Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The solitary traveler's nightmare/1 - Tokyo, Japan

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781
What is the most common nightmare of a person who travels alone, far from home, in an unknown place, where people speak another language and think in a different way, a country with alien customs, traditions, values and laws? Is it being assaulted in a filthy and dark alley by a gang of kids, high on crack, with bulging and wet eyes, empty bellies, holding shiny blades in their hands? Or that someone slips two hundred grams of heroin into your bag, a few meters away from the customs, in a country where drug dealing is punished with death penalty? Or perhaps it is boarding a flight of a secondary carrier in a developing country and starting to notice creaking, squeaking, vibrations, failures and draughts when the hatches have already been locked? Or will it be running into a group of armed rebels in a desert area, a hundred kilometers away from the nearest town?
Not for me. Not that I am what you would call an intrepid globetrotter but this kind of misfortunes - maybe because I haven't personally experienced any of them - seem quite unlikely to happen to me.
The nightmare that can cover my forehead with beads of cold sweat, my inexhaustible source of panic, the only reason why I might not want to hang around alone or out of my customary routes, what really frightens me most is the thought of being in a restaurant and after having ordered my dinner - just when I'm about to relax, looking forward to tasting one of my favorite dishes - realizing that I don't have even a cent with me.
It happened to me twice. The first time in Japan, in the outskirts of Tokyo, fortunately not far from where I was staying. That time I managed to finish a whole bowl of beef and rice before putting a hand in my pocket only to fish out the hope to possess a bundle of Yens. As it's often the case in Japan, the cook/waiter/cashier who was standing behind the counter at which I was sitting couldn't speak a word in English: he was just looking at me with a baffled expression while he kept chopping his vegetables with a large knife. I rummaged through my bag and I thanked my good luck when I found my passport inside. I handed it to him and with theatrical and slow gestures I tried to explain that I would be back in no time. 
I got home without breathing, I grabbed all the money I could find and I rolled down the stairs. When I entered the restaurant I was purple-faced, soaked with sweat and on the verge of dying of asphyxia, holding a tangled mass of Yens as if it was a relay baton. After I paid, the cook, with the impassible expression of a Kabuki mask, laid down the machete, took my passport from under the table and gave it back to me.
I gave him my passport, I kept thinking while I was walking. My passport...well, in Japan you can trust them, here at least. But then I was at that again: I gave him my passport, my passport...well, if you don't trust somebody even in Japan, could I do that, my passport...

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