I was in the jungle for four days. I slept on a wood floor with geckos and jungle insects, falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle, which at times elicited PTSD-like reactions from my Amazon days. The “jungle house” was surrounded by a fruit and rubber tree plantation, in an area ruled by king cobras and monitor lizards. The buzzing of cicadas, and howling of jungle birds and monkeys gave me a sense of peace and relaxation that I’ve been desperately longing for lately.

I found myself in this place thanks to a lovely Chinese-Malaysian Couchsurfing host, Ang. At 51-years old, he is full of energy and insight, and he gave me the invaluable opportunity to live in the jungle above a fishing village that many people, even other locals living on the island of Penang, have never heard of.

Ang and I at Hainan temple

Ang and I at Hainan temple

I will give a little background information on Penang, first. The island is big–about a 2 hour drive from top to bottom. To clarify: When I say “Penang” in this post, I am talking about the island of Penang; there is also mainland Penang, across the channel, but I haven’t gone there yet. So, Penang used to be the Capital of Malaya when it was still “Malaya” under British rule. In 1957, what is now known as “Malaysia” gained independence from the British, and the capital moved to Kuala Lumpor. But Penang remains a bustling area, famous for incredible food and Chinese culture, with evidence of the past presence of the Brits scattered throughout the area. Chinese-Malaysians comprise the largest population on the island. There is an interesting mix of Chinese, English, and Indian influences here, and these influences inundate the cuisines, religious sites, and everyday culture. Georgetown is on the Northern end of the island, named after King George, and it is the tourist hotspot for the area. But as soon as you get out of Georgetown, you see nothing but locals living their lives undisturbed by visitors.

On my first day here, I went with Ang to a home for physically disabled adults. I was immediately welcomed into the home by its residents. One man (pictured below) promptly asked me to take him down the street to an Indian cultural center. I pushed him down the road, learning about his life and family, and then sat with him, drinking Mango Lassis at our destination.

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Back at the home, we sang Christmas carols, and tried to get to know each other through broken English. It was so much fun.

After, Ang and I traveled to the Southwestern-most tip of the island via motorbike. I was surprised to see that everyone here wears a helmet on motorbike; unlike in Thailand and Myanmar, it is illegal here to ride without one.

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We arrived at a Chinese opera, where I went backstage to participate in a bizarre photoshoot with the actors. I listened to the amateur opera, which occurs for two nights every two weeks, and felt like I was in China. Indeed, everyone in this village and in many part of the larger island, speak Chinese and hold fast to Chinese customs. I spent the next couple of days between the jungle hut, a secluded fishermans beach that requires a tedious jungle trek to acces,s and a fishermans hut in the village. I sat with the fisherman for hours, listening to their Chinese banter and learning how to weave a fishing net. Minus the creepy 70-year old man who tried to kiss me and make me his “good friend,” I was completely comfortable just passing the hours with these guys in their little “meeting place.”  Spanning time.

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Ang and I spent many hours in the jungle hut– up in the mountains above the village–with minimal conversation. He called it “meditation,” I called it “happy hour.” I have been spending many many hours over the past couple of months alone and silent, and I never thought of it as meditation. But it was reflective nonetheless.  Overlooking the ocean from up in the jungle, with nothing in my head but the voice of my thoughts and the passionate insects telling their life stories.  Who needs electricity and running water when you have the freedom to just sit around and ponder?  After a day of reflection, I wrote the following little bit:

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It’s hard being alone on the road sometimes. While it’s really liberating in many ways, and eliminates the confines of plans or attending to any other person’s needs, it can also be quiet and unnerving. Every night, I spend the hours preparing for bed alone–not chatting with a roommate (or dorm-mate), or watching a Miyasaki film with Meren before promptly passing out. I brush my teeth alone, organize my little backpack alone, and wash my clothes alone. It’s quiet, all that alone time. I certainly have a lot of time to think, but it’s strange having all this time to think about only myself, my needs, and my dreams. I don’t have to consider anything else, really.  Occasionally, I need to practice my people-skills, but for the most part, I can be as invisible as I want, whenever I want.  It’s enjoyable, but also scary. How long until I forget what it’s like to compromise, or be sensitive, or listen to someone else’s problems or have to skip a sight I really wanted to see? I wonder how good all this alone time is in terms of cultivating my interpersonal skills.

On the road, I am constantly being challenged. Not especially by my environment so much as by my own mind. I am in a persistent conflict with myself over usually the same topic:  pace. Should I stay or should I go? What is it that I’m looking for? Why have I decided to go to that town? Can I stay here instead? This way of life is non-stop, independent decision-making, and it’s actually really demanding. It might sound quite liberating and enjoyable, but truth be told, it isn’t. Whereas in “normal” life, I can take my time with choices as routine allows it, on the road I am required to make choices almost all the time. It’s strenuous; there is no time for second guesses or regrets, and there is no one to affirm your decisions or offer a better alternative.

I have started to realize that the destination really means nothing. I have been looking forward to the Thai islands for years; then I arrived only to be filled with disappointment because Southern Thailand wasn’t anything like I had imagined. Sometimes, the expectation alone is enough to suck the pleasure out of a place. This is where planning becomes your biggest enemy. The adventure and excitement is in the experience of a place, not in the sight itself. And chances are if I find something in a book somewhere, and look forward to seeing it for some time, when I get there, the place is filled with people who, just like me, came there in hopes of finding something pure and amazing. For me, this crushes my sense of adventure and exploration. These kinds of places are not what I imagined them to be, and I end up fleeing the scene faster than I arrived there. It’s not that I don’t like other foreigners; indeed many other foreigners have provided some of my best experiences yet. But the problem is when I encounter other foreigners who are travelling in search of “seeing” the “sights,” instead of actually taking any interest in the sights at all. What this looks like is a ton of people looking at some ancient temples from behind the lens of their cameras, frantically snapping pictures and talking amongst themselves instead of seeking out information from locals. It begs the question, why did they even come here? They are getting nothing more from it than a photograph and bragging rights. Really, some people come in, get off the bus, snap a shot, and leave.  I don’t resent these people, but I don’t like to be around them when I’m travelling, just as I don’t like to be around them at home.

I have a very big problem with foreigners who visit a new country just to act like they are in their hometown. They behave as if they’ve never left, except for a couple of impulse tropical-attire purchases and for the fact that their cocktails are served on the beach instead of by a fireplace. I don’t understand it. They come all the way here, and then only go to bars and restaurants where other people from very similar backgrounds from them also go. It honestly baffles me, until I talk to these people and invariably get the same response. “Yeah, I am on holiday, heading to Vietnam after this. I’ve already done Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and after I do Vietnam, I will go back home.” Note the crucial word: done. They’ve done these countries. And indeed, they have; they have checked it off their world sightseeing to-do list. I find it absurd, actually, that they can’t hear what they sound like. Southeast Asia is riddled with people that have come here because it’s exotic-looking and sounding from back home, and you can travel here with ease. If you want to, you can feel entirely like you’ve never left home, except for the sunburns and a tropical stomach-bugs.

We value independence so much, in the Western world. Particularly, in the States. We are told when we’re younger that we are all different–everybody is different, in their own unique ways. Our differences are celebrated, and seen almost as innate aspects of our “self,” which we continually develop over time. It’s so interesting how independent we are, as a culture. We leave home at 18 years of age, and are expected to live on our own, and create our own lives. It’s all very much a part of our culture, and very very different from many other cultures, especially Asian cultures. An Iranian girl is much less likely to set out and travel alone, but an American girl is not unique in her choice to fly across the world. Whenever someone asks about my journeying, they are surprised when I say I plan to be alone the whole time.

“Why are you going alone?” they ask.

“It’s not easy to convince people that quitting your job and aimlessly traveling around the world for the next 5 years is necessarily a responsible choice,” I reply. “Not to mention, planning is something I’m not very good at, and I doubt anyone would have been able to hop on board with my plans with the 9 months of notice I gave.”  Truth be told, I had always hoped Meren would come, but alas, it couldn’t be.

I booked my ticket in Febrauary. One way, to Myanmar.  I was convinced that if I didn’t buy the ticket, I wouldn’t go. I have always had dreams, but so often, they get put off by “amazing” job offers or by membership in closely-knit friend groups. It would be comfortable to stay, and I knew that. I booked the flight to make sure that I went, and I resisted every urge to stay, including the most likely canidate for “love of my life” and a highly secure job future. I picked an arbitrary date, November 1st, and I told people I was going, to further ensure my actual departure.

You see, the hardest part about leaving to travel the world is the actual act of leaving. Once you’re out on the road, it’s hard to remember why you didn’t do this years ago and even harder to understand why you were scared to leave. My friends, and indeed many locals I meet, assume that I must have stockpiles of gold funding my exotic adventures. I can assure you, no such stockpiles exist, and nothing of the like is necessary for long-term world travel. I find this, too, very hard to explain to my friends back home.

“But how can you possibly afford this?”

I remind them that in many places in the world the same price that they pay for a 12-pack of beer is what you can pay for a hotel room, 3 meals, and local transportation for a whole day. Many people just don’t believe me.

Another question I get: “What will you do with all your time?”

Time is the wealth of the traveler. I have nothing but time, and I am never bored. If boredom does begin to creep in, it is quickly solved by packing my bag and sticking out my thumb–hitchhiking to anywhere–or hopping on the next train that goes…I don’t know, anywhere. Does that sound boring? Not to me. Every day presents a new set of tasks, and when the tasks are completed, I create new ones: read another book; study another map; quiz another local. It’s like I’m a student of the world. With so much to learn, there is never a dull moment. I am like a child–I babble only the basics of the native tongues, I stare around my surroundings in amazement like an infant, and I constantly ask “what’s that?” or “why?” questions that have basic, everyday answers for the locals. Someone told me that the world is a book. If you never leave your home, you read only one page. It’s truly that way. As soon as I got out into the world, I’ve started to learn about the very world I thought I knew so well. I realized that what the media tells us about people of other cultures is not only overgeneralized and based largely on the actions of their government, but it is also pretty inaccurate at depicting how people actually are in these locations.

I have stopped caring about defending Americanism. Too many foreigners have told me how wrong it was when I dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and how I shouldn’t have unilaterally invaded Iraq. Listen, people, I am an American, but I am not America. I can’t explain all of the actions of my government, and indeed, many of the actions of the U.S. government are ones I can’t even being to understand. Some don’t see me as a representative of my country, but as an extension of my country itself. I can’t do it anymore. Nowadays, I’ve been participating in global affairs conversations as a neutral third party, making sure to avoid such inclusive words as “we” or “us” when refering to Americans or American policy.

I’m thinking more and more that I am so incredibly lucky. For one, lucky to have been born in the States, where there is an enormous, and enormously diverse, landscape to explore. We have incredible National Parks, all of which are different and spectacular. On top of that, we have this confidence about us, that comes most likely from the faint understanding that we are the top-dog in the world. The rest of the world looks at us, and while many of them hate us for the shit we pull, there is a certain understanding that the US is something unique in the world. We’re mighty powerful.  I’m not saying this is a good thing, but I think it affects us in a way we can’t really recognize so much while we grow up. It’s just part of our culture, as is the independence we foster, and it affects the psyche of the American mind in subtle ways. I was talking with a new friend I’ve made from Spain, about how I want to learn to speak other languages. I love and I hate that the common language, everywhere, is English. I get to speak my native tongue, while every other foreigner is at least challenged with putting their second-language skills to the test. Everyone who doesn’t speak Thai, or Burmese, or what have you, well, they have to speak English. I take this for granted, but it is a huge advantage I have.  I don’t have to speak any other language. No one in the United States has to learn any other language. We only have to speak English within our borders, and when we get to the world outside, and have to communicate with other foreigners in a foreign country, you can assume that saying “Hello” will illicit an English response. It’s unfair, how easy it is.  Lucky.

Anyways, rambling on never got me anywhere.  Sometimes it’s just necessary to write out my ponderings, as they seem to be fleeting and ever-changing on this long and lonely road.  I won’t bore my readers any more with this crap.  But I will say, traveling has opened my eyes to myself and my world.  It puzzles me that I haven’t gotten off my ass and left my little world behind years ago.  Now, the world is my classroom.