San Diego this time of year is typically colder, the driver says. The driver drives a van that bears me toward the airport, where I’ll take a flight to Los Angeles, then Tokyo, then home. A few turns into what he promises would be a short drive, he notices someone on the pavement – a flustered woman lugging along a check-in bag and a carry-on – and exchanges some short quick gestures with her. Having determined something from this wordless back and forth, he stops the van – he knows her, he says by way of explanation – and leaves his seat to help her with her bags. I do my bit, sliding open the door. She gets on and settles beside me, grateful to the driver, but not overly so – his does not seem to have been a totally unexpected act of kindness. I learn that she had headed out to the airport via public transport, but her train had been delayed, and she had missed a bus, and was looking for a cab when we pulled up.
A couple of hours later, in LA, I have some time to daydream, and I come to wonder if a driver with the same job in Singapore – sending a hotel guest to the airport – would stop to pick up someone like this, as a kindness. My instinct tells me no, because the traffic in Singapore is too dense and hectic, and everyone wishes to get to some place quick, and there isn’t the space for you to safely stop and not obstruct the traffic behind you. Or at least that is what you would tell yourself, in Singapore, I think.
And I come to think, as I have thought a few times on and off since I’ve had the opportunity to travel to other cities around the world over the last couple of years, that space is an essential part of what makes a city liveable.
The tremendously agreeable weather – a blue sky; smears of cloud like white from a minimalist painter’s palette; a crisp coolness that makes sunshine a tangible, almost benedictory thing – that San Diego has had for the past week would help too.
A couple of days before my trip to the San Diego airport, I am in Phoenix visiting a friend. We get along well, but are not close, so the visit is slightly awkward the way something not altogether laid down in the bounds of social norms can sometimes be for me. I bring gifts for her, one from a mutual friend, so that lubricates things. She is touched by the mutual friend’s gift: a piece of wood which is shaped not unlike a snow-globe with an elongated base and which opens up to reveal carvings of the buddha.
We talk a lot. She talks about her research into spirituality and materialism and how the two intertwine. She is doing her PhD. For a while, I had thought about academia as a career too, and now I feel a pang of jealousy, but it is distant, buried deep under current comforts and indolence and inertia; I know too much now about my disinclination to withstand discomfort and homesickness to be genuinely envious. I think.
She warns me about the leeching dryness of the desert, tells me that drinking water is important, and that if I have a headache, it is probably caused by dehydration. An image of my brain squelching to a stop from lack of water makes me laugh.
We talk about companionship for the long term. She had recently parted ways with a long-time boyfriend. I mention how I am lazy to do things that I like when I am on vacation because there is no one to share the joy with – as my tongue rolled to form the words, I am a bit surprised; I had not known I thought this – and she says she understands.
She says that this process towards a doctorate, including the research into the intertwining of spiritualism and materialism, is part of her self actualisation.
My self actualisation mainly takes the form of satisfying my appetites for food and goods, I say as a glib half-joke, then as a realisation. Compared to my haphazard and aimless daily meanderings, her introspective and purposeful search for who she is, in itself a process of self definition, is a worthy pursuit.
What is self actualisation to you, she asks.
I think about it. How do I actualise me, maximise me, bring out the potential in me, express the desires in me to be… a me I am happy with.
She brings me around to places she frequents, to supermarkets and food places, to where she works. I meet her advisor, the professor for whom she decided to come to Arizona and who now supervises her work towards a doctorate. I shake the professor’s hand; she holds a chihuahua in her other hand, maternally cradling the dog to her chest with her arm.
Days before I go to Phoenix, I am at work meetings and staying in a La Jolla resort alongside a beautiful bay scooped into the side of California, with the calm Pacific waters lapping and mildly frothing at its edge.
The road leading to the resort is lined with palm trees, ridiculously tall and straight, and understandably so, given the abundance of sunshine. Ducks and geese roam the resort, and one of the sights of the trip was a small flock of ducks silently and suddenly bursting into the air, then turning left, becoming a different entity as the rays of light catch their feathers in a different slant, heading off to another part of the resort to enjoy the afternoon.
On the last day of the meetings, I am told that “La Jolla” means “the jewel”. Quite right.
Later in the trip, the flight to Phoenix brings me out over the waters off La Jolla. At that height, the deep blue is stippled by waves and the glint of sunlight, and looks like a luxuriant swathe of leather.