Categories
Southeast Asia United States

The End Is the Beginning Is the End

Current Location: Louisville, KY, United States of America
Current  Weather: 32°F (feels like 24°F)
Days Gone: 201
Days Remaining: Zero
Home provides its own type of chaos. Perhaps the chaos and uncertainty craved by the traveler is really just a craving for simplicity. Unknown means no planning. It means your time is yours and yours alone. For me, unknown is easy. With too many variables, calculation becomes impossible. You can’t suffer from analysis paralysis if you can’t analyze the situation. I’ve said before that the present is all we have. Well, it turns out that while traveling the present is the only thing worth considering. Even for someone like me, a person who considers every option and almost subconsciously plans for every consequence, travel makes careful planning impossible. With an unwieldy trip such as this, the possible futures which cascade outward from every event are so multitudinous and varied that I can actually allow myself to not think about them. Mental peace.

But home is where I am now. I’ve been breathing cold Louisville, KY air since early December. My trip was cut short suddenly when I received an email that my grandfather was in the hospital for what would be the last time. Twelve hours (and a bus ride to the capital) later I was on the side of a Malaysian highway helping my cab driver change his flat tire. With only minutes to spare I jumped out at the airport, abandoning in the backseat the sandals I’d worn for seven months and two thick books, jetsam that would have kept my pack from fitting in the overhead compartment. I was living in rewind. It was eerie, the speed at which I was able to backpedal. The speed at which I was able to circumnavigate the entire planet at a moments notice. You know that montage in Fight Club where Edward Norton is flying around the country and experiences a disconnected sort of deja vu? It was like that with less bandages and more security. Malacca-Kuala Lumpur-Bangkok-Tokyo-Chicago.

Chicago about killed me. It was snowing. I’d gone from 100 degrees to 30 in 24 hours. By the time I made it from the plane up the walkway to the airport (in my lightweight rain jacket) my shivering was indistinguishable from a seizure. I’d consumed eight cups of coffee and four back-to-back in flight movies. My plan was to beat jet-lag preemptively. I hadn’t slept. My vision was obstructed by tall people in rough, gray coats. I found myself drowning in English, loud and obnoxious and everywhere. Sickly looking people all across the terminal bared their teeth and screamed into cell phones. Surely they were complaining of their cold, bleak surroundingstheir gray floors and gray walls and gray-filtered sunlight. It was a zoo exhibit. Or an ant farm. The giant planes on the tarmac watched us silently through the glass. I found my way to the domestic terminal and huddled next to a vending machine. I was afraid to sit down, fall asleep, miss my flight. I counted to stay awake. I counted “people who stared at me,” “people without cell phones,” and “people who smiled.” I spent 90 minutes next to that vending machine. Smiles lost.

I slipped into my old life the way one might slip on an old shoe. Everything worked the way it shouldI could still drive a stick, run the microwave, answer a cell phonebut it was all very surreal. I’m chalking it up to jet lag, reverse culture shock, and sunlight withdrawal, but I can barely remember my first two weeks stateside. I was my own apparition, out of touch with reality. I found myself constantly recoiling from everyday things. I became physically ill the first time I walked into a Bed, Bath and Beyond and saw a $40 piece of metal designed to hold toilet paper; available in bronze, nickel, and chrome. Thanks but I’d rather have five days on a Cambodian beach.

I’d like to think I’ve become more empowered. I’ve learned to accept my own strengths and I know how to take full control of my life. By living simply, eating meals of rice and sharing dirty accommodations, I have become comfortable with my “worst case scenario.” I can now take bigger risks without fearing the consequences, because I’ve already faced them. In many ways the things gained on a trip such as this one are intangible. And most intangibles cannot be defined without metaphor. The writer in me is gleeful at this conundrum. But the reality is that I cannot tell you what I’ve learned, lost, and gained. Our language is not yet that robust.

I spent two-hundred days wandering throughout Southeast Asia. And I did it on my own. Through my self-reliance I have achieved, if nothing else, self-trust. And it is with this I move forward, comfortable in my non-conformity, one step at a time.

The Breakdown by Numbers

Total cost (including airfare): less than $4,600
Airfare: $1150
Cost per day on the ground: ~$17.25 (ranging from $6-60)
Weight lost: 18 lbs (From 158 lbs to 140 lbs)
Days abroad: 201
Distance traveled (by land): 11,000 km / 6,800 miles
Distance traveled (by air): 31,600 km / 19,630 miles
Total distance traveled:  42,600 km / 26,480 miles

This was an experience that will continue to shape me for the rest of my life. I cannot imagine what else I might have done with that seven months that would prove more valuable. For those of you who have stuck with me through the whole journey, I am beyond grateful.

Last thing consumed: Quite a bit actually. I’m focusing on regaining all the muscle I lost. I’m eating 3,000 calories/day at the moment. Since my return I’ve regained 16 lbs.
Thought fragment: I’m driving 1,000 miles to Austin for SXSW in a couple weeks. It will be good to get back on the road again.

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Categories
Malaysia Southeast Asia

Terror, Power, and Tandoori Chicken

Current Location: Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Current  Weather: 77°F (feels like 86°F)
Days Gone: 199
Days Remaining: 17
 
With less than three weeks until my return the world is beginning to spin faster. It is as if the planet itself is trying to gain enough momentum to launch me back into a society that moves at a different speed. Two days ago I was clutching to the back of a motorbike while it flew through heavy traffic, passing with only inches to spare between bigger vehicles, running red lights, and generally spending as much time in the wrong lane as possible. My driver and cohort was oblivious to my terror. I decided, as I felt the heat of another car’s brake lights on my knee as we swerved around it, that if I survived this journey I would write about it. Thus, you have the above. For I did survive, and in doing so I’ve discovered that I much prefer being the operator of fast and deadly vehicles, not the helpless passenger.

Despite said dangers, our unfaithful steed bore us to Penang National Park, where we trekked into the dense monkey-infested jungle and arrived, at great length and covered in sweat, on a fairly private beach pocked with massive crab holes. The blue-green waters spoke of  relief, so we shed our salt-soaked shirts and swam. Before long, we were joined by a cautious and stealthy sea otter which spent most of its time examining us from a safe distance. Its head would vanish and pop up elsewhere, not unlike Whack-A-Mole from the days of old.

I have finally realized why it is that monkeys feel the need to attack me. And really, it’s all their fault. You see, monkeys happen to instinctively identify bared teeth as a challenge to fierce physical combat. As such, when I laugh at their silly ways and silly faces, they think I am challenging them to a dual. And when a human duals a monkey, nobody wins. So should you find yourself confronted by a monkey with the silliest of faces, even if said monkey is wearing a jester’s cap, do not, under any circumstance, laugh at the monkey. For it will attempt to eat you, and it will start with your bare ankles.

Almost without even trying, I’ve been celebrating Thanksgiving consistently since my arrival on Penang, Isle of Food. I must say, though, I’ve sampled all the top Malay dishes from local establishments, and they are all still trumped by Indian cuisine. As such, the image to the right was (one of) my Thanksgiving dinner(s).

I’ve been in Southeast Asia for nearly two hundred days, and I think I’ve avoided writing anything on this blog that might be seen as culturally insensitive. But all that is about to change. I fully understand that many different cultures use many different utensils and practice many different methods of eating. That is all fine and good. I like variety. When eating Pad Thai or any fried noodle dish, I would sooner take up chopsticks than I would a fork. When eating a sandwich or french fries, I use my hands. And of course, should I find myself eating steak, I think the most convenient tools would be a knife/fork combination. However, when enjoying Indian cuisine, the traditional method seems to be the use a single hand. By employing deft thumb movements, one can shovel food from the palm and remaining digits into one’s mouth. I used this method myself many months ago when I found myself sharing a meal of rice and chicken in the wilderness with a tiny Hmong girl. And after I learned the proper technique it worked quite well.

That said, eating heavily sauced rice with your hand is something that, even after a lifetime of training, can end in messy defeat. The other day I was sitting in a restaurant enjoying my meal with the spoon/fork combo. An Indian gentleman at another table tackled his with the hand method. As a result, he had curry and rice not only on his hand, but also spread about his mouth and on his shirt. I watched, amazed, taking another bite of rice and beef curry with my spoon. As another bit of rice fell to his shirt and I couldn’t help but think, “Dude, there’s just a better way.” So there you have it. Culturally insensitive or not, there are times when hand-eating is simply the inferior method. If any Indians (or other eat-with-your-handers) are reading this, feel free to sacrifice me in the comments section and defend saucy hands everywhere!

I’ll keep this brief, but I want talk for a moment about power. I believe that everything is relative. And I mean everything. Power is no exception. The most powerful person in the world is the person who has the most control over you, your life, and your decisions. Therefore, the most powerful person in existence, my dear reader, is you. Uncle Ben was right though, with great power comes great responsibility. What will you do with all your power?

Last thing consumed: Did you see those pictures above?
Thought fragment: I think, should I have such a grand opportunity upon my return, I’m going to opt out of the new TSA death ray scanners just to get the complimentary groping everyone is getting so excited about.

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Categories
Malaysia Southeast Asia

Same Same, But Different

Current Location: Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia
Current  Weather: 90°F (feels like 107°F)
Days Gone: 161
Days Remaining: 55

First off we have a tiny bit of business to attend to. If anyone has clicked the Donate link to the right, they have seen that donations are not intended to go to me, but instead to the Wanderlust Lending Team at Kiva.org. For Kiva’s 5-Year Anniversary they are offering a $25 loan credit to anyone who invites five people. If you’ve considered lending before, now is the best time because you can your $25 donation would actually contribute $30! You can read more about Kiva at their website or on the Donate page here. If you are interested in participating, send a quick email to twocents.wanderlust@gmail.com with the subject line “Kiva.” I’ll send you an invite within 24 hours. Just keep in mind that the offer expires at the end of October. You can still join after that time, of course, but Kiva will no longer be offering additional loan credit. Now on to the travel stuff.

I escaped Cambodia the very same day my visa expired, which seems to be a bad habit I’ve formed. But last minute escapes are cinematic, no? Back in Thailand on a fifteen day transit visa (aiming for Malaysia) I decided to stop off at an island called Ko Chang. For all intents and purposes, I told myself the detour was “on the way” to Bangkok anyway. I arrived after dark due to some painfully disorganized buses at the border crossing. Little did I know that I would not see the sun for five days. My first afternoon a monsoon struck the island with deadly force. I’m not kidding, seven people died due to landslides and the island lost power for 60 hours. During this time I drained the batteries of my laptop and iPod and read nearly three novels. I also watched the cats hunt geckos. Determined to see the island in sunlight, I hung around for a few more days – though even after the power returned, the rain continued. Finally, on day five, the sun appeared for two hours. I visited the beach but saw only rocks, trash, and a few miserable tourists. At least I got some free barbecue at a bar one night and, due to power outages, negotiated a lower room rate. On day six I cut my losses and fled for Bangkok. But the rain followed me there, too.

From Bangkok I moved south as far as I could on one ticket. The result was a city called Had Yai not terribly far from Malaysia. From there I tried to get a ticket into Malaysia, but the local bus station only offered tickets to the border. So that’s where I went. I walked across the Thai-Malaysian border at around 3:30 PM on a Sunday. I had decided to try to go to another island (the sun was shining again!) called Pulau Langkawi. The nearest port was an hour away and no buses ran there. So I hired a taxi to take me the whole way for about $12. Now here I am, and I might stay quite a while. Malaysia was kind enough to give me a 90 day visa for free. There is a solid Indian population on the island, which is awesome because they all speak English and I’m going to eat curry until I pop. I’ve been here almost 48 hours now and haven’t seen a drop of rain, not even the typical afternoon shower. It is hot though, this is the furthest South I’ve ever been.

I feel like I should apologize for the “…and then I did this”-style of post. I was debating what to write about, but the past two weeks or so have mostly been transit, rainstorms, and basic living. And I guess that’s the interesting thing. I’ve always said that travel is a lifestyle, but I think now this holds true (for me) more than ever before, though perhaps from a slightly different perspective. I am still living, I just happen to be in Malaysia. Take today for instance: I got up early. I found a new local breakfast joint and had some yellow rice, curry, and eggs. I went for a run on the beach. I took care of some internet business (emails, web articles, Facebook, Skype). I went and had a lunch of lamb curry and white rice. I returned to the beach. I read a few chapters of fiction. Then I came back to my dorm and took a cold shower. Next I started writing this post. It’s been a relaxing day. After this I’ll probably head back to the beach to do some writing and watch the sunset. Then I’ll go get some dinner, come back “home,” watch a movie on my laptop, and go to bed. Aside from the context, the day itself is not that unusual. Like I said, I just happen to be in Malaysia. Living.

Last thing consumed: Lamb Curry and White Rice, at only $1.60 – I think I’ll stay awhile.
Thought fragment: Being a Muslim country, alcohol is heavily taxed and absurdly priced. You can buy alcohol free beer at the minimart for US$2 a bottle to play pretend. I think, as a result of this, my stay in Malaysia will be very…hydrating.

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Categories
Cambodia Southeast Asia

Slow Migrations

Current Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Current  Weather: 86°F (feels like 94°F)
Days Gone: 143
Days Remaining: 73

I move a lot. Since landing in Bangkok all those months ago, I have spent my nights in over 50 different places, including buses, trains, boats, and even a cargo ship. Due to its small size, spending a month in Cambodia has given me a sort of reprieve. This isn’t to say that Cambodia doesn’t offer many destinations, I just don’t really need another French-inspired river town at the moment. I’m good on jungles and I’ve got more islands in my near future. So I spent a solid ten days recharging my batteries in Sihanoukville, often by having food delivered to me poolside and enjoying a $10 per day lifestyle. Now I am loitering in Siem Reap, probably until my visa expires, and spending even less. Here I have discovered a new and unique type of lifestyle: routine. Back home, I always did my best to avoid routine – it’s bland, conventional, and boring. It’s the rut we’re all stuck in. But I have discovered a valuable exception to this rule.

A routine is only unfulfilling when someone else is writing the schedule. Whether it’s the boss of an unpleasant workplace or a bitter professor or whoever, he or she probably doesn’t have your best interests in mind, yet probably does have a large portion of control over your life. This, to put it bluntly, is not awesome. It results in a massive loss of forward momentum. I am creating my own routine here in Siem Reap – I’m able to absorb the energy of the city and increase my creative output. I can watch every sunrise, sunset, and thunderstorm. I can sit in a cafe and write for two hours every morning. I am in a position to meet new and interesting people every single day. I don’t want to preach, but I do want to put out a reminder that it is vastly important to avoid becoming stagnant; even if your body is not moving, your mind should be. Whether it’s traveling Southeast Asia, learning to make homemade pizza, practicing Tai Chi, or reading a novel – the only wrong thing to do is nothing.

Despite “taking a vacation from traveling,” I did rent a bicycle and visit Angkor Wat and it’s surrounding temples. Angkor is often referred to as the jewel of Cambodia, and many people visit the country specifically for these temples. The beer here is even called Angkor. With that said, visiting Angkor Wat was, for me, sort of like being given a massive amount of tiramisu after eating brownies for four months. It was good. Really good. But it was still a chocolate dessert. And I wanted fresh sushi. Consider this: a grain of sand can be as interesting as an entire sea, it simply depends on the lens through which you view it. Just because you look at more doesn’t necessarily mean you see more. The same applies to the speed at which you move through the world. It is difficult, yet entirely necessary, to give oneself permission to stop and smell the street food – though the scent of garlic and chillies lends nothing to the “productivity” one feels, it is still an investment in one’s self, in one’s life experience.

So, for now, I am focusing on the sand grains, the golden details that get lost in the thick brush strokes of movement. Observe, for a moment, the yellow dragonfly which manages to maintain its curious and reckless flight, even in the clean, hard, thunder-less rain. How can it fly while drops as large, for it, as grapefruits fill the air? Notice the clothing, always steaming on the lines and balcony railings and baking in the rafters – the sloughed skins of t-shirts patiently waiting to collect more salt from our backs. Taste the  mango shake, served with more than a hint of sweet milk; the condensation is so thick and quick on the glass that for a moment you think you will need two hands just to hold it all. And this, these golden details, is all we have: our minds, our bodies, and the present. Nothing else is guaranteed.

Last thing consumed: A large baguette with an omelet, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and hot tea
Thought fragment: Riding a bicycle out of the silent, inky blackness of the of the sleeping city to visit Angkor at sunrise was probably just as rewarding at Angkor itself.

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