I hop on the back of a motorbike, terrified. I’m in Bandung, Indonesia, and riding motorbikes is like Uber here. We swerve up the spines of hills, between racing cars, through the crevices of alleyways that expose neighborhoods hidden from tourist’s view – a slum, I want to say, I don’t want to say. I’m so many mountains away from my politically correct mountain-framed home. Clusters of kids squat among piles of plastic bottles, abandoned slabs of wood, and worn tires. Wet clothes billow on strings here like flags, surrendering to the heat. Crumbling cement cascades into a half-river, cut short by slumped structures. On its bank, multi-colored aluminum huts patch together like quilts. I gasp as another motorbike plummets towards us and my driver plummets right back, skating towards each other in this tiny alley on this tiny corner of the earth. Miraculously, we don’t collide. I should trust this driver, this is his corner. I wish for a moment I could take a photo of the scene, post it for friends and family back in my corner to marvel at, to share and connect over. It starts to rain, and the wet earth pangs me – it smells like home, is not home, and already I don’t know what home could mean anymore. A million cliche Bed Bath & Beyond quotes about Home cloud my vision, and as we screech to a stop in front of my destination, one such sign hangs in the window. In English, an omen. “What I love most about Home is who I share it with.” I am alone, sharing this tiny corner of the world with myself. I have always found solace in solitude, but without the option of seeing a familiar face, I feel untethered. I FaceTimed my best friend before I left the hotel today, a fuzzy blur of her magnificent curls, a bad connection. “I only have one bar,” I message her, and we vow to try again later, when the connection might be stronger. Connection; humans need this, as any living thing does, I think to myself as I watch two cats cuddle into one another above a sewer. Most of us reach for one another in covert ways – cracking a joke to share a smile, swiping right, breaking bread. Those whom are too cowardly to reach toward another being reach toward things – iPhones, e-cigarretes, designer labels, Jumbo Diet Coke, white collars. When we don’t connect, we consume, we commiserate. This leaves us all reaching, searching for something outside ourselves, secretly hoping it will fill the void.
I want to meet locals, but am shy to approach naturally, so I log into the Couch Surfing hang outs app. I find a nice local girl with good references, like restaurant reviews – so strange this is what connection often looks like these days. I am awaiting her arrival as she glides through patchwork aluminum and tiny alleys, her corner. The road is slick with wet earth, tires screeching up at the crying sky. I pray she makes it here safe. I pray I make it home safe, wherever Home is. Like the sign shared, home can be wherever I make it, wherever the connection is strongest.
I’ve met many travelers who pride themselves on having no set “home” – digital nomads, they call themselves. They work remotely for wealthy tech companies or online tutoring centers or in data analytics, make home where the flights are cheapest before packing up a few months later, find lovers along the way, trade them for new ones like stocks when they change time zones. They make it look glamorous, they make it look easy, they make it look so very lonely. They look like they’re running from something. They want to show you their Instagram, at least five times an hour. They often pick their destinations based on where they can get the best selfies, what scenery might bring them the most “likes.” One tells me she wouldn’t trade her nomad life for anything, then shares a profound meeting she had with older woman in a remote Russian village.
“I never would’ve met her if I didn’t have this lifestyle. She pitied me for not having close lifelong friends, but I like it this way. I don’t click with my friends back home anyway, now that they’re all married with kids. I get to meet and befriend all kinds of people from around the world; I like it this way,” she reassures herself.
We connect for 8 whole hours, swapping stories and secrets, then depart indefinitely. Another tells me his “only problem is choosing what mountain to climb next.” I see straight through it, I see straight through myself. I am not here to judge, I just don’t want to buy into the unspoken belief that your problems, insecurities, loneliness, and ego are dropped like your checked luggage the more airline terminals you fly through. I check myself and center in on my ego, on the way it has obstructed the view of other beings wanting to connect by busying itself with appearances and impressions. When life gives us mirrors, listen to your reflection. Let it guide you to your meaning. Let it guide you home.
I would keep writing, but the nice local girl* is calling me on What’s App. My phone reads, “connecting…”
*The nice local girl’s name is Kiki, which is the first thing we connect on. My little cousin couldn’t pronounce Kayla, so he calls me Kiki, and it caught on among my family as my nickname. The Real Kiki and I belt out Drake lyrics together, “Kiki, do you love me…” We laugh, break bread, share stories and secrets, and teach each other about ourselves. We leave indefinitely, and I’m so grateful I had the chance to meet her.