Go To Myanmar Before Everyone Goes to Myanmar

I spent close to 6 weeks in Myanmar and in that time I acquired piles of stories to tell. I would like to put all of it into words, but yet again I find myself needing to be selective. I could go on and on about the friendships I’ve kindled with other travellers, the unique landscapes I’ve explored, the food, the language, the clothing, and the religion, but the most stand out aspects of my time in Myanmar were the connections I made with local people. This blog post is a conglomerate of bits and pieces of writing that I did throughout my time in Myanmar that I’ve put together. Since I left Myanmar I’ve spent a month in the Philippines, and two days in Japan so I have a lot to catch up on.

I crossed the border from Thailand to Myanmar on foot. The Thai departures booth spits you out onto a no-mans-land bridge which leads to Myanmar immigration. As I walked across the bridge I watched the sun set over the distant mountains and was flooded with a whirlwind of emotions. I felt free and excited and courageous, but I was nervous for how the night would go. All I had was the name of a meditation centre 300 kilometres away that I intended on going to. I had no plans for how to get there and no accommodation booked for the night, but as I walked across the bridge a few families passed me walking the in other direction. They smiled and bowed their heads as they passed me. I knew I was at the mercy of whatever this country was going to throw at me, but I already had the feeling that I was in good hands. The fact that I showed up in a new country, alone, just before nightfall and without a hotel booked may appear like really shortsighted planning, but allow me to defend my case: Busses rarely run on time, it’s difficult to buy a bus ticket from somewhere other than where you are (especially if you’re trying to organize transport in another country), and If you book a cheap hotel online it can be difficult to find once you get to town. The flip side of these inconveniences is that there’s always a place to stay near by, and locals are happy if not honoured to help you out.

The Burmese border guards seemed more interested in what I was planning to do in Myanmar than the formalities of my entering the country. They took my border form away before I was done filling it out and said I had done enough. They asked me where I was staying and I said I didn’t know yet. They asked me if I wanted a cheap or expensive hotel and I answered cheap. One of them walked with me for a few blocks in the direction of the River View Hotel, which he said would be affordable and clean. He carried my backpack for me and wished me happy travels before returning to the border booth.

That night, I met a group of students and their teacher who welcomed me into their school with open arms. I shared a Facebook post the following day: “I had been sitting alone at a festival in a Burmese town called Myawaddy for less than 2 minutes when a dozen teenagers surrounded me and asked me questions in broken English. They took me by the arm and led me to their school where they introduced me to their teacher Mae Sein. She and her father spoke good English and were able to translate for the students and I. I was there for a few hours during which time we sang each other songs, talked about our cultural differences, and Mae Sein gave me this beautiful traditional Burmese skirt and top set. At the end of the night one of the students drove me back to my hotel on the back of his motorbike. Since my arrival in Myanmar 3 days ago, I’ve been inundated with incredibly kind, generous acts such as this. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to be in this country. Blog post coming soon!”

I had started to realize that what had seemed like extraordinary interactions were actually just the standard way that people treated me. It is worth noting that I probably got an extra dose of special treatment because I was a solo female traveller. Seeing a young white girl by herself is a very weird sight for most Burmese people and I guess they felt an obligation to take care of me. Sadly, I don’t believe that the way I was treated will be the norm for much longer. As more and more travellers pour into the country, the Burmese (like Thais) won’t be phased by seeing white people in their markets or walking down their streets. They won’t be eager to invite foreigners into their homes, or tell them their stories because they’ll see foreigners all the time. So go to Myanmar before everyone else goes to Myanmar.

In the days that followed my first night in Myawaddy, I travelled from this small border town to the capital city Yangon. I made my way south to a suburb called Thanlyin where I settled in at the ThaBarWa Meditation Centre for the next three weeks. Check it out: http://www.thabarwa.org
Imagine a neighbourhood with one main road and a small cluster of five storey buildings. There are big leafy trees casting scattered shade on the dusty main street and a vendor selling brightly coloured syrupy drinks. One of the buildings contains an admin office and a library, one is an unfinished hospital, and one is filled with dorm rooms for foreigners. As you walk down the street your surrounded on all sides by people and sounds. Pali* chanting is amplified through the neighbourhood at all hours of the day. At first this sound is eerie at night and distracting during the day but eventually it becomes an unnoticed background noise, or better; comforting and meditative. There are groups of kids playing, some of whom have shaved heads and monks robes. Motorbikes carrying entire families honk as they zigzag between people without slowing. Old men nap on benches in the shade. The fences are lined with posters of the Buddha with encouraging slogans about mindfulness. Dozens of dogs with open wounds and sagging body parts bark at each other ruthlessly. Plastic bags and candy wrappers line the ground but somehow there’s an air of order and calmness. It’s not the perfectly warm weather, or the gold pagodas* towering over the neighbourhood with pride that strike you. It’s the smiles and unwavering eye contact of the people you pass.


My alarm goes off at 4:45 am. I slip my hand out from under the mosquito net that hangs over my bed to tap ‘snooze’ on my iPhone screen. It’s still dark but there’s a blaring white light that shines through the window and helps me come to life at this ungodly hour. I put on loose cotton pants, a long-sleeve top, a hoodie, and a scarf. I brush my teeth, and I fasten my mosquito net up so that it’s out of the way. I do these things quietly to avoid waking the five sleeping girls who share the dorm room with me. By 5 am I’ve made my pilgrimage from the second floor to the fifth and am sitting cross legged in the meditation hall. The top floor of this newly developed building is a clean, bright hall designated for meditation and lessons for foreigners. The floor is covered in patterned plastic linoleum that reminds me of a kitchen from the 70s. The walls are painted sky blue and are lined with windows on all sides. There’s a gold Buddha shrine along the north wall that one should refrain from pointing her feet and bum towards.


After an hour of chasing our minds like wild horses we emerge from the meditation hall and stand outside it’s sliding glass doors. I share a few words with Sayalay Aloka* about this morning’s meditation and we converse about the Dhamma*. Sayalay Aloka is a young woman from Virginia who has been living in Myanmar as a Buddhist nun for four years. She welcomes my questions and knows the challenges to understanding Buddhism from a western perspective. She isn’t afraid to say she doesn’t know the answer to a question or that there isn’t an answer to a question. Without her, my understanding of Buddhism would be far shallower than it is. I can’t help but wonder what Sayalay Aloka would have been like five years ago before she shaved her head and dedicated her life to the pursuit of mindfulness. The sun rises over already bustling streets and smoky farmland that stretches out beyond.
I’ve come in the dry season and farmers have finished their harvests. Now they scrape together piles of dead foliage and garbage to burn. I still don’t completely understand why they do this. Perhaps it’s easier to burn the remnants of their crops than to pull it out of the ground? Or maybe it serves to replenish nutrients in the soil? It seems that their only options with garbage are to burn it or allow it to pile up on their land, because nobody comes to collect it.

Journals About Soro Sati and Company

1: When I arrived at ThaBarWa Meditation Centre there was a unique volunteer project underway. A group of travellers had began building a small house for a family in need. This Indian family of six had been living in a house with broken floorboards and scarcely existing walls, it was six feet wide by six feet long, and was raised only one foot above the ground. I was told that a foot of height is okay at this time of year when it’s dry but when the rainy season comes and the river plain floods, this little house will be swallowed. I went to offer my help to the building project but when I arrived I found that there were so many pairs of hands at work that I was only getting in the way. I offered moral support and took some photos with another traveller’s camera. There were hordes of little kids running barefoot around the construction site, and people on motor bikes stopped along the road to observe the excitement of the new project.


There was a baby who the travellers had nicknamed ‘The Grumpy Baby’. She sat on a dirty palm mat, naked except for an oversized t-shirt and she was given this nickname because anyone who tried to interact with her would receive a menacing glare. Her parents were nowhere to be seen and when the older kids tried to maneuver her she’d squirm and screech viciously. When left to herself, she sat still on the mat and gazed blankly into space. I walked over to her and held my water bottle out for her to drink. That was the first time she gave me that unwavering, dark, suspicious stare. I held my water bottle steady and I held her gaze. She hesitated as if unsure whether to trust me but she proceeded to drink the water. She drank all of it, and this made me happy. I sat beside her on the mat and didn’t interact with her again for some time. At some point she decided to stand up and walk so I held out my index finger for her to hold onto. Once again she was reluctant but accepted my offer. We walked a few steps together until her four year old brother ran up to her and tried to pick her up. She shrieked and wriggled out of his grasp then collapsed on the ground crying and rubbing her eyes. I reached out to her and this time she reached back. I had known she was in need of a nap from the first moment I saw her and within minutes she was fast asleep in my arms. After that day I would visit the new bamboo house as often as I could, usually in the heat of the mid afternoon when Soro Sati would need a nap.

2: I walk along the dusty streets toward the unfinished hospital who’s bare concrete bones stand tall with the promise of much needed facilities. I approach an Indian woman selling fried food across from the construction site. She sits beside an open three-foot-wide gutter and dips battered vegetables into a inch of bubbling yellow oil. When she notices me she smiles and yells ‘mingalaba!’ from across the street. This is a blessing in Burmese and is the common greeting. ‘Mingalaba! Soro Sati?’ I say and swing my arms back and forth as if rocking a baby. The woman nods enthusiastically, gets up and walks away. I wait on the corner and impulsively place my hands together and bow my head when nuns, monks or old people walk by. Modesty and respect are deeply valued in Burmese culture and this is evident in the toothless grin I receive from an old lady walking by with a burlap sack of root vegetables slung over her shoulder.

When the Indian woman returns she has the one year old Soro Sati in her arms and a young boy at her side. When Soro Sati is passed to me she’s neither happy to see me nor disturbed by leaving her mothers grasp. She stares into my soul with huge dark eyes and a furrowed brow. When I first met Soro Sati, I interpreted her ominous stare as suspicion and cynicism towards me. Now I see it as a kind of detachment that I’ve never witnessed in a young child. Like his baby sister, Tang Gala has beautiful big brown eyes but his are full of trust and joy when he looks into mine. He calls my name as he runs out from behind his mother to greet me. We fist bump and exchange hellos in Burmese and English. He’s learned some English in school but for the most part we communicate through sign language and tone of voice. It’s surprising how much we manage to communicate despite our lack of a shared language.


Today Tang Gala has something to show me. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a silver Hohner harmonica. He begins to play and I’m impressed by his musicality. Soro Sati rests her head on my shoulder as the three of us walk slowly in the afternoon heat. Tang Gala plays heartfelt melodies that always resolve on the root note with slow vibrato. When we reach their bamboo house we’re stormed by a tornado of kids. Among them are Chag Gala and Leche Mi, who complete the foursome of siblings who live here. Soro Sati has a dazed expression and flimsy limbs. I shush the kids and motion that it’s time for Soro Sati’s nap. The kids already know the drill so they bring a plastic chair into the shade beside the house. I sing and rock her until she falls asleep and then I sit down with the crowd of kids around me. They show me drawings they’ve done, or ask me to read terribly written English stories from their school books, they give me snacks and point at different things I’m wearing inquisitively.


3: Each time we visit, more cultural differences surface between us. Lately I’ve begun to notice that hitting isn’t against the rules for these kids. My friends and I used to hit each other when we were little and I think it’s normal. These kids are never told not to hit each other the way Me and my friends were. When I get stern and tell the kids that hitting is not okay, they don’t understand why it’s such a big deal. When they hit each other I say “gentle gentle” and pat their arm gently to show what I mean. It’s turned into a funny joke for them now. They tease me playfully and say “gentle, gentle” and laugh. I’d like to think that little by little it’ll sink in and they will actually be a bit more gentle with each other. But maybe not.

It began to make more sense when I noticed how common it is for adults to hit kids. Even in a playful or lighthearted way. The other day I was walking with the kids, carrying Soro Sati when we passed a young woman that the kids seemed to know. She and Tang Gala started talking and were motioning towards me. I smiled at the woman. She smiled back and then looked at the baby in my arms. She said something to Soro Sati that sounded aggressive yet playful and then slapped her across the face. It made a loud smack and Soro Sati flinched and whimpered. I could tell that it had hurt her. I was shocked and pulled Soro Sati away. The young woman seemed taken aback by my reaction and the kids and I walked away awkwardly. I don’t know, I guess it’s normal in Myanmar to hit someone else’s baby. Since this incident I’ve been noticing a lot of unnecessarily roughness towards children.

Even the kids’ mom hits them on a regular basis. When they hit each other, she hits them. The irony is almost too much to process. It seems so obvious to me that this is the wrong way to raise your children but when is all you know, it’s what you do. The kids’ mom, who’s name I forget, is an energetic woman who’s always smiling. She really is lovely and she’s so kind to me. She hugs me when I see her, and tells me over and over how much her kids love me. She puts her hand over her heart and points to the kids and points to me.

4: The more time I spend with these kids the more we knock down the language barrier and the more I feel like an important care giver to them. I’ve certainly become some kind of something important to Soro Sati. She still doesn’t smile very much but she seeks out my attention and she cries when I leave. Sometime’s I can get a chuckle out of her when I zerbert her tummy. Her smile is so sweet, I wish she would smile more often.
I feel like I’ve kindled a very personal friendship with each of these kids. I’m already thinking about the fact that I’m going to have to say goodbye to them soon. Chag Gala, the four year old boy puts his hands up for a high-ten and I pull mine out of the way just before he can hit them. We do this over and over again until he falls down laughing. He’s just the right size to swing around by his arms. Of course he loves this and makes me do it over and over again.

Leche Mi loves to tease me about “gentle, gentle” and reminds me of another little girl I know. She’s always looking for an opportunity to cuddle with me and she throws her head back in fits of inconsolable laughter. She’s a tough cookie and I can tell she’s full of verve for life. Tang Gala, where do I start? I wish we could understand each other because I get the feeling he would have a lot of things to say. I also get the feeling that few people really listen to him. He tries tirelessly to teach me words in Burmese that I could never hope to remember and asks me to do the same thing for him. He’ll point at something and tell me the word in Burmese and I’ll repeat it, then I’ll tell him what it is in English and he’ll repeat it. We’re both getting better with our pronunciation but aren’t able to remember many of the words we teach each other. He’s taught me to say “la dey” which means beautiful and is a really handy word when meeting people. The kids have also taught me to say “piaw la?” (are you happy?) and “piaw dey” (yes, I am happy).


Tang Gala has a lot of responsibility for an 11 year old, he takes care of his siblings far more than his parents do. There are always parents and other adults around in the village but they never seem to pay much attention to the kids. The kids could be punching each other, or be running barefoot on broken glass, or babies could be putting garbage in their mouths, and nobody seems to do anything about it. It drives me crazy.

5: Today I was getting ready to head back to my dorm from the kids’ house when Sayadaw (the head monk at the meditation centre) walked by with a group of monks, nuns, and visitors. I had never seen him in the village before, I’d only ever seen him sitting cross legged by his collection of Buddha statues in the admin office. As he walked by the village people scrambled to stand facing him side by side in a line. They placed the palms of their hands together as he passed. The kids and I did the same thing as the others. Sayadaw and his group of followers continued on walking very slowly and talking quietly amongst themselves. This experience really made me aware of the rift between the Sangha (community of monks and nuns etc) and the villagers. I don’t mean to paint Sayadaw ThaBarWa or the Sangha at his monastery in a negative light, after all the money they raise goes to feeding and housing 3000 needy people. But I can’t help my gut reaction to seeing dirt poor people line up and pray to a person because they’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time in silent meditation. Maybe I’ve been socially conditioned so that any kind of religious idolatry immediately puts my bullshit-radar in the red zone. Gut reaction noted, and in the folder for further contemplation.

6: Today was my last day at the ThaBarWa centre. I didn’t tell the kids that I intend on coming back later this month. I don’t know enough Burmese language to explain to them that I don’t have solid plans, but mostly I don’t want to risk disappointing them.

When I go to meet the kids I usually find them playing near the corner where their mother sells fried food and their father sits against the wall chewing betel nut*. Today when I got to the corner nobody was there so I continued on towards their house. I found them outside playing in the grass. We said our usual hellos and Soro Sati reached up to me. I picked her up and bounced her but she was more squirmy and inconsolable than usual. Tang Gala pointed to her and put his hand to his mouth and said “no”. At first I didn’t understand. They had never complained about being hungry before. I asked Tang Gala over and over again: “No food? No food?”, and over and over again he nodded. The four kids crowded around me with big concerned eyes and said “no money, no food”. I told myself it must have been a misunderstanding, I had a moment of denial followed by a moment of panic. I looked down at these four little faces. I felt the baby wriggle in my arms. I suddenly felt responsible for these kids when all I had signed up for was to be their friend. I felt the world closing in around me. I went into a downward spiral where I feared for my freedom and my future. Then I felt selfish and guilty. I was surrounded by hungry children and my instinct had been to worry for my own life.
In the span of less than a minute I watched myself descend into fear, guilt and delusion, and then return back to reality as if waking up from a nightmare. I asked Tang Gala where his parents were and he explained that his mom had gone to Yangon and then he pointed to his house and said “my father”.

Until today I hadn’t had any interactions with the kids’ dad. As I mentioned I would see him sitting behind his wife chewing betel nut when I went to pick up the children and that’s it. I had heard the house builders gossip about the father being lazy and negligent but I hadn’t witnessed it for myself so I had given him the benefit of the doubt. Until today.

The man must have heard Tang Gala and I talking because shortly after, he came out of the house adjusting his longi* and squinting in the sun. He smiled at me and I smiled back as I walked towards him. I said “No food?” and pointed to the kids. He pretended not to know what I was talking about. I could feel my smile fading fast. The father sat on the front steps and lit a cigarette, his eyes were full of sleep and his longi was barely on tight enough to conceal him. I continued to explain and sign that his children were hungry and he continued to pretend he didn’t understand me. I was full of disgust and contempt as I stared at him. I gathered up a gob of saliva in my mouth that I desperately wanted to spit in his face. I restrained myself. It wouldn’t have made him get a job or feed his children, and I don’t know what he would have done. But my expression made it perfectly clear that I was repulsed by him as he continued to smile lazily and feign ignorance. My fear and guilt had transformed into burning rage.

When I emerged from my blind hatred I found myself walking away from the house with the kids in tow. I didn’t know where I was taking them and I was overwhelmed. Out of habit we walked to the corner where we would usually meet their parents, which happens to be in front of a dining hall where monks, nuns and foreigners eat. Tang Gala motioned to the dining hall and I considered the possibility of taking them in to eat. I knew that usually they wouldn’t be allowed in this dining hall, I had often seen them peering in through the window waving at me and other foreigners having lunch. Meals are a meditative process for monks and nuns and I understand why they don’t allow neighbourhood children to disturb them. If you let one kid in you have to let all of them in, and it could easily become a chaotic free for all. I didn’t feel comfortable asking to bring the kids in to eat with me, but I also felt that I couldn’t let them go without a meal. Looking back I probably should have brought them to a restaurant, but since I had never eaten at a restaurant in the village, and I never carried cash on me, it didn’t even cross my mind.

I was sitting on the corner with the kids, stressed by the decision I had to make, when a woman emerged from the double doors of the dining hall. She was someone that I had often spoken to in English, and she worked in the dining hall. Me and my posse walked over to her and I explained the situation. I told her I was taking care of these kids and that they were hungry. I said I was sorry to ask her to make an exception to the rules. Tang Gala explained the situation in Burmese. She must have read my emotional distress because she nodded and smiled and said we could all come in.

A sea of bald monk heads turned when the five of us walked in. The room fell silent except for the kids foot steps and squeals of excitement. I could tell they felt like royalty walking into the dining hall and I couldn’t blame them. If I was accustomed to squatting on a palm mat around a communal pot of rice, I would feel like the queen of Versailles in a clean hall full of plastic chairs and fluorescent lighting. I couldn’t tell whether the stares I was getting from the monks and nuns were heart-warmed and encouraging, or irritated by their space being invaded. It can be hard to read the emotions of experienced meditators.


We were lead to a table where I sat Soro Sati on my lap and Chag Gala, the four year old boy, beside me. We were served bowl after bowl of different curries and the kids devoured their food. I fed Soro Sati with one hand and tried to keep Chag Gala in his seat with the other. The ladies who served us smiled sweetly at me and brought us plates of treats and fruit at the end of our meal. There was food all over the floor when we got up to leave and I tried to clean it up at least a little bit. The ladies said I shouldn’t bother and told me that I had done a good thing by bringing them. Indeed we were treated like royalty.


After lunch I was due to join a lesson in basic Buddhism in the foreigner’s building. I walked the kids back to their house feeling accomplished and happy that I had fed them, but solemn with the knowledge that all I had given them was a quick fix. I couldn’t give them a father that would take care of them, or a reliable source of food, or knowledge of basic hygiene, and much less could I give them the long term emotional support and affection that they’re hungry for. I’ve given them my attention for a few weeks but I can’t give them the opportunities that they deserve and it breaks my heart. I’ve imagined Tang Gala becoming a great musician one day, and I’ve imagined Leche Mi, and Soro Sati going to university, or travelling the world, or doing anything more than being dirt poor house wives. It brought tears to my eyes, and does once again as I write this.

7: After two weeks of travelling around Myanmar, I came back to ThaBarWa and visited the kids. They didn’t know that I would be coming back and they were so excited that they treated me like a resurrected saint. They hugged my legs and Tang Gala’s face lit up like a search light. It only occurred to me at this moment that I might be his first unattainable crush.

Today was one of the first times that I had witnessed all six family members together under their little roof. The mother invited me in and the father lay snoozing along one walls of the house. My rage towards him had mostly dissipated, but nonetheless I was happy not to interact with him. The rest of us sat knee to knee in their tiny house. The kids crowded around me and their mother and I struggled to communicate about my recent travels. She told me that they came to Myanmar from India when Tang Gala was small and that she has another son who lives there still. Then she asked me something that stunned me. She asked me if I would take her children to Canada with me. At first I didn’t understand her, like when the kids told me they were hungry, I couldn’t accept what I was hearing. First she asked about Soro Sati. The woman asked me if I would take her baby away to a foreign country!! What?! I was shocked and didn’t know how to answer. I explained that I was too young to have a baby, that I couldn’t possibly take her baby from her. Then she pointed to Tang Gala, and said “work” and did a hammer-swinging motion. She thought that perhaps if I wouldn’t take Soro Sati, I would take her eldest son because he could start working soon. The boy is 11. WHAT?!

After explaining that there was no way I could take any of her children back to Canada with me, the mother understood and brushed it off as if it had been no big deal. She and her kids hugged me and told me they loved me and asked when I would be coming back. I told them I didn’t know, maybe in ten years. I gave them my email address and it occurred to me only later that they don’t have access to the Internet (duh). Maybe one day they will, and maybe Tang Gala will hold onto that little piece of paper that I wrote my email on.
When I walked away from the house for the last time it felt like a scene from a movie. I turned back over and over to see the four kids and their mother standing in a clump out front of their house waving and blowing kisses at me. I smiled and blew kisses back. When I turned the corner and out of sight I burst into tears.

8: I’ve never felt the need to be rich. I have everything and more than I need in my life. But since meeting these kids I’ve dreamt of winning the lottery or becoming a CEO instead of a songwriter. If I was rich I would go back to Myanmar and pick up Soro Sati, and Tang Gala, and Leche Mi, and Chag Gala and take them travelling around the world. In reality my money would be put to better use by donating to Myanmar’s whole education system, but my own personal desire is to show these kids the world and give them the opportunities that I was given as a child.



*Pali: Ancient Indian language spoken in the Buddha’s time. Most Buddhist literature is written in Pali.

*Pagoda: A large bell-shaped shrine used for meditation or other Buddhist ritual. Many are painted gold, some are adorned with real gold and precious jewels, and some are said to hold relics of Siddhartha Gotama himself. There is a massive pagoda in downtown Yangon called Shwedagon Pagoda which is said to contain some of Siddhartha’s hair.

*Sayalay Aloka: ‘Sayalay’ means ‘nun’ and ‘Aloka’ means ‘light’.

*Longi: A longi is a simple piece of fabric sewed together at the ends to make a loop. Both men and women wear them wrapped tightly around their hips as a skirt. Men’s longis are usually made out of dark coloured dress shirt material and are tied in a knot at the front of their body, this knot is used as a pocket for money. Women’s longis are wrapped and tucked in on the side (the way you might wrap a towel around yourself). The fabrics used for women’s longis can be simple but are often hand woven with intricate patterns and beautiful bright colours.

*Betel nut: A bright red nut that is chopped into pieces and wrapped in a leaf along with a number of other plants, sometimes including tobacco. This little leaf wrap is chewed all day long by almost all men and most older women. I’ve heard it causes an awesome head rush. This addiction has a few unfortunate side effects. First of all, the streets everywhere in Myanmar are covered in bright red betel nut spit. Secondly, it’s pretty gross being spit on accidentally. It’s happened to me more than once (one time in the back of a moving pick up truck when the driver spat out the window). The third and most unfortunate symptom of the betel nut is that at least half the population of Myanmar has dyed red, rotten, and missing teeth. Teeth brushing doesn’t seem to be within most people’s realm of awareness or budget.


It’s Always Better When We’re Together

This blog post is way overdue and I’m overflowing with stories to tell. I’ve been living in the moment these past few weeks and have been enjoying taking a break from documenting everything. Partly because I want to keep some things for myself. Not that this blog isn’t for myself, this blog’s purpose includes keeping my family and friends updated on my travels, but mostly it’s for my future self to look back on. It’s my incentive to write my thoughts with some clarity rather than the nonsensical notes and lyrics that fill my notes app. So I guess what I mean by “keep some thinks for myself” is keep some things for my present self. Some things for the current me to experience and then let go of and forget. Sometimes it’s nice to know that what I’m doing in a certain moment won’t be remembered, that it will blend into the past and become one indecipherable tile in the mosaic that will be this trip. That forgotten moment is owned exclusively by the me that experienced it. My future me won’t be able to sneak in a few years down the road and spy on it. And so along with saving invaluable lasting memories, I kiss many days goodbye into the past. And now to recap the past few weeks:

After Kuala Lumpur, Marisa and I went to Taman Negara which is the largest national park in Malaysia and supposedly home to some of the oldest jungle in the world. We spent three hours motoring up a river in a speed boat to get to a small town called Kuala Tahan which is built at a fork in the river and the entrance to the park. The river was brown with silt and entrenched by walls of impenetrable foliage the likes of which I had never seen. We had seen some jungle in Indonesia but the trees here were bigger and the forest was thicker and a more vibrant green. In Kuala Tahan there were three floating restaurants that lined the shore of the river, a few hostels, and not much else. The food was awful and over priced and when we pointed out hairs in our noodles to our server, he gave us a look like: “What’s the big deal?”, and “the word ‘discount’ is not in my vocabulary”. We hadn’t come to the middle of the jungle for world class food and the service of course so we sucked it up. What we had come for was the wildlife so we did two guided tours and took ourselves for a long jungle walk. The first was a jungle night walk which we did in a group of about ten people with a guide. We spotted a tiny fruit bat, a giant stripped spider, and even more giant centipede, stick bugs, grasshoppers, glow in the dark hallucinogenic mushrooms (which I restrained myself from picking), lizards, and scorpions. The cherry on top was sighting a large mammal that looked like a cross between a cow and an anteater called a tapir, which I had never heard of before. It had wandered into a village of bungalows and was eating a pile of discarded watermelon rinds that the restaurant had left out in case such a beast should walk by. This strange animal became more and more strange by the minute. As we watched it eat, we noticed it’s penis growing. It grew until it was three feet long, touching the ground and pronged at the end. If you’re curious just google image search “tapir penis”, I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed. 

Our second guided tour was a speed boat ride away from Kuala Tahan. We went up stream for about 15 minutes and stopped at a small sand bank along the river. For us this was a portal into ancient history, and for the people we had come to see it was their only connection on to the outside world. We had arrived at the edge of an ‘Orang Asli’ village which means ‘first people’ in Malay. There are still about 20 largely untouched nomadic jungle tribes in Malaysia and we had the opportunity to visit one. The villagers don’t speak English or Malay and most of them have never left the jungle. A villager would only leave in the event of an extreme medical emergency, and that doesn’t include childbirth. Everything they eat they hunt or gather themselves except for a small amount of rice which they pay for with money they get from tours like ours. Their diet consists mainly of monkey meat which they hunt using poisoned darts that are shot from the end of a bamboo blow-horn with their mouth. The poison (a certain tree’s sap) only serves to paralyze the animal for about an hour, in which time the hunters fetch it and kill it. The most desired part of the monkey is their brains. Real life Indiana Jones shit. What’s more, before a boy is allowed to marry he is sent into the jungle, naked, and without any tools for one month. He must build his own house and tools and fire, hunt his own meat, and defend himself against predators. When he returns to his village, he’s considered a man and a bona fide hunter. The women are primarily baby makers as per usual but also have the task of catching fish in the murky river, which they do with their bare hands. All of this information was told to us by our tour guide who had spent months living with these Orang Asli people, learning their specific, unique language and about their culture. It was weird not being able to communicate with the villagers directly. It felt a bit like we had come to observe them like zoo animals which made me uncomfortable and I avoided staring at them even though I wanted to take in their every move. They had dark skin and afros and looked African but were short and thin and muscular. They lived in little houses made of palm tree leaves and almost everything in sight had been made by hand except for the large blue tarp hanging over the tourist area and the villagers clothing. We were told that their clothing had been made of leaves and tree bark until the 70s when they first made contact with the outside world. We got to try out a blow horn by aiming it at a filthy teddy bear crucified on a piece of bamboo. It was surprisingly easy to aim. We watched a villager make a fire with a piece of wood and a dry vine in about three minutes, we learned how to say ‘thank you’ in their language (which I now forget) which was awkward. Then our guide shared some cigarettes with the village men, and we left. It was all very weird to be honest. I’m happy to have seen it and to have learned a few things, but I felt like I was invading their privacy and spoiling the untouched-ness of their culture. 

From Taman Negara we hopped over to another nature sightseeing destination called the Cameron Highlands. It’s high in the misty jungle mountains (hence the name) and because of its relatively cool and constant weather it’s an agricultural hub for crops like tea and strawberries. The weather changes on a dime from warm sun to cold rain but doesn’t fluctuate much seasonally I was told. One evening we had to layer up with sweaters and raincoats and we felt like we were home in Vancouver. The fresh cool air was appreciated. We tried to walk around and see things ourselves but it proved difficult unless we were on a guided tour so that’s what we did. First we went to a view point of a tea plantation where we feasted our eyes on rolling hills of neon green fields veined with thin winding walkways between the rows, white clouds that touched the ground, and misty rain. This was followed by a tour of the tea processing factory where they turn those impossibly green leaves into run of the mill brown tea bags. Then we went to a “butterfly farm” which wasn’t really a farm but a closed in garden filled with butterflies that tourists could come and take photos of. There were also a number of other insects and small reptiles in cages, including giant spiders and venomous snakes. We also visited a farm that grew strawberries, a Chinese Buddhist temple, and a mountain viewpoint where unfortunately we saw nothing but fog. Our guide assured us that the view was really nice. The last thing we were meant to do on the tour was a walk through the mossy forest, which we were most looking forward to, but sadly the Mossy Forest was closed for clean up. Our guide told us that the Mossy Forest gets so filled with garbage that they have to close it for a month every year to clean it up. He also said that the majority of the people who do the littering are Malaysians. Littering is accepted in their culture and despite signs and garbage cans, it doesn’t seem to sink in that it’s not okay to throw your pop can into this pristine forest. Gross. We enjoyed our outdoor activities in Taman Negara and the Cameron Highlands but we were ready for some more action and freedom and were sick of the overpriced, shitty food with hair in it. 

How appropriate that our next destination was Georgetown on the small west-coast island of Penang, because it’s widely known for having the best food in Malaysia. We were not disappointed. We stayed in the thick of the street-food mecca and relished in all of the cheap delicious food. One of our favourites was a bowl of egg noodles in sweet soy sauce with sliced pork, dumplings, greens and pickled hot peppers. We also liked the food on a stick stand where you stand around the display of meats and vegetables on sticks and boil one item at a time in a communal pot of boiling water. There was also an abundance of delicious Indian food restaurants which we frequented. Georgetown was charming and had a bustling city vibe but wasn’t as hectic as Kuala Lumper and was more walking friendly. Although most of the beaches were polluted and not very pretty the sea breeze was nice and Georgetown felt home-y to me. We spent most days walking aimlessly and eating everything. We came across an art market on a skinny side street and bought a few hand made beauties. We learned that there was a big national park on the other side of Penang so we planned to go for a hike. We took a city bus for an hour to the beginning of a trail and did an hour and a half long trek through the jungle and emerged on a beautiful empty beach. Clouds rolled in overhead and we didn’t want to get soaked so we made our way back. We were dry for the entire hike and as we exited the trees it began to pour. We made it back to Georgetown in time for the ladies happy hour at our local reggae bar (there’s always a reggae bar) where we got some free highballs. 

Another notable thing that happened in Georgetown was witnessing a verbal assault between two locals. I was having a shower before bed when I heard a woman’s voice scream bloody murder a few meters away. It was the kind of scream that makes you think you’re hearing someone get raped or murdered. My heart was instantly racing and I threw my clothes on still drenched, and ran downstairs to the lobby of our hotel. There were a few other people who seemed concerned so I asked around if anyone had seen anything. The screams continued and another guest at the hotel explained to me that the woman screaming was the hotel desk clerks girlfriend. Apparently she was on drugs and had just discovered that she had been cheated on. I could hear her shrieking out the back door of the hotel but I didn’t hear the man raise his voice. There were a few hotel employees roaming around who were aware of the altercation but weren’t getting involved. Ten minutes went by and she kept screaming. I didn’t know what to do. I was on edge and knew I wasn’t going to sleep through the screams, I also knew that if this scenario were to occur in Canada the thing to do would be to call the cops, so I did. That was when I discovered that cops in Asia generally aren’t interested in helping people unless they have cash to blow. When I finally got on the line with a dispatcher (after much struggling with the hotel phone), I told her the hotel address and that there was a potentially violent situation involving drugs arising. First she told me she didn’t know where the address was, which was bull because I gave her a major intersection, then she asked me to explain the problem, then she put me on hold, then she told me she didn’t know where the address was again. When I got off the phone, a hotel employee could see that I was upset. He told me that there was nothing I could do unless I was going to bribe the cops. Then he said I should go to bed. The screams eventually dyed off after 45 minutes and I fell asleep. It was a weird night. 

After Georgetown Marisa and I parted ways for about 10 days. She went to Langkawi and met up with some friends we had made, and I flew to Bangkok to stay with an old family friend Drew and his lovely girlfriend Lisa who I hadn’t met. Shortly after I arrived at their stunning apartment, we were joined by my step dad Toby who had been travelling in Japan and made a detour to visit us before flying back to Canada. Bangkok is an absolute zoo. The traffic is atrocious, the wiring looks like a series of massive hair balls that hang low over the sidewalks, and you can feel the pollution sting your nostrils. But the food is unbelievable, the architecture is striking, and the street style is classy. After four days in Bangkok I hardly got a grip of the geography of the city. It was a whirlwind of excursions that Drew organized. Drew has lived there for 5 years and is one of the only white guys on earth who speaks Thai, so he was a great tour guide. We went to a temple with a massive gold reclining Buddha statue surrounded by courtyards filled with all kinds of sparkly things. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many bedazzled items in my life. Then we did a boat tour through the ancient canals of Bangkok and witnessed the conditions in which most Thais actually live. There were houses built on stilts in the river with pieces of floor board sagging into the water, umbrellas and tarps tied up to keep the rain out, and little naked kids swimming in the polluted river. I’ve become somewhat desensitized to witnessing poverty over the past few months. Even the most impoverished people that I’ve seen still seem to have jobs and food and a basic education. As far as I can tell they don’t think they’re poor, they just think we’re stinking rich. 

A major highlight of our time in Bangkok was seeing the new Star Wars movie. I didn’t realize this at the time but we got to see it two days before in came out in North America. I’m not sure how Thailand gets away with this but we enjoyed having social media bragging rights in advance. The movie itself was awesome. I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it yet but I loved how it payed tribute to the old movies while introducing new characters and conflicts to be excited about. 

Toby and I flew from Bangkok to an island called Koh Samui and took a boat from there to a smaller island called Koh Phangan where we stayed in a small fishing village called Chaloklum on the north coast. We had two little beach front bungalows side by side and we played card games on our front porches in the evening. We went for long walks, ate lots of barbecued whole fishes, and talked about Star Wars. One day we rented a motor bike a went to a beach where there’s a long strip of sand that connects to a little island. The sand bank was a few feet below the water so it looked like people were walking on water. Everything was perfect until I got food poisoning from chicken that I can only assume was left out too long. I’ll spare you the graphic details but just trust me when I say I was brutally sick. Toby took me to the hospital and was a total champ with everything from motivating me to get up off the bathroom floor, to dealing with my insurance, to keeping me company for the 48 hours I spent in the hospital. These were the last two days we had together and he had to go catch his flight home. Toby was reluctant to leave me but I assured him that I would be okay on my own for a few hours before Marisa came to meet me. I was very weak and didn’t have much of an appetite for almost a week after the food poisoning. I’m back to my old self now but avoiding chicken altogether because it wouldn’t feel right to eat it. The scary thing about food poisoning is that you don’t realize you’re poisoning yourself while you’re eating. I’d like to say I’ll be more careful but there’s nothing to be done to avoid it.

Since Marisa got to Koh Phangan we’ve mostly been lying in the sun. On Christmas we went to the full moon party which Koh Phangan is famous for. It was essentially a massive rave on the beach that goes all night. We didn’t have the stamina to stay until sunrise though because I was weak from my food poisoning and Marisa had an ear infection. We were on our way to grab a cab back to our secluded beach bungalow when we passed a clinic. We stopped in because Marisa wanted to get her ear checked out. The clinic was empty at first but Marisa had only gotten half way through her appointment when a deliriously drunk girl was carried in. The clinic was under staffed so we were asked to wait. The girl was promptly given a bowl to barf in and an iv. For the next two hours, there was one emergency after another including a girl wailing with a broken foot, another victim of alcohol poisoning, and a guy with a stab wound. A friend of the guy who got stabbed stood outside the doorway of the room we were in. We was jacked to the maximum, perhaps due to steroids, he was shirtless and covered in neon paint. He sobbed quietly to himself as he watched the nurses rush around saying “hey wake up, stay with us”, and slapping the face of his bleeding friend who was losing consciousness. It broke my heart. Finally after much sobering up and gratitude that we were only there for an ear infection, we managed to get Marisa’s medication and get a cab out of there. 

Well, I have many more memories of Koh Phangan but I’m going to keep them for my present self. Some will be harder to let go of than others. 


P.s. Today is Marisa’s 20th birthday! Cheers to this lovely girl leaving teen-hood behind with grace, an adventurous spirit, and a sense of humour. Xo

Kuala Lumpur

We spent our last night in Indonesia in Jakarta before flying to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Jakarta was shocking. We took a train from Yogyakarta (Jogjakarta in Bahasa Indonesia) to the centre of Jakarta and walked to our homestay from there. This turned out to be a mistake because although the homestay was a short distance away (we selected it for this reason to avoid cab fare), the streets in Jakarta are vaguely marked if at all, and streets that seem to connect to one another don’t necessarily. We walked for an hour and a half asking people if they spoke English and if they could point us in the direction of our homestay. The stares that make us feel famous, the waving and grabbing for our attention, and the constant hustling are exhausting at the best of times but especially when you’re carrying a 22 pound backpack. Though challenging, this walk was not devoid of sights. We witnessed a side of Indonesia that we hadn’t yet seen, which was the over-populated scramble of big city life. There were cats, dogs, chickens, colourful songbirds, monkeys, and mammals we didn’t recognize layered one on top of another in brutally small cages wedged between racing traffic on one side and chain smoking sales men on the other. Dozens of types of fish and tiny turtles in buckets, piles of miscellaneous clothing, and kitchen ware displayed on a sidewalk that would disappear into a six-foot-deep hole into the gutter. Scooters drove by with greasy, white chickens hanging upside down from the seat and handlebars. They were barely alive, but alive in what I can only imagine as a living hell. Tarps hung low over this shockingly foreign scene to protect against the daily downpour that arrives without warning. We collapsed onto our homestay beds and averted our eyes from the world until our flight to KL the next morning.

Kuala Lumpur was like a breath of fresh air. We stepped off the plane and into international arrivals where there was clear signage and quick service and an express train straight to KL central. From there we went one stop on the LRT, which looks and sounds eerily like the skytrain in Vancouver, to Pasar Seni Station in the heart of chinatown. It was a five minute walk lined with red lanterns to our hostel. We passed a dozen food stalls, tents housing knock-off Prada bags, a 7-eleven, and a handful of hostels and budget hotels. For a week, this neighbourhood was our home. Since then we’ve been to Taman Negara National Park to trek though what is reputed as the oldest rainforest on earth, and now we’re in the Cameron highlands. As fresh memories of KL pour out of me, I will do my best to capture them. 

Our first two days in KL were spent walking around aimlessly, getting henna tattoos, and eating food. Oh my Lord, the food glorious food. Malaysia is primarily made up of three ethnicities; Malay, Chinese, and Indian, and the food in KL demonstrates this diversity. Besides the obvious culprit of deliciously saucy Chinese food, we ate quite a bit of ‘mamak’ which is a Malay take on Indian food. It consists of spicy curries with meat and veggies, steamed rice, and different flavoured small baked breads. It’s really tasty, filling, and can be bought for next to nothing at roadside stalls. There’s also the very basic buffet style restaurants that serve a pile of steamed rice, your choice of saucy green vegetables, fried chicken legs and whole fish(es?), hot sauce, peanuts and fresh cucumber. I’m not sure what to call this style, it’s similar to mamak but leans more towards Chinese food than Indian. It’s also cheap and delicious and basically all we ate in Indonesia. Besides the rice, it’s often served cold so we tend to go for vegetarian. There are also all of the fast food chains but we stayed clear of those except for one impulsive moment of weakness when we got pizza from Papa John’s. In Chinatown there were street stalls that had displays of un-cooked meats and vegetables on sticks that you pick out and they barbecue to your specifications. Then you sit down with three kinds of barbecue sauce and dip to your hearts content. I got broccoli, corn on the cob, stringy mushrooms wrapped in pork, and sweet bean curd, and asked for them spicy. Marisa and I have similarly large appetites and despite any activities we have planned, most of our time (and money) is spent bouncing from one food stall to the next. 

The ethnic and religious diversity of KL is evident for many reasons besides the variety of foods. In our neighbourhood we saw women in traditional Indian saris, in average western clothes, four-foot-tall Chinese ladies with hundreds of plastic bags wearing children’s t-shirts with weird English slogans, women in full niqabs and their husbands with those little hats, clean cut Chinese business men, a few Africans, vacationing families, and backpackers like us. The street fashion in KL was a notable thing to witness. Although nothing compared to the glamour of Paris, or the coolness factor of New York, KL has a unique fashion sense that embraces both traditional values and urban life. The way that people express their personal style through the lens of their religion and culture was fascinating. 

We went to little India one day to get henna tattoos and ended up in an upstairs salon that specialized in preparing a bride for a traditional Indian wedding. This means hair, makeup, nails, henna, and jewelry blinged to the maximum. All gold everything. We got henna on our hands and talked to the three women working at the salon. They didn’t speak much English but they were friendly and giggled non stop and were curious about us. They told us they were Sikh and that most Indian-Malaysians in KL were as well. They asked us what religion Canadians are (a question that we get often), and our long winded answer was probably more confusing than anything. We said that people can be any religion they choose, and of course they wondered which one we were. We answered we didn’t have one and this seemed like a foreign concept to them. In any case, these gals wore generic western clothes but had small red bindis, henna tattoos and dyed finger nails, and they wore intricate gold jewelry. As we walked through little India we saw a lot of women with this kind of style, but we also saw beautiful colourful saris and chiffon scarves draped loosely over long black hair. It’s also common to see Indian women without a trace of the traditional aesthetic. 

The same broad scope of different dress can be seen among Muslim women. There are women who wear jeans and a t-shirt with a hijab (head scarf that shows the whole face), there are women who wear floor length black gowns and niqabs (head covering that reveals only eyes), and there’s everything in between. We didn’t see anyone in a full burqa (with eyes covered), I think that mostly exists in Saudi Arabia and maybe elsewhere in the Middle East, not so much in Asia. Sometimes the women wearing niqabs and floor length black robes are also decked out in designer bags, huge sunglasses and high heels. I thought that was interesting. I would guess that there are also Muslim women who don’t wear head coverings at all, but in these cases I wouldn’t know they’re Muslim. However, most women with dark skin wore some sign of their religious/cultural background. To what extent traditional dress is mandatory, I don’t know. I would assume that it depends on each individual’s family and religious practices. Lighter-skinned Asians, who were for the most part ethnically Chinese, didn’t wear any traditional attire that I could detect. I was told that nowadays, inter-racial relationships are becoming more common. As a result there is sure to be a generation of people on the way who will not be as ethnically distinguishable as their parents. 

When I try to think back on all of the outfits I saw, one young woman keeps coming to mind. I walked past her in a crowded market and we made eye contact, then we both turned around to look back at each other as we walked in opposite directions. She was wearing a floor length, black chiffon dress with a bright floral print, a turquoise hijab adorned with one, if not several, sparkly broaches, and very high heels. She had a dark complexion, thick eyebrows, long eye lashes and black eyeliner. She looked like an orchid and I still regret not having asked her if I could take a picture of her.

I attended a crew run one night in KL. The “crew run” is a fairly new phenomenon and is growing in cities all over the world. I am a fan of the crew run. They’re fun, motivating, free, and a great way of meeting people and exploring new landscapes (cityscapes) even in your home town. This group was called ‘Kyserun Krew’, and was attended by about seventy people. I found the group online and was offered a ride from a runner to the meet up spot (which was way too far from an LRT stop for me to get to myself). His name was Zul, he spoke impeccable English, and he picked me up in a nice car (I’m car blind so even at the time I wouldn’t have been aware of the kind of car I was in, but I knew it was nice). We talked about our education and the differences between our countries and Zul told me that he had gone to boarding school in the UK and university in the US. When I got to the meet up spot and started talking to the other runners, I was surprised to find that a lot of them spoke English as well as Zul, and had done their studies abroad as well. I guess the run is only accessible by car, which makes it only accessible to people with money who can also afford to go to school abroad. Or maybe it’s that people with money have more time to run. Probably both. It was the first time since I got to Asia that I didn’t feel rich compared to the locals around me.

 The runners were shocked that I was a backpacker and had just found their crew online. They were so welcoming, and curious about me, and by the time we were running it felt like everyone knew my name. We did a 3 km warm up run through a quiet, expensive suburb then stretched at the bottom of a steep hill. Then we broke up into groups of about eight and did sprints up the hill and slow jogs back down. I’m not sure how many times we did this but it must have been at least ten. It was a great work out and I was motivated by the dozens of people encouraging me by name “go Chloë, you can do it!”. The air was thick with moisture but it was relatively cool because of the afternoon rain. As we ran back to the starting point a young guy told me he thought it was too cold out, with my sweat-drenched, lobster-red face I answered that I respectfully disagreed. 

After the run about fifteen of us went for dinner at an outdoor food court and I inhaled some rice, fried egg, and spicy veggies. We talked about how challenging the hill climbs had been, we exchanged Instagram handles, and they gave me suggestions on things to check out in KL. When we left it was after midnight and Zul drove me back to my hostel, and I told him that if I came back to KL (which I intend to do some day) I’d definitely hit him up. I had such a nice time and I got a better gauge on life in KL than over the rest of my week there combined.

To return to the theme of street style, the attire at the run was almost identical to what you’d see at a crew run in North America. Nike and Adidas, Bridge The Gap t-shirts, Ciele caps, even their Kyserun Krew t-shirts had white block letters that reminded me of the font used by Bridge Runners in New York City. It was a reminder that although cities still have their uniqueness, the world is becoming homogenized quickly. I think it’s a good time to be travelling. The only difference in attire between the Kyserun Krew and the Parkdale Roadrunners, my home crew, is that most of the women here wore a hijab to run. They must have been so hot! I guess you get used to it. 

Evidence of multiculturalism is present in the food, the clothing, and most explicitly in the mosques, churches, Buddhist temples, and Taoist temples all within a few hundred meters of each other. We visited a handful of religious buildings in and around KL including the National Mosque and the Batu Caves Temple. The National Mosque, also known as Masjid Negara, was a fifteen minute walk along a pedestrian walkway from our hostel. It’s a new, shiny white building with high ceilings and a blue roof shaped like the jagged edge of a Chinese paper fan. To get inside we had to take off our shoes and wear long purple robes and a bedazzled black hijab. We got there ten minutes before a prayer session, when all visitors have to leave, so we slipped our robes on quickly and I forgot to remove my backpack. I looked like a hunchback and it resulted in some ridiculous photos that are now on Facebook (thanks Marisa) and some stifled laughter. The inside of the mosque was pristine and mostly empty. This is something that I’ve noticed everywhere we’ve been so far, that places of worship are usually not very well attended except by tourists. We walked around and took photos of the beautiful stained glass and chandeliers in the prayer room, the white marble and blue fountains, and definitely a few selfies of us in these outfits that we had seen so often but never worn. We tore them off when we returned to the entrance because we were suffocating with heat. Once again I wondered how people do it. 

The Batu Caves are a collection of huge naturally occurring caves that are accessible by LRT from KL. One of the caves is known as the ‘Batu Cave Temple’ and has been accessorized with small Hindu statues inside, and a 40 meter tall gold statue out front. There are also 270 steps leading up to the entrance of the cave, but the cave itself was the most impressive part. It had a high ceiling like a cathedral and holes that allowed white light and streams of water to pour in. It really was majestic and I can understand why it became a place of worship. 

KL was not much when it comes to night life but we stumbled upon a lucky spot. Marisa, me, and two other girls we met in our hostel went to a classy bar called SkyBar. It was on the top floor of a hotel on KLCC park across from the Petronas Towers, it had a stellar skyline view, and a pool in the middle of the floor. The only reason we were able to afford it was because it was ladies night, which means free sickly sweet sangria and daiquiris until 11. So we drank sickly sweet sangria and daiquiris until 11 then left without spending a penny. We ran back to the LRT to catch the last train and I remember laughing and shouting “hi, my name’s Chloë and I’m from Canada!” at people we passed. I’ve said those words so many times since I got here that it just seemed like the right thing to say. People must have thought I was crazy. We got back to Chinatown, ate fried rice, and passed out. 

Ladies and gentlemen that was my week in Kuala Lumpur! 


The Komodo Boat Trip (Facing Fears)

For as long as I can remember, the thought of deep water, sharks, tidal waves, shipwrecks, and any large objects in or on the water would fill me with nausea and run shivers up my spine. Even though I have little experience with these things they appear in my nightmares and have caused me anxiety in oceans, lakes and even the deep end in pools. I know it’s ridiculous and yes I’m embarrassed. This may come as some surprise to people who know me well because I’ve also always loved swimming. As a little kid I remember working hard not to allow these irrational fears to keep me from enjoying the water. I rarely talk about my fears while I’m swimming or on the beach because it causes me more anxiety. When people say “it’s not that deep” or “nothing is going to hurt you”, it doesn’t help me feel better despite their best intentions. This kind of encouragement generally puts more images of deep water and things that could hurt me in my mind. It’s much easier to deal with my own inner dialogue of “think about something else, keep your breath calm, look at the beautiful sky…”. I’m far more likely to tell people about my nightmares of being next to a large tanker or on the beach in front of a slow-motion tsunami than to bring up my fears while in the water. Even when I’m thoroughly enjoying a swim there’s usually a little terrified person in the back of my head saying “there’s a shark behind you” or flashing images of the Titanic (afloat, sinking or sunk) in my minds eye. Usually I can talk myself out of these awful thoughts, but sometimes they send me dog paddling frantically back to the edge. However, I’m always up for a swim and will usually stay in until I’m a human raisin. I think part of the reason I like swimming so much is the thrill. I constantly have to talk myself down and remind myself to be rational. My reaction to water is unpredictable, and it’s sort of exciting toying with my own fear. Is that a bit sadistic?
When preparing to depart for Asia there were a number of safety considerations on my mind including accessibility to medical treatment, political situations and level of safety for travellers, and seasonal/environmental changes and their effect on transport. The last of these three was the most nerve wracking consideration for me. We arrived in Indonesia at the tail end of their dry season and monsoon is now upon us (although according to locals it’s come later and lighter than usual leaving the soil dry and wild fires raging). Along with monsoon season comes torrential downpours, high winds and rough seas. Indonesia is a country of seventeen thousand islands so I knew that we’d be doing a considerable amount of boat travel. This thought made my guts churn, especially since everything I had read told me that safety precautions were non-existent on many boats. I imagined getting tossed around by a storm in a rickety boat with no life jackets and a driver that doesn’t speak a word of English. Of course in my imagination there would be sharks circling too. Hungry sharks that could smell fear. But Marisa and I were blessed with perfect weather on our travel days that involved quick journeys from port to port. 
At first when the four day boat trip crossed our minds, I was reluctant. We had witnessed our first monsoon downpour and it was every bit as dramatic as I was expecting. Neither of us were thrilled by the idea of being stuck on a boat in the pouring rain but Komodo Island had been on our to-do-list from the beginning and we were determined to make it work. We explored land transport options involving a 24 hour bus ride that easily would have been more dangerous than a boat. The traffic here is atrocious and often includes playing chicken (driving straight towards another car) until either vehicle manages to squeeze out of the lane and into a swarm of scooters just in time. We ended up taking our chances with the boat trip. 

There were eleven passengers in total, all of whom were European besides Marisa and I. We asked each other obvious questions over our first supper of steamed rice, instant noodles with added vegetables, and gado gado, an Indonesian staple that consists of stir fried sprouts and vegetables with sweet peanut sauce. We would continue to eat slight variations of this meal for lunch and dinner for the next four days but it didn’t bother us because we’d be ravenous after swimming and trekking each day and although simple, the food was pretty good. We certainly had to stretch our comfort zones in some ways though; the toilet was nothing more than a hole into the ocean. The ship was no luxury cruise but it was fairly clean and comfortable. We anchored far from the shore to eat supper and watch the sunset over the North coast of West Nusa Tenggara. Come nightfall on that first night we were well on our way to kindling friendships with our fellow shipmates and getting accustomed to life at sea. When it had gotten dark, a Swiss woman named Janine peered over the edge of the boat and pointed out that the water was sparkling. We were surrounded by green bioluminescent plankton. We swooshed the rope that anchored our ship and poured drops of our precious drinking water into the ocean to see it glow. Janine suggested a swim and I was instantly torn down the middle. Carly from England agreed to join her and I mustered up the courage to go in. It was the deepest water I had ever swam in for sure, it was pitch black (except for the plankton), and I was beside a fairly big boat. Had someone told me that I’d be doing this two weeks earlier I wouldn’t have believed them. Getting in and out were the most anxiety causing, I’m not sure why, but the rest of the experience was nothing shy of magical. My heart raced and I tried to slow my breath with each exhale. Green fairy dust sparkled all around me. When I got back on board I was buzzing with accomplishment and wonderment at the strange piece of nature I had just witnessed. It was a feeling that I would experience over and over again on that trip. 

I am debating how to continue this post. If I were to do justice to every extraordinary experience I had over those four days, I’d have to write a novel. 

The passengers slept on an upper deck with open sides and a four foot high tarp ceiling. Our mats were quite comfortable and we had more than enough space because our boat was below capacity. We travelled over night the first night and it was a bumpy ride. I fell asleep without much trouble but I woke up in the middle of the night swaying back and forth wildly and I could hear what I thought was pounding rain. This was the moment of terror that I had anticipated. This was the moment that hungry sharks would rise to the surface. I leaned out the open sided sleeping deck and looked up at the sky expecting to find myself in the midst of Poseidon’s wrath. To my surprise there was not a single cloud in the sky but rather billions of the most spectacular stars I’ve ever seen. The rain sound that I’d heard was our ship’s flag flapping in the wind. I recognized the massive stripe of stars painted across the sky as the Milky Way. I climbed onto the highest deck beside a crew member who didn’t speak a word of English. He smiled then got up and turned off the ship’s light for me.

Over the next few days we stopped at a number of snorkelling spots. The boat would anchor as close to the shore as possible and we would jump off into the water. Usually it would be about 10 meters deep and too murky to see the bottom. To my own surprise, the depth didn’t bother me much as long as I was near other people. We’d swim towards the shore until the bottom became visible. Before long the vibrant coral would rise up to meet us. Snorkelling has been yet another overwhelmingly beautiful and and also stressful experience. I had done it once before coming to Asia, it was in BC on a school trip and we mostly observed dark coloured sea weed, a few fish, crabs and star fish. We were in a big group, we didn’t go very deep, and I don’t remember being anxious that day. It was a cool experience but nothing compared to the sights I’ve seen in Asia. Marisa and I snorkelled on the Gili islands before our boat trip and I battled some fairly severe anxiety. Water deeper than two meters, boats and buoys made my heart pound. I realized that metal or concrete objects were what bothered me the most. I don’t like seeing large objects that don’t naturally occur in the sea. I wasn’t as bothered by huge rocks or growths of coral, but pieces of concrete or metal, or old piping made me feel sick. There’s a name for this kind of fear and it’s ‘Submechanophobia’: the fear of submerged man-made objects. There was one instance when I had no choice but to swim over a tangle of iron bars about six feet by six feet wide and a foot thick. I began hyperventilating and almost cried. I managed to do it because Marisa talked it through with me and swam beside me. I stayed within a few feet of her the entire time I was in the water on that first day. It must have been annoying and I apologized. Marisa assured me that it was okay and that she would stay close to me. We had a system of pointing in different directions and doing a thumbs up or thumbs down depending on my comfort level. We put our feet down on sandy areas and checked in above water on a regular basis. She was so patient and supportive and I think it’s a big reason why I’ve made such progress with my fear over the past few weeks. When my mom and Marisa’s dad dropped us off at the airport in Vancouver, the last thing my mom said to us was “take care of each other”, and I always knew that we would. That first snorkelling day reminded me of how lucky I am to have Marisa as a friend and travel buddy. 

Since then I’ve become increasingly more fearless with each snorkelling day. By the end of the boat trip I felt totally confident in the water and the sights were well worth the effort of facing my fears. The abundance of fish and coral was unbelievable. I saw colours that I didn’t know existed in the wild, highlighter neon pinks and greens and reflective blues. I saw countless Nemos (clown fish) in sea anemones, see-through fish, bright purple corals, and schools of varied fish that seem to arrange themselves with one another because they know they look good together. It’s like another planet but it’s just another amazing little pocket of our own. My words can’t do it justice. Beyond the first 5 meters of depth where the coral peters out, there are other equally alien life forms to be witnessed. One of our snorkelling spots was Manta Point. We cut the engine and drifted, gazing down through the dark murky water hoping to spot some movement. Our captain, Sunny, spotted the first Manta Ray. We jumped in the water to catch a glimpse but our splash scared the huge animal away. With one flap of it’s 3 meter wingspan it disappeared into the darkness. We had been swimming for less than 20 minutes when three massive Mantas arrived beneath us. They’re graceful and calm like soaring birds, they turn slowly and revealing glimpses of their white under bellies. They appear out of nowhere and disappear without a trace. Their sword-like tails are proof of their potential to injure but despite their power they’re timid and easily scared away. If I was looking for a real adrenaline rush, this was it. Once again I climbed aboard with that sense of accomplishment and wonderment, and once again my words can’t do it justice. 

We also did a number of notable land adventures including a mountain hike to a beautiful viewpoint, a jungle trek to a waterfall, a short walk to an inland salt lake, and a visit to a pink sand beach where I filled a glass bottle with sand. There was equally strange and unique wildlife to be seen on land and in the air as in the water. One night we moored in a bay overnight. At the edge of the bay there was a short but thick forest of bushes growing out of the water. We were told that just after sunset we would see the flying foxes emerge from their sea-forest homes, but since our captain spoke only very broken English we often had little to no idea what we were in for. This was one of those times, but sure enough the flying foxes arrived on schedule. Hundreds of them. “Flying fox” is a nice sounding name for bats with a four-foot wingspan. They filled the sky, screeching and flapping their leathery wings. They flew straight over our ship for about twenty minutes towards the other side of the bay where they would feast on fruit in the dark. I was up almost all night that night (but that’s another story) and I didn’t hear or see the bats return to their ocean forest. It’s a mystery how they get home before sunrise. 

The final stop was the island from which the boat trip gets it’s name: Komodo. This island and it’s neighbour Rinca are the only places on earth where komodo dragons live in the wild. They’re among the world’s largest reptiles, they infect their prey with lethal bacteria before eating it days later, they can smell an animal kilometres away, and they eat their own babies if they are too slow to get to safety in a tree. Luckily for us they’re also lazy and well fed with deer, water buffalo, and wild boar kept abundant by the national parks. They do have to hunt their own prey the old fashioned way though. According to our guide, the parks used to feed them directly but it made the komodos too reliant on humans, too lazy, and led to some serious bacterial infections, lost limbs, and deaths due to bites. Their eyes are black and they’re nearly blind but their sense of smell makes up for it. The women were asked if any of us were on our periods because apparently the komodos can be enticed by the scent of blood. Ew. I was the lucky gal who got the special protection of a guide with a long forked stick because it was my glorious time of the month. In any case, the komodos didn’t seem to notice us even though we were within six feet of a few of them. They’re cold blooded and can go up to a month without eating so most of their time is spent lying in the sun, digesting. We couldn’t help but feel like we were in a real-world Jurassic Park. 

On the last day we were dropped in a small port town called Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores. It was a charming little town built on a steep hill rising up from the bay. Me and Marisa had joined forces with two lovely English girls named Carly and Carla on the boat trip. The four of us found a cheap homestay together, went for dinners and drinks and checked out beaches for a few days. By this point I was convinced that my fear of water was in its grave for good. When the four of us visited a beach a few kilometres from Labuan Bajo, I went for a swim on my own. The water was warm and shallow for a long time and I floated on my back and looked up at the puffy clouds in the late afternoon sky. I had been floating for some time when I decided to put my feet down to stand up out of the water. I expected it to be a few feet deep as it had been when I began floating but it was too deep to touch the bottom and I was much farther from the shore than I thought. I’m a good swimmer and there was no current so there was no question that I could get back safely but the terror was back. I swam frantically until I could touch the bottom then I began my slow-the-breath-down self talk. I was almost disappointed with myself as I walked back to shore but looking back now I see that I learned something from that panicked swim: I’m only afraid of the water when I’m by myself. 

P.s. I’ve been writing this post for nearly a week now and am already getting so ahead of myself! I want to write about everything but there just aren’t enough hours in the day. I’m in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia now and I’m eager to write a post about my time here. 

P.p.s. Since I’m doing all my writing and posting from my phone it’s hard to format things the way I’d like to. It seems like WordPress re-formats my posts when I post them. I apologize if the breaks between paragraphs haven’t been clear. Trying something new this time, hopefully it’ll work better! 


When we tell Indonesians that we’re Canadian they ask us whether we’re “from Vancouver or Quebec?”. I guess people from the rest of Canada don’t come to Indonesia very often. I can’t say that I’m surprised though. The same people who go fruit picking or tree planting in the summer (largely coastal British Columbians and French speaking Quebecers as far as I can tell) probably come here to blow their hard earned cash. Then when their money runs out they go to Victoria for a few months before heading back to the interior to pick peaches again. By this point their hair is thoroughly dreaded, their pants are definitely home made, and they use patchouli as deodorant. I’m so judgemental. I think my judgements are probably largely true though. I think that everything I think is probably true. Don’t we all? How am I supposed to know if what I think is true is actually true or not? And at what point are my judgements justified? Does it make a difference whether the judgements I make are about my own people or not? Would I be justified in making such strong judgements about Indonesians? 
I’ve been in Indonesia for just under two weeks now and my thoughts are based on tourist-local interactions (how could it be any other way?), so I recognize that my impressions are far from the absolute truth. However, I’m still going to express my thoughts honestly despite not knowing how accurate they are. If anyone is offended (or intrigued) by things that I say in this post or on this blog in general, please feel free to write a public or private response to me. This blog is an exercise in documenting my raw and honest thoughts and I welcome discussion. Maybe I’ll learn something from you. 
I’ve often heard people in the west rant about judgement, saying: “Don’t judge me. Who are you to judge me? You don’t know me. If you can’t say something to my face, don’t say it behind my back”. Fair enough, nobody wants to be talked about negatively behind their back. But considering just the issue of judgement and not that of gossiping, it’s a totally unrealistic request that people abstain from judging you. We judge every person, place and thing that we encounter in life and judgements are often positive. Consider the process of becoming friends with someone. Before kindling a friendship, both people use their judgement to notice that the other is someone they’d like to be friends with (whether this happens consciously or not). Judgement is inevitable and important. The distinction I’d like to make is in our choices of what to do with these initial judgements or first impressions as time goes on. Do we allow ourselves to depart from them based on new experiences? Or do we commit ourselves to these first impressions despite new experiences? Perhaps the best option is to consciously try to dismantle our initial judgements (especially when they’re negative) by seeking new information. Skepticism. 
Now to move on from the issue of judging individuals, because that doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the ethics around judging groups of people.
Upon arriving in Gili Trawangan (one of three small islands off the west coast of Lombok, Bali’s neighbour to the east) I noticed a striking difference between my experience with the local men and the local women. Despite having had far more interactions with men, I feel considerably more distant from them than the women. I have a few ideas why this might be he case: First of all, I am a woman so it makes sense that I would feel more akin to other women than men in a new environment. Secondly, there are far more men in the service industry and it’s harder to have a genuine experience when there’s money involved. Thirdly, making the transition from Bali which is primarily Hindu, to an island dominated by Islam (like most of Indonesia) drew attention to my assumption that sexism goes along with Muslim culture. The fourth and probably most pertinent reason for my feeling of distance from local men is the constant sexual attention we receive from them. I realize now as I write this that point three and point four are related to one another, at least in my own mind if not otherwise. 
Sometimes the attention we receive is genuine, men actually think we’re beautiful and want us to know. Other times it’s seems purely like a demand for attention. As we walk down the street guys will yell out “You dropped something!”. We’ll look behind us and ask “What?”. “My heart!” they’ll say and laugh. We force a laugh as if we haven’t already heard that one several times. We also get the kinds of hit ons that gross me out and make me wish for a split second that I was wearing a long skirt and head scarf, like “I love your butt!”. Sometimes the strangest pick up lines are delivered with such sincerity that it’s hard to tell whether they’re meant to be taken seriously or not. Our most ridiculous hit-on so far was the other day while we were soaking wet and walking back to our homestay from the beach. A group of men were standing outside a beach restaurant and one of them says to Marisa, “You look like dolphin!”. We both burst out laughing (usually we spare their egos by waiting until we’ve walked away to laugh) and the man says “What? What? A dolphin is beautiful!” In what seemed like complete seriousness. This has continued to bring us to tearful laughing fits each time we imitate him. 
At first the strange pick up lines and constant attention were funny, but after two weeks it’s become exhausting and we often ignore it completely. Beyond the verbal hit ons, there have also been some physical boundaries broken. Gili T is considered the party island and the beach is lined with dance clubs. The beers are cheap, there are travellers from all over the world and the dance floor at ‘Sama Sama’ (the live reggae bar) gets crammed. Me and Marisa both noticed local men grabbing our butts on the dance floor and making it seem like it was an accident. It’s obvious when this kind of thing is truly an accident and it’s obvious when it’s not. Unfortunately you can’t really get away with saying “don’t touch me” on a crowded dance floor. I’m not suggesting that people from other places don’t also pull these kinds of maneuvers but the fact that this happened several times in one night by different local guys says something about the overall culture, or perhaps just the culture of Gili Trawangan. 
Having said all of this, Indonesians (both men and women) have been overwhelmingly kind, generous, and helpful. I don’t want to paint an unfair picture of Indonesian men in general. My experiences have largely been with one category of young men who live in beach towns and have tourist service jobs. Nevertheless, as a result my experience with men has felt very disconnected. 
Local women on the other hand, rarely work closely with tourists and are never seen in dance clubs. Despite these distances, many women have given me a sense of unspoken kinship that will be difficult to put into words. I expected there to be tension between us bikini-wearing, party girls and cloaked Muslim women but there hasn’t been. Gili T has an especially strange mashup of seemingly opposite worlds. Hundreds of intoxicated tourists crawl into their beds (or other people’s beds) only to hear the first morning prayers emanating from the neighbourhood mosque shortly after. However instead of the negative tension that I anticipated, the women are kind and coy and quiet. They tend to smile and hold my eye contact. They look at me as if we share a secret that there’s no need to verbalize. I don’t know how else to explain it. 
Head scarves are by no means mandatory in the places we’ve gone. Girls wear head scarves as a part of their school uniforms but adult women are often uncovered. There are so many questions I would like to ask these women, about their relationship to their head scarf if they wear one, their education, their sex lives, and whether they’ve been genitally mutilated. I haven’t had a chance yet to ask any of the real questions that I’d like to ask. 
Men and women here seem so utterly different from each other, even opposite. It seems like half of the population is sexually conservative and the other half is on sexual overdrive. One half is quiet, the other is loud. One half is fascinating to me, the other I have to consciously try not be irritated by. 
I know that I’m getting into dangerous territory with some of the thoughts that I’m choosing to share publicly. I expect that to some of you it will sound like racism and/or sexism. I’ve tried to pick my words carefully but I’m certainly not muzzling myself with political correctness. 
P.s. I think it’s so funny and awesome that Gili T has adopted Reggae culture. The bars play Bob Marley, you hear locals with dreads saying “ya mon” and we’re offered joints constantly. Don’t worry I’m on a strict drug free diet.


(I began writing this post on Friday and just finished it up now)
Today we’re travelling from Ubud to Gili Trawangan. We’re making the transition from the traditional arts capital in inland Bali to one of three small Gili islands off of Lombok nicknamed ‘The Party Island’. (More blog posts to come about our Gili experiences!) For now, here’s a recap of our last four days in Ubud:
We left our hostel in Kuta Beach eager to experience a more authentic Bali. Kuta was fun and beautiful but hectic and clearly geared more towards vacationing tourists than backpackers. We knew that Ubud was a tourist centre as well but it’s also known for traditional crafts, performances, and a Monkey Forest. Ubud is a must-see as far as we could tell. The drive north from Kuta brought me to a state of euphoria (it was on that drive that I wrote the majority of my last blog post). The chaotic streets filled with uniformed school children riding scooters, the endless green countryside stretching out behind a row of vulnerable concrete stands, and the wind in my face made me feel impossibly free and self sufficient.
We arrived in Ubud with our backpacks and without accommodation booked. After stopping at several different housing options that didn’t suit our needs we were beginning to lose faith that winging it on accommodation was the best way to go. We stood deflated and overheated on a busy corner trying to decide what to do. It didn’t take long before a man walked up to us and asked if needed a room. We answered yes and followed him down a side street and into a beautiful courtyard filled with flowers, Hindu statues, chickens under baskets, and local families going about their business. It was every bit as dreamlike as it sounds. He showed us to the room he was renting which was clean, had a private bathroom and included free breakfast. He told us it was 150,000 IDR (just under $15 CAD) per night for the room and we graciously accepted. Needless to say our faith in winging it was restored.
Despite how cheap everything is here, expenses build up quickly and we watch our money go fast because we’re dealing with cash. I’m trying not to think too much about finances though. I’m being frugal and getting good at bargaining. If I’m not willing to pay for experiences then why am I here in the first place?
Speaking of finances, we did all of the tours and excursions we could find and had the most textbook experience of Bali. Over the past four days we’ve gone to the Monkey Forest, a traditional dance performance with a Gamelan orchestra, a volcano viewpoint, a rice terrace viewpoint, and done a tour of three temples and a coffee plantation. I could write an entire post for each of these adventures but you should probably just come to Bali and see it for yourself!
I believe that we’ve come to Bali at a good time in it’s evolution as a travellers destination (although I don’t deny that when it was less spoiled it would have been breath taking). The island is still raw enough that when you turn off of the main streets it’s striking how fast the vibe changes from tourist trap to local lifestyle (and the price of food drops from $10 per meal to $2). So as well as doing all of the touristy things, we spent hours walking through the neighbourhoods because there’s so much discovery to be had by leaving the main drag. Last night at dusk we went for a spontaneous back roads walk that began with a long stone staircase that led up to a quiet row of houses separated by flooded rice fields. It was on these stairs that we saw our first big scary spider. Including it’s legs it was the size of a saucer and it’s body was an inch long. It sat motionless in the middle of it’s huge web and after shivers ran up and down our spines, we walked briskly up the stairs to the narrow street. The first ten minutes of our walk was peaceful and the street was empty. We came to a bend in the road where there were about 15 guys playing volley ball and shouting. The new street we stumbled upon was busier and had the typical mini marts and stray dogs of the rest of the city but we were the only foreigners besides a British couple that got out of a cab and entered a house. As the street became a dead end we noticed a large group of local men man-handling roosters. We assumed that they had escaped and were being rallied back into cages (more likely under baskets). However as we got closer we realized that they were launching the roosters at one another in a small square and coaxing them to fight. There it was, cock fighting. Animal cruelty in action. It was difficult not to get self righteous and tell these men how sick what they were doing was. I felt that my sense of morality was more fine tuned than theirs because I believe that forcing animals to fight for your enjoyment is immoral. It’s strange being immersed in another culture that blatantly contradicts what is acceptable in your own. There’s a sense that no matter what you witness, you are entitled only to the position of silent observer because you’re a guest in this world. There are two ways to avoid serious internal conflict in this kind of situation. The first option is to convince one’s self of moral relativism:

“If it’s their culture, who am I to say it’s wrong? No cultural practices can be condemned because no culture is any more moral than any other.”

The second option is to come forward and voice your opinion:

“Hey local Indonesians (whom I’ve never met and who’s language I don’t speak) what you’re doing is disgusting and evil.”

Neither of these options seem quite right to me. I don’t agree with moral relativism but I don’t feel that voicing my opinion was appropriate, useful or even justified (thoughts anyone?). So I opted to live with the internal conflict.

Although I outwardly deny moral relativism (and would debate against it), this country has taken my western sense of animal, environmental, and human rights for a whirl. I’m already becoming desensitized to bone thin cats and dogs everywhere, jungle valleys filled with garbage, and homeless babies sleeping in their begging mothers arms. The last of the three has been the hardest for me to swallow.
My “fine tuned” sense of morality (I feel ridiculous using this terminology because 95% of my morals are inherited, so how can I really take credit?) is totally against adding to piles of garbage, and being a bystander to homeless children, adults, and animals. However it’s proving very difficult to avoid these things. Recycling is extremely rare here and even when there is a blue bin I would be shocked if it’s contents ended up anywhere but with the rest of the waste. As for the issue of child homelessness, I’ve been told over and over not to give money to begging children because it propagates a culture that puts children on the street to collect money from well meaning tourists. We’re also told not to feed the dogs. It seems obvious because of the risk of rabies, but seeing those little bone racks eating garbage is very sad.
As far as I can tell the only way to restore good karma as a westerner in this part of the world is to volunteer. Volunteering is definitely on my agenda, my very vague agenda. Even volunteering here comes with ethical considerations. Still so much research to do.
P.s. I do get a little homesick every once in a while but mostly I’m eating up all of this strangeness.

Weight and Lightness

On the beach in Kuta, hawkers approach you every 5 minutes or so selling jewelry and massages and so on. They’re extremely good at manipulating you into buying whatever they have to offer (who could blame them?), and it’s interesting to observe the tactics they use. We met a woman named Wendy on the beach the other day and we had a typical hawker-tourist interaction. First she offered us manicures and we answered “No thank you.” Then she motioned to our cracked toe nail polish and said “Oh no, you need pedicure! Your nails look very bad.” We laughed and answered “Yeah we know, but we don’t want pedicures today.” Then she asked “how much you want to pay?”. We hadn’t expressed any interest but she was still convinced she could crack us. We reiterated several more times that we didn’t want our nails done and she almost believed us but she had one last tool in her tool kit: “You go with Wendy, you have lucky nails! Wendy bring you good luck!”. For the last time we say “No thank you” and she answers “Okay, I see you later”. 
It’s interesting and sort of charming that luck becomes a bargaining tool in this part of the world. I had heard that superstition was common in Asian cultures but I’m surprised that it comes out in such mundane interactions as selling a pedicure on the beach. 
I’m not superstitious, and I don’t believe in luck the way that I think she meant it because I don’t think that Wendy’s pedicures are any more special than any other pedicures on Kuta beach. However, I think it’s valuable to have the kind of mind set that sees specialness in all experiences and objects. In the west we tend to strive for sameness rather than specialness. People want to wear the same clothes and listen to the same music because we want others to recognize our wealth or in-the-loop-ness. Whereas Indonesians seem to exaggerate uniqueness. I’m beginning to notice my own western tendencies in my contrast to what I’m seeing here. 
The only developing country that I’ve been to besides Indonesia is the Dominican Republic. I was amazed by the locals in the Dominican and how they were able to find such tremendous joy even though their living conditions appeared completely third world to me. So far Indonesians have come across in the same way. I think part of what helps people in developing countries to have a positive outlook is the fact that the ceiling is only so high in these conditions. Maybe there’s a kind of acceptance and commitment to the lives they’re living because they know that it’s all they’ll ever have. I don’t mean to say that Dominicans and Indonesians can’t accomplish amazing things, but more that in the west we have the resources to accomplish almost anything far more easily. 
In the west we’re always wondering whether our lives are suddenly going to get better than they are now. Am I going to get rich? Am I going to be famous? Or heroic. Or maybe there’s something I can buy to make me more attractive. Will I fall madly in love and live happily ever after? These possibilities keep us on our toes for better or for worse. Some people get crushed by the weight of these questions, some people manifest the pressure of these questions into work ethic (which is awesome), but I think most of us experience a combination of both. Sadly, our potential for greatness can act as a mirage of a perfect future that clouds the reality of the present. There’s a valuable lesson to be learned from people in the developing world: They know how to live in the moment and enjoy life for what it is. 
I just want to mention that I recognize that there are people in the west who have atrocious living conditions (ie. Aboriginals in the north, Mexican workers, marginalized black people etc…). However when I say the west, I’m talking about the world that I grew up in. The Canada with very high standards of living, access to health care, education, and almost anything else our hearts desire. I have no idea where impoverished people in the west fit into this equation. Whether their outlook can be likened to that of people in developing countries, or that of privileged western culture, or perhaps it’s somewhere in between. Thoughts anyone? 
Before I left Toronto for my trip, my step mom Melissa gave me a novel to read on my travels called The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. From Toronto I flew to Vancouver where I showed my mom the book and she said “Yes, you absolutely should read that book while you travel.”. I got the stamp of approval from both of my mother figures (luckily, I usually/always do). Those of you who have read this book will probably recognize it’s influence on the thoughts that I’m sharing with you in this blog entry. So here’s a quote: 
“It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac), but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.” (p.52)
This quote is a reminder that for me, happiness is not something look forward to. It’s something appreciate while on the pursuit of knowledge, or righteousness or relationships or whatever it is I’m looking for. Reasons to be happy are everywhere, we just have to learn to see them.
As far as I can tell, Wendy’s pedicures are lucky. Not lucky compared to other pedicures on Kuta beach, and not lucky in the sense that her pedicure would bring good luck, but lucky because it’s a pedicure on the goddamn beach in Bali! Lucky because I’m a white girl from Kitsilano that can afford to fly to the other side of the planet and travel through Asia for months at a time. So yes Wendy’s pedicures are lucky, and I would do myself a service by considering every single thing in my life as lucky. Every one of us was once the sperm and egg out of millions that got to become a person. We all live on the planet out of billions that happens to support life. 
(Okay, I’m a cheese ball)

Learning Curve

Unfortunately, $20 USD was taken from a ziplock bag in my open backpack in my hostel room. When I counted the four folded 20s knowing there should be five, I was really irritated. I can’t decide whether I was more upset by the fact that I can’t trust the staff and I have to hide my valuables (we don’t have a safe), or if losing 20 dollars is my concern. Probably a combination of both. I noticed the missing money last night when we got back from a long, hot day on the beach and my reaction was definitely affected by my urgent need for a shower and food. Looking back now, I’m not sure what I expected from a house keeper who could probably feed her family for a week with my 20 bucks. Right, perspective. I really should know better than to leave money lying around. It’s amazing how fast your relationship with money changes in a place like this. Already, 20 dollars feels like a lot of money.

Now the question is, do I say something to the front desk? Either way, I’m not going to get my money back, but do I owe it to myself and other travellers to make it clear that stealing isn’t okay? I’m definitely going to write a review online. If anyone has experience with this sort of thing or a suggestion, let me know. 

I suppose this could be a blessing in disguise. I’ve learnt my lesson early in the trip and I didn’t lose much. 

Hopefully her kids got a nice treat for Halloween. 


Somewhere Over the Equator 

We got to our hostel in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia, at about 5 pm last night. We had been travelling for well over 24 hours, and had eaten three soggy airplane meals in a row. When we arrived we were hungry for exercise and especially for some cheap, delicious, Indonesian food. So after watching the sunset on the beach we walked along a main street called Jl. Kartika in search of an authentic Indonesian restaurant. Kuta beach is definitely one of the biggest tourist traps in Bali because it’s so close to the Airport (we could see planes landing from the beach). Jl. Kartika did not have the restaurants we were looking for. Instead, it’s lined with upscale hotels, knock-off Nike running shoes, and overpriced western style restaurants. The restaurants we’re charging about 100,000 Indonesian Rupiahs for a meal, which is just under $10 CAD. Still pretty cheap for upscale food, but we wanted to find the real thing so we kept walking. We quickly got accustomed to sternly saying “no thank you” to vendors who will almost drag you into their stalls, and being cautious of the traffic whizzing by on the other side. We walked for a long time without finding a turn off from the main drag, but eventually we did. We came to a small street that veered off to the left, it was significantly darker and dirtier, and it was clear that there was not a single tourist even half a block from Jl. Kartika. There was a “security stop” at the entrance to the street where a young man manually lifted a long metal arm that let people in and out. At first we hesitated, was there a reason tourists didn’t go this way? Was it dangerous? It was counter intuitive to leave the relative safety of bright lights and other white people. However, we decided to follow the small street and in less than a block we found what we had been looking for. We walked into a cafeteria style restaurant with fluorescent lights, buzzing TVs playing Indonesian stand-up comedy, and not a word of English on the menu. There were three women behind the counter and they smiled and beckoned us in. I asked if they had anything vegetarian and one of them spoke very scattered English. She said yes and began to pile two plates high with rice, an assortment of fried greens and deep fried mushrooms topped with spicy peanut sauce. We grabbed two bottles of water, and asked “how much?” gesturing to the water and both plates of food. She typed the amount on her calculator: 20,000 IDR. That’s less than 2 Canadian dollars. The food was delicious, but so spicy that when I stopped eating for a second my mouth burned. So I didn’t stop eating until my plate was empty. For me, that was the moment when the anticipation that had been building up for so many months finally released. That was when it sunk in: We made it, and we’re going to take the unbeaten path to find the real deal. I think I’m going to like this place.

P.s. If you’re interested in having my blog posts sent directly to your email as I write them, go to the lower right hand corner of the page and click “follow”, then enter your email. Unfortunately this elusive “follow” button only shows up on computers, not on phones. If anyone had any ideas how I can fix that, let me know! 

The Last Days of My Cocoon Phase

In less than 48 hours, I’ll be on a plane to Bali, Indonesia. I’ll have a backpack (filled mostly with emergency meds and sunscreen), a ukulele, a fanny pack and most importantly my dear friend Marisa. We’ve been planning this trip for a long time now so if you’re reading this you’ve probably also heard me motor mouth about it. I’ve been doing research on South East Asia for months now and I have countless lists of things I’d like to do and places I’d like to see. In all honesty though, I still have no clue what I’m about to do. I’d like to see a live concert in a big city, do a meditation retreat, volunteer, write blog entries, songs, and dream logs, and of course lie on beautiful beaches and eat awesome food. Even though the thought of doing these things makes me squeal with excitement, the most exciting part is that I have no plans. I get to follow my gut instinct and do whatever my heart desires until I’m ready to go home.

But why is it that freedom is the most exciting part of this trip? When I consider my daily life at home, it’s clear to me that I already have a lot of freedom. I’m not in school, I don’t have a consistent job, I travel a lot, and I find joy in my freedom on a regular basis. But since the thought of spontaneous travel crossed my mind, it has not budged. So why does this extra dose of extreme freedom feel so crucial to me? What am I searching for? Will I want to be alone or in a group? Will I be more drawn to cities or remote villages? Or will it be the jungle, farms, or coral reefs that capture me? My guess is as good as yours at this point.

This will be an exploration of new landscapes and cultures, but also be an exploration of my own interests and desires. I hope to unearth aspects of myself that I didn’t know existed. I hope to change my opinions based on new information. I hope that my life philosophy is turned inside out and backwards. I hope to find myself in the absence of everything and everyone that has helped to form me so far.

They say that kid’s brains are like sponges. I’m 19, and savouring the last of my kid-ness by absorbing as much as I can before adult-ness fully kicks in.

I love metaphors, I love poetry, and I like to get cheesy. Follow my blog for updates on my travels and my thoughts. Follow my instagram https://instagram.com/glowiedolores/ for photos.

-Glowie (for the purposes of this blog, I will refer to myself as “Glowie”, it’s a nickname that was bestowed onto me and I just really dig it)