to get to the airport. If a taxi is not a problem, you are at your leisure. The rest of us, think very carefully if you are ready to haul a big suitcase up two flights of stairs.

Can your essentials fit in a carry-on?

Essentials = passport, money, clothes, underwear, toiletries bag, medicines, phone and a phone charger, plug adaptors

Nice-to-have = bulky electronics, including a laptop (yes, even a MacBook Air), three journals (one of them a planner), painting supplies, an easel, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in hardcover, food to last you the entire week, five pairs of shoes, letter-writing supplies, a roll of pens, a yoga mat and free weights, three separate sets of workout gear.

Now, if you’re a person who can’t live without any of these things, or you need  them (see: for a business trip) that’s a different thing. I might make a song and dance about simplicity, but I’m taking away a notebook, too, along with plenty of writing/painting supplies. I can relinquish a laptop, but I will fight to the death for my journal. But the thing is, I used to bring much more with me, and I wouldn’t use it at all.

Consolidate where you can

After you develop permanent shoulder pain from hauling two or three different hardcovers to and fro all day, and you can merge them into one? You start to reconsider your priorities. Directions to your accommodation can be saved on your phone, and the charger will make sure you don’t run out of battery. Kindle comes as a free app for most phones, too. One notebook can double as a planner, journal, and doodle book. You can use pens to sketch your impressions.

Also, when I say toiletries bag, I mean the kind of essentials you’d see sold in Tesco’s: toothpaste, toothbrush, SPF, moisturiser, lip balm, and a shower gel/shampoo combo. Consolidated makeup routine if you’re like me and you love to paint on your face: foundation (ideally with SPF), mascara, lipstick, maybe eyeliner and one shadow. Think: “How to be Parisian wherever you are”. Your lipstick can double as a blush, depending on the shade. Fake-tan and do your nails before the trip, if you want to, but why haul unnecessary items?

And yes, I know. That sounds terribly boring. But you’re at a new place, hopefully out and about all day, making exciting discoveries. Plus – less makeup means less products needed to take it off later. (Don’t sleep in your makeup. Just… don’t.)

Books, books, books! No?

Sure. Books are great. But be realistic about what you’re taking – can you read all of this in the time you have? Are you excited about reading them? Bookworms like me, we think holidays are a time to get through our TBR, but the older I get, the harder I find it to plow through a 500+ novel in a jiffy (ah, those were the days.)

Besides, if you finish your book before the holiday is out, that gives you an excuse to browse the bookstores.

The subject of technology and experiences

There was a time when I couldn’t live without a laptop and would bring it with me everywhere. And I still need it a lot – I wouldn’t be able to do my work half as efficiently without it, or save so much space.

But – and I’m discovering this more and more – I don’t need to bring my laptop on non-business trips. Heck, sometimes I don’t need to bring it for business trips either. I don’t need a fancy camera, either – my phone suffices. It’s not like I’m a professional blogger or a photographer – I’m travelling for fun, and 99.9% of the time, the only person who looks at pictures I take is myself. If I remember to look at the camera roll.

I suppose I’m not a visual record-keeper. If you are more comfortable with those forms of expression, power to you. But I’m starting to look forward to non-electronic time, to off-line time. To engaging with the physical world more. Maybe that’s just me and it’s all terribly boring to you. But I find it takes a lot less stuff.

 

 

Edit: I still managed to overpack. FML.

Stories for Lent: #40 The arms of my friends

Lastly, I want to talk about a time when I flew.

It was one of the last Jitsu sessions I had in Bath. I would see some people separately over summer, but I was leaving the very next day, and I wouldn’t be coming back to the university. It was goodbye. For the first time, I raised my hand at the end of the session – time for announcements – and I said, in the middle of an awkward silence, “It’s my last session everyone, so… pleasure to train with you, and the first round’s on me tonight.”

Sensei gave me a dirty look, like I’d done something really annoying, and ordered everyone to stand up and form a circle around me. We were running late, and Tae Kwon Do were waiting to take over. He ordered me to punch my way up the grades – from the novices upward – and told them to give me their best throw.

For those of you not doing Jitsu, it probably seems a strange thing. Heck, for anybody not doing sports, this probably seems a strange thing. But as I punched and got thrown, one way then another, a feeling of happiness started bubbling up in my chest.

“Come on then,” I said, laughing, when one of my friends didn’t quite get the throw, “Show me what you got.”

I punched and I got thrown. Halfway through, (I was running, rushing, because we were really late) I started to laugh. I was landing on the floor and it should have knocked the air out of me, but I didn’t stop laughing. I don’t think I’d felt such joy in a long time. By the time sensei put me in a headlock and ended the exercise, and sent us all back in our line, I had such a shit-eating grin on, I could have frightened anybody.

I hadn’t expected a send-off. I’d been in that club for two years, and I just wanted to do something nice for them. I wasn’t about to make a show of leaving. I wasn’t even close with everybody – most, I called my friends, but I hadn’t had confidants since my bestie had graduated the summer before. I thought it was just another goodbye.

But they made me feel happy. For that time, that one minute (or more, time tends to stop when I’m having fun), in the arms of my friends, I flew.

For that moment, I was invincible.

Stories for Lent: #39 Scapegoat

“Would you like to get coffee with me?”

I was so shy the first time I did this, I had to pass a note. No, I wasn’t 9. I had the good luck of sitting next to the boy I fancied in my French class and I could slide the piece of paper to him without the teacher noticing. My heart stopped when he leaned in and whispered ‘Oui’, in that amused tone of voice people get sometimes around me. I think I had died.

By luck of timing, we had lunch instead, and chatted for two hours on topics that brought us both interest. We exchanged numbers after parting. He didn’t call me again.

*

It took me years to ask someone out, and even when I did, there was lots of time between these proto-dates for me to continue to call myself a late bloomer, even in my twenties. It wasn’t that I was ugly – by that time, I’d started to dress better, and even mastered rudimentary make-up application techniques. But I was shy, and I was constantly making excuses.

He’s too cool to want to hang out.

I’m too busy.

I’m too sick.

Illness, as covered, is a big deal for me, and one of those things I still find hard to talk about. I mean… what the what? What am I supposed to say? I have a rare condition that makes me look weird and also causes my skin to turn scaly? How do you lead into that?

*

I’m reading David Wright’s memoir, “Deafness” and only about a 100 pages in I recognize so many things I can relate to. Not necessarily losing my hearing to scarlet fever, but everything else. The anxiousness of the parents. The child being treated as special and entitled, even when he wasn’t supposed to be. Using the handicap as a scapegoat. Oh, if only I wasn’t sick… Outwardly, I would resist being defined by my illness, but I would continue to use it as an excuse. Sure, from time to time it was justified – like when an attack made it impossible for me to go on a writer’s retreat, or every time a fever prevents me from hanging out with my friends – but most of the time, it is a useful thing to hide behind. Nobody, I thought, would understand the way that I feel. Nobody could possibly know.

And maybe they couldn’t. I never really gave them a chance, did I?

I find myself now, sitting at home with yet another fever threatening to stand in the way of a good time, and I’m wondering… what is bravery? How do you find it?

Maybe David Wright doesn’t have the answers, but he’s the next best thing. Read away.

Stories for Lent: #38 Ghost Whispers

You cannot wear that.

Your legs are disgusting.

What were you thinking, going out in public dressed like this.

These weren’t things that bullies said to me, growing up. These were the voices in my head, day in, day out, until I was about 16 years of age. You’d think I was running around in shorts and deep-necked tops, but the truth is, I was one of the most frumpiest, tomboyish girls you could find. In fact, the times when the whisperings were the most poisonous were when I tried to make a change in my look that would make me appear more… well, girlish.

The only thing I did in primary and middle school that would make me more in line with my gender was grow out my hair. That was it. I wore sweats to school. I didn’t own any shoes with a heel until I was about 17, when I got my first ever pair of Clarks sandals (I held onto them for the next five years). I didn’t wear a skirt to school until I was in the 10th grade.

“Girls can only be pretty or smart” – I know now that this is total bull, but there was a time I believed this wholeheartedly. I figured I wasn’t pretty or athletic, not compared to other people in my class, so there was no point in trying. (I’m sure some of the pretty ones thought the same when considering their academic performances.) So I neglected my appearance, sneered at make-up and high heels, and refused to believe that I might just be attractive as well as a Straight-A student. I didn’t know there was more to intelligence than passing a test, just like I didn’t know there was more to beauty than what you look like.

I saw in black and white.

*

I can’t pinpoint when the shift happened. Looking back, it seems like one day, I just changed from an ugly duckling to a slightly less ugly one, although I know there must have been a transitioning period. I remember going to Italy for a holiday with my family and enjoying shopping for the first time. I remember wearing my new shoes to school. I remember cutting my hair, getting a fringe for the first time since I was a child, and loving my new look.

But before that, there was the skirt.

It wasn’t anything scandalous. I would wear these long, bohemian-type things with bells and mirrors on them during the holidays, when I was spending time with my grandparents and nobody I knew from school could see me. I loved the feel of them, but I was too afraid to wear one to school. Even if nobody had picked on me in two years, I refused to expose myself to ridicule in any way. It took something sturdier to help me work up the courage – made of denim and almost ankle length, with a clinched waist that rode up my middle, the skirt was about as fashionable as a nun’s habit, and it was definitely not the best thing to wear on a hot spring day. But! It also didn’t budge, and at the time, flashing someone my underwear as well as my leg were my worst nightmares (I was very sheltered, obviously.)

I went to school… and only my best friend noticed. If I recall correctly, everyone was far more excited about the cute French exchange student who kissed people on the cheeks and thus flustered us upon the first meeting. Nobody cared for what I was wearing. Nobody even noticed.

Over the years, I would experiment with my denim skirts, going for shorter hems, even changing up the fabrics. All my fears were in my head. I was fine. I was more than fine. Nobody cared, nobody even noticed. It was as though I’d gotten a piece of the devil’s mirror stuck in my eye, and only I saw the world full of ugliness. It wasn’t until I did things in spite of my fear that I could blink my eyes clear.

Stories for Lent: #37 Joy

There was a doll I had when I was little. She didn’t have a name, or if she did, I long forgot it. Her hair was big and poofy and so was her tutu. She had proper ballerina shoes that you could slip on and off, and she was the coolest thing I owned. I took her with me to kindergarten one day, and when my aunt and I got home, I looked inside her box and found her gone.

Gone. I was inconsolable. Even when my aunt went back to look for it, I knew it was lost for good. I’d been so careful, I’d laid it back in its packaging after a hard day’s play, (dolls need rest, you know) and now it was gone. Fallen out, probably, when I’d held the box the wrong way around.

It was raining that day, and my aunt couldn’t find it. Someone must have picked it up, she said.

To this day, I remember the grief, but also the shame. We didn’t have much money when I was little. My little brother had just been born, or was on the way – I’m not sure, but by the time I was old enough to be in daycare, I was also old enough to have responsibility. I had to look after my toys. I couldn’t afford to be careless. The doll had been a gift, and I’d dropped it just like that.

In the four or five years after that, my brother and I accumulated enough toys for our parents to get exasperated with us. I got other, prettier dolls, but of course, the one that got away always stuck with me. It stuck, along with the feeling of failure and loss.

*

Hunger breeds hunger. For food, for love, for stuff. It’s hard to differentiate between the different kinds – to the hungry person, one emptiness is the same as another. I thought stuff would make me happy – food, after all, “makes you fat” and I didn’t want that to happen, did I? Stuff takes up space that I’m meant to fill. Stuff that makes me look pretty, accomplished, successful. It wouldn’t matter how I’d feel. It only mattered how I’d look.

Of course, I was never “full” – open eyes rarely are, as the old wives say. The things that gave me joy were, paradoxically, the things that I wasn’t supposed to like: painting. Getting lost into fantasy worlds, making up intrigue and dialog from thin air. Reading, filling my head with the music of accomplished writers. It was good enough for a hobby, but a job? That was for talented people.

How can you love it if you cannot touch it, quantify it, package it up and sell it on the market?

And yet. Yet.

*

I didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for my younger self. I thought she was a brat. A careless child. I probably was spoiled, but I think I was confused, too. I was hungry when I knew I wasn’t supposed to be.

I wish I could give myself a hug. I wish I could say: “It’s okay.” I wish I could explain the difference between carelessness and accident, to convince myself that one incident didn’t mean I was a terrible person who had no respect for the privilege she had been given. I wish I could give myself permission to relax. I wish, I wish, I wish.

Wishing is a terrible thing, but every once in a while, it can also bring about the promise of forgiveness.

Stories for Lent: #36 We are all learning

It took me a while to learn how to read and write. When I was learning English at school, I was at the bottom of my class. It was the first class I got a bad grade in, and the shame was so terrible I sat at the back of the classroom because I was too ashamed to sit at the front. A little over the year later, I got the highest marks in the school-wide test.

I was always a bit of an overachiever.

*

The curriculum at my public school (all three of them) was hard. I hear it’s only gotten harder since I graduated, so I suppose I got lucky to be born when I was. But it was pretty tough when I was there, too, and it sometimes felt like it was the hardest thing to ever exist.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I had few friends and not much of a social life, so I had little else to do but study and focus on my grades. Periods of intense study followed by exams followed by intense boredom – that was my schedule, year in, year out. And despite my belief that it was all so very hard, I kept coming on top, kept getting good grades, kept scoring high on the exams. I had a pretty inflated sense of self by the time I got to university.

And then, suddenly, it didn’t matter.

I was in a new country, juggling three languages in my head, trying to navigate living on my own while simultaneously taking on a new course, and it was hard. And there was no way to cheat the system, no technique to solving tests or writing essays. Suddenly, I had to think for myself, really think, and it was hard.

For someone who had secretly believed themselves to be a genius, it was a long fall.

And it didn’t get easier, because I had to apply for placements, do work, report, reflect, report again, go back to uni, apply for graduate jobs, apply for more graduate jobs, get none, do an internship between a Bachelor’s and a Master’s, get my arse handed to me several times in training, finish a novel and have it rejected by over 30 people, and face the fact that I’ll just have to write a better one next. It’s been a six-year, ongoing event in which my ego got a beating, and unlike an athletic event, there is no end of it in sight. The ego will either have to grow stronger and pull its weight, or pack up and go home so that the rest of me doesn’t have to stop and baby it all the way through. Either option would have the same outcome – at least I’d keep moving.

It’s hard to accept you aren’t the big fish you thought you were. I’m still struggling with that. But there’s hope just yet – people had enough faith in me to let me do a PhD.

Stories for Lent: #35 Common Sense

I was told once I have no common sense, and I’m inclined to agree – I probably don’t. What person in their right mind starves themselves, guilts themselves for not starving enough, and trains until their period disappears into the ether? Surely I must need an intervention.

I’m struggling to get the words out. Help, I want to say. Help, help, help.

But I cannot. Instead, I keep my butt in the seat, sink further into the shadows, put on a normal face and listen to other people’s problems. I see everything. I say nothing. I disappear. I make myself vanish.

*

It’s dark and I’m coming home from training. Head down, hands in pockets, walking downhill. I’m hurrying. I don’t want to be out late.

The next year, coming home means an uphill battle. I’ve had to move houses – my friends have either graduated or found new roommates, and I have to make do with what is left. My calves and thighs are burning – I’ve trained for two hours, but still, I’m walking, up, up, up the hill. The road is desolate and lonely, and by all means I should be afraid. But I’m not. I’m not slow, but I’m not in a desperate hurry either. It’s almost as though I’m looking for a fight.

I’m coming home, from a session where I felt like a place-mat, to a house where people only care about me when it’s time to settle the bills. I don’t want to be at either place, but the latter is slightly more welcoming than the former. I have a door I can close. I have a phone I can use. I have a pillow I can cry into.

It’s not the first time. I won’t be the last. Over the course of several months, I’d head off to train, presumably to spend time with my friends, and then feel like crap for over two hours as I interpreted looks and wondered why nobody would talk to me. I’d come home, more miserable than I started off with. I’d write page after page in my journal, wondering why I was doing this to myself. I’d punish myself with runs in the rain, with uphill cycling, with walking home after a late night out.

I remember coming back after a party – it was around 1 or 2 AM, and there was a huge queue for the taxis. I could have waited. Instead, I put on my walking shoes and set off, under the cold winter sky, with the wind making the trees rustle above my head. I’d imagine there were zombies lying in wait to motivate myself to walk faster, but there was only so much I could do. I came home, shivering with relief.

Another night, I was cycling back, in the rain, coming home from another house party. This one from the town nearby. A couple passing me in a car, saw fit to lower their windows and yell at me for not wearing enough Hi-Viz. I lied and told them it blew off. Why wouldn’t I stay overnight? I have no idea.

Over and over again. Loneliness, entitlement, punishment. I’d push and punish, punish and push. I’d resolve to be better. I never was.

*

Kindness lies in common sense. You know the stick won’t get you far. You know it won’t. So why keep employing it? It seems counterproductive. But being mean is easier. Releasing tension is no work at all – you just find a useful target, yourself, and you let loose. Kindness takes work. Kindness requires empathy. Kindness is the hot drink you make yourself, even when you feel like crap, and the shower you force yourself to take even when you just want to spend the day in bed. It’s airing your room, making sure your fridge is stocked, and eating a warm meal. It’s making yourself walk away from situations that make you miserable and then making yourself stay away.

It’s hard. It can feel isolating at times. But it also is recognizing when you’re down and you need to rest. It’s forcing yourself to keep moving, but to also pay attention where your feet go.

It’s common sense. But it doesn’t feel that way.

Stories for Lent: #34 Injury

It’s a funny word, self-care. I hear it and I think of spa days, wind chimes, soft music while somebody is giving my shoulders a good rub, face masks and falling asleep on the treatment room table.

I don’t really have the money for that. Food and bills I can justify. Train tickets, obviously. Books. Jiu Jitsu. Does exercise count towards caring for oneself? Because I do plenty of that.

For the past month or so, self-care has been the same item on my weekly agenda, marked both V for Value and U for Urgent. Every week, I put a tick under D (for Done) thinking of activities that I consider self-indulgent but went ahead with, because of course, I’m taking care of myself, I’m not irresponsible. Even when those activities drained me of my energy, I still did them, thinking how fun it is, how well I’m doing.

Then I strained my wrist. I might have pulled a ligament, I may have damaged a tendon, but it’s not swelling and it turns almost every way it’s supposed to, so there’s no need for the doctor. Is there? Is there? I can throw a brace on and carry on as usual, right?

If the one and only Jiu Jitsu session I attempted is any indication, no, I cannot.

*

Morning after. It’s the weekend. I get up and test my wrist, experimentally. The pain cuts through my sleepiness and I stumble out of bed, looking for my brace. It’s going to be one of those days.

I dilly-dally, see-sawing between getting dressed and going to train, and going for a run and focusing on work. One I am only 60% sure I can do. The other, I am almost certain I won’t do at all. I look at my agenda and self-care glares at me accusingly. What is self-care? Going out to spend time with other people, even if it means hurting myself even more. Even if I feel as though I’ve been ran over by a train? Or do I stay in and do work?

I opt for the second and then spend the rest of the day marinating in self-loathing. I can’t focus. My movements are heavy and strained, even when I go out for a quick run. Not even the cold air or the puddles I step in can blast away the cobwebs. When I come back home, I’m so tired I barely have the energy for a shower before collapsing on the couch.

For someone who thrives on activity, who relies on their own manic energy to carry them forward, this is un-fucking-acceptable. There’s things to do. Emails to write. Plans to make. And I can’t be arsed to do any of them? This is ridiculous.

You know what was more ridiculous, though? I’d been running around all week, barely taking a break, and I worked so hard despite an injury… and I won’t take a few days to give myself a rest? I won’t even accept that maybe I do need to “Netflix and chill” for a bit? What, am I exempt from the law of entropy? Did I discover some source of permanent energy without realizing?

To quote Sugar, all self-loathing has arrogance in its core. We hate ourselves because we think we are better than everybody else.

Self-care is hard, not just because we have to be nice to ourselves, we have to be nice to ourselves while every fiber of our being screams that we don’t deserve it.

Stories for Lent: #33 Presumption

I fall in love over the holidays, when the days are long, and longing is the word of the day.

How things change! I used to count the days till Easter, till summer, till Christmas. I would sit in school, doing various mental arithmetics to calculate when the bell would ring, so that I could rush home and write my stories. I’d listen with half an ear while doodling in my margins, always half-lost into a world of my own. Now, I manage my own time, and I never seem to get anything done. The people I went to school wish all seem to have collectively found their artistic calling, and are making headlines. Meanwhile, I’m meandering.

Term-time is easy. Term-time means deadlines and courses and trips to see my supervisors. But there’s nothing to do on weekens and holidays. Unless there is a training session nearby, my days are filled with sitting around, thinking how I should really be writing.

So of course, I fall in love.

I fall in love with an empty space, I fall in love with a construct, but I fall in love nonetheless. I find new daydreams to fill the air when I’m too scared and overwhelmed to even start working. I’m so good at it, I convince myself this is actually happening.

And then it’s time to come back down to earth, come back to reality, with its smelly socks and dirty dishes piling in the sink, with shopping lists of things to read and buy and write, with deadlines and courses and trips to see my supervisors. Come back to real life, which is just this little bit ridiculous and weird and imperfect, far less petty than a fantasy, but nonetheless, all that I have. All that I can work with.

Any dreams I have will have to come out of that.

Stories for Lent: #32 Glimpses into another world

It’s 8.30 on Angel station, and it’s impossible to progress. Train after train full to the brim of important-looking people comes, and more important-looking people elbow their way in. I stand to the side, with my too-thick coat and my scruffy sneakers, and I can’t bring myself to join the rush hour, even if it means I will be late.

I’m in London for the Book Fair, but I can’t bring myself to push to get there.

After three or four trains pass with no sign of it easing up, I give up, head back above ground, and start walking in the general direction of King’s Cross. So I’ll miss the first talk, I think. Big deal.

*

Maybe I’m a true Millennial after all. Spoiled, lazy, ambition-less.

It’s a thought that crosses my mind a lot, but especially in these three days I spend among publishers, book-buyers, bloggers, and the occasional writer. I see successful people in their business suits and full calendars and I feel like an overgrown toddler. I want to talk to speakers and panelists, to rub elbows, to mingle, but I can’t bring a single word to come out of my mouth. What have I to offer? What insight can I possibly give? What interesting thing can I say?

Every accomplishment I’ve had seems paltry in comparison.

And meanwhile, jealousy swallows me whole. I want to call myself successful. I want to be needed, to be important. Instead, I receive two more rejections while I’m listening to a discussion on diversity – one for a job, the other of my manuscript. I come back to my AirBNB and watch videos of famous bloggers discussing their designer shoe collections.

*

The last day, I can’t bring myself to come back to the fair, and I set off exploring on foot. It’s not my first time in London – not even the second – and I have enough familiar routes to look purposeful as I walk – down to King’s Cross and St. Pancras, then to Euston, and further West, to Regent’s Park. I indulge my nostalgia with a tour of the inner circle, and catching a glimpse of the black swans there. It’s been eight years since I last visited, and the black swans look the same. I take a moment to drink in the peace, and then rejoin the hustle and bustle of the main roads.

Central London is a study of contrasts. Posh buildings and graffiti art. Hip, expensive bodegas next to an “ethnic” kitchen. Street food that is more expensive than the fare at a restaurant, with seats and a loo you could use. Business people, school tours, and homeless go side by side on the streets. Buses, taxis, cyclists, clamoring for space. You need to keep your eyes peeled – one side for thieves, the other for rushing vehicles. You want to take out your camera, try to capture the spirit of the place, but you also know that one moment of inattention could cost you your wallet or your arm.

Everything is an assault to the senses. The traffic. The smells. The insides of shops, with their pounding music and colorful displays, designed to hide the eye-watering prices of the wares. Everyone is really friendly and everyone wants to sell you something. My, grandma, what bright lipstick you have!

I’m overwhelmed and underwhelmed at once – drawn by the prettiness and the shininess, but repelled by the inaccessibility. I find myself wondering, if only. If only I’d decided against doing a Master’s. If only I’d worked a little bit harder about entering a grad scheme. If only I’d actually felt motivated to join a grad scheme. Maybe I’d have a car by now, maybe even my own home. Maybe I, too, would be joining the throngs of people in the subway, elbowing my way to work. Maybe I’d be able to save up for extravagant holidays abroad, and have designer shoes, and maybe even friends to spend the weekend with. Maybe. Who knows? I would have been miserable, but at least I would have been my own person. I would have had a job title that commanded respect and a wardrobe to match. Instead, I’m a Ph.D. candidate with a rubbish haircut and neon pink running shoes, killing time before my coach is due to leave.

Eventually, I tire of beauty, and my head is pounding from the heavy air. I head to the coach station, hoping to find a coffee shop without a coin-operated barrier to the loo. As luck would have it, I only need to take one tour of the block before I find a bodega – not only one with outdoor seating, but also one that lets me pay for my coffee after I’ve had it. I sit next to a lady, working on her calendar over a glass of wine, and I muse about alternative universes while staving off a feeling of grief.