Travels

Tell us about yourself.

I ask a man for directions, only to be rewarded with awkward silence and a mildly bemused, uncomprehending stare. I try other passersby and get the same discomforting stare, sometimes coupled with an apologetic, “Sorry, no English”. The one woman who does seem to understand me offers a dazzling smile and replies, “Stew to rum migi ni mawatte, zutto stun kono flailing chicken. (Stew and rum turn right, and ever stun this flailing chicken),” then turns and briskly walks away. Each conversation leaves me more confused, but the harder I try, the more frustrated I get. I walk through crowds with a sinking stomach, fists balled by my sides, thinking, “This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.” When my mother offered me a solo trip to Harajuku, Japan, I was thrilled. I researched tourist attractions deep into the night, amassed huge piles of maps and brochures, created the perfect packing plan, and scheduled everything down to the last minute. I was going to traipse boldly through new territories, easily navigate streets and read maps and signs with translations underneath, and confidently order meals from servers who spoke coherent English. The trip was going to be a fun, doable challenge.My naivety astounds me.Everything has me bewildered – there is a man flaunting zebra prints layered with tiger stripes under faux fur; a loli-goth girl in a lacy Victorian dress stands next to a man wearing nothing but a loincloth and socks; the city is a labyrinth; conversation leaves me tangled in an incomprehensible, rapid-fire blur of Japanese and English; and even the toilets stupefy me with their twenty-something buttons. As I am forced to accept how truly lost I am, I surprise myself and smile. The mounting panic steadily subsides, and I am left with a strange mixture of mild dismay and exhilaration. I am lost, yes. But I am also in the middle of Harajuku, the fashion center of Japan – a cultural center of the world. Looking up, I see that what I had moments before perceived simply as an unknown area is now a whirlpool of diversity, pulsing with an excited, high-tension atmosphere. The clothing and styles are unfamiliar, the signs around me flash neon symbols I cannot decipher, and the garbled speech of passerby sounds like life played at two-times speed.I spend the rest of the evening wandering through storefronts, watching blurs of sailor uniforms mix with business suits and yukatas, exploring streets filled with takoyaki vendors and rotating sushi bars and maid cafes, understanding absolutely nothing, having nothing understood, and loving every second of it. Three summers later, I hold a map somewhere in the streets of Bangkok, Thailand. I can’t speak; I can’t understand; I can’t read. I have no plan, I am alone and lost in a distant, unfamiliar country, and I am entirely enjoying myself.

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