I got stuck in the toilet once, and it was traumatic. It was the size of a locker and I had left my bag and my phone at the restaurant’s table. The sliding lock on the door wouldn’t budge and I found myself short of breath, nauseous, and ready to cry… or scream for help.
Before I give you more details of this pathetic bathroom fail, my point is this: I’m not keen on small spaces. And when I write, I would like a space (don’t we all?) that looks out to something vast, expansive, preferably awash in pastels or in my favorite colors of green and blue. Like paddy fields or mountains or the sky or the beach. A quaint harbor lined with boats weathered just so—or an edgy skyline, twinkling in the distance.
The reality is I write in my tiny guestroom in Singapore, on a desk that took me months to hunt down because it had to fit the wee space between the wall and closet. I write on the dining table, in a jumble of placemats and coasters and the odd stray morsel of rice, while my husband watches basketball on TV. I write in cafés around Singapore, where the tables touch one another, the coffee is either bitter or blah, and the noise level borders on annoying. I write on tray tables inside airplanes, where my laptop is at risk of being snapped in half once the person sitting in front me decides to recline his seat without warning.
I try my best to write while I’m traveling. “Try” is the operative word.
Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I just end up gorging on the unhealthiest local food or draining my phone’s batteries taking pictures I’d never post.
Sometimes, I even end up annoying those who’ve unwittingly come to the trip with me: I wrote chapters of Miss Makeover in Da Nang and Hoi An in central Vietnam while on holiday with my best friend. He chain-smoked, threw a minor fit, and looked on helplessly as I typed in a street-side and very crowded local café.
Still, I try. I squeezed out pages of my third novel, Budget is the New Black, in various hotel rooms at 4:30 a.m. all around Tasmania, Australia on an incredibly hectic press trip when I was still editing pages for Harper’s Bazaar. I wrote and re-wrote Girl Meets World in Manila and Bangkok.
And then there are times when I can write in middle-of-nowhere Miradoux in southwestern France, or in Piran, a tiny coastal town at the edge of Slovenia, or in Polish suburbs with unpronounceable names. I can’t forget the times when I wrote in a small hotel with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that looked out to the glorious Han River in Da Nang, or in Porto, Portugal with a sweeping view of the pastel-colored houses below. More recently, I drafted chapters for my next novel, Hue City, in a local and very basic guesthouse surrounded by the rice fields in Ubud, Bali.
I cherish these times—when I travel to a city not knowing anything or anyone, and then ending up becoming part of the landscape. Sometimes, it also feels lame and cliché, even pretentious and indulgent. Too Eat Pray Love. Too much focus on “inspiration” and the “muse” and “this is my remote office” type of thing.
Truth is, I’m just happy that my journal gets filled and that I manage to squeeze out a chapter or three. I love traveling, period. And the commitment I made to myself—that I will write something, anything, when I’m in a different place—is something I’d like to uphold. They may end up as trash or unused or unpublished, but they are my words and I would like to believe that they help me move forward.
Singapore, where I live, is a tiny country where you can see all four corners in a day. Here, space is precious. It also feels claustrophobic. After a decade in this big little city, I’ve learned how to cope like the locals do: they get out. They take yearly vacations or get on a budget flight to Ho Chi Minh or Helsinki whenever they get the chance.
That’s eventually what happened to me in that tiny toilet: I got out. I gripped the damn lock as hard as I can and pulled with all my might.
It opened after the sixth try, and my hands were red and raw when I finally stumbled out. I blinked in the bright lights and gulped in the restaurant’s recycled, air-conditioned air. It didn’t smell any better than the miniscule bathroom. But I was out and I was free, and it smelled like the world.