Expatriate in Kuala Lumpur – a woman's walkabout – Elizabeth Goodhue

When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are. – Sandra Cisneros

23 years ago — tomorrow – November 1.


Claire determined her birthdate. She wasn’t going to be born on October 23. She chose November 1, when Halloween was over, the wood was stacked, the last of the leaves were falling damply on the frosty earth.


I remember walking down the road that cuts through Bennington along the river and passes Alberto’s restaurant right before Starrett Row. I remember the dress I wore — a Laura Ashley – a tent with tiny purple flowers woven through its soft fabric.

I remember her twists and turns under my pregnant tightness as I walked and cradled her so alive and vibrant. Her heel glided seamlessly across the equator of my belly. Her hand imprinted under the skin on my stomach like the Vac-u-Forms we made in the sixties. She was dancer pressing against a nylon screen in a dance about yearning for escape, but not quite ready for it.


Claire, the dancer before she entered this world. Was she Claire yet? I thought she was a boy named Warren. Maybe my intuition wanted to surprise me. Either way, I knew I was carrying a strong and powerful being as I walked along the river that day.

And today, the day before her day, I remember her little self. The self which was born from me. The self who traveled through her first 18 years with me.

How much of that little self that I carried 22 years ago is still a part of us today?

Summary of an Expat

My father asked me to give a speech for the Peterborough Rotary, so here it is.


Some people call me courageous. I don’t think so. What woman picks up before her pension reaches its peak, leaves her secure job in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and flies to one of the most dangerous cities in the world? Is that courage, wanderlust, insatiable curiosity, or insanity?

Thirty years to go

Three years ago, about six months after my mother died, I stepped off the curb at ConVal High School and started my walkabout. My mother was thirty years older than me, which, by my calculations, meant that I had about thirty years left to live. It was time to start a new chapter, to revisit the world, and pick up where I left off before marriage, children, a career, and the conventional lifestyle of a grown up.

Becoming Unstuck

I found myself feeling stuck in a life where the sole purpose was to teach three full classrooms of students about writing and literature day after day. With the influx of standardization and textbooks, my drive to inject the public-school system with creativity, critical thinking, and cooperative learning was waning. I felt dull, and I was.  

SO, I did my research. I found The International Educator online, applied for a heap of jobs teaching English Language Arts, and took the first offer that I got.     Impulsively.      I didn’t read the US Department of State’s travel warnings until after I decided to teach in Tampico, Tamaulipas, a northern border town on the Gulf of Mexico.


Today, that warning reads:

U.S. citizens should defer all non-essential travel to the state of Tamaulipas due to violent crime, including homicide, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault. The number of reported kidnappings in Tamaulipas is among the highest in Mexico. State and municipal law enforcement capacity is limited to nonexistent in many parts of Tamaulipas. Violent criminal activity occurs more frequently along the northern border and organized criminal groups may target public and private passenger buses traveling through Tamaulipas. These groups sometimes take all passengers hostage and demand ransom payments.  Several cities, including Tampico, have experienced numerous gun battles and attacks with explosive devices in the past year.

Even if I had read the warning, I wouldn’t have been put off by it.

Going to school

Off I went to teach in the elite American School in Tampico. All of the Americans had left Tampico long ago when being a wealthy business person meant that you were a target for the Cartel. Even while I was there, the last American family that did attend the American School in Tampico left after being robbed once and walking within 500 meters of a gunfight while roller skating with their kids downtown.

The American School in Tampico looked like a country club encased in barbed wire. All of the students were Mexicans. Security guard drivers drove the children of wealthy business owners through the security gate, dropped them at school and picked them up in the afternoon to take them to the real country club where they could play tennis and golf safely behind more barbed wire. Only one of the students was kidnapped that year and returned safely after his parents paid a hefty ransom.

Me? I flagged down a bus at 6:00 am. The mariachi music blared behind schmaltzy polyester curtains and bounced off of hard plastic seats with just enough leg room if I brought my knees into my chest. On the bus, I practiced my Spanish with the uniformed school girls and boys on their way to public school, or sat with the school janitor and pretended to speak Spanish with him as we wound our way up the dark streets to the school after the bus dropped us off. On the rare occasion that I got a ride to school or flagged a taxi for 10 pesos, he checked in on me in the morning to make sure that I had made it to school safely.

Travelling Mexico

Every week I traveled around Mexico in the back of my colleague Chip’s pickup truck, and later in my Mazda3, which I drove down to Tampico after winter break. I saw butterflies and giant anthills at El Cielo, bright parades in Vera Cruz, visited the Cascadas de Micros, walked into a public school in Oaxaca and taught an English class, visited ancient ruins, met my father in Mexico City, saw how expats lived in San Miguel, hiked in Xilitla among giant concrete statues, and visited all of the small towns in between. If I wasn’t travelling out of Tampico, I visited the crocodiles downtown, explored the maze of the wet market, or went to la playa de Tampico.

Never did I feel unsafe. Well, once when I decided to take a trip to the border by myself and got lost, but that’s another story of slithering snakes basking on the empty tarmac, and the road ending in the middle of nowhere.

Don’t give up

When the school year came to an end, I was feeling restless, and my friends, Chip and Alicia, had decided to leave the American School. I called a friend at home the night before I was to fly back to New England. “I should load up, drive home, and come up with a plan B.” I didn’t want to teach. I was tired of living in the third-world amongst the barking dogs, the Federales in their bulletproof vests covered in black, peering through the scopes of their automatic guns from the slits of their black face masks. “No, no,” he advised. “Don’t give up a job without having another one lined up.” I complied and flew home, although not without a job interview lined up for a vague position in Malaysia.

The botched interview

Learning Port in Malaysia had found my resume on the Internet, and asked me if I would like to be a Subject Matter Expert for their e-learning company in Kuala Lumpur. The next day, I had a horrific job interview on Skype. They asked me questions about English as a second language that I couldn’t answer because, as I told them emphatically, I had minimal experience in that field. Surely, they said, you know the Cambridge English Frameworks, about A, B, and C levels and everything else ESL. It was, without question, a botched interview.

Learning Port hired me the next day.

Car text

I called Chip and Alicia who had not yet left Mexico. I them if they could gather the stuff that I had left in Mexico, drive it home in Chip’s truck, and send it to me from the States when they arrived there. Chip offered to tow my Mazda as well and use what money he could get from selling it to pay for the shipping.

The next day, Chip texted me with a series of texts that read like this:

Chip: Um Lisa

: We have or had a problem

Lisa: What’s up?

Chip: Your car flew off the road

Lisa: Ya…

Chip: Came undone from the trailer and landed in the jungle

Lisa: Ya…

Chip: At 50 mph

Lisa: Now what?

Chip: No joke. I took your car to Claudio’s the mechanic. He attached the hitch and the car, and boom it came unhitched and flew off. Lucky we didn’t kill anyone

I got your stuff and your paperwork…

But left the car in the ten-foot tall grass

Lisa: okay. so it will just die in Mexico

Chip: Ya, sorry

Lisa: it makes things easier I suppose. Are you okay?

Chip: We’re okay. We are in survival mode to just get out of Mexico. Things will get worse if the cops come…

I am not sure where my car ended up, and I didn’t want to know. I was on my way to Malaysia, not to teach, but to write lessons for an e-learning company.

Learning Port

I spent two years in Malaysia. I was right when I told them that I wasn’t qualified to write e-learning modules for English as a Second Language, but I learned a lot. I figured out how to create lessons that didn’t have teachers to teach them. With the limited knowledge I had about English as a Second Language, I learned how to run a team of graphic designers and writers, to work in a cubicle, and to do voice overs for the learning units.

Finally, Learning Port found an instructional designer qualified to do my job. I was at a loss because suddenly I had no work. I went to the CEO and explained my predicament. Well, what do you want to do? he asked. I told him I wanted to write. He was happy with this proposal, so I wrote, and still write, blogs and content for their website. I edit all of their Math, Science, and English lessons, and work on anything else that needs a native English speaker’s eye. Sometimes I acted as the token American in sales meetings for their product. My workmates became my friends. We were all expatriates from such places as Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Hungary, Dubai.


Malaysia is an eclectic culture. Its government is Muslim, but not all of its people. The Malay Malays, who are all Muslim, make up half of the population. The Chinese Malays make up 23 %, and the rest are Indian Malay. In Kuala Lumpur, people mix and jive together amongst streets clogged with motorbikes and Ubers and headscarves, mini-skirts, saris, and Punjabi. Giant glass skyscrapers have replaced shanty town poverty and sent poorer citizens into low-income, concrete buildings with strings of laundry strewn from window to window.

Traveling in Southeast Asia

Since KL is a hub for Southeast Asia, I travelled to India twice, trekked to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, cycled in Chiang Mai, crossed streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, read the Ramayana in bas-relief at Siem Reap, took in 5 dollar massages on the beaches of Mook Lanta, spent a moment in a Sri Lankan hospital, ate street food in Singapore, and lived in an Ashram in Bali.

I hiked all over Malaysia in places I cannot pronounce. Sometimes I traveled alone, sometimes with friends, and other times with the Happy Hikers– a group of Malaysians with a passion for trekking in the jungle. I drank tea in the Cameron Highlands, surfed in Cherating, visited fishing villages, drove a motorbike all over the island of Langkawi, snorkeled in the Perhentians with giant turtles, napoleons, sharks, clownfish and sea anemone.

When I stayed put in Kuala Lumpur, I made it a goal to visit a different café every weekend. My rule was that I had to get to it using public transportation and by foot. I was a master of my gps. Eventually, I knew the city inside and out.

Two years later. . .

I decided to come back. Maybe it was the hot climate; maybe it was the confines of working in a cubicle, maybe it was a son with some health issues, or a 93-year-old father calling me home. Maybe it was the never quite understanding what people were trying to say – people who spoke English fluently, but spoke a different culture. Maybe I was tired of being an American in foreign lands, an anomaly. Maybe this was a good stopping point for my rich adventure.

This time I came home with a plan. I had a part-time job working remotely for Learning Port. I would fly to the States for a month-long visit, and then fly to Oaxaca, Mexico, and devote my time to writing. BUT something called me to stay grounded before I take off again.

I canceled my ticket to Oaxaca, and sent an email to everyone on my contact list asking if anyone knew of a place that I could settle while I decided what I wanted to do next. This may be the first time in my life that I have stopped to think about what’s next rather than hopping on the next plane.

Living in Hancock, NH

Today, I am living in Hancock with a friend of my mother’s who responded to my email. She, like my mother is 30 years older than me. She tells me stories of the four times she faced death, of divorce and remarriage, her travels to teach in distant lands, sailing across oceans in stormy seas, and finding true love. Is she courageous? To some she is. To me, she is someone who chose to ride high and low seas instead of drifting down a quiet river in an inflatable raft.

Planting the oar

Tiresias tells Odysseus when he reaches the underworld that when he returns to Ithaka, he must take an oar from his boat and walk inland until no one can recognize it. When a traveler or native sees the oar, and thinks that it is a winnowing fan, only then should he stop and plant his oar there.

Is Tiresias telling Odysseus that when he returns to his Ithaka after all of his trials and tribulations that he must retire, put an end to the adventure and challenge of life in his older age and wait? I don’t know. I do know that at some point thirty years from now, I may have planted my oar because I don’t have the body to carry it anymore, but I will have lived the full life, weathering its storms and steady waves and the brilliant sky tucked behind Mt. Everest.

The Walkabout Continues

I started a walkabout only to realize that life is a walkabout that never ends. Deep in the recesses of our souls is who we are. To foster that we need to satiate our curiosity, take risks, ride the high seas, and take the time to drift down a river on a lazy afternoon.












In A House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, three women tell the protagonist, Esperanza, “when you leave, you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, you understand. You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are.”










What’s next?

Saying yes to life

I quit my job in Malaysia. Walked away from the steady salary of a paycheck, sweltering hot sunny days, travel, and wonder to return to New England.

The October air cries with humidity. This morning I sat on the porch to meditate. Rain started to spatter on the tin roof. I meditated and considered saying yes to life — to all that is here in front of me, right now — today. If I say yes to life, I can stop swimming upstream and float with the current until I reach a harbor by the sea, where the wind and the winter will kick up and toss me about.Transitions

In creeps doubt.

I am 59 years old. I am living with a friend of my mother’s who gracefully welcomed me into her home until I sort things out. Meanwhile, she readjusts to life without her husband. I have a boyfriend who wants me around three days a week because he wants to focus on pottery and tennis, while I pull myself together. Yesterday, I read all of the material I had written for a book I want to write. It’s not abysmal, but it’s not that good.

Written in Say Yes language.

I am 58 years old. I am healthy. I am fortunate to have a place to live until I sort things out. I am not ready to spread my roots because I don’t know where or who I want to be. As a woman provides me with a place to stay, I support her. I can give and receive. I have a boyfriend who loves me, and I can embrace the three days of the week that I can love him back, while I figure out if that is the way I want things to be. I have the freedom to find out who I am.

Needing Connection

Three years ago, when I moved to Mexico, I tossed conventionality out of the window and started this walkabout. I ran to far off lands, adventure, new people a new life and ended up in Malaysia. So why do am I drawn to the safety of nine to five, a paycheck, health insurance, a house, a steady relationship? All of the things that I left behind. My children, my friends, and New England. Those three things are essential to me.


Then conventionality kicks in. I should have a job. I need to make money. I won’t be able to afford to live comfortably when I am too old to do anything else. I see people around me with their comfortable paid-off houses, their 9-5 jobs, their children, their families, their outer security. But what is going on inside of all that? When I dig, do I see marriages that have less clarity than I have in my three-day a week relationship?Marriages that have love seated in history, houses, and making ends meet, and maybe that’s enough. Perhaps that and a full-time job is enough to carry us all along. But that is not the option I chose. I gave it up, left it behind, and then came back to the same place without the conventions that should match a 59-year-old’s life.

Finding confidence

I want to write, to reconnect with my children and my friends, and find my confidence that has taken a walkabout of its own. Where did it go? When did I lose my capacity to make decisions, to know I was taking the right next step?When I came back to the West, I had planned to go to Mexico to write and continue to dream. Then I decided to stay in New England. My son and a friend have needed me in ways that I had to be here. It was the right choice to return.

When Summer Turns to Fall

A few days ago, I walked into my best friend’s house to pick her up for a hike and a swim. I found her in a daze. “Lisa, I am so glad you are here right now. I can’t remember anything. I need you to tell me about my life. What am I doing here? What did I do today, yesterday, the day before?” She had lost her short-term memory. I sat down next to her thinking we can fix this. I reviewed her day. I asked her questions. Slowly, she turned into a broken record. Once I answered one question, she would ask me the same question again, and again.

Three days later she is home recovering from Transient Global Amnesia, something that visits women my age who are under stress or undergoing significant life changes. It can also be brought on by swimming in cold water, which is something that my friend and I have been doing a lot of these days as summer turns to fall.

Exhaling after a long inhale

Yesterday, I spent the day with her as her memories took more solid shape in her brain. One of the strongest people I know wasn’t the strongest person in the world anymore. Something had crept inside of her and said stop. It was time to stop for her, for me, and for those of us who were with her. We held our breath that day and stopped with her. We didn’t talk about what was next because we couldn’t fathom that her amnesia and broken-record-thoughts that day could be permanent. When she came back to us hour by hour, day by day, we let out our breath. We are still letting it out and only now starting to inhale and exhale in a steady rhythm.

Conventionality can wait

How do we say yes to life when we don’t know what is around the corner? Perhaps that is the rhetorical question. You say yes to life because you don’t know what is next. You find out what is essential and you say yes to that. You find your confidence curled up in a small ball under your bed, or in the bottom of your suitcase and swallow it again. Conventionality can wait.transitioning


Climbing Mt. Agung, Bali

I had been vacillating about climbing the volcano Mt. Agung in Bali. I had convinced myself that I didn’t want to wake up at 12:00 am to start the 2 am trek to the top to see the volcano. My inner driving force told me that I would regret it if I didn’t go – I have never climbed a volcano before. I wanted to look into the crater.

I started the climb and overtook two climbers who were as unprepared for the hike as I was – a borrowed head lamp, no jacket, no hat. At least I had a scarf, leggings and hiking boots. As we ascended from the steep jungle trail to the tree line, the guide told us we had finished the easy part. It was not easy. It was rigorous by my standards. He explained that we would climb for another two hours on a steeper trail. The last hour of the trail was rock climbing. Let me know if you want to turn back he said.

Forging ahead

I forged ahead. As long as I am not afraid of falling, I can walk or climb for an inordinate amount of time. Soon the headlamps from the other two climbers vanished, and it was me and my guide scrambling over scree in the moonlight. At 5:30 we reached the bottom of the last leg of the journey. One hour to go to the top. The night was crystal clear. Every single star that could twinkle twinkled. The moonlight lit the clouds socked into the valley below me.

Mt. Agung moon before sunrise
Moonlight on Mt. Agung before sunrise

No Fear

I started the third leg of the climb. It was still dark enough for me not to see the challenge that lay ahead of me, but I could feel it. I could also feel the strain on my butt from a hard fall that I had taken down the slippery temple stairs the morning before. But I wasn’t afraid. There was no anxiety, which surprised me. My previous rock climbing experiences fill me with painful dread, and they take tremendous effort to overcome. I force myself through them, clinging to small branches and frayed ropes, and then do the same thing in reverse. There is nothing enjoyable or gratifying about it.

Mt. Agung, Bali
Stopping point

Here I was again with no small branches or frayed ropes to help support my free climb. This time there was not one ounce of anxiety. I was calm. I climbed ten feet and stopped. No, I said, I don’t want to do this. It was if I needed the anxiety to be absent to make a sound judgment. We turned around and the beauty of the night was enough to feed my soul for a life time.

Morning Tea

Mt. Agung Bali Sunrise
The Mt. Agung moon giving way to the sun

We huddled in the cold morning air and drank tea. I watched the sun start to bathe the earth in its light as it rose on the opposite side of the volcano where I would have been if I had made it to the top. The night sky faded into pink. The moon kept its place and continued to reflect off the clouds below challenging the sun to take its place. Once the clouds turned pink and the moon gave the sun its place, we headed back, down the scree of the volcano, below the tree line, retracing our steps in the morning sunlight.

An illusion

I hadn’t made it to the top. I didn’t need to get to the top. Sometimes that’s not always your best view. Sometimes the me inside of me wants to stop, and I need to listen to her rather than scrambling through the sun rise and seeing nothing at all. This morning I stopped and watched the sun and the moon trade places. I watched the sun start to tickle the side of the mountain until it was in the right spot to capture the shadow of the volcano in the clouds. There was a black triangle of light splayed out in front of me, a play of shadow against pink. The shadow was an illusion of light. The sun had risen, behind the volcano casting a black triangle over the clouds in the valley.

Mt. Agung Bali Sunrise shadow
The shadow of Mt. Agung


I am in Bali

I am not sitting on a beach watching the waves pound shell and rock into sand. I am not sipping exotic drinks on a veranda. I am in between — in the mountains, overlooking rice paddies and watching six men building the second floor of a house propped up by a million sticks of bamboo. The construction here is quiet, not like Kuala Lumpur where it mixes in with the roar of traffic. Here, there is the gentle tap tap of a hammer drifting across the valley and over the river rushing down from the mountain.

Trekking to the temple

This morning after the meditation, Kurta, my guide and I trekked to a Hindu Temple high on a mountain across from the Nirarta Wellness Center. The plan had been to cross the river in front of my cottage, but it was too high, so we took to the road and crossed a broken bridge instead. The air was damp and fresh from the night rain, and the path was slimy with moss spread over muddy concrete.

Ten tiers to reach enlightenment

I couldn’t help thinking for most of the trek up to the temple, how the hell am I going to make it down this path. We reached the temple after climbing the last “300 steps.” Not a tourist in sight, just Kurta and me. I put on my sarong and wandered about the ancient temple. It was waiting for the festival of the full moon, quiet and empty. A thin layer of slippery mud covered the floor. Wooden structures waiting for offerings surrounded two platforms, and the multi-tiered tower shrine called the pelinggih meru overlooks the valley.

Dreaded descent

Bali temple steps
The 300 steps – the 10 that I slid down

Then the dreaded descent began. I tried to breathe into my fear of falling as I took the first 200 steps down toward the trail. My feet flew out from under me and sent me bouncing down the next ten steps. Bruised, but not hurt, I held back my tears, which seem to rest on the verge of everything these days. They are always there, simmering, but I keep them at bay most of the time. After my fall, I thought about bravery. Are brave people cowards running away from what scares them? Is it easier to face a dragon than it is to settle with your demons?

Maybe some of those answers are hidden in the temple on the mountain. There is a dual deity up there — part monster head with a dragon body. Is this the universal demon I carry?

Bali temple
Bali part monster

Crossing the River

Bali rice paddy temple in backKurta and I took a less slippery way down toward the river. Kurta pasted a Band-Aid on my superficial wound and pointed out a brilliant green rice paddy ready for picking. He suggested we try crossing the river. He must have sensed my adventurous spirit. We meandered through the rice paddies to find the best place to cross the raging river. Even I had my doubts, but I was thinking of how the cold water would feel on my bruised body as I followed Kurta into the river. It was uncrossable there, so we forged upstream but could not find a place that wouldn’t swallow us in our pursuit. We bushwhacked along the river, made a small crossing and eventually found the road.

Bali temple finding the road home
Finding the road

In between

Today, I am sitting on a four-poster bed by a river in the middle of this paradise surrounded by tropical plants and birds-of-paradise. Honey, the dog, barks in the distance, a group of Chinese women on retreat chatter in the background and every once in a while, a cool breeze drifts over my sweaty body. I am in between all of this before I start the next leg of my journey.

Bali school kids

When the reader becomes the book

Finding Loke Yew

It is my third weekend teaching at the Myanmar Refugee School. Every time I go there the Uber driver and I bond in our collaborative search for the place.

The one other volunteer and I decided that the reason no one shows up to volunteer at the Loke Yew School is that it is impossible to find. My new Uber friend and I confirmed that the address that I have for the place doesn’t exist. However, he gave me a famous KL land mark – the Hung Kee Noodle Shop.  Between that discovery and the confirmation that the address is wrong, I should find the place next week. Besides, the other volunteer and I found a nearby LRT (Light Rapid Transit) station.

Anything you want

When I arrived at the school – late – the students were sitting at benches, not on them, waiting for me. It was as if my arrival was a signal for them to go wild.

Myanmar Refugee School
Waiting for me?

What are they doing? I ask the woman in charge.

Waiting for you.

Oh. What should they work on?

Anything you want. Then she disappeared.

HMMM. Well, there were pictures of clothing on the board, so why not sing a song about clothes? I rounded them into a circle. A simple task if I didn’t have to pry them apart and keep them from slugging each other. We sat down, and I started to sing the What are you Wearing song faster and faster as I started losing their attention. If you are wearing a blue dress, stand up if you’re wearing a blue dress, stand up. Everyone, except for the two girls wearing blue dresses, stood up, and it was downhill from there. Children spilled everywhere. But I think they liked my voice.

Teaching strength

Teaching little kids is different than teaching teenagers, especially when there are so many of them.  It’s hard to tell if they are unruly or if they don’t know enough English to follow my directions. The perk to teaching little ones is that you can pick them up when the chips are down. This particular bunch likes to punch each other – hard. Sometimes I hear a loud crack or look up to see a kid pressed to the floor in a head lock. It takes all of my strength to pry them apart.

Can you tell them?

Then the woman in charge, the only one who speaks Burmese and English, drifted back into the room. Please, can you tell them to sit down and get out their notebooks? I begged. She told them. For the first time in the lesson, they all knew what to do. Then I realized that they didn’t have anything to write with, so I added before the Burmese speaker disappeared, can you tell them they need pencils?

The children sat for a moment, and since one boy had a hat, I went with that. Who is wearing a hat? He smiled. Another kid wrestled him for it, and all hell broke loose again. So, I grabbed all five of the dry erase markers, mere nubs of markers, and said, who wants a marker? There was a mad rush at me. No, I shook my head, down, down, as if I was staving off a pack of puppies. They finally realized that they had to sit to get something from me.

Where is the Cat in the Hat?
Boy at Myanmar Refugee school
Boy at Myanmar Refugee school

After much gesticulating, one boy understood that I wanted them to write hat. H-A-T. Hat. Then another student followed suit, and I poured a gallon of attention over them practically doing cartwheels. I patted their heads and smiled and jumped for joy, thus inspiring a few others to write the magic three letter. Where is the Cat in the Hat when you need him? Finally, we had all the three-letter A-T words I could think of on the board. Most of the kids busied themselves with coloring and hitting each other, but I got a few to write, and some to draw cats and hats. I held off the others from an all-out dry erase marker assault as the privileged five pressed the remaining ink out of them and onto recycled paper. By the end of the lesson, I had some of them writing words horizontally to make sentences: That fat cat. That cat sat.

They were done. They drifted. They wallowed. They wrestled and punched each other some more. It was mayhem.Boy at Myanmar refugee school

Finding books

I made my way through the other volunteer’s room to find a stash of books. The other volunteer had as much control over his students as I did, but they were older. I left the most unruly boy from my classroom with him, just for a reprieve, and scooted back to the wrestling match/coloring fest in my room.

Who wants a book? There was another mad rush. These kids know what they want. They are wanters. There was a clamor for the books. There were more than enough to go around.

The House was Quiet

Then all of them settled. A calm settled over the room. There was an occasional tug at a book, or a nudge to find a comfortable spot, a competition to have more books. ALL of them were engaged.

They came to me and showed me fish, and babies, and boys, and hair, lions, tigers, bears, and Buzz Lightyear. They asked me to sit in Burmese, and I taught them to say sit in English. They said grrr, and I said lion. They devoured the books. They fought over them too, and we learned how to share.

Sharing at Myanmar Refugee School
Sharing at Myanmar Refugee School KL Malaysia

The unruly boy, the one I had stuck in the other classroom earlier, wandered back to join us. He was the most aggressive and disengaged student there. I scooped him up and hugged him into my lap with all the loving I could muster. We read book after book, and he couldn’t get enough, even when his friends tried to fight him, even when the little girl on my other knee roared when she saw the witch in Rapunzel. When he pointed to the scary shark in Finding Nemo, we roared, and we tickled, and we laughed.

Engaged in books at the Myanmar Refugee School KL Malaysia
. . . and the world was calm
. . . and the world was calm*

Every once in a while, I felt a little head pressing against my back or leaning on my shoulder, or playing with my hair. They couldn’t get enough of me, and I couldn’t get enough of them.

Books at the Myanmar Refugee School in KLThe House was Quiet and the World was Calm,

by Wallace Stevens

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.





Turn Around Girl

Heading Northwest

Bukit Tabur approach 2On Saturday I found myself in a car with two other women heading northwest. As usual, I had no idea where we were going until we were well on our way to Bukit Tabur. I have been there before. It’s a stunning ridge only 45 minutes from the Kuala Lumpur.

I had been there before. Before Everest Base Camp, before my steady hikes with the Happy Hikers, before India once and India twice. I had been there in and around trips that I have made to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Istanbul, Sri Lanka, Langkawi, the Perhentians, Cameron Highlands, Kuantan, Penang, Melaka, and numerous other hiking forays which I cannot pronounce.Bukit Tabur Far East

But Bukit Tabur? Why?

The other side

The other side of Bukit Tabur, which I had climbed before, had closed within a month of my visit there because someone fell to his death. Bukit Tabur is a climb where I had to ignore the possibility that I could drop off a sheer rock face at any moment — one of those climbs with thick frayed ropes that provided dubious support –thick frayed ropes tied to saplings, as sturdy, inexperienced hikers trusted them not to break.

And these people climbing had probably signed up for the hike without any expectation just as I had this day. Their friend had told them it was beautiful, or they saw a picture, or, if they were like me, they had to meet their weekly social quota (I spend an inordinate amount of time alone – almost hermit status). Whatever the reason, I was on my way to Bukit Tabur a second time with a woman who spoke Malaysian English of which I understood one in five words and a Korean woman who had hiked once before in her lifetime.

Most of the time. . . but sometimes

Bukit Tabur Far East
Following the leader up Bukit Tabur

The gist is that I love beautiful places like this. I love adventure. I love not knowing where I am going – most of the time. But sometimes the not knowing about my future is a constant test — a situation that I put myself in because I want to rewire my brain.

Bukit Tabur, Malaysia
SJ is one of the many people on my walkabout I will never forget. She has hiked twice in her life. Fearless and Full of Joy.

At some point in my life, a story formed inside me telling me I had to be brave. I was the one who would slay dragons, leap tall buildings at a single bound, and conquer the world. I was the one who would do it all, and I only had a short lifetime to accomplish all of this.

A proclamation

Bukit Tabur Far East
Climbing the crag at Bukit Tabur

The fact of the matter is that I don’t want to scale craggy cliffs with only frayed ropes dangling from strained saplings growing out of rock. This proclamation goes beyond the fear that this kind of climbing invokes. It surpasses the view that I see when I get to the top. It exceeds the missing exhilaration that I should feel because I accomplished something great and dangerous. It terrifies me at the same time that is pushes me to face my fears.

This Saturday, after we had scaled and descended a craggy, frayed-rope, sapling-anchored rock, I followed our leader as she continued down the trail. I was pretty sure that the rest of the day was going to be a continuation of stomach wrenching climbs.

Bukit Tabur - Far East
So I said no. . .

So, I said no. No rocks, just woods, and jungle.

Turning back

Our leader started to take us back to the car. Since we were only an hour into our climb, I think that her plan was to take us somewhere else. Then it dawned on her that we could just continue through the jungle until we came to the next challenge and then turn around and come back. So that is what we did.

It was the most beautiful jungle hike, with such lovely company, flora and fauna lit by streaming paths of light, snack breaks along the way, and joyful conversation. When we got to the next rock face, which really wasn’t so bad, my friend SJ, whose legs were quaking with fatigue, said no this time. And we turned around.

Bukit Tabur -- Far East
The rest of the hike was beautiful.
Turning forward

When you journey as much as I have, you learn that you can always turn around, and when you do, the return route never looks the same. You may have even had a chance to leap a tall cliff at a single bound or slay a fear dragon. When I turned around that day, it was so simple, smooth and accepting.

Soon I will turn around as I always do when I hop on a plane and return “home” for a period. But I am not necessarily turning back. I am turning forward. Forward with new eyes.

Bukit Tabur
Turning Forward

One Kuala Lumpur Cafe at a Time

One Cafe at a Time

This April marked the beginning of my last four months in KL. Rather than travel extensively, I decided to stay in KL and visit at least one different café in Kuala Lumpur every weekend. In the process, I have mastered the GPS — even when I forget to tell it that I am walking and not driving.

Cafe Adventures


Pasar Seni
I’ll bet I can walk from Pasar Seni to KL Sentral

Sometimes when I am on a café adventure, I add in another challenge that starts with, for example, I’ll bet I could walk from Pasar Seni to KL Sentral. It is only one LRT (Light Rail Transit) stop away. I ended up on something like a super highway on that foray, but I made it. It was so satisfying to realize where I was when I stumbled upon the YMCA.

Times Square of Kuala Lumpur

Today, I am sitting in a café that I like the least of all the ones that I have visited. It is in Bukit Bintang, which is trying hard to be the Times Square of Kuala Lumpur. Some places in KL have never cut it for me, and Bukit Bintang is one of them. I get lost every time I come here. It is full of giant screens, fancy hotels, honking horns, malls and trendy expats and tourists. It is everything that KL is not.

Cafe Adventure Rules

Part of the café adventure is finding it. But there are some rules.

Kl Sentral LRT Station
KL Sentral Station, Kuala Lumpur, MY

One rule is that I have to take public transportation, and then I have to walk following my GPS. I usually wear a dress because it is too hot to wear anything else. I am the tall, white, crazy GPS-wielding chick with the GPS. I wonder if I stand out. It always takes me a few spins to get in sync with my GPS arrow. I spend a bit of time walking in circles for a few minutes trying to believe that my GPS is pointing me in the right direction.

DR Inc Cafe Bangsar Kuala Lumpur
DR Inc Cafe Bangsar Kuala Lumpur

Another adventure rule is that I cannot give up. I have to find the café. Asking for directions is allowed, but never fruitful because no one understands me, or if they do, I don’t understand them. Malaysia has its own English, which is a challenge sometimes. Today was challenging because not only was the café in Bukit Bintang, it was raining, I had three percent of battery life left, and the GPS thought I was driving. People in KL do not walk to destinations mainly because it is too hot. It is by no means a walking city. Instead, it is a giant traffic jam most of the time.

Finding my bearings

When the GPS told me that I had reached my destination, located at Fahrenheit 88, I realized that the Connoisseurs Café was in a mall on G Floor lot 43. I never know if I am on G, or LG, or 1, unless I ask, or there is a sign hidden somewhere. Malaysians don’t have simple floor labels starting with one. Most of the time it is LG, G, 1, 2, 3, 3a, 5 and up. Four is an unlucky number, and it is not included in any number sequence. Some places have B levels as well, and there can be as many as three of those.

The first person I asked didn’t know what floor she was on either. The guard had no idea what I was asking him; the woman at the ice cream counter didn’t have a clue. Finally, two Chinese shop owners directed me to the concierge, who not only knew what floor I was on but where the café was. It ended up being a glass enclosed café on the sidewalk outside of the mall. How could I have missed it?

Other cafe misses

I have missed the other cafes on my adventures, but with good reason. The café’s near Pasar Seni hide deeply just outside of Chinatown and usually on the second floor. These are where the treasure cafes hide — gems with creaky wooden floors. They are funky, trendy, and they serve dynamite coffee.

Merchant's Lane

Yum Cha Cafe Kuala Lumpur
Yum Cha Cafe: hidden gem
I'll bet. . .

The Connoisseur Café is starting to fill up now. The rain has stopped, and the girl next to me has answered two cell phone calls in the course of a minute. The Time Square lights are getting brighter, and the traffic outside is building to a louder clatter than it was before. I am full of my dry cheesecake, one late and bitter lemon soda. Now I have to decide whether or not I am going to take the monorail to the LRT or see what happens if I ask the GPS for walking directions back to the LRT. My phone is at 23 percent. I’ll bet I can walk to KLCC (KL City Center) before it either starts to rain or it gets dark.

Ra-ft coffee Kuala Lumpur
Ra-Ft Coffee, Kuala Lumpur

The Essential Question

Why are we doing this?

Students are practical beings. Their essential question is why are we doing this, or what are we doing today. The teacher should ask herself over and over again why is what I teach the most essential thing my students needs to know?

Think of all of the students who sit in straight rows day after day listening to a teacher teach the same thing that they could read out of a book. How is that valuable? How can anyone believe it is valuable?charlie-brown-teacher Charles Schultz coined this with the teacher in all of his comic strips. Blah, blah, blah. As I write, two teachers sit opposite me writing an e-learning module that is not worth the fifteen minutes that they have been talking about it.

But wait!!!

There is value in it. Teachers spend hours figuring out how to teach their meaningless lesson. They bring in someone else to consult so that they can flex their intellectual muscles by lifting elementary math problems. Others will join, scratch their heads with looks of consternation. They speak too loudly so that other people can see how hard they work. How intellectually impressive they are.They bring out their calculators to prove their prowess in technology.

Then they return to their cubicles forgetting everything that they just talked about because it is so meaningless. But they have spent so much time talking about it that they don’t want to flush that time away. Still, they inflict their wasted time on a captive audience of unfortunate students day after day.

Another chance

Don’t get me wrong. I am guilty. I started having lazy days when I lost sight of the essential question. When those days started getting closer, I left. I took a break from teaching two years ago. Now, I want to go back because I have a chance to work in an essential school that puts a student’s essential question at the forefront — where learning is essential for students and teachers.

What happened?

When I was teaching, I wanted my students to learn so badly. I wanted them own what they learned. I wanted to experience the thrill that comes with learning how to solve a problem. When I had the freedom to run a critical skills classroom, I could do that. At the end of the class, we would talk about what happened, what we learned, and what we were going to do with it.

Then my classes kept getting bigger. The wall that used to open between my classroom and the next was plastered shut. My co-teacher started teaching AP English by himself. Then the textbooks crept in: first ninth grade, then tenth. I stayed ahead of them by teaching 11th and 12th.


When the superintendent sentenced us to textbooks, my colleague asked, what about passion? Does this mean that we teach literature in snippets of cropped fiction, that students will learn that all poetry has notes in its margins? That all writing fits into a series of nice neat little drafts of 500 words — no more no less? The response was yes. The prospect of pre-packaged teaching frightened me, so I ran away.

One more chance

Now I have one more chance. A tiny glimmer of hope that all is not lost. I applied for a job at an essential school that I found tucked away on Indeed (the world’s number one job post site). I went through two interviews. Now, if I prove my passion and my commitment to essential learning in a one-hour Skype session, there is a chance that could embark on a new and essential journey at an essential school.

How will I answer the essential question?

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