Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cerulean Riau

“Where you go?”

I shook my head, smiling politely.

The sun bore down on my bare shoulders and I cursed myself for forgetting to put on sunscreen as we rushed to catch our ferry to Indonesia.

“Where you go?”

A posse of five Indonesian men followed me as I walked down the dilapidated pier. I was tired, hot, hungry, and completely out of patience.

“Look, I don’t need a ride anywhere.”

I breathed deeply searching for a calm I did not feel as my words failed to register with them. I stalked further down the rickety dock. One man followed me past the police stationed at the waterfront. I eyed them, trying to find reprieve from this unwanted attention but was not surprised when they simply looked the other direction.

The man, his face badly scared, put his wrinkled hand on my shoulder to forcibly stop me from walking away. His dirty fingers left marks on my pale white blouse but that didn’t matter because something inside of me snapped and my rage boiled over.


The word escaped my mouth with such ferocity I scarcely believed it emanated from me; after one month traveling overland through South East Asia, I was no stranger to persistent locals. Frankly, I usually dealt better with the annoyance. I understood these people depended on me to make their living. Did they over charge me? You had better believe it. Were they a hassle? Undeniably so. I had a hard time faulting them, however, when two dollars made such little difference to me and such a great difference in their world.

The man quickly took back his hand looking embarrassed.

I felt embarrassed as I looked over Tanjung Pinang.

The one dirt road that ran along side the waterfront was lined with tin shacks that were homes and businesses all in one. Children played naked in the streets with garbage and emaciated oxen roamed the area in futile pursuit of edibles; women cooked noodles and chicken in large woks under the unforgiving sun, their faces flushed with sweat and heat. Men, unemployed with no where to go and nothing to do, lazed in the shade of trees smoking and playing cards.

Before arriving in Tanjung, I learned that most of South East Asia's lanun, otherwise known as pirates, come from Tanjung and its sister island. Indonesia is comprised of 10,000 islands. It borders Malaysia and Brunei. Ships are forced to breach the passages between these numerous islands to deliver and export goods. Piracy was lucrative. For the men of Tanjung Pinang, piracy stood in between starvation and life.

I looked into this man’s dark brown eyes, and I understood what he could not convey with his limited English: these relentless men needed desperately to give me a ride somewhere so they could feed their children.

At least he was not commandeering a vessel.

And how I hated myself for not being able to help him compared little to how I loathed the world for being so wildly unbalanced. The situation on this Indonesian island was hopeless and there was nothing I could do to fix it; even if I did give him money, soon enough he would be back at the dock waiting for someone who had more fortune and luck than he.

I held out my hand, and he extended his.



He brought his hands together near his face and bowed smiling. He possessed few teeth, and the ones he had we yellow and rotting.

He turned and walked away finally accepting the fact that I really, truly, honestly did not need a ride. I sat on my backpack and waited for Sean to emerge from the bathroom. I felt drained. Emotionally and physically. South East Asia was literally changing my perceptions of the world and it was a painful transformation.

“You ready?”

I jumped.

I hadn’t noticed Sean approach.

I squinted up in the sun as I studied his outreached hand. I felt grateful to have someone stand beside me and witness this hard truth about the world with me.

We walked toward the parked van across the street. Louie, the driver from our bungalow, was waiting for us while listening to Eddie Vedder.

“America!” Louie cried gleefully as we stepped into the van, slapping the steering wheel. America, I thought, the country I usually complained about. Never again, though. Looking out at this Riau Island, I finally understood I never had a real reason to complain. I was able to earn an education, attain employment, procure housing, purchase nutritious food, and find purpose and meaning.

I wished the same things for the people of Tanjung.

The drive was long and hot. By the time we stepped out of the van, my hair was plastered to my face and I wanted nothing more than to jump into the tempting cerulean water. Our bungalow hovered above the ocean on stilts. The air was quiet, a rarity for South East Asia.

I knew we had come to the right place; a place I could collect my thoughts and unwind from the wind and grind of nomadic life.

If only life was so simple for the people who lived and worked only forty minutes away.

If only…

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Storming Singapore

Things really went to hell in Little India.

“This is useless!” I hissed while standing in the middle of the street and turning in circles.

“This is not useless,” corrected Sean, once again consulting the map from our battered Lonely Planet guide book.

“Useless: hopeless, futile, a waste of time, ineffective, inadequate,” I rattled off, closing my eyes and trying to calm down. “You choose the synonym…. I really don‘t care because this activity is most certainly useless!”

“Just chill out.”

“Chill out? You want me to chill out? Okay, sure, I’ll chill out. It’s fine that it’s 4:55 in the morning, we’re standing in the middle of god knows where in Singapore and our bus leaves at 5a.m. for non-refundable boat tickets to Indo-freakin‘-nesia and I’m pretty sure a man was stabbed outside our hotel just five minutes ago and there are two Market Streets right beside each other going completely opposite directions and our bus station is down one of them, which one who knows but it’s certainly not us!”

Sean looked up from the map, smiling.

“Feel better?”

I wanted to slap him but instead I nodded my head.

“Good. Now, I’m pretty sure we go down this Market Street past the Chinese hawker stalls.”

Taking a deep breath, I followed Sean down the middle of the dark road; homeless men slept on the sidewalks, and we discovered they were none to pleased when you accidentally tripped over them and woke them from their drunken stupors.

As I walked behind Sean, my heavy backpack permanently disabling me, I cursed the day I ever considered visiting Singapore.

“What’re you going to do in Singapore?” Tuan, a 30 year old vagabond, asked us while we talked over beers in the Cameron Highlands.


Tuan smiled then, nodding his head.

“You’re going to the right place then because there’s nothing else to do in that city.”

Sure, we ate. And the food was good. Like, really good. Plates teaming with chicken and rice and vegetables satiated our hunger. But, it was not good enough to warrant this early morning jaunt in search for a bus that would connect with another bus and then another that would drop us off at the ferry so we could take the boat and end up on the Riau Islands.

“At least it’s not raining,” Sean called over his shoulder, forbidding my dour mood from rubbing off on him. I wanted to take off my Teva sandals and chuck them at his head. How did he do it, I wondered. I knew he was tired. Of course he was tired. Last night, at 2a.m., two Germans decided to watch the Chainsaw Massacre in our dorm. I wanted nothing more than to give them wedgies as they walked around in their tighty -whitey underpants.

“I mean, wasn’t that rain something else? It was like standing under a waterfall.”

As Sean babbled, I fantasized about all the things I could do to him to make him feel the way I did; I could trip him, I could push him over, I could scream out that Allah sucks and make him deal with the consequences, I could litter in front of a police officer and get a ticket…

“Yo, Jackie, where you at?”

“Huh?” I asked, my vindictive thoughts interrupted.

“I said: there it is.”

And sure enough, there it was: the bus station.

“Yeah, the rain was pretty cool,” I admitted, my blood pressure suddenly under control now that I knew we were not doomed.

And you know what? The rain was incredible. It was a deluge in the middle of an urban jungle, quite different from the Malaysian downpour we experienced in an actual jungle. We spent most the night cowered under walkways and running through the streets. Like all the locals, we took two plastic bags from a bin a kind store owner put out and moved like bats out of hell through the rain, weaving through the city until we reached Little India where our hostel was located.

As we waited at the bus stop, I prayed the plastic bag I used to wrap my wet clothes in wouldn’t burst and soak everything in my backpack. We had done our laundry for the first time in one month and I refused to have all my clothes smell like a wet dog because chances were we wouldn’t do our laundry again for another month.

As our bus pulled away from the terminal, I catalogued the pilgrimage we were about to undertake: three busses, two taxis, and a ferry all within six hours to end up on a beautiful Indonesian island. Part of me hoped it would be worth it, but another part of me knew it would.

As we drove over the Causeway, headed toward Malaysia, all I could think was: Singapore, you’re alright. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Wild Cameron Highlands

I couldn’t have located Malaysia on a map one year ago. For that reason, I found it extremely ironic that I would probably die in the Cameron Highlands.

“Are you ever scared?” Sean asked hesitantly from the front seat of the Land Rover, eyeing Daniel warily.


“Well fuuuuuuuuck,” our friend Mikey exclaimed clearly hoping for another answer as his blue eyes searched wildly for an escape route.

Good luck Mikey, I thought. I too had already considered jumping out of the Land Rover multiple times. However, with a sense of dread, I soon realized there was no way out of this hell except through it.

On we drove.

First, I should tell you that Southeast Asia is not safety conscience. Second, I should tell you that yesterday it poured for six hours; streets turned into rivers and entire roads washed away. Third, and most importantly, I should mention that the four of us- Sean, Mikey, Meredith, and I- are unequivocal idiots. This was natural selection at its finest.

I stared at the seven golden Buddha statues glued to the dashboard of Daniel’s Land Rover, and found myself reciting the Four Noble Truths. Prince Siddhartha, more commonly known as Buddha, believed that the cause of human suffering was desire. At the moment, I agreed wholeheartedly. I desired an experience of a lifetime when I boarded the plane to Bangkok, and now I paid for it dearly.

The engine screamed and I tried my hardest not to look to my left. It was difficult to avoid the temptation for a few reasons. First, I was practically sitting on Mikey’s lap. Second, a 200 foot cliff plunged downward not one foot beside me. There was no guard rail. Of course there was no guard rail; we weren’t driving on a road. No, two hundred feet up the side of the Cameron Highlands, Daniel, our driver, decided to proceed straight up a path covered in thigh-deep mud created from yesterday’s torrential downpour.

We were on our way to see a big flower.

Yes, I was about to die in pursuit of a flower. If I had been a world renowned botanist seeking a new discovery, it may have been worth it. But I was just Jackie, stupid Jackie, going to see some flower of which I didn’t even know the name.

The engine quieted and I tried to lie to myself and say there was nothing to fear. We all knew that wasn’t true though. Just two days before, 30 Thai tourists died when their bus lost control and careened off the treacherous road that led to the Cameron Highlands. Every time the Land Rover lost all traction and slid sideways, I wondered how our families would know we died. No one really knew we were in the highlands let alone snaking up the side of a mud covered mountain.

The grisly truth was we could not turn back even though we all desperately wanted to, Daniel included; the path was just wide enough to accommodate the Land Rover. Daniel couldn’t stop or the SUV would slide backward and the doors could not open on either side. We had no choice. We had to press forward.

So I bit my tongue, closed my eyes, and pretended I was somewhere else.

I had been doing that a lot since we arrived in Asia. The first time I noticed myself doing it was when I was hanging on to Sean for dear life as we sat on the tailgate of a pickup truck. It was filled to the brim with Thais and we sped through the early dawn mist from Chumphon to the ferry dock. Sean and I had been the last passengers to load into the pick up and naturally there was no space for us. The driver lowered the tailgate and patted it, indicating we should sit on it. Eyeing Sean skeptically, I followed suit as he climbed aboard placing our heavy backpacks on our laps. I comforted myself with the knowledge that if the driver made too quick a movement and we flew off perhaps the backpacks would cushion our falls. My fears seemed to be misplaced though as the local Thais behind us simply grabbed onto our clothes to keep us on the back of the truck. They were our human seatbelts. For the entire forty minute ride, I said small thanks to the universe each time we whizzed around cars and scooters and remained firmly seated on the truck.

The second time was on a catamaran ride from Koh Tao to the mainland. Waves crashed ashore as we waited to board but I was foolishly hopeful. Within two minutes of debarking, I was green. The catamaran jumped the waves rolling from side to side; sea spray coated us in salt. I spent the duration of the three-hour ride with my head in between my knees desperately trying not to puke.

The third time was on an overnight train from Chumphon to Butterworth. An Iranian man befriended us. I liked him just fine until he started singing Celine Dion. Every Celine Dion song he knew. It was a lot.

And here I found myself again, two weeks into this three month trip, coping with “new and exciting” experiences by drifting off into Lala Land. This time, scaling up the side of a mountain, I found myself at Sweet Laurette’s coffee shop in Port Townsend sipping on a CafĂ© Mocha and reading War and Peace. These fantasies worked so long as I could stay focused. The constant whining of the engine, the unsettling sliding sensations, and the gasps of Mikey, Meredith, Sean, and ever so painfully Daniel, interrupted my attempt at self-medication.

Ever so tensely, we inched up the mountain side. It felt like a lifetime. When Daniel whooped gleefully, I opened my eyes and my heart stopped. We had made it. Just 50 feet in front of us was a turn about. Daniel slid the Land Rover into the space gracefully and turned off the engine. The five of us sat in silence for a few moments relishing in the stillness of the moment. Finally, Daniel turned to us, a big smile on his stupid Australian face.

“What a ride Mates.”

He opened the door and reached beneath the seat to grab maps, water, and granola bars. My legs felt stiff as I walked around the small clearing. My whole body was tense and my muscles ached already. The drive wiped me out. Looking around, I could tell everyone felt the same way. As Sean loaded our ponchos, leech socks, and water bottles into our backpack, I tried not to focus on the thought hanging over my head like a storm cloud: we had to drive back down that damned mountain.

“Alright guys,” Daniel said, rounding us up like cattle around the topographical map unfolded across the steaming hood of the Land Rover. “We’re here. The trail starts here, the flower’s there. It’ll be about a four hour walk but the trail will be muddy. Sugar, you’ll have a hard time.”

Of course he was looking at me. I just laughed.

“And why’s that?”

“You’re so short.”

Gee, thanks. But it was true. For the first time, I realized I was the Frodo Baggins of the group. Everyone else towered at least one foot above me, Mikey and Daniel even more.

“The mud will be past your knees so walk on the sides of the trail when you can.”

I nodded.

I could deal with mud.

So we set off into the Malaysian jungle. Daniel led the way and I lingered in the back navigating the trail carefully so the mud wouldn’t swallow me hole. Thick vegetation reached out in all directions. Bamboo shoots dripped streams of water, birds flew overhead, and everything smelled incredible.

I felt rejuvenated as I traversed streams, climbed over fallen trees, and clung to vines to scale small cliffs. The past two weeks had been one jarring experience after another. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to be jarred. It was why I wanted to go to Asia. Europe, both times I went, had been like dessert: indulgent, sweet, and short lived. Meandering through Asia was a test of patience, open mindedness, throwing caution to the wind, and embracing differences. I needed all of those things desperately. Just as badly as I needed to see the poverty in Bangkok, the friendliness of the Thais, and the deep contentment that could be cultivated by living more simply, I too needed a break from it all. Breaks put things into perspective. And in the Malaysian jungle, I found fresh air to breathe, space to move, and a moment of silence: essentially, the perfect place to reflect.

Traveling isn’t always easy or fun. In fact, for me and Sean, more often than not it is stressful and painful. We don’t take package tours, we don’t fly from destination to destination, and we don’t pay more for comfort. We travel overland on busses, scooters, tuk tuks, and pick ups the locals use. We stay in guest houses and live like the locals live. We don’t (often) eat at Westernized restaurants and we don’t speak a lot of English.

It is uncomfortable, it is hard to adjust to, and it is sometimes frankly downright terrifying. But the day I stop traveling will be the day it is no longer scary, uncomfortable, and challenging. I don’t travel for a hobby, I travel to grow and learn and hopefully become a more tolerant, compassionate, well-rounded human being.

So I didn’t feel so bad that my heart stopped five times on the ride up the mountain or that I was already sick of curry or that I hadn’t slept well in four days or that I had eaten at the same (bad) restaurant three times in a row simply because I liked talking to the owner. And I didn’t feel so bad that in the serenity of the Cameron Highlands, I was being myself completely: happy to be in the jungle, worried about the car ride down, and anxious for everything to come.

Growing is painful so I allowed myself to be my neurotic self instead of trying to be some fearless traveler I thought I should be. I could not stop myself from worrying about the future just like I couldn't stop myself from being giddy with excitement that I was in a jungle in Malaysia. The only thing that mattered was that I wouldn’t let myself and my fears stand in the way of the experience just like I wouldn’t let the fear of the unknown, the discomfort of being in a third world country or the frustrations that came with the territory of backpacking ruin the lessons of this trip.

So by the time we reached the flower, four feet in diameter, I was covered in mud but thankful we took the time to come. I may be no botanist but I could find value in wandering through a jungle still filled with aboriginal villages in pursuit of a little adventure, a little more knowledge, and being jarred to the very core.

Growing is painful.

It has to be.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Backpacker's Koh Tao

“How much further do you think it is?”

Sean side stepped down the rocky hill. Every few feet, his traction would slip and he’d slide uncontrollably down the dirt path sending a wake of rock and foliage tumbling down behind him.

I slowly inched down the trail cursing Air China once again; had the airline not ‘misplaced’ our backpacks, I’d have on my hiking sandals instead of fifty cent flip flops I picked up at a night market in Chumphon that were two sizes too large and made from cheap plastic that carved into my big toe with every painful, tentative step I took.

“About 200 feet!” yelled a disembodied voice.

Sean had slithered out of sight as I stopped to consider sliding on my butt to avoid falling face first down the only path to Ao Leuk Bay.

Deciding against putting holes in my only outfit, which I had been wearing for seven consecutive days in a humid climate, I carefully clambered down the cliff. Turning a corner, Sean came into view and with him Ao Leuk Bay. Large boulders stacked against the beach, crystal blue water sparkled in the sunlight, and white sand beckoned.

Throwing caution to the wind, I ran the rest of the way down the pebbly path. Thankfully, Sean stopped me from pummeling into a palm tree.

“We made it!” I cried, diving into the aquamarine water.

A flash in the water caught my eye.

“Did you see that?” I demanded, scrambling for shore.

"You had better believe it!" Sean said, quickly donning his snorkel gear so he could pursue the two foot green eel that ambled by.

Not fond of sea creatures except for the ones served on my plate, I finally mustered up the courage to get back into the water. It was the perfect temperature against my sunburned, sweaty skin. Schools of brightly colored fish swam nearby and occasionally jumped from the water and gracefully landed right back in it. I watched the scene amazed by the variety of life in the sea.

After swimming to our hearts content, we began to walk back up the vertical hill.

“We so should have listened to Nina,” I said, out of breath and trying to find my next foot and hand hold. Nina, the mid-twenties server at our bungalow’s restaurant, told us we were crazy for going to Ao Leuk Bay.

“You fall down hill! Go to Sairee Beach-- very fun, lots of drunk.”

Heeding her advise, we headed the opposite direction from Sairee Beach because we had no desire to watch other American, European, and Australian backpackers drink until they met oblivion and then proceed to trash the beach, which is exactly how we found ourselves scaling a nearly impossibly cliff wearing flip flops and soaking wet clothes with nothing more than a day bag with two water bottles, a flash light, and some sunscreen and bug repellent.

“I’d rather be here than on the beach with a million drunk people in various states of nakedness,” Sean said, sweat dripping down his face.

Yesterday, we walked two hours from our secluded bungalow into the main town called Sairee. What we found there disgusted us: college aged students strutted around with two foot plastic cups full of booze and many with no tops on at all enjoying the catcalls of other drunk backpackers as the local Thai tried not to notice or look as bothered as I’m sure they felt.

We rented a dirty white scooter in disrepair but it was a trustworthy steed as we zoomed from one side of the island to the other, exploring intriguing dirt roads and pebbly paths. As Sean gunned the gas, my hair whirled in the wind and I closed my eyes and felt unmitgated happiness.

Watching other scooters zoom by, the world a blur of colors, smells, and sounds, my mind wandered.

Vivid memories of driving through Bangkok for the first time at 6a.m., the streets clogged, loud, and completely polluted, occupied my mind. We watched whole families head off to work and school on small scooters. The suffocating smell of chili powder coiling in the air from woks burned my nose. The heat penetrated me to the very core, stifling and never ending. Above all, I remembered the feeling of being gobsmacked that we actually made it to Asia.

Sure, I had planned the trip, bought the plane tickets and made reservations but some things can’t become real until they smack you in the face. Southeast Asia is quick to land a blow. Nothing looks familiar, nothing sounds familiar, and nothing tastes familiar.

From the back of the scooter, I knew we were in for a bumpy ride as we explored Southeast Asia.

The thought made me glow.