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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

Category

Finding your bliss

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.

Convention

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.

Bali
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

My Second Passage to India


peacock-in-indiaAsk me

People like to compare places. Would you say that India is like Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Mexico, the U.S.? How does one compare India to anything? India is India. Ask me a question that lets me pour some of India into your soul. Ask me about the contrasts of color, people, nature, plastic and poverty, but don’t ask me to compare. boys-on-the-road

Ask me about the woman on her way to Sri Lanka who would “never go to India; where men grab at the women and rob them blind. Where danger lurks behind every corner.” How do people get through life thinking that way? I forget that some people think I am a brave and gallant traveler who hopped on a plane to Mexico three years ago to find “home” but has yet to return to the comforts of New England. I am not brave, spirited yes, but I associate bravery with gallantry, valor, and nerve, not with the hapless delving into other worlds that I do.

A different approach

Delving was not my approach to this trip to India. The man with whom I went to the Everest Base Camp (not to be confused with summiting Mt. Everest) encouraged me several times to join the Happy Hiker India trip. At first, I was reluctant, I am not a group person, as Ganesan would be the first to point out. It turns me inside out to be in a group. conoor-traffic-monkey-2After three or four pushes from Ganesan, I relented and joined the 27-member tour of Southern India. Since it was with the Happy Hikers, I trusted it would be something that it didn’t turn out to be, but that doesn’t mean that it was not a splendid experience. Despite the fact that the cluster of women on the trip whose priority was shopping drove the trip, I managed, as usual, to hop off the bus and explore the nooks and crannies of India, while others pursued their interests.

Mudumalai National Park

We bounced about in a government jeep early one morning. The forest shared the blue hue so familiar to me from new England hikes in the winter minus the cold. The shopping women in the back were so loud that the driver had to remind them that we were scaring the animals away.

As we inched through the forest sanctuary, part of me yearned to be walking in this emptiness, but I appreciated that I could be there at all. Although I get down on India’s lack of infrastructure when it comes to hiding the trash as well as we Americans do, India’s efforts to preserve the wildlife there touched me. My thoughts were rewarded when we saw an elephant taking its morning drink in a shallow pond at the base of a ravine.Elephant Seeing an elephant in the wild is an honor, and on this trip, I was granted that honor several times. This elephant was undisturbed, peaceful, and graceful. The scene was so still, and I could imagine this animal’s solitary life as he swayed out of the pond and into the manicured landscape, which reminded me of the woods I used to tromp through growing up in New York.

Elephants in India

20170128_180504All of the elephants that I have seen up until now have been captive. Hindus revere Ganesh, the elephant god who removes obstacles and carries the attributes of strength, honor, stability and tenacity. Most of the captive elephants that I have seen lumber through India’s crazy streets carrying barefoot men or stay chained by one leg to a post at the bottom of a temple’s 700 steps eating bananas or wads of rice shoved into their mouths by their owners. elelisa cropped

On my trip to Northern India last year, Dolores and I rode two elephants who had been rescued from the circus. The story went something like this. Years ago, royalty owned a herd of elephants. A caste cared for the elephants from generation to generation. But when the dynasty dissolved, the elephants were sold into labor and circus acts where their keepers brutally abused them until someone called a halt to elephants in the circus. When the elephants were released, there was no question that they return to the next generation of royal elephant keepers.

A Cultural Safari

After the morning safari, three of us we took off from our place on the edge of the reserve to walk into the town of Masinagudi. We passed by washerwomen and fishermen at the riverbank and never-ending piles of plastic that continue to swallow India. 20170129_10260820170129_102705

Hope your road is a long one.

May there be many summer mornings when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind—

as many sensual perfumes as you can;

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

20170129_112307Masinagudi’s small main street had its version of “pearls, corals, ebony and sensual perfumes” with its goat’s heads at the butcher shop gazing beyond the long line of chicken butchers on the other side of the street. 20170129_114803Women in bright saris women waited in line while the butcher pulled one live chicken after the other from its cage and de-limbed it on a runny red slab of wood. Men carried away livers and legs, but the women stuffed the live chickens in their bags for later execution.

20170129_112612We wandered up a hill off of the main drag of the town to find India in its vibrant pink, purple, turquoise, and striking white houses, amidst white-toothed children as curious about us as we were of them.  We bought a bunch of bananas and discovered that cows, dogs, monkeys, and birds eat them skin and all20170129_11215020170129_113550

Seeing women in their brilliant saris, the men in their lungi and the openness of the poverty that surrounds them baffles me. Living this way, and smells that curl my nostril hairs is understandable on a certain level. This is their normal. It is the contrast that astounds me: the brilliance of the people, their clothing, and their smiles. I am the anomaly for them, wandering through their village with my Samsung while the men, women, and children stare at my long, white, uncovered limbs and titter behind polite hands.20170129_110935

Hiding Poverty in America 20170128_072214

20170129_111023 20170129_111555 20170129_111804India doesn’t hide its poverty and its pollution the way that Americans do. I know we have the same amount of plastic, maybe less poverty, but it’s still there hiding behind the dumpsters, or in those secret landfills where They take our non-recyclables and nuclear waste. We Americans just take better care to filter it, which has its merits. Our infrastructure provides our country with a means to deposit its waste, finish its roads, and clean its public toilets, but that is not to say that it doesn’t exist. woman-and-daughter1

The rawness and honesty in India give me a realistic sense of the state of the world. India opens my eyes wide open to humanity, which is glorious and colorful, wretched and raw. India is loud and chaotic, soft and spiritual, ancient and wise.india-fish-man-and-motorcycle

The Tea Nest

We non-shoppers left the Tea Nest in Conoor reluctantly after a peaceful night on a tea plantation. We had spent the short evening before meandering through the tea plantation as the sun set. We twisted our way through the paths that the tea pickers make as they pluck one ripe tea leaf after the next and deposit them into their white burlap bags. We came upon a group of pickers – all women – weighing their day’s labor. Then they broke camp and left where they would start again in the morning.20170130_165544 20170130_165556 20170130_165622 20170130_165635

We continued upward until we reached the top of the endless rows of tea, and bought tea and eucalyptus oil at a tea stand on the roadside. Meanwhile, I had to spend this time finding discrete places to take care of my India belly. Indian food is rich and eating it night after night takes its toll. I learned that sticking to veggie fried rice has its merits.

Despite my stomach, wandering back through the tea plantation we came upon several bisons on our path. tea-bison 20170130_175149We were not quite sure how they would feel about us, so we dodged them by taking a narrow path to the road where we met up with another bison. These animals are giants with threatening horns, but they seem more concerned with the grass on the roadside than they did with us. Two schoolboys returning home seemed relaxed enough about the bison, so we let it lumber past without consequence. bison

All the places I will go

As I strongly consider leaving Asia this June, I can’t believe how unaware I was of how other people live, how ignorant and shallow my perspective of the world was before I came here. Raised in an isolated and privileged world of country clubs and private schools, the closest I got to India was through Burnett, Kipling, and later, E.M. Forester. I, like these British authors, was captivated by India. Now their influence is buried behind the mask of what India truly is. Shrouded in the myths of religion and the past, poverty, food and color, India is a sensory experience that hopefully will stay with me if I return to New England. 20170130_174809

Since I left Mexico, my adventures have taken on a different flavor and mood. I am not charging forth as much. Instead, I am absorbing the world in a way that I never have before. India has left me full of wonder for a second time.

mudhumalai-sanctuary9I think of all of the places that I have not been – the Middle East, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South America, Africa, and the bits and pieces that I have missed on my travels—knowing that I have only scratched the surface of the world.

 

20170129_111916coconut-woman

bird-of-paradise

The Winnowing Fan dilemma


Being an expatriate is my normal.

I have a feeling that I have always been one, even in my own country. It is my normal to feel like a foreigner. Being an American in Asia or Mexico makes my foreignness more obvious, because of the language and the color of my skin. Living in New England makes it easy to hide the foreigner in me.

How small is America?

Living and traveling in Southeast Asia, makes me realize how small America is. While you, we, are grappling with the election of our new president (He Who Shall Not Be Named), he is a passing fancy here. Here in Malaysia, America is no big deal. When locals ask me where I live, I usually say on the New York side or the opposite side from California. Sometimes, I just say I live near Canada. Most of the time people just cannot imagine where that might be.

I’ll admit that as an American I always felt privileged, maybe a step above the rest of the world. Living among expatriates in Kuala Lumpur has made me realize that I am not. Nor am I the center of the universe, which may seem obvious to you, but it took me a while to realize that.

Missing

Still, I find myself missing my country. The regularity of starting my car on a cold winter day. Wondering whether I will make it out of the driveway if I get enough traction as I charge our of the garage full bore. I miss going to Twelve Pine for a latte. I miss crashing around the woods with Beth. I miss lunch at Plowshare Farm. I miss clipping on my cross country skis and skiing out of my basement door in a raging snowstorm.

Do I want to come back?

I miss the normalcy of my New England life. The question is can I sustain the personal and emotional growth that I have gained in the past two and a half years, or would I slither back into my old skin again.

Do I want to come back?

Yes. I want to come back and live in a room with a kitchen, a bed, and a bathroom. I want to live in the woods, off the grid and write.

Can I come back?

I certainly have taken risks before. I am capable of doing anything. But I’ll need a car. I’ll need to pay first and last month’s rent. Oh and I’ll need a job. Isn’t it funny how leaving the country was so easy, so dynamic, unpredictable and challenging, but grappling with a possible return stops me dead in my tracks? All of my protectors leap out at me and yell be careful, it’s not the way you think it is, you will fall into a rut again, you can’t teach, you can’t earn a living writing, you will end up right where you started two and a half years ago. But I can keep them at bay. I have taken to propping those voices on my shoulder and telling them to settle down and watch me take care of myself.

Plant the oar

I finally get it when Tiresias gives Odysseus the oar and tells him that after he returns to Ithaka he will have to go somewhere far away and plant the oar in a place where no one has ever seen one before. It’s because Odysseus is not that person anymore. He made it back to Ithaka a different man, and Ithaka was not the same either. Plant the oar, plant your old self somewhere far away and your return will be complete.

So I can go back. I can take my oar with me. And after I have settled into my life there, I can pick up my oar and take it to say, Louisiana or Kansas, and plant it there. Because home is in my heart. I know that it is not in Peterborough, Katonah, or Kuala Lumpur.

It sounds so simple.

Why is it so hard?

 

 

 

Looking down on the world


Tuesday, October 3 (Tengboche)

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Rhododendron Forest

The trail started in a rhododendron forest. It continued through pine forests down, down, down to the Dudh Kosi River. We crossed the river on another suspension bridge swaying to the rhythm of the wind. Lunch was in a small paddock/café.img_4002

 

Yaks and horses wandered through the village with or without burdens to bear. People from all over the world floated by – spirits of adventure from Dana Hall, Harvard, Nepal, Iran, Seattle, France, the UK, Belgium, Australia and mostly Germany. I shared a way too salty ball of Yak cheese with an Iranian man and promptly chucked the remains of it down the cliff when he wasn’t looking. We were all hearty souls on the same path.

 

The porters can carry up to 80 kilos – burdens that weigh far more than they do. They trek in anything from crocs and flip flops to worn out sneakers and hiking shoes. Their dark brown feet are black around the edges, cracked and hardened by miles of treading this path to Everest. It reminds me of a grand pilgrimage.

Stately Menimg_3971

The yak is a stately man. He looks outwards from each eye. His horns curl upward and back non-threateningly. His hooves splay with each step it takes on the hard rock. His shepherds threaten a beating with a light rope that never strikes. They drive their yaks with their voices and the yaks listen. People move aside as a team of yaks pushes up a mountain at the same delicate pace. They walk together through the street – splayed feet and eyes—not seeing but feeling the steps below them. Bells crafted for making music swing beneath their necks from far away at night.

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4,000 Meter Break at the Shomare Hilltop Lodge – October 4

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The silence is complete with only the soft sizzling of our lunch over a yak dung fire. The woman running this lodge is the widow of a Sherpa who died when so many others did in 1996. My silence is inspired by the awe that I hold for this land. aweWe all agree that if I take off my shoes, the smell will ruin the perfection of this quiet rest, so I park them outside to wait for me there.

The tourists who did not make it to Everest Base Campimg_4024

 

One half a million people make the pilgrimage to Everest Base Camp every year. Chinese tourists with tripods and selfie sticks busy themselves and their photographic impressions and Facebook status. Meanwhile, they are surrounded by a thundering river, its waves sucked under and over under and over, carving its way from Mt. Everest and Island Peak.

 

river-a

A Nepalese man sings a song with a broad smile. The sun gives way to fog and the tree line disappears outside of the rhododendron forest where strings of moss hang lazily from bloomless, yellow-leaved branches.

rhododenron-with-moss
View from the Rhododendron forest

The pressure in my ears tightens as we climb higher and I carry a dull headache with me for the remainder of the trip, especially at night when my brain, craving oxygen, pulses to the point of pushing me to pray, which is not something I do, but the repetition of the serenity prayer soothes the blood path and diverts my attention elsewhere. At this point, we are inching up the trail in a shuffle.

 

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Yak dung patties

 

Yaks mew in unison with the bells clanging beneath their necks. Stacks of white rock dropped by the glacier splatter the landscape. Tidy rock walls contain the yaks who do not have the luxury of grazing that day. The yak pens are clear of their dung, which is collected and dried by women wearing yellow rubber gloves. They slap the dung into patties for burning or plugging holes in their stone structures to keep the wind out.

Is living on the subsistence level a hardship, or do we who have everything look down on a good life that has less?

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Venture Forth


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.

  1. Environmentally, we are screwed.
  2. Worrying about the future is a waste of time.
  3. Learning is a challenge, but I don’t need to be defensive as I do it.
  4. Learning takes time.
  5. Language barriers and cultural barriers are married to each other.
  6. As much as I want to be one, I will never be a princess.
  7. When you turn challenges into adventures, they are lots of fun.
  8. I want to be a writer.
  9. Ultimately, I am on my own.
  10. 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.

Perhentian Island


Honor and privilege

(Check out the slide show at the end)

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.

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Airplanes, vans and boats to paradise

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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…

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Mira Mira where I ate and socialized

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.IMG_3426

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.

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My bungalow

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.

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Talking to Monadnock


Do I sit in envy on this porch wondering why I never applied myself enough to have this? A house with a porch, a field, two cars, and barns full of equipment waiting for my next adventure. For a moment yes.

The morning breeze reminds me of the breeze off of Alford Lake at camp in Union, Maine. It used to sweep over the lake, through the balsams, and around the shiny heads glistening under the pines. It was as if it knew that it was time for church, which took place under the pines every Sunday after we washed our hair with biodegradable soap in the lake. The breeze didn’t whisper; it talked and we listened, captivated by its spirit. And this cathedral in the pines overlooking the lake that held the bright white path of the sun was god.

The wind, the light, and the balsams told us to look further than ourselves with the same strength and power with which its message weaved its way through us. It fed my spirit — a spirit on the cusp of an adolescent awareness that ruins us for a while, until we push through the questions, the tests, of ourselves, our parents, society — the why of every single thing. This was before that time when every little detail of my life had to make sense. It was before the time that I didn’t listen to the wind every day. A time before I couldn’t feel because I could only question.

Here it is again. Telling me that I was always free. I never needed to leave that bench in the woods. But I did. And whether it is on the 20th floor of an apartment in KL, a busy street in Ho Chi Minh City, a Temple in Cambodia, a scorching Tampico beach where only the fishermen go, whether it’s in a city where masked men point semi-automatics over the roof of a pickup truck becomes a matter of landscape; or in a mosque by the river, this New England wind will always remind me of the power and privilege of my freedom.

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