While traveling around Malaysia for 3 weeks in July, Penang was always high up on my list of places to visit. Many of the guidebooks describe it as the ‘pearl of the orient’, a crossroads between Eastern Asia and Western Asia with an eclectic mix of Indonesians, Indians, Chinese and Malay people inhabiting the island.
If there is one thing Penang is famous for it’s the food. In fact, CNN Travel place it number 1 in its list of 10 greatest cities to eat street food and every traveler on the road had nothing but praise about the delicious delicacies to be found here. I had a clear image of what my 3 days in Penang would be like long before I arrived, as my mouth watered at the thought of trying out everything the island had to offer. Everyone goes to Penang for the food, and I thought my stay there would be the same.
On arrival, I was more mesmerized my the old colonial architecture and clean, white washed buildings than the lines of food stalls, hawkers and steaming bowls of infamous fish soup. On my second day I discovered that Georgetown, the capital city of Penang and also a UNECO World Heritage City, was a street photographers paradise.
The city is literally alive with street art, and a type that I have never witnessed before. It was interactive. One artist would draw a carton child, then weeks or months later another would come along and make it look like that same child was pulling along a pet dinosaur.
From tiny paintings of marching cats and gigantic 40 foot tall rickshaw riders painted on the side of a building to turning abandoned bikes and unwanted clothes into real life 3-D street art, there was literally a treat hiding on every corner. You needed to look up, to look down, to look closer and sometimes just take time to sit down and “smell the roses”!
For me, Penang’s street art, combined with its unique history, culture and beautiful old Colonial buildings are what made my stay so wonderful. The food was pretty amazing too, but that can wait for another blog post!
Bali, in case you didn’t already know, is a beautiful tropical island in Indonesia, famed for its relaxed atmosphere, rich cultural diversity and world-class waves which attract adventure seekers from near and far. It is a place I have always dreamed about, and one which elicits images of long lines of palm trees swaying in the wind, lazy days spent reading “Eat, Pray, Love” while lounging in a hammock, and smelling the sweet scent of spices and incense which lingers in the air. Often when you have such high expectations of a place the reality can be a bit disappointing, but I feel I can honestly say that for me Bali totally lived up to my outrageously high, dreamy expectations and at certain times, it even went over and above this imaginary line and simply blew me away. That said, there are definitely two sides to Bali and in order to write an honest review which will help rather than hinder future visitors, I will try to write about the good, the bad and the ugly.
Let me start with the ugly to get it out-of-the-way as quickly as possible. For me, arriving in the tourist hub of Kuta having spent 19+ hours on an airplane, was one of the biggest let-downs of my traveling life thus far. All my images of Bali were shattered instantaneously as I felt I was stepping out of the plane and on to the set of “Benidorm“. Heck, if I wanted to walk around in hot pants and a boob tube with my love handles sticking out for all to see while drunkenly stumbling from a shitty tourist infested bar to an overpriced, over crowded, run of the mill night club full of drunk, rowdy and disgustingly pervvy package holiday tourists, I could have spent 50 Euro on a one way ticket to Lanzarote. To say I hated Kuta and that I recommend everyone to avoid it like the plague would be a fair statement. Unless, of course, you are a 19-year-old gap year student from Britain or a mid-20′s Aussie on a Package holiday from Perth…in that case Kuta is your place, make yourself at home!
After just 1 day and 1 night in Kuta, my traveling buddy Ann-Marie and I were on the first boat to the Gili Islands. This group of 3 islands (Gili T, Gili Air and Gili Meno) are not technically part of Bali, but as most visitors here come via Bali and return via Bali, I’m including them in this post!! For me, arriving on Gili T was like arriving in Paradise. There is no other way to describe it…the water was so clear, half of it an amazing blue, the other half turquoise, and the sand was so incredibly white. This is what I had been looking forward to, THIS is what I had worked so hard and saved so hard for. We knew on arrival we would never want to leave. We were meant to stay only 5 days but I ended up staying a whole week, and if it wasn’t for time constraints I definitely would have stayed longer.
We snorkeled with Turtles and all sorts of tropical fish, we went to a full moon beach party under the biggest moon I have ever seen, we stayed in both a hostel and these funky little bungalows, we found the most un-irish looking Irish bar made of bamboo and we watched the most beautiful sunsets day after day. It really was an incredible experience.
Speaking of experiences…I also experienced my first earthquake!! One moment I was lying on the beach joking with newly made friends and the next the whole beach, the whole island started shaking vigorously, the whole earth moving. It was such a surreal moment and then everyone started running from the beach, looking scared. But there was nowhere to go as the island was flat. I just looked at the locals who didn’t seem too worried, then sat back down on my bean bag on the beach and took another sip from my beer!
Admittedly, not everyone has such raving reviews of Gili T. Being the bigger and most developed of the 3 islands, it is clear that tourism has left its mark. The beach is sometimes dirty and full of litter, and as there are 3 HUGE parties each week this mean there are plenty of passed out bodies to be spotted along the beach on any given day. Booming, over-played pop and reggae songs can be heard throughout the day and night which must really annoy those who arrived on the island for peace and tranquility. While the food choice wasn’t great, it also wasn’t that bad, with a pretty good selection depending on how much money you were willing to pay! I found most things pretty cheap, which probably makes up for the extremely, painstakingly slow service! While Gili T may not be ideal for many, for me it was pretty darn awesome.
After the Gili islands, I got the boat back to Bali then caught a bus to Ubud, the cultural centre of the island known for traditional dancing and handicrafts but also a good base for surrounding attractions such as the rice paddies, numerous temples, Mount Batur Volcano and the monkey forest. It was a lot cooler and wetter here…which was a welcome break from all the sun and heat. I did an amazing full day cycling tour from Mount Batur Volcano down through Central Bali, which included cycling through insanely green rice paddies and past HUNDREDS of small temples, exploring a traditional Balinese home where a huge, but non-poisonous, spider decided to drop down on me and time spent learning about sacred trees and local customs. I also went to the Sacred Monkey Forest where, despite what the brochure may indicate, these are not cute little friendly monkeys. They are greedy little menaces who will try steal everything from you! On arrival, one jumped on me and started unzipping my handbag…I had push it off me and run away. Another guy got his cigarettes taken while some poor/stupid woman got her 300 euro Gucci sunglasses stolen! You have been warned.
One of the things I loved most about Ubud, and Bali in general, was the beautiful hand-woven offerings that lined the pavements. Everywhere you walked, from my guesthouse, to the local store, at the bus stop, or outside an exclusive up-market shoe store, you would have to look down to avoid trampling on these beautiful little carafes of flowers, offered up to please the various Hindu Gods. Many of these would have small incense sticks peeking out from below the petals, so everywhere I walked seem to smell just the way I always dreamed it would.
Lastly, I simply must give a quick mention to Balinese massages. It would be a crime not to considering how many I treated myself to. These sensational massages, while some times slightly painful, were also delightfully cheap. From a full body massage to a half hour foot massage, a sensual head massage to the aptly named “sun burn massage”, the variety is wide, the quality is high and best of all…the prices are ridiculously low.
So there you have it, in a nutshell; my memorable ten-day balinese experience. One that I’m sure never to forget. If I do go back, the one thing I would do differently, and what I would recommend others do as well, is to splash out a little but more money on accommodation. Sometimes a backpackers hostel just doesn’t cut it.
Having spent the last 5 weeks traveling around Indonesia and Malaysia, posting numerous positive social media updates and uploading photos of tropical beaches that would make just about anyone and everyone jealous, I feel I have some confessions to make. The first and most important one I will outline in this blog post. Just because a photograph looks “postcard perfect”, does not mean the destination is absolute paradise. Up until this trip I always thought I could define paradise. I thought that any beach with beautiful white sand, crystal clear waters, rows of hammocks swinging from palm trees and with a sprinkling of friendly beach boys selling Pina Coladas out of fresh coconuts was my idea of ABSOLUTE PARADISE.
On a recent trip to The Perhentian Islands off the East coast of Malaysia, I had to pause and re-evaluate my idea of paradise. Before my travels, everyone I had met who had travelled South East Asia said I simply MUST go to the Perhentian Islands. (Both The Perhentian Islands and The Gilis (in Indonesia) seemed to be high up on everyones lists so I decided I needed to visit both!) One friend, Jessica, told me it was the best place she had ever been snorkelling in her life – that the water was unbelievably clear and the place was paradise. My friend Jeni told me that if she could go on her Honeymoon again, she would go back to the Perhentian Islands. In my mind, this place was going to be absolute paradise.
Praise aside, I had also done some research and knew not to have my expectations TOO high. These were remote islands, after all, with only a few hours of electricity a day and no roads, no cars and not even a donkey and carts like the Gili Islands. So, I’m sure you are waiting to hear what could possibly make me think this place was not perfect, so let me explain.
On the boat to the island I was pretty mesmerized. Everyone had been right about the colour of the water…it was like NOTHING I had ever seen before. Taking into account I have now visited 43 countries, that is a seriously big deal. The water around these islands was so amazing that it almost looked fake, as if you were whizzing through the worlds largest swimming pool.
It wasn’t until we arrived on the island that the real trouble started. First of all, the ferry/speed boat will not take you the whole way to the shore. They stop about 200 metres from the beach and insist you pay a local beach boy 2 dollars to take you the rest of the way. Not very much money, but it’s the principal! Plus, can you imagine trying to maneuver yourself, your backpack and your suitcase from a ferry onto a teeny tiny unstable speed boat as they pull up side my side?! NOT AN EASY FEAT!!
On arrival on the actual beach you feel relieved to have landed safely, and dry, with all your possessions But you can’t chill for more than 2 minutes as the race is on. As everyone piles off the little speed boats there is panic as people start running up the beaches to the various accommodation choices, searching for a place to stay. Why? There simply is not enough supply to meet the demand. Every few hours tourists arrive and they are continuously told by lodging after lodging that they are fully booked, despite telling us over the phone that they “don’t take bookings”. We went to over 10 places, and were turned away from every single one. We finally found some chalets at the end of the beach – ‘D Rock Garden’ that had a spare cabin for 3 nights. Regardless of price, service or what it even looked like we said yes and were relieved that we would not have to spend the night sleeping on the beach!
We spent 20 minutes trying to find the cabin as nobody would help us. To say the staff were unhelpful would be the understatement of the century, They were appalling. We eventually found it, and discovered our “en-suite” bathroom was totally flooded with who knows what covering the ground! We complained and they didn’t seem to care. We complained again the next day and they said they would “maybe look at it”. Wow, so helpful. I wouldn’t mind so much but we were actually paying quite a lot for this cabin, not that we had much choice. As we had paid for a room for 3 people, but were given only ONE bed, we asked for an extra mattress. We, miraculously got this, but they didn’t even put it in our room. They just left it outside our door, with no sheets, no extra pillow…nothing!
We moved to a cheaper place next door on day 3, which was about 1/3 of the price and seemed a lot more simpler. We were greeted with a sign on arrival that said, “stay at least 2 nights. If you wish to extend, it depends on how generous you are. E.g if you book our snorkeling trip, but our breakfast etc. If not, forget about it. Thank you.” What a lovely way to welcome guests to your accommodation!!
Next, let’s talk about the food. Or lack there of. There is 3 choices on long beach – the blue plastic chairs, the red plastic chairs, and the yellow plastic chairs. The “western” food they serve, thats right they pretty much all serve the same menu, is some of the worst food I have ever tasted in my life. While the local food isn’t too bad, waiting between 1 and 2 hours for a bowl of noodles is pure ridiculous. The they tend to forget about you, or forget your order, which doubles your frustration.
Let’s talk about the beach, which Lonely Planet says is “the most popular backpacker destination in Malaysia”. Maybe this is true but heaven knows why! The beach is dirty, with cigarette butts and empty beer cans floating in the water and stuffed in the sand. There were even used sanitary pads floating in the water, which was seriously disgusting. There were so many beach boys speeding around in their boats all day that your “perfect view” was pretty much ruined.
While the snorkeling was one of the best experiences I had while on the island, swimming with turtles, Clown fish, trigger fish and hundreds more, it also made me quite sad. Nearly all the coral was dead, due to tourists stepping on it and the lack of experienced guides. The guides also didn’t seem to care about tourists touching the turtles and even dived in and tried to encourage then to come up above the water. These people are so busy trying to make a quick buck they really don’t care about their beautiful environment, something which surely won’t last forever the way they are treating it.
Let’s summarize – the accommodation is limited and you have to fight hard or run fast to actual find a place to sleep. The staff are unfriendly and rude. The food is bad and the waiting times awful. The beach and water can be quite dirty and the view isn’t even that great, and all the coral is dead due to lack of care.
Now comes the question that is really bothering me. Are the Perhentians still viewed as “paradise” to some people?? Have I been too spoiled throughout my travels with beautiful beaches, friendly people, delicious food and stunning scenery that I can no longer see appreciate paradise when it is staring me in the face? Have I have gotten so old that I can no longer see the fun in staying in the dingey backpacker haunts I used once frequent?! Or am I right in thinking that tourism may have ruined the islands, as the rate of tourists visiting them has grown faster than the locals could handle?
What do you think, what is YOUR idea of paradise?
You can’t visit Kuala Lumpur and not visit the iconic Petronas Towers, which were the tallest towers in the world until Taiwan stole the crown and built Taipei 101 in 2010. While we didn’t go up to the top to get a birds eye view of Kuala Lumpur (we had enough great views from rooftop cocktail bars and Helipads!!) we did get some fun pictures at the bottom.
Yes you have probably seen the same type of picture 1,000 times as every visitor to the city attempts the same “unique” photo, but I’m sharing with you anyway as it was lots of fun and I think we got some pretty great shots. What do you think?
I was talking to some friends last night about solo travel and the enormous benefits bestowed on people who are brave or adventurous enough to set off on their travels alone. I thought I could use my blog to share some positive experiences I have encountered with total strangers but mainly I wanted to use this post to hear your stories!
Have you ever experienced the kindness of strangers while on your travels??
Be it someone who helped fix your puncture in the Australian Outback or a young kid who helped you find your hotel through the winding streets of Venice??
On my way to Australia last November I had a great experience where I befriended a stranger on the plane from Cork, who turned out to be an extremely well off but more importantly very inspirational business man who employed over 800 people in a Tech company in China. He taught me many a thing that I still keep with me today, and also treated me to a delicious meal while waiting for my nest flight. An experience that can be read about here.
Almost a year later and as my trip to South Korea began, I found another stranger putting a smile on my face. After a short flight from Cork to London Heathrow, I had another dreaded 5 hour stopover. As all the restaurants were super busy I was asked to share a table with a few other travellers. No problem. I got talking to the guy opposite me, mainly because the cocktail he was drinking looked interesting so I decided to order the same(!), and he turned out to be a very good-looking and interesting Irish guy (if you are reading this…HELLO!).
We had a great conversation about work, travel and life, as he asked me why I had decided to jet off to Korea for a year. We chatted for a while and then he bid me farewell as he had to run to catch his flight. As he stood up to leave, he informed that he had been so intrigued listening to me talk and was so sad that he had to depart that he had paid for my meal and drink as a farewell gift. I was actually speechless but secretly delighted.
I’m sure we have all been that kind stranger too, at one stage or another. One memory I have, which while not entirely a ‘kind’ gesture, is certainly something that put a smile on the face of many strangers.
Standing knee-deep in the freezing, Irish sea or laying down on the hard, cold rocky pier back to back with naked strangers, as a ship sails in from England (no doubt full of puzzled passengers!) was a morning I’m not going to forget anytime soon! I can’t begin to imagine what was going through those passengers minds as they saw a few thousand naked Irish people welcoming them into Dublin Port at 5 o’clock in the morning! “Welcome to Ireland, the friendliest nation on Earth!”
Giving out FREE HUGS to bewildered students in a trendy shopping area in Seoul, South Korea was also a great way of spreading job to strangers! That, and the day I spent dressed as a clown and face painting kids for free in Dublin, Ireland.
Nothing can put a smile on your face like the kindness of strangers.
Please share your stories in the comments below! x
Day of luxury-if the people back home saw us now they would laugh so hard! Taken straight out of a holiday brochure for spain- as one of the girls so nicely put it. We spent the day at the ‘Kitale Country Club’- swimming, sun bathing, chatting and laughing. Gazing up at a cloud covered Mount over the vast, beautiful golf course, spotting our first monkeys- over 30 of them!
As Lowdar was ‘out of water’-whatever that means- we have to stay put here in Kitale until we are given the green light to continue the journey North towards Sudan. Fine with us if it involves lounging in the sun, getting a tan!
After 2 hours at the club and one very burnt Beth, we headed into town- a short 2km walk away. Greeted my endless children shouting ‘how are you FINE, how are you FINE?!’- I guess no matter where you go in Africa the children are the same friendly selves!
We found an internet cafe, checked our mail, bebo, the news and 1 hour only cost 60 cent! Brilliant!! After some shopping, befriending a local boy- ’david’- whom we discussed Roy Keane, Ronaldo, Beckham and….Bosco with, we found a busy, wooden interior and exterior restaurant opposite the bus stop.
The menu confused us as everything was converted in cents. E.g Chips-30cent, Coca-Cola 20 cent. Were the exchange rates different here? NO! We got a drink each and chicken stew and pilau rice with beef (3 meals!) all for 4.40 euro! PLUS a complementary tossed salad from the owner-man was happy to see us I guess!
Back to the club for an afternoon tea (cough white wine!) for only 65 cent-it tasted kinda like banana-very weird- but I drank it anyway! Sister Geraldine (name changed for privacy reasons!) collected us and brought us home. Then the bishop collected her – off to watch the French Open- Oh how could she miss such a spectacle! She is some character it must be said! So straight forward and direct. “HAVE SOME TOAST GIRLS!” “GODFREY- GET SOME TEA!!” Right little gossiper she is too- always giving out about her italian friends drinking habits, other people stealing habits and how children are ‘forced’ into the catholic church even though they aren’t even Christian- SCANDALOUS!
We played with Margaret, little girl named after Sister Margaret who delivered her to the hospital on day of her birth. We finished the day by watching Wimbledon and Bridget Jones Diary- jeez we are living the life of luxury!
Finally after 2 days in Kitale we have Sister Kathleen said we can go to Lodwar tomorrow. They have no running water at all but now have jerry cans to transport it around so we can survive with those. No showers for us for 2 months..this should be interesting! As weird as it sounds to be happy about no running water, it will be an experience of a lifetime and we are kind of sick of being pampered at this stage-we are ready to get down to work!
Even people here laugh at the mention of Lodwar…’it’s hot there you know, way hotter than here’, our waiter informed us today. Eeekkk Why do so many people seem to think we are crazy going to Lodwar? What is it going to be like…hot, we know that! No idea what to expect tomorrow- a bus or a matatu, a house or a hut, a town or a village?! Whatever comes,we’ll be ready.
When in Rome….I mean Kenya!
Travel article I wrote that was published in Backpacker Europe Magazine
Escaping the monotony of city life, I visited the Island of Tiree, in Scotland on a press run for Backpacker Magazine. The island is tranquil, plenty of space and clean air and a little bit of insanity thrown in. The PWA tour visited the Island of Tiree in Scotland to settle the Wave Sailing World title and conclude an astonishing season of competition.
Getting to the island was all part of the adventure. Arriving at the airport in Glasgow we were in for a little shock; the plane that awaited us was a 15 seater Loganair aircraft. Squashed into our little seats the Co-pilot briefed us on safety and we took off.
The plane, it emerged, wasn’t to be the last of Tiree’s authentic takes on transport! From the taxi service that needs to be booked a day in advance, to bicycles that can pull buggies in tow. With only one road circumnavigating the island, taking the “coast road” was not only the most scenic route, it was the only route!
Arriving at our B&B, Balephetrish House, we were welcomed with an open door. We found a lovely note telling us to make ourselves at home. With stunning views over Balephetrish Bay from our bedroom window, a big hearty fry-up every morning served with a smile and a chat, our host, Iain went out of his way to ensure our stay was enjoyable.
We checked in to the event HQ in Crossapol, and discovered plenty of bleached blondies registering for the tournament, we decided to explore the island on foot and leave the bronzed beauties to do what they do best…chill! With a little of map of the island in hand, we made our way around to all the cute little gift shops and purchased some scrumptious homemade chocolate in “Chocolates and Charms” in Heylipol!
We were invited back to HQ for the opening dinner ceremony that night. It was quite a surreal experience mingling with the top 50 surfers in the world. We were entertained by two contrasting locals. Colin pleased the crowd by belting out tunes on the bagpipes, while Bob who had been growing his dreadlocks for a mind boggling 13 years was our DJ for the night! The night continued into the wee hours in the islands most frequented pub, The Lodge.
Due to “poor” surfing conditions the next day (beautiful calm water, sunshine and a light breeze), no windsurfing was to take place so we set out to explore the island. However, every time we set foot on the road, a local resident would insist on picking us up. It was during these miniscule journeys away from the magnificent beaches, mouth watering sea food and peaceful walks where I discovered the true beauty of Tiree; its people. While meandering along the well trodden country roads and not knowing a soul, everyone kept smiling at us and waving. The odd van full of guys honked their horn in our direction. Happy days!
With the wind picking up slightly on Monday, Go Fast energy drinks gave $750 to an unofficial freestyle super session to entice all the surfers back into the water. Not to be left out, we hit the water too, but on the other side of the island. Our morning was dedicated to Coasteering which up until this point was a sport I had never heard of. This involves scrambling along the rocks, jumping into the water, been bashed around and pounded back onto the rocks, climbing through caves and up through holes. As bizarre as this may sound it was unbelievable fun.
The highlight of day was cliff jumping. Perching ourselves at the cliff edge, shivering from both the cold and the nerves, we plunged into the water. The next time we went much higher. At 30 feet above the water, my stomach was churning at the thought of the fall and my mind spinning at the thought of whacking my head off the rocks at the other side. I knew I would hate myself for not doing it so I plumped up the courage and down I went along with a little bit of my sanity!
That evening we got to see first hand the amazing talents of these windsurfers. As the sun set below the lodge creating this delightful orange glow across the water, we sat on the beach for almost two hours mesmerized by the speed they were gliding across the water, the tricky jumps and one handed back loops they were pulling out of nowhere. The whole setting was utterly beautiful.
Chatting to them afterwards on the beach, I loved how down to earth they all are. Although he missed out on the overall world title to Kauli Seadi, Josh Angulo from Cape Verde will remain a champion in my eyes. In the many times we talked, he was charming and charismatic, and talking to other surfers, it appeared he had left a lasting impression on them too.
I returned home with a smile on my face; praise for Scottish hospitality and without doubt a new found passion for windsurfing!
This is part 3 of a 3 part guest post series by Samy Amanatullah.
“What a life” was something we’d say when there didn’t seem like anything else to say.
“What a life” was something we’d say when there didn’t seem like anything else to say.
The first time I thought this phrase the way I’d think it for the next few months, I was sitting across from a Thai cowboy. He wasn’t a real cowboy though he wore the hat. Cowboy is the name of his bar.
He sat with his wife, sipping and constantly refilling a glass of whiskey and soda, his wife sometimes going for more ice.
He left home at a young age and found work as a chef for theU.S.army, where he’d learned to speak English and cook western. Decades later, he opened a bar tucked into one of those smaller passageways that fit into the streets of Chang Mai.
It wasn’t the travel or the family or the decades of stories that put a “What a life” under my breath. It was his daily schedule. He woke up, cooked for the kids, opened the bar, closed it when he was tired, got drunk in the in-between. He considered himself a content man.
What a life.
The only other person in there was an old friend of the Cowboy’s—English, old and bald, speaking nonsense. He’d come to the table where we were sitting, try to speak, and be shooed away by Cowboy who was having none of it. He cleaned furniture for a living, and even if the booze hadn’t done him in that night, the decades working with chemicals had mushed his mind. He visitedThailanda few months every year. He didn’t have anyone back home. What a life. In a different way.
There’s a tendency to be shocked by what you see and also by what you don’t notice anymore. “What a life” was a recurring thought, a response to the incredulous. The kids on the beach who build a bracelet on your wrist on the spot? What a life. The tour guide who points out his house and, without skipping a beat, points out the adjacent killing field where his family died? What a life. The tuk-tuk drivers, men in as many industries as they have fingers—pimps, drug dealers, tour guides, drivers, police informants, whatever else might be paying at the moment; the motobike taxis, who take the tuk-tuk drivers’ ambitions and prop it on a suicidal weave through big city traffic; their counterparts on trishaws, motos, and cyclos. The bar girls, young and thin and glossed with make up, looking for sugar daddies. The old men, fat and pasty and tall, looking for Thai “wives”. The women dressed to find a john. The men dressed as the women. The guys they let screw them and then rob. What a life.
The old man in the sleepy tourist attraction town in Myanmar whose job it is to unclog my friend’s toilet, whose age suggests he’s lived through not just Cyclone Nargis, the riots and shootings of his country’s recent history, the release and many arrests of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, but also the inception of his country, its partition from India, even World War 2, who walks into my friend’s room, bucket in hand, ready for shit duty, and smiles. What a life.
The old toothless woman who distills rice moonshine out of a shack and sells it for 50 cents a bottle. The Lebanese painter who describes this jetset “as his life” and then tells me about places I saw as a child and will never go back to. The journalists dancing on the riverside, on a brief vacation laughing, dancing, tripping when a few days ago they were inEgyptwhenEgyptwas ousting its president. Mr. Lao Lao’s son, serving the hard drink on the river, his entire body drawn on with magic marker and dancing around the dock as the water rises, intoxicated foreigners all around him. What a life.
The Mustache Brothers (deserving of a blog post of their own), resigned to house arrest, performing the same show every night, its host smiling on cue, looking tired and weary when the spotlight’s on his brothers, who spent seven years in work camps doing hard labor for telling jokes (“Do you think,” my friend asks later, “that they ever just get the urge to go outside and dig a ditch?”), and the people you see from your bus window as you leave building a new pagoda in a country that uses forced labor and believes that building pagodas can offset bad karma. What a fucking life (apparently to be reincarnated in).
The crap police informants you notice following you, and the better ones you don’t notice. The kids hawking cheap wares and making rational arguments in your language as to why you should buy. The girls learning to balance baskets on their heads by practicing with bricks. The makeshift family that doesn’t sell anything and lives in a shack and plays their music on the beach. What a life.
There’s the foreigner at a random train station. A volunteer English teacher in smalltown Thailand, younger than me, who’s almost on his way out, who will next walk the Camino de Santiago and follow that up with Burning Man, who admits that while it’s awesome that he’s based the rest of his year around festivals, what’s seems most important, most exciting is doing things with the people in his life he’s been off from.
And let’s not forget the animals: the monkeys and birds in cages and chains, doing the dance so their owners get money and they get snacks; the stray dogs wandering in packs, begging, roaming the car parks, the sole thing you see against the moon on the streets at night, battling amongst each other for turf, for fun, for a stick; the horses—the poor horses—marching through the heat, carrying at least two fat foreigners and the driver, in some towns the main source of transport and no other way about it but miserable. “What does the horse get out of it?” my friend asks as it steers us towards a semi-famous ruins site. Maybe something at the end. Maybe some sweet, sweet hay.
Then again, as someone suggests after a day spent wandering a village and drinking a tea-whiskey concoction that’s supposed to make us tired and healthy, what about us? What about we who go from place to place without any particular reason, acclimated to the long bus rides, the winding roads, the stenches and bathrooms that will never see porcelain? A little thing I found out was that almost every foreigner I met going through SoutheastAsiakept with them sleeping pills for the long bus rides. So much so that in conversation it stopped being a question and became more of an assumption, something you’d compare or share as the novelty of going somewhere else faded into the reality of a bumpy, disorienting ride.
There are people who live in countries of tremendous beauty who have never gone the50 milesbetween their home and that incredible beach or mountain because they can’t afford to, and we do it in a single run and we tell them about it and ask questions, and they smile and at least act like they’re happy for us. We who go just because we can, spoiled for travel, eating and drinking whatever and whenever we want, jumping out of planes and onto buses, living lives that are equally strange and infinitely more charmed, doing nothing as people ask, incredulously, as if they don’t understand, if we’re actually just going until we run out of whatever, no phone, no travel insurance, no plan. What a life.
But, of course, it can’t last, and a little later, I can’t help but ask my friend if, when he returns to the states, he’ll just get the urge to go off and take a 14 hour bus ride. Imagine him seeking out the shittest bathrooms and the worst bus seat and soaking in the smells of being sandwiched between someone throwing up into a bottle on one side and someone spitting betel nut out the window on the other, thinking contently before the sleeping pills kick in that this, indeed, is the life.
The mystery of the missing popcorn factory was hell on my feet.
The town of Hsipaw (pronounced See-paw) isn’t known for attractions. Mainly a starting point for trekkers, we’d gone there just to go. The popcorn factory stuck from a list of attractions that ranged from interesting to time killing, so it was on the road leading out of town, the temperature nearing 40 Celsius, when I began walking toward hell.
We’d inadvertently arrived the day of the Full Moon Ceremony, and after a night sleeping under our guesthouse stairs (the last affordable accommodation), we’d found transportation (a cross between a jeepney and a tuk-tuk), made it to a field massed with merchants and tents and a temple, ridden the one ride, toasted with rice wine, and, in my case, wandered off into a temple for some “peace of mind.”
Excluding the tastes of trekkers, who eventually don socks, flip flops are as much a part of the backpacker uniform as could be said to exist. They accommodate the Southeast Asian heat and cluster wherever there’s comfort—the legs of veranda tables, hostel entrances, beach eateries and bars.
For the past months, I’d sported a slick pair of flip flops I’d bought the first summer in Korea. Cloth-thonged with smooth black soles and an imprint of Africa (a reminder, I told myself when I overpaid for them, of where not to forget to go), they marked the rare occurrence of successful shoe-shopping in Asia, particularly for someone whose feet have been compared to those of clowns.
They were also the only pair of flip flops I’d ever owned, despite living in Southern California, where flip flops aren’t so much a uniform as the symbol of a state of mind, one I’d never been able to share (what with the Thursday to Sunday jaunts to another city or campus to see someone, some band, something, crashing on random floors, leaving before the sun came up or way too long after, or, later, splitting class with two jobs and always being on the way to somewhere else—a lifestyle accommodated by the close-toed and laced, forget slipping shoes on and off, I slept with them on), so my buy brought with it the lame feeling of late acceptance. Anyone who knows me (or read the other guest blog post) knows that stuff isn’t a big part of my life, but the right stuff can make a big difference.
Back in Hsipaw, someone stole my shoes at the temple while I watched people lather Buddha with gold. You leave your shoes at one of the entrances of the temple, and I circled every one looking for the only pair of over-sized, black and red flip flops that could be at the festival. Then I walked back through the festival, hailed a jeepney/tuk-tuk, made my way through town, found my friends, had dinner, and retreated up the stairs into my room, barefoot.
I had, of course, been lucky till then. Four countries, and I’d not lost my shoes or had them stolen. This was uncommon. The fucking things are so popular because they’re so cheap, dispensable, replaceable. Drunk people confuse their shoes and take the wrong pair. I’d sat with people while their flip flops were literally taken from under, swiped from the pools of shoes at restaurant entrances.
Most Westerners shoe-shopping in Asia run into a problem at some point. If you’re in a small town, you might be out of luck finding your size. People have this problem in Korea, in China, in Taiwan, and I was in Myanmar, whose imports seemed to come mainly from Thailand and China. The biggest shoes were too small, and so began not only the hell but a cycle of loss and compensation constantly falling short.
The popcorn factory had apparently shuttered for good. The only person who knew this and spoke English was a local monk. In consolation, he said that it had been a small operation and not much to see.
A couple weeks later, I left Myanmar. By then, the cheap plastic of the thongs had steadily and surely gashed my feet, scabbing the sides and the space between the big toe and its neighbor, red and blood melting with sweat and dirt air, and they continued to gash and tear at the scabs, reopening and gashing again and again.
That pair was stolen in a hostel in Taiwan the night before my flight. Broke and needing to compensate, I stole (or, karmically, traded for) a sleek black pair from the rack that turned out to be smaller and older. It not only continued the work of its predecessor but was also too short at the back and scratched the soles of my feet on the rough streets.
That pair made it through Songkran, the Thai New Year, where the streets flowed with water and clay washed off peoples’ faces and where this mud washed over the scab and gash (I thought of a friend who’d almost had her foot amputated when a foot wound set dirt into her blood). They were stolen from the pool of flip flops by the guesthouse door a few hours before my flight home.
So I compensated yet again, the same way I’m sure people are still compensating and have been and will continue to. After three flights and 13 hours or so of planes, the immigration officer’s “Welcome back” was a nicety paled by the pair of over-sized, almost comically large flip flops my ride put before me. There is some truth when people say that the little things are what matter in life. In my case, they scarred my feet.
If you’re hard-pressed to find my point, it might be because there isn’t one or because shoes and, more to the point, feet aren’t the stuff of stories. Over a fairly short period (4 months), I used various transport, and what stayed with me most was the feeling whenever you disembarked whatever plane, ferry, riverboat, skiff, random chunk of metal/wood with motor attached, bus, minivan, jeepney, taxi, tuk-tuk, motobike, elephant or horse-cart. In the end, you’re back to just standing there, knowing that you have to choose a direction and walk.