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