It was my second Christmas alone in a row. The year before I’d felt lonely and cold as I cooked a meal for one. This year, I was on the Gili Islands in Indonesia surrounded by miles of teal water, and I wasn’t dreaming of a white Christmas at all.
I’d had a mishap on my scooter a week before Christmas. The scrape on my leg got infected, and I had to take antibiotics for three days. “No swimming, no drinking,” the doctor had told me. It had put a slight damper on my tropical vacation, but paradise was paradise regardless.
December 23rd was my final day on antibiotics. I wanted to buy myself a Christmas gift, so I woke up early to shop. Many places I’ve traveled have superstitious people who believe the first customer of the day will affect the rest of their day in sales. I take advantage of this often, but only on days that I’m planning on spending money. Discounts seem to be the best if a store keeper is nervous of losing the sale of their first morning customer, so not purchasing anything is kind of a rude move.
I wandered past a few tiny stores until I found one packed with cute dresses and tourist t-shirts. I walked in, sure that I’d find something worth buying.
The only worker was a boy who looked to be about 15 years old. He had been sitting in the back with his guitar, but stood as I entered.
“Hello. I’m just looking,” I said. Store keepers in the past had often stood beside my elbow as I shopped, and it slowly drove me to claustrophobic insanity. This boy was more relaxed. He nodded, and backed away, leaving me alone to browse. “Your guitar?” I asked as I passed the instrument.
“Yes,” he said.
I ran my fingers across the strings, and the most horrible range of twangs came out. “Oh, it’s not in tune,” I said. “May I?”
“Yes,” he said again. I sat and started trying to tune it. I’d reached the G string and realized that the knob at the top wouldn’t turn. “That one is broken,” he said.
“Oh man! So you have to tune the guitar from the middle string out?” I shook my head. I knew I couldn’t tune a guitar by ear starting with the middle string. “You need new strings too. Do you have to go to Bali for strings?”
“No, they sell strings here.”
“There’s a store behind the bookstore,” he said.
I nodded, stood and set his guitar back down. “Sorry I couldn’t fix that.” I turned to leave his store.
“Wait, do you want to buy a dress?”
“I’ll be back,” I said.
I felt bad, knowing he thought he’d lost his first sale. I walked to the bookstore and continued along the road behind it. There I found a nearly empty store where most products were covered with a layer of dust. Guitar strings cost about 30 cents per string. I bought six new strings and walked back to the shop.
“You’re back,” the boy said when he saw me.
“Yes! This is for you.” I handed him the strings.
He stood still, mouth slightly opened, staring at the strings. “Really?” He looked at me, still not taking the strings from my hand. I smiled and extended my hand farther. He took them finally. “Thank you!”
I resumed self shopping and he sat down to restring his guitar. By the time he’d finished, I’d selected a few things. I didn’t even ask for a discount, because I trusted he’d give me one. “Also, please choose one of these,” he said, passing me several necklaces. “My gift to you.”
“Wow! Thank you.” Each necklace was beaded and had a large shell hanging from the middle. They weren’t the sort of necklace I’d choose for myself, but I was happy to have an improvised Christmas gift exchange with a total stranger. So I selected one, took my purchases, and returned to my hostel.
The rest of the day was a typical vacation day. I had a slow lunch beside the ocean, went for a walk around the ocean, and signed up to go snorkeling the next day. After dinner, I swallowed the last of my antibiotics and went to buy sunscreen.
Though many things were dirt cheap in Indonesia, sunscreen was overpriced. A small bottle of Banana Boat sunscreen was about $18. Beside the brands I recognized sat a variety of Indonesian brands. I chose an off-brand sunscreen with a high SPF. I was set for Christmas Eve with the fishes.
The next morning I boarded the boat with about 15 other people. As we sped away from our island, a two girls sitting behind me started smoking. If they throw their butts in the water, I’m gonna lose it, I thought. I waited patiently, enjoying the sun while keeping my eyes on the girls. All of a sudden, one of the girls was empty handed.
“Did you just throw your cigarette into the water?” I asked.
She didn’t say anything, but she and her friend exchanged a look and smirked.
“Why would you do that?” I continued.
“Sorry,” she said.
“I don’t really get that. I mean, we’re all out here to enjoy the ocean and you litter in it. If you don’t want to carry your own garbage away, I’ll take it for you. You can put it in my purse.”
I knew the girls were rolling their eyes about me, but I spent the rest of the boat rides taking their cigarette butts and feeling like I did my part for the ocean.
I hadn’t snorkeled in a few years, and I as soon as my head was in the water, I was immediately reminded of how strange it is to hear your own breathing as you drift on top of the water, looking down at coral and fish. I was delighted to swim, though areas of my wound had globbed up in an unattractive way. Parts of it became semi-detached from my leg, and the free ends wiggled in the salt water as gently as seaweed. Other parts fully disconnected from my body and drifted away in the ocean.
At one point we reached a turtle area. I swam beside the guide who couldn’t promise that we’d see turtles, but we did. We swam beside first one turtle whose shell was the size of a man’s torso, and then soon after we saw another diving down to the depths of the ocean.
I was ecstatic. Spending Christmas Eve swimming with turtles was the best holiday present I could give myself.
As we boated from the turtles back to our island, I lightly touched my back. My skin felt tight in a familiar way that could only mean one thing; sunburn. I wrapped my sarong around my shoulders knowing that it was too late to protect myself.
I stopped at a convenience store before returning to my hostel. I had saved money on sunscreen just to wind up buying an overpriced bottle of Aloe Vera. I lubed up my body as soon as I got home, turned on a fan and laid face down on my bed. My body soaked up the aloe quickly, and I had to reapply every few minutes.
That night wore green so as to look festive… green shirt and red skin. Very Christmas. I went out to watch live reggae and hang out with some local boys that I’d befriended. I was the disaster girl, first with my leg injury and now with a sunburn. “It’s going to peel soon, I can tell. It’s a horrible burn,” I told them. They all had brown skin and couldn’t relate, but they were helpful in assisting me with the re-lubrication of aloe on my back.
Three days later I flew out of Indonesia. I was still sunburned, but hadn’t peeled. I continued my love affair with aloe throughout the entire 24 hour journey from Bali to Munich. I would be the most sun-kissed person in all of Germany.
I had to wait in line before checking in to my hostel. I was making a mental plan. First, I’d shower, then eat and have a beer, then return home for an early and restful night, so as to wake up early the next morning and tour the city all day.
Then I saw a sign: Nightly Beer Tours.
How could I say no? Having gone from a bartender and beer connoisseur to a teacher in Asia where all beer tastes like water, I couldn’t wait to taste what Germany had to offer.
I adjusted my plan immediately.
The beer tour started in a bus station where everyone paid 16 euro and got a bottle of beer. “One great thing about Germany,” said our tour guide, “is you can drink wherever you want.”
I was in love. I forced myself to sip my beer though I wanted to chug it. I’d actually forgotten how much I’d liked beer. We rode to Bavaria where we entered the Augustiner Beer Hall. I watched the bar maids carry out ten massive glasses at a time, and felt like I could never live up to their level of awesomeness.
We moved on to another beer hall, and then another. I tried original beer, dunkels, and my favorite, weiss beer. We saw German dancing at the Hofbrauhaus and listened to accordions. Toto, we are not in Asia anymore!
The final stop on the tour was the bar in the main level of a youth hostel. I was handed a free beer and a shot of jager. Already quite in the bag, I drank up. The Americans I’d met early on in the tour had all backed off to find food. Soon I found myself bonding with some South Americans.
I was excited to speak Spanish, and my mind was loose enough to give me the confidence to try. I quickly realized something horrible. They would ask me a question in Spanish, and I would answer in Korean. I couldn’t even say things like, “I’m sorry,” or “no.” My mouth wouldn’t obey. A trilingual I was not.
They wandered off and I sat at the bar. I was debating going back to my hostel, but I had no idea where it was. I ordered another drink instead.
Just then a multilingual Greek man and his cousin sat beside me. They introduced themselves, and I complained about not being able to speak Spanish. “My mouth won’t obey me!” I told them.
“Want to do a shot?” Asked Fred.
“No. I don’t need a shot,” I said logically.
Fred turned to the bartender and ordered shots for him and his cousin. “Two B-52’s.”
“Oh! You’re shooting B-52’s? In that case, I will take a shot,” I said.
“Make that three shots,” he said.
If I’d thought that shots would improve my sense of direction, I was wrong. I knew even less of where I was. I hadn’t even gotten buzzed during my two weeks in Indonesia, and so my brain was an easy target for German beer. The boys I’d met all were staying in the hostel we were in. And so I went off with my new friends, who were still total strangers, and slept in their dorm room with them.
The next morning I woke up not raped, not cut up in tiny pieces, and feeling grateful. Since they’d turned out to be honest guys, I decided to hang out with them. I went out for a walk with Fred and his French friend Coco. Along the way we met a girl from Hong Kong, and looped her into our ethnically mixed group.
We spent the day wandering through downtown Munich, spending hours drinking coffee, and eventually going out for dinner and some German beer, yet again.
It was a short trip for me though. I was leaving the next day for Prague, so I let my one crazy night in Munich be my only crazy night there. That night the guys did get buzzed enough to imitate American accents at my request.
“All Americans sound like this, ‘fuck fucking fuckin’ uh, fucking fuck,'” Sebastian said.
The other guys tried their best, talking about riding horses and playing the violin. I laughed uncontrollably.
The next morning I went to the train station where I searched desperately to find an open seat. Every car seated six, and every car was full. Were I not to find a seat, I’d have to stand for the entire six hour ride.
At last, I saw a car filled with five Asians. I gestured to the empty seat, and they nodded. As soon as my bag was overhead, I sat. The boy beside me was writing in his journal in Korean. I started laughing. “Hangook saram ihm knee da?” I asked him. ‘Are you Korean.’
He looked up, surprised. “You speak Korean?”
“Joekum,” I said. ‘A little.’
We chatted a bit and then returned to silence like everyone else.
I wasn’t tired at all, and I’d read everything that I’d brought to read throughout the trip. So I spent a few hours twiddling my thumbs and doing not much else. My back had started to itch. The sunburn from five days before was finally peeling. I tried to be discrete as I shoved my hand up the back of my shirt and clawed at my skin. Pieces of old flesh curled up under my nails.
At last, we reached Prague. I stood up from my seat and looked down. I’d been sitting on my coat throughout the journey, and now I could see just how much I’d been scratching at myself. The inside of my jacket was covered in a layer of skin flakes.
Quickly, I picked up my jacket and shook it, watching my skin fall to the ground. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed how disgusting I was, but all the other passengers were busy getting their luggage and preparing to step into Prague.
So I followed the Korean out, walking away from a pile of my dead skin. I smiled a little. I had come to Europe just to bring a bit of my island Christmas with me. And now I was leaving part of myself behind.
(written in 2011)
My travel friends imitating American accents: