I'm sorry for the lapse. A few things conspired against me in these last few days to prevent a final post. As I type, I'm sitting on my bed at home in Adelaide, looking out the window at that familiar view I've had for years. And despite my laptop in the other room, I am finishing the journal as I started: with my bluetooth keyboard and iPad. Yes, it's over. I'm home.
So, where did I leave off? I'd just spent the day at the Tokyo Games Show and the Ghibli Museum. Well, that night, I awoke from my sleep feeling unwell. I couldn't breathe, my arms and legs were numb, my face tingled, dizziness. It had happened a few days earlier and I'd eventually rolled over and went back to sleep. Tonight, though, was the second time. The second time something felt wrong. I got up, went to the bathroom, had a drink, tried to control my breathing. My pulse was racing and while I wasn't in the midst of a heart attack and under immediate threat, it also wasn't going away.
Eventually, after half an hour of my best efforts, I made the choice to call for a doctor. I decided if there was something wrong, I'd rather pay for the inconvenience and the hassle and catch it early. So at 4am, I woke Sam and got him to call reception for a doctor. Unfortunately, it being 4am in a Japanese hotel, the main desk's English was lacking, and Sam couldn't work out a way to tell them we wanted a doctor to come and look at me in the room. A further half hour later, a staff member finally came up to check the room, and once she saw me, understood. Five medics, an ambulance and a fire truck arrived in short order. That is no exaggeration.
At the hospital, they did blood tests, ECG, etc. and asked in faltering English what the problem was. There was nothing wrong with my heart, but my blood CO2 levels were very low. The answer: anxiety-induced hyperventilation. After I calmed down in the ER I was discharged and told, literally, 'don't be anxious.' Okay, sorry, but is that really the best way to treat someone you've diagnosed with an anxiety-induced illness? "Your anxiety is causing you to be very sick, so whatever you do, DON'T feel anxious. Okay, see you later!" Really? How about a sugar pill placebo and the instruction that once you finish them it will have cleared up the "infection"?
So we eased home at 6am or 7am and I collapsed in bed, exhausted. Sam, who gets up early anyway, decided he was awake now and so stayed up. At 9:30am he headed out for the day and came home at 6:30pm that night after having had dinner. In those intervening hours I rested, watched TV, wished I was home and tried in some discomfort to ignore my discomfort. I spoke to my parents back in Australia and, via them, my doctor, who said from the information he had he agreed that it was a panic attack and nothing too serious. I stumbled out of bed and down to the convenience store to get both lunch and dinner.
It wasn't exactly how I'd pictured my last full day in Japan. I got my bags together that night in preparation for our departure the next day, and Skyped home to friends in Adelaide, which really helped distract me and let me relax. The night was a fitful sleep, obviously, and in the morning I was tired but with no real recurrences of the issue. In my head, of course, I was trying to work out why it had happened. I wasn't anxious, in the way I normally get anxious (pit of stomach butterfly black hole). It had been a stressful few months, sure, and there was the question of what life would bring back home now that I had no more excuses not to get a real job, but enough to bring on panic attacks? I don't know. I was looking for other options - maybe a spider bite, or a heart problem or something. I am a man in control of my body. I was not used to being slave to it.
We agreed we'd head straight from check-out at the hotel to Narita airport for a few reasons. First, we'd have to have our bags with us, and if we were to spend the time in other Japan districts we'd have to pay for tickets as our JR passes had expired. Plus, I wasn't feeling like walking the streets for any long distance, and given the fact that Narita is actually a city an hour out from Tokyo centre, it seemed easier just to go straight there and sit in the lounge even though our flight wasn't until 8:30pm. We caught a couple of trains to Tokyo Station, and then the (nice and comfortable) express to the airport. We got there after 1pm, leaving us with a nice six or seven hours to hover, relax, listen to music, browse duty free and eat.
Well, that's what we thought would happen, at least. As it turns out, Qantas check-in only opened at 5pm. We couldn't drop our bags off (we'd already checked in online) and go through security. We had to wait in the airport entryway. There was always going to be something. So, we ate our last meal in Japan - a soy ramen lunch for myself, and soba for Sam - in an airport restaurant. I whiled away the time listening to podcasts. Eventually, we dropped off our luggage and got through customs and security. That still left two more hours, but they were much more comfortable in the Qantas Club and with plenty of food, drinks and Wi-Fi.
The plane flight was easy, actually, since the late departure meant it was basically just dinner and then sleep. I crashed at about 11:30pm or 12 midnight and slept better on the plane than I had in the hotel the night before. I was tired obviously, but knowing I was heading home was reassuring to someone still not entirely convinced of the panic attack diagnosis. I woke up at 6am to breakfast and by 7:30am we were on the ground in Sydney. It felt shorter than the Sydney to Adelaide flight that followed. And then, that was it. We were home. Walking off the plane and up the ramps at Adelaide airport into the arms of my waiting family. Done.
Three months, over. It had been the focus of my life for twelve months. We started talking about it this time a year ago. Planning, searching for accomodation, finding deals, arranging transport, maps, saving money, working, exploring sights to see, building an itinerary, booking online. It was an effort and a direction and a goal. Nearly everything I did was in service of it, and now it had passed. Quickly, and yet at times excruciatingly slowly. Italy felt like a lifetime ago, but those three months? Like a finger snap.
And then it became post-trip. Unpacking, washing, organising, binning, showering. Shredding papers, giving out all the presents I'd bought. Sharing half of my photos with the family because we couldn't sit through all two thousand. Finding out when work would put me on the roster again. Having celebratory dinner out on the night of my return. Going to the doctor the next day. All fine on this end too. Blood tests still to come in, but likely normal. Apparently, panic attacks commonly occur when asleep and also don't have to be formed around a kernel of specific anxiety at all. So I'm treating it as a temporary stress-induced trip illness and am determined to feel better each day I'm back (and I am).
People always say that travel changes you. At the start of this trip, I posited something else. Travel doesn't change you. Travel is the novelty of difference. Travel is growing tired of something else for a while, so that when you can return you can experience home new again. I didn't know how right I'd be. As time wore on, and the places we visited continued to impress but also continued to blur together in my memory, what I yearned for more was home. I had got sick of Adelaide for a while, and by the end I was sick of not-Adelaide.
Travel doesn't change you. Travel clarifies you. Without all the habits and routines you fall into, you discard the different characters you play to different audiences. It frees you from any expectations of who you are or how you act. You can be your true self because you know that no one has prejudged you, and further, because the people you meet and encounter in all likelihood you will never see again. You can be silly or embarrassing or flirtatious or angry or reasoned or enthralled or bored, because fuck it, who the hell are these people anyway?
Trips like this are only half about the places you go to. I went to some amazing places, saw some amazing buildings, sights, wildlife, scenery, and had fantastic one of a kind experiences. A Bob Dylan concert at a jazz festival; a solo night-time funicular ride from the top of the Swiss mountains down to Zurich; too many stunning museums and artworks to count; sunset over Kyoto from a walking trail in the hills; watching a day of Fringe being filmed in Vancouver; Niagara from behind the falls; two nights of frenetic sprinting around the Edinburgh Fringe; a walking tour through the Berlin underground scene; and the list goes on.
The other half is about you. Sure, it's good to go see those international monuments you see on the postcards, but they only get you so far. The other part of travel is internal. It's about how you react, how you process it. What you get out of it. How you juxtapose other cultures and realities with your own life and learn from it. How it makes you want to improve, or change your ways, or seek new goals, or come to accept your flaws.
Some people will go to the Louvre because that's what you do in Paris, not because of what you get out of it. This kind of travel by checklist is missing the point, though. Discover your own must-dos when you're there, because most of the time the big tourist attractions are the least true representation of that country in the country. Do your best to say yes to every new, scary opportunity to presents itself when you're there. These last three months hold some of the best moments of my life to date. Thank you to those of you that shared them with me, though I am surprised many bothered given the abstract introspection that has typified these posts. It was more for my own self-analysis (and memory) than for general interest, so you have my respect if you bothered to check in now and then.
I am not a changed person. It's quite the opposite. I'm the most me I've ever been.