She walks like a cowbell. There’s a jingle-jangle to every step, and when she sits, her right arm lands with a muted clunk. Wood, cloth, and metal against the plastic table. No notes of flesh in the chord. Her arm is gone, replaced wrist to elbow by something between a prosthesis and a game of ring toss. The mass is made of circles of thick browns and blacks punctuated by tiny technicolor strings. Their fraying knots stick out like neon sapling branches along her forearm.
It takes a surreptitious second look, a squint, but eventually I derive what they are: bracelets. Dozens of them.
She’s sitting next to me at the bar, a dimly lit dive in the mountains with a bad cover of “Buffalo Soldier” buzzing through blown speakers in the background. We’re the only two in here. We’ve already made that awkward pre-conversation eye contact twice, so I’m sure she’s seen me looking at her arm. I can’t take my eyes off it. There are so many questions I could ask. How many does she have? Why does she have so many? How the hell does she put on long sleeves?
I go with: “Have enough bracelets?”
It’s an honest question, I don’t mean for it to sound so mean-spirited — maybe I’ve had a few too many beers. But she laughs. Maybe she’s had a few beers too.
“That depends,” she says. “Do you think 30 is enough?” She holds up her arm for me to see better and wiggles it. There’s the jingle-jangle again. It’s nice, like wind chimes playing ping pong.
My brother had asked for bracelets as souvenirs before I left for Southeast Asia. I glanced at his wrist as he asked this and saw the half dozen already gracing the curves of his carpal bones. The request made sense. But when I asked a few other people what they wanted, including some with a smaller proclivity towards fashion, I received the same answer. The phrasing was occasionally different — “mm, how about some local jewelry, handcrafted stuff?” — but I knew what they meant, even if they didn’t exactly.
I never understood the appeal. I like to look my best (though recent travel habits may undercut that claim), but accessories never caught me the way a well-fitting shirt could. I only started wearing watches last year, and I’ve never used a pocket square. I go through $5 sunglasses so fast I may be single-handedly feeding an entire Chinese factory.
But being abroad is a bit like being thrown into a fish tank. Underwater, when open eyes see only blurry shades of blue, you have to focus on the minor familiar shapes to help make sense of the bigger unfamiliars. Otherwise…you’re fish food. Sometimes, something as simple as a circle on a traveler’s arm can be the frame of reference for taking in a city. A beacon of backpacker identity. A way to weave yourself into a somewhere new, to literally wrap a place around a part of yourself and thus become of it.
I’ve met dozens of people since I’ve been abroad, from the expat Californian in Boracay to the gaggle of French girls in the last throes of a study abroad program. With each person in a back-alley bar, I find, without fail, my eyes drifting to their wrists. The traveler bracelets are omnipresent, mementos of hostels once inhabited and night-market labyrinths once explored. Each is a tiny, circular story.
The Californian had a line of loosely interwoven bands, green and faded gold collecting in two bookend bouquets that fastened together with a screw. It was a gift from a particularly grateful hookup in Thailand, he said, though later in the conversation he admitted to swiping it off her dresser in the morning as he left.
The French girls had about a dozen apiece, flimsy little strings with hastily tied knots that vomited the frayed tendrils of their own ends. They had made them for each other at a tiny stand in Singapore. The individual strings were hardly an aesthetic statement, but the tangled spectrum the bunch represented had a certain wild, frugal appeal to it.
Surrounded by the trend at every turn, my aversion to accessories didn’t last much longer than my jetlag. And once you get locked into a serious bracelet collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
I bought my first in Puerto Princesa, on the remote island of Palawan. It’s a little black fiber band with wooden beads sewn into the material, held together with a loop around a plastic tail. It was 30 pesos, less than a dollar, and I bought it with little consideration. Not out of any particular affinity for the thing, but simply to have it.
The second is my favorite. Irregular black pearls that glisten like gasoline and brushfire against the skin. The colors ring each pearl like an oblong Jupiter and they’re ingrained with vinyl ridges, like dropping a needle on any one would play a hi-fidelity Song of the Sea. I stumbled across the bracelet in a back-alley shop in El Nido, five days after buying the first. The owner furrowed her brow when I asked about it. The shop mostly sold mangoes and water, and she had to ask her husband about a price for the pearls. When 180 pesos sounded fair, I wore them out from under her awning.
And I lost them almost immediately. It was in Boracay, floating along the currents, when I realized the pearls were no longer around my wrist. Only the smallest of ripples upset the saran-wrap surface, and I stepped as lightly as possible to search the sand for what I knew I’d never see again. Boracay is a tourist town, with vendors lining the street and hissing at bystanders, jockeying each other for attention. After losing my black pearls, I searched every jewelry stand along the two-mile stretch of White Beach. They had everything: perfect pink pearls, necklaces made of the vertebrae of an unknown animal, pendants and good luck charms.
But they didn’t have oblong black pearls that glistened like gasoline and brushfire.
It’s only natural to externalize memories. We carry them in smells and tastes and sounds. The street-side cafe that smells like childhood summer nights, the cake that tastes like your 8th birthday party. If I listen to the song “Goodnight Goodnight” by Hot Hot Heat, I get the clearest image in my mind of a particular swim meet in my freshman year of high school. And when you’re traveling, those memories and stories are carried within the objects that bob so effortlessly on your wrist. It’s why somebody can look down after a few months abroad and find that their arm has been transformed into a Christmas tree, destined only to get heavier.
When I lost my black pearls, I didn’t only lose a 180-peso band of oyster guts. I lost a moment in my life. I lost the sand of Nacpan Beach, so powdery that if it was kicked into the air, the wind would catch it and it would never land. I lost the black shale karsts that jutted from the water like tombstones of giants that carved a paradise out of the ocean eons before. I lost El Nido.
I hung my head in disappointment the whole walk back to the hostel. But when I lay down on my bed, I felt uncomfortable points along my vertebrae, like lying on a shrunken version of my own spine. When I pulled back the sheets, I found my black pearls nestled away like Easter eggs, just waiting until I was ready to find them. I lovingly put them back on and have not taken them off since.
I’m in Sagada now. It’s a mountain province, at least 25 degrees cooler than El Nido or Boracay ever got, where the palms give way to pines that stretch up to scrape the cloudy sky. This area is famous for its weaving (often done by the blind), and I just bought bracelet #3. It’s a wooden spinal-looking thing, with a clasp operated by pulling strings through a shared barrel of twine. I’ve never seen one like it. It’s the essence of my Sagada.
The girl at the bar tells me her name is Matilda, and I ask her about each bracelet. She starts with the one closest to her wrist, a simple set of colored beads around an elastic band. It’s from a tiny village in Cambodia. Matilda’s been traveling for six months now, and her wrist is a better indicator of where she’s been than her passport could ever be.
Thirty bracelets may not be enough.