[Written mostly in Africa. From now on I will note where the post was written if confusion is likely, i.e. where I have written ‘here’ and expect you to know what I’m talking about.]
I have seven more weeks to go.
I know it makes more sense not to count the time, as the practice only slows it down, but I can’t help it. All last week, several times a day – no, dozens of times a day – I would think, eight weeks to go, eight weeks to go, eight weeks to go.
And now it’s seven.
I have set myself a rule – I don’t do half-weeks or anything like that. Come Friday afternoon, as I ride home, I allow the week to tick down and only then excitedly begin obsessing over the new number. I am very strict about this.
My physical health is poor. Today I tried to do some basic cardio exercise but I conked out during the warm-up. I am often overcome by extreme lethargy, sometimes accompanied by nausea or fever, which prevents me from undertaking any but the most moderate activities such as walking and yoga. Hence, I’m pretty out of shape. This also impacts my mental health because if I am able to exercise, it makes me feel a lot better. These things compound.
My colleague went for a general check-up in Dubai as she was in much the same way, and they found her gut was choc-full of weird bacteria. This in turn was causing natural parasites that we all have inside us to multiply and get out of control, thus sapping her strength. They put her on a special diet and she’s giving it a go.
No doubt I have something similar. When I am out of the country I immediately feel much, much better. In a whole month in the Philippines I barely felt sick at all, nor did I have any trouble in Cambodia, whereas here I feel sick every week or two. I previously thought it was psychosomatic due to my depression but now I think it is more likely the other way around: my tummy is dynamically dragging down my mind.
Mentally I’m all over the place. Sometimes I feel that the end is almost here and I get a wave of euphoria, which I try to quell because I know there’s plenty of shit to get through between now and then. A lot can happen here in seven weeks, none of it good.
At other times I get down in the doldrums. I think of something new to panic about – what if I get detained? Though unlikely, my mind invents a thousand seemingly plausible scenarios in which it might occur. What if I can’t get my money out? What if I die before I finish? What if I lose all my hard-won money somehow? What if after I leave – this is the oddest thought – all my friends and family abandon me?
Surely this is the parasites talking. I’ve already thought this through in more energetic times and have come to more sensible conclusions: the worst-case scenario is that I might get held up a few weeks. Nothing worse than that’s ever happened. I will keep a bit of local currency in my account *just in case*, and will donate this to the staff social fund should everything turn out to be okay. If the worst happens, it will turn into a great anecdote for my blog. That is all. No panicking required. Thankfully I wrote all these thoughts down at the time and can refer back to them in moments of weakness, which are frequent.
I tried to stop obsessing over how much time I have left, but I have concluded that this is impossible. Dostoevsky, in The House of the Dead reports the same phenomenon at the conclusion of his Siberian sentence. He watches the seasons turn with painstaking slowness. He calculates that each paling of the fence represents one day, and keeps track of where on the perimeter-turned-calendar he’s up to. We are only human.
He also has this line: ‘A prisoner must be patient.’ How true. Whether you pine over the days and weeks or not, they just keep going at their own pace. The key is not to go mad while you wait.
There is one thing that I have learnt. To think about ‘seven weeks’, or, when I first started counting down, ‘sixteen months’, is more than the tiny homo sapiens’ mind can grasp. In fact, these amounts of time seem about equivalent in one’s mind as they are both just as unimaginable, like ‘a hundred dead’ vs ‘a million dead’, or ‘a hundred light-years away’ compared to ‘a million light-years away.’ Our human minds can plan ahead across significant time spans, but cannot really comprehend the actual experience of that time.
For example, think about the last ten years of your life. Seems possible, right? Now try to think of all those days that were in it. All those commutes, meetings, parties, days at the beach, weekends on the computer finishing work, hiking trips, dates . . . our puny mind can’t see it all at once. We can see the whole Earth, but not a whole stretch of time. We are too used to time subjectively happening to us bit by bit, though Einstein would say this is an illusion.
So whenever I catch myself chanting, seven more weeks, seven more weeks, I try to think: that’s impossible. Just think about, today. I can do today. I can do tomorrow, once it is today. And today by today, I’ll get through those seven weeks. But taken together, they are more than one man can bear.
So I guess the cliché I’m looking for here is, one day at a time.
Every cliché is true.
* * * * *
Six weeks to go.
I am experiencing the strange illusion that time is not actually passing, that I’ve always had six weeks to go and I always will, that I’m in some sort of time loop like one of those horrible stories in Black Mirror and that the day I’ll fly out will never really come. My previous life, once relatively peaceful, appears unreal and I question the veracity of my own memories. This time the reference is to Blade Runner. The happy memories – shagging, going to the beach, hiking – are they even real? Were they planted there by some malevolent god who is trying to drive me mad? It seems plausible.
I have a recurring horror that I will not get out. That my blog will be discovered or a local will crack the shits at me about something and make a spurious call about me to security services, who will seize my passport or arrest me.
I look around and think, what if I had to live here forever? Would I do things differently? I would. I would go out more. I would try to make more local friends and get a girlfriend. My next thought of course is, that’s what I should have done from the start, I’d have had a better time. But I kinda did at first and it didn’t work out. My way helped me to survive two years and that’s enough.
* * * * *
Four weeks to go
Over the last few months I have been having flashbacks to the final days of high school. Final classes, the final exams, walking home for the last time. I guess I am in that ‘end of an era’ mindset and so I am reminded of these events, which I have thought very little of since their happening. What comes back to me is the stress of the last minute getting everything done, the disbelief that the final day will actually come – and then, after the final exam, coming home in disbelief, wondering what I should be studying for next and realizing that there’s nothing, it’s all done. The strange feeling persisted for days. Even weeks afterwards, when I was running through a rainforest to go swimming in a waterhole somewhere in the Otway ranges, I caught myself thinking, what am I supposed to be doing now? It is hard to convince oneself that you are really on holidays.
But now those memories have faded, and I have the usual end-of-year madness of getting everything done, plus an odd concern I’ve never needed suffer from before: am I really going to make it out of here? With my money? I am becoming obsessed with What Could Still Go Wrong, and here is what I have come up with:
- I might get detained, perhaps because of some of the things I have unwisely written here.
- They might change the rule about carrying gold out of the country and stop me at the airport.
- I might get delayed at Addis, which means having to pass immigration to go to a hotel (the airport closes overnight). That in turn would mean having to declare my money and gold. Here there are two options: (a) declare it and risk having it stolen from you, or (b) don’t declare it and certainly get it stolen from you, legally, if caught.
Have I mentioned I don’t much like Addis?
- Somehow getting stopped, returned, hassled before leaving Africa.
- The plane crashing. Ethiopian have grounded all the Supermaxes but it would be just my luck. Seriously, at this point I would be happy just to have another 15 years of peaceful life. Come on God, at least let me have that. Unless in your wisdom you want to use me as a means of warning others against my sins. I could see that.
So at what point can I relax?
I have decided that once I am on my way to Bangkok and the seatbelt sign goes off, I’m home free. I may order champagne. I may offer a glass to my neighbour. Probably, knowing myself, I will not end up doing either of these things, but at any rate that is when I can assume that I’ve survived the ordeal.
But I’m not out of the woods yet.
* * * * *
For a long time I have wondered, what will it feel like to have just three weeks to go? I suspected that it wouldn’t really feel like anything, because I’d just be focusing on those three weeks and figuring out how to get through them. Informing this view is the fact that the final three weeks of last year were hell.
But still, I thought I’d be by now experiencing at least a low-level, background hum of excitement and ecstasy. But, no.
Coming closer to this date, I realized that it would be just the same as the end of every year: a madcap rush to get all the work finished, all the clerical tasks completed, all the things packed before I leave. And so it is proving to be.
In moments of reflection, I wonder: did I make the right decision to fulfill this contract? I have the awful feeling that I’ve just wasted two years of my life. Someone just messaged me and said, don’t you have any happy memories of your time there?
I thought about this and decided that I do not.
I cannot say this of any other place I’ve lived over the last decade or so. There were hard times, but there were also good times, laughter, adventure, fun . . . For me, this place is without joy.
Sure, there were plenty of days that were not horrible. I visited some interesting places, had a few beers and nice meals, read a lot of good books. But . . . I have, at all times, been oppressed by a feeling of . . . what? Nastiness. Pettiness. Bad-tempered combativeness. I now see that I’ve suffered a two-year bout of culture shock, one that I guess I’ve never get over because I’ll never be able to sufficiently assimilate to my host population. I wonder whether, if stuck here permanently, I would be able to develop the necessary, knee-jerk belligerence necessary to survive here. I decided, probably not. I am a peaceable fellow. And a coward, especially when it comes to confrontation. My solution has always been to walk away, whether it be from unpleasant situations, places, jobs, girlfriends, people, or even noisiness or bad smells. I’m not a fighter and never will be.
And what of my decision to basically hermit, especially in this second year? Sometimes I see a pretty girl and I think, maybe I could have had more fun . . . But then I look at her angry eyes and reconsider.
My goal was to survive. I’ve done that. So I reckon my survival strategy was reasonable.
So, was it the right decision to stay? I guess I’ll never know. Sometimes I think, I could have just worked four years in Vietnam instead, had a normal life, and ended up with the same amount of money but later on. What’s an extra two years, especially when they’re not even agonizing ones? But then I remember: I did not have sufficient information when I made my decision (and I blame no one else for this).
As for my decision to stay when the hardships became clear, I also didn’t know what was in store for me. I weighed up the options and when I re-weigh them, it seems fair enough. In any case, the decision was made then – no point second-guessing myself now, except as something instructional for my future decisions, but I really don’t think I’ll be pondering a contract in Africa ever again anyway.
At the time of that fatal choice I thought, imagine flying out of here – finished, with a reference and good record if I choose to work again in this field, full pockets, and with the satisfaction of having done it. Won’t that be grand?
Well, now I’ve pretty much done it, but all I feel is a headache. I’m getting headaches a lot lately – one lasted all last week. I have not been to the gym for a month or two due to general ill-health. I don’t feel elated. I just feel tired.
I want to go home.
And I had another thought. Normally I give it my all at the end, and then collapse into my holiday utterly exhausted, and often get sick. But this time I can’t do it like that. The trouble is, there is a serious possibility of things going wrong even after I finish. Someone with a grudge might try to get me detained or arrested, I might have trouble getting my cash or gold across border . . . I’ve talked about these fears before. They are plausible.
When this happened to my old boss, he was already spent from the chaos of his final working weeks, so he just had nothing left to cope mentally with the additional problems that beset him after he ought to have been gone. Thus, I need to keep a little energy in reserve for whatever might happen. How will I do this? I don’t know. Perhaps I should just work steadily on those things that need to get done, not overdoing it, and focus on taking it easy and relaxing as much as possible in the lead-up to my flight out, just in case. I should therefore be working steadily on stuff I’ve got to do right now but I can’t because I have a headache.
The solution to all the world’s problems: Ibuprofen. Until it gives you a heart attack.
* * * * *
Two and a half weeks to go.
Yeah, I don’t do half weeks. To me it is still three weeks; the time label is for you.
I have just finished the major tasks that needed to be done before I get out of here. I feel a strange sense of arousal – heightened heart rate and breathing, etc. – that might equally be excitement, terror or happiness. I have no idea which. I walk around my house in a dream-state, unable to grasp the reality of the situation. I simply cannot believe that in 18 days I will be gone. After all that I’ve been through, my narrative instinct insists that there must be one more challenge, one more drama, an ‘all-is-lost’ moment before I go. But instead, everything is winding down peacefully. Can I trust it? What is ‘it’?
I got a missed call from my most difficult customer yesterday, the first day of the Eid break. I flew into a panic. Surely this was it – a final, insane complaint that would escalate in milliseconds into an absurd bun fight that would end in my detainment, arrest, torture, execution and eternal damnation.
It turned out to be a minor matter.
Am I really to be gone from here so soon? Can it be true?
This feeling that I described – that is how I feel right before I get sick. I’m afraid of wearing myself out in some way. But how can I relax? How can I focus on anything?
Two weeks to go.
Now I’m going crazy. I cannot think about anything other than the number of days (15). I have gone from thinking of the number of months daily, to the number of weeks five times daily, to the number of days, constantly. Fifteen days. Fifteen days. If you were to master mind-reading and peer inside my tiny skull, that is the monotonous chant you would hear, and nothing else. Except for occasional belly-aching about Western Union pinching my money. [Edit: they gave it back and all is forgiven.]
You know how when someone is due to be released from Oz, it all goes pairshaped at the last minute? That’s how I’m feeling. My life is like watching an episode of Oz, except with even more gay rape.
I’m now finishing off my emergency water supplies. I have become so decadent in the use of this precious resource that I now flush the toilet two, or even three, times a day. I wear shirts only twice before washing. I bathe almost daily.
I’ve given away most of the items that won’t be coming with me. I left them out for my cleaners, thinking that it might be such rubbish that they’d be offended. But here, as in the gulag, every rag has its price. They took my ripped, worn-thin yukata, my battered and ancient hiking boots, my underwear that I wore once and discovered was too tight, my empty, 15L water bottles, and my crappy mint tea from Addis that I found undrinkable.
For good African tea, look to the Kenyan brand, Safari.
Now I am supposed to write, but how can I when my head is full of ‘fifteen days, fifteen days’? Who cares about cryptoanarchism or the limits of free speech? All I care about is getting out of here. Aside from that, the world may burn.
I was getting seriously paranoid, not really believing that I’d get out of here, that something would go wrong. It got to the point that instead of thinking ‘two more weeks,’ I’d just assume something would go wrong and I’d instead think, ‘five more weeks’, and I’d feel calmer.
That is quite odd, isn’t it.
But today I feel fine. Probably everything will be okay. Just a moment ago someone knocked on my door and I thought, this is it, some fascist cunt is going to demand my passport, but it was just the useless house manager. He appeared undevasted when I told him I was leaving. Poor stoical bastard, it’s not healthy to bottle it up like that.
Now I’m starting to feel relaxed. Work is chill, no dramas – well there is one but I’m not too concerned about it. Maybe I’m going to pull this off. Maybe . . .
Famous last words?
Today I’m happy. It has finally hit: I’m getting out of here, I’ll have stacks of money, and I’ll be free. That is not a bad situation. I kept myself going all this time by thinking, imagine how I’ll feel once I’m done, and free for once and for all. For longer than my stay here, in fact: since at least this post. After all this time, in 11 days I’ll have made it.
There’s no water. I don’t care. The power went off for 12 hours yesterday. I don’t care. I got a fever and a debilitating wave of lethargy. I don’t care. My belly is bloated, my arms have turned to sticks and I get out of breath walking two flights of stairs. I don’t care. My colleague has not finished a bunch of stuff she was supposed to for a final event. Guess what? I think you got it! I don’t care.
I’ve five more days of work to go. I hope they are horrid. I hope they are so bad I never, ever forget how awful working was and why I got out.
Bring it on.
Wow: one day I’ll be finishing off this post in a hotel room in Bangkok, on the other side of the world, once I’m completely home free. It’s hard to imagine. It feels like it must be months off but actually it’s only 11 days away.
I cannot describe how I am feeling tonight. But, in a way, it doesn’t make sense – why not just ignore my circumstances and feel like this all the time? There’s nothing stopping me, except for the fact that I am human. We don’t do it like that.
9 days (Friday)
Well, that put a dampener on things.
You know those days when you wake up after a good night’s sleep feeling totally exhausted? That happened this morning. Ate something, went for a walk, but then I began feeling weak and faint. I got ready anyway, walked down the stairs, and decided I’d never before felt that bad going to work. I had to hold the rail the whole way. I got on the bike and rode almost a block, but after a while my legs stopped pedaling. My brain thought, I’ll all right, I’ll make it, just take it easy today – but my legs did not respond. I dismounted and for a while all I could do was stand there, trying to make sense of things.
Finally I realized that I was quite unwell and couldn’t get to work, let alone do anything once I got there. I called in sick, walked my bike back, crept up the stairs and collapsed.
It’s now half twelve and I’m feeling better, but very glad not to be trying to do any serious work today. I read a bit, ate a bit, could not sleep, and now I’m doing a little updating here. Hopefully I’ll be okay tomorrow and will be able to walk to the bank and withdraw all my juicy USD, which you’re not allowed to do until you’re 10 days from flying and can prove it.
I will not miss that shit.
Today is Friday. Now that I’m missing this day of work, I only have three working days left to go after the weekend. Then I have some sorting-out time, and then I fly on the Sunday. A lot of my stress has lifted now that it’s pretty much all done. I just wind up, pack up, and fly. It seems I shall leave with a fizzle rather than a bang.
A fizzle is greatly preferable.
I’ll need to see a doctor when I land. This lethargy is beyond a joke – I hope it’s not a heart problem. I need that to live. With a bit of luck it will just be parasites.
The condition seems to be affecting my brain. There have been two or three recent cases where I’ve completely missed obvious things that everybody else was talking about. I am finding writing hard. Do I seem dumber to you? Is it hard to tell?
8 days (Saturday)
Feeling okay today, still weak but able to do stuff. Went to the bank to withdraw USD. Checked each note to ensure there were no stamps or pen marks. Four did have such, so I asked for clean bills as replacements. The old bastard at the window point-blank refused. I explained that in some countries they only accept clean bills if it’s foreign currency, and that I’d had such bills refused in several places. He said, no, they are fine. I said, they wouldn’t take them at the Western Union in Bangkok or at the money exchange place in Phnom Penh. He said, no, they’re fine, it’s just a mark the banks put on when they check their legit. He was getting angry. He turned away and pointedly did something else.
I fucking hate this country.
Everyone thinks they know everything, and will refuse to listen to counterarguments, no matter how reasonable nor how calmly and non-aggressively stated. This is my life, every fucking day. I hope the dictator hurries up and tortures and murders the rest of them. WordPress mods, that was a backwards joke. Also, get a real job.
Finally my colleague, more of a fighter than me, intervened and finally the pig-headed old bastard gave me new notes – a task which took him several seconds.
But he will be sure he was right, to his dying day. Which I hope is soon. Joke, mods.
Or was it?
I wanted to check the balance of my local currency account as I intend to spend the whole lot on gold in a few days. However, the normal office where you check this now only has half the accounts, the rest having been moved to a new office which, for some unfathomable reason, only opens later in the day.
I gave up and went home.
Still but, life is good. My finances are somehow healthier than I calculated they would be by now. Let’s hope it’s a sweet cruise through to the end . . .
7 days (Sunday)
In one week exactly I’ll be sitting on a plane, waiting for it to take off.
I’ve been having flashbacks to other times I’ve left countries. This time is most similar to leaving Australia twelve years back, when I was desperate to run away and leave all my problems behind. I remember then, fantasizing about the plane taking off, how good it would be. It is a pleasant feeling.
Leaving Japan I came very close to tears, even on the train on the way to the airport, and when I flew out over Chiba it looked so beautiful I wondered if I was the biggest idiot in the world to leave. All those memories, left behind me. Sometimes I think I should just go back there, but you can’t go back. It’s always different.
Leaving Taiwan was just a whole lot of stress about cancelling my phone plan, getting around the luggage limit, taking sharp things out of the smaller bag that became carry-on, almost missing the plane, etc., etc. I was so busy with all these crises that I had no time to navel-gaze about my feelings.
It is a good time to be getting out. Any time is a good time for getting out of here, but things are really getting crazy lately. The Boss turned off the power for a whole day, for the whole city, just to remind us who the boss is. And then he banned bottled water for the same reason, which is a problem for me because I’ve run out of gas and can’t boil any. I bought a few of the remaining, shortage-priced bottles that were still available and hopefully that will get me through; otherwise I also have my hiking filter which should do the trick. The problem is, the tap water is slightly salty, has sediment and probably things like lead in it. No getting rid of that.
You’d think there’d be some unrest. Nope. Not a whisper. It was a challenge to the population to see who would dare protest, but there were only muted mutters behind closed doors.
Today I looked out the window and thought, what a shit country. You want clown world? I’ll show you clown world. Honk fucking honk, indeed. When does it get funny. Oh yeah, when it is 12,000km away.
6 days (Monday)
My cook is here for the last time. Third-world problems: I don’t like having people in my house. Thinking over it, I cannot recall ever having guests here. Though she’s lovely, I always feel relieved once she’s gone. My cleaners come while I’m out, which is better, thought I’m sure they laugh when they see that my supply of condoms never diminishes.
Having someone else in the house fills me with disquiet. Once I am rich I will not have cooks and cleaners. I prefer to do it myself and to be in undisturbed solitude. And I will have the time, anyway.
I’ve been reading about the symptoms of burnout, and they include avoidance of socialization and cynicism of one’s work. Both these are very true.
My baseline of happiness is now around 5.5, and rising by the day. The taxi is booked for Sunday afternoon’s trip to the airport. I will finalize bills tomorrow, buy gold Wednesday, pack Thursday, get final house inspection Friday, then sit around home going mad on the weekend waiting for the end. I’ve decided to get some films from the shop. Someone mentioned that new Blade Runner so I might give it a go. There will be nobody I want to see and nothing I want to do. No final coffees in my favourite café, no final walks in my favourite places, no getting dinner at my favourite hole-in-the-wall. Everywhere else I’ve been, I’ve had a list of these things. Here, nothing.
Someone once asked me, what’s your favourite place in Eritrea? I said, the departure lounge!
I’ve finished all the real work now, just packing up and hanging out until I can go. There were rumours that Ethiopian Airlines was going to cancel their services here because the government stole six million bucks from them, but this appears to be fake news from the Opposition. About the flights, that is: the money thing is real.
For 16 months I’ve been wondering, what will it be like to come into work and realize IT’S THE LAST DAY??? Well, it didn’t really feel like anything. I just got a few things finished then had to run home in time for a house inspection, and any possible feeling of elation was moderated by my wisdom teeth playing up. Ultra-tough beef will do that to a lad. Next the gold shop was closed and the owner uncontactable, which means I’ve got a bunch of soft currency left and nothing to do with it. I was starting to get annoyed about this and trying to think what to do. Then I remembered: my two years of experience here have taught me how to deal with such a situation. I might as well start putting these lessons into action.
– A lot of things go wrong. Be stoical, don’t get worked up about any of it.
– Focus on the positives: a lot of worse things could have happened but didn’t. I already got the vast majority of my money safely out.
– Don’t worry about things that might not happen. He’ll probably open soon enough.
– Things will work out. If he doesn’t open, I’ll find something else to do.
I had to do yoga and meditation before all this became clear to me. My mind tends to become obsessively focused on some problem, major or minor, to the points that if I have nothing to worry about that makes me feel uncomfortable because I think I’m forgetting about some really big, terrible thing that I ought to be sorting out. I’ve been like this since I was a child. I’m getting better at managing these insane thought-loops but they’ll always come back, especially when I’m tired.
I’ve started packing. What do you guys do with coins and tiny notes? I have change from a dozen countries. Seems wasteful to throw it out.
There’s always something. I got in touch with the gold guy and I will just have enough time to sort that out, but now the office assistant tells me I need my last phone bill in order to finalize the account, but I paid it long ago and threw it out. There is apparently no solution to this problem. I hate this country. It is nothing but trouble. I cannot shake the feeling that the nation itself, in a swarm-like act of petty malice, will find a way to stop me from escaping.
Now youse can’t leave!
Packed what I could today, took five hours to clean out every cupboard and I’m physically exhausted. I’m in that weird moment one always reaches when moving out – there’s piles of stuff to be given to this person or that, or thrown out, or given back, or sold or whatever, the Japanese wall hangings are taken down, I’m trying to live with only a bowl, a blanket and a bucket, wondering how to make all the pieces fit so that the day I leave, I pack my final things away and nothing is still lying around unaccounted for.
They say moving house is one of the most stressful life events, just below a death in the family or divorce. For me it’s not that bad, probably because I’ve done it so many times before that I’m adept at it, and also because I have no stuff – it should all fit in one suitcase, one backpack and one small carry-on case, totaling less than 40kg. But still, it is a hassle. It would be nice to settle down in one place and not have to be so careful about accumulating stuff. I could even buy furniture. I haven’t owned furniture for twelve years.
Normally I get emotionally attached to any place I live, and I like to have a longing, last-minute look around. I have fond memories of the past four places I’ve lived. I even take photos of it just before I leave and later look at them nostalgically. But this place, nope. Nothing good ever happened here. Not to me, anyway. I thought about taking some snaps as mementos so I could remember my hard time here and all I’ve been through, but I decided against it. I just want to forget it and move on to brighter things.
Ah, I did keep one memento, though. It is the year planner I kept on my wall during the first year of my contract, just a calendar printed on an A4 sheet. So many times during that toughest of years I gazed at it, ticking off the days, wondering when it would all be over, and I decided then to keep it so I would recall the struggle of that time. Thinking that this calendar would one day just be a silly souvenir of a long-ago time helped me to keep going, to imagine that this was not my life forever. It’s packed.
Surely I’ve mentioned that episode of Black Mirror where they woman gets stuck in an app with nothing to do, at one point for six months. That is truly terrifying. My deepest fear is not dying – it is being ‘stuck in vain’ (HT Smashing Pumpkins). In a place I don’t want to be. In a marriage/family that is not working out. In a job. In a prison. The thought of inevitable death is comforting in comparison.
When I was a very young kid I went to the Billabong chain restaurant. There was a playground version of a double-decker bus. Older kids had figured out there was a way of getting through a small hatch to the empty crawl space underneath it. Then I went in and either they locked me in or I just couldn’t figure out how to open the door again. I will never forget the time stuck under that bus, in the dark, unable to move. I was there for so long my parents got worried and were looking everywhere for me. I can’t remember how I got out in the end – obviously I did – but perhaps the event has left some sort of mark on me.
Also I spent the first four years of my life never moving from a tiny cot in a Romanian orphanage. Related? Life’s a rich tapestry.
Vincent, that was a joke.
1 Day (Saturday)
Wrapping everything up and leaving a country is usually a full-time job for weeks, but here it seems easier than normal. First, I have people to clean my apartment for me. Second, I have little stuff. Third, I’m not arranging work visas, police checks etc. for my next job.
Yesterday was a typical, crazy sign-out date of giving back company property from my flat, cleaning up, paying the phone bill, checking the bank account, handing back keys and whatnot. Then all of a sudden, at 12:00, the headlong rush was over and it was all done. I spend the rest of the day seeing friends.
I thought everything was done but today I had a last look over my place and ended up cleaning, packing and organizing for another three hours, slept, and in the afternoon visited some more people. Tonight it’s drinks, tomorrow I have to get up at sparrow fart to give the rest of my work stuff to the night guard to run back before he goes home, then gelati, pack last-minute stuff like the clothes I’m wearing and toiletries, then the waiting game (leaving 3:30pm) for which I’ve got a few films.
Got the gold. Got the cash. Got the exit permit. Taxi booked, bags packed, passport ready.
This is a nice city if you’re on holiday and just wandering around. You’d like it. I recommend you visit.
Yesterday I started thinking, this place is not really so terrible compared with some other places. The run-ins I’ve had with locals are nothing compared to what some of my colleague have had to put up from Emiratis and Saudis. I was a square peg in a round hole; I’m too diplomatic and sensitive for a rough and tumble place like this. It was a mistake. That mistake being made, my situation is not at all bad, which is why I stuck it out: I’m 40 years old and basically retired. I can do whatever I like from now on. I will do some sort of work, but it will be chill, and it will be in a chill place, and all on my terms. Yay!
Just so long as nothing terrible happens in the next 23.5 hours.
DAY ZERO (Sunday, 7:00 a.m.)
I have long wondered, how would it feel to wake up and realize it’s Day Zero?
Well, I feel hungover. It’s hard to feel anything other than hungover when you’re hungover, even if there’s a girl next to you. And there isn’t.
I went out last night with some colleague for a fare-the-well, my mate got drunk and told me that about fifteen years ago he gave his friend his travel permit so that his friend could visit his mum. People here can’t travel freely around the country; they have to stay within their own zone unless they get permission to go elsewhere. The friend got caught and my colleague was put in jail for one year.
At first he was in solitary confinement, in the dark, only allowed out for twenty minutes a day. He had nothing to do but literally pull his hair out. Though he didn’t say it, I assume they were torturing him, and he told me they accused him of being a ringleader of rebels, of having guns, and a whole lot of bullshit.
Eventually he was put in the normal prison and he did nothing but read, including reading the bible three times, because there was nothing else to do. He became (and remains) very good friends with the other prisoners because, like him, they’re not real criminals. They’re just people who tried to sneak across the border, or smuggled some blankets, or did some currency trading. He said he also saw his old guard once – the head guy who used to hit, kick and insult them – and he was an old and broken man.
So aside from feeling hungover, I have what the Japanese call a ‘half feeling’ (気分半分). On one hand I’m happy to be going, but on the other I feel for those who might never be free in their lifetimes.
If you live in a free, civilized country, thank your ancestors or whoever it was that made it so. Thank the founding fathers. Thank the ancient and Renaissance philosophers. Thank every man who lost his life or his freedom so that you may enjoy yours.
Freedom is the highest good, and all other goods flow from it. Freedom to move, to love, to worship, to work and build, to talk, think and write as you please.
Now I’m getting emotional. There are tears in my eyes. This is a little bit embarrassing. I’ve been here two years and the main things that I saw were sorrow, folly, brutality and fear. They go out, they drink, they laugh, but once you get to know them well enough these underlying feelings come out.
Further, I still could not tell my colleagues my real plans for the future. I cannot be honest with friends until I am truly free.
Okay, over it. I’m going to get brekkie, meet a friend for one last gelati, the films I downloaded didn’t work so I guess I’ll keep reading War and Peace, and then taxi comes and 3:30pm and I fly at 6:00pm. And that’s it. Piece of piss.
Remember the moment: when the seatbelts go out on the second leg of the flight, I am free. Seventeen hours.
Now it’s hit. I started doing my final packing with plenty of time to spare, and my heart started racing, and I kept thinking the same thing, over and over: is this a dream?
I have a recurring dream that I urgently have to be somewhere, usually work, but when I try to get ready everything goes wrong. I can’t tie my shoelaces, my wallet is missing, I do up the buttons wrong, the window won’t shut, the bike is gone, etc. etc. It always happens the same way: at first I have plenty of time so I’m relaxed, but then so many things aren’t working that I start to worry that I’ll be late – at this stage I keep thinking to myself, I can still make it on time if I hurry and if nothing else goes wrong.
Then I reach the point where I look at my watch and realize: I’m not going to make it on time. From then on my frenzied, frustrated efforts are focused on just not being too late, but of course my socks won’t go on, I cannot move faster than a snail, and I notice a massive gob of dried snot on my nose that won’t come off, and then finally I get it off and the spot where it was attached starts bleeding profusely and gets all over my clothes, so I have to go and change and my clothes are missing and anyway my nose is still bleeding over everything anyway and I just can’t do it.
The dream always ends, one way or another, with me just being so totally late that it’s not worth going to work at school, or I know I’ve missed the flight, or whatever.
So when I was packing today, that was what was going through my mind – is this real? Am I going to wake up in a minute and find that I’ve still got 16 more months to do in the country?
Reading about lucid dreaming I learned a couple of tricks that help one to determine whether experiences are real or a dream. (a) Breathe on the back of your hand. It is such a complex feeling that dreams cannot replicate it properly. (b) Check the time. Dreams have a hard time keeping time consistent and plausible, and the fine details of the clockface are often incorrect.
I’ve found that the second of these doesn’t work for me. I clearly recollect a time when my watch was perfect but it turned out to be a dream anyway. The second, however, hasn’t failed me so far. So I kept breathing on my hand, and each time it felt realistic. But I still couldn’t shake the unreal feeling.
Then those things starting going wrong – the last objects wouldn’t fit, one bag was overweight, I couldn’t move fast in my thongs (that’s flip flops for Yanks), and I kept expecting the time to roar forward such that it would be too late. But I managed to rearrange some things, checked all the rooms, threw out rubbish, and now . . . I’m all ready, my suitcases by the door, with an hour to spare.
That doesn’t happen in my dreams.
So long I’ve wondered what it would be like, sitting on this sofa, looking at those bags, writing this last post, on The Day. I thought it would be exhilarating. But no, I just feel like it can’t possibly be true, that it is either a dream or something terrible must still go wrong. But no fascists banged on my door last night. Or maybe they did but I didn’t hear them because I was in a drunken stupor. Is this really it? Am I going? Can life be so good?
I will not believe it until those seat lights go off. I’ve been tricked too many times before.
Postscript – Wednesday
The taxi came. My bags were not overweight. I sailed though immigration. I sat in the departure lounge, feeling nothing but shock and disbelief. I kept blowing on my hand and I detected no signs of dreaming.
Upon boarding, the lady checked my passport and told me I needed to go downstairs because there was a problem with my luggage. Something metal in it. What?
I went down, assume that this was it: the final act in the comedy of my life. In the baggage processing area they had ready the offending bag. It was not mine. I told them and they sent me back upstairs. I boarded.
Even in the air I could not quite believe it, but I knew I had a few more challenges to go.
Addis: the internet was not working. They turned it off for the whole country, apparently due to exams. It seems overkill is popular on the other side of the border, too. One minor risk was that civil unrest in Ethiopia that might interrupt my flight, and sure enough, there was a coup attempt. But flights were unaffected.
The next challenge was the security section before boarding, because they sometimes ask you to declare precious metals or cash worth more than $3,000, and I had about $10,000 of each. If you don’t declare it they steal it. If you do declare it, I’m not sure. I think they steal it.
I didn’t have to fill in the form.
Distracted by such concerns, I didn’t immediately notice that a bunch of people were pushing past me quite blatantly in the long line. A handful got through before I woke up and asserted my space, stopping the crowd behind me getting ahead. The guy right behind me was always looking for a gap to get past so I had pay full attention and not read a book as I usually do in such situations. Out of curiousity I peaked at their passports: the Congo. It was in French so I’m not sure if they were from the shit Congo or the really shit Congo, but anyway, they were from one of them. Good luck with that.
I had to take off my shoes and belt, put my bag through the scanner, and go through a metal detector. The bag scanner was not running for some reason so I waited, trying to keep an eye on my bag with its $20,000 cargo, twenty metres behind me and surrounded by a milling crowd of Congolese. I kept losing sight of it and had to shift position, barefoot and holding up my trousers with one hand, in order to locate it again.
Finally the bag came through and all contents were intact. My readers are so racist.
So off we went, the plane didn’t crash, the seatbelt signs went off and I assumed that I had made it.
But there was one more challenge to go.
As I said, I am in poor health, and my bowels are unreliable. Upon landing I desperately needed to shit but I could not get to the toilet first because everyone was standing in the aisle waiting to disembark, and second because there was someone in there taking a very long time.
I have become something of an expert on diarrhea, and one sure sign of trouble is that boiling feeling in your guts. My guts were boiling like a witch’s cauldron.
What was I to do? I could not get to the toilet behind. I could not go forward. I mentally assessed my possessions and realized that, in the case of a catastrophe, my nearest clean pants and trousers were in my checked luggage. I considered the logistics of passing the health check and immigration having shat myself.
This was not good.
Finally the line began to move, and I had a choice to make. 1. Wait by the occupied toilet and hope like hell the guy finished in time. 2. Disembark, assuming there would be a toilet right outside as there usually is. I had decided upon option 2 when the door opened, like the waters of the Red Sea parting, and mercifully the half-dozen people in front of me at that moment did not go in.
Sometimes, at key moments in my life, the gods smile upon me. I don’t know why, but I acknowledge and appreciate it. Thanks, gods.
Right outside the plane there was a long line on the walkway as they were checking everyone’s passports even before we could enter the airport. I guess they do this for flights from Africa. There was a long wait and had I not already made it to a toilet, that option 2 that I’d first chosen would have been a disaster.
There was a massive wait at immigration. Finally I reached the front and they told me I had to go way back and fill in a health check form because I’d come on Ethiopian Airlines. I told them I only transited there, but she was quite firm. She said I could go through the priority lane when I came back, though.
They were mainly checking for Yellow Fever (yes, in Bangkok, grow up you lot), and my certificate of immunization was in my checked luggage, but luckily the health check lady was reasonable as I’d only been in the country for three hours so she stamped me and off I went.
And here I am, in a hotel in Bangkok, far from dictators, dictator’s mistresses who hate me, bans on drinking water, shooting in the street, and all of that sort of thing. I am still in poor health, which is putting a dampener on things, but I feel much better today than I did yesterday, and I might even go for a jog tomorrow if I feel up to it. I have a lot of jobs to get through while I’m here – seeing a doctor might be one of them – and then I’ll head home.
So that is the end of my adventure.
I can’t imagine anyone read all of that, but anyway, for those of you who did or just skipped to the bottom to see what happened in the end: thank you very much to all my readers and commenters who have supported me throughout the last two years. There were some rough times, but my experiences were more manageable when I imagined them as good writing prompts that would one day entertain you lot. I felt like I had a bunch of mates who were watching over me and who were on my side. I appreciate it. Now that I no longer have to wear my mask quite so tightly, I’d be happy to meet up with regulars some time for a beer if we ever find ourselves in the same continent.
Or maybe I was never in Africa and simply made the whole thing up from my bedroom in Taipei . . .
Been free a week. Starting to get bored. Maybe Adam was right.