Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering

(Just a heads-up: this is a navel-gazing sort of post. )

Sometime in March last year, I told my mom over Skype that I wanted to travel to Scandinavia alone. I told her that the “alone” part wasn’t particularly intentional — I just couldn’t find anyone who was interested in going. I’d seen pictures of Norwegian fjords and Swedish archipelagoes that took my breath away and set my heart racing with excitement, and I’d made up my mind that I was going to see these beauties, whether or not it meant going alone.

My mom, predictably, wasn’t as excited as I was about my plan. The world is no place for a girl to walk about solo.

A month later, I called home again, this time to tell her that I was applying to a school grant for a summer internship in Ghana. I could actually hear her tensing up, could picture the furrowing of the brow, could feel the straining of her mind for reasons why it was rationally, sensibly, logically, a very bad idea.

And then, she said, “You know, of all my children, you make me worry the most. You and all your strange, unconventional ideas.”

All that took place in France, where I was studying abroad, instead of Senegal, where I’d initially wanted to study abroad.

My mom gave me a hundred reasons that France is a more rational, sensible, logical choice than Senegal. She needn’t have done that, for I, also, could come up with a hundred reasons for going to France. But I could also come up with a hundred-and-one reasons for going to Senegal, too.

My mother calls my excitement for staying a week with the Amish “weird”. Why would I want to spend a week with a community so intently stuck on living a seemingly preindustrial life? No electricity, no electronics? Gas lamps? Super modest clothing that covered you from the neck down? Horses and buggies? But… why?

At the risk of sounding ridiculously corny, my response to this constantly asked question is, “Why not?”

I’ve thought about all this for quite a bit, I’ve wondered what makes all this so incredibly exciting to me. And I’m pretty sure I’ve got it.

It’s the unknown, the unfamiliarity, the feeling of knowing that every turn of path, every bend of the road, reveals something completely new. And I mean this quite literally — if you don’t know the road, don’t know where it leads, it could bring you to anything.

I guess people dislike change. A lot of people desire certainty, for they crave the security it brings. Friends of mine worry when they don’t have a path figured out, whereas I find great thrill in the uncertainty, for it means anything is still possible.

I crave change; I get stir-crazy when life starts to become too routine, too predictable. And I think, from this enthusiasm for the unknown is where all these “strange, unconventional ideas” are birthed.

It dictates my philosophy of travel. I don’t see traveling as a vacation, an away-time from the hustles of daily life, a time to relax. Rather, I see it as an opportunity to be faced with the new, a chance to experience the exhilaration of coming up against the unknown.

When I tell my tuk-tuk driver to take me to a landmark, when I heed a map that tells me to turn left down a street 4 blocks away, I don’t know what to sight to expect. When I order reindeer stew, or agree to try banku with palm oil stew, I don’t know if I’d find it delicious, or if it’d kick up a storm in my tummy. And that’s what makes traveling to distant, foreign places so intensely exciting.

A reason why I love traveling alone (my best travel experiences were done solo) is that the less I have the presence of someone familiar to depend on, the more thrilling the experience.

The unfamiliar and the unexplored don’t only come from traveling to foreign places. I remember times in Grinnell when I’d go, “Let’s have an adventure!”, and we’d figure out things to do that we’ve never done before, and would probably not think of doing if it weren’t for the pretext of “having an adventure”. Like taking the long walk to the cornfields in the dead of night and observing the stars. Like going high on the swings in some stranger’s backyard in the middle of a snowstorm, singing Bohemian Rhapsody against the whistling winds. Like going to one seedy bar in Grinnell after another, having conversations with colorful characters as we make our way through cheap beer and even cheaper shots.

No surprise then that my favorite word—the word that my friends often quote me on—is “Adventure”. It encompasses everything that I’m trying to convey in this post — coming face to face with the unknown, braving the unexplored, the foreign.

I would be lying if I said the unknown doesn’t scare me. On the contrary, sometimes it scares me shitless. Flying alone to a land halfway around the world, not knowing what it’d be like, but knowing it’d have to be home for the next 4 years, that was scary as fuck. I’ve probably said this a thousand times, but I’ll say it again — that scary decision was the best I’ve ever made.

The night before I was to fly to Ghana, I started panicking. Suddenly all those warnings of malaria and hepatitis and poor people who’d rob you of your money and the unthinkable sanitary conditions and the violence of people desperate to find a means to live, they began to hit me like a tsunami. All that, coupled with my imaginations of loneliness, of being sick from bad food, of being confused by the local language, of homesickness, of committing endless social faux pas… all of these worries swarmed my mind, making me feel more than a little nauseated. But none of these worries came true, and I had an incredible time in Ghana.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t worry before going to France. I’d been there before, and prior to that, I’d spent a month in London, which, language aside, isn’t too different from France. While I had a good time in France, it ended up falling short of the exhilarating experience I was hoping for, mostly because I felt like I wasn’t being challenged.

This really points to one conclusion — that comfortableness is not necessarily good, and fear is not necessarily bad. Fear is an indication that you’re heading into unchartered ground, that you’re exploring the unexplored.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that Grinnell has made me become aware of so many more life opportunities, possibilities that I’ve closed myself off to before this.

To be precise, my Grinnell education—both in and out of the classroom—has built me up to be braver in facing the fear of the unknown, so that strange, previously untraveled paths have now become an option. It has helped me grow to not only be able to confront the new, the strange, the foreign, but to revel in them, to seek them out, to pursue them, knowing full well that if I don’t stretch beyond the comfortable and familiar, I won’t grow, won’t flourish.

Sometimes, you have to confront your fears, take a free-fall of faith…

… and land wherever the wind takes you.

 

As one of my favorite bands, the Polyphonic Spree, puts it:

The unknown, while uncomfortable at times, provides us with the most satisfying rewards after the day is done.

I feel like I just babbled my way through an entire post.

Before all this, I’d really wanted to say, I found a job opening for a high school teaching position in Somaliland. Somaliland! Horn of Africa! A country who proclaims itself an independent state, but no other country recognizes its independence. As a foreigner, you have to be accompanied by armed escorts if you want to travel outside the capital.

It would give my mom a heart-attack if I so much as hinted that I think it sounds like an interesting opportunity.

Should I propose an application to the position then, just for shits?

Stew, Cambodia

I don’t know if my last post makes it obvious enough, but I’m missing Grinnell.

Right now, I feel.. bored? That life is too slow-paced? That I’m lacking stimulations? That the Malaysian heat is slowly cooking me, turning me into a sluggish heap of meaningless existence, keeping me stagnant, slowly stewing me in my own boredom.

Isn’t it weird? A few weeks ago, I was still in Grinnell, and life was like a bullet train, speeding from one stop to the next, leaving me with hardly any time to catch my breath. So many things happening, so many things to be dealt with, so many people running everywhere, so many words being spoken, being written, being read. So much information, so many exchanges of so many kinds.

And now, I’m back in Malaysia, and suddenly I have so much time. Time, the one thing I didn’t have enough of in Grinnell, I now have in abundance in Malaysia.

* * * * *

Thank god I have a trip to Cambodia planned! An effective way to kick me out of that pathetic mood that got me writing the nonsense above.

So yes, I’m in Cambodia. When I stepped out of the Phnom Penh International Airport and into the streets of Phnom Penh for the first time, the one thought crossed my mind was — my god, this place seems so much like Ghana!

The dusty roads full of potholes, the endless stream of motorcycles weaving around cars and pedestrians, tarp-covered stalls by the roadside, children balancing large tubs of goods for sale.

This is an image that development and modernization will soon erase.

I’ll write more later, very tired.

2011, marshmallows and barbs

Huuummmm. I wrote this after ushering in 2012, but left it filed under ‘drafts’ and never bothered to edit it for coherence. Might as well do it now that I’m on spring break.

* * * * *

So we’ve moved on to a new year (we’ve moved on about 15 days ago, actually), and I’ve not had any desire to write one of those silly new year posts urging everyone to make the new year an amazing one, live life to the full, love yourself, etc. etc.

I see the date every day, I know it’s 2012, but…. really? How did we get to 2012 so soon?

I started off 2012 with a very dramatic, very eventful night. One that involved getting lost in the city all alone, chasing a barefooted friend down a busy street, being threatened by an angry cab driver, sitting down in the dead of winter in nothing but a cocktail dress, and having the police come over to tell us that we’d better **** or else they’d ****. Those darn po-po, going around bothering people on new year’s eve.

I thought there was no way, absolutely NO WAY that any year could top 2011 in terms of drama, craziness, eventfulness. Judging by the way 2012 started, and the things that have happened since, maybe I’ll be proven wrong.

2011 had been ridiculously dramatic. I had the best of times, and the absolute worst of times.

2011 was chockablock with contradictions.

On the one side, I travelled a lot, I explored places whose names I can’t even pronounce (Djurgården, Stokholm), and it was the longest I’d ever been away from home; but on the other hand, I’d never been more aware of and more fired up about Malaysian news in my entire life as I’d been in the past year. For the sociology major and political studies student in me, reading about the rallies and demonstrations signifying an awakening taking place in my home country but being 13 time zones too far to participate is like being 10 years old and having a rainbow-colored lollipop dangled in front of you, close enough to think you can touch it, but just a little beyond reach. So excited to be far away from home, but so wanting to be home at the same time.

I spent 5 months of 2011 in one of the most developed countries in Western Europe. My room decor consisted of wood and white — anything that was not Ikea wooden furniture, was Ikea white-washed furniture. Everything looked so sterile! I had my personal bathroom, and my room had automatic shades. Automatic shades!

So white, so sterile

But so comfortable!

Less than a month later, I found myself in one of the most under-developed regions in a Western African country. Dust colors everything in my room a shade of brown. The floors were peeling, the walls were stained. I shared two toilets with about 10 other people. Oh did I say toilets? I mean buckets.


My room is to the left, where the brown door is. The door to the toilet is straight ahead, next to the woman in sarong who’s fetching water.


Dirt-stained room

For the first 5 months of 2011, I had food that required a delicate, discerning palate to appreciate — wine was abundant, French cheeses were enjoyed daily, and I had foie gras more times than I really care for.

Traditional French savory crêpes (galettes)

Traditional Norwegian reindeer stew 

Traditional Italian gelato

Then for 2 months after that, carbohydrates and starches reigned supreme. Rice, noodles, root crops. Rice, noodles, root crops. And then more rice, noodles, root crops. Sometimes, they were pounded and molded into balls. Pounded cassava balls, ground maize balls, pounded rice balls, all served with stew. If I was lucky, I’d have some meat. If I were really lucky, I’d have some vegetables. Meals were often a large plateful of one general taste. No sophisticated taste buds needed. And yet, they taste SO GOOD, so good! Within a month, one of the women groups that I visit each week told me I put on weight.

Kenkey — fermented pounded maize (corn) balls, with bean stew and fried fish

Waakye — rice & beans, with noodles, pounded cassava and a spicy stew. Super delicious, wonderfully filling, and for only 5 cedis (RM8)!

TZ — pounded rice balls, with groundnut soup

Europe versus Africa comparisons aside, 2011 was rich with contrasts of the more personal kind.

In 2011, I experienced emotions at the two extreme ends of the spectrum. I have been so joyful that I danced and leaped to a song in my head, so happy that tears fill the rims of my eyes, so ecstatic that I could feel my rapid pulse at the back of my throat, could hear it thundering in my ears. I have also been so sad that I bawled my eyes out with my friends in the next room completely at a lost as to what to do; I cried hard and loud, I couldn’t talk, could hardly breathe, my sobs echoing around the apartment like a bell chime resounding through town.

I’ve experienced both love and hate. I felt the bliss of being loved, both tenderly and intensely. But I’ve also had my first ever real fight with a friend. It was a fight involving loud voices and finger pointing, and a lot of baseless accusations that stemmed from irrational, uncontrollable anger, a fight that ended in weeks of tension and silent treatment. (This anger and the above-mentioned sadness were from separate events though.)

In the past year, I’ve had moments of intense aliveness. When I was up in the mountains in Norway, with one of the world’s greatest fjords spread before me, an intense feeling of utter bliss washed over me. It was from an acute awareness of not merely existing, but being alive and living; an electrifying realization that this world is fucking beautiful, and I’m actually alive to experience it; I’m actually ALIVE in this world (Descartes philosophy on existence, anyone?).

Intensely happy. Swinging in the mountains. 

Buying a postcard, taking a walk, and realizing, holy shit, that scenery is right in front of us!

5a.m. sunrise in the fjords — wonderfully tranquil moment

Lunching on a cliff overlooking the islands of the Stockholm archipelago in Sweden

But in that same year, I have also tangoed with death’s cousin. I’d been sent to the ICU, had a head CT scan done, and been told I almost went into a coma.

Like I said, it was some of the best times, and some of the worst.

The old cliché that life is full of ups and downs and twists and turns have never been more true for me. But hey, I’m still alive and well, and I’ve earned a pretty crazy story to tell.

 

… But I think I’ve had enough drama in 2011 to last me the next 5 years.

 

Codex

Somewhere during our drive to Cherokee Nation, at a time between the 10 hours after the start of our journey in Iowa and the 2 hours till our destination in Oklahoma, we drove past vast open land.

We’d been listening to playlists put together by all of us specially for the trip, but after 10 hours, even the catchiest, most exciting song turns into day-old soda — flat and unappealing.

The sun was setting, most of us had just awakened from car naps, and conversation slowed to almost a lull. We were driving past vast plains, there was nothing outside to distract us. No bright lights, no billboards and advertisements, no brightly-lit stores. Just the open flat lands, the odd clusters of trees, and the soft tangerine glow of the sun dipping below the horizon.

R. Kelly’s “I’m a Flirt” was playing for the millionth time that day, and I remember thinking, this is not working. Twilight moments like this need twilight-moment worthy songs.

So I plugged in my iPod and played this one song. Someone went, “Yes, this is perfect.”

Someone else agreed that it is, indeed, the ideal sunset song.

This song needs to be heard on a pair of headphones, or on quality speakers.

It is not a song to listen to when you’re pressed for time, or if you’re feeling impatient, or if you feel like singing along to something.

It’s not a song to listen to with friends, or to play at a party, or to dance to.

It doesn’t get your body into any sort of rhythm, it may not even make you smile.

But it’s the kind of song that, if you listen to it under appropriate conditions, if you allow it to, will envelop you, engulf you in its sheer haunting beauty.

It detaches you from your surroundings, hauls you to a place so far away, so you feel alone, close to nature, a solitary You in a tranquil, serene world where no Other exists.

Jump off the end
into a clear lake

No one around
just dragonflies
flying to the sides

Often, towards the end of the song, I find my breathing stilled. It’s as though you drift along with the music, willingly wandering off to the depths of nature, far beyond human reach, to a realm of very delicate, dreamlike beauty; and earthly, corporeal needs such as breathing, talking, swallowing (of saliva lol, I accidentally drooled once while listening to this) do not matter.

Slide your hand
jump off the end

The water’s clear
and innocent

And towards the end, the determined piano strokes taper off, leaving a medley of bird tweets and bug chirps to permeate the space, filling your mind with vivid images of a lush tree canopy that opens up to reveal the sparkling waters of a carefully tucked away lake. And after a whirlwind of an ethereal journey, there you are, transported back to earthly reality.

You need to listen to this, it’s a favor you need to do for yourself.

Like all moms are required to repeat time and again — don’t try, never know.

Just nod if you can here me

Back in Grinnell after 8 wonderful days in Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma.

Negative eye: I’m back in school, and looking at 2 papers due in the next week. It’s going to be a tough week.

Positive eye: It was an incredibly fun experience. Good food, hilarious discussions during long dinners, sing-alongs during long car rides. A week ago, we started off as 12 people who hardly knew each other, and ended up as a group who share inside jokes and know about each others backgrounds and personalities.

Hands down the best part of the trip was the people. The youngest we had was 17 or 18 years old, but most people were over 20. This was honestly the first time I’ve gotten along so well with people who are 4-5 years younger than me.


Us, after our personal tour at the Cherokee Nation Complex. It was one of those brightly sunny yet oddly cold days.

This wasn’t the case for my Amish trip last fall break, where seniority was very apparent. Somehow, the freshmen acted like freshmen, the seniors acted like seniors. Upperclassmen tended to hang out with each other more. Thankfully in this trip, everyone gelled with each other very well.

I’ll write about the trip once my papers are handed in, though I am increasingly starting to feel that journaling here is like yelling into the abyss — like I’m talking to myself. I know there is life out there, I see the footprints, but no one talks back to me.

This always reminds me of Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd.

Hello, is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me

Anyhow. I’m in a melancholic mood, as I always am whenever I come back from a particularly good trip and am not ready to be thrown back into the routines of everyday life.

I’m going to take a hot shower. Maybe that will help somewhat.