‘I’ve learnt to value these strange hours that I keep’
It is one of the peculiar pleasures of travel to awaken at odd times, or to be unable to sleep, or to be forced awake at times when your body is screaming for sleep. I say “pleasures”. I mean something different; I mean pleasure/pain, experiences that are at once horrendous and marvellous, wrenching and delicious, like the best kind of drug, the most glorious form of nightmare.
It can be almost hallucinatory. I woke once in Singapore around 8pm, my body confused and disoriented, and wandered through the night markets. I couldn’t tell you which market it was now, only that I wanted intensely to see something of the new city I’d just arrived in. Later on, late at night, I visited the enormous Marina Bay Sands Mall, acres of exhausting luxury open to anyone with a credit card and a bar where a “wine fairy” flew through the air on wires to retrieve the requested bottles.
These experiences blend together in my memory with that first market, which is transformed into noise and smell and flashes of colour: the crackling sizzle of the wet noodles hitting the pan, the lines of customers waiting patiently for their box of food, the brightly coloured drinks for sale, the scent of garlic and shrimp paste thick in the air. Jet lag the previous afternoon – or was it the same day? Everything blended together like the food quickly shaken and stirred in the woks – had sent me scurrying back to my hotel from a brief walk, genuinely afraid I might collapse to the floor on the street from exhaustion. But here I was, time demonstrably the wrong way up, the air itself different. I almost believed I saw dragons, beasts with claws and fangs in the steam from the spitting pans. I almost felt in that moment that I could breathe the place in and exhale it like smoke rings from my lungs.
As a migraine sufferer I have a sticky circadian rhythm, the 24hour internal clock running in the background of one’s brain that cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. This means I get the fewest migraines when I keep a consistent routine of bedtime and waking up. And I can’t just power through jet lag. If I try to move my sleeping patterns by more than an hour a night… that’s it, migraine, a lost day or even two. So I’ve learnt to value the strange hours I keep when I’m travelling – they have taken me on their own kind of transformational journey.
One form of transformation is to reassess the ordinary. I travel to New York frequently, I know the city well. But the early morning city, the 4am dawn Manhattan, is a place I’ve only ever seen for a few days every now and then when jet-lagged and deliciously confused. What one sees in these moments, sometimes, is the infrastructure of the city. The Department of Sanitation vehicles cleaning the streets before the citizens wake. The construction workers half-asleep on the subway as they travel to operate their roaring engines of demolition. Waking at 3.30am in Manhattan, I went to the Dominique Ansel bakery on Spring Street where a queue forms every morning to get a chance to buy a Cronut – a pastry made of croissant dough but fried like a doughnut. Even arriving at 4.15am I wasn’t the first in the line, but the mixture of tourists, students, late-night revellers deciding to make a morning of it and working people who’d set their alarms on a lark was a treat.
The Ansel bakery hands out homemade lemonade and cookies and en- courages conversation among the waiting pastry enthusiasts. As we chatted, a man came down the line handing out cards. Who was he? An employee of the Same Ol’ Line Dudes company – they’ll queue up for anything the busy Manhattanite can’t waste time waiting for themselves. Limited-edition handbags, Hamilton tickets, autographs at bookstores, you name it, they’ll wait for it. They handed me their card. And I understood something about the workings of Manhattan in that moment, the absolute truth that there is nothing in the city that can’t be paid for. There’s something refreshingly honest and upfront about it. I did discover something about myself in that moment: I am attracted to the idea of getting someone else to do my waiting for me. Still, like a good Briton, I waited my turn for the Cronut.
Not every jet-lag-induced late night or early morning is quite that playful or innocuous. In the midday sun in Delhi, I got too many catcalls and requests for money to make the experience of walking through the city enjoyable. Later at night, with street-food sellers proffering their wares, men making a “ptchptch” noise with their mouths and rubbish whirling in the dusty roads, I felt a terror run down my throat. I’ll probably be fine, I said to myself. But once you’re whispering those words to yourself, the magic is gone. I scurried back to my hotel with a book. In the lobby as I sat reading quietly, a man came over and without asking pulled up the cover so he could see the title. I looked around, smiled politely and went back to my room. This too was an encounter with the self: I’m less brave than I’d hope, the streets had driven from me the ability to answer back an impudent man. Well, there I am.
But those times have been less frequent than the encounters with sheer beauty, or joyful unfamiliarity. In the very late night in Oaxaca, I walked the streets around the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, where men in cowboy hats smoked and murmured to one another, children in shorts and Tshirts whirled and shouted – how could they be up so late? One summer in Tucson, Arizona, I was grateful to wake before dawn and dunk myself into my cottage’s swimming pool to drain the heat from my body as the sun bled into Some people only need five hours to feel their best the next day, while others need nearer 10. Some people are morning people or “larks” who find it easy to rise and shine, whereas others, the so-called “owls” struggle in the morning and are at their best in the evening. Essentially for a good night’s sleep, you need two things: (1) to sleep in darkness during the biological night and (2) to foster a feeling of safety and security. These two things are interlinked. Human nocturnal vision is poor, so we have to find somewhere safe to sleep. It also means we have to rely on our other senses, particularly hearing, in order to remain vigilant to threats in the environment. It is these two factors that cause our sleep to be disturbed when we travel. This is of course most obviously seen when we experience jet lag, when we are trying to sleep counter to the timing of our circadian rhythm. But it can also be seen in what we call the “first night effect”, the difficulty adjusting to the sounds associated with sleeping in a new place. The brain is forced to remain vigilant in case these new sounds represent danger. The best way to combat jet lag is fairly simple: if it is light stay awake; if it is dark go to sleep. For more tips, see “How to beat jet lag” overleaf.
Dr Neil Stanley is the author of How to Sleep Well
the purple-blue sky. At 3.30am the aloe vera plants were giving off their mucosal fluid scent and I floated on the face of the water. These were moments of self-knowledge in a way, but only in the sense that I felt how good it was to be alive.
And then there is the best experience of all – to become a tourist at home. One September after a long trip to Australia I found I was an insomniac in London, my own city.
In the end, I decided to enjoy being a stranger in the capital. I took myself to the restaurant at the top of the Heron Tower. I arrived just as the last of the late-night crowd were leaving. I had a coffee, watching the drunken flirtations, the sisterhood of cackling 3am female friends. I was there while the staff switched shifts. I had the first breakfast of the morning, listened to the snippets of morning business breakfast conversation – strike price for share options, old presentations to new clients – watched the sunrise and drove home. I did that for a week, like a ritual of re-entry, a recognition that everywhere familiar can easily become strange. This too is what travel can do: you return to where you came from and see it with the wideeyed wonder of the traveller, seeing the place for the first time.
Naomi Alderman is a novelist who has written about insomnia. Disobedience, based on her first novel, is out in cinemas on Nov 30
Singapore, main; the luxury of hotel bedding, below
A Lisbon tram, right; a tired traveller fights fatigue, inset