Two Weeks

I have been in my beloved Ubud for two weeks now. The time here seems to evaporate, like rain. I don’t know where it goes. I can only remember a series of moments. Sitting on the bright, round cushions in front of my room furiously trying to finish the amazing The Undoing Project, being immersed in the lives of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and being amazed and questioning all my life choices (again). Then I’m just meters away listening to director Vikram Gandhi (who starred in this documentary that I wrote about a while ago) talk about his new film Barry, about the college years of one Barak Obama. He (Vikram, not Obama) spoke after we watched the film together. Of course I had to pinch myself that if I was in his presence. Some days later (how many, I really don’t remember) I saw another Obama film about his first date with Michelle. What an interesting, complex, high maintenance man I thought. Let it be known that I do crush on the former president, but just imagine living with someone with a law degree from Harvard who feels the need to question everything.

Since there’s not much to do at night, there have been more movies. And yoga. But not as much as last time. Yesterday while ‘practising’ under the guidance of a Jewish yoga goddess, I felt how my fitness level had decreased and how sad that made me. I struggled through, consciously trying not to let that second arrow (how could you get so unfit? why don’t you exercise more? you’ve become so lazy…). Another night, I found myself on a dark, rainy night slipping into a traditional health resort and ended up having an incredible massage, guided into a boiling hot sauna then gently urged into a freezing cold jacuzzi for ten minutes while listening to the music from a ceremony at a nearby temple and looking up at the blinking stars. I’ve been riding around on a bike, taking in all the green. I’ve been hanging out with my friend who has been kind enough to introduce me to her friends. We have been debriefing after her days of anthropological fieldwork, gossiping about the ridiculous fairies that wander around seeking enlightenment from raw food and dreadlocks. We’ve been walking in the mornings through rice fields, dodging stray dogs and eating breakfast together. In stark contrast to Cambodia where I spoke to maybe one person in five days, it feels really good to have a friend.

There are the characters from my previous visits – I know where to find them, they are so predictable in that way. At the same cafe, at the same studio, giving the same class at the same time, with the same people, in the same clothes. But, appearances can be deceiving, for they have come so far in the year since I’ve last seen them. New relationships, marriage, divorce, new businesses, new travels, new opportunities, life and death swirling around them as it should.

I ride my bike down the main road, past the locals dressed in their sarongs for their ceremonies. I bump over a dead snake and see a monkey sitting on a motorcycle. I dodge ugly mating toads. When it’s really hot, I crash the pool of the hotel next door and try to block out the obnoxious Australian accents. It’s hard to get annoyed here, though, amongst so much vitality. There’s literal jungle, blue skies, giant clouds, and an abundance of delicious flowers whose scent evokes the word paradise. Every afternoon it rains, but of course, even rain in Bali is beautiful – the way it falls over the temples, feeling of it on an overheated body is sensual. There’s not long to go now and there’s still a volcano to climb, yoga to learn, online study to be done, oh and a novel to write. Everyday is a battle between discipline and freedom. But this is a lifelong battle and I hope that I can at least, if not win, then make some progress.

Winding down

Over the past ten days I have had highs and lows and things have not gone to plan (do they ever?). Alas, it is my second-to-last day in scorching Phnom Penh before heading to Bali where at least I have some friends. Cue violins. I have spent countless hours scurrying around the streets of central PP, with my mind in a near-constant state of comparison – the city I came to know and love a few years ago and the city as it is now.

The changes are obvious and predictable. They are more or less from my own subjective point of view. Slightly rundown yet charming traditional structures have been bulldozed and replaced with towering apartment buildings and office blocks. The unique Khmer and colonial-inspired architecture is being replaced with slabs of glass, steel and stacco. Cranes line the horizon and everyday at 7am I am woken up incessant banging, crashing, and hammering in the name of progress.

I type this from a brand new Scandinavian-inspired Starbucks, one of only three in the city (all new). It is huge and probably a little neighborhood of family-owned and operated businesses were demolished. I hope, at least, this gentrification of an entire city has some trickle down effect and offers opportunities to those less fortunate.

Unfortunately, there are still the “couples” of old, overweight, unattractive western men and extremely young Cambodian girls seen in bars, restaurants, hotels and just walking around the downtown area and along Riverside. There are beggars and street urchins and I’m ashamed to say I walked right on by one young screaming child that had been abandoned on the street.

As a traveling introvert, it’s hard to meet people, but luckily I did encounter some interesting expats through yoga and capoeira: a Ukrainian architect, a Brazilian NGO consultant, an Australian NGO worker, a yoga teacher who is the daughter of Cambodia’s most revered architect. All seem to be happy enough. And the French. There are so many Frenchies here, not surprising given the colonial connection.

The locals are still kind, sweet, friendly and curious. The groups of men who sit outside cafes compulsively smoking and yelling are not so endearing, however. Neither are the tuk-tuk drivers who are constantly on the lookout for their next passenger. There’s still some kind of racial hierarchy: the lighter, whiter-skinned Cambodians don’t do the dirty work. The darker-skinned Cambodians from the provinces seem to be the ones banging away shirtless at the Chinese-owned construction companies day and night.

This time, I haven’t been out to the slums, where the roads are strewn with trash and people live under tarpaulin tents. I can only hope that some of the development the country is experiencing is being channelled into the areas and people that need it most.

Props: Akiko Naka & Wantedly

Akiko in Petra

As you know, I was lucky enough to sail around the world twice. One my second trip, I met Akiko, who was working as a translator. She is now the founder of Japan’s Wantedly, known as ‘Linkedin for millennials.’ At that time, she was a fresh-faced graduate from a prestigious university with a fancy job lined up with Goldman Sachs in Tokyo. She was full of energy and extremely smart, with an endearing Kiwi accent (she had gone to high school in New Zealand, and despite not speaking English fluently when she arrived, became top of the school. No surprises there).

Now Akiko is something of a celebrity in Japan’s burgeoning startup scene – she’s done TED Talks, and been featured in well-known media around the world, particularly in Asia where her company is expanding. She is my favourite millennial, having started coding from the age of nine. She’s a risk taker and her dream was to become a Manga artist and indeed, after a few gruelling years at Goldman Sachs, she quit and gave herself a year to make it happen. As we know, success is not usually linear and predictable and often life takes us in unexpected directions. The money didn’t follow and instead, life took Akiko to Facebook where she worked before quitting to found Wantedly. Although in interviews she has said she doesn’t want to be considered pioneering because she’s a female leader in the tech and recruiting industries, given the cultural context of conservative, patriarchal Japan, it is incredible that a young woman has been able to be so successful. Times are a-changing.

The mission of Wantedly comes at an important time – it seeks to change with way people feel about work, and to match employers and job seekers based on values and meaning. Money and prestige take a backseat to passion and fulfilment. Her heroes are Steve Jobs and Dan Pink.

Based on my fond memories of hanging out with Akiko, I am not at all surprised by her success. I remember her indefatigable nature – she would get up at 6am, go to the gym and workout, then work all day and socialize all night, getting by on very little sleep and having almost no downtime. Maybe her energy levels were fuelled by her compulsive drinking of vegetable juice. Regardless, it is kind of cool having a famous friend and seeing their star rise.

がんばってね!

 

 

Tune in, Tokyo

14712861_10153714705356853_3737233960148924578_oI found a cheap ticket to Tokyo so faster than you can say ‘konnichiwa’ I was on my way to spend a few days with my dear friend Ai. We survived living in a small cabin together as we sailed around the world some years ago, and a year and a half ago, Ai, recently heartbroken, came to my rescue in Seoul as I found myself in the same predicament. Her calm, strong presence was healing and comforting to say the least.

I have lived in Tokyo and spent a lot of time there over the past ten years. It’s a megacity, that’s for sure. I’m always amazed by how it stretches into infinity, as if it was its own galaxy. Lucky for me, Ai lives in a upscale residential ‘hood in central Tokyo. Despite its central location, her place was incredibly quiet and that’s perhaps the most surprising thing about Tokyo – despite being home to millions of people and gazillions of stores, restaurants, cafes, clubs etc, it’s so eerily quiet.

When we weren’t eating ourselves silly, I spent some time visiting my old haunts – the glitz and glamour of Roppongi Hills, the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku, the craziness of Shibuya, the peace and quiet of Yoyogi Park. After some hours of this, I remembered the reasons I chose not to live there longterm: it’s a giant concrete jungle with an incredibly confusing subway system with little English available. Navigating it can be exhausting. One also expels so much psychic energy on deciding where to go, what to do, what to eat, what to buy. It’s the paradox of choice: there’s just so much choice, it’s hard to decide. Even buying something as simple as a toothbrush, one is confronted with fifty different shapes, sizes, functions and colours. When I remarked about this to my friend, who had spent two years living in the undeveloped Solomon Islands, she said, “I know what you mean. Life was in a way easier in the Solomons because I had no choice about so many things.”

Another thing that struck me was the rampant consumerism and materialism. There are just so many shops! For everything! And shopping is a kind of national sport. I think the Japanese economy would collapse if people stopped shopping for even a day. Of course, no one, apart from perhaps the Italians, does aesthetics so well. The sheer array of beautiful (expensive) things for sale is mind-boggling. My favourite store, Muji, with its Scandinavian-inspired minimalism, is what heaven looks like and I spent an hour just walking around and touching all the things that I may one day own (if I win the lottery).

But my absolute favourite thing to do in Tokyo is to just walk around the narrow, winding streets of its diverse neighbourhoods and observe people go about their daily business. The sushi chef hard at work, a little old lady petting a stray cat, a boy riding his old-school bike home from school, a gaggle of salary men on their lunch break playing Pokemon Go in the park next to a patch of lotuses, a family taking their child all dressed up in kimono to visit a shrine. People are also unfailingly polite and always greet you with a smile, even if you’re shoving a camera in their face.

A friend once described Tokyo, the Big Daikon, as Fantasy Island. There’s truth to that. Anything you want, you can get it. From north to south, east to west, there’s so much to do and see. Even if you spent a year just walking around and exploring, you wouldn’t be able to cover all the city’s terrain. There are too many secrets that the city won’t reveal. And that’s good news for someone like me who can’t get enough of this beautiful, maddening, confusing city that doesn’t sleep, and despite the constant flickering of neon lights, is oddly quiet.

Awkward Encounters on Gili Meno

img_4881Now that I have a new computer, I have been able to download and actually edit some of the thousands of photos I have been hoarding on various memory cards  for the past year. So today I will release some of my photos from Indonesia’s beautiful but tiny Gili Meno island, not too far off the coast of Bali. Warning: travel essay equivalent of ten year old suburban white girl lyrics comes first.

Some context: Gili Meno is known as ‘Elizabeth Gilbert Island’. It was featured in the book Eat, Pray, Love as the place Liz goes alone for ten days at a low point before the shit hits the fan. Here she tries to confront her demons and make sense of the chaos and pain. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but recently she has said that it was a mistake to do that while in such a state of depression and despair. What she in fact needed was an entourage of therapists – so don’t try this at home folks.

Anyway, Gili Meno was forever etched in my mind after reading that book and I decided I would visit when I made last minute travel plans to Bali last year. I would take a side trip there (alone) and bask in the beauty and solitude (and also spend large chunks of time trying not to brood and ruminate over my recent heartbreak). A friend also told me about some kind of turtle sanctuary on the island. This was another pull factor – turtles!!! As usual, I didn’t make any plans and just plodded along with only a Lonely Planet guide. It took a couple of boat rides to get there and on one of them I started talking to a young Canadian woman on a gap year (is everybody who travels in that region on a gap year?) Accommodation options were limited so she suggested I follow her to an eco-hostel. This means everything is made out of bamboo and there is no hot water. OK, I thought, I’ll rough it for a few nights. Upon arrival my friend (whom I suspect is living off a trust fund) promptly disappears into a copy of The Power of Now and into the arms of a rugged Eaton-educated ‘gappy’ and so I have a virgin cocktail at the outdoor bar and chat to the American couple who own the place. I’m a little surprised at the age gap between them – the woman seems at least ten years older, but this is the age of Madonna and Demi Moore. I’m even more surprised, however, when the guy starts flirting with me. Wow, this is awkward. Not just because his wife is standing right there, but also because he’s not my type. I slither off my stool and head to the beach to watch the sunset. I later learn that his partner is in fact his mother. Note to self: live on a tropical island in order to preserve youthful appearance.

The next day I’m determined to see an elusive sea turtle while snorkelling (and after a few attempts, I do!). I also check out the ‘turtle sanctuary’ which was perhaps the most disappointing experience of my adult life – there’s just a bunch of smelly little turtles flapping around in what appear to be baths. There’s a woman there to take care of them but you can’t really touch them or, as in my imagination, ride on the back of them. And there’s still 9 more hours until it gets dark. I fill the few days I’m there with snorkelling, exploring, taking pictures and reading. I have a few conversations with the gaggle of strapping young British men who are probably related to Prince William and Hugh Grant. They’re here for volunteer work which involves building more bamboo things. They sleep outside in hammocks (with their shirts off) and enjoy the company of the ubiquitous drunk, loud-mouthed Irish girl.

While I’ve been assured that the island is safe, I do feel slightly scared when I walk around in the evening. The muslim call to prayer occurs at sunset and the island being undeveloped and populated by only a few small fishing villages, does feel eerie. Nevertheless, I don’t let that stop me. I head to one of other beaches around the coast to watch the sunset. There are a few local kids running around and only a few white people lounging on chairs, beer in hand.

I spot a young-ish looking white guy sitting on the stony sand, playing around with his camera. We start talking and compare lenses. Turns out that he’s Canadian and bears a striking resemblance to Ned Flanders (he later tells me that his nickname is ‘Ned’ because he’s so nice. I don’t have the heart to tell him otherwise). We order some juice and he tells me his life story – of how he recently got concussion and was unable to do anything except lie in a dark room for three months with no movement or stimulation and how he was wracked with anxiety. I feel compassion towards him and don’t begrudge him the fact that he’s traveling for an entire year or more by living off his savings after quitting his corporate job. He became heavily involved with all kinds of energy healing modalities, and after we’ve eaten an 80 cent dinner of rice and vegetable curry made by a woman in her house, I find him sitting opposite me cross-legged doing some kind of non-invasive reiki on me. What does one say in that situation? I just tried to stifle a laugh. Millions of stars pop out in the now ink black sky and it would be very romantic if I actually saw Ned as more than a friendly fellow traveler. I don’t. He offers to walk me home which I gratefully accept, not sure that I could find my way back in the dark. We see the faint glow of light and hear the happy, drunk slurring of whippersnappers. It’s time to say good night. “Do you know what would make this night even more perfect?,” asks Ned. I start to feel uncomfortable. “What?” I ask. “If I could kiss you,” he replies. Talk about awkward. “Um, I don’t think so,” I quip as gently as possible. “I had fun hanging out, but let’s leave it at that.” It pains me to see the hurt expression on his face, but I don’t look back as I dodge toads and stones on my way back to my creaky bamboo bunk.

And your reward for reading (or more likely scrolling) through that are these photos of gorgeous Gili Meno.