“I wish this lasts forever.” A Japanese man I met seven hours ago said to me as we sat together at an outside restaurant table on the Croatian coast, silently watching the dull crimson of the sunset dissolve into the sea. I knew what he meant.
We met by chance on the street, when I was looking for my hostel. Since I had the map reading skills of a run-over possum, I was lost. As I wandered around the district I thought my hostel was in, I saw an Asian man checking out a map. Hoping for some Asian solidarity, I went over and asked if I could borrow his map for a second.
“Why yes! Certainly you have permission to use the map” He replied in accented English. As I combed over the map, I saw a circle around the hostel I was supposed to be staying in. Pointing at it, I asked “Are you staying there? That’s my hostel!” “In that case I believe we occupy identical premises!” He said excitedly.
For those of you who don’t know, that is what the Asian education system does to people. English grammar and sophisticated vocabulary are grilled into us from the moment of conception. As we are occupied with replicating ourselves into embryonic form, we are bathed in the vibrations of a voice not much different from that of Microsoft Sam, reciting from a script that would have been appropriate in a 19th century Parliamentary debate. Context is thrown out of the window like the afterbirth, and we end up speaking like we’re constantly squinting at an invisible thesaurus.
But it gets the job done, I guess.
As he led me back to our hostel, he told me a bit about “the story of his life”, and asked whether I wanted to “go on an excursion in the magnificent city” with him. This was just what I hoped for. You see, if I’m travelling with someone else, I’d have someone to blame if things go wrong, and that thought comforted me.
After putting down my bags (“That is a substantial bulk!”), we went off to the city.
The way into town hugged the glorious Croatian coast of Dubrovnik, and amidst the palm trees waving like dancing Caribbean girls and the sea glistening like a diamond mine, he talked about his “significant other in a foreign country” and how he “discharged himself from his occupation to explore”. Soon we were at the city walls.
He gestured towards a hill with what looked like an ancient fortress at the top of it. “I would very much like to ascend that mountain!” He said excitedly. There was a cable car, but it cost 20 euros, so we decided to walk.
The mountain itself wasn’t that high— unfortunately, the person who designed the road must have been listening to some hardcore dub-step when drawing the plan for it. Twisted, aimless and never-ending, it was the geographical equivalent of a 10-hour remix of a Justin Bieber song.
Since we wanted to get to the top before nightfall, we decided to take a beaten down path that seemed to be a shortcut to the top. It was very steep, but we thought it was worth a shot. And it was a path. Albeit one that ended halfway to the top. What was a narrow path suddenly vanished, leaving a dense wall of thorns in front of us.
We looked back and swore in our mother tongues. The path was too steep to walk down on. He looked at me and said “I suspect we shall have to imitate the children!”
I was at a temporary loss of words, but his intentions became clear when he sat on the ground and started to slide down the path. Grudgingly, I followed.
It was uncomfortable and undignified, but it worked. The sun was about to go down, so we decided to go head into the city centre. We were quite pleased with ourselves until we noticed that everybody was staring at our rear ends.
Now I don’t have the greatest ass in the world, and I’m not used to being stared at, so it felt like there were countless laser beams focused upon both of our rear ends, one of which (mine) was self-consciously sweating.
We passed a storefront and I looked at our reflections in the glass. No wonder people were staring at us— the ground we slid on must have been quite muddy, so now both of us had what can only be described as broad brushstrokes of brown stains on the back of our jeans. It didn’t help that my jeans were light coloured— it looked as if a drunk Picasso took a mop and dabbed at our asses with reddish-brown paint.
Feeling slightly embarrassed, I suggested we go back to the hostel. But he was having none of it. He wanted to go to a boutique shop to ‘procure a memento for his significant other’.
Out of all the shops he could have chosen, we ended up in a musky perfume shop. Its overwhelming fumes made me feel giddier than that time when I ended up on the floor in a run-down pub in Budapest after a 3 hour shisha session. But that’s another story.
The shopkeeper, a full-built middle aged woman with short, green-streaked hair asked him ‘What are you looking for?’ ‘Oh, just a memento for a… special friend.’
To this day, I don’t know why the woman did what she did. Maybe it was because we were two young adult men with brown stains on their jeans shopping in a perfume shop, maybe it was just the way we looked. Her eyes glinted and throwing a knowing glance at me, she said ‘Oh how sweet! A ‘special’ friend’!
My first reaction was to wonder if she thought I was the feminine one. If we had to be mistaken as a gay couple, at the very least I wanted to be the manly one in the relationship.
My friend didn’t really pick up the hint, and bought a small vial of pale purplish liquid without much fuss. By this point I really wanted to go back to the hostel.
But he wanted to go to a nice seafood restaurant, since Dubrovnik was famous for those. That being his last day in Croatia, I didn’t have the heart to say no.
Our walk to the port was excruciating. After the shopkeeper’s misunderstanding, each stare became even more penetrating. In retrospect I was probably overreacting. After all, we were two Asians in a part of the world with not many Asian tourists. Compared to the reactions I got in Sarajevo a week later, the odd stare was nothing. People would point at me in the streets as if I was an animal that escaped from the zoo, and more than once some teenagers started doing Gangnam Style at me.
But this was before Sarajevo. By the time we got to the restaurant, I was wishing for a massive earthquake so the ground could swallow me up.
We sat down and placed our orders. The restaurant was nice— we had an outdoor table with two flickering candles. It was also close to the water’s edge, and the view was breath-taking. More importantly, the staring stopped the moment we sat down. I guess without the tell-tale stain marks and the perfume’s flowery paper bag, we were just two guys having a nice meal by the seaside.
My companion gazed at the spreading crimson of the sunset, and with a contented sigh, said ‘I wish this lasts forever.’
I thought of the burning stares and uneasy looks we would get on the way back to the hostel. Over the lapping of the waves echoing around the harbour, I said ‘Me too.’