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
I saw a dead man today. We had just come out of the jungle and there he lay. The EMTs had just arrived, although we learned later that he had been lying there for 25 minutes. They performing CPR, but it was obvious that he was gone. He had beautiful hair and rich bronze skin. His shoes were cast off and his knee was bloodied and bruised from where he fell. He was alone. No one seemed to know him, but everyone wanted to save him. A small group of hikers took turns performing CPR as a woman counted out 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 up to 30 over and over again.
Why do I start my blog with this (other than to draw you in with a good hook)? Because this is day one of the third year of my two-year walkabout. (Figure that one out.) When I left Peterborough, my plan was to return in two years, but I am not ready yet. The man who died reminded me of that today. One day you’re here and the next day you’re not. A snap of the fingers and life disappears. I am out here in the world because I want to do, see, feel, touch, and hear everything that I possibly can while I can. Nothing can determine my fate, so I want to live my life with abandon. I want to keep all of my doors wide open. By leaving the door open, I ended up in Malaysia a year ago today. By leaving the door open, I am learning a new career, meeting people, exploring. To coin a cliché the world is my classroom. It always has been.
What have I learned from the two years of my walkabout? Here are 10 things, not in any particular order.
Environmentally, we are screwed.
Worrying about the future is a waste of time.
Learning is a challenge, but I don’t need to be defensive as I do it.
Learning takes time.
Language barriers and cultural barriers are married to each other.
As much as I want to be one, I will never be a princess.
When you turn challenges into adventures, they are lots of fun.
I want to be a writer.
Ultimately, I am on my own.
I raised my children well.
In her own way, my mother lived her life with abandon. I think of her often as I tromp through the jungle, board a plane, speak a new language, read a poem, climb the world’s mountains. I think of her scraping her shins, falling down, and getting back up again day after day, mountain after mountain, trail after trail. She was 30 years older than me. Her death reminded me of my mortality. It nudged me to see the world before the great sights vanish, or before I am too old and creaky to venture forth.
As the world continues to destroy itself, I had the honor and privilege to see a living coral reef. One thing that my walkabout has taught me is that this planet is going down fast. To find pieces of beauty in nature is a rare and special thing. How many more times will I get to see a living thriving coral reef like this one? This was the first place that I have been in Malaysia that was clean. Clean water and no trash – well… I have lower standards than I used to; there was still some plastic hidden here and there, but nothing as blatant as I have experienced in most of Malaysia.
Airplanes, vans and boats to paradise
After spending way too much time in the airport because my father trained me to arrive endless hours before a flight, I shared a cab, which turned out to be a van, with some Australians and headed out for Kota Bahru, where a speed boat would take me to one of the Perhentian Islands. There is a reason why they call them speed boats. We flew over the ocean’s swells for a half an hour and I was the first drop off on Petani Beach. As I stretched from the speed boat to the water taxi that would shuttle me to shore, the Caribbean blue water dazzled me.
The professor and Mary Ann…
I felt like I had arrived on Gilligan’s Island, in color. Ramshackle bungalows lined Petani Beach, Internet was not existent, water was scarce, and beauty abundant. I settled in for dinner with a cluster of tourists like me who had looked for and found the most remote spot on the island. We sat at a hanging table and compared life experiences from Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, and Malaysia. Most of us were wanderers, not sure where we would end up in a year, which has become my normal. I love it when people don’t react to me traveling alone to remote places. Most of these people are young enough to be my children. I rarely run into women my age traveling alone, which means I am either incredibly adventurous, or irresponsible, or both.
My three days on the island were spent meeting people who drifted in and out, snorkeling, hiking around the island, and snorkeling some more.
Neon is the new black
I used to think that neon was an artificial color – it is not. The ocean lit up with fluorescent fish that batted against my goggles. Clown fish brushed inside of sea anemone, fish brushed against other fish to suck off whatever nutrients attached to their scales. The baby sharks swooshed about harmlessly, and the barracuda were practically translucent. One day, I met up with Napoleon fish that had huge blue bodies and buck teeth. When I snorkeled toward the shore it was easy to see the stingrays. One thing mystified me. At first, I thought I was seeing bright blue and black snake squiggles. As I swam further, I realized that they were clam lips, which if I looked closely, were opening ever so slightly.
Every other place that I visited on the island, except for one, was a tourist trap –music, Coca-Cola, lots of booze, bikinis and music. At Petani Beach, we learned that we did not need to go anywhere. We had found paradise.
When we plunged into the jungle without a path to follow, I knew I had found my people. The type of people who say we haven’t hiked enough after four hours. The kind who say just one more hill, but you said that the last time, but this hill is not big, so it doesn’t count. The kind of people who don’t fuss on a hike. My kind.
Since I returned to KL last month after selling my house, I have been restless and determined to find something to capture me. My search has led me to an Indian meditation group called Isha, in Brickfields, the Indian section of KL. This was my second time there, and I plan on doing a retreat with them in July.
My second venture was with Internations, an expatriate group, for a “trip to the countryside.” For some reason, I thought that this meant a hike through some rice paddy fields. It turned out to be closer to a trip to the Twilight Zone. It was one of the many experiences I have had that confirms my usual disconnect with the world. After an hour and a half drive Northwest of KL, we arrived at a giant Burger King in a strip mall, full of garbage, durian, open markets, and wafts of everything from India to a mechanic’s garage. We wallowed there in the air conditioning (which I love more than anything) until the rest of the group arrived one-half an hour later. Then we caravanned off to I did not know where. Even though everyone speaks English in Malaysia, if I am not astute, it is easy to miss things like where I am headed, what I’m doing and why. I learned we were going on a tour of a rice processing factory in the middle of a giant rice paddy.
It was everything that you would expect a rice processing factory tourist trap to be. It started with a video about processing rice that reminded me of a video I might watch in a seventh-grade social studies class (a video from the late 60s). From there we saw the rice plant through glass windows, kind of like the Ben and Jerry’s plant without the ice cream. After we passed through the rice processing plant museum, we landed in a giant tourist trap of a room, where people bought fish rice cakes, rice wine, rice noodles, and a concoction of corn, beans, and rice syrup over ice, and rice. We also got to see people make big blocks of rice and nut granola bars held together by something ricey.
I assumed I had signed up for the wrong trip and continued on my way to a tacky new Buddhist temple, where some people tried durian (which is something you do not want to try unless you enjoy fruit that tastes like shit). Some people bought paper prayers to burn in a miniature incinerator/prayer burner. One woman bought an entire batch of prayer sticks, lit them all on fire, and practically started a fire. How could she have known only to light one?
With that behind us, we piled into respective carpools and drove to a place that smelled like dead fish and sewer. We pulled over and stood by the side of the road. We milled about looking at fishing boats, and at birds that slept in the palm trees. After milling about some more, I asked if perhaps there was a beach I could walk to. There was a beach, and that was the next stop.
As we piled out of the cars one last time, the intensity of the fish and shit smell had increased tenfold. The beach was a small patch of garbage strewn sand, enclosed by a breakwater on one side and a giant brush fire with flames about 10 feet high on the other. That was the nice part. People selling cheap knock offs occupied the rest of the beach area. There was a woman dressed in a minion suit playing a loud recording in Chinese repeatedly for the entire time we were there. I stood on the breakwater trying to catch some relief from the intense heat and watched the fishing boats putter toward the fish factory to drop off their daily catch.
I walked over to check out the fire. Some dudes asked to take my picture, and I said yes as long as I could take theirs. Then I sought some cool-looking Australians to help me cuss out all of this. Yes, indeed this was happening, and it was, most certainly, bizarre.
Meanwhile, the smell was so intense that I had to hold my nose. Americans are few and far between in this land, especially when the ones who dress in hiking gear and hold their noses on excursions to rice processing plants and fishing villages with a minion belting out songs in Chinese. I do not know who made the bigger spectacle, me or the minion. Finally, we went to a fish restaurant to eat fresh fish. I sought out the Australians again to regain my equilibrium and ended up laughing with a lot of others who shared the Twilight Zone experience with me. Regardless, I was happy to get home that night and put that experience behind me.
Not willing to let that experience deter me from my quest for adventure, I signed up for another Internations experience the following weekend, which really was a hike. We met at Bangsar and drove about 30 minutes north of the city with many people from all over the world. Some people had shared the Twilight Zone experience with me the week before. This hike was a delightful experience, despite the trash, which seems to be a part of nature here. Wherever you find “toilets” and tourist trinket stalls, you will find massive amounts of trash. This is true of every journey I have taken in Asia so far.
We climbed along a waterfall until we reached its source. It was a steep climb, and once we reached the top, we wallowed in the cool spring mineral water, that almost seemed clean enough to drink, but I abstained. This was a successful trip. One that I would do again with the same people.
Happy Hikers Meetup in Kuala Lumpur
This hike inspired me to take another hike the following day with the “Meetup” group. Here I hit the jackpot. From the moment I stepped into the car until the moment I finished a delicious Indian banana leaf meal, I was in heaven. We bushwhacked; we climbed up and down; we talked; we laughed, and we shared our love of hiking and adventure. This group hikes every weekend and sometimes at night during the week. In October they are going on a trip to ABC trail in Nepal. Is there any doubt that I will go?