I’m writing to you from a chilly Japan today. I seem to have mistimed my first international vacation in four years, and now I’m stuck in my hotel room as it pours outside. The view is good though. From my 13th floor perch, I can see the Tokyo Tower with its flashing lights through the fog, and I plan to go walk it on a drier day. Below me, traffic zooms past, trains rumble on their merry way and doll-sized umbrella-covered Tokyoites weave through the busy street.
It’s just another day, rain or not.
I snap a picture of the dreary morning, but this one will likely not make it into my Instagram, which is a carefully curated album of pink cherry blossoms in full bloom, steaming bowls of ramen, and sake by the cupful. I post a portrait of myself under a cherry tree, my smile shy as the picture was taken by a friendly stranger, and make a mental note to return to that street in the evening when the pink lanterns strung through the trees will be on, to make an already beautiful scene even more picturesque. I stroll through the city alone at night (itself a miracle) and post gorgeous video cityscapes, marveling at how safe it feels to be in this strange city, thousands of miles from home where I know no one and haven’t seen another black woman in two days.
We all know that Instagram is the home of the highlight reels, picture perfect lives, and romanticised existences where the mundane is either hidden or elevated. It’s an escape from reality because we need an escape from reality. No context is this truer than in travel.
From my posts, you’d never guess that when I landed in the country on a Sunday night (sleep deprived after 19 hours flight time in a cramped chair, fighting over the armrest with the girl seated next to me), I spent two hours in a queue waiting to go through immigration, then another two in another queue picking up my train pass and trying to figure out how in the world I would make it to my hotel. A South African couple on the train-pass queue said to me “we weren’t ready for how much time will be spent in queues here.” It’s not just queues. It’s navigating a foreign system where nothing is intuitive as it was not designed with you in mind.
For example, if you want a sim card, you buy it from a vending machine, not a friendly customer care agent eager to show you all the bells and whistles. Google maps wants to convince you that you can get to your hotel via public transport in an hour but they take it for granted that you’re a native with intimate knowledge of how the train system operates.
Add a foreign language to all these and yeah, it’s a nightmare.
When I finally made it into my hotel at half past midnight on that first day, body hurting from hauling my heavy luggage through steep stairways in railway stations, what I felt was relief. Not joy. That would come later. Not even exhaustion or the biting cold. That would also come later.
I was too flooded with adrenaline to be anything other than grateful that somehow, alone, without speaking a lick of the language, I navigated the Japanese public transport system and even managed to get a taxi for the last kilometer between the hotel and the train station.
Congratulate me. I am the MVP for real.
The point is, there is a lot of difficult, unglamorous behind the scenes work that gets left out of the narratives we tell about vacations. Vacations require lots of planning, starting with nerve wracking visa applications for those of us with weak passports. You must convince embassy officials that you are a model citizen with robust finances and a desire to go back to your country once your visit ends. Sometimes they will reject you anyway, Just to make a point.
Even when everything works out as it should, and you get your visa, and you board the plane, and make it through immigration and safely arrive at your hotel, and rest, and finally begin to enjoy your holiday, small things can still trip you up.
Like getting lost, or the awkwardness of asking the waitress to explain your lunch bill because it’s higher than what the menu said, or ordering the wrong food and being too self conscious to ask that they correct it (I once accidentally ordered two lunches in Madrid. It felt like the entire restaurant was staring at me and my two big plates of food). I keep saying to myself, it’s OK if I don’t get things right on the first try and I embarrass myself. Nobody knows me here and they will never see me again.
Because that’s why you travel, isn’t it, to get away from what you know?
And man, does it all pay off. In big and small ways. In the new foods, new cultures, new experiences. Friendly strangers eager to help out, like the old lady who took several photos of me on request, even going down on one knee so she could get the perfect shot of cherry blossoms behind me. Or the patient hotel receptionist who demonstrated how to open a door because my sleep deprived brain was too addled to remember the concept.
It’s stopping to capture a breathtaking sunset, marvel at historical sites, and share in that singular human experience that is awe and wonder. It’s small thrills like smart toilets with self-warming seats and preinstalled bidets that wash your nethers with a warm, gentle shower of water at the press of a button.
It’s the personal development that comes with overcoming challenges and learning to trust myself, giddy with the knowledge that I can do difficult things such as travel to Japan by myself and have a heck of a time. Also, have you seen my Instagram? It’s popping.