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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

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walkabout

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

When the reader becomes the book


Finding Loke Yew

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

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

Anything you want

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

Myanmar Refugee School
Waiting for me?

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

Waiting for you.

Oh. What should they work on?

Anything you want. Then she disappeared.

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

Teaching strength

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

Can you tell them?

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

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

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

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

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

Finding books

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

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

The House was Quiet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Wallace Stevens

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

 

 

 

 

Turn Around Girl


Heading Northwest

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

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

But Bukit Tabur? Why?

The other side

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

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

Most of the time. . . but sometimes

Bukit Tabur Far East
Following the leader up Bukit Tabur

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

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

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

A proclamation

Bukit Tabur Far East
Climbing the crag at Bukit Tabur

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

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

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

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

Turning back

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

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

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

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

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

Bukit Tabur
Turning Forward

The Essential Question


Why are we doing this?

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

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

But wait!!!

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

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

Another chance

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

What happened?

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

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

Pre-packaging

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

One more chance

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

How will I answer the essential question?

Featured picture credit

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.

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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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In case you were wondering


IMG_0408Getting out of the elevator is still my favorite time of day – stepping into the waft of refrigerator cold air, relishing for the few moments it takes to turn the corner and get a greeting of a hand across the heart from the doorman before the heat sucks me out the door.

On late days, I cut across the street. When I see a flood of motorbikes in the distance, I find my space and dart to the median, switch my purse to the other side of my chest, and dart the final distance to the never-ending construction site on the other side. I walk along with the traffic until I get to the newly completed construction project. Since I have been here they have constructed the buildings that I cut through to get to the five pristine avenues where I work.

On the unusual morning that I have 15 minutes to get to work, I take the skywalk. I walk past the unopened shops while the workers Zamboni the shiny white floors for the first time that day. Leftover wine bottles and cigarettes rest on the tables of bars that closed before the clients left the night before. Baristas bustle behind locked café doors. The faces that I pass all seem the same, but they aren’t. People come and go in this city, nothing stays. Buildings continue to rise, stores close and new ones open. Workers finish their contracts, head home, or move on to another one.

By the time I swipe in at work, I have worked up a sweat. I say good morning to the guard, who is a constant and trudge up the three flights of stairs to my office. Most people take the elevator, but I have to earn the milk and sugar in my tea. On the third floor, I park my shoes with all of the others and check them to see who has arrived before me. After the computer responds to my second card swipe – verified – I complete my trek with another waft of cold air. The office has 10 columns of cubicles. You may think that I would be the last person you would find in a cubicle, but I like it; it fits. I am in the last row by the windows, and I can scan the whole room when I want to give my eyes a break from the computer. I sit with all of the members of the English team, the graphic designers on one side and the subject matter experts on the other. We work well together. Our Instructional Designer, advisor, and the person who knits the loose ends of a module together sits a cubicle-row away within hearing range.IMG_0371

From 8:30 to 10:30 I create modules (lessons) for English language learners. I am learning that e-learning is not a matter of transferring your classroom lessons to a storyboard PowerPoint. I am still learning this detail. . . slowly. I realize how verbose we classroom teachers are. Take away our voices and we tend to flounder. I always claimed that my teaching was not teacher-centered, but the very act of explaining things to students is enough to disengage them. I have had to learn to use graphics, repetition, and other visuals to give direction and to engage the student. It is a challenge that I enjoy.

At around 10:00 in the morning, the tea girls bring in the milk tea and coffee. The tea is meant to be enjoyed at our desks as we work, and usually, it is unless my friend Dito and I get to talking, but we never cross the 15 minutes marked for tea-time. The tea is delightfully sweet and lukewarm. I try not to drink gallons of it, but it is hard to resist.

When we do return to our desks, we either continue with what we were creating, or review it with Jennifer and, in my case,  do some major revisions. Sometimes I get a call to the sixth floor to do the voiceover for Maths. I am Jesse, the young girl who narrates about square roots, and triangles, pi, and all of the most nightmarish math terms you can think of. Sometimes the English team does VO’s together, which is a bit livelier. Doing the voiceover on the sixth floor also gives me a chance to visit with my programming buddies.

My one o’clock lunch hour varies from day to day. I love to sneak back to the pool at my apartment and read. I am reading everything that I can about what I need to do to become an on-line writer (copywriter, blogger, SME, ghost writer). When I don’t isolate myself, where I go depends on who I am going with. Lim likes the cheapest possible Malaysian food he can find. I have learned to ask him where he is going before we leave. We all love to have our 8 ringett (2 USD) lunch at the outdoor Indian/Malay restaurant, where I always get roti and dahl. Otherwise, I find someone to get a Sizzling Hog burger, or some other attempt at western food.

The rest of the day is the same. A module for an SME can take three days to create, maybe more. In my case, more is usual, but I am improving module by module. Currently, my modules have been for English Language Learners at about 14 years old. I created a short story unit, poetry unit, writing process unit, letters and emails, and an essay unit. Once the GD’s do their magic, the presentation is impressive.

My workday ends at six. I return to the Capri happy that I do not own a car. If I was driving home, it would take an hour. Walking it takes 10 minutes. I am at the gym looking down on the traffic within a half an hour. There, I practice yoga and balance before I return home, read by the pool, and go to bed.

It is a solitary life, which I love. On the weekends I hike with the Happy Hikers, who are as intense about hiking as I am, if not more.  I will have to lay low in Malaysia until I get a new passport, which is too full for me to insert my work visa. Then I will travel to Nepal to travel to base camp with the Happy Hikers.

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