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Ups and downs

5 Jul

As I climb down my toothpick ladder from my top bunk of my second class sleeper car and stumble-feel my way down the pitch black hallway of the lurching train, step over the child-sized-crack between the two cars and pry open the heavy metal door to the bathroom, then spend the next few minutes teetering between stepping into the hole and on to the rushing tracks or tottering off the two-foot tall raised metal platform that one must perch upon. I look down at the urine stained floor and wonder what I have got myself into by returning to this curious part of the world. Was this the right decision?

The answer did not become any clearer when I find out that the reason for the three hour stop at 2 AM was because we hit someone.

But then, we take a cooking class and its a fabulous day. Great food, great company, great conversation. It’s wonderful.

And the next day…Charlotte runs into a tree on a morning jog and we spend half the day in the hospital filling her face with 17 stitches.

Followed by a full brass-knuckled punch to the face by food poisoning. We moan our way through the next day, knocked flat on our backs with some version of the 24-hour flu (I blame the fermented tomato), Although, it could have been anything… in a year and a half of traveling, neither one have us have ever been so sick. We spend lots of time applauding our stomachs of steel and scoffing at the nervous folks who refuse to try street food. Shoot, i prefer my fruit to be unwashed, sitting next to pig heads and cut by a woman who had previously been separating organs from guts. It is perfectly fine I tell you.

So despite the lovely cooking class, I can’t help wondering if Thailand really wants me back on its turf. It seems to be doing a pretty good job of scaring me off.

But then Charlotte and I are pulled off the street by two Norwegian girls and asked to join them on their elephant day trek. We obviously agree, scratching our previous plans.

And then we spend two days floating down the Mekong River, marveling at the incredible scenery and chatting with like-minded travelers.

Mostly there just doesn’t really seem to be an answer to whether or not I am making the right decision. While I would kill for a little fairy to pop out occasionally and give me a thumbs up or a shake of the head, she has yet to be appear. So I think it is best to take decisions not as good or bad, right or wrong, but just as decisions. (Unless it involves eating a fermented tomato…then it’s just a stupid decision.)

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Morning coffee view of the Mekong River

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Home sweet home…

12 Jun

I love the feeling of coming home after traveling.  A comfy bed, a refrigerator stocked with all sorts of food, a couch, carpet, a toilet that you can put paper down AND flush, tap water you can drink AND brush your teeth with, English speaking store owners and in general, just comfort.

And then…You really know you have been home a few days when you are begging your mother to hang out and you are counting down the minutes until your little sister gets home from high school and you are physically angry when your brother pushes back the day he is getting back from college, by one day.

I find myself stupidly excited to have coffee with my mom and her friend and suddenly I’m passionate about cooking, (which I’m not actually passionate about in the slightest)

I find myself reverting into a strange version of my teenage self but more like an only child.  My parents are my best friends and by golly they better pay attention to me!

“Look parents, look at the beautiful meal that made for you.  Yes, I made it.  You think I can’t do domestic things?  Well look at this meal that made…by scratch, mind you…”

My mom has made dinner for our family for 25 years and does she behave like a toddler showing off her first piece of macaroni art when she makes dinner for the 7-billionth time? Nosireebob, she sure does not.

It probably has something to do with my subconscious (maybe not so ‘sub’) wanting to prove to my parents/friends/family that I can be a normal functioning member of society too.  By god, I even made a cake!  Not the boxed kind, the real kind with eggs and flour and sugar and a recipe book.

Another thing about being home is the occasional judgment.  For the most part everyone is completely supportive and wonderful about the past year and a half I have spent abroad.  But then I run into someone who gives me the look.  Its an inner shake of the head with downcast eyes full of pity.  And they recover from the look by asking, “So, what is the point of all this?” Waving their hands fancifully as they ask, clearly indicating that I must live in some strange and spiritual Alice in Wonderland dream world.

This exact situation happened today and my response of the moment was, “Does there need to be a point?”  Caught off guard, the old curmudgeon continued digging his hole or grave by saying, “Well everyone has goals.  Don’t you have a goal?”

My dear sir, I did not realize that enjoying my life and choosing my own way and making my own decisions as well as seeing the world doesn’t count as a goal.  I didn’t know that there is an official goal list that one must pick from that includes only a career or a family or being rich.  I didn’t realize that I couldn’t color outside the lines.

Another terrible comment I get is, “Huh, interesting, well you’re just never going to grow up, are ya?”  To this person I want to ask if they have ever lived in a car for four months, spent a day sitting in lawn chairs in the back of a Malaysian police van, run completely out of money, booked a flight but not a hotel, hitched a ride with an Italian family, argued with a Cambodian taxi driver, watched a dead body float down the river, been deported from a country or detained by immigration officers.  Because I can guarantee those experiences along with many others can sure make someone “grow up.”

Last but not least, singledom.  This is one thing that I did not expect to encounter when coming home, the protruding neon sign on my forehead that screams “25 and STILL SINGLE!”  Over the past year, I have of course noticed the increasing number of friends and/or facebook friends getting married and/or having babies.

Its obvious that I am not yet on that path of what my dad calls a “nest egg.”  (I’m still slightly confused about this phrase means and only hope it doesn’t involve much regurgitation on my part.)  Being single has become a burden not on me, but on my friends and family, they feel an obligation, a duty and a privilege to find me a suitable mate.

At a wedding I recently attended, a drunken group of 20-somethings surrounded me and apparently the only other single guy at the wedding, we’ll call him “Fred” and for five minutes proceeded to shout out positive attributes about Fred and I.

“Fred has great pecs”

“Lauren is soooooo nice.”

“Fred has a good job”

“Lauren is sooooo nice!”

This went on for a bit too long and poor little Fred looked very frightened so I finally excused myself from the situation, telling the group that I needed another drink, (despite the very full glass of wine that I was already holding).

After telling this story to my two best friends from high school (both in serious relationships) they responded by telling me that they know the perfect guy for me!

My dad thinks its hilarious.  He has informed me that he has found my husband (the poor unfortunate single son of his friend) and that he is actually in mid-negotiation of my dowry.  “Two goats and a pig!” he says and laughs.

Thanks Dad.  I’m worth at least a cow.

Despite everything, what can I say, I love coming home.

Backpacking bums.

3 May

When Charlotte and I finally left our home away from home down under to begin backpacking around Southeast Asia we made a little vow to ourselves. We agreed that while backpacking, we would do our best to continue looking like human beings.What I mean is, we would not to revert into the cavewomen with animalistic instincts that we became in our three months of backpacking through Central America.

There is something about traveling through the tropics that just makes you want to give up on your personal upkeep. When you step out of the shower and beads of perspiration form on your upper lip before you can even grab your towel, you just don’t even want to try with the toner (what does toner even do?) or lotion and definitely not makeup. Even shampooing and brushing hair starts to feel like a waste of time. It creeps up on you, the homeless bum look. You begin ruunning out of products, then you start debating whether you would rather buy dinner and a beer or hair conditioner. Dinner and a beer always wins.

I can’t specifically blame the tropics for this type of behavior. Backpacking in general seems to create very open-minded, cultured, soul-searching, optimistic stingy slobs. Buying $2 scissors to perform a self haircut in a Kmart bathroom in Australia seems to be entierly appropriate.  Bartering over five cents is necessary and spending a couple bucks at the laundromat is a couple bucks too much.

And you do start to feel guilty, like you are slowly giving up on life. But I’m not! And I swear to you, everyone else is doing it. And in some cases their lack of concern concerning their physical appearance is far greater than my lack of concern. They have real dreadlocks and wear diaper pants and colorful head scarves, and walk mostly barefoot and smell terrible and brag about how long they go without showering and they perform on the streets for money and they don’t shave anything.

And the best thing, in the backpacking world, these people are the coolest. Yeah they stink, but they are wearing a bracelet from every country in Asia and their passport is duct taped together and they have a rad tatoo on their inner arm to remember that crazy trip to Papua New Guinea when they almost got eaten by a canibalistic tribal warrior.

In the backpacking world, there are actual backpacker posers.

People-watching is taken to a whole new level when sitting in the lobby of a hostel trying to drain all the wi-fi juice from the lousy internet router directly into your Personal-keep-in-touch-with-parents-internet-device.

But mostly I’m trying to look and feel as close to a human being as I possibly can…for now at least. I may look like a homeless bum wearing clothing stolen from a 2002 high school sophomore but I don’t mind, just as long as I’ve got a bit of soap.

Same same. But different

25 Apr

Hostels have a distinct scent to them. It is a smell of sweat and excitement and rotting food and old noodles and sleep and musty fanned air. It doesn’t matter where in the world I have been, all hostels smell the same. There is an atmosphere of tired enthusiasm. And despite the uniqueness of the people sharing bunk beds and travel tips and instant coffee, they are all the same. The grey haired woman reading Danielle Steel in the corner and the Australian surfer wearing a singlet throwing back a beer or two or 12. Everyone is gathered at the same place because of their willingness to take a chance on something different. Even if its just a quick holiday from work, everyone made the decision to book a flight to some obscure country hoping for something.

I think that is what the common denominator is, hope. Might be tired hope, old hope, new hope, spitefulhope, innocent hope or just plain ol’ hope . The curious collection of strange souls from around the world, have some sort of hope in the life that keeps them going and trying and exploring and challenging and living.

The eccentricity doesn’t stop with the backpackers, owners of hostels and traveler lodges and guest houses can often out-weird even the weirdest backpacker. Charlotte and I recently stayed at a guest house in the Cameron Highlands. We were initially staying at a hotel next door to the guest house, run by a friendly Indian couple, but then we were ambushed by a tiny Bangladeshi man called Yasim.

Our second day in the town of Tanah Rata we were sitting by the road in the grass having some lunch when a man clipping the bushes nearby approached us and asked if we were Irish, then Dutch, then English, Scottish, Norwegian, Welsh, Canadian, Australian until finally he guessed Californian. We said sure, we hailed from the great nation of California. (Later he asked if Obama is also president of California as well as America.)

After realizing that we were Californians, Yasim invited us to the nursery where he worked for some afternoon tea. And by invited I mean he told us to follow him and we did, while having a whispered discussion plotting an escape in the case that this 90 lb. man tried to attack.

We spent the afternoon with him, drinking tea, listening to stories about his past and answering questions he had about the mafia in California. He told us he hates that mafia and he physically shivered when he began talking about the programs he has watched on the discovery channel about this so-called Californian mafia.

Yasim gave us some recommendations for hikes in the area and told us we were welcome to stay at his guesthouse for free in exchange for some help. There it is, we thought, the scam. He sucked us in, got us where he wanted us and bam! But no, he just wanted help setting up his Trip Advisor and Facebook accounts for his guesthouse. So we agreed, though still slightly wary.

That night we went to his guesthouse and made dinner with Yasim. He taught us how to make a vegetarian curry dish. As I stood on his balcony at his make-shift kitchen I wondered how in the world I had gotten myself here. Who is this guy and why am I here.

That even as Yasim chatted about the failure of George Bush and success of his guesthouse and how I actually look Swedish as most Californian girls have brown hair, not blonde, I thought about the smallness of the world (as well as the absurdity of the situation). Hostel guests and owners and Bangladeshi refugees and Welsh machinists and Australian cafe owners and Irish bartenders and American backpackers and just about everyone is pretty much the same.  Living and hoping.

Doesn’t seem like it should take so much to realize something so simple.

Australia.

8 Apr

Well it is official. I actually do miss Australia. I truly did not imagine that leaving would be so difficult. I suppose though it is a good reminder to know that I am not an emotionless robot who can pick up and leave everything without even as much as a backward glance. I’ve looked back. A lot. Sometimes when traveling there is a gnawing fear that maybe cutting ties and moving on is far too easy. I guess you can say that backpacking makes you good at it but it isn’t ever easy, just more manageable.

Leaving also has forced me to realize how much I really do love Australia. Its hard to put a finger on exactly why, but I think the whole place has a subtle undertone of positivity. The people are genuine and they don’t complain much and they are funny and blunt as hell. Everyone is comfortable being exactly themselves, whether its likeable or not. And I think that confidence has rubbed off on both Charlotte and I.

My time in Australia has been a whirlwind of taking chances, making mistakes, learning from the mistakes, making them once more, cursing, trusting people, being uncomfortable, getting comfortable, and doing it all over again.

For the last fifteen months I have not known my plans from one week to another. Most of the time I haven’t known from one day to the next where I would be or what I would be doing. It is scary and nerve-wracking to constantly be asking yourself, “what am I doing with my life?” but I think it gives you a confidence that no matter what, things will sort themselves out. Whether you are living in a McDonalds parking lot for two weeks, spending each day job hunting at the community library or knocking on the door of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend in hopes that he will show you around his town or altering your resume by removing all education and career information in order to get a job serving beer or spending your last $100 on fixing your car.  Every decision we made in the past year has left us fingers crossed, knock-kneed and scared shitless.

But it has all worked out. And because of that, Charlotte and I have fallen in love with Australia.

Moving on though. Can’t stay stuck in the past forever. We are in Singapore and headed to Malaysia tomorrow. It hasn’t been a culture shock but it is shockingly different from Australia. Singapore has a very futuristic feel to it, I imagine that within twenty years the people will be getting around by enclosed and air-conditioned hover boards and all communication with take place though microchips in everyone’s brain.

Stuff I didn’t know before I arrived…

31 Mar

The end is near.  My fifteen months spent in the land of convicts and koala bears is almost up.  Prior to writing the expected sappy and bore-you-poor-souls-to-tears entry about Australia becoming my home away from home I need to write about a few of the things I have learnt about Australia in the past year.

Starting with…

1.

“I’m heaps keen to get maggot as tonight c*nt.”

I knew Aussies had slang when I arrived.  I made sure to practice my “G’day mate”  “Cheers”  and “Crikey”  But I had no idea how disgustingly wonderful their slang could be.

In case you are still stuck on the phrase, I’ll translate…

“I’m heaps keen to get maggot as c*nt.”  =  I would very much like to get belligerently drunk this evening, my dear friend.

Betcha didn’t guess that one.

2.

Drop Bears.

Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin had given me fair warning as to how many ways you can die a painful death in Australia.    I had heard about the snakes and spiders, sharks and crocodiles, even the floods and fires…but I hadn’t heard about the Drop Bear.

It looks like a koala, but instead of being dumb and docile, Drop Bears are   carnivorous predators.  They kill their prey by waiting until a large mammal (occasionally a hiker) walks underneath the tree where they sit hidden, then they drop onto the victim and attack.  I have spent many bushwalks staring into the trees praying to get out alive.

Check this link out: http://australianmuseum.net.au/Drop-Bear

Followed by this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drop_bear

3.

Australia is ridiculously humongous.  It is massive and is mostly empty space.  It’s as big as the U.S. but has a mere 22-million people in contrast to America’s 300-million.

That much empty space means lots of empty driving.  This explains why 75% of my pictures from the past year look like this:

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4.

The Goon Sack.

Backpackers in OZ smell like cheap boxed wine.  And for the lucky few who got a few showers in that month, the red stains on their clothing give them away as backpackers.  Because we all know red goon is has a higher alcohol percentage than white goon. Drinking from an aluminum foil bladder of wine has become second nature, usually out of a plastic coffee mug, but sometimes just straight from the teat. Boxed wine in Australia is shockingly cheap.  Any other day I would go for an a beer but when choosing between 24 beers $50 or 5-liters of wine for $12…the wine usually wins.

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Boxed wine is perfect for camping.                                                                                     Until you realize you have to sleep in a car.

5.

Accents

If you have not heard a drunken Scottish man order a “wet pussy” shot at a nightclub then you are not truly living.

My exposure to foreign accents had been minimal up until I came to Australia. Men with Irish, Australian and English accents had a mysterious allure to them.  P.S. I Love You, Love Actually and of course all eight Harry Potter movies had me convinced that life with an accent is just better.

I was wrong.

Any sex appeal that accents held for me fifteen months ago has been blown to smitherings.  After being serenaded with Celtic folk songs by an aged Irish leprechaun and being berated by angry miners from Liverpool for not being understand their drink order after the third try as well as realizing that Aussie accents don’t just come out of Hugh Jackman type guys but mullet wearing bogans as well  (bogan is the Aussie version of redneck).

Both have Australian accents:

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Those are just five basic things I have learnt about Australia in the past few months.  The list however is endless.  From learning how to sneak into hotels for showers to the techniqe involved in getting a job (remove all education and career information from your resume).  This past year has challenged me in all aspects, forcing me from the beginning to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Somehow it all worked out.

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Hospitality…

15 Mar

Its official.  I am not cut out for hospitality work.  Looking back I should have known something was up when I was told to return my poodle skirt immediately at the breakfast diner I worked at for two days in highschool.  And if that didn’t trigger any concern maybe the call from Pizza Schmizza when I was 17 should have, letting me know that unfortunately due to poor pizza sales I had to be let go.  They are still open.

I do think that in many situations it wasn’t my fault.  I know I know, sounds like I can’t accept blame.  But I promise you, I was working for insane people.  Fully insane.  One boss let me borrow her phone under the conditions that I didn’t delete any of the dirty texts or pictures to and from her boyfriend, even though she had already transferred them to her computer and turned them into a scrapbook.  (Why she let me borrow this phone, I do not know.)

My most recent boss can only be described using the word, vile.  I realize this is pretty harsh and I don’t usually insult people lightly.  But it is an accurate accusation, his customers as well as employees would all agree.  The meanest look I have ever received in my life came from this man.  Once I didn’t hear him say hello to me and when I finally took notice he looked at me with the same glazed evil that Voldemort gives Harry, Joker gives Batman, and the Wicked Witch gives Dorothy.  A bit extreme to say the least.

The bar manager at the pub I worked at in Western Australia had no teeth.  Not a one.

I realize it sounds like I’m bitter. I’m not.  But really, who wants to be great at mopping?  So what if I sometimes miss a spot.  I find mopping to be the most archaic ritual.  With all television advertisements after midnight only covering advanced steaming swiffer wiping floor cleaning devices then why oh why must we still mop?  I’m no expert in mopping of course but sticking a dirty mop head into dirty water and pushing the dirty water around the floor just doesn’t seem to make sense.

So I can’t mop, and maybe I occasionally forget to wipe under the grill.  And not every single coffee ground is multi-purpose cleaner cleaned away under my watch.  But its okay, I don’t really want to be the girl who always wipes under the grill.  “You know  Shirley, best grill wiper in town!”  Nah.

I suppose if I am honest with myself, I just don’t care enough.  I do my job as I am told, but I don’t go overboard.  If a customer has to wait for a few extra seconds, I’m alright with it.  If a piece of lettuce gets stuck in a weird crack and I can’t reach it, I usually just leave it.

And we’re back to square one, I’m just not cut out for hospitality.  It takes someone with great patience and great attention to detail.  That is not and never will be me.

I think hospitality is a necessary evil though.  I think that even as mind numbingly terrible it is at times, it gives back more than it takes.  Working in the service industry really lets you see the other side of things.  Never again in my life will I ask a bartender for the price of every single beer before ordering.  I will also decide what kind of coffee I want to buy before going to the counter.  I will not be angry at the wait staff if my food order isn’t correct and I will always leave a tip.