“After the final no there comes a yes, and it is on that yes that the future world depends.”
I was in Jogjakarta, covered in bites. I’d picked up something along the way, when I was back in this town three days earlier, and it was travelling with me.
I woke each morning covered in fresh bites and itching, my back and flanks spotted with literally hundreds of tiny red welts, like a victim of some medieval pox. I’d initially feared bedbugs, but what I saw, crawling on my sheets and through the contents of my shoulder bag, were ants – tiny redbodied ants no more than four millimeters long. I switched hotels, submitted my clothes to a laundry in the gangs south of the train station, then unpacked and submerged my bag for 30 minutes in cold water, the only water I could find. In the basin afterward floating in the dirty water I found ant bodies; I stripped to the skin and showered off, scrubbing my body pink with a rough nubbly cloth, then sat naked before the fan and inspected the sheets and foam mattress with a flashlight, wearing my fresh-scrubbed nakedness like a hazmat suit to avoid contamination.
Still, though everything appeared clean as a spring morning, I awoke the next day with fresh bites, raking my nails across my itching back in the very first moments of consciousness. It’s impossible to say where they came from – the room is porous, with big gaps in the windows, and this a tropical city in the rainy season full of standing water; I found myself paradoxically wishing for mosquito bites. At this stage, though, the genesis was no longer even the issue – the problem at this stage was purely psychological.
I slept and woke haunted by the spectre of contamination, the consistent and unshakeable anxiety that comes with being plagued by something you can neither really see nor decisively defend against. The next morning I rose in a black mood and went for coffee, then sat on the balcony in the sun and pushed crushed garlic between my toes, a homeopathic remedy for the athlete’s foot I picked up somewhere in a grotty shower, feeling entirely wretched and hopeless and just wanting to go home – the antithetical urge to the urge to travel, fleeing to the need for comfort.
The world sank down into loneliness, lonely in a foreign place that makes the loneliness cut deeper, and stranded a world away from anyone who truly cares about you, buying water and going out for meals, sitting in cafes reading or walking the city with a camera and a guidebook, feeling for all the romance of travel like travel is just another kind of hell, ultimately purposeless but full of suffering, a purgatory made for postcards.
As I remembered, though, with my itching skin and my dejection and the burning soreness between my toes, it’s this difficulty that becomes the transforming heart of travel. Only when the world falls apart, only when the romantic idea of travel falls apart – with the antbites and the loneliness and the athlete’s foot and all – only then must self and world, through the discovered strength of the self, be put back together. It’s the solitary difficulty of making a suitable reality, the experience of putting the wheels back on once they have fallen off, and doing it alone, that makes the self at last robust.
I took psilocybin once and ended up in hell, a literal, visionary hell – full of deformed beings obscenely copulating, heads and limbs being hacked off, burning flames and tortures and rivers of blood. I lay on the floor in the darkness then for perhaps two hours, experiencing hell, and when the flames had faded I sat up with the intoxication slowly draining from my body, and came back to the world.
I drank orange juice then and stretched my legs, and was thankful for the warmth of the house all around me to shelter me from the October rains outside. I opened a favorite book of poems and called my girlfriend to tell her that I loved her. And I understood, returning to the world, why that hell was bearable – and even more, the value of hell – how it can be endured and its suffering transformed into something like awakeness, into something even more like strength.
Tomorrow when I wake the road will travel on. And for the first time in days I am not afraid of it.