‘I’ve learnt to value th­ese strange hours that I keep’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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