A Cup of Coffee and a Soft Chair

Travel Stories: After 14 months traveling overland from Beijing to Istanbul, Joel Carillet faced a gingerbread latte -- and a series of unexpected fears

10.14.10 | 1:58 PM ET

Photo by visualpanic via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A dream, the kind I tend to have at the end of a long journey, was already beginning to take shape as I stepped into the Starbucks. But before it got too involved, I walked up to the barista at the counter and said, “One small coffee, please.”

“No,” the Turkish woman replied with a rather cute curtness. “You should try the gingerbread latte because it tastes much better.” She offered a sample. The taste was superior to the small coffee, I agreed, but I wanted the coffee—not because it was particularly delicious but because it was an act of continuity. Fourteen months earlier, in Beijing, I had begun an overland journey across Asia with a small Starbucks coffee. Now, to mark my final week on this anvil of a continent, I wished to have the same. As the barista prepared the coffee, I noticed the floor beneath my feet—such quality wood, so well maintained. I counted 17 soft chairs and even more wooden chairs.

I had gone to Asia as an aspiring writer. I wanted to meet the human face of the far side of the world, and to that end I sat in many places, across from many people. In China I sat across from a courageous political activist who expected to one day sit in prison (and who handed me a letter he wanted delivered to the White House). In Pakistan, while hitchhiking through the Karakorams, I twice sat in cars where the driver joked that he was Osama bin Laden (and where I replied that my dad was George Bush). At a police station in Nepal I sat beside an officer who, just before kicking an unconscious drunk in the face, told me I was stupid for getting robbed. At a restaurant in Turkmenistan, straining to hear through the screams of a Guns N’ Roses song blaring from the bar, a young woman told me how her husband left her and their two daughters when a doctor announced that a kidney ailment rendered her unable to carry another pregnancy (the husband wanted a son). In Thailand I sat across from broken-hearted sex workers; in Sumatra across from a man who had just lost his wife and only child to a flood; in Vietnam across from a 78-year-old woman whose mother and two children had been murdered at My Lai.

I had sat in many places. Now, preparing to go home, I had come to sit alone in the softness of a Starbucks chair.

From my chair, I glanced at the merchandise shelf and envisioned a distant future in which I owned a home. In the kitchen, neatly arrayed on a shelf, stood several of those Starbucks mugs with city names on them. My home was warm and clean, and my journey through several Asian cities—Beijing and Shanghai, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, Ankara and Istanbul—was neatly commemorated on the sides of ceramic cups. It was a lighthearted dream rooted in looking forward, in feeling that a chapter in my life was ending and something new about to begin.

But here’s the thing: As I sat alone at journey’s end, I risked having other dreams too, ones that are not particularly lighthearted and that are rooted in looking back.

At an adjacent table I watched a man and woman caressing each other’s fingers. Throughout the room the women looked as if they had just stepped out of the pages of Cosmopolitan. In comparison, my ripped green pants hadn’t been washed in four weeks, and feathers—the result of a cheap Chinese coat I had bought in Kashgar—stuck out of my blue sweatshirt; I looked like a mangy goose. I glanced at the artificial poinsettias along the wall, listened to a grinder’s laboring, stared at snowflakes printed on my red take-away cup. And then I read a sentence I had read many times before but now struck me like a fist between the eyes: Careful, the beverage you’re about to enjoy is extremely hot.

Staring at the words, I hardly cared at all that I looked like a mangy goose in a Cosmopolitan world. But I cared immensely that I was reentering a society that warned me, not that someone was tortured in Uzbekistan, trafficked across the Myanmar-Thai border, or starving in Eritrea, but that my coffee was hot.

People were chatting and laughing on their cell phones, and I watched a woman’s coffee topple onto the tiled floor. I stared at the floor so hard that my vision blurred. I recalled a crumbling temple in Kathmandu, grass sprouting out of its red-brick floor. I had spent parts of two days there with a woman and her neighbors. She gave me tea and took me into the claustrophobic cell of a room where she lived with her husband and children. One of her two sons, who had been ill since birth, was curled up on their bed, his body as tight as a fist. She wished she could have afforded a doctor, she told me, but with her and her husband’s combined income rarely exceeding $30 a month, quality medical care was beyond their reach. And so this 10-year-old boy spent his days confined to a bed, the victim of both cerebral palsy and poverty.

The woman whose coffee had fallen laughed with her friends. The puddle beside them no longer looked to me like a mere mess. Instead, it looked like money—the equivalent of almost seven days wages for a woman in Kathmandu—about to be mopped up and rinsed down a drain.

I was a coffee-sipping bloodhound now, my mind retracing my route from Kathmandu to Istanbul. I was in search of some scent, some key, that might help me explain why a warning on a coffee cup had put me on the verge of a mental breakdown, or had at least slammed me with despair.

In Beijing, when over a cup of coffee I had envisioned the road ahead, I feared loneliness and it made me nauseous. But here in Istanbul, reflecting on this same road now that it was behind me, I discovered that the fear of forgetfulness did too. I feared what I would become if I, too, had a cell phone, a girl caressing my fingers, no rotten smells or mangled bodies to connect me elsewhere. I feared the spiritual poverty that routinely comes with affluence, the disconnection that comes when we no longer see our struggling neighbors up close.

Sipping the last of my coffee, I did not judge the well-off patrons in Starbucks. I had traveled enough before to know that one’s feelings are in a heightened state on the eve of a return home. This was not the first time I felt like a human space shuttle, absorbing and deflecting the powerful forces that accompany a transition between worlds.

Still, as the radio played “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” I felt a palpable fear. I was reentering a world where comfort was sometimes heavy, leaving us sluggish in our efforts to remember and love people who sit far from us. Perhaps, then, the hardest part of my journey was yet to come. For it is one thing to have experiences; it is entirely another to discern what to do with them.

Joel Carillet, a Tennessee-based writer and photographer, is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia.

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22 Comments for A Cup of Coffee and a Soft Chair

Candace Rardon 10.14.10 | 6:20 PM ET

“For it is one thing to have experiences; it is entirely another to discern what to do with them.” The insights in this piece are brilliant and the writing beautiful…thanks for sharing your fears and dreams with us, Joel.

Robyn 10.14.10 | 6:59 PM ET

This is beautiful. I was sitting in that starbucks, getting confused and watching the coffee spill, feeling the transition of leaving Asia. Then I realized I was right here, in my room in Shijiazhuang and will be for another 8 months. I hope I am able to articulate my feelings at the end of my year here as you just did.

Mike Goldstein 10.14.10 | 8:09 PM ET

Gorgeous, well done.

Mike Goldstein 10.14.10 | 8:43 PM ET

BTW, I posted a review of this piece at my site. Enjoy!



GypsyGirl 10.15.10 | 1:25 AM ET

Joel, It will be both wonderful and scary to come home to the South. Don’t fear in forgetting all the great steps of the road—those feelings will always stay with you, much stronger somehow than anything else. I’ve greatly enjoyed the photography that you’ve so graciously shared for the journey. Hope that we cross paths again when you’re back in the States—safe travels home.

Chuck Kirchner 10.15.10 | 1:54 AM ET

Very moving and insightful.  May your discernment be fruitful (and be thankful you didn’t buy a house rather than take the journey!).

Nina 10.15.10 | 4:12 AM ET

First of all, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us. It is always an eye opener to come across stories such as yours that actually make us stop and think about all that is happening in the world around us. We are all so wrapped up in our own lives that we tend to forget about everything else except things that concern us.
I love your style of writing and I especially loved the way you put down your thoughts in the last paragraph.

Arun 10.15.10 | 4:52 AM ET

That’s very touching. I think we all feel this moment of ruefulness as we see through everything in the world. Few of us manage to admit and fewer can express it so coherently.

Optional Mini Bus Charter 10.15.10 | 5:32 AM ET

Your style of writing, moving and thought-provoking. I can feel your fears and experience what you’ve been through just by reading your stories. Great reading.

maravillosa99 10.15.10 | 10:43 AM ET

Nicely done. You had me thinking for a few moments that you were just going to wring your hands over the plight of the poor and downtrodden before breezing home to a privileged existence…but you hooked away from that at exactly the right moment, owned your position in this world and presented me with something new to consider: “I feared the spiritual poverty that routinely comes with affluence, the disconnection that comes when we no longer see our struggling neighbors up close.” I think that forgetting will not be easy for you, as you didn’t just watch images on a screen or see them on a page; you spoke and sat with people and walked through scenarios that millions of others only learn about through the media. However, I agree that it becomes extremely tempting to romanticize and soften the harsh realities once you’re re-immersed in what seems like another dimension, not just another time zone. Again, a wonderful piece that I really enjoyed.

Grizzly Bear Mom 10.15.10 | 11:56 AM ET

Joel your words touched me and reminded me that the need is great.  As a person with a job, medical benefits, and a pension I am abundently blessed and need to make up for others who previously gave but now are in need.  Perhaps the homeless person on my street is an angel sent to remind me to respect them as a person with a smile, a kind word, or a dollar.

villa espagne 10.16.10 | 3:31 AM ET

Awesome post and i like it so much.I really thanks to Joel Carillet for sharing such travel experience.Hope you faced all emotions,feelings and situations of life in your travel from Beijing to Istanbul,

P Dugan 10.17.10 | 9:35 PM ET

Hell of a post, Joel.

QUOTE: “From my chair, I glanced at the merchandise shelf and envisioned a distant future in which I owned a home.”

I get more out of a week abroad than I do out of a decade of mortgage payments.

I hope you keep turning out stories like this.

Wanted Adventure 10.18.10 | 12:26 PM ET

You have brilliantly put into words a feeling I’ve struggled with wordlessly.

Ken Pothier 10.19.10 | 5:33 PM ET

Thanks for this wonderful write of passage. It is a reminder to all in the USA that we have much to be thankful for and little to complain about compared to much of the rest of the world. As I write this comment there are protests in France about raising the age of retirement from 60 to 62. In the US with the election approaching the parties appear to be fighting over the last spoils of the broken Capitalist dream. Your apt piece frames these events with wisdom found in true observation.
Peace! Ken

Joel Carillet 10.20.10 | 4:45 PM ET

Just wanted to say a quick thanks for each of your comments—i really appreciate the feedback.

I’m in Jerusalem this week, nearing the end of what will soon be eight months of photographing around the Middle East. Yet another reentry approaches….

Kerry Dexter 10.26.10 | 3:31 PM ET

good to see your work here, Joel. look forward to learning of your experiences and refections in the Middle East. safe travels…

Jaimie Healey 10.26.10 | 7:08 PM ET

I read somewhere once that good writing disappears. You cease to see the words on the page and see only the images in your mind. Mission accomplished. Thank you for such an inspiring piece.

baahar 10.27.10 | 6:11 PM ET

Wonderfully put

Alex Apostol 10.29.10 | 12:57 AM ET

“reentering a world where comfort was sometimes heavy, leaving us sluggish in our efforts to remember and love people who sit far from us” - wonderfully worded, yet very accurate. As one who was born and grew up in a Southeast Asian third world country and who has been living in the U.S. for the last 8 years, a life of relative material comfort somehow anesthetizes the memory of suffering and poverty.

Great post and great writing, Joel. You have made an otherwise uneventful night web browsing quite stimulating and reflective. Thanks.

deputu 10.31.10 | 12:40 PM ET

you make me fantasize

Rossie Indira 11.14.10 | 4:09 AM ET

Hi Joel,
It has been a while since I came across your writings and it is so wonderful to read it again. It is a very fine piece… so moving and touching! Keep writing Joel as we are all waiting for more and more!

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