She landed in Georgetown after crossing the Strait of Malacca and a sea of doubt. The afternoon had emptied out the streets. Colonial shophouses had pulled their Venetian blinds down for a nap. It was his idea to meet in Penang, to walk under paper lanterns, perhaps share a bowl of laksa on a formica-topped table by the road. She agreed because they hadn’t seen each other in two years, and playing friends had run its course. Over the phone, he promised to see her outside their hotel on Love Lane. She heard him smile at the pun.
She was dragging her suitcase down the road when she saw him, and was glad she had something to do with her hands. He looked taller than she remembered, but his crooked-teeth smile hadn’t changed. He came in for a hug; she missed it, met him sideways and ended up poking his midriff with her umbrella. They lived 3,000 miles apart, in different time zones, and their first words were about the weather.
Later on that balmy evening, he chose his moment at Lebuh Chulia street, after the antique stores and rattan furniture shops had shut for the day and grannies had emerged with meats and spices to set up food stalls. She’d always remember his question to the background score of a sizzling wok, his face shining in the light of an overhead lamp, just as the flavour of wan tan mee was flooding her mouth. His first words wobbled like the noodles on her spoon. She smiled, slowly biting into the barbecued pork, and before her face went hot with pickled green chilli, she said yes. Yes.
They knew that distance would define their intimacy for quite a few years; love would be in the air, but only if a Wi-Fi connection allowed it. Hugs and hair-ruffles would have to wait three months, sometimes five. We’ll travel, he suggested. ‘New date, new country,’ was his tagline. We’ll sicken airport attendants around the world with our kiss-goodbyes, she grinned.
For five heady days they traced each of Georgetown’s famous 60 steel-rod sculptures—one on each street. They became their treasure maps, their personal guides to the cultural quirks of the region’s Malay, Chinese, and Tamil communities. When the light changed at day’s end, he and she would return to their favourites: that one with the trishaw puller on Soo Hong Lane—the city’s narrowest alley at five feet; or the one at Canon Street depicting a canon shot fired there during the 1867 Penang Riots. They went to mosques at the wistful call of the muezzin and teased out promises from each other by lighting incense sticks in Chinese temples. As the trip’s end loomed close, they clasped their hands tighter, but their silences spawned shapes like monsters of the night.
How many long-distance relationships had they seen succeed? Who’d move where and when? And why move countries when you could swipe right and left? They’d hurt each other before, hadn’t they? (Yes. Warred and wounded.) Questions piled up faster than answers. They walked past a wall mural of a little boy and girl riding a bicycle gleefully, and watched an old couple click photos beside it. Later, while walking amid other couples in Old Town, he and she did what all lovers do. They projected their hopes and fears on them, grudged them for having it easy and not knowing it.
The night they flew into Sri Lanka, a storm shook their airplanes and the sea swallowed fishermen whole. The room she had lovingly picked in the town of Galle was beaten black-and-blue: part of the roof gone, wet floor, broken shower, the four-poster creaking. He was happy because he could still see the ocean. She wasn’t, because for months they’d been communicating with aids of offence, defence, and mind-reading. And now they couldn’t even agree about demanding a refund and moving.
If long distance sparked love, it also left old resentments simmering on the flame far too long. He was a Ph.D. student, and one trip was all it took to wipe out much of this hard-earned savings—trips she took months to commit to, given her work schedule. Her own anxieties were crippling: a future where their careers and lives could meaningfully fit in the same city looked improbable. He hid his fears behind cheery emoticons over text. She blamed the Internet connection and avoided Skype calls if she felt her mask slip.
They’d imagine landing in new cities, and casting off their old selves. They’d dance in candlelit bistros, climb mountains and kiss in seas. Yet always, with beauty came barbs. In the hill town of Ella, minutes after they’d trekked a peak with a kindly stranger and seven faithful dogs, holding hands in the rain, it happened again. A slant of the eye at the talk of money, a tone imagined when an old lover came up. Skeletons, secrets, scabs and grudges spilled out fast and fierce.
When they began the train ride they had dreamt about for months—the one between Ella and Kandy, believed to be one of the best in the world—their silence rattled around in the compartment. Outside, mist hugged tea plantations that glinted like jade shards, and valleys opened up like newly spun dreams. He and she didn’t hold hands when the mighty nine-arched bridge came into view; neither did they wave at children skipping stones across ponds. Instead, she pointed out he was taking up way too much room and threatened to leave as soon as the train stopped. He asked her to take her stinking shoes as she went. In a few hours, wise old men and women squeezed in beside them, and ribbed him about their future dreams in rapid Tamil. They were married, he said with a shrug, what more could there be. She didn’t look at him the rest of the way.
Months went by, and they admitted that they were both teetering on the verge of giving up. Would she come over to his city, just this once, he asked. A hometown might salve their battered spirits with some routine and normalcy. He imagined revisiting his old school with her, and even rehearsed a conversation they could have in that corner with the hanging origami cranes. She flew down, but found him oddly formal, while she craved easy intimacy. “It’s like you have to rewire to my presence,” she teared up on a boat ride. “It’s like starting from scratch every three months.” He ached for a semblance of harmony, a slowness, to be able to tune in. She was exhausted with his walls and waiting, and needed solutions.
One morning, numbed by back-to-back work trips and separated by 12-hour time differences, she wrote to him with some desperation. “I think a fox is getting married somewhere,” she began tentatively, remembering a Japanese lore he’d told her, about when rain and sun showed up together. She wrote about the cevicheria she was in, one of Cusco’s oldest—puckering lips at lemony, heavenly ceviche, watching pigtailed Quechua women stroll with their pet llamas. She swore she thought of him when she saw a cute hairy tarantula in the Amazonian rainforest a week ago. Later from Seoul, she sent him a postcard of jazz musicians to rewrite and reclaim the memory of a painful fight. She’d scribble sleepily from airports, on red-eye flights of long work trips. She wrote because they no longer spoke freely. The farther she went the deeper she folded him within new cities.
He wrote back too. Inside books he had loved and wanted her to read, in notes that began coming with paper-crane earrings, potted plants, and a red-seed bracelet that held a memory from his childhood. One day, over a pixelated Skype call, he proposed an ambitious travel plan: “Show me a place you’ve loved, and I take you to mine.” They’d be scraping the bottom for multi-city flight tickets but—
“Angkor Wat?” she offered. “Hanoi,” he smiled.
They simulated playing house, choosing an Airbnb like it was their future home—loft-bedroom, chintzy armchairs, a sunny kitchen tiled with azulejos. In Hanoi he wanted to trace with her some still-life images from his last trip—speakers on streets blaring communist propaganda every evening at six; scooters swarming the city like bees, vendors with conical hats on bicycles, carrying bundles of Buddha’s Hand: a citrus fruit with freakishly mutant yellow fingers. In Siem Reap, she wanted to show him coiffured stone apsaras in Angkor Wat, to revel in his joy of seeing everything for the first time. But most of all she wanted him to meet—and love—Robin Hood, the whimsical guide who’d cackle, “I love you to the moon and back!” to every acquaintance he’d meet on the street. And who in the same breath would speak of living through the civil war, where sons gave up their mothers in exchange for a bowl of sticky rice. It was Robin Hood who’d point out the play of sunlight and shadows at Bayon temple, where 216 gigantic, mysteriously smiling face-towers sculpted the skyline.
The night before their flight to Hanoi, it hit her: she’d forgotten to reapply after a Vietnam visa rejection. You go on, she pleaded with him, hot in the face at ruining this just when the two of them were thawing. “I’ll see you in a couple of days.” “Long distance again?” he joked, and browsed and made calls through the night, eyes glazing over endless dodgy visa agents’ websites. At immigration, she felt ready to faint, but it worked. For the first time, they felt like a team, and adopted Robin Hood’s, “I love you to the moon and back,” as their anthem.
Later under the slow swirl of clouds in Hanoi she set up foldable chairs by the Hoan Kiem Lake to drink beer, tapping feet when the dancing grannies emerged in the evenings. They made space for their differences—he loved going adrift, while she relished maps to cover more ground. They did both, and ended up discovering an odd, shared pleasure in building routines around little cafés: every morning, a bowl of congee from the street, and then an hour at Café Giáng for cà phê trứng, or hot egg coffee: egg yolk, sweet condensed milk, butter and cheese whisked into Vietnamese coffee powder. They’d read, eavesdrop on neighbours’ chats, and finish with cold egg coffee.
He remarked on how Hanoi had changed—there was no propaganda music anymore, the Old Quarter dressed up more for tourists. She began weaving new memories of her own into his, which often involved following the smoke wafting from food stalls. She pleaded that they skip the Hanoian speciality bún chả at the place Anthony Bourdain took Barack Obama. Instead they walked a mile and peeked into a nameless alley she’d read about online: a queue snaked toward a tiny women-run stall. When a small hill of noodles and chargrilled fatty pork patties swimming in broth appeared, he carefully prepared each morsel with his chopsticks like he was in a cooking contest. She used her fingers when the owner wasn’t watching, eating like a famished trucker.
Small moments of vulnerability undid their knots of disagreements. One night, after she attended Mass in Vietnamese with him for a lark, he opened up on anxieties around their finances and she about needing more stability. Blueprints were drawn at the juice stall outside the cathedral, sitting on toddler-size blue plastic stools, knocking knees with other patrons. They returned every night, to the air filled with the tick-tick-tick of at least 40 of them cracking open sunflower seeds with their teeth, sipping on dracontomelon juice, watching lovers on scooters whizzing into the night.
In the three years that passed, he and she gave some serious thought to moving countries, or at least building teleporters, but neither happened. When things got rocky, they rolled along as one, and waited; they got good at that. Meanwhile, outrageous plans were devised. One of them involved watching films ‘together’—finding a common hour across the time difference, watching a movie, and dissecting it like cinema students.
Then came the pilgrimages—after watching In The Mood For Love and Chungking Express, she decided they’d meet in Hong Kong, to see the city in Wong Kar-Wai’s lush chromes and reds, where gorgeous cops, kooky waitresses, and couples walked around feeling lonely in crowds.
Perhaps luck does favour desperate lovers: they made it to Hong Kong because ticket prices plummeted after Typhoon Mangkhut. They began at ground zero—Chungking Mansions, a building with low-cost hotels and shops in Kowloon peninsula. They rode on the world’s longest outdoor escalator like in the film, hopped in century-old trams, and listened in on the honey cadence of Cantonese. They imagined themselves in a Second Wave drama of their own, eating egg tarts at Hong Kong’s cha chan tengs (no-frills cafés), and syncing noodle-slurps. They sensed that deep down they spoke the same emotional dialect. In each other’s company, the city was no longer just about vertigo-giving skyscrapers, but also a window into ageing shops of wood whittlers and paper sculptors. Back home, whenever she’d think of Hong Kong, it would be to the Cantonese cover of The Cranberries number, Dreams.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.