When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are. – Sandra Cisneros
I saw a dead man today. We had just come out of the jungle and there he lay. The EMTs had just arrived, although we learned later that he had been lying there for 25 minutes. They performing CPR, but it was obvious that he was gone. He had beautiful hair and rich bronze skin. His shoes were cast off and his knee was bloodied and bruised from where he fell. He was alone. No one seemed to know him, but everyone wanted to save him. A small group of hikers took turns performing CPR as a woman counted out 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 up to 30 over and over again.
Why do I start my blog with this (other than to draw you in with a good hook)? Because this is day one of the third year of my two-year walkabout. (Figure that one out.) When I left Peterborough, my plan was to return in two years, but I am not ready yet. The man who died reminded me of that today. One day you’re here and the next day you’re not. A snap of the fingers and life disappears. I am out here in the world because I want to do, see, feel, touch, and hear everything that I possibly can while I can. Nothing can determine my fate, so I want to live my life with abandon. I want to keep all of my doors wide open. By leaving the door open, I ended up in Malaysia a year ago today. By leaving the door open, I am learning a new career, meeting people, exploring. To coin a cliché the world is my classroom. It always has been.
What have I learned from the two years of my walkabout? Here are 10 things, not in any particular order.
Environmentally, we are screwed.
Worrying about the future is a waste of time.
Learning is a challenge, but I don’t need to be defensive as I do it.
Learning takes time.
Language barriers and cultural barriers are married to each other.
As much as I want to be one, I will never be a princess.
When you turn challenges into adventures, they are lots of fun.
I want to be a writer.
Ultimately, I am on my own.
I raised my children well.
In her own way, my mother lived her life with abandon. I think of her often as I tromp through the jungle, board a plane, speak a new language, read a poem, climb the world’s mountains. I think of her scraping her shins, falling down, and getting back up again day after day, mountain after mountain, trail after trail. She was 30 years older than me. Her death reminded me of my mortality. It nudged me to see the world before the great sights vanish, or before I am too old and creaky to venture forth.
As the world continues to destroy itself, I had the honor and privilege to see a living coral reef. One thing that my walkabout has taught me is that this planet is going down fast. To find pieces of beauty in nature is a rare and special thing. How many more times will I get to see a living thriving coral reef like this one? This was the first place that I have been in Malaysia that was clean. Clean water and no trash – well… I have lower standards than I used to; there was still some plastic hidden here and there, but nothing as blatant as I have experienced in most of Malaysia.
Airplanes, vans and boats to paradise
After spending way too much time in the airport because my father trained me to arrive endless hours before a flight, I shared a cab, which turned out to be a van, with some Australians and headed out for Kota Bahru, where a speed boat would take me to one of the Perhentian Islands. There is a reason why they call them speed boats. We flew over the ocean’s swells for a half an hour and I was the first drop off on Petani Beach. As I stretched from the speed boat to the water taxi that would shuttle me to shore, the Caribbean blue water dazzled me.
The professor and Mary Ann…
I felt like I had arrived on Gilligan’s Island, in color. Ramshackle bungalows lined Petani Beach, Internet was not existent, water was scarce, and beauty abundant. I settled in for dinner with a cluster of tourists like me who had looked for and found the most remote spot on the island. We sat at a hanging table and compared life experiences from Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, and Malaysia. Most of us were wanderers, not sure where we would end up in a year, which has become my normal. I love it when people don’t react to me traveling alone to remote places. Most of these people are young enough to be my children. I rarely run into women my age traveling alone, which means I am either incredibly adventurous, or irresponsible, or both.
My three days on the island were spent meeting people who drifted in and out, snorkeling, hiking around the island, and snorkeling some more.
Neon is the new black
I used to think that neon was an artificial color – it is not. The ocean lit up with fluorescent fish that batted against my goggles. Clown fish brushed inside of sea anemone, fish brushed against other fish to suck off whatever nutrients attached to their scales. The baby sharks swooshed about harmlessly, and the barracuda were practically translucent. One day, I met up with Napoleon fish that had huge blue bodies and buck teeth. When I snorkeled toward the shore it was easy to see the stingrays. One thing mystified me. At first, I thought I was seeing bright blue and black snake squiggles. As I swam further, I realized that they were clam lips, which if I looked closely, were opening ever so slightly.
Every other place that I visited on the island, except for one, was a tourist trap –music, Coca-Cola, lots of booze, bikinis and music. At Petani Beach, we learned that we did not need to go anywhere. We had found paradise.
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.
My house lies hollow and empty now, with a new septic tank that only cost 500 dollars more than they said it would, and, even though I bought the house for 225,000 dollars when I needed a place to go in 2008, it sold for 179,000, not including the 5,000 in closing costs. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “and so it goes.”
Silver polishing and beating the rugs
I sold all of my belongings, including things from before my past. Things that great grandmothers bought for their houses in Lancaster, Long Island, Chilmark, or Buffalo, so that servants would have something to polish or beat the dust out of with a broom. I left my small pots and pans, blankets, trinkets, blenders and coffee makers on the side of the road for someone else to clutter her house with for free. I threw away my fourth grade Captain John Smith report, and the secret club box with an invented language from second grade. Now my past rests in the Peterborough recycling center — tiny pieces of scrunched handwriting, figure skating badges and songs from camp.
Shedding the past
By shedding my past, I can start living the next book in my life. A new beginning of bright sunrises, scorching heat, travelling by foot, water or air and adventures in the orient and beyond! All of the people waiting out in the world that I have not met. A new career to carry me along. Writing stories that will shout out to the world. No more having to talk so loud and never be heard. I feel like Belle in her opening song for Beauty and the Beast.
At home things look the same. And the saplings I planted in the back yard 28 years ago are tall enough to block the junkyard neighbors we used to have. The black flies still bite, people go to work and come back again to walk their dogs or mow the lawn. And I am not there dying in my old job, getting tangled up in ownership, landlordship and broken septic systems.
My walkabout continues.
I am ready to fly to the east and back again a million times. All that I love at home — my friends, my children, my father, nature, and bacon cheeseburgers — will always be within reach. My freedom is lighter than it has ever been before.
In three weeks I go home to sell my house. A breaking point in my journey. Job offers are beginning to come in, which makes me thoughtful and a tiny bit flattered. To all of them, I want to say yes. A job helping teachers teach in Columbia, another job helping American teachers problem solve on-line, another on-line job teaching English at a Vietnamese university. How can I do them all and not leave my job here behind? My ultimate goal is to juggle all of these jobs remotely, which means scaling back on the one I have, which I am not ready to do yet. There is so much to learn. I want to learn how to be an instructional designer, but all of these opportunities would support that as well. Once I opened the door and left ConVal, the world opened up and it is hard not to grab it all up at once.
Expatriate living pulls people like me together. People who do not quite fit into the routine world of one culture. The sensitivity that we have to the logic of the world turns us into introverts in the rat race careers that we hold until we realize this. During my walkabout, I have deep connections with people who, like me, feel as they do not belong in this world. I have always struggled to wrap my mind around what people do and the decisions that they make especially in education.
I do not understand why educators pile students into little slots like pigs for the slaughter and lie to them about their future. School is incomparable to anything they will ever experience when they leave it.
We tell them that they need school, when what they really need to do is hold onto their curiosity and wonder.
I once taught at a school that everyone considered was a dump. It was in a small factory town where everyone knew everyone else, where some parents did not have teeth, and some did, some students had no parents and were living with friends, some students came from hard-working middle-class families. In my first year, four of my students were pregnant, one probably by a family member. This was a town where the nation had decided to dump its nuclear waste. This was a town with that kind of reputation.
But this was a magical place to teach. This was a place where brainstorming sessions were simple: what do you mean you have nothing to write, one student would say, remember that time your father lost his finger in the logging accident or the time you tried to shoot the deer that hopped over you with a bow, or when your father left you in the woods alone all day to turn you into a man? And the girls had more tender stories to tell about boys, about sneaking out of the house, running away, school, being homeless, under the surface girl stories.
This was a school that solved the chronic scheduling problem that schools have. The reason why so many students sit in classes that they did not sign up for: scheduling. Early in the morning, each teacher would set up a table in the gym with one list for each course that she taught and on it twenty slots for the number of students who could sign up for the class. At 7:35 on the Monday of arena scheduling, the gym doors would open and the seniors would stream in to sign up for an essential course, or a favorite teacher. Students got what they wanted, teachers got students who wanted to be there and all was harmonious. Don’t get me wrong, I had my fair share of classes where six out of the twelve students dropped out the minute they were 16, but if students made it to their senior year, this system worked. The beauty of it was that the students chose who they wanted to teach them and what they wanted to learn.
Ten years later, after four years of being a full-time mother, I taught in a school with a good reputation. It was not a community; it was a farm. Small communities were set up in classes, which dissolved after 18 weeks, never to be formed again. Students were from rich, middle class, poor or no families at all. They were separated economically under the guise of intelligence. Students with disabilities were in one room, emotionally disturbed in another, the middle class took the mediocre classes and the rich took the honors classes. The teachers were segregated by departments. Great teachers and a great principal taught in their own bubbles that rarely touched.
So I gave up because I just couldn’t accept working in isolation. My passion for teaching students to take responsibility for their own critical thinking was too strong. My intolerance for mediocrity was too strong. I was too strong. People wanted to sail, but to me, they were setting off on the Titanic. I got off the boat as it sank — perpetually.
I hung in there for 24 years while the ship kept its bow above the water. And then I set sail for Mexico and then to Malaysia. And it as if the world has opened itself up to me. I can keep my ideas to myself; I can support e-learning, which I think is the answer to education. I can live in the world community and embrace what it gives to me every day.
In the House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, the three witches tell the protagonist, life’s a circle, you understand. You have to leave in order to come back. The protagonist had to leave the world in which she was stuck, the world in which her cousin’s Cadillac couldn’t escape because the streets were so narrow. Sometimes you need to step out of the cycle to understand it. I am coming to the understanding that my physical journey will take me back to the states, but spiritually, emotionally, maybe my place is just right here with me. Maybe I can be my place. My place, my bliss.