Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

Advertisement

Fiction

Destinations of Waiting

From the Lost Travelers’ Tour Guide

In compiling a guidebook to the Eighth Continent, it’s been a common observation by our writers that all travel involves a painful amount of waiting. There’s the time spent waiting for a taxi to arrive, the time wasted waiting in line at the airport, and a seemingly endless amount of hours waiting in concourses and bus terminals, train stations and hotel lobbies. And while many facilities attempt to make our wait as comfortable as possible, it’s curious that though we are ultimately engaging in the same activities we might do at home (eating breakfast, drinking coffee, reading a book, sending text messages) somehow the experience is always more humdrum when awaiting future travel.

Because of the hours, days, months, and years of waiting that a seasoned traveler will accumulate, it’s worth noting that waiting is the one common destination we’ll all visit. Full of melancholy and frustration, waiting is our preparation for those other destinations of waiting we’re bound to visit: Our home’s emptiness after our children are in college and we await their return; the months after a partner has left and we long for our next relationship; the years spent waiting for a promotion; waiting for a phone call; waiting to be finally noticed; waiting for our partner to kiss us or the shower to be free; waiting for the boredom to end and something exciting to begin, and—of course—waiting for our next vacation.

As your guidebook writers have stood in line, or been delayed by customs in foreign countries, or found ourselves stranded in the airports of the following destinations of the Eighth Continent, we often reflected on those other, glorious hours which passed like minutes: the nights when we were in the arms of our lovers; the weeks of our most cherished vacations; the years which flew past as we chased our children around the house in joy. All that time, it seems, passed almost as quickly as our vacations were spent, and we found ourselves back in the airport waiting for our flight home. In hindsight, what we’ve come to realize is that most of our lives were spent in waiting. Perhaps, then, waiting itself, like the following locations, is the destination we’ve all been waiting for, teeming with life, waiting for us to arrive.

The Island of Thelios

If you’re like most travelers, you’re bound to first visit Thelios when you’re young and far too poor to travel in luxury. It’s this very handicap which draws you to the island. Working at your depressing post-undergrad job, for which you brew lattes or answer phones, you’ve heard tales of Thelios, and the stories are always the same. In Thelios, there are hammocked hostels—complete with breakfasts of papaya and freshly caught fish—all for the equivalent of a cup of coffee. Why, a single student loan payment can last you a year!

Hearing this, you’ll purchase your tickets against the somber advice of parents and other well-meaning adults, who wish for you to succeed in life, not board a plane with a guitar, sandals, and no foreseeable plans. You’re too young to notice the older passengers on the plane—the businessmen and women, the parents and retirees—but, as you collect your bags, you do notice the different class of traveler arriving in Thelios. These are the tourists whose names are written on placards held by drivers outside baggage claim, and who possess special tickets for lavish jitneys, where they sip iced drinks and eat canapés. The scent of grilled pineapple wafts to the bus stop where you stand crushed between long-haired travelers carrying journals and hand drums.

Off you go to the legendary Thelios Hostel, where you’ll find your hammock awaiting. Here waters are as turquoise as promised, and nights are as mosquito-free as foretold. The accommodations are less luxurious than you might wish (don’t be surprised when you find frightening but innocuous spiders in the outdoor shower) but the hostel is full of fellow young travelers. They relax on the sand tuning guitars, borrowing fishing poles from the front desk, rolling joints, and planning outings to distant sea caves. And amid moonlit bonfires, naked swims, bartered hashish, and dog-eared travel guides, you find yourself, at last, truly free.

You’re young enough not to care about the spotty sleep of hammocks or the endless guitar chords strummed day and night. You focus instead on the passing friendships, the bottles of wine produced from backpacks, and the sudden and luxurious sex committed with the light-hearted abandon of travel.

And yet, sitting on the shoreline at night, you become aware of another Thelios. The one up on the cliffs, where white-walled hotels rise and lights shine from nighttime parties. You can almost hear the clinking of glasses as you watch silhouettes of men and women dancing beneath hanging lanterns at the sort of hotels you’d never be able to afford. In daytime, as you walk through town, you see well-dressed travelers dining at Thelios’ best restaurants. There are no backpacks weighing them down, and they sip pinot grigio and enjoy sautéed shrimp and buttered lobster. The scent of these dishes follows you as you return to the hostel with your plastic bag of bananas, block cheese, and cheap brown bread.

What becomes clear, over the months you stay in Thelios, is the wide disparity between the experience you’re having and the one these older, wealthier travelers are enjoying. They enter concert halls to hear masters of Theliosian oud, and recline on chalk-white balconies with private masseuses, mango sorbets, and local goat cheese. They can afford the best Theliosian wines, and although those bottles are no more expensive than an oil change back home, there’s simply no way you can justify such an expense when you can buy tangier jugs of local red for pennies. What grows inside you with every eatery you pass, every theater performance you can’t attend, and every museum you cannot afford, is the knowledge that the true Thelios is closed to you. There’s only your Thelios with its mildewed hammocks and musty showers.

And so you return to the beachfront with its hacky-sack games and incessant jam sessions. Someone has bought a Theliosian oud, and you listen to the inept playing, and for the first time, you think about your growing loans and vanishing potential and realize the gravity of your relatives’ warnings. Then, with a deep sigh—your hair uncombed, your shirt smelly, and your sandals worn—you climb back aboard a flight and return home to face the burden of the ordinary everyday life.

That reality, however, turns out to be not as horrible as you’d imagined. You go to grad school or find a job interning in a company that eventually hires you. You return for another bachelor’s degree (in something you want to do this time) and you fall in love. You have children and buy strollers. You get a 401K plan and dental insurance, a savings account and a home entertainment system, you produce gray hairs and extra weight, and as the years of Thelios grow further away, they also bring you closer to your next, longed-for visit. This time you can afford the villa hotels, the wine tours, and acropolis performances. And finally, accompanied by your family and your credit cards, you return to the coastlines of Thelios.

And let us inform you that the first-class shuttle is everything you’d hoped it to be. The hors d’oeuvres you smelled so long ago are more delicious than you could have predicted. Drinks are iced and your hotel is luxurious. Your bedroom opens to the coastline, its curtains blowing into your tiled room, and tropical fruits are brought to your room every morning. Lunches are complete with fresh-squeezed papaya juice and fish roasted on the outdoor grill, and there are always dishes of cured meats, olives, and marinated goat cheese. At dusk, a troupe of Theliosian musicians pick out enchanting tunes, your wine glass is refilled, and the sun sets glorious on the horizon. Thelios, it turns out, is everything you dreamed it would be.

It’s only after the musicians are gone that you lean against the hotel’s railing and see the dim glow of beachfront fires far below, and feel the sudden pang of nostalgia. For, despite its massage therapists and celebrated chefs, there’s something deeply inauthentic about your vacation. The experience of the hotel, while delightful, is impersonal. Here natives work for you, they don’t arrive at your bonfire with homemade wine and the day’s catch. There are no songs sung with other travelers, no beds shared with gorgeous strangers, no hammocks where you lie late into the night philosophizing about the world. You realize then that it’s down there, in the hammocks, where the true essence of Thelios resides.

And so, you visit the old Thelios Hostel (forever filled with beautiful young men and women) and immediately sense how out of place you are. There’s no backpack on your shoulders, no guitar in your hand, no plastic bag with bread and cheese, just you with too many gray hairs. A boy at the counter asks if you’re lost. “No, just visiting,” you tell him. “I stayed here years ago.” The boy nods weakly and turns back to the bikinied girl he was talking to. You walk out to the beach and stand there, watching all the young travelers play in ocean waves, finally understanding that Thelios, which was always ready to provide a perfect vacation, is closed to you, and you’ve missed your chance once again.

The Republic of Kvevch

If you’re planning to visit Kvevch, be aware that entry to the country is strictly monitored by The Kvevch Commission of Travel and Foreign Relations, and requires a visa application three months prior to departure as well as a Declaration of Intent. The visa, while an annoyance, is an easily overcome formality. The Declaration, however, must be ordered in advance either by navigating the labyrinth of links provided at the country’s outdated website, or by sending a letter requesting a Declaration of Intent Form directly from the Commission itself (allow eight to twelve weeks for delivery). Make sure to stipulate in your letter your request for the fifteen-page document rather than the eight-page form (reserved for travelers with shared borders to Kvevch), since any traveler who arrives at the airport with the approved but incorrect form will be pointed back to their homes to petition for the paperwork again.

The process of obtaining the form is only slightly less frustrating than the form itself, which—along with the standard boxes for name, date of birth, and visa number—requires names and photos of all pets owned, a doctor’s note, three letters written of your behalf by close family members or a notarized affidavit attesting to why these haven’t been provided (along with death certificates in the case of a parent’s passing), and a signed declaration from both a current partner and an ex attesting to your character. It is, in a word, exhaustive. However, with proper dedication, the form can be conquered and mailed, faxed, or attached via the near impossible to use online PDF attachment option and in four to six weeks (during which time a follow-up phone call may be scheduled) you will receive your Documents of Admission.

Make sure to carry your Documents of Admission with you at all times, as they will be requested when you check your luggage, before boarding the plane, upon exiting the plane, and at the Passport and Document Inspection Hall: an abhorrent and endless concourse packed with travelers awaiting the subsequent interview. There is nowhere to sit, and one must stand in the queue, which snakes back and forth on itself, slinking along at an imperceptible pace. Drink plenty of water before arriving and make good use of the vending machines selling Kvevch Crackers, located sporadically throughout the arrival area. The only water fountain is located far from the hall, and those who leave the queue will find their place no longer waiting for them upon return. Many travelers sit upon their carry-on luggage, their head in their hands, nodding off, only to slip slightly forward and sit up again. Some try to lie down, but are nudged forward as soon as they start to dream.

When the moment arrives, and you find yourself admitted into the office of Document Inspection, make sure to remember all the answers filled out in your documents. A single mistake can be reason for rejection, at which point you will be redirected to the planes leaving for your original departure city, where you will once again be able to request a new Declaration of Intent Form (see above). If admitted, you will be given entrance to the Passport and Customs Hall, where things usually don’t run as smoothly. However, upon successful approval by Customs and the inked stamp at Passport Control, you are welcomed to baggage claim, where you are able to retrieve your luggage.

At this point you have seen all that Kvevch, that hellish destination, has to offer. Feel free to relax in the cushioned chairs along the far wall or use the restrooms. The line for the upstairs terminal, where you will check in for your flight home, can be found at the far end of the hall.

The Museum of Boredom

The Museum of Boredom has been exquisitely constructed to be of little interest to any visitor. Comprised of three floors, it hosts one of the largest collections of paintings, artifacts, and architectural innovations that will amuse no one.

Visitors are required to purchase the audio tour, which leads you on a five-hour journey through exhibits at a creeping pace. Removing headphones is forbidden (guards will harass even young children for removing their earbuds). One watches other patrons standing in front of an exhibit as they await the audio lecture’s end. The audio guide has a maddening habit of pausing for a moment, giving the false promise of conclusion, before beginning with yet another insignificant detail in which we have no interest.

We give, as example, this excerpt from A Painting of Trees by Johan Schnabel:

Johan would often brush his hair from the right side to the left, using a comb which had been given to him by his father. This habit was practiced daily with Johan first wetting the comb, placing it against his forehead, and moving the hairs from the right side to the left. . . After combing his hair, Johan would brush his teeth. This ritual, however, was not always consistent, as Johan’s artistic life often demanded immediate attention. In his journals, Johan writes: “Today I did not brush my teeth.” And yet, upon painting the white of the snow, he was reminded of toothpaste, and only then did he pause to brush his teeth. . . As his journal later notes: “I realized that I forgot to brush my teeth and so went to do so.” Like the combing of his hair, Schnabel would often move from the right side of his mouth to the left, finishing the front of his teeth before moving to the back, where he would then begin to brush from the right side to . . .”

The adjacent painting of an empty field with a couple of uninteresting trees contains a placard with an extensive description, wasting viewers’ time by describing the tectonic formations of the glacial period, along with a lesser-known treatise by a philosopher best forgotten.

The initial lackluster charm of the painting exhibit proves to be the most exciting part of the tour, which quickly becomes less intriguing. Take, for example, the second-floor display of ancient artifacts, so worn down by history there’s little difference between the tiny scraps of pottery and the gravel of a local playground. Ancient sculptures look like bars of sandy soap, unearthed jewelry resemble cat turds; there are shards of pottery on which prehistoric designs can barely be seen. It’s not uncommon to find visitors weeping as they move from one illuminated display to the next.

The last hour of the tour begins with a third-floor exhibit of contemporary tilework where one stares at roped-offed displays of monochromatic mosaics which resemble substandard bathroom tiles, and concludes with Rarely Celebrated Architectural Innovations of the 20th Century, displaying an exhibit of drywall; a series of industrial track-lighting; a floor covered with carpeting. The voice speaking through the headphones has long ago become a drone, during which time we reflect on our dwindling hours of our life, and how we might otherwise have spent our time.

At long last, the tour is over. Yawning for the last time, we remove the headset and return it to the front desk before escaping the horrid museum. If there’s a reason why anyone would visit such a horrible place, it must be for the magnificence of that moment which accompanies our exit. The second one pushes through the doors and emerges into the bright light of the world, we encounter streets filled with displays which capture our interest. An umbrella, a baby carriage, a napkin tumbling in the wind: all are more captivating than the exhibits we saw in the gallery. The museum, it seems, has returned the world to us—a wonderful place which we vow never again to call boring.

The Country of Akhram

Every summer, Akhram’s starfish arrive on its shores like tourists of the sea, finding their place beneath palm fronds and spreading their glowing limbs on the white sands like sunbathers gone nocturnal. From the view of nearby hotels, the coastline transforms into the night sky made terrestrial, each starfish pulsing its phosphorescence against the dark sand. And we tourists arrive, too, with the desire to glimpse Akhram’s beaches and stone temples, its markets and plummeting waterfalls, and, once seen, to return over and over, repeatedly, eternally.

Akhram, as attested to in travel magazines and TV specials, is a destination of exquisite beauty. Stone houses rise above the coastal cities, their flower boxes in bloom, while roads snake past terraced gardens, curling around mountains to smaller towns, dotted with charcuteries, bakeries, and markets. We’ve all heard stories from visitors, have watched documentaries, and on rare occasion have tasted a bottle brought back from Akhram and grown thirsty for the country. In Akhram, we glimpse a land that promises to finally and conclusively sate our wanderlust. And so we save our vacation days and tuck away paychecks for the trip, and eventually, with great joy, we purchase our tickets to visit the country.

Yet, our arrival is a disappointment like no other. One can only arrive by train, and the ride is a painfully slow one, plagued by interruptions and unplanned stops. Last time we traveled, the train was forced to stop for a cow on the tracks, and the conductor, unable to convince the animal to move, proceeded to get drunk and wander off. Such events are commonplace when traveling to Akhram, and one finds oneself trapped in hot cabooses whose windows no longer open, wishing only to reach the sea and cool in its waters, a wish which fades with the day.

Akhram’s central station is in disrepair. The information booth was abandoned long ago and now serves as a toilet for the drunk and deranged who crowd the train looking for money. The basic wish is to leave the station quickly—an impossible feat due to the company’s loss of our bags. There are fights over cabs, sleeves are rolled up, fists are drawn, and the entire station is overcome by the clamor of voices devoid of love.

One arrives at the hotel with a displeasure that is difficult to shake, particularly as the hotel is overbooked. More than once, we’ve rolled our luggage into the famed Hotel Seneoa, where the lobby’s ceilings are crystal and the sound of its two-story fountain is as soothing as its couches are plush, only to be told there’s no record of our reservation, no rooms available, and that we must, in short, go elsewhere. Travelers can expect to stay at a lesser hotel, one that, while nice, pales in comparison. The sheets are itchier, the shower’s temperature fickle, and the view reveals the peaked roof of the hotel where we’d hoped to stay.

Romantic vacations descend into nightlong fights, leaving one sleeping far into morning and missing the most beautiful daylight hours. We arrive at the beach precisely when thunderstorms arrive, and the winds are cold enough to leave us bedridden. To assuage this melancholy, many couples go sightseeing—a fruitless endeavor. Tour buses are overpriced, and the most popular sites have been desecrated with crushed beer cans and cigarette butts. Couples seeking remote ruins encounter treacherous climbs where rocks give way underfoot. There are mudslides, biting spiders, venomous snakes, rabid dogs—and though one expects a quiet cove is looming around the next turn, there’s merely just another mango tree, heavy with hornet nests.

And so we all leave Akhram bitter and dejected. We stuff our luggage, yank our children to the train station, and climb onto the stuffy locomotive, sweaty and exhausted. Yet, the ride home is surprisingly easy. As the train hums along the tracks, we see the colorful markets and peach-colored sands where swimmers play. The train enters a tunnel, darkness fills the aisles, and we realize our vacation is over and all that remains is the drudgery of the coming months. It’s only then that we recall all the missed sights: the sunset through the hotel window during a fight with our lover; the extravagant fruit stalls we passed while searching for the temples; the street musicians who’d played folk songs beneath moonlight. We remember the sandcastles we failed to build with our children, and we realize a bitter truth: the vacation was not a failure of the country, but rather of ourselves.

Our hometowns are dismal. The streets are gray, the weather miserable, the people unattractive. When showing photos to friends, we’re shocked by the beauty that extends beyond every side of the frame. Over dinner, we remember a dish served, and only then do we realize how exceptional the food was. A bottle of wine is uncorked—it’s Akhramian—and the taste is velvet against our tongues. We grow drunk, delirious with longing, and promise to move away from this awful city, to relocate the business, to retire in paradise. Given another chance, we’d stay long into the night and listen to the street musicians’ melodies, we’d play in the waves with our children, we’d kiss beneath the moonlight!

And so, like the starfish, we all return to Akhram, trapped by our longings. It’s been reported that a larger railway company has purchased the train service—the ride promises to be quick and easy. And from what we hear, the town square has been renovated, cobblestones polished, every building restored: a wonder to behold. Akhram’s weather has been the warmest on record, and summer will be here soon, the starfish already making their way along the ocean’s bed. As for your guidebook writers, we’ve already booked our reservations. We count the days until our return.

The City of Lakvik

The City of Lakvik is dying. For years it’d been alive and well. Hundreds of thousands of tourists came to visit its streets which flourished with church bells ringing, children playing in squares, dogs chasing cats, and fruit sellers calling out prices for persimmons—and its sidewalks were filled with those seeking the charm of its stone walls and the mugs of ale of its taverns.

But, like an aging grandparent, Lakvik began fading from the eyes of the younger generation, and was soon replaced with more youthful cities a hundred kilometers away. When young tourists asked for Wi-Fi, Lakvik shook its head and pointed to its telephone booths. When asked for multiplex cinemas, it showed them its watermill. And so, Lakvik grew old in solitude, spending its latter years watching cracks spread along its sidewalks, its snowfalls melt, and its visitors disappear.

What is the life expectancy of a city? Some, like Paris and Cairo, live long lives, while their younger American siblings leave abandoned malls grinning with the teeth of broken windows. It seems there’s no standard age; a city grows and fades of its own accord, and Lakvik has been aging rapidly in the past decade. Its avenues have turned gray and it has been forgetting its street names. Cars putter along its main street, coughing exhaust, and fewer citizens can be found on the yearly census bureau’s register—until finally, one day, there was no one left in the city, simply the empty eyes of its buildings gazing out at its streets as Lakvik waited to disappear from our maps.

Those of us who once loved the city return to bring it flowers. We place them by the old square. We wait as Lakvik labors through another breath of dawn and dusk, but eventually even we must leave. One by one we depart, until there’s only a single empty park bench holding the city’s hand as it breathes its final breath of birdsong into evening light.

The Country of Kalum

Most visitors come to Kalum only after they’ve visited elsewhere. By this, we are not speaking geographically, but rather that the tourists who seek Kalum arrive only after their children have grown and left for college, or upon retirement, or, in some cases, as solace after a long love affair has ended.

We are all familiar with Kalum. Sitting on the plane, we’ve taken the inflight magazine and were arrested by the photographs which show its wine country—rows of grapevines hugging hillside after hillside—and a wide, cobalt sea on the horizon. We’ve read of fabled vintages poured straight from oak barrels. There are pictures of long tables set at chateaus where plates of pheasant are served, casks of reserve are opened, and the moon hangs high and beautiful. We’ve sighed and turned the page on our way to a business meeting, and we’ve closed the magazine showing white linen tables and happy couples, understanding that Kalum awaits us a day other than this one. We promise ourselves we’ll make the journey once we’ve saved enough money, or when gray is peppered through our hair, or when the children are finally grown and on their own.

It’s not just the wine country we think of, but the cities—where it’s said one can find flats for pennies on the dollar. The exchange rate remains good: one can live half a year on the cost of a single month’s rent. And we see photos of its theaters and concert halls, re-inhabited by actors and musicians, the avant-garde rising from the ashes. If only we were younger and more adventurous, carefree enough to shirk the responsibilities of our life, cast our aprons to the ground, and join the crew of thespians and freethinkers in Kalum. We’re no poets, but we can imagine ourselves writing in a loft apartment with wooden floors and tall windows. In the morning, sunlight would settle on the spires of the square, and below, cafés would awaken, servers setting out chairs and throwing buckets of mop water into the streets; and we envision ourselves breathing in the morning light, full of the scent of cardamom rolls, birdcalls, and bicycle bells.

If we are married, we sense the rekindling of our romances in Kalum, and if we are alone we know that somewhere in one of its cities is the person with whom we’ll spend the rest of our lives. We pass our days dreaming of Kalum, save and collect our vacation weeks, and count the years until we can make our escape. In the meantime, there are lunches to pack, emails to answer, soccer games to attend, wedding invitations to send, meetings to present, tests to pass, interviews to seek, offices to furnish, apartments to move into, and dishes, always, eternally dishes.

And then, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, the day arrives. We have successfully raised our children. We have bandaged their cuts and soothed their bruises and our houses echo with their absence. At work, our hand was shaken, our backs patted, and we were given a clock, or a watch, or a plaque for all our years of dedicated service—or perhaps nothing but a final lunch with the few who showed up. A cake had been purchased, and we ate it off small paper plates and said our goodbyes.

To Kalum! Some book trips for weeks, others for months, and those, still young enough to dream, buy one-way tickets in search of lofts amid the artists and playwrights. We go seeking Kalum, and what we find is precisely that . . . Kalum. It is beautiful with its cathedrals and towers, its cafés full of life, and its vibrant theater. The wine country is as intoxicating as we’d hoped, the pheasant as tasty, and the moon as high.

But there’s another feeling which seeks us out, one that grows with the passing nights, and whose shadow spreads with each sunrise. We finish another glass of wine or exit the theater on yet another evening, and the shadows settle on our shoulders. We return to the loft we’d dreamed of, turn the key, and crawl into our beds in this land where no one speaks our language and all the faces are unfamiliar. Kalum, we realize, is merely a country, like any other. Its glasses of wine, while better, can only be filled and refilled. Its meals can only be eaten, its art enjoyed, its museums visited. The loft we’ve rented is just a different version of the one we had at home, and all the unexplored streets will soon become familiar. Walking with our husbands and wives, we remember the feel of our children’s hands in our own and understand we will never again feel their small grip. We remember all the years we spent awaiting this trip, when our lovers’ bodies stretched beneath the morning sun and our children awoke us with their laughter. We recall the homes we left and the offices where we lived our lives. What we find in Kalum is not the country itself, but our lives, lived as they’ve always been lived. Kalum, we understand then, is more of what has already been: a life full of dreams and hopes, pierced, again and again, by beauty and longing.

Alexander Weinstein

Alexander Weinstein is the author of the short story collections Universal Love (2020) and Children of the New World, which was named a notable book of the year by The New York Times, NPR and Electric Literature. He is a recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his stories and interviews have appeared in Rolling StoneWorld Literature TodayBest American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Best American Experimental Writing. He is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University.