Where many see traffic jams, oppressive heat and endless concrete, I see long, straight boulevards lined with towering palm trees, along which I drive lazily with the top down, sun on my face and Shine On You Crazy Diamond in my ears. The palm trees aren’t native, but they’ve become the most iconic image of this sprawling city to me, silhouetted in black against an orange and pink sky as the sun descends behind them. Pulling up beside a kerb in Venice, I step out into the balmy street and greet the others outside the door. We hug and ask about each other’s days while looking one another in the eye and listening to the responses. Inside, we sit trance-like on red cushions on a wooden floor and watch nebulous shapes of golden light dance in the air around us as our breaths become slow and deep. A thin film of sweat sticks my hair to my neck and I sink, feeling fluid and perfect in the flow of the amorphous haze that engulfs us. Her eyes are green and lock onto mine with warmth and welcome, every emotion painted on her utterly still features that seem to read and answer mine. “Far out”, she says, when one beautiful blonde man in surf shorts and a flamingo-coloured vest describes his experience as being somewhere between an orgasm and an acid trip.
The cafe Sol Y Luna boasts that its roof terrace is the best in the world, and you have yet to find one more alluring. Sitting in the shade on a green bean bag as rays of sun beam onto the low table before you, you sip on sweet mint lemonade, freshly made, gazing at the towering volcano that dominates Antigua’s skyline and the tendril of smoke leaking from its peak into the pale blue. Running on three hours’ sleep after a night of rum and madness where your Guatemalan friend didn’t bother to switch to English to include you while laughing with his friends, here you rise above it all and think that surely no one has ever felt as happy as you. Looking down at the cobbled street lined with pastel-coloured houses in pink, blue, yellow and green, your thoughts move faster than your worn body, brilliant ideas whirring in frantic circles faster than you can catch, and you decide to climb Cerro de la Cruz for the perfect view from the top. Life is wonderful. You can do anything: learn Spanish in a month, swim in an alligator-infested lake, live on a constant lack of — who needs sleep? The thing about hypomania is that it’s so damn fun you don’t care what comes next.
Self-conscious twenty-somethings congregate where a hurricane split the island, sipping bright green glasses of who-knows-what, to watch the daily spillage of the sun’s last light across the sky in an orgy of blood orange and royal blue. After dark the makeshift shacks that pass for seaside bars ramp up the speakers and serve more nuclear colours as pop songs pound into the twenty-somethings’ veins, and some lounge oh-so-coolly while others jump, bump, grind and fuck here on the sand to an ethereal ecstasy of heat, music, sweat, alcohol and sugar. Tomorrow their youth will stand them in good stead as, hangover-free, they laze on the decks in the sun with more cocktails, dip themselves in the still, opaque Caribbean or take trips on wooden boats out into the endless blue. Palm trees fringe the sea at the ends of white sandy streets that run all the way to the water, and no cars spoil the system of foot and bike that carries the indulgent from East to West. Authentic in its inauthenticity, the island offers English breakfasts and aloe vera massages for sunburnt foreigners. Unconcerned with local concerns, a visitor on a voyage of self-discovery can feel right at home.
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City less than 24 hours ago and already I can feel my body temperature rising and with it my lithium level. Sitting waiting in traffic at a junction on the back of a moped every filament feels connected to the eternal hum in the air and then we zip off across the junction, over the bridge and down side streets at speed, screeching to a stop outside a tiny bar where we enter and sit in silence in the dark to hear a pianist play to candlelight and the music drummed out by his fingers enters my soul and causes it to chill but my temperature rises still so I go to the bar and order water, press the cold bottle to my flushed cheeks and forehead before opening it and gulping it down only to order another and take it back to the candlelit table and sip, still feeling the lithium in my blood rise as my temperature won’t come down. 12 hours later an old woman in the market building pushes polished coconut shells into my hands telling me “For eating” and I sheepishly hand them back to her feeling that this building is too hot and bolting for the exit only to find the air outside just as warm and thick with tiny droplets of tepid water and the scent of rotting fruit and my body pumps sweat that drenches my dress and no matter what I drink I cannot rehydrate so I flag down a rickshaw and give my hotel’s name to the driver who drops me off and I stagger inside and into an awkward sleep and wake three hours later in fits of panic, twitching and jerking and vomiting lithium poisoning and now I’ll have to go to a Vietnamese hospital. I never take lithium again.
This is probably the only place in the world where you could have third degree burns from the sun and freeze to death on the same day. A furious wind beats at your face each time you leave the vehicle for a toilet break, like the air when you open the freezer making your bones chatter, though there are no toilets so the wind that throws rough red sand in your face also throws it anywhere else you leave unprotected and the sand scratches and burns. The jeep bounces over dunes endlessly and you think it’s no wonder no one lives out here, and as the altitude climbs your head and lungs punish you with dizziness and shortness of breath. The extremity of the place makes you feel small on a huge earth with boundless possibilities. You pull in for the night at a low brick hut, exposed in the desert, where your bed is an old mattress on a slab of concrete on a cold floor in a room for seven and you’re given two heavy blankets that you’re sure haven’t been washed in this decade. After dark, as everyone sits around the stove in the kitchen, you lie wrapped in thermal layers on the cold earth outside and stare at a black sky sprayed densely with silver galaxies, sparkling artwork that shrinks you down to an insignificant atom in its sublimity. Extreme conditions would have protected such perfection from human eyes had we not been so stubbornly determined to see.