Mar 2, 2011

A Hitchhiker's Dream (Where This Blog Got Its Name)

I remember a time back in December 2009 where I was on holiday with some friends in Japan, when my trip had to prematurely end due to a friend's accident back home. When we received the news, it was evening, we were in Hakodate, Hokkaido and were about to head out for dinner. I couldn't find the appetite so I told them to go on ahead without me. After breaking down in the hotel room out of sight from them, I knew I couldn't continue with the holiday which would last another week, so I went to use the computer at the hotel lobby to make plans home.

Not being able to converse much in Japanese (I could read better) and without much clue as to how best to get home, I remember poring through the online train schedules and finally finding one that would allow me to depart for Sapporo that night, arriving in the morning at the airport and then catching the first domestic flight back to Tokyo, all seemingly within plan. The difficulties, however, did not end there. My return ticket by Malaysia Airlines was on a special rate, and however I tried to negotiate with the staff on the phone there was nothing much she could do except to sympathise with my plight. The only solution was that she'd inform the departure counter at Narita Airport and told me to get there to see if they could put me on the next flight home.

All settled, I told my friends when they returned from dinner that I had to go home. They understood, and they told me to send their regards. They helped write some helpful Japanese phrases which I could use if I needed to communicate. "Kyuu-kyuu desu", or "it's an emergency" - was extremely helpful. They saw me to the train station and bought me sandwiches and milk to eat on the train since I did not have dinner. And when it was time to depart, I walked through the gate alone, turning back many times to wave to them, until I stepped on the train and could no longer see them.

It was the first time I felt alone and a little frightened to be this bold. I traveled to Kuala Lumpur via train by myself before but the feeling now was entirely new. I could not keep worrying about things. What if I overslept and missed the stop I must get off from? What if I missed the domestic flight? What if I could not secure a flight home and be left stranded at the airport? What if all of these were too late? What does all this mean? Through silent sobs and bites of cold sandwiches I thought and thought, and finally drifted off to sleep. When I woke up, it was 4-something in the morning, and I felt relieved to know that my stop was coming soon and I was not going to miss it.

After successfully transiting trains and arriving at New Chitose Airport, it was about 7 in the morning. I flew from the train to locate the domestic counter, and was surprised to see that an extremely long queue had already formed. At 7 in the morning! It never occurred to me then that domestic flights are somewhat like taking the metro for the Japanese. I foolishly joined the queue, but after waiting 10 minutes and realising it was not moving much, I broke away from it and ran desperately back and forth to see if I could cut through. I could only take the one domestic flight departing in another 20 minutes' time in order to catch the international flight home. In my panic, I asked some staff and thankfully they directed me to a queue meant for international tourists, which was way shorter and faster. Eventually I secured a ticket but I only had about 10 minutes left before the plane would depart. I ran through customs. I had to remove my cumbersome pouch secured to my belt to get past the metal detector. After the scan I picked up my things, did not bother to put them back on, and ran to the gate with my life. There was nothing on my mind except to catch that flight. And I did. The moment I got on the plane and slumped into my seat, I was breathless from the trauma and it was only then that I found the moment to cry in anguish and relief.

The rest of the journey home was more or less smooth-sailing. The only hiccup I faced at Narita Airport was that the Malaysia Airlines plane had departed (the window of time I had to transit between flights was too small) and I ended up purchasing the most expensive plane ticket ever - more than $4,000 - on a Singapore Airlines flight home. I paid using whatever yen I had left at the time (thankfully I still had more than half of what I brought) and charged the remainder to my parents' supplementary card, with their approval. And so I arrived home that evening, after a crazy 24-hour Amazing Race of my own.

Things have been different since then but that journey home was perhaps the most memorable experience I had in Japan. Granted it was the most adventure I ever had in my life, succeeding my solo trips to and from KL. I now have an aim to travel across land via trains and buses and cars and a traveler's two feet, on a journey spanning 10,000 km, to fulfill a certain dream of finding Pushkin in St. Petersburg, Russia. These days I sit in front of my computer reading about others who are on the road braving the dangers and the wild and living a life not contained by these imaginary borders all the world's nations are fighting about, thinking back on that memory of Japan and wishing to hit the road again.

I know I must and will make this trip, if only to find myself on the highway of life.

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