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.