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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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travel

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?

 

 

 

Namaste


Last Day of the Everest Base Camp Trail Trek

I lost my group. As we left the double suspension bridge, double suspension.jpgwe took a different path simply because it went down. The idea of going up was not something any one of us was willing to do if we had a choice. Peri had gone ahead at his steadfast pace. Ganesan and I were staying with Danya who was sick with fever, vomiting, and delirium. I went ahead to relieve myself after a yak team passed by us and that was the last I saw of my group for most of that day.

 

yaks-on-suspension-bridgeThe trail was empty, which is unheard of especially this far down when the faint-of-heart have not yet given up. I ran into one more yak team and their driver, which did not surprise me because I was walking in a mire of Yak shit. I ran into an Australian coming from Lukla, so I knew I would eventually end up in the right place.

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The trail was beautiful and woodsy, interrupted by waterfalls flowing through it. At the next suspension bridge, I looked down the way that I should have come – a bright, sunny, flat trail that ran along the river. This was not the first time that I had opted for the more challenging path in my life. Perry was not there, so I assumed that I must have fallen quite far behind due to my detour, which seemed much longer than the pleasant river stroll, which I could have opted for. I waited at the bridge for about 20 minutes to confirm my conclusion.

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I happened upon a town five minutes from the bridge and peered into every tea house and café along the way to find my compadres. Then I stopped to take some tea on a wall outside of a little hovel where a woman and her daughter said they would deliver some tea. It was so warm and sunny there that I forgot to think of the yaks.

 

yaks-drinking-teaYaks have the right of way – always. When a team of them approached me while I sat on the wall drinking milk tea, I dodged into the doorway so as not to be pushed off of my perch. The head yak stopped to take a lick out of the sugar bowl next to my tea. I threw an almond at it to get it to move on without much effect. With a whistle from his master, the yak moved on without getting a sweet taste of my tea.

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I still had a residual fear that my group would be angry with me for dashing ahead if I was ahead, so I started telling people if they saw an Indian man and woman in green coats walking along, they should say that the American was ahead of them.

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High-end toilet

The more I thought about it, I realized that there was no way that Danya could have gotten that far ahead of me in her condition, so I took a pit stop, ordered some potatoes and two cups of tea and waited. I took note of where I was: Solukhumba – Riverview Lodge. And waited. And waited for two hours before I saw Perry’s green jacket and Ganesan’s orange pants bobbing down the trail.

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We put Danya on a horse to Lukla and continued well behind her on foot.

Bouncing from Namche Bazar to Lukla

2016-10-07-09-18-53It felt good to breath more easily with each meter that I descended. I danced across suspension bridges without trepidation, managed to piss without hitting my shoes or socks, made way for yaks and porters. I experienced my journey in reverse.

rhododenron-path

My favorite parts of the trek were below the tree line in the Rhododendron Forest where I could peek through the trees and the clouds to see Everest once on the way up and once on the way down. On the way down, the sky was the most brilliant and clear than it had been on the whole trip. When we got to Tengboche, the sky blew open and free of clouds. I could see the monastery where we had attended a prayer and tea drinking ceremony in a thick fog on our way up. I could see the bakery where we had eaten some of the best apple pie that I have ever tasted. AND I could see Everest in all of its majesty. Everest is almighty because it is Everest, but I found its sister and brother mountains to be just as spectacular. The unpredictable cloud cover made the mountains grander because I never knew if, or when, they would reveal themselves. When they did they were awe-inspiring.

While I danced down the mountain as people trudged up, I understood the lightness I had seen in people coming down as I had trudged toward base camp. Now I weaved among the yaks knowingly. I plunged through their dung and felt charged by my ever-increasing supply of oxygen.

The end

Have I changed? Of course. Would I ever do it again? NEVER – well, probably never.

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The third world continues to overwhelm me, but it is easier to digest in the mountains where beautiful people move in sync with the earth using every resource they can find — the river to wash their clothes, grass to cover the fertile soil, yak dung for warmth, tourists for profit.

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Men work as porters bearing weight that exceeds their body weight. Women run tea houses. They also take the time to plant colorful gardens with marigolds and bright red flowers that peer over the stone walls that line the trail. The poverty is clean and quiet, unseemly and home grown. It is a subsistence lifestyle.

red-flowers

In Kathmandu, women and children buzz recklessly in dusty clouds on motorbikes tooting their horns at nothing, cows amble through the city not knowing which trash heap to lick. At the temple beggars with amputated everything lie twitching in the sun, and I wonder who placed them there so strategically. The beauty of a temple turns into a scam. I didn’t notice any prayer flags flapping in Kathmandu. Is there nothing to pray for in this wretched contrast to where I have been?img_3808

I wonder what the great Buddha thinks. The same Buddha whose eyes scan the peaks of the Himalayas from pale stone shrines along the Everest Base Camp trail watching people from all over the world make their pilgrimage to the great mother mountain.

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Namaste.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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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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Perhentian Island


Honor and privilege

(Check out the slide show at the end)

As the world continues to destroy itself, I had the honor and privilege to see a living coral reef. One thing that my walkabout has taught me is that this planet is going down fast. To find pieces of beauty in nature is a rare and special thing. How many more times will I get to see a living thriving coral reef like this one? This was the first place that I have been in Malaysia that was clean. Clean water and no trash – well… I have lower standards than I used to; there was still some plastic hidden here and there, but nothing as blatant as I have experienced in most of Malaysia.

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Airplanes, vans and boats to paradise

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After spending way too much time in the airport because my father trained me to arrive endless hours before a flight, I shared a cab, which turned out to be a van, with some Australians and headed out for Kota Bahru, where a speed boat would take me to one of the Perhentian Islands. There is a reason why they call them speed boats. We flew over the ocean’s swells for a half an hour and I was the first drop off on Petani Beach. As I stretched from the speed boat to the water taxi that would shuttle me to shore, the Caribbean blue water dazzled me.

The professor and Mary Ann…

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Mira Mira where I ate and socialized

I felt like I had arrived on Gilligan’s Island, in color. Ramshackle bungalows lined Petani Beach, Internet was not existent, water was scarce, and beauty abundant. I settled in for dinner with a cluster of tourists like me who had looked for and found the most remote spot on the island. We sat at a hanging table and compared life experiences from Turkey, Italy, the Netherlands, and Malaysia. Most of us were wanderers, not sure where we would end up in a year, which has become my normal. I love it when people don’t react to me traveling alone to remote places. Most of these people are young enough to be my children. I rarely run into women my age traveling alone, which means I am either incredibly adventurous, or irresponsible, or both.IMG_3426

My three days on the island were spent meeting people who drifted in and out, snorkeling, hiking around the island, and snorkeling some more.

Neon is the new black

I used to think that neon was an artificial color – it is not. The ocean lit up with fluorescent fish that batted against my goggles. Clown fish brushed inside of sea anemone, fish brushed against other fish to suck off whatever nutrients attached to their scales. The baby sharks swooshed about harmlessly, and the barracuda were practically translucent. One day, I met up with Napoleon fish that had huge blue bodies and buck teeth. When I snorkeled toward the shore it was easy to see the stingrays. One thing mystified me. At first, I thought I was seeing bright blue and black snake squiggles. As I swam further, I realized that they were clam lips, which if I looked closely, were opening ever so slightly.

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My bungalow

Every other place that I visited on the island, except for one, was a tourist trap –music, Coca-Cola, lots of booze, bikinis and music. At Petani Beach, we learned that we did not need to go anywhere. We had found paradise.

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Vignettes of India


The Lotus Flower

 

 

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.IMG_1166 (2)

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.

 

The Ganges

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.

NianitalIMG_1388IMG_1252IMG_1283IMG_1395 (3)IMG_1322

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.

Masala Tea

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.

Marriage.

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.

The Wedding

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.

 

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