Monday, October 24, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Malaysia

Shortly after docking in Penang, Malaysia, I got into a cab to head to the airport. During the cab ride I heard Beyoncé and Rihanna playing on the local radio station. It was a bit odd trying to reconcile that I was actually in Malaysia while hearing American songs on the radio. I wanted to ask to hear something local, but when the music stopped and the commercials started I knew I was listening to a local station.
The twenty minute flight to Langkawi Island was filled with wonderful views during our approach. I could see the island I was visiting and some smaller islands nearby. Plus, the weather was perfect so the clouds added another element of beauty to an already amazing view. 

I got into a cab and on the way to the hotel one of my friends began singing Kokomo by The Beach Boys. It wasn’t long before the rest of us joined in. I smiled recognizing that sometimes the only appropriate response to such beauty is a song. 
The first night we went to a night market which was one of the most eclectic markets I’ve visited. There were stalls for t-shirts, shoes, fresh fish, fruit, watches, toys, and all kinds of food dishes. There was chicken satay, noodles prepared in the biggest cast iron skillets I’ve ever seen, a thin waffle with creamed corn in the middle, a combination of noodles, meat, and an egg packaged in clear plastic bags, fried potatoes served on a giant toothpicks, and some things I didn’t recognize. I didn’t sample any of the food simply because I’d just eaten dinner. I filled up on ginger squid, prawn fried rice, and a glass of one of my favorite drinks—ice lemon tea—at Jai Island Café.
The next morning I had the ‘pleasure’ of a wake-up song, courtesy of two of my traveling companions. Their song of choice was one we often hear on our closed-circuit channel on the ship. I laughed and dragged myself out of bed. The plan was to have breakfast, but we quickly discovered that the restaurants near our hotel didn’t open until 9 a.m. We hailed a cab and ended up going to the airport for breakfast. After grabbing breakfast, we headed over to Seven Wells Waterfall. 

The climb to the top was made more difficult because the air was so heavy. Fortunately though, the sun wasn’t out so the temperature remained bearable. After reaching the top and taking a few photos, our group decided to continue on by walking a trail. What I have appreciated most about this experience is having the freedom to create memories I normally wouldn’t. As I get caught up in my day-to-day routine at home I don’t always permit myself to participate in activities that break from my normal mode. I don’t hike trails at home. I don’t even seek out opportunities to hike, but while in Malaysia I felt like it was pointless to think about. When else would I have the opportunity to hike in Malaysia? I actually enjoyed walking through the trail, singing songs (Hakuna Matata made the list), and appreciating the beauty that exists when we take the time to step away from life’s usual comforts. Walking along the trail I could hear the relaxing sound of the stream flowing beside me. It was peaceful and calming—except when we heard the occasional screech from an animal we couldn’t identify.
On the way back down we decided to go for a dip in the wells. After that climb and trail hike the cool water was especially refreshing. The rocks were extremely smooth so we were able to slide down a few of them. They were also slippery so standing barefoot was almost impossible. I had to be extremely careful to ensure that I didn’t land face-first on a rock.
What I anticipated would be an uneventful walk back provided me with a memory that still cracks me up. As I was coming down a set of stairs I saw two little adorable monkeys. I put my hand on my camera, intending to take a photo, but then I heard this primal snarl. Standing even closer to me than the little cuties was a big one and he was not amused by my admiration. I grabbed my friend’s hand and we both stammered up the stairs. I don’t know why being scared is so funny, but as soon as we made it past the bodyguard monkey I laughed really hard. I remembered my reaction, my friend’s reaction, and how we funny we must have looked trying to get up those stairs. I wish we had that on video.
After leaving Seven Wells Waterfall it was time to do lunch. We stopped at a restaurant and I saw the biggest prawns ever! They were the size of lobsters...until we ate them. After lunch we walked the streets of Langkawi Island to visit some shops. After shopping, we walked the beach back to our hotel and then spent some time in the pool.
For dinner we discovered Kung Fu Restaurant and that’s how we met Leow. Leow was outside of the restaurant so we chatted with him. By the end of our meal Leow was posing in pictures with us and sent us to Eagle Rock Café for a good time. He was so right about Eagle Rock Café! There was a live band performing and they were amazing! The three vocalists were fantastic, but the former musician in me was fascinated with the guitar player and the drummer. Loved them! They rocked Maria Maria by Carlos Santana.
As I reflect on my time in Malaysia I can’t help recognizing how much music played into my visit. During my cab ride to the airport I experienced how connected music makes the world. While riding to the hotel in Langkawi I was reminded how music can be the best and only way to express beauty and emotion. When my friends woke me up in song I realized that music has the ability to generate humor. As we hiked the trail at Seven Wells Waterfall the songs we sung were rejuvenating. On our last night, listening to the live band was fun, but it was more than that. Sharing that experience created a memory within us that we will always attribute to the beauty we saw, the appreciation we have for one another, and the laughs we shared while in Malaysia. Next stop, Vietnam!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: India

As soon as I headed to the gangway I was welcomed to India by humidity and heat. I knew immediately that I would smell like sweat, sunscreen, and mosquito repellent for the next five days. Still, I was excited about experiencing the country often described as ‘an assault on all the senses.’ I’d visited India previously, but it was nearly twelve years ago and I was just twenty years old. India had changed since then and so had I. I was very curious to see how we would be reacquainted with one another.

I visited a community home for a group of people that society has shunned. We were told that we were visiting with people who were either born male and castrated as children or who were born with both sex organs. It wasn’t exactly clear if that was the case with all of the people we met, but I’m not a fan of classifying people so it’s just as well. As a group, they have been shunned. Society deemed them unworthy of gaining employment. Family members deemed them unworthy of having relationship. Even our interpreter started by referring to them in a manner that was very ‘us vs. them’. As she listened to them and started to see them as individuals, her speech changed. It only took an hour for me to see a change in her. I wonder what would happen if we all gave an hour to listen to someone we’ve judged.

I looked around the room and knew each one had a story. I wanted to know all of them. I wanted to know how they got there. I wanted to know how they survived. I wanted to know how it felt to be forced to form your own community and family. I wanted to know so much more than one visit would permit.

What I found most telling was their perception of the United States. They assumed that in ‘the land of the free, the home of the brave’ we treated people like people. They were very surprised to learn that Americans can be cowardice and insensitive. On the ride home I wondered what the next classification of discrimination would look like. I wondered when we would learn to treat people like people.

One of my favorite activities was going to watch an Indian film at a movie theater. We arrived at the movie theater and noticed immediately how posh it was. Instead of theater numbers, each theater had a name. The film we saw, Vedi, was shown in Plush. We assumed it would cost a small fortune to see a film in the Express Avenue Mall because of the appearance of the theater. We were pleasantly surprised to find that it cost 120 rupees (equivalent to $2.50) to see a movie and 165 rupees for popcorn and a soda.

The movie was in Tamil without subtitles so we didn’t understand everything, but we were able to decipher the plot. An ex-cop was avenging the death of his father and father-figure while trying to find his sister and being actively pursued by the woman in the film that every other man wanted. The film would fluctuate pretty evenly between an action-packed fighting sequence and then bursting into song. I loved it! Sometimes I wish life operated more like a musical. How much fun would our days be if we had spontaneous song and dance routines?

I cannot talk about India without talking about Indian cuisine. I wish I could remember all of the delicious eats I encountered, but there were so many! My personal favorites were the garlic naan, spinach paste, ginger/chili chicken, and the chai tea. As for my favorite restaurant I must tell you about Barbeque Nation. As soon as we walked in the door, wonderful smells told me that I was in the right place, but I was exceptionally pleased with something else. I love a good mojito. I was intrigued immediately when I saw the jal jeera mojito on the menu. I never imagined a drink infused with Indian spice, but I was so curious. I ordered it and it was wonderful! Who knew one of my favorite mojitoes would come from India?

Shortly after we received our drinks two grills were inserted into the table. Skewers of vegetables, chicken, shrimp, fish, and tofu were placed on the grills. Before we could taste all of the skewers, several servers came around and placed coconut rice cakes, tandoori chicken, and lamb on our plates. Everything was bursting with flavor! It was like a spice festival for my tastebuds and I loved it.

As a table, we decided there would be no more rounds of deliciousness. We looked at the flag on our table and surrendered by turning it down. (Yes, there was a flag on the table to signify when you could no longer handle more food.) Our server approached and to my surprise he asked, “Are you done with the starters?” Starters? There was more! We all said we couldn’t eat another bite, but each one of us eventually wandered over to the buffet area. There were noodles, rice, crab masala, and even desserts.

There were more great meals, but there were also many other moments that are worth mentioning, specifically my encounters with the beautiful people of India. I met a man named Khan who made me laugh with his unique sales pitch. In a store where everyone wanted to give you a lengthy show-and-tell of their products, Khan pointed to his crafts and simply said, “Just touch it.” He didn’t need a spiel. We laughed and talked with him for nearly an hour.

Our rickshaw driver, Danna was with us almost all day for four days. We ate at restaurants based on his recommendations. We shopped where he advised. He didn’t talk much, yet he was very communicative. The first day back at sea I found myself missing his mannerisms. I wanted someone to answer me with the same head nod that Danna gave us so often. I know part of the reason we had such a great experience was because of Danna.

I will also remember a young child I saw on the street. She sat on the floor having lunch. When my group approached she stood up and held out her hand. It was clear that she was asking for money and any child begging is difficult to see. What stood out even more is that she looked no more than four, but she was extremely savvy. She approached each one of us, looked us in the eye with the confidence of an adult, made her appeal, and then moved on to the next person. It was calculated. She had been trained and at that young age knew exactly what to do and how to do it. I will probably never forget her face.

I will long remember the children who visited the ship on our last night in India. As I stood in line to go up the gangway I noticed how dirty the ground was at the port. I thought about how filthy my shoes would be until I looked up the gangway and saw about four children walking up the gangway with no shoes. It was a harsh picture for me. I no longer cared about my dirty shoes. I was saddened by the reality of seeing children walking around without what I consider to be a basic necessity.

A short time later I was asked if a few of those same children could visit my room. I will long remember the near shame I felt thinking about the shopping bags that were sitting on my bed. I ran to my room and threw the bags into a closet. I was embarrassed by my excess.

In order to make this entire experience more meaningful I have often asked how I can make this larger than me. It took me several days to sort out all that India presented to me and confronted me with. No where has it been more pressing for me to seek answers than India. I had a wonderful visit and enjoyed it as a tourist, but I am more than a tourist. I saw more. I experienced more. I felt more. I will be impacted for much longer than the six days that India graciously hosted me. Next stop, Malaysia!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What Are You Accepting?

Every single day we are given the opportunity to begin again. We may wake up in the same home, take the same route to the same job, and have the same three restaurant options for lunch, but our choices dictate the course of our lives. What we accept for ourselves and from ourselves determines how we live.

Acceptance is a powerful concept. Obviously if you are asked if you want something and you say yes, you have accepted it. Yet if you are presented with something and you don’t refuse it, that is also acceptance. Let's say you have a job that is not maximizing all of your skills and talents. Remaining in that job over an extended period of time indicates that you have accepted that job...until you take steps necessary to move forward. Likewise, if you remain in a relationship that is not emotional beneficial to you then you have accepted that relationship as a part of your life. What you accept for yourself determines how you live.

Some find satisfaction or feel better not making a decision, but choosing not to act is also making a decision. Not making a decision is choosing to accept your life as it is. Don’t be an inactive participant in your life. It’s yours and it's the only one you have!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Beauty of Today

While sitting with a group of coworkers I glanced out of the window and noticed a gorgeous sunset. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence since I'm traveling the world by ship, but I still got up and ran outside. While I am thankful to have a camera to record a limited representation of what I see, pictures cannot express the emotions I feel while watching the sun dissolve into the ocean. That feeling is what led me out of my seat and onto the deck. I never want to become so comfortable with seeing the sun set on the ocean that I no longer acknowledge its impact. When we fail to recognize the glory that exists in our every day we choose to ignore what should bring us the most gratitude.
During that same week of the sunset that I ran out to see, I was sitting in my room. I wanted to devote some time to journaling, yet hadn’t written a single word. I looked at the clock and knew that it was a prime time to run into a few of my coworkers. I considered continuing my staring contest with my journal, but thought about my life following this trip. I pictured myself sending emails or text messages to coworkers saying how much I missed the days we could simply go up or down a flight of stairs and be in each other’s company. I realized that my every day life is happening right now. Journaling is great, but not at the expense of living. I needed to remind myself to be present on this journey. All I have is today.
We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be so consumed with life that we fail to recognize the beauty of today. If you see an amazing sunrise or sunset take a moment to appreciate it. If you drive by a park and notice the myriad of gorgeous colors brought on by the fall season take a moment to admire it. If someone you love adds some sunshine to your life express your thanks. It is only when we’re present that we can fully experience gratitude. Fully experience each day you're given because today is the only day that matters.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Mauritius

Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of Mauritius before I found out that I would be stopping there. I wasn’t sure what to expect of this small island located east of Madagascar. As we prepared for this port, we were shown views of incredible beaches. Some might assume that looking at water would get old after living on a ship and seeing nothing but ocean for miles, days at time, but that assumption would be completely false. I was excited about sitting on the beach and doing absolutely nothing.
A group of us left the ship and took a cab from Port Louis to Flic en Flac, a beach village on the west coast of Mauritius. As soon as the cab turned off the road we faced a stunning white-sand beach. It was inspiringly beautiful.

We split up for breakfast. I had a freshly baked pastry that was stuffed with coconut. It actually reminded me of an almond croissant—which I love—so I was pleased.  Following breakfast I spent some time taking in one of the most relaxing and beautiful scenes. As I watched and listened to waves gently rolling onto the shore, I couldn’t help but feel extremely grateful. I actually asked what I’d done to be so blessed. I could breath unassisted. I could see the contrast of blues from different depths of the ocean. I could smell the light scent of local eateries in the air. I could feel the breeze on my face. I could hear gentle waves of water. It was one of those moments that transcends time and will remain with me long after the day ends.

I didn’t see much of Mauritius since we were limited to one day, but it reminded me to be grateful. As I sat on that beach I thought about how far I’ve come. I thought about the times when life was less than kind. I thought about the years when I didn’t know if I had enough in me to do more than simply exist. As heartbroken as I was then it doesn’t compare to the peace I felt. I am grateful for such an impressive and beautiful reminder of the power of gratitude. Next stop, India!