Utopia or Dystopia?

The question running through my mind while in Singapore and now looking back…is it a utopia or dystopia? And I still have no answer from myself, other travellers, people living there now, or those who were born there and have moved.

The perfect way to save money was housesitting for a few days in Singapore for a funny cat in an Australian couple’s cozy, but comfy apartment. While not centrally located, it was close to the train and to a great walking path that wound through neighborhoods I normally would not have visited and to the great walking/biking path that goes along the coast to the city. The heat and humidity continued to suffocate, only broken up by the fairly predictable afternoon thunderstorm.

While there, I was able to catch up with a guy I met in China for a little food tour at the Old Airport Road hawker stall, a walk around the Singapore Bay area full of tourists and locals, and then a night driving tour around the city so I could get the lay of the land. When I asked him why there is not even a trace of graffiti, he simply replied, “you will get a fine”. I know, I know, but that’s the case everywhere and there are still people rebelling!

I also found it fascinating as he told me about the reasons why so many companies choose to relocate their business there (which explains the enormous ships filling up the harbor). Again, leaving me curious as to how/why it works in Singapore, but nowhere else. It will be very interesting to see how it develops and ages over the next years and whether or not it can maintain this level of “cleanliness”.

I was disappointed to hear about the treatment of migrant workers and LGBTIQ members of the society and still left wondering about those experiencing homelessness and earning less than average salaries. My friend seemed to believe that the government provides plenty of affordable opportunities for public housing, but I would like to do a little more research on my own. On the other hand, it’s hard to know what information has been filtered through such a government. An interesting place this Singapore.

My days were spent wandering the distinct ethnic neighborhoods, sweating, biking around an oasis island inside the island, eating an array of Malay, Chinese, and Indian dishes, watching the lightning and wind, and sitting in the air conditioned apartment searching for the cheapest flight to the coolest temperatures.

Advertisements

Stuck

One of the prompts during my attempt at writing 500 words a day for 30 days was the word “stuck”. And stuck I was in that moment so I thought I’d share.

I am still in Malaysia, but have moved south. Stuck in the “small” city of Melaka. Stuck in the physical and mental way. Physically stuck to the seats of chairs and to my t-shirt as the back, chest, neck, face sweat all gushes and draws it to my skin like a magnet in the 100 + degrees and 100% humidity. Stuck in my dorm cave and coffee shops making myself even less adaptive to the he hot air as I find relief in the air conditioning. When I finally get the umph to face the heat, I’m stuck in a walking loop outside the tourist centrality as along as I can take it and then into one of the many shopping malls where I continue to walk aimlessly.

The mental side looks quite similar. I am waiting for a visa (to Australia) that I’m not sure I want anymore, I’m over SE Asia for the time being, possibly over being abroad, but not wanting to be. Wanting to be a part of something, but not wanting to commit to anything. Wanting contact with people, but so specific on those people, it becomes impossible. The doctor I finally saw for the ongoing stomach trouble, upon hearing the apathy and despair in my voice, handed me more medicine and suggested, “no more local food, eat canned foods and rest”.

Thankfully, with the help of car trips (I felt like a dog going for a ride!) to the supermarket with the owner of my guesthouse, a multi-cooker and someone to cook for, I am slowly embracing the idea that this experience is just another part and that I’m not missing out on any local specialities, but instead am building a fun relationship with her and taking care of myself.

I find myself wishing I could be meeting friends’ new babies, going to baseball games, eating brunch with my favorites, and doing all the things some people back home wish they weren’t doing and could swap places. In reality I guess everyone is stuck in some way; whether or not it is a wave you can ride out is what matters and I suppose it is the catalyst for change and growth. Putting into perspective my experience is my 76 year old cranky, lonely, strongly opinionated, no-shirt wearing, drinks himself to sleep, sees visions/gods while sitting on the toilet, horse race and news loving, no teeth having, always outside when I’m trying to sneak by, Chinese Malay “friend”. In my opinion, by that age you have earned the right to be stuck in whatever ways you want/know, but I hope that even if I’m stuck in a way similar to his, that I am content with it and can find a way to be sure I find positive ways to interact with people the way he tries to. Even if it is by lying about the instant coffee he’s serving me and it’s unclear as to whether or not he was looking for a girlfriend.

For now, I challenge myself to use all of this stuck time to be ok with the discomfort (a common theme) and to use it in some productive way. Reading, writing, cooking, hanging out with the warmest of women with the Elmo tattoo who at least pretends to appreciate my food, early morning walks in the old Chinese cemetery wondering who the next character to cross my path will be, waving to the  bike-riding woman with the biggest smile every single time I see her around town, time planning or dreaming, but not obsessing my way through it.

*In the end, I spent almost a month here and rather than feeling stuck, I felt rested and refreshed. I owe it to Yona (with the Elmo tattoo) and for her ability to make a girl feel at home, her big laugh and love of sharing food, and willingness to give me space and friendship at the same time. This became a guesthouse where many local travelers would come for a night or two for a food binge. Long term travelers would arrive with a similar plan, but often find themselves “stuck” and wanting to stay for a week or more and I am certain it is the energy this special lady carries with her.

In Search of a Bathtub

If you talk to anyone that I have spoken to regularly while being abroad (post Japan) they will tell you that I talk a lot about the want to see a familiar face and the need for a bathtub. After retreating to a private room in a nice hotel in Kuala Lumpur with my own bathtub, I learned that maybe there was more to it. I was at my breaking point and decided that the only way to survive was to put myself up in a hotel with a big comfy bed, breakfast in the morning, air con at my control, and my own bathroom. My days were filled by breakfast in the morning, a trip to the rooftop infinity pool, a bath or two and a shower (sorry Mother Earth), endless hours lying in that comfy bed, using the strong internet to reconnect with people, and just being.

Oh, and one quite awkward moment in the gender separated hot/cold dipping pools. Confident, after a year in Japan, that I knew the Asian way of using such a space and being the only one in the room, I decided I would do what I knew; got naked, took a shower, and eased my way in. All good, until I heard the door open and in walked a Muslim woman and her daughter covered head to toe and ready for a soak. After my first bit of indignation (inspired by a year of older Japanese women always insinuating that I was doing something wrong in their bathhouse) that they were climbing in fully clothed without taking a shower, the reality set in that maybe, just maybe it would’ve been better to wear my bathing suit. We exchanged hellos, averted eyes, and I tried to endure my discomfort for another 10 minutes of soaking, telling myself it didn’t matter. And I have no idea if it did matter to them, but let’s just say, there was not much conversation to be had after that, not even later in the elevator when we all happened to be in there together, fully clothed.

Needless to say, I removed the hot/cold pool from my routine and kept to myself which was exactly what I needed. I realized after those few days wrapped in my duvet, that as much as I love the community and social aspects of hostel life, sometimes a girl just needs to be able to be naked when she wants to. Not worrying about coming and going from the shared bathroom with all of the necessary garments or getting dressed in a wet shower stall (although many travellers are much better at not caring what others in the dorm think about their nakedness). Most importantly, I needed to just be. Be quiet without wondering if I should be talking to the people around me, be sad and lazy when I needed to be, and be as cold as I wanted with my own control over the air conditioner.

Other than this respite, Kuala Lumpur didn’t do much for me which was fine, because a hidden gem was in my near future! If you’re still reading Yona, the next one is for you!

Cameron Highlands

This became my retreat. Not by conscious choice, but because I physically and mentally couldn’t make any further decisions. Not gonna lie, I got bed bugs here too. Possibly brought one along with me from Penang, but NOT the root of the problem. The guesthouse I stayed in was nice and really well run, but the turnover was insane and they clearly had a problem they couldn’t keep up with. The Cameron Highlands is a place where most people come for 1, maybe 2 nights, do a trek and then move on.

I took a long walk the first day alone and a one day trek with the resident jaded (rightly so) environmental activist Jason up a steep, root lined path, over a mini mountain, down through a pretty thick junglish area, out into one of the tea plantations that has overtaken the area. We had plenty of time to enjoy the plantation to ourselves as it was Sunday and he claimed to know the owners. It was a lovely day out and after that, I spent the next 5 or 6 days just trying to recoop.

I became fast friends with one of the staff members over an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race who had recently transitioned and was struggling with the anxiety that had come along with living in a super small town in a very strict, conservative part of the country. She had been accused of being the cause of natural disasters, was having trouble connecting with friends because she was trying not to drink any more, and was always worrying that a guest was going to “find out” about her and be angry. She is lucky to have an incredibly supportive employer who defends her in town, but I hope one day she can get to a bigger city and meet people like her.

In addition, I ran into a girl from the States who I had already run into 3 times in Malaysia. It became a joke that we wouldn’t exchange email/FB because we were sure to see one another again, but we didn’t. On her last day, she decided to abandon the girls she was travelling with for a little alone time and I never saw her again.

At lunch one day, I was seated with a man eating alone at a table. After some awkward silence, we finally ended up making conversation, talking for hours, and walking around town together. He was at a similar point I was, tired of moving around, wanting to soak up the area awhile. During the last few nights, we would often cross paths, catch up on each others’ days and head our separate ways. I finally had to leave for Kuala Lumpur after the bed bugs and still wonder how/where he ended up. His biggest advice was that whenever he hits a wall like I had, that a change of scenery/country/culture was usually the answer. Having already been considering Australia, this was the final push I needed to start making that happen.

Malaysia and bed bugs

After such an intense, lovely, and hot experience in Myanmar, it was on to Malaysia, where yes, it was still hot, if not hotter and more humid. I was incredibly sad to leave and once touching down in Penang, I could not shake the funk. I arrived to a guesthouse recently opened and owned by a young couple who were very chatty and eager to be buddies with the guests. It was a pod style room cramped with 4 beds, but with the air con on full blast, it was the coolest Id been in months. Things were looking good, the owner thought he knew a woman looking for a short term nanny, Penang is known for food, and I was ready to hang for a bit to hopefully get my 9 month stomach problems under control. I ignored the red bug I found in my bed one morning, thinking (wishing) it a fluke. On the 3rd day it was clear, fluke it was not, and yes, my bed had bed bugs. (Sorry for the itching you will now endure for a few days) Rather than “sorry” the owner’s first response was, “Ugh, they’re STILL there? This is costing me so much money!” I washed and packed up all of my things, having thankfully kept them out of my bed, there wasn’t much to do. In the meantime, the owner offered to find me another place to sleep which ended up being about 3 times the price of his. Lovely place, private room, perfect dinner tour suggestion, but still not worth money.

Did I mention being sick? Well rewind to when I told the first owner of my stomach trouble and he told me that because of my age it was probably my WOMB. I like to consider that every conversation I have with people is tainted a bit with translations and life experiences, but oy, this one came out pretty clear. Still, he was convinced that his friend would be able to massage all of my troubles away. In my haze of miserableness, I agreed. Had a lovely awkward massage (I’m used to them now after Cambodia and Thailand), got dressed, and the owner told me to go back because the woman told him that she hadn’t massaged my womb and that was the purpose after all. I’d like to say that all I needed was her healing womb touch, but from what I could understand, she was convinced there was something hard in my diaghram area. In other words, she had no idea or he had no idea what she was saying in order to translate for me.

Never finding my groove there, I found the next bus out of town which would take me to the Cameron Highlands where I was told I would find cooler temperatures, amongst other things which I failed to listen to after hearing there was a chance of a breeze.

Home.

While in Melaka, Malaysia, under direction of a doctor to stay put and the pull of a guesthouse owner I love (d) hanging out with, I tried really hard to get myself into a writing routine and tried to write 500 words a day for 30 days. I had a really great habit going and then left for the city again, but even though I didn’t finish and this blog is meant to be about my experiences abroad, I’m going to share some of the writing here. And this post relates to current events anyway….

“Feels like home” my sister and I often breathed through contended smiles as we emerge from the ramp into the open air of Wrigley Field. It doesn’t matter who I am with to have this feeling, but when it’s her, it’s our silent chorus. Is it the step into light and fresh air? The smell of sausage and stale Old Style reeking of years of tradition and disappointment? the band that walks around playing the familiar banjo, tuba, and accordion tunes? The energy of thousands who might have ditched work and are ready to let loose? To me, it’s the hope. the history of watching with my great grandpa in the den area in the leather covered barrel swivel chairs, sitting around the barrel table, on the old TV with the giant antenna, and turn knobs. I can’t remember the name of a girl I met yesterday, but the click of that knob is forever ingrained. I don’t remember much conversation being held around that table, just cousins and dads in and out of the room as Sunday and holiday lunches were cooked, served, and eaten. I had no idea what I was getting myself into as a young Cubs fan, eternally hopeful and more dedicated to not being the jinx than I could have imagined. Thankfully, or regretfully, I had the Jordan era Bulls to let me know the elation and relief that Championship dreams come true could be. With that experience always in the back of my mind and years worth of “there’s always next year”s protecting my heart with a cautious hope has been my most recent state of mind as Theo Epstein changes and develops this club into much more than lovable losers. First and foremost, I am abroad, travelling, doing what I’ve dreamt of and cannot afford for these 2 dreams to happen at the same time. Second and just as important, what happens to the hope when/if we finally achieve what we’ve hoped for 100+ years?  Do we develop a new greedy hope? Always expecting a championship (ahem, Boston)? Does the comradery dissipate? Does the almost universal support and empathy from fans of other teams fade into history? Do the Cubs become as hated as the Yankees by teams other the Cards, White Sox, and Brewers? Is that worse than being hopeful and knowing our place for another 100 years? On one hand, maybe a winning team helps to save our Beloved Wrigley where we feel so at home as a place with history you can taste in that $8 stale beer. Or much like our childhood homes, the family changes so much that we outgrow our home and join the rest of the league with a space ship designed building with more suites than seats? Hope is a tricky tricky beast.

*Edit. Typing this after reflecting on developments in Myanmar, I see a fascinating parallel.

 

Myanmar, my heart

Most importantly I hope that the growth and changes that will come about in Myanmar will not change the hearts, curiosity, and hospitality of the people. If I’ve learned anything confidently, it’s that there are wonderful people everywhere, but for some reason this crew captured my heart in a special way.

Of course, spending nearly every day with a man and his student whose spirits and energy immediately fill a space helps the cause. And I’m certain they have no idea just how much their open hearts meant to me. Because UNan’s student Ma Oo, who I was initially connected to by a fellow traveller, was busy taking final exams, he took me under his wing and she joined when she was able.

Most days started around 6am, when he picked me up outside of my hotel and we hurriedly walked back to the “bus” so he could take me to his neighborhood, about 20 minutes away, for breakfast. He made it clear we would only be eating at local places where he knew the owners and could tell them to be extra careful in cooking my food. We would then go for a delicious cup of tea and some roti. Again, at his usual spot where everyone would take good care of us. Much of this time was spent watching the world go by as I would ask questions about what I saw happening and he would scan the latest Facebook news, using the free wifi at the tea shop.

Then, he would send me back to my hotel “to rest” or we would go to the temple where he did his work. He long ago left his home monastery and went rogue because there are so many strings attached to being a part of one that he felt he could not do “his works” in a meaningful way. Now, he has been allowed to use one of the temples outside of the city center to teach classes and has a lovely family sponsoring him. In the afternoon, I would accompany him at the temple, helping with whatever the afternoon activity was, eating with the non-English speaking teachers (he would always leave at 11:30am to go have his last meal of the day alone, to meditate), smiling and trying to talk to students, and again, watching the world go by. He would then send me to the hotel again to rest and eventually assigned 1-2 of the students to start picking me up on their motorbikes to take me to the evening class to teach. This quickly became my favorite part of the day (other than the evening teaching). Seeing all the drivers who would routinely ask me all day long if I wanted a ride somewhere, see me get on the back of a student’s motorbike was somehow empowering.

I would arrive, usually late, something I just came to accept and the 20-30 students would sit and wait while I ate the tea leaf salad and dinner UNan’s sponsor family regularly made for me. UNan is a master at drilling English grammar into students’ heads and I decided it was my job to give them a chance to use all of the English they have. I found the conversational levels of English to be much higher and more comprehensible than many other countries and this class loved the opportunity. Never ever have I come across more grateful people of all ages.

Some moments that would take an entire book to fully describe:

  • Bus/covered truck rides to and from the monastery, overflowing with people inside and out
  • The day UNan finally released some control to allow me to ride the bus without him and the mutual smile from the regular driver when he realized it was his responsibility to get me to the monk that day and everyday that followed
  • Everyone in the bus always, with the same focus, shifting and making room for me to safely sit down inside
  • The 20+ hour train ride north to what was supposed to be a very remote, quiet lake, through areas where there was recent civil unrest, the army presence, the constant movement of giant fuel trucks in and out of the nearby mines that foreigners are not allowed anywhere near
  • The mental energy it took to endure said ride, the monk who invited me to his home because our train arrived so late (a big no-no for a monk, but also for any resident to allow a foreigner to stay in their home)
  • Constant selling of food and goods inside and outside of the train, driving slowly through burning ditches as the temps inside the train got so high you would swear the train would melt at any moment, learning to throw my garbage out the window
  • The beautiful, warm mother in my evening class who wrote me a sweet note about my teaching and reached for my hand in a way I will never forget as I left the final night
  • One of my students took me to her friend’s house in the countryside: her mother’s smile that could touch any soul, the peace of their property, students watching me eat, and the delicious meal they had prepared without me knowing
  • Small plates of “curry” dishes with giant plates of rice, always a side of chili paste that could knock your eyes out
  • Having a hotel next to a homemade ice cream shop after not having real ice cream for months
  • The beauty in the colors of the temples, traditional clothing and smiles of the people