Pale-beard on the Trans-Mongolia

FRIDAY, 13 JUNE 2003

What would an exile piece be if I don’t spoil it with some or other plan that is totally unworkable?

I was thinking of everything that was said in the last few days and weeks, and I thought: Well, back I shall go, armed with the fantastic piece of insight that I shouldn’t expect an invitation to a middle-class tea party. As I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t intend to hang around in backyard sheds again, and if I am forced to go to dinner with people at a fancy restaurant, I will absolutely insist on paying for my own garlic bread and cheap beer.

The bureaucratic decisions of exactly when and where depend, as always, on the amount of local currency that I would be able to brandish on the day of my arrival.

Furthermore, to be a “poor white” is one thing; to be a “poor white” who still drags around student loans like so many sins of an irresponsible youth is something else. That is just looking for trouble, and you don’t even need to recite the dogma of personal politics for support.

Except for this responsibility that has to be carried to its very end, there are other matters to consider. One of these is age. If I, say at the end of next year (2004), again roll up my bedding and pack my boxes, I will be a few months older than 33. Fair enough, one will have embedded in your mind important insights about your own life. But such a person might be tempted to wish he could have had these answers to some important questions a few years ago (inexcusably greedy, I know).

What will make a man feel better, however, if you stare the fact in the face that you will hit sixty if you take an overextended nap one afternoon, is experiences. To know you didn’t spend eight years in the Far East, but the only pictures that adorn your refrigerator are those of you sitting at your computer – that you had to take yourself, and dozens of photos of how your living room had changed over the years.

What experiences would I like to throw on the scale that age so disgustingly forces to one side?

To be precise, a nearly 15,000-kilometer train journey that will start in Hong Kong and end in London. Cities that hold honorary positions on many travellers’ Where’s Where will be checked off. Except for the beginning and the end, there are places like Guangzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai, Beijing, Ulaanbaatar, Moscow, Warsaw, Prague, if possible, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam –to name just a few possibilities.

There are the pictures – that will stay in your head until you are senile one day – of vast plains, mountains, rivers, and small towns. Then there are the Chinese cities where revolutions where settled, Russian cities where revolutions began and ended, Eastern European cities … where one can take photos of yourself in front of beautiful old buildings, and Western European cities that everyone ought to see at least once in their lives. And at the end of this train trip awaits your older sister in London with (hopefully) the first new-born in the family in almost 26 years.

Eventually you arrive back in South Africa with a shabby beard to show that you didn’t have to shave for two months, and hundreds of photos you can hang on your wall in the shed in the backyard. Then you can … wait, shed in the backyard?!

Essential to mention is that you will once again have to go back to Taiwan to go collect rent money for a two bedroom apartment for when you eventually will return to the Republic of your birth forever – and hopefully this time you save enough money to also be able to afford a few luxuries such as a radio, a fan for the summer, and of course a fridge for the photos. After this renewed period of necessary exile, you will again be a year or three older, the beard will be getting paler, and although you’d be able to recite Tang Dynasty poetry in your sleep, you will probably yearn to rather be telling stories to your own children – who would not even have been born yet.

Which brings me to the end of yet another part of this piece of writing. I have to go to bed so I can get up before lunch to pay the travel agent a visit. I am after all a man who is going back to South Africa in two weeks’ time – for three weeks.