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
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.
Every time I turn the time on my Walmart watch from Mexico the winder falls out. Nevertheless, I always adjust the time forward or back the minute I get on the plane. I try to trick my body into thinking that it hasn’t lost a day during the journey from Boston to Kuala Lumpur.
When I arrived in Istanbul after the first leg of my 24-hour flight, I was ready to use my 10-hour layover for a small adventure into the city. In cases such as these, my strategy is to latch onto someone who looks like she or he knows where she is going. My first two attempts ran into language barriers and Turkish brusqueness. Then I scored! The woman was German. The man was Turkish, turned German at an early age. They took me to the Blue Mosque on the tram. I arrived an hour before the breaking of fast on the first day of Ramadan. There were miles of people crammed at plastic tables in the square waiting for the sun to sink behind the mosque, and the call to prayer to bellow across the city.
But it is not Monsoon Season.
The next morning, unbeknownst to all of us on that peaceful sunlit evening, a Kurdish Militant Group bombed an area just a few tram stops away. When I posted my near miss on Facebook, a concerned friend asked if my quest was necessary. Absolutely. I answer that without hesitation. Perhaps I put myself at risk by living in northern Mexico, venturing into Istanbul, traveling the world alone, or living in a country on the other side of the world, but I have managed to skirt the ugliness of the world, the civil unrest, the warring factions, people desperate enough to believe that a suicide bomb will solve their problems. The militant group that bombed Istanbul, explicitly told foreigners to stay away, because they are at war. Does that mean that we stay away? Last night a woman warned me to beware of the monsoon winds when I travelled by boat to Pulau Perhentian Kecil. But it is not monsoon season. Do we let ourselves be governed by fear, or do we govern it?
Belting out Shakespeare
In all of my years as a teacher, the students who succeeded in class were the ones who took risks. They are the ones, who despite their 25 other classmates, belted out a line of Shakespeare; they were the ones who dared to write a letter to a school board member whom they did not know. They dared to do something uncomfortable, to push the envelope. They were not the ones who snarled resentfully at a challenge, or stared idly out the window wishing they were somewhere else. They took a bite knowing that they could fail. And no matter the result, they gained knowledge about themselves and the world.
The voice of fear
My curiosity feeds me; it tells me to go forward. Every once in a while my fear-voice tells me that I am doing this all wrong, that I need to be in my house in Peterborough, making enough money to pay for its leaks and creaks. This voice tells me that I don’t have a plan for when I am too old to take care of myself. This is the voice that tells me to worry about a future I cannot control.
Do you have a plan?
The 11 people who died in Istanbul had no idea what would hit them the next day after they broke the Ramadan fast. Perhaps I brushed by one of them as I nosed about their beautiful city. Did they have a plan? While I am healthy, while I have the ability to move my body up a mountain, swim to Hancock from the Nelson landing on Lake Nubinuset, and the wherewithal to reach out to someone who will help me in a foreign city, I am going for it.
I start my morning meditation on my 20th-floor balcony overlooking Kuala Lumpur. As the sun starts rising over the mountains, I close my eyes and listen. The city murmurs day and night — large cranes creak from mile-high buildings, hammers clank against metal, a long train slithers among buildings and roadways, an airplane breaks the steady sound of traffic until the tropical a bird’s call is barely a whisper. The sun crawls up the back of the mountain ridge kissing the clouds with every shade of orange it can muster. The sounds rise with my breathing. When I open my eyes, women in white al-amiras float ghost-like past the school bus parked on the roadside to catch up to its schedule. Construction workers begin to leak out of the shantytown across from the site.
The traffic swells until the sun is well beyond setting. Red taillights move beyond simply speckling the streets as they fade with the stars into daybreak. I never thought that I would find peace in a city, but every morning that I breathe it in and out it seems that I have found a place to perch for a while.
Mary Oliver wrote a poem called In Malaysia. Her poem reminds me that I do not have to dig deep to find beauty and peace. Whether it is Langkawi, the Cameron Highlands, Kuala Lumpur, or Penang, the contrast is one of reality and beauty spanning a panorama from litter, the putrid smell in back of the food court, cigarette smoke, to the people endlessly mopping or sweeping away the mess that may or not be there, to the plum blossoms, the man holding the door, the waft of street food, or a magnificent Buddhist temple in the distance. Asia opens up another landscape for me to appreciate.
The call to Prayer
Five times a day, the call to prayer fills the sky — a caterwaul, a battle of bands among mosques competing in prayer. Somehow it reminds me of the people in Whoville singing despite the Grinch. Each call to prayer is a reminder to everyone to stop what they are doing to worship their god.
Cranes, Plum Blossoms, and Fireworks
After a swim beneath the stars and the well-lit cranes towering above, I return to my balcony. The dark sky’s coolness makes it bearable. The city is still vibrant, still humming. People nestle into the bars below or stroll among pink plum blossoms marking the Chinese New Year. The stream of traffic blends into the broad light show below. The sound of construction has stopped, and occasionally a motorcycle shrieking along a straightaway breaks the lull of the traffic below. Last night, not for the first time, fireworks exploded in pocketed communities all over KL to welcome in the year of the monkey.
I still miss the screech of the owls behind my house on a crisp winter night, the silent thump of fresh snow falling from a laden pine, and the trickle of snow running down my sweaty back as I ski through the woods. But from my 20th-floor balcony of the Camellia Suites in Kuala Lumpur, I am not complaining.
I sat cupped in the lotus temple in Delhi and sank into India. I could have sat there for days, listening to the silence, respecting the peace that it held, and feeling the people around me do the same. It was the first time a flower held me and I did not want it to let me go. As with so many things in my life, I could not get enough of it, I wanted it to saturate me, but there was not enough time to let it.
People on the side of the road.
The way that people get around in India is creative. The men sit astride their motorbikes and the women in their saris sit side-saddle. Sometimes they squish a few children between them, or a bundle of food. Workers carry jugs of milk, stacks of wood, boxes, container behind them, which teeter precariously behind them. Then there are the donkey or horse-drawn wagons full of hay and families of ten to twelve.
On our way to Nianital, we got to see the Ganges. It was a holiday specifically for worshipping. This meant that everyone was headed to cleanse in the river. I felt honored to be caught up in the excitement of this celebration. I never imagined that I would visit India. In fifth grade, I never thought that the stories I read in the little brown text book would materialize in front of my eyes. The people we saw on our way to the Ganges were mesmerizing. Everyone seemed to have a special way of peering at us through the windows of our taxi with curiosity, eyes sparkling and gleaming smiles. We passed a wagon-load of an extended family, we passed fathers lifting their little boys off of trucks full of people to pee in a giant arch across the road before catching up to the truck in the slow moving traffic. Water buffalo wove their way aimlessly through the maze of cars, trucks, taxis, carts and bicycles. Imagine a super highway full of people sitting open to the world, to each other, to nature and the animals. Occasionally, a monkey would poke its head out of a tree. When we met the Ganges, it was everything that I wanted it to be. People bathing, slipping, sliding on its murky banks. And it was vast, and calm, as it carried its significance and grace through India.
We started our ascent into the hill town of Nianital just as the sun started to set. The mountains grew as we ascended into the red clouds. Nianital is a resort town, about 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) high. Our driver dropped us off in the parking lot while Nitin and Bonzai settled things with the hotel. Starving Dolores and I gobbled god-candy before entering the Sikh temple tucked in at the end of the lake. We retired in our hotel after Nitin treated us to a few games of Snakes and Ladders.
I am a coffee drinker and India doesn’t do coffee, unless you are like Dolores and you like more milk than coffee. So I discovered masala tea. Masala tastes like India – black tea with ginger and milk, no sugar.
Double-dipping the Himalayas.
Like the Ganges, I never expected to see the Himalayas, so when I did, I practically fell prostrate. The Himalayas had always seemed too magnificent to be real, and they were. I got to see them again on our horseback ride later that day.
The main reason I went to India was the wedding as if I need an excuse to go there. Hopefully, without stirring up any disrespect, I can broach the concept of arranged marriages in India from my rather warped western perspective. It is not that it bothers me that parents match their sons or daughters, or that they may go on a dating site to do so. It is the desperation that seems to go with the importance of being married. As a non-believer in marriage, it is hard for me to wrap my head around this in any culture including my own. People in their twenties and thirties are still marrying in India by arrangement. When we asked them why, it was mostly because the parents wanted it that way. Parents are highly revered there from what I can see. Also, if you are an elder in your family and you do not marry, then you hold up the line for the younger siblings. This is by no means a put down; it is simply me trying to understand why people in the 21st century still follow this tradition.
I wonder if India grew up so fast that its history could not keep up with it.
We arrived at the wedding late due to traffic and getting lost. We checked in with the bride who was so stunning that she could not move. She wore red and glistened with gold, sequins, and joy. We left her standing in a small room downstairs, and drifted upstairs to an open-roofed room. We were greeted with milkshakes (now that is my kind of party). Then we ate hors d’oeuvres while trying to save room for the banquet waiting for us in the next room. We feasted on luscious food. Four hours later, the groom appeared with all of his male friends. The ceremony was frolicsome, traditional and sacred. The ceremonial part was left to the groom and his compadres. The eldest brother stuck to the groom as it was his role to give away his sister and entrust her to the groom. Once the groom finished his antics and ceremony, the bride and her women came in delicately, and the traditional teasing and ceremony continued. The rest of the wedding was a photo shoot, so we left.
India takes a long time to absorb. What did I take from it? Beauty and peace and magnificence. Magnificence because that word evokes power and magnitude. Indians wear their culture; they share it with those who are fortunate enough to visit. India is the lotus that held me in its palm.
The monsoon rains thrum on the street, and Christmas carol medleys thrum in the background, as I sit in my favorite café to write this. One week has passed since I returned from India, my stomach has almost recovered, and I feel different. I waited a week to write thinking that words would come, but I am not so sure they will because I cannot find the words to express an experience that was taste, smell, touch, sound, and sight. India is as rich as its food, which is beyond description. I am not sure that the candy we gobbled before we went into the Buddhist temple counts. It only dawned us after the Sikhs told us not to take pictures there that we had gobbled up food meant for the gods. But I am way ahead of myself.
I left my travel plans in Dolores’ hands. She left it in her roommate Ranjana’s hands because Ranjana is from India. Lesson one: never let someone else plan your trip. Although we were grateful when we landed in Delhi that there was a driver in a clean van waiting for us, about a mile into the maze of Delhi traffic, we realized that he only knew five words of English: “no problem and in a minute.” In a minute, I had seen just about all of India that I wanted to. I was glad that I had booked a flight for Tuesday — only six days to go.
One billion people live in India, and I could tell. I have never seen such a large concentration of people, and they were never-ending. There was no place that was not crowded. For those of you who have read my blog http://tampicoandlisa.travellerspoint.com/ ), driving in Mexico is tame compared to India. The roads in the cities are better maintained, perhaps because the potholes are filled with trash, but the traffic rules are governed by the horn. (Picture of blow the horn truck). Pedestrians do not have the right of way (I have yet to see this rule observed in my walkabout so far.), but water buffalos, cows, dogs, monkeys, camels and elephants do.
I had no idea where we were headed until Dolores informed me that we would be in the car for 200 kilometers (124 miles). In India, that is about a six-hour drive. We were on our way to Jaipur. This trip involved a lot of driving, so I kicked back and watched the movie of India pass us by. The colors, the pollution, the trash, the animals, plodded by us and dodged in front of us as we blasted and wove among trucks, carts, bicycles, motorbikes stacked with entire extended families, rickshaws, tuk-tuks and pedestrian traffic.
We made it in one piece to Jaipur, but our arrival in Jaipur was not so smooth. We had no idea where the hotel was. The sim card on our phone did not work, and it was “no problem” for our driver, as we would get there “in a minute.” At one point, Dolores saw the hotel, but Mr. No Problem did not stop. Dolores was pissed. I was perfectly content to drive around in circles. Finally, we landed in a little hotel called The Mansions, chatted with the concierge, who now writes to us converse in English, and crashed in our tiny room.
The next morning we were up early to see forts, palaces, and mosques. Sometimes I found myself more fascinated by the people around me than the sights I was seeing. In one fortress, I found an exhibit on clothing. It was dark, and I was swept up in a school group, so I had to ground myself in order to stop and appreciate the exhibit. As I started to feel enveloped in India’s history and its present, I felt soft fingertips and palms brush along my arms as a flurry of women and girls streamed past me. It felt like a silk massage, and before I knew it they were gone as if nothing had ever happened. All that was left were their dark brown eyes, thick braided hair, and maroon uniforms. Breathless, I breathed in India.
That day in Jaipur, after my brush-by experience, I was laughed at by school children, scorned at by crinkled old women in saris and chased by young men with cameras. Muslims do not like flesh, but in KL, this is not much of an issue, because the Chinese Malaysians wear western clothes, and so do the cigarette girls who frequent the bars at night. I wear sleeveless shirts and bare legs because the heat is unbearable. One of the first things that Dolores ever said to me in the office was HR is going to come after you for dressing that way, so I promptly went to H and M and got two cotton long-sleeved shirts to cover my shoulders. I wore them for a day or two. I have learned a lot about clothing since then. I assumed that there would not be an issue with my outfits in India since it is not predominately Muslim. (I only have four dresses that I rotate throughout the week.) Who cares! By the end of the trip, I had bought three pairs of leggings and two scarves, but I admit, I did miss the celebrity status and attention! When I returned to work I told this story, and it gave everyone the opportunity to say something about my dress at work. The main problem is exposing the armpit, which is considered a dirty, and private part of the body. When the Minister of Education came to launch the first i-textbook in Malaysia, by Learning Port (where I work), I was the only one in bare legs. Even though I covered my shoulders, and wore my one dress with sleeves, I admit that my bare legs were too offensive.
Unlike KL, which is a continuous thrum of traffic, Jaipur squeaked and screamed, stopped and started; people darted, rickshaws strained, colored saris sailed among turbans and the dark thick hair of girls and bustling women. Jaipur was frenetic. We fell into bed with movies of castles and moats with deadly amphibians, inner walls with rolling rocks and burning tar, and soldiers with sabers at the ready.
We decided to squeeze in one more fort before we moved on to Agra. We could see the fort in the distance, so we knew we would not get lost. Then our driver turned off the road, away from the fort. I tried to inform the driver that he was going the wrong way, that we did not need to go on the dirty bumpy roads, but he just said elephant. What the hell is elephant I thought sure that I was not hearing him right. No problem… in a minute….We turned down a street, and he asked us to get out of the van. Before us stood an elephant. Dolores had told me earlier that day that she would pay anything to ride an elephant, and here we were!!! The other word our taxi driver knew was sister. (Everyone, including us, was his sister.) This sister knew someone who had elephants. Way back in the day of sultans, the sultan had elephants. He and the royalty used to watch the elephants fight. When the day of fighting elephants for the sultan’s entertainment ended, the elephants went to the circuses. I am not sure what the elephant caretakers did, but they lost their place in society for a while. The circus elephants were abused, and finally all elephants were banned from circus fare. So the government gave the next generation of elephants back to the next generation of elephant caretakers. All of them lived in a village, with pasture to roam. They supplemented the cost of elephant care with elephant rides. I mounted my elephant by stepping on his trunk and swinging up and over his head. Dolores chose to have the elephant lie down for her. We paraded silently through town picking up children, dogs goats, and donkeys along the way. The elephants were regal, and for the rest of the trip I kept comparing the peace and beauty of India to the swing and sway of that ride.
We missed the fort destination, but we gained an elephant ride.
The next leg of our triangular journey was to Agra. It was late, but we had a hotel reservation in Agra. It was dark when a few hours later, the driver drove off the main road again. This time, Dolores told me later, she was clutching her mace gun. Here we were in the dark, driving on a dirt path/trail/field into an unknown situation. According to the driver, he was stopping off to see his sisters. Finally, we stopped outside of a cement block house. We entered the house to be greeted by two women and three children. I do not know who was staring harder at whom. They were utterly baffled by my lack of shawl cover, and we were utterly baffled by their beauty and their living conditions. The little girl, who must have been eight, spoke English. She had little brothers. We never figured out the dynamics of the family – who was Auntie, and where was Dad? Three others straggled in, a grandmother, a teenage girl, and a little boy. We drank ginger tea and smiled a lot, and visited their shrine, before climbing in the van again.
Now it was late, and though we were grateful for the opportunity to meet our driver’s sisters, we were not looking forward to another hour of driving with possible side trips, but we were at his mercy. We honked our way south to Delhi and stopped for dinner.
Then we continued to stop every 15 minutes—no problem, just a minute. When we stopped for gas, he asked for five thousand ringgits. He dropped one, which I picked up and gave to him, but he claimed that I had not given it to him. The gas meter read 1,500 ringgits, so I asked for the rest of the money back, which he gave me with a reluctant smile. He insisted that he needed tax money (I think), but we held onto the money, and he was pissed. We learned later in the trip that he actually did need tax money. He stopped one more time on the side of the road, at a concrete structure with a man sleeping outside, in a bed, five feet from the road, in front of an open barred window outside. This man never moved. The man inside the bare lightbulb lit room was in bed. Our driver talked to him for a while and off we went. Now he was angry and we still had no sim card and no idea how we were going to find our hotel. We started driving around the city while the driver yelled at me to ask directions to anyone who passed by. Finally, we saw a hotel, ordered him to stop the van, grabbed our backs and left him there. We never saw him again.
We went to the Taj Mahal the next day. For some reason, we hired a guide, which was a big mistake. Men in India, worry about women, and neither Dolores nor I are women that fall into the worry-about-me category. I like being treated like a princess, but there are limits. This man sounded like a tape recorder. It was as if he was scared that if he stopped, he would forget his three-hour speech. Dolores was evasive, and I was tolerant. I kept hearing, where is Dolores? Come Dolores? Finally, I used our ex- driver’s words when the guide called me, “in a minute,” and that seemed to make things easier. He was particularly irritated when I posed with all of the boys and girls who wanted photos of me. I was also stopped by parents who wanted to photograph their toddlers and infants with me. I had not donned my leggings and scarf yet. I could write a dissertation of dress in Asia. When we went into the temple, we were required to wear booties, or we could take off our shoes. Dolores refused to pollute the world with one more pair of synthetic booties, so she chose bare feet. In India, everyone spits; it’s vile and abundant, to put it mildly. I could not get used to it. If you talk to anyone who has visited India, spit is bound to come up. It came up with Dolores when she realized that people spit in temples too.
We decided to take a train to Delhi. It would be faster than a car, safer and cheaper too. The pictures tell the story of our journey. We felt as if we were in a movie, with crowded platforms, people spilling off the side of the train, men jostling through the train with boiling hot tea on their heads, people piled on top of people. We also discovered where the homeless sleep, although my friend swears that all of those families sleeping on the train platform were waiting for trains.
We made it to Delhi late that night. We thought our hotel was just 500 meters from the station, which is was, but we could not find it, so we got a tuk tuk at a fixed price to drive us there. My Trip Advisor review for this hotel is not exactly positive. I was tired, but not tired enough to drag the duvet with blood stains on it down to the front desk to exchange it for a new one.
Well, It is not exactly Thailand, but another hour on the plane and I would be there! My first mistake was to think that I should stay away from Cenang Beach when I booked my hotel. Malaysia does tourism well, and it is the “rainy” season, so the beach was not crowded. I stayed in the G Motel in Kuah. Terrible location, but I am not complaining. I got there in the morning, and before I could frighten myself out of it, I rented a motor scooter. I do not know why that little vehicle scared me so much in the beginning. Perhaps riding left-side in a congested city-port had something to do with it.
I located the most remote beach on the map and headed north across the island from Kuah to Tanjung Rhu. There I found paradise. Where does one go from here? The water was turquoise, the sun strong and the boat traffic was minimal.Giant mini-mountains rose from the sea, and women drifted behind their men in black burkas. This practice still fascinates and mystifies me.I spent the day lounging about, taking occasional dips in the warm Andaman Sea. By the time I came back, I was so hungry, but I needed a break from the scooter. Kuah is not exactly the eating capital of the world, so I settled for some sketchy local food, which means a corrugated cover, open stove, cooking something unidentifiable, and little to no English spoken — a mom and pop operation. So I just pointed to the best looking picture on the menu and ended up with unshelled prawns with the fuzzy little legs still in swimming position and processed squid, covered with the hottest sauce you can imagine, on a bed of noodles. After the first bite, I was not so sure that I could eat it, but I felt committed and sloshed it down with a rather dirty looking cup of water. I shooed away the ants and the flies and hoped that I hadn’t just ruined my vacation with a gastronomic mistake.
The next day, feeling more relaxed on my scooter, I motored to Cenang Beach, found some delicious coffee and tamed my queasy stomach with some bread. Cenang Beach was where it was happening — jets skiing, paragliding, food, and five star hotels. I managed to lounge in a five-star chair for most of the day, until they figured out that I was a lowly moocher, and shooed me away. I had signed up for a jet ski that day, but the tide was so low that the boys in charge suggested I come back in the morning, so I satisfied my hamburger craving and scootered home.
The morning of day three looked a bit ominous, so I got on my scooter to beat the rain and go to Cenang beach, because I did not want to be stuck on a rainy day in Kuah. I made it to the coffee shop before the deluge. I diddled about looking for things to do on a rainy day, and before I knew it, the rain stopped. I hurried to the jet ski guys, and they were good to go. Everyone speaks English here, but the Malay English accent is almost another language in itself, so I just waited to see what was going to happen. I did not know if I was going to drive a jet ski, or if someone would drive me, or where I was going. It is best to wait it out to see what comes. Finally, we were ready to go, and I think they were going to send me off to explore the outlying islands alone, which was fine, until I asked them how to drive the jet ski. So one of the guys let me drive. and we headed out to the islands. Wow! I definitely caught some serious air. Then the guy in the back asked me if I wanted him to drive, so I gave up the wheel. I thought I had been going fast. We flew! He took me from one remote island to the next. I tried snorkeling, but the water was murky, so I just swam around at each stop. Then he took me to a place where there were hundreds of eagles swooping around as tourists fed them. It was an eagle feast.
Before I left on the jet ski adventure, I held a girl’s adorable baby girl. As I was talking to the mother and her friend, they asked me what I was doing. I told them about my travels, and they were in awe that I was travelling without a man. Where is your husband? I got that a lot on this trip. The woman said to me, “you are so brave.” When I asked her what she was doing that day, she said paragliding. I am not so sure about her perspective on bravery.
I decided to end my day with a cable car ride. I scootered along the southeastern side of the island and up a winding, steep mountain road. There were families of National Geographic monkeys, with fringe framing their faces and babies hanging onto their bellies, lounging everywhere! I made it to “Oriental Village”, which is as touristy as it sounds, but it was too late to turn back. I found the cable car and travelled to the top to explore the sky bridge. It was as murky up there as it had been in the ocean, but it was worth it. I returned to Cenang and indulged in some delicious Indian food.
I thought my plane was leaving at 10:40 AM the next day, so I returned my scooter and took a taxi to the airport only to find out it was a 10:40 PM flight. What a treat. So I rented another scooter, drove around the entire island looking for Pebble Beach, to no avail. I kept running into exotic hotels and golf resorts, which would not let me in. I spent the rest of the day at Cenang beach, and was blessed with an incredible sunset. At low tide it is possible, if you have water shoes, to walk through ankle deep water to the other island across the way. People just sloshed about finding shells and taking in the sunset.
I still enjoy Malaysia. I work every day from 8:30 to 6:00. I still enjoy the work, and I am learning a lot about language. I love playing and talking about words. I have joined a writing group and I am taking yoga classes daily after I work out in the gym. I am amazed at my progress in yoga. It helps to have the strength and endurance to do it properly. This morning I played tennis with a woman, named Krishna, for the second time . I cannot think of any place that she has not lived. She is in KL while her husband builds a golf course! After a hot, hot, hot set of tennis, we ambled about the local mall and discovered bookstore and a much better grocery store than the one I frequent. I am enjoying taking it easy this weekend. I am still relishing in my serenity and solitude here.
After living in a new country, you come to a point where things are not so surprising and different. I take the KLA (monorail) without wondering why I have to scan my card twice, or laughing at the sign that saves seats for the elderly, pregnant, or child carriers. I am okay with having my coffee with full cream milk instead of half and half, and I know to take an umbrella wherever I go. I can sleep through the 6:00 morning prayer, and I still love having people open the door for me downstairs. Little things do fascinate me. Women in headscarves at the gym, the shoes people wear, and why I still do not have Internet.
I found a map! An old fashioned one made out of paper!!! So with my map, a colleague’s list of where to go, sneakers, shorts, and my backpack, the doorman at the hotel made sure to tell me to look out for pickpockets.Sometimes I just have to be a target. I am a hiker, and I cannot let go of my hiking uniform. As most of you know dress is not one of my fortes, but here I am conscious of how much of my skin is showing. After living in a tropical climate for a year, ALL of my dresses and shirts are sleeveless. In Mexico, this was not a problem. After a few days at the office, another woman told me that I needed to cover up. I was feeling so good about knowing that I couldn’t wear shoes, but I was blind to the fact that I was the only woman in the office who had her arms showing. That night I bought two button down cotton shirts to cover my arms. I admit, that I am not diligent about wearing them, but tucked in my cubicle corner, I think I am safe from the HR police. I could feel my male cubicle neighbor breathe a sigh of relief that someone had brought this up. He added a few more tips.
I continue to marvel at the dress rules here.The office is informal. From what I can see, the men can wear whatever they want. The Muslim women in the office wear headscarves and loose fitting clothing. Some Hindu women wear loose-fitting, bright-colored flowing clothing, and some wear western attire (high heels, short sleeves). The only Chinese woman that I met was fired the other day, but she wore Western dress.The man who records the voice overs wears beautiful clothes:a short colorful tunic with a straight collar and white loose pants. Those who wear shoes in the office, have a special inside set. Outside the bathroom, there is a pile of flip flops. I am not sure which is better — wearing flip flops that a lot have people worn in the bathroom, or going in barefoot. I always choose the latter.
Yesterday, I experienced clothing in a different way. I went to Masjid Jamek, the oldest mosque in Kuala Lumpur. This is where KL’s first settlers began their settlement. The mosque was designed by a British man in 1909. Here they supply those dressed inappropriately a combination headscarf/robe, and the men get long wraps to cover their legs. The mosque was stunning, shiny and impeccable — bare feet on slippery floors, a convincing argument about why Allah is the only god and that the Koran is the only Book. I got trapped in a conversation about why women, not wear headscarves, so when the man asked me if we wanted to continue the conversation in the shade, I said no, and the conversation ended faster if I had complied. In the museum about Islam, I was intrigued by another conversation, but the rivers of sweat distracted me, so much that all I could think of was tearing of the robe and head scarf that I was required to wear. I wanted to listen, so I inched my way closer to a fan and let it blow through the opening in my robe. This provided a little relief, but not enough to keep me there. I could not get that thing off fast enough. I understand on a certain level why women wear headscarves, protection mainly from other men is the very short version. It is the same reason why the man goes first — to protect the woman. Perhaps Christian women wear their own form of headscarves in a private way that no one can see. I do like the concept that when a woman wears a headscarf and loose clothing, she is not judged initially by her body, but by her soul and what you see in her face. For someone who has grappled with body image since day one, this aspect of dress suits me.
On the way to the mosque, I followed my GPS the wrong way through Little India. Cheap trinkets, interesting looking food, people moving at shopping pace, and an occasional vendor driving his wares to set up his stuff. Suffocating. Where do they find all of those knock offs? When I finally turned around and saw a giant flag, I followed it to my destination relieved to get spit out of the market. What a contrast the mosque was.
Once I left the mosque and my robes behind, I wandered on the perimeter of the market and chatted with a man carrying wine to a friend. I looked up and saw the Sri Mahamariamman Temple sticking up over the parking lot. Wow. It seemed that everytime I turned around yesterday, I was in a different country, or religion. This is the oldest Hindu Temple in KL built in 1873 for the Pillai family. It was private until the 20’s. The looming part of the structure includes figures from the Ramayana (I am so glad that I taught mythology for all of those years!). This temple was relaxed about dress, no shoes of course. There were many offerings of food and incense to the gods and goddesses.
Since Sri Mahamariamman Temple borders Chinatown, I think the next thing I stumbled upon was the Guan Di Temple– a Taoist temple honoring the great warrior for which it is named. It was foggy with incense, Shoes were acceptable. Again food was set out for the god — oranges mostly.
At that point I decided that to walk to KLCC. As tall as the Petronas towers are, sometimes they are difficult to find, so I walked toward another giant flag and found Merdeka Square where the Malaysian flag was hoisted for the first time on August 31, 1957, when the Malaysians declared their independence.I caught sight of the Petronas Towers and continued my journey to KLCC. I was glad for this walk, because it put the city in perspective for me. Now I have some perspective, but I still get disoriented. I found the KL Forest Eco Park, which I will return to next week to find solace from the city. I felt compelled to do the tourist thing in KL before I decided that the treasures that I want to find are outside of the city away from the people, tourists, pollution, cars, motorbikes. KL is a lovely city, but all I really want to do is settle into my work, gym, home world during the week, and take off to see the country on the weekends. I have 20 vacation days this year, which means 20 long weekends. Travel is cheap, so I hope to take my first trip to somewhere remote on the 31st while everyone is celebrating independence day. Maybe it is time to visit Thailand…
Now I know what the canopy is. I assumed it was a shady tree cover under which I would get a break from the heat. So when Lim drove Kimmy and I to the FRIM (Forest Research Institute of Malaysia) I was excited to get to the nature jungle. Being my usual self, I scampered up the steep slope, looked back and realized that I had left my compadres in the dust. I was not alone though. The place was packed. Like Mexico, people do not hike alone. I asked what the danger was, thinking it could be wild animals, but it is people (Thieves? Murderers? Rapists?). I wonder if some people would say the same to those who wanted to hike in the US. I do know people who think I am crazy to hike alone in New Hampshire (despite the fact that I do so in all weather, day or night). In this walkabout, I have yet to get a good gauge on the overcautious adviser. After all, I am a single woman in a Muslim country. Perhaps the people I have met do see a danger in my bombing about the jungle on my own; perhaps it is genuine; perhaps it is just fear and trepidation. This is one of life’s mysteries that I have never been able to solve. I tend to do things on the edge that many would consider life threatening. It is like the pain threshold — how much can one dare to do? After living and travelling in Mexico for half of last year, I once asked a local where I should travel. She listed all of the places I should not go, which were all ready places I had been!
But the FRIM is completely tame,
swarming with all types of people, flora and fauna. It was like hiking in an ant farm. Living on the twentieth floor has me looking at everything as if it were an ant colony. Everyone at the FRIM swarmed this giant ant hill in the same way people leave their shacks on the construction site 20 floors below me to go to work.
Well, this ant (me) had a purpose, but she didn’t know exactly what it was. I just knew I was going up, following signs to the canopy, until the trail stopped at a tall skinny cabin. I looked up and saw a plank with high nets on either side of it. Of course, a canopy walk — I was going to walk over the canopy of trees, not under it. I could not stop thinking of the book about the group of people crossing the rope bridge and falling to their deaths with a single snap. Whatever it is that always drives me, pushed me up the ladder and onto the eight-inch wide plank that would take me over the jungle. Needless to say, I did not enjoy it. I did some heavy breathing, and only when I reached a platforms did I stop to take in what grew beneath me and what lay ahead in the view. The distance
between platforms varied in length, but I could always see the next one.
With my adventure over, all I can think of is the jungle — that Kuala Lumpur (KL) used to be a jungle, something so dense and deep turned into this sprawling city in a matter of years. Even from my apartment perch, I can still see hints of the jungle the construction has not infested. Talk about slash and burn. We are a destructive lot.
The afternoon ended with a local meal in a food court. Do not think of the mall when I say food court. A most common way to dine here is on an area of concrete slab covered with corrugated metal, under which blooms a medley of the best smelling food I have ever experienced. Being the picky eater that I am, I know that is not saying much, but the food here is out of this world. Like in Mexico, I rarely know what I order, but I have only been disappointed once. I ate something zucchini-like, something that looked like orange chicken, a glob of rice, and some unidentified items. I declined on the dried dead fish (skin, bones and all) that seems to be popular here. Satisfied, I resisted a nap, and spent the rest of the day writing, reading and going to the gym. I still have not found a niche, but I am enjoying my solitude. I wonder if part of my serenity is not teaching. I work in a cubicle. I finish my work in half the time it is supposed to take me. People seem satisfied with my work. The marvel of it is that I actually finish things. We teachers know that the job is never done in the education treadmill, there is always a lesson to plan, a million papers to correct, a student who needs help, a concerned parent, or some other hole in the dike to fill. In this job, I finish my work, and go home with a clear head.