I want to be home.
Wherever that is.
Is it here?
With me, now?
Is it there?
Wherever there is.
I want to find it.
I want to be.
I look at my watch. Great, 7.25pm. I am pooped.
‘Ok kids, we’ve got 5 minutes left. Let’s play a game!’
The class of nine 8 to 10 year olds roars with excitement. Now I’ve got to think up something fast. We’ve been studying the long and short form of the simple present tense for the verb ‘to be’ with adjectives describing feelings. I draw eight short dashes on the whiteboard, split the class into two teams – A and B – and just hope that this game takes up the next 5 minutes.
Success! After 4.5 minutes they guess ‘I’m hungry’ and I even manage to fill the final 30 seconds with raucous laughter as I double over, exaggerating my hunger pains. It’s the funniest thing they’ve seen since 6pm.
I kick the nine little scamps out and gather together my books. As I go to pick my bag up from the floor I feel a dull throbbing in my lower back. Days spent bending down towards tiny people has taken its toll.
Gareth waits outside on his bike, surrounded by the carnivorous horde I have just been teaching. He revs the engine and they flee like a pack of frightened hyenas. Without a hint of dignity, I mount the seat behind him. We roll down the road a few hundred feet before we stop again outside what looks like a doctor’s clinic.
‘I thought this was going to be a spa. I was looking forward to getting a hot stone massage or something’, moans Gareth.
Earlier today we had decided that we wanted to get a massage at a place I had seen our friend, Lewis, outside the week before. He had declared that this was THE place to get one, this coming from an older gentleman who frequents the city’s most expensive chiropractor. So I had taken his recommendation on good authority.
We sit down besides the white plastic reception desk, which guards a line of five hospital beds separated by grey curtains. Covering the whole wall opposite us are dark oak drawers filled with all manner of exotic medicinal herbs and remedies.
A man in his early 30’s shuffles past us, dragging his feet and feeling out for the wall. He steps outside. I think he must have had a great massage because his eyes are still almost closed. I suddenly realise that he is blind and feel so stupid and ignorant. I look down at my feet, ashamed.
A lady dressed in a white long shirt and white baggy trousers asks us to follow her past the hospital beds into a side room with ‘Nam’ written on the glass door. As we are a couple they must think it’s ok for us to both enter the ‘Men’ only area.
The purple hue from the fluorescent light fills the small room with an icy chill. I see three beds and take the one in the middle. As we stand within the protection of our confined curtained space, an old lady motions us both to remove our outer garments, and me, my bra, whilst a young Vietnamese man walks behind her towards Gareth’s bed. I let out a little yelp. There’s no way I’m getting these bad boys out.
‘It’s ok Jen. They’re blind’, comes Gareth’s reassuring voice.
Without hesitation I am topless lying facedown on the bed. The man I saw stepping outside earlier walks towards my bed and gently covers my exposed body.
He focuses initially around my spine. He works the upper and lower parts of my back and then moves to my shoulders. My mind begins to wander. I start to think about nothing in particular and everything all at once. It occurs to me that if I’m going to enjoy this, then I need to be present.
‘Jen, he’s sitting on my arse!’
I look over to Gareth and he is correct. The man giving him a massage is crouched on top of Gareth’s bottom while rubbing his back with essential oils. Gareth looks terrified.
‘Don’t worry love. Just stay positive. Try to enjoy the moment.’
‘But, his balls are pressing against me!’
My masseur seems to have finished my back and shoulders and I am glad that he doesn’t decide to hop on. But now, oh dear God, he’s pushing my ‘other’ cheeks every which way.
‘I suggest you don’t watch this, Gareth.’
His eyes widen in absolute horror, but the masseur swiftly moves on to my stiff limbs and asks me to turn over onto my back. Relieved, I can now begin to relax. My mind moves away from the things that are happening around me.
I think about the lesson I’ve just taught. The moments when I lost my cool and the times I struggled to maintain momentum. I think about yesterday, and the day before that. I think about last week, then the weeks roll back and the weeks become months. In an instant I remember our time travelling together through Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Back to Berlin and the journey we took to Berlin overland through Paris, London and finally Liverpool.
I am pulled back, right back, and I am now lying on my single bed in my small bedroom at my mum’s house; a place that I called home since I was 15 years old. I am staring at the ceiling and I am paralysed by fear.
I leave the UK in three weeks time. In just over a week I am leaving my well-paid job as an Intelligence Analyst. I am leaving the comfort and security of my home to embark on a new lifestyle of long-term travel, well, as long-term as our money will stretch. I’m scared that while I am out there that I may have to return home for some kind of emergency. What if something happens to a family member? What if I can’t pay all of my bills? How am I going to get everything organised in the next three weeks? Each second is filled with these thoughts and I can’t move.
The decision I made a few days later changed everything. It was a decision based on every fear and it was the worst decision of my life. I decided to leave Gareth. If I wasn’t with Gareth then I wouldn’t have to go. I could stay here at home and be safe. Nothing would be coming to get me because I wouldn’t have any problems. It was a week before his 30th birthday.
The memory of loss makes my stomach ache.
My last day of work flashes by and I am at my favourite pub in Liverpool, The Ship and Mitre, with some of my colleagues. They all still think I am going to Southeast Asia overland through Russia and China, except for my friend Jen, who I told the week before. She’s brilliant and plays along with me. I get pleasantly tipsy and try to forget the truth of my situation.
A bag of gifts is presented to me and I well up, half gratitude, half shame. Jen has bought me The Little Book of Confidence by Susan Jeffers, the writer of Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. Everyone else is unperturbed by this but I am immensely grateful for this tiny hand-sized book. Over the past weeks Jen has been there for me at every dark moment and she knew that all I needed was a little bit of self-confidence.
By the time I get home I have read The Little Book of Confidence from cover to cover on the train. It’s late so I go straight to bed. I lie there, staring at the ceiling again but this time I see so clearly. I know what I have to do.
Now Gareth lies beside me, mortified by the memory of another man’s testes resting on his back. I open my eyes and turn to face him.
Here, I am.
Three weeks ago I returned to Cambodia for a few days. We stayed in Phnom Penh and met up with friends. May 2012, when we were there last, I couldn’t wait to get out of the country. Everyone I came into contact with irritated me, some even forcing me to imaginary head-butt them. This time it was different. Everyone was kind and gentle towards me and I felt so calm and rested being there. Either the whole population had had a personality transplant or it was me.
The only change to my life that I could think of was that since being in Cambodia last I had lived in Vietnam for a year. Vietnam had changed me. It had made me a more patient person, a person who appreciates it when others are considerate and thoughtful. Barriers in my mind had been broken and I didn’t even know it until I was transplanted from one culture to another.
It all made sense after I watched the TED Talk ‘Where is home?’ by Pico Iyer, the British-born novelist of Indian origin. When I watched this I got shivers. Please watch it too and let his soothing wise voice bring you into a place of clarity and inspiration.
So, is Vietnam my home? Temporarily maybe, yet I know that I will permanently carry a piece of Vietnam with me in my heart, in my personality, in my memory and now, it seems, in my DNA.