Game

17 07 2011

“Game” as in, “I’ve got game.”  Or as in, “I’ve got no game.” 
Or as in, “I know! let’s play a game!”  Or as in, “I went (small) game hunting.”  All four, really.

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Home.  Sick.  Not how I wanted to spend my weekend. 

The bug started on Wednesday night, and I called in sick on Thursday.  As I tried to go back to sleep that morning, all I could think of was Nico – my naughtiest student, and also my favorite.  I had scolded him the day before, after he broke a raw egg that I told him not to touch.  I would not have been so upset if it were an isolated incident, but he had been acting up all week.  Even with his father on my side, offering a trip to the swimming pool for good behavior, he was only getting worse. 

After he broke the egg, I told him he could not have a cookie with the rest of the class, and he had to go sit on the other side of the room and draw.  Instead, he crawled under a desk in the corner and started wailing.  I ignored it.  “I DON’T WANT A COOKIE!” became a distinguishable refrain.  I ignored that, too.  But then he came out and started walking like he was big and tough – arms out to the sides kind of like a zombie – with a fake brave smile on his still-teary face and sobs shaking his little shoulders.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  I asked him to come outside with me, adding that I wasn’t mad anymore, and that I just wanted to talk with him.

Once in the hallway, he started sputtering, “Chri…Chri…Chris… I don’t want a cookie… I just want… I didn’t mean to break the egg…”

As if my heart wasn’t aching already, watching him cry, now I felt like a horrible person for not hearing him out in the first place.  All I could do was grab him and hug him, and clumsily explain that I really do like him, but I don’t like when he doesn’t listen to me.  I think that by the end of class he had forgiven me, but I hadn’t forgiven myself.

And so when I didn’t show up for school the next day, I didn’t want him to think it had anything to do with him being bad.  Maybe that thought didn’t occur to him, but the fact that he was crying because I got angry and not just because he wanted a cookie made me realize that I had underestimated the emotional capacities of 6-year-olds – I wasn’t about to underestimate them again. 

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Despite what it may sound like, I really am doing well with the first grade students – of which I had only 3 the first week, but last week I had 7.  The fifth graders that I taught for half-days during the first week were another story, though… I thought they’d be a more natural fit for me as someone who had only had experience teaching adults, and who has been known to call small children “little aliens.”  I mistakenly thought that I would not have to work as hard to keep them entertained, they would listen to me (even if grudgingly), and they would be easier to have conversations with.  Those of you who are familiar with children are probably snickering right now, but this just goes to show you what a crash course in dealing with kids this trip has been for me.

Teaching first graders has a few things in common with improv acting: you must be prepared to act foolish, but not make a fool of yourself while doing so; you must pay close attention to how a scene is developing and know when to follow the trajectory or when (and how) to take it in a new direction; and you must completely commit yourself to being present in the moment in order for the audience/students to be present there as well.  Both teaching and improv acting are balancing acts between taking enough control to be… well… in control… and leaving enough control on the table to let the kids (or other actors, in improv’s case) remain engaged rather than simply following, or fighting to not follow. 

Not that I really know much about improv acting or teaching… feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

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I have taught the kids how to play “slaps” – the game in which one player places their palms on the upturned palms of the other player, and as the other player tries to flip their hands to hit the tops of the first player’s hands, that player tries to whisk their hands out of danger’s way.  As I’m sure you can imagine, six-year-old boys love this game.  However, this does open up the possibility that a parent or another teacher might walk outside my classroom and hear them screaming, “hit me! hit me!!!” or, “now let me hit you!”

Another favorite is the chicken dance.  When I showed them how to do it, I did the chicken-beak fingers and the wing flapping in the wrong order, but when I tried to do it right the second time, I was immediately corrected.  This was a lesson for me on the importance of doing things right the first time, when it comes to kids… because to them, whatever came first is right.  End of story.

The kids also love anything they can look at with a microscope, and if there is a microscope in the room, they will search for things to put under the lens.  Like dead bugs.  When they found such a treasure last week, Yshan held it eight inches from my face and sweetly asked that a slide be produced.  When I declined, he moved it closer, as if that would inspire me to help them examine it with extreme magnification.  When I requested that the bug be placed in the trashcan, a chorus of, “but Mr. Mike would do it!” arose.

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The cockroach problem in our apartment has given me a whole new appreciation for dead bugs: they are better than live bugs.  Unfortunately, the Raid cockroach baits in my apartment are not quite up to the task.  So yesterday, in my cabin fever boredom, I decided to booby trap the kitchen. 

I waited until my roommate got home, and I enlisted her to help me fight the war on vermin.  She held the tape while I cut it and laid it sticky-side up on the counters, in cabinets, and even in one drawer.  “You’re crazy,” she told me.  “I’m a genius,” I replied.  Next, I cut a paper towel roll into three sections, and wrapped tape around the bases, then placed them upright in strategic locations with a bit of fruit-rollup-like Chinese candy inside. 

This was at around 9:30.  At 9:42 and at 10:01, there were no cockroaches to be found on the tape.  Before I went to bed (about 15 minutes later) I checked again.  Nothing.  When I couldn’t fall asleep, of course I got out of bed to go look.  Still nothing.  I have not been so excited about late-night visitors since the days when I believed in Santa Claus and his reindeer. 

The duct tape was laid on the plywood with care
In hopes that cucarachas soon would be there

And in the morning…

Away to the kitchen I flew like a flash,
Tore open the cabinets as if searching for stash

When what to my wondering eye should appear… but a lot of empty tape strips and some undisturbed and ridiculous-looking sections of a paper towel roll.  Damn.

Tonight, I will try pieces of meat.





Wo yao pi jiu.

1 07 2011

Update: I arrived in Beijing on June 27th, and I will be teaching here for 2 months.

June 29

     Such a stubby cork
     I knew we had no future
     Shitty Chinese wine

My vices are gonna cost me, here in Beijing.  Half a pound of ground coffee? $17.  Bottle of cheap imported wine? $19.  Now, I can’t bring myself to drink instant coffee for 2 months, but I was open to giving $2.50 Chinese wine a shot.  I mean, after all, the label proudly boasted:

“The wine was made from the fine grapes in Jian Vineyard of China.  And with internal advanced technics.  It is clarity and has full-bodied fruit smell, Vinosity and long after taste.”

You wine snobs out there might think that it doesn’t get much tackier than a plastic cork, or a screw-top.  But it does.  This bottle featured a real cork, but the cost saving measure employed by this particular winery was to make it only 2/3 the size of a normal cork.  The taste?  It was like very watered-down Manischewitz, which tastes a whole lot like Welch’s grape juice with some sugar added.  At least Manischewitz doesn’t claim to be made from fine grapes.

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You know that moment in all movies and TV shows with plotlines involving school-age kids, where some reject joins a table full of chattering students in the cafeteria, and they all suddenly fall quiet?  That’s what it’s like being a new teacher.

Now, I’m not going to try to tell you that I didn’t contribute to the awkwardness… when I first entered the lunchroom and saw that it was just 5th graders eating there, my immediate reaction was to turn heel and find some other place to sit.  But there really wasn’t another good place to sit.  So after I weighed standing and eating my plate of food in the kitchen against growing a set and joining the kids, I decided that, since I’m going to be dealing with these mysterious creatures for the next couple of months, I should start getting comfortable with them.  Or at the very least be able to sit beside them for 15 minutes.  I reluctantly walked back in and sat down.  Since this is a move that could probably be interpreted as creepy without any further action, I cheerfully asked what class they are in and what they were learning today.

Mumbled replies.  Eyes on food.  Silence.

Ok.  So this is why people learn magic tricks.  I gotta look into that sometime between now and Monday.

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My roommate and I inherited a fish with our apartment.  I had some pet fish as a kid, but I have since decided that pets that can’t show affection in return for me feeding them and cleaning up their poop are just not an efficient use of my time or emotional resources.  Why call it a ‘pet’ if I can’t pet it?  And this fish is not even a pretty goldfish, gliding serenely about… it resembles a pissed-off sardine, swimming manic figure-eights and dive-bombing nothing whatsoever.  It was probably a fish meant to feed bigger, better fish, and some Chinese petshop owner sold it to the previous residents as a joke.

I gaze at it and I think things like, “this fish’s life sucks. I should just flush it down the toilet and put it out of its misery.”  I also think, “I eat these things all the time without a second thought.  If I pulled a much bigger and (relatively) more sentient fish from a pond, I would gut it, then cook it in a way that allows me to pass it off as French cuisine.  What stops me from making this morsel part of my lunch?”

Location, location, location.  Simply by virtue of living in a bowl on my windowsill, this fish is now my pet.

When I walked into the apartment for the first time and saw him swimming in his filth, I immediately changed his water and I fed him.  When my roommate banged the sliding window against his bowl, I cringed for him.  And this morning before leaving for work, I saw that his water was dirty again, so after some hemming and hawing about how I don’t want to take care of him, I did just that.

As I strained the water through my fingers, careful not to let it get too low, I started thinking ridiculous thoughts like, “I should look on the internet to learn how to take care of him.  I should use filtered water in his bowl.  Maybe I should change his food from pellets to flakes.”  He flipped furiously about, splashing water all the way to my face and charging against the palm of my hand.  If he is a mindreader – as of course all pets are – maybe all of this fuss was because he was thinking, “that would FABULOUS! and can I have a little sardine-sized castle to swim around in also? and some colored pebbles? you’re the bestest!”

Then again, maybe he was thinking, “woman, cut the Mother Teresa crap and move your damn hand so I can go drain diving.”

Ugly little fish, do I take care of you because you are mine, or you are you mine because I take care of you?  Either way, we’re stuck together.  Please die before my two months here is up, so I don’t have to worry that your next owner is neglecting you or enacting any of my imagined scenarios.

Name suggestions, anyone?

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July 1

How to do laundry in China:

1.) Put clothes in washing machine and add detergent
2.) Randomly push buttons and turn dials until something happens
3.) If what’s happening now is not what you want to happen, unplug the washing machine and repeat step 2.

How to speak Chinese in China:

1.) Practice with a native speaker, who will demonstrate correct pronounciation.  Repeat to the best of your ability, but know that whatever is coming out of your mouth bears little resemblance to real Chinese.
2.) But go ahead and use those “phrases” with people anyhow.  The Chinese get a real kick out of this.  Add some gestures while you’re at it.  They still won’t understand, but now they’ll call their coworker over so they can laugh at you together.
3.) Now you can go ahead and give up, knowing that you’ve fought the good fight.  Pull out your phrasebook, or cheatsheet, and point to the written version of what you’re trying to say.

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“If you exclude the thunder, and the rain, and the rivers of water in the street, and the darkness, it’s not a bad mornin’.” – my Irish co-worker, Michael

This is not quite turning out to be the fun experience I had in mind.  It appears that I’ll be working a lot more hours than I was told I’d be, the disorganization of the center is frustrating, and the weather is wretched.  But it’s an experience, I keep reminding myself.  I’m just hoping that once I start working with the kids next week, it will be fun enough to justify giving up a perfectly nice summer in SoCal to come here.

Hello, real world… it’s been so long, I almost didn’t recognize you.





Hurtling forward

22 12 2010

She wore a matronly dress on her large frame, and makeup was smudged crudely across her drooping eyelids.  She smiled at me from the table that she shared with three homeless men, and then approached.  “You two are so beautiful,” she said to me and Kristel.  “I just had to say hello.  I was a man, but now I am a lesbian.”

This is the sort of conversation opener that I might have perceived as creepy once, and reacted accordingly; but traveling solo has given me a better eye for loneliness.  So I smiled, and we talked.  She described feeling out of place in her old body, and I asked her, “are you happy now, since the operation?”  It’s not the sort of intimate question that I would normally ask a stranger, but she wanted to confide in someone.  “I thought it would make me happier,” she answered, “but it hasn’t.”

There have been several times in my life when I knew I should touch someone – when it was obvious that human contact was what they craved, and I was in a position to offer it but I didn’t.  I hope this story is about the last time I err on the side of propriety (or more accurately, remaining within my comfort zone) rather than reaching out to them.

The first time I remember doing this was when I was a child – maybe 6.  A man in a wheelchair had come to speak to our class about his disability, which also involved limited mobility in his arms and a tube in his throat that he had to cover with his finger in order to talk.  I don’t remember much more than that, other than seeing dried saliva around his lips and thinking it was ‘gross.’  At the end of his talk, he asked us all to come up and give him a hug.  I went and hid in the bathroom. 

Kids can be so awful.  It’s easy to write it off by saying that they don’t know any better, but would I still remember this and feel guilty for it if I didn’t know any better at the time?  I have tried to forgive my 6-year-old self, but I want to smack her for her insensitivity and rudeness nonetheless.

I told a story a few days ago, about a little girl – maybe 6 – in a market in Peru, who walked up to me and touched my hand, then trotted over to her mother’s side and turned back to give me a proud smile.  I shared with my friend that I saw myself in that moment as the girl, but I didn’t add that it was like looking at a better version of myself, and that it recalled the shameful memory of the man in the wheelchair.  That little girl’s sweet smile was the smile I could have given him.

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This year, my experiences with people whose languages I do not speak have ranged from beautiful brushes with humanity to situations that made me want to scream.  I have been hung up on for not speaking Thai, patiently given directions in German by a woman who knew full well I could not understand, but who felt compelled to try anyhow, caressed on the cheek by a woman who seemed to think it was cute that I couldn’t speak Portuguese, been laughingly described as a “suffering American” while trying to fumble through shopping for a camera in Spanish,  and of course, ripped off in many countries.  Both the good and the bad have resulted in an increased sympathy for people in the U.S. who don’t speak English… people that I might have been too impatient with in the past, and people that I might have grown frustrated with when we couldn’t communicate. 

This is the sort of situation that we should all be on the other side of at some point, since the frustration of being the one on the receiving end is nowhere near the frustration of being the one unable to express themself.  When face to face with a person who is praying to be understood, it is a failure as a human being to not treat them compassionately.

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Christmas is only 3 days away, and rather than spending it with my family somewhere in the wintery U.S., I am with an adopted family in Ecuador… it’s hot, parrots squawk outside at dusk, iguanas prowl through the backyard, and I dissect strange tropical fruits for breakfast.  This is one of the many times this year that I have found myself utterly bewildered by my life as it is now compared to the life I’ve always had.  When things approach normal again, maybe that will be bewildering as well.

The topic of homesickness comes up often, both with people back home and with fellow travellers.  I miss people, yes.  I miss certain things as well: going to the gym, my Monday night dance class, clothes and shoes other than the limited selection I carry in my backpack, driving, the ability to call a friend who knows me well rather than making a friend who will get a crash course on me and then may never see me again, and I even miss working.  But the only times I would say that I have felt homesick were the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and I am sure I will feel homesick on Christmas day.   The rest of the time, it doesn’t even occur to me to wish I were in the U.S. – it is pointless to ache for something that I can return to whenever I choose… if I missed it so much, I would just go back. 

If anything, I feel homesick for my favorite cities and people that have taken me in during my travels, knowing that I might never see them again… or if I do, it can never be in the same way.  To travel like this is to fall in love and then leave the object of my affection over and over again; it brings both sadness and a feeling of lightness.

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I was supposed to fly from Santiago to Guayaquil on December 16th, but the pilot turned the plane back from the runway due to an engine light coming on.  So I spent another evening in Santiago with new friends thrown together by circumstance, playing tour guide in a city I had only passing knowledge of, discussing business ideas over drinks, and being reminded of the beauty of plans that do not go as planned.

Because of the delay, a woman on the plane was unable to celebrate her birthday with her family – so the crew did their best to make it up to her on our flight the following day by announcing her birthday to the rest of the passengers and then by throwing her an impromptu birthday party in the back of the plane, with cake and sparkling wine, and random other passengers pulled from the line to the bathroom (like me) to help make it more festive.  I hope that when she looks at the photos of smiling strangers around her on her special day, she remembers that event as the perfect ending to an unexpected adventure.  That’s what it was for me.

My birthday also passed this month.  I don’t worry so much about getting older as I worry about not doing enough while I’m young.  This explains so many of my choices in life, but even as I make those choices I wonder about the life I’m not living in Houston, the life I’m not living in Los Angeles, my husband and children that don’t yet (and may never) exist, the house I don’t own, the job I don’t have… all of these Bizarro Worlds I might just as easily have inhabited as the life I’m actually in.

“I want to live abroad at some point,” I wrote to Katie.

“You do live abroad,” she replied.

Yes… I suppose I do.





Photos from Indonesia

4 08 2010

I was in Bali and Java in March… a shameful amount of time has passed without posting pics from that part of the trip!  I was too camera-happy while I was there, though, and so I had a lot of stuff to weed out, and not enough patience to stick to it.

I’ve been taking fewer photos since leaving Asia, partly because I got tired of dealing with them and also because taking photos in Australia and Europe just isn’t as much fun.  Not that the places I’ve been visiting are not interesting – it’s just that many of these things are either too close to what I’d see in the U.S. or they are things that you can easily find in guidebooks or on postcards – photographed by people with more skill and better cameras than I have, so why bother?  Ok, sometimes I still do… but not with the same enthusiasm as I had in Asia.

Enjoy!

General photos from all over Bali:
http://picasaweb.google.com/thefifthchamber/Bali#

Photos that specifically cover the Balinese New Year celebrations – which lead up to a day in which nobody can leave their home or hotel, or switch on lights, or make noise – and then a follow-up ceremony, which occurs on the day of the first full moon after the new year:
http://picasaweb.google.com/thefifthchamber/NyepiAndVillageCeremony#

Photos from Jogjakarta and Bromo, which are on the neighboring island of Java:
http://picasaweb.google.com/thefifthchamber/Jogjakarta#





Telling less, sharing more

2 07 2010

During my flight from Brisbane to Los Angeles on May 26th, it occurred to me that I had never before crossed the Pacific Ocean.  And then it occurred to me that I had not crossed the Pacific Ocean on my way to India in January because I had flown through Frankfurt.  And then I realized that I had gone around the world in five months.

Flying around the world isn’t that hard to do.  With a few thousand bucks, a good dose of insanity, and either a lot of patience or a lot of sleeping pills, anyone can hop back-to-back flights and do it in 2 days… so doing it in five months is not exactly an accomplishment.  But it’s still a little bit cool.

My friend Soham asked me, “how much of this trip is about bragging rights?”  All of it and none of it, I guess… I am my favorite person to brag to, actually; more than I want anyone else to be proud of me, I want to be proud of myself – and that means “conquering” some of the things that scare me, and pitting a larger idea of myself against whatever I currently am.  I’m proud of getting over a history of stage fright by acting in a play.  I’m proud of ripping up my roots in Texas and creating a new life in California by myself.  I’m proud of having been one of the youngest district managers my last company has ever had.  And now, I’m proud of myself for having the ability and nerve to take off for a year in order to follow a dream of traveling.  At some point, each of these things has been terrifying… but the feeling of getting past that “OH SHIT!” moment when you wonder what on earth possessed you to get yourself into such an uncomfortable and challenging position is one thing that I live for. 

When these things are not uncomfortable and challenging, they are exhilarating.  And I argue that, without discomfort and challenge, nothing can be exhilarating.

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I spent a whirlwind month in the U.S. – Los Angeles, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Houston again, NYC, Vermont, Montreal, NYC again.  For a week, our currency felt strange in my hands, I kept wanting to turn onto the wrong side of the street while driving, and I had to get used to American ways of saying things again: “restroom” instead of “toilet,” “garage” instead of “carpark,” “liquor store” instead of “bottleshop,” etc.  In Texas, I noticed (for the first time) accents in the voices of people I’ve known for years. 

In rural Texas, a cashier asked me where I’m from.  It’s not a question that I usually get in my home state, but a few days before I went down there, I got a “wild hair” (literally), and decided it was time for some bright red highlights.  Fun hair was something I had always wanted to try, but knew would have been a problem at my last job.  And the job before that.  And the two jobs before that.  But a long stint of unemployment is the perfect opportunity to act, well, unemployed.  The most interesting comment came from a TSA employee in the Houston airport, who declared, “young lady, you’d better stop eating so much rhubarb – it’s turning your hair red!” – which may not have actually been a compliment, but it made me laugh, so I chose to take it as one.

Stuff like that really makes me miss Texas.  And the cashier, who went on for two minutes after I told her that I live in L.A. about how she saw a Los Angeles bathroom in a magazine one time, and that’s the kind of bathroom she wants in her house someday.  She even tore it out to show it to her boyfriend.  They want to get engaged, but she lives with her grandma, who thinks she’s too young to get married.  And yeah, people tell her she looks like Scarlett Johansson, but she didn’t even know who that was until, like, a year ago!  Gosh, that Scarlett Johansson is pretty.

If that sounds like an alarmingly friendly conversation to have with a stranger, it’s because you haven’t spent enough time in small country towns.  It’s kind of fun… give it a try, sometime.  All you have to do is give someone one personal detail, and just watch how the conversation takes on a life of its own.

This was a particularly memorable stop in Texas because I visited Mrs. Barnes in San Antonio, who (along with her late husband) was my next door neighbor since before my conception 32 years ago until just before last Christmas.  There’s something special about taking a relationship out of context – it’s not as if we couldn’t have predicted that our families would stay in touch if there wasn’t the neighbor link, but to turn up on her doorstep in a new city and sleep under her roof  added a whole new dimension.  It’s the act of choosing the people we want in our lives, and taking steps to make it happen.  It’s something that I stopped taking for granted years ago, but of which it never hurts to be reminded.

Another memorable moment, in Austin – an old friend opening a new side to me.  It was a perfect gift.

I decided to use that as inspiration for my communication with the people I care about.  Too often, I hide in storytelling and asking questions and bravado and self-deprecating humor, when it goes deeper than that.  I go deeper than that, and I undermine myself by not talking about the things that matter.  I have become out of touch with the part of me that is ok with opening up to people, and it creates distance that I have grown comfortable with, but should not have. 

I will try to be better for you.





State of the Travels

24 05 2010

I fly home in a couple of days, so it’s time for a summary of this leg of the trip…

Tips for new travellers:

  1. If you want free clothes or electronics, follow someone into a dorm room at an Australian megahostel.  There are so many people coming and going that they will assume you’re either a new roommate, or one they have not yet noticed, or someone hooking up with one of their roommates.  Pull out your laptop or a book and sit on a neutral spot on the floor until the room is empty, and then go shopping.  I have not done this, but I can’t help but notice how easy it would be.
  2. If you want free food, dress like a backpacker and then raid the refrigerator in an Australian megahostel kitchen.  I have not done this, but I can’t help but notice how easy it would be.
  3. Even though they are ugly, Tevas really are great shoes.  And not just because they would help with tip #2.   
  4. When crossing the street in Asia, walk at a normal pace and a constant speed, pray, and trust that the cars and scooters and rickshaws will go around you.  
  5. When it comes to plans, being semi-clueless is good.  Being totally clueless is for young British girls traveling in groups, and means that you will probably spend your whole trip drinking and nursing hangovers.
  6. When surrounded by people that do not know your name and who will never see you again, do something you have previously never had the nerve to do.  Note to young British girls traveling in groups:  I did not say “do some stupid stuff that might get you into trouble with the authorities,” or “do some scandalous stuff that you will later blame on the alcohol.”
  7. When in non-Western countries, packaging is not always a reliable indicator of what you are buying; Loreal sunscreen may just be lotion, and organic shampoo may just be watered down handsoap.
  8. If you are on the back of a scooter, you are already putting your life at risk.  Hanging onto the driver and watching the road over his shoulder will not increase your chances of survival in the case of a major accident, plus it will make your shoulders ache.  So just put your hands in your lap and enjoy the scenery.

Top 10 experiences, in no particular order:

  1. A tourist-free (except for me and 2 friends) village ceremony on a black sand beach in Bali, followed by home-cooked lunch in a family compound
  2. Exploring Cambodian temples early in the morning, before other tourists arrived
  3. Seeing for myself how inadequate photos of the Taj Mahal really are
  4. A panoramic view of shooting stars while on a full-moon nightswim in Coral Bay, Australia
  5. The one time I went scuba diving in Thailand, before my ears gave out
  6. Two magical sunrises in Sanur, with magical music on my iPod to match
  7. Eating anything and everything from street stands, bicycle carts, and marketplaces all over India and Southeast Asia
  8. Camping on the central coast of New South Wales – a short but perfect adventure
  9. Visiting remote villages in India, where people said things in Hindi as I walked past like, “she must be lost…”
  10. And of course, all of the amazing people I’ve met along the way – friends that I hope to keep for years to come, and kind strangers I will never see again.

Lessons that I’ve either learned or reinforced for myself, in no particular order:

  1. Americans need to get out more.
  2. The world is an awesome gym, and membership is cheap.
  3. No matter what your life is today, you can make it something else tomorrow.
  4. Do not be surprised when people seem to forget you…
  5. … nor should you be surprised when you find out that they remember you fondly and often.
  6. It’s not too late to do the stuff you wish you had done as a kid.
  7. It’s ok to fall in love often, as long as one is able to let go often.

Things that I will do within the next 3 years (all of which are in some way related to this trip):

  1. Fly without an engine (hang-glide, paraglide, etc.)
  2. Find a volunteer position after my return to L.A.
  3. Learn to speak Spanish at above a 5-year-old’s level
  4. See the pyramids in Egypt
  5. Visit all 7 continents
  6. Start learning to play an instrument for fun
  7. Run a half-marathon
  8. Go on a solo camping trip





“Nice to meet you! Want to go camping?”

17 05 2010

alternate titles, leading to stories I could tell in this entry but won’t:

“Nice to meet you!  Let’s book a cruise to Antarctica.”
“Nice to meet you!  Yes, I’d love a ride to the hospital.”
“Nice to meet you!  Please ask your grandparents if I can sleep in their guestroom.”
“Nice to meet you!  Let’s discuss your criminal record over dinner.”

More often than not, running off with near-strangers while traveling has resulted in awesome experiences.  Most recently, it’s how I ended up camping on the central coast of New South Wales with a friend of a friend of a friend on Saturday night. 

Sometimes, when doing outdoorsy things like getting lost while hiking or wondering if I just accidentally examined a poisonous plant, I wish I watched more of those reality TV shows that demonstrate how to get along in the wilderness.  This lack of knowledge (paired with questionable survival instincts) is why I don’t trust myself to go venturing off alone with a tent… instead, I jump at every opportunity to enjoy nature in the company of more experienced campers, who can sort out essential things like how we will have hot coffee and toast and scrambled eggs for breakfast, even though we are miles from the nearest cafe. 

In complete disregard for a weather forecast that called for sunshine, rain began coming down about 10 minutes before Marty and I reached the campsite.  Left to my own devices, I would have resorted to eating granola bars for dinner and sleeping in the truck (alright… who am I fooling? I would have checked into a hotel), but Marty had a better idea: set up a camping structure.   Thankfully there was a mom-and-pop sporting goods store still open in the sleepy little town nearby, where even the drugstores had already closed for the night.  Marty described something involving tarps and poles and ropes.  I smiled and blinked as vacantly as a cheerleader in calculus class, and then went to buy a bottle of cabernet. 

We arrived near dusk, which meant that most of the camp setup was done by flashlight.  I didn’t mind at all, since I was the one holding the flashlight.  Then Marty started chopping wood.  I sliced cheese and placed it on crackers.  He built a fire.  I poured wine.  The gorgeous view of the Milky Way, the excitement of watching electrical storms in the distance, and the constant sound of waves crashing just a short walk away was worth all of that work.  We were a great team, Marty and I.

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The informality in Australia makes for some interesting marketing.  The hold recording for a travel agency rotates between statements like these…

– “On holiday, you don’t want to worry about details.  When you book with us, we take care of everything.  We’ll even call your mum for you!  Ok, that’s crap.”
– “Everybody wants to sleep with us!  We can’t say we blame them; we have the best rates on hotels all over the world.”

The side of a box of tea describes the perfect Australian teatime as including insulting your friends.  An orange juice bottle announces that its contents mix well with dubious company, and that combination “can get you into all sorts!”

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“I drank the stubbie, I ate the pie.  It was good to be here.”
     – note left on an Australian grave, along with the empty bottle of beer and a crumpled paper bag… littering at its best.

Drinking is sort of a national pasttime for Australians and Kiwis.  It runs the gamut between being a touching way of remembering one’s mates, to being a fun excuse for dancing like an asylum escapee with a cloud of imaginary bees encircling one’s head, to being an acceptable explanation for the lack of explanation behind scars and broken bones – known as Unidentified Drinking Injuries.  One could argue that this is not all that different from the United States, but people Down Under do it with a great deal more gusto.  It’s possible that the Irish are on par.  I plan to conduct studies this autumn on the subject.

Irish woman at a tourism center, while reviewing a map of the area with my Kiwi friend: “there’s a good pub here, and a good pub here, and you should definitely go to this pub…”

Kiwi: “Ok, but what is there to do other than visit pubs?”

Irish woman: “you are a Kiwi, right?”

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Traveling in Asia, one of the first things locals would ask me was if I am American.  But when I arrived in Australia, suddenly people were asking if I am Canadian.  Why?  Apparently, Canadians get upset when people think they’re American, but Americans don’t care what we’re mistaken for.  Maybe some Americans even liked being mistaken for Canadian, between January of 2001 and January of 2009. 

When I landed in Perth, the flight attendants said, “welcome home,” as I walked out of the plane.  It’s possible that that was merely a standard farewell, but I smiled at the idea that this place could be home.

In 10 days, I land in Los Angeles.  I smile at the idea that that place could be home.





Zero to sixty

13 04 2010
April 3

I wonder if I would have been miserable in Ubud before the book Eat Pray Love was published, or if my unpleasant experience there was the direct result of that wretched angst-ridden-yet-humorless memoir. The place was overrun with Elizabeth Gilbert wannabes looking for love or a suitable substitute… whether it be a 25-year-old Balinese boyfriend, or an older gentleman ripe for romance, or some sort of peace with their involuntary chastity that can only be found by flying to the other side of the world to prove to themselves how wonderfully “fulfilling” it is that they are able (after finding someone to take care of their 6 cats) to fly to the other side of the world to meditate on why sex is not so important after all.

The giggling middle-aged women in halterdresses buying drinks for bored young island boys might have been an amusing reversal of Thailand’s sex tourism, if it weren’t for the fact that they gave me an uncomfortable glimpse into my swiftly-closing-in future, in which not only will 25-year-olds no longer think of me as a sexy older woman, but the older gentlemen ripe for romance will also no longer think of me as a sexy younger woman. Fully aware of the fact that Demi Moore’s budget for aesthetic upkeep is significantly higher than mine, I started having uncharacteristic thoughts about getting on the ball and finding a suitable life partner before my perfectly aged sirloins become vacuum-packed strips of beef jerky waiting indefinitely to be rescued from the bottom shelf of a 7-11 register.

Upon leaving Ubud, I almost immediately felt myself returning to my laissez-faire attitude toward my love life. However, this suddenly felt a bit too in line with the, “who needs love when I have all of this other cool stuff in my life, like cats and books and yoga and freedom and cats and continuing education classes and international travel and cats and blah blah blah” approach. I recognize this. Which brings us back to the fact that maybe I should get on the ball.

But in the meantime, I stopped at a massage place while waiting in the airport today, and got a neck and shoulder rub from a young Balinese masseur. When he finished, he looked over his shoulder to make sure we were alone and then whispered – blushing, but with a sense of urgency that precludes describing this as a shy request – “kiss me.” I laughed and declined, but when he asked again and pointed at his cheek I thought, “this might be the last time in my life a cute 19-year-old wants me to give him a kiss. If I have a son or a nephew one day, when he is 19 even he will not want me to give him a kiss. Just give the kid a kiss, already.”

So I leaned in. He turned his head quickly in a classic attempt to redirect my aim toward his lips, but I put my hand on his chin and held it there long enough to give him a peck on the cheek. I don’t know if the fact that I did it makes me more like the 50-year-old women in halterdresses, or if the fact that he asked me to makes me less like them… but either way, I walked out smiling.

_______________________________________________________________________________
April 11

“There’s nothing we can do if something happens to her, so we might as well not worry.”
-my dad, ‘comforting’ my worried mother

Couchsurfing – in which brave travelers get in touch with brave hosts over the internet, and agree to share space for a few nights – is my new mode of finding places to sleep. The idea once made me nervous, but traveling for the past few months has desensitized me to a lot of things… and now crashing in strangers’ homes no longer seems like a big deal. It was also brought on by my sticker shock at Australian hostel prices, which start at $25/night for a bed in a dorm room. And so this is how I found myself on a farm an hour outside of Perth, sleeping in a room full of bunk beds, socializing with a very mixed crowd of travelers on Easter Sunday and then working out in the field one afternoon before leaving. It was there that I met a Danish metal band, who I then roadtripped with to Margaret River. It was through that band that I met a Margaret River family at whose homes I have stayed for several nights. Soon, I will stay at the father’s home on Rottnest Island. It’s quite a snowball effect, from one simple online request.

_______________________________________________________________________________

April 13

Conversation with a man from California, at a restaurant in Margaret River:

“When are you heading back to Perth?”

“I was going on Thursday, but I found someone who will take me on Wednesday.”

“How did you manage that?”

“I’m good at meeting people.”

“Me too, but people I meet don’t offer to take me on roadtrips.”

“Being a woman helps.”

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Australia has resulted in a bit of a culture shock after 3 months in Asia, as I imagine going straight to the U.S. would have also been… there are no chickens running through restaurants as I eat, traffic is orderly, sign language is not necessary, and toilet paper is readily available, but I have to pay for ketchup with my fries… er… chips.  Opposite from what I would have predicted, I am finding this a harder place to travel.

Things about Australia:

– It’s strange to be the one with the accent, and to encounter words and phrases in my own language that I don’t understand. I just now had to have someone explain a coffee menu to me: “short black,” “long black,” “flat white.” Huh?

– American football is for wussies.

– American parents are so uncool… but I probably have fewer scars, more brain cells, and a healthier liver because of that.

– Kangaroos are a lot like deer: they wander through fields early in the morning and late at night, they run at the sight of people, they’re cute, and they taste good.

– Like most places in the U.S., it is very difficult to get around this country without a car.

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I have been occasionally driving the “tour bus” belonging to the metal band while down here in Margaret River… it is a relic of the ’80s with a manual transmission, which (as discussed in my last entry) is a bit of a problem for me:

“It’s just like the gears on a bike…”

“But I don’t know how the gears on a bike work.”

Add to this the fact that I’m driving on the other side of the road, in the other side of the vehicle, on hilly roads, and shifting gears with my left hand. Surprisingly, I have not yet dropped the transmission or hit anything, but let’s just say that it’s a good thing I was by myself when parking it yesterday. And I was also not very considerate toward pedestrians, as yielding to them would have required changing gears.

I used my day alone with the van to visit two caverns, for which this part of the country is famous. And then I headed to Redgate Beach for sunset – a spot I had picked off of the map without knowing that it would be one of the most gorgeous places I’ve seen in my life. There are several huge rocks just a little way offshore, and when waves crashed against them they sounded like muffled cannons, with water spraying high above the rocks. It made me wish I had my iPod with me, so I could put on the 1812 Overture.

As I climbed back into the van I wondered, “this is my life?”

I have wondered that a lot since January. My life while traveling changes every few days… sometimes drastically. Time moves slower because of this; it seems like ages ago that I landed in Mumbai. It’s amazing what I have packed into just 3 months, and the idea of having more than twice that amount of time left to go boggles my mind.

What next? Where to?





Like a Pinto among Porsches

21 03 2010

When most of y’all read my entry about how I dislike swimming and the beach, you might have thought that I couldn’t get much more backward than that.  But a few of you know better, and could probably even spice up this blog by adding some stories of your own.  Just keep in mind that all comments must be approved by me before they go public, ok?  You can’t sneak that stuff past me.  Although if you post it on Facebook in the middle of the day, while I’m sleeping on the other side of the world, the embarrassing tidbit will likely fester for several hours before I catch and delete it.  That is, unless it’s funny… in which case I will probably add it to the “about me” section of my Facebook profile.

But don’t get any ideas.

Ok, so I have another confession in the meantime: if riding a bicycle required a test, similar to the driving test one must pass before getting licensed to drive a car, I would fail.  Actually, the summary that I often give of my swimming skills also applies here… “I can get where I need to go, but it’s not gonna look pretty on the way there.”  And much like driving a manual-shift car, I have one hell of a time getting going from a standstill – but whereas most people can identify with the difficulties inherent in letting off of the clutch while giving gas in just the right proportions so as to not stall, nobody over the age of 7 (except for my mother, who also cannot ride a bicycle with any grace… sorry to out you, Mom…) can identify with having trouble of keeping the bike erect while at the same time getting the position of the pedals to a point where one can get them to go around in circles rather than making it only a quarter of the way and then not having enough momentum to swing through the bottom of the arc. 

Once I’m going, I have to fight the kamikaze urge to squeeze hard on the front brake rather than the rear brake when something scares me by coming within a 3 meter radius.  Of course, I could also try the ‘not panicking’ approach, but that’s a bit advanced for me at this stage.  

In the U.S. none of this is a problem, because I drive everywhere in my steel-reinforced, fully-airbagged, automatic-everything Volvo.  But there was the one time I took the bicycle that I bought just for Burning Man out on the streets of downtown Los Angeles… or more accurately the sidewalks of downtown Los Angeles, because I was too nervous to ride alongside cars… and a flotilla of hip teenagers on bikes came up beside me at a traffic light.  I had my blinking light on the back and was wearing my helmet (dweeb!), and staring at my gearshift waiting for it to all make sense.  When the light changed, I tottered back and forth and used one foot to balance the bike as I used the other to move the pedals into position, before slowly taking off.  As the cool kids glided away, one shouted over his shoulder, “hey, wanna ride with us?” and started laughing.  At me.  Oh, the shame.

Right, so the point of all of this is that being able to at least ride a bicycle would come in super handy in Asia, where most people use some sort of two-wheeled device to get around.  I did briefly entertain the idea of renting a scooter, since it would bypass all of the gear and pedal stuff, but when I weighed the costs of just hiring a motorcycle taxi whenever I have a long way to go against paying the medical bills that would likely result from attempting to drive myself, I opted to stick with walking and mototaxis. 

However, tonight, in a stroke of unjustifiably confident rebellion against my own shortcomings like usually only a man might have, I thought it was high time I gave riding a bicycle a try.  They’re free at my hostel, and the place where I wanted to eat would have been a half hour walk, and since it was going to be neighborhood streets the entire way I figured I’d have all of the space I needed to do my spot-on impression of someone who could really use a set of training wheels.

The bike had a headlamp, but I could not figure out how to turn it on and there was nobody around to ask… so I put my little AA-battery camping light in the front basket so that at least people could see me wobbling their direction and I set off, determined to not be held back by a lifetime of poor coordination.  It was me against the bicycle, and an empty stomach was sure to give me the extra motivation I needed to prevail.

I passed the guard station at the entrance to my section of the neighborhood, and they shouted hello.  I felt bad for not responding, but I couldn’t let myself be distracted from the monumental task at hand: a right hand turn.  After overcoming that obstacle I rode without incident for a few minutes, but then the road got dark.  And there were speedbumps.  Oh!  A patch of light outside another guard booth!  “Where are you from?” one asked as I approached.  “California!” I shouted, without budging my eyes from the path ahead.  Doin’ good.

And then the road got VERY dark.  And very narrow.  Puddles spanned the street, obscuring entire swaths of whatever small amount of surface topography I might have been able to make out.  My camping light was the little engine that could not.  A scooter came up behind me, and remained there for quite some time… a guardian angel lending me his light, or a bandit about to run me off the road, or (more likely) just a guy afraid to pass me because I was swerving and braking erratically.  Finally he went around, and left me to fend for myself in the pitch black night once again.  Fortunately, the restaurant was right around the corner…

… but was closed.  I knew I couldn’t go back the way I came – at least not without scooter escort – so I decided to trust my sense of direction and head for the main road.  I knew this was going to mean eventually crossing the busy thoroughfare twice, but the unknown evil is sometimes the lesser of the evils. 

When I got to the main road, there was a car waiting to cross.  Perfect!  I would just ride alongside it as it cleaved the traffic.  I almost rolled into the intersection prematurely as I did my signature “getting the pedals ready” dance, but managed to hang back and then move forward at just the right moment with my giant shield.  After I arrived on the other side, I would have done a fist pump in the air if only I had the ability to release one of my hands from their deathgrip on the handles for a second.  I settled for smiling a goofy little smile, and then I decided to head straight home and make instant noodles rather than endanger myself further in the name of dinner.

But a right turn, in a left-hand drive country, would mean merging from the shoulder of the road to the center of the road, and then braving the middle of the road where (in Asia) no motorist fears to tread, even if it means driving on the “wrong” side of the road.  Oh god.  So I rode past my turn, thinking that I needed a minute to strategize.

And that’s when I saw the guy in the middle of the road with a light baton, like the kind people use to direct airplanes as they back out of airport gates.  It wasn’t just a signal, it was a sign.  It was a siren song.  THAT is the restaurant where I must eat. 

After my meal, I did not have to ask for his assistance… he took one look at me waddling toward the road with the bike between my legs like a toddler who hasn’t quite grasped the concept of her Big Wheel tricycle, and picked up his glorious baton to part the sea of cars and scooters.  The hard part over, I could finally relax. 

I turned at the grocery store, just like I am supposed to.  Then I turned left, just like I’m supposed to… but it was the wrong left.  And here were the sleighbells jingling ring-ting-ting-a-ling of the “SA-TAY” man’s cart (see my last entry), making his rounds.  As I made an awkward U-turn in front of him, he said something to me in Javanese.  I paused, mid-turn, and looked up at his smile of recognition.  He said something again and pointed to the next street over… 

“Stupid white girl doesn’t even know her way home.”





“I will find myself on Facebook”

19 03 2010

I’m tired of explaining to people that I’m not trying to “find myself” on this year-long trip around the world… I’d have to be lost, for that.  Rather, I describe it as “looking for what to do next with myself.”

Things I have considered doing, after my travel (presumably) takes a break at the end of 2010:

 – Spend a month or two volunteering with an orphanage in Cambodia
– See if I can get one of Raytheon’s highly sought-after temporary gigs in Antarctica. I already looked online, and there’s one I’m qualified for.
– Um, continue traveling…? January snowboarding in Canada (which would be only the second time I’ve attempted this sport), February Carnivale in Brasil, March for pre-Nyepi celebrations in Bali, April Songkran in Thailand… I’ve become quite good at filling a travel schedule.
– Move to Europe for a few months.  Learn some German and re-learn some French.
– Move to South America for a few months.  Learn some Spanish.
– Or, of course, there’s always the option of moving back to L.A. and re-entering the real world…

Ooof. I felt the twinge of a headache just then.  I’ll refrain from talking about the real world for right now.

________________________________________________________

Traveling alone kind of puts one into a speed-dating model of making friends… you meet in the common area of a hostel, or the pool of your hotel, or in a restaurant, and if both of you are in the market for a connection it’s a flurry of immediate conversation as you figure out if this is someone you want to hang out with during your stay, and maybe be “Facebook friends” with, and maybe even incorporate into future travel plans.

Just like with speed dating, you get a rehearsed schtick for the first two minutes… and just like speed dating, that sometimes means that your impression is dead wrong.  The British girls who are also taking a year off of work to travel the world can turn out to be obnoxious lushes who only want to drink at the pool all day, before carrying on to the next destination, where they will also drink at the pool all day.  The cool Australian guy who has a girlfriend can turn out to be a gropy jerk who insists that mutual masturbation would not be cheating on the girl he supposedly loves, but would rather be a satisfying and wholesome activity for both parties involved.   But inevitably, the boring girl from Belgium turns out to be a boring girl from Belgium, and the socially awkward and mildly irritating guy from San Diego turns out to be a REALLY socially awkward and irritating guy from San Diego… do not take a chance on these.

Twice now, I have been approached by French people in my hostels speaking to me in French, and then apologizing and saying that they thought I looked French.  It’s possible that this is just an icebreaker, but it’s a damn good one… since what American girl doesn’t want to look French?  Or at least like what our idea of a French woman looks like – which basically means oozing sex appeal.  So this bit of flattery is how I found myself at dinner with a girl who spoke far less English than I speak French, and her friend who spoke fine English but who was more interested in speaking with the Australian that joined us later than continuing to translate for us.  I was very shocked to find that, 13 years after I gave up on learning French, I can actually carry on a conversation – with the help of hand gestures, and the bonus of unlimited time to think up how to piece together grammatically incorrect sentences using the simplest words possible.

As we said our goodbyes, I wanted to tell her to find me on Facebook.  I thought that my French was very clear, having practiced the statement in my mind first… but she looked quite confused as she nodded. I realized afterward that what I had said to her, in confident and perfect French, was, “I will find myself on Facebook.”

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Travel is an easy way to stay humble.  As soon as I start to feel proud of myself for being able to give lost tourists directions, I am ready to move onto the next place, where I will be the lost one again.  The night that I felt brilliant for knowing how to ride a songthaew (and pretty cool, since I was the only “farang” in the truck), I ended up clear on the other side of town with a full bladder and no idea how long it was going to take to finish what could have been a 5-minute drive by taxi, or a 20-minute walk.

And tonight, as I set out from my hostel to make the dark and lonely walk to the strip of restaurants nearby, I encountered a satay cart.  It’s kind of like an ice cream cart, complete with a little jingle.  I stopped the guy and asked how much. “SA-TAY” he answered, a little extra loud for the Javanese-impaired.  “RU-PI-AH?” I said, a little extra loud for no particular reason.  He pulled out a 5000 note, and then pointed at the skewers… “FOR TEN.”  I pulled out a 1000 note and pointed at the skewers… “FOR TWO?” – thinking that the best way to avoid food poisoning is to eat less of foods that are likely contaminated, rather than by avoiding them altogether like most sensible travelers do.  He shrugged and pulled over.

I would not have made such a ridiculous offer if I had realized that he was not going to just hand them to me; he was going to re-grill them over a little drawerful of charcoal in the bottom of his cart, and fan them, and flip them several times, and then place them ceremoniously on a banana leaf.  So immediately I revised my order to the standard ten, which was going to cost me less than a dollar anyhow.

At this point, one of the employees of my hostel came out, and the SA-TAY man said something to him that made him laugh – probably along the lines of, “stupid white girl tried to buy only 2 skewers.  If she can’t afford 10, why is she here, anyhow?”  And then he held up a banana leaf tube, to see if I wanted some of that too.  “What is it?” I asked the guy from my hostel.  “Rice.”  More Javanese… more laughter… “stupid white girl doesn’t recognize rice?!  What do these Americans eat, anyhow?”

________________________________________________________

My flight to Jogjakarta today was a last minute thing… as in, ticket purchased a mere 9 hours before my 6 a.m. departure.  Still, it cost me only $44.  I simply had to get out, though… I was staying in a miserable (although only $8/night) hotel with no air conditioning or internet, my decent Canadian company was outnumbered by the aforementioned drunken British girls and unwelcomely pervy Australian guy, and I did not want to do any more interesting things there since I will likely be doing those things in Bali when I return on the 26th to meet up with my friend Pamela and her friend, who are flying out from L.A. for 10 days.

So I came to Java – home of the largest Buddhist temple in the world, several scenic volcanoes, a majority Muslim population (like all of Indonesia, except for Bali), fewer tourists (and those that are here are interested in actually experiencing Indonesia, rather than just working on their suntan), and way more authentic food, in restaurants owned by Indonesians instead of mostly by expats or absentee investors. I feel like I’m traveling again, rather than on vacation.

Not that Bali wasn’t wonderful… I was there in time for the ceremonies that precede the Balinese New Year, and they were incredible… a sunset procession from the beach of people playing solemn traditional music and singing, and carrying temple effigies and other sacred symbols through town and then back to the water for purification.  The next night, a parade of “ogoh ogohs” through Denpasar… large and elaborate monster-like things carried with torches to exorcise evil spirits from the town, and later burned to symbolize ridding the people of the past year and starting fresh.  Then, Nyepi is a day of silence for the entire island – enforced by the police – during which nobody can leave their homes or hotels, turn on lights, or make noise.  Admittedly, that day was a drag… but the stars over a completely unlit island are breathtaking.

The day after Nyepi, I toured some sights and was ending the day with my guide at a temple.  As we were about to cross the street, I took a photo of a guy with a rooster tucked under his arm.  Who, I laughed, walks around with a rooster like that?  Cockfighters do, my guide laughed back.  Did I want to see a cockfight?  NO!  Well, maybe.  Ok, yes.

In Indonesia cockfighting is technically illegal, but usually it is not stopped by the police, who are often fans or participants.  It is especially “ok” around Nyepi, when done on temple grounds as a sacrifice… but out of respect, the men leave the temple to exchange money after each fight.  Before the fight begins, it’s a long process to decide which birds are fighting, then to strap blades to their feet, and then to get them riled up, and then finally to get the bets.  Betting is run by a man in the center of the spectators calling out the starting bet, and everyone who wants to place that amount chants the number until the betkeeper knows who’s in.  Then he calls the next bet, and the next round of people chant.  Bets are placed in an outmoded currency but still paid in Rupiah.

I asked my guide if they at least eat the loser.  “Yes, very delicious.  I have eaten many times,” Nyoman replied.  But I only stayed for one fight, during which no blood was shed… kind of the cleaned up tourist version of this brutal tradition, much to the chagrin of the rest of the onlookers.

“Do you want to watch another?  It will be better than this one.”

“No, I think it’s time to go home.”

Or rather, the closest thing to it.