The coffee is from the Taiwanese bubble tea stall. Served in a super size plastic cup, pushed forwards by the smiliest server before he retreats back into the throng of waving receipts. Twenty-four Hong Kong dollars- almost the same price as my shrimp noodle lunch. Half luxury, half necessity- I am too tired to indulge caffeine guilt. In this city, marching to this pace and cramming onto these trams and trains and towers, I take my coffee strong and iced.
The paper Hello Kitty cup announces that it is a Happy 2009! I notice as I sup the thimbleful of Nestle instant, the tiny folded handle giving me a paper-cut. It is, in fact, Easter 2012 and rainy season in Yangshuo, China. My rented bicycle stands lonely underneath its tarpaulin tent, the handlebars dripping rainwater like a runny nose. Even the noodles taste like rain, sopping in dirty puddles of soy sauce and chilli flakes and soaking through the polystyrene plate. Mist clings to Moon Hill and my heart strings crack with remembering English Novembers, minus the Mandarin.
“Didi, didi, where you go?” Bimala pulls at my elbow, looping her tiny arm through the crook and trying to swing. She has spotted me leaving. In three to five seconds the others will emerge from the bedroom, the same melting chocolate eyes blinking in confusion. It is week three and I still have no idea what to say. How do I explain that I am going for a walk and a coffee instead of playing with thirteen attention hungry children? I can just about cope with unhooking her clammy fingers, firing my other arm out of reach so she can’t reattach. I squint out at the Nepali sun, then back into the dimming corridor of the orphanage. There is nowhere for them to go.
‘Chai, chai, coffee, coffee, chai, chai, coffee, coffee…’ The boy sings out on the Chennai train, his voice carrying through the steamy carriages and stirring the dozing men. Heads wobble that Indian wobble. Most mean no, some, somehow, indicate yes. Soon the samosa, samosi boy will come and the newspaper triangles will be handed out, hot in the hands of hungry travellers. Green chillies and ginger and cinammon and masala and all the smells and savours of wonderful, wonderful India and its ever tightening grip on the senses. I barely even remember the coffee here. Just the lemon infused hours of Kerala evenings and coconut breakfasts and street side Agra dhosas. Camels and tuktuks and motorbikes and Khan and Afsal and dolphins and mosquitos and the rose terracotta of Jaipiur’s sunset; a rolling reel of moments that were cut too short and too soon.
We like to joke that we are turning into teachers already, brewing our coffee mugs in the staffroom before 9am and clipping back up the stairs for briefing. Gone are the bikini strings and elephant pants, though braids are still pulling hair back from shiny faces and a few bamboo tattoos peek out from underneath waistbands and flip flop straps. Everyone tries to understand the future perfect tense and how to teach idioms, filing away game ideas and making mental notes to never, ever plan a lesson about religion or attempt to pat a Thai student’s head. Then a mosquito lands on an arm and you become distracted, thinking about a Koh Phi Phi weekend or a pad thai special. Coffee is the answer to rum bucket hangovers and sunburn sting.
Home. Home. Hoooome. My favourite mug, warm inside tanned hands with silver rings and unkept nails. Hot against chapped lips and steaming in the over-freckled face of one just returned.