I have been in Bangkok for nearly three weeks. I haven’t written anything about it because trying to get situated has taken up the majority of my time. The other night, however, was just plain weird, and I feel like it accurately captures my life in Bangkok thus far.
Six years ago, when I moved to Chicago by myself, I learned about Meetup.com. This site allows people all over the world to create groups that attract people with similar interests. There are art groups, hiking groups, knitting groups, let’s-just-get-drinks-together groups, etc. etc. I met some of my closest Chicago friends through Meetup groups. Hoping to have similar success in my new city, I jumped into the Bangkok Meetup world with gusto. I joined three writing groups, two expat groups, one international women’s group, a language group, a hiking group, and a wine group. (Remember that post about my inability to relax? I’m still working on it.)
In my first nineteen days in Bangkok I’ve tried out six of the nine groups. Most have been great. Some have been weird. I went to one writing group that can simply be summarized by saying some male writers make me want to shove a pen in my eye, or their eye if they’re within arm’s reach. I went to two separate expat Meetups and met some really cool ladies who I’ve hungout with since. Then there was the second writing group, which wasn’t having a Meetup anytime soon, but the organizer told me about another group that he runs–Dinner and a Film–which he thought I’d find interesting. I’ll try anything once so I signed up for the upcoming dinner in which six or so people would meet at the organizer’s apartment, eat, and watch Angelina Jolie’s film “First They Killed My Father.” (That sounds like an odd film choice for a dinner party, but each party is themed by a country. That night was Cambodia.)
The day before the Dinner and a Film Meetup I got a message from the organizer, Sid, asking if I could come over at three to help prepare food. I thought that was a bit strange (because I am not a cook and have never implied that I am a cook), but the message was worded in such a way that I thought at some point I must have volunteered to help. I told him I could come at four because the dinner wasn’t until six. Were we seriously going to cook for three hours? (Again: I DO NOT cook. Rice and sautéed veggies are the extent of my patience in the kitchen.)
I arrived at Sid’s building and waited for him in the lobby. While I waited, I wondered if I was being stupid for agreeing to come to this man’s apartment solo. I’d never met Sid. I knew nothing about him except he claimed to be a writer. I didn’t really know where I was in Bangkok, and, on top of that, I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. A college friend of mine had a tragic experience with CouchSurfer a few years ago. I think about her each time I use sharing economy companies like AirBnB or Uber. Waiting for Sid made me think about what happened to her, but I blamed my uneasy feeling on the prospect of conversing with Sid for two hours before anyone else showed up. Still, awkward conversation jitters aside, I did have a small knife tucked into the front pocket of my shorts. Just in case, you know?
Sid led me up to his 32nd floor two-bedroom apartment. He gave me a tour, pointing out the view of the second tallest building in Bangkok: Baiyoke Tower II. “The top has a restaurant that rotates,” he said. “So, you know, you can drink and spin.” Sid was from India, looked about fifty, and told me that he’d recently separated from his wife, who had moved back to India with their daughter. My hand reflexively fingered the knife in my pocket. He showed me the kitchen, where everything was already prepared except for the soup. “That should only take about thirty minutes,” Sid said. Then why am I here? I wanted to ask. If the food is already prepared, why am I here at four? Why did you originally want me to come at three?
Sid showed me a book he’d published. He talked about another writing group in Bangkok–a group I’d joined, but hadn’t been to yet–and how the host of that group has everyone do minute-long free-writes, and then she collects the free-writes and publishes the writings as her own poetry.
The conversation turned to dating and Tinder. I told him I’d mostly been meeting guys from India (and one from Pakistan, but Sid said that that was basically India).
“Do you like Indians?” he asked.
“Yes?” I said. “I think it’s just a coincidence they’ve all been from India. I’m not specifically seeking out guys from one country.”
“I do not like Indians.”
I cocked my head. “Why?”
“There is a saying in Thailand,” he said. “If you see an Indian and a snake, you kill the Indian first.”
I stared at him.”Because they are…?” I tried to think of what stereotype could possibly prompt that saying. Since coming to Asia I’ve realized that I don’t know that many Asian stereotypes (which I think is a good thing?). At least not country-specific stereotypes.
Sid launched into a long story about how two of the biggest (and wealthiest) criminals in Africa are Indian. In Thailand, the richest people are Thai, but the second richest are Indian (possibly Thai-Indian? I wasn’t clear on that detail). Then he talked about a time he and his son were waiting to catch a train at one of Bangkok’s busiest terminals. “My son doesn’t really know what it’s like to be Indian,” Sid said. “My wife and I left India when he was five.” He said that he and his son were queued up to board the train. In Bangkok, there are arrows on the ground signifying where passengers board and depart (Chicago would really benefit from this system, but I doubt anyone would actually abide by it). “My son and I were lined up on the arrows just like the Thais,” Sid said. “The platform was crowded, but quiet. Then this loud raucous came up the escalators. It consumed the entire platform.” He slowly raised his hand, mimicking an escalator. “It was a big group of Indian men. There must have been twenty of them. Then the train arrived and the doors opened. Not many people departed and the cars were packed so everyone waited to board the next train. The Indian men, however, went into India-mode. They ran up and down the platform, yelling in Hindi, pushing and shoving, and they did not stop until every single one of them was in a car.” Sid nodded as if he’d just made his point. “My son looked at me and asked, ‘Is that what it means to be Indian?'” Sid nodded again. “That is why I do not like Indians.”
The extent of my food preparation finally happened around 5:30: I blanched and cut six tomatoes, then filled a pot with six cups of boiling water. That was it. At six p.m. another person finally arrived: a retired man from New York City. Sid poured wine for the three of us. The retiree and I sat in the living room. We swapped stories about traveling in Iceland. Sid made some finishing touches to the dinner.
I felt weird being the only woman there. The atmosphere wasn’t threatening, but I just felt strange, as if I was somewhere I absolutely did not belong. Perhaps comparable to walking into a Masonic temple? A writing teacher of mine once told a story about traveling in Europe, accepting a cookie from two men, and then waking up having been drugged and rob. “The female travelers I know wouldn’t have gotten themselves into that situation,” he’d said. “They’d be more on guard and smart enough not to accept food or drink from strangers, especially strange men.”
Sid offered to pour me another glass of wine. As he walked into the kitchen, the retiree winked at him. My hand once again felt for the knife in my pocket. I don’t really know why I carry this knife. It was a second year anniversary present from my ex. When he gave it to me I said, “You could have just gotten me earrings.”
“Everyone should have a knife,” he said.
“So I can shank someone?”
“It’s just a good thing to have. They’re useful. You can cut something if you don’t have scissors, you can use it to clean your nails, or, yeah, you can shank someone.”
Now I mostly carry the knife in my purse out of habit. It has come in handy from time to time (although I’ve never shanked anyone) and, especially when I’ve gone on Tinder dates, it’s just made me feel more at ease having it. In reality I doubt I’d ever actually use it for defense, but it’s nice to have the option.
Sid handed me the second glass of wine and took a seat in between the retiree and me. “Is anyone else coming?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as possible. I really wanted to say: Seriously, is ANYONE coming? And are any of them women?
“A Thai guy said he was coming,” Sid said. “And some woman is bringing a man with her.” Finally–a lady.
Still, another half hour went by and no one else showed. Sid and the retiree each shared a story about Cambodia, and then we ate the soup and beef curry that Sid had basically made by himself with barely any assistance from me.
We started to watch “First They Killed My Father,” a movie about the killing fields in Cambodia, but the retiree found it (understandably) too upsetting. Sid mentioned a TV series he liked called “The Night Manager.” The show stars Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, and has to do with war-mongering and the Arab Spring. While he scrolled through his Google Chrome choices, I got a text from a girl I’d met at an expat Meetup. She asked if I wanted to go out for dinner or a drink. This was such fantastic timing because I still hadn’t thought of a polite way to finally excuse myself from Sid’s apartment.
Sid, the retiree, and I watched one episode of “The Night Manager.” When Tom Hiddleston started having very sexy sex with a gorgeous woman, all while I’m being flanked by Sid and the retiree, I just wanted to crawl into a hole. Before we could start another episode I made my excuses and bolted, but not before Sid gave me a copy of his book and a to-go bag of Indian food.
The expat girl (I’m going to call her M) and I had drinks at a rooftop bar, and then we went to a popular clubbing street. M was dressed super cute and ready for a night out, but I was in partially ripped jean shorts, a workout top, and flip flops. Just to add to the package, I had a medium sized purse, which was jam-packed with my large wallet, writing journal, Sid’s book, and two Ziploc bags of beef curry and palak paneer. So, needless to say, M and I didn’t know if I’d even be allowed into any clubs. Thankfully everyone’s standards had been lowered and I got into a Cuban club and an Australian club. I love dancing and I will happily (and sweatily) dance until dawn, but doing it with a purse full of books and curry was…well I certainly did not feel like the sexiest thing on the dance floor. Hell, I felt like the least sexy thing in all of SE Asia at the moment, but whateves there was Latin music to dance to!
After dancing, M and I went to McDonald’s (don’t judge). When I thanked the cashier a woman beside me asked where I was from. Because I thought she was some random person who I’d exchange two sentences with, I said Chicago.
“I’M FROM MINNESOTA,” the woman said. I turned and pointed to M as she also exclaimed, “I LIVED IN MINNESOTA.” The three of us had a Midwestern gush fest. M and the lady found out they’d lived right down the street from each other in Minneapolis. The woman was pretty drunk. She started to tell us about a bar she and her fiancee owned in Bangkok.
“Are you two lesbians?” she asked.
“No,” M and I both said. “Heteros and single.” (M and I had originally bonded over sadly similar breakup stories.)
We swapped numbers with the woman and she said we should all go walking sometime. She grabbed my thigh and squeezed it hard. “This is a runner’s thigh,” she said. She squeezed again. “Just like my thighs.” Then she left, and M and I finished our food.
M lived close enough to walk home. I stayed on the corner and hailed a cab. When I gave the driver my address, he kicked me out of the car saying, “Much too far, miss.”
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Too far. Too far.”
I got out and tried again. And then again. And then again. After three cabs and a motorbike turned me down, and one Uber just flat-out didn’t show, I wondered what the hell I was supposed to do. It was 2:30 a.m. The trains stopped at midnight. My apartment was nearly sixteen kilometers away. I leaned against a light pole for a bit, watching pretty, young prostitutes calling out to older men.
The whole night felt like a weird culmination of my first two weeks in Bangkok. There was the awkwardness of meeting new people and wondering if I made a wise decision by going somewhere solo. There was the theme of putting myself in odd situations with strange men (I’ve gone a tad overboard with the Tinder and Bumble dates because I didn’t know how else to meet people for a while. Some of those dates may get their own blog posts.). There was also the part of the night where I enjoyed being in Bangkok, meeting new and interesting people, being back in a big city again, clubbing, etc. I was having fun, but also felt out of place (in real life: because I’m a foreigner in Bangkok; that night: because I was dancing in clubs with a purse full of curry). And then there were the plain what the fuck do I do now? moments, such as standing on a street corner, wearing clothes I normally reserved for hiking, surrounded by beautifully dressed prostitutes, without a bloody clue how to get home other than walk.
I tried Uber one more time. When a man in a black Toyota appeared I could have kissed him. I’d had a fair amount to drink so I thanked him a bit too much. When he offered me a free water bottle I nearly said I loved him.
I finally made it back to my tiny pink and white studio apartment around 3 a.m. I opened my purse and found that the curry had spilled all over Sid’s book. I also saw that the Minnesotan thigh-squeezing lady had texted me her life’s story, which included her excitement over finding hairstylist in town who apparently does good dye jobs. I shoved the book and the food into the fridge, called a friend in the States and said, “You will not believe the weird damn night I just had.”
I didn’t really know anything about Indonesian food before coming to Bali. I knew rice was involved and I assumed dishes would be flavorful. My lack of knowledge was a bit pathetic because my brother-in-law, who is Balinese, is a chef in Bali. He works for a swanky restaurant that focuses on Indonesian cuisine (I have a theory that Anthony Bourdain will soon visit this restaurant and feature it on Parts Unknown, and then my brother-in-law will officially become a world famous chef). So, ya know, maybe I should have at least known the name of a dish or two before arriving, but I didn’t.
During my two-and-a-half weeks in Bali I made it a point to eat Indonesian fare whenever possible. Most of the time I was eating stuff that was specific to Bali, but some of the dishes cross over all of the 17,500+ islands. One aspect of Indonesian food that separates it from other Asian cuisine is that it doesn’t use a lot of oil. For example, when making fried rice (Nasi Goreng), the Indonesian dish will use instant chili paste and steaming rather than the Chinese version of dousing it with soy sauce or fish sauce. Indonesian food also seems to be a bit less sauce-heavy than Indian food.
Basically, Indonesian food is delicious. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not much of a food writer, and my descriptions of taste are pretty crap. The best I can do is to say it’s not as salty as Chinese food nor as minimal as Japanese cuisine (think sushi, Bento boxes, etc.). Each dish had traces of onion, bell peppers and chili peppers, and they tasted like someone grabbed a handful of plants from outside and mashed them up (I mean that in a good way). Everything also had a kind of smokey hint like it was either cooked over a fire or there was smoke nearby (and if your restaurant is in the rice fields then fire is constantly nearby). There’s also a lot of frying going on, which I have no complaints about.
Oh, and things are spicy. I think a lot of restaurants were going easy on this blond bule (me) in the spicy department. Normally I like things so spicy that my taste buds are burnt off. That only happened once in Bali and it was a homemade chili sauce from a warung (my mouth went numb, my throat went numb, everything). Besides that, certain dishes were spicy, but nothing too crazy for a Western palate. Again though, that could very well be a result of me being Paley McPalerson and maybe I just wasn’t ordering traditionally spicy dishes. Clearly I’ll have to go back to Indonesia and find out!
One of my millennial failings is that I don’t take pictures of my food. I’m not a foodie, so why bother? In Bali, however, I couldn’t stop taking photos because Indonesian food not only excels in taste, but presentation, too. It didn’t matter where I ate–a fancy restaurant, a hipster cafe, or a small warung (kind of like a Mom and Pop stand/restaurant) on the side of the road–everything was presented beautifully! Even the takeout food had a unique look; at least when compared to the U.S. In the States we pack to-go orders in boxy Styrofoam. In Bali it’s tied in plastic bags. Even soup! When I first saw someone spooning food into a small plastic sandwich-looking bag I was worried how sloppy and messy it would be to carry and then dish it out. Turns out my worries were unwarranted. Tying the food in a fairly air-tight plastic baggy makes them very easy to carry, and then you just cut a hole in the bag and pour the contents into a bowl. So simple!
Now here comes the mean part of this blog: photos of all the wonderful food! Feast your eyes and drool. (Also, my apologies that I don’t remember what some of the dishes were called.)
I’m going to start with this photo first. It’s from the menu of the Savannah Moon restaurant in Ubud, and it gives a pretty good synopsis of traditional Indonesian dishes.
And now onto the dishes…
Something that came up in my recent workshop was the difference between a traveler and a tourist. We didn’t decide on any exact definitions, but we summarized that a tourist is just passing through and wanting the bare minimum taste of an area, while a traveler wants to be immersed in the culture. Basically: tourist = tapas; traveler = banquet-style feast.
As we talked about this, I thought to myself, “Well obviously I’m a traveler. I’ve lived in several different countries, I’ve traveled a lot and I don’t stick to large resorts or guided tours–I’m a traveler. Plain and simple.” Preparing to travel to Asia also made me feel as though I earned the title of Traveler. Obviously, being an American, traveling through Europe isn’t enormously bold because European and American cultures share many similarities: English is widely used throughout and the countries are highly developed. I have also lived in Europe and have a pretty strong grasp of the cultural dos, don’ts, and expectations. Europe is just not a daunting place for travel (for me; I won’t speak for everyone or belittle anyone who may be anxious about traveling to Spain, Greece, Austria, etc.).
Traveling to Asia, however, does feel daunting. There are cultures vastly different from anything I’ve ever experienced. Most of the languages and alphabets are well out of my grasp (I’ve been in Bali for ten days and all I can say in Bahasa is cat, not yet, and the slang term for a white person), and everything is just a little more chaotic and a little bit less obvious than what I’ve known for the past twenty-nine years. I’m also a full twelve hours ahead of my friends/family in the States whereas before I’d only been five or six hours ahead.
Despite all this, the whole time I’ve been in Bali I’ve thought, This isn’t so hard. I can do this; I’m adaptable. I can cross the street, I have a phone plan–I am a totally capable and confident solo traveler. The fact that I was being led by my sister, a Bali local, did not escape my notice and I knew a good bit of my confidence came from her, but still I felt that I was succeeding on the Traveler path I’d always wanted to follow.
And then I found myself needing to spend a whole day without my sister (with the possibility of multiple days). I won’t go into details, but a family emergency came up and I felt I needed to make myself scarce in order to make everyone’s lives a little bit easier.
Until the reality of being totally independent in Bali cropped up, I hadn’t realized just how much I had been relying on my sister. Yes, she speaks the language and drives and knows where to go, but this is also her turf. Traveling around Bali with her is like someone traveling around Chicago with me–very little will go wrong because I know the city inside and out. Being with my sister (except for a panicky night fueled by intense jet lag and not having slept for 20+ hours) nervousness rarely entered my mind. Without my sister, however, I could actually feel my hands start to shake. Suddenly I had to figure out where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I would then be there by myself, figuring things out by myself. I knew I could play it safe and just write at a Starbucks near her house, but what fun would that be? Is that what a traveler would do or a tourist would do? I wanted to go to Seminyak, a town about an hour’s drive with traffic from my sister’s place, but I’d have to get there solo and then find my way back solo. And what would I even do in Seminyak? Go to a restaurant by myself? Try to awkwardly ask directions by myself?
There are multiple layers of pathetic going on here. The first is that yes, I can go to restaurants by myself and get around by myself. I do it all the time in the States. But suddenly I’m in a foreign country and it’s like I’ve never spent a day alone in my life? What? Also: I am not completely alone and helpless. I’m acting as though I’ve been dropped in the middle of the Congo with a spork and told to fend for myself. I’m in Bali, an island so rife with travelers that all I have to do is look up from my laptop and I’ll see a fellow foreigner (there’s a guy next to me right now wearing a Billabong t-shirt). I have a SIM card and therefore access to Google Maps and GoJek (sort of like an Indonesian Uber). I am in a functioning country with electricity and WiFi and cars and people and I need to calm the hell down.
What worries me is: if I’m nervous about a few solo days in Bali, what am I going to do when I head to Thailand solo? Actually solo? There’s no sister or friend there to take me under their wing. And what am I going to do when I want to travel anywhere in the future? I can’t always depend upon someone to go with me, and isn’t it sometimes more fun to go it alone at your own pace?
I’m worried that I’m not the adventurous traveler I’ve always claimed to be. At least, not when it comes to solo travel. Not even thirty years old, I’ve traveled a lot, but almost always with someone. The few times I’ve traveled solo have been in the U.S. and it was only for a night or two. With another person in tow I’m brave. By myself, I’m just the tiniest bit petrified. Maybe I’m a traveler when I’m with someone, but a tourist when solo.
I also want to add that it doesn’t help that I wasn’t supposed to be doing this alone. For a full year I was led to believe that my boyfriend was going to go on this journey with me. Then it turned out he was lying the whole time and pulled the rug out from under me on the night of my graduate school graduation and was like jk I never wanted to go to Asia with you or ever so bye. I wish I didn’t, but I often think about what it would be like had he come with me. I think we would have had a great time, and I know I would feel much more confident. Having a travel buddy is always nice, and it’s especially great if it’s someone you feel connected to. Then again, if my ex magically showed up in Bali I would probably just run him over with a motorbike, so I’d be traveling solo no matter what at this point.
I don’t know if I’m a real traveler or not. Right now I certainly don’t feel like one. Travelers always seem confident and flexible and able to move about without any solid plans. I don’t have a plan other than “be in Asia” and quite frankly it’s terrifying. Exciting, but also terrifying. Or maybe that’s part of being a traveler? Being scared, but doing it anyways? Having a general plan, but not a definite itinerary (I do love a good itinerary)? I don’t think I’m a tourist. Tourists usually have plans (and plane tickets out of the country, which I do not have and it’s fine I’m not worried about it YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT IT AND I AM TOTALLY NOT PANICKING.)
Perhaps I’m a traveler in training. A traveler pending? Pending traveler? What does make a traveler? Mindset? Extended stays? Traveling light? “Roughing it”? Dictionary.com defines traveler as “a person who is traveling or who often travels,” and tourist as “a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure.” (This is also not a judgement on which is better: traveler or tourist. I think both are great and it depends on which makes you the happiest. At least you’re traveling!) I’m traveling for pleasure, but it’s not exactly the let me lounge on this beach chair and sip gin and tonics without a care in the world kind of pleasure. It’s more of a this is terrifying what the hell have you gotten yourself into, but one day you will be glad you did this kind of pleasure. An anticipated pleasure.
Have thoughts on what makes a traveler vs a tourist? Leave a comment below!
Don’t be a hero, fellow travelers (and fellow millennials). You may think you can stay in a new country for an extended period of time without the need for cellular data, but you can’t. I mean, obviously you can, but why?
When I first landed in Indonesia I had no plans to buy a SIM card. Since Bali isn’t my final, long-term destination in Asia, I thought I could make-do during my two and a half week stay. I’d been to Jamaica, Iceland, and Ireland without needing more than a WiFi connection to use my phone, so why would Bali be any different?
For starters, I was only in those other countries for five to ten days. I was also with fellow travelers, people who were exploring and largely sticking to the same schedule as me. In Bali I’m with a local, my sister, who is an amazing tour guide, but has her own life and doesn’t need to stick with me at all times (not that travelers have to stick together at all times and, in Bali, I’m obviously the one sticking to my sister because there is no way I have the confidence or skill to drive on these roads).
I don’t think I’m a total cliche technology-obsessed millennial (I can sit through movies and plays without checking my phone), but not having instant connection at my disposal was tough. When I wanted to call my mum or text a friend, I couldn’t. If I needed to look up a restaurant or the nearest pharmacy, I couldn’t. When I needed directions to my sister’s place, I couldn’t look that up either. I know that people have not always carried mini laptops in their back pockets and they got around just fine, but we’re not in that kind of world anymore so why try to force it?
I lasted a full seven days without succumbing to a SIM card. I finally folded after one night when my sister and I went to a popular beach resort for dinner and drinks. We stayed at the resort for hours and by 9:30 p.m. my sis was ready to head home. I, however, had met a guy and wanted to stay. My sister gave me detailed instructions on how to catch a taxi from the resort back to her house, and I assured her I wouldn’t be leaving the resort and thus wouldn’t lose my WiFi connection.
(Can you already see where this is going?)
The guy and I had a nice time at the resort: we chatted, walked on the beach, had a drink, and danced. When he asked if I wanted to go back to his bungalow (located down the street from the resort) I hesitated: without cellular data (i.e. a working phone because without the data it’s just a small computer) I wouldn’t be able to call a taxi at the end of the night (there are some fake taxis in Bali so I felt more secure calling one on my phone rather than just hailing a car spray painted to look like a cab). If this guy’s bungalow was further than “just a few blocks away,” I couldn’t Google Map my way back to the resort if I needed to. Hell, I couldn’t even call or text my sister.
I weighed the pros and cons and settled on the best choice: go to the bungalow. YOLO, amiright?
Some people may read this and freakout and tell me that, no matter whether I had cellular data or not, leaving the resort was the irresponsible option, and to those people I say: yes, you’re right, but I’m my own person so chill. I’m not encouraging everyone to go home with some guy they just met (although he was the SPITTING IMAGE of Ryan Gosling soooooo), but I did and it was great and I clearly made the right choice. However, the experience did make me finally realize that I didn’t just want cellular data, I needed it. How else could I text my sister to tell her I wasn’t dead (and that I wasn’t coming home)? Knowing I could call a taxi or Google Map my way back to the hotel would have also put me at ease right away rather than spending a few moments thinking this is how Lifetime movies are made.
The day after meeting Doppelgänger Ryan Gosling my sis drove me to a kiosk where I paid $10 for an Indonesian mobile number and a month’s worth of 4G data. Now, if I need my sis I can text her, call her, or WhatsApp her, all without needing to use some cafe’s WiFi. I can also be more independent and use GO-JEK (like an Indonesian Uber app, but with way more options than just calling a car) to catch a ride somewhere rather than burdening my sis. With a SIM card I can text or call friends/family anytime I want. I can also meet Doppelgänger Ryan Gosling on the beach, which is definitely lacking in WiFi.
So, millennials, travelers, and everyone else: when you arrive in a new country, don’t just put your phone on airplane mode and reside yourself to using it only when you’re connected to WiFi. Get your technologically-fueled butt down to a store or stand or kiosk and buy a damn SIM card. Even if you’re planning on going off-grid and trekking deep into the wilderness, it can’t hurt to have the cellular connection as an In Case of Emergency option, right? And for only $10? With a SIM card/cellular date you’ll have greater freedom, greater convenience, and can get around faster and easier. Would a paper map or queuing at a taxi stand work just as well? Probably. But won’t you have more adventures if you know that the cell phone in your back pocket can always bring you home?
**Before you leave your home country, make sure your cell phone is unlocked. A new SIM card will only work if your phone is unlocked. I found that calling my U.S. cell provider was the fastest way to finding whether my phone was unlocked or not.**
I suck at relaxing. During my downtime, if I lounge outside or just read a book, my mind is saying, You should be working. You should be more productive. What about that essay you were working on? Should you apply for another job on Upwork? WHY ARE YOU WASTING VALUABLE TIME? Even when I think I’m calm, I’m not calm. My ex and I once played a relaxation game at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. To play the game you had to wear a crown that contained electrodes that read your brainwaves. Whoever had the calmest mind won. My ex and I sat at opposite ends of a long table that had a mini soccer field painted onto the surface. A ball in the middle of the table would roll towards whichever player had the most active brainwaves, and then the person with the calm mind would score a goal. My ex and I put on the crowns, turned on the game, and the ball bee-lined at me. I said I wasn’t ready and we should try again. Three times that bloody ball shot straight at me. Only once did it slightly falter, but then just careened right through the goal. My ex asked if I was super anxious. “I’m not!” I said. “I feel great. This is me calm.”
So when I came to Bali—practically Ground Zero for the Wellness and Relaxation movement––I told myself I should try to relax. Be on island time, right? And luckily my sister, Mary, a Bali local, has made it her personal mission to help me relax.
For our first stop on Georgia’s Road to Relaxation, Mary and I went to Lily’s Spa in Ubud. If Bali is the birthplace of wellness and mindfulness then Ubud is the epicenter. Thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, Ubud has exploded onto the scene as the place where everyone comes to find themselves, rejuvenate themselves, etc. etc. Yoga studios are more plentiful than Starbucks in the States and nearly every storefront has something to do with a spa, aromatherapy, reflexology, scalp massage, etc. with yoga studios, spas, and massage parlors. If you’re going to force relaxation upon yourself, Ubud is a good place to start.
Because Mary has lived in Bali for over a decade, I’ve been saying yes to anything she recommends. Following her lead, I chose the traditional Balinese Boreh treatment. The pamphlet described it as “a therapeutic blood circulation” massage for one hour followed by a boreh scrub and a flower bath. The spa was busy so the receptionist said we would have our massages together. I told Mary that the last time I got a couples massage was with my ex, and I couldn’t stop laughing the whole time. By the end of the hour long massage I was more tense than I had been at the beginning. My ex never offered to take me to another massage.
The massage room was in a bamboo lined structure behind the main spa building. The masseuse led me into a room with two massage tables and a large stone tub with a shower head. She gestured a sarong on the table and handed me small bag with rolled up cloth. She smiled and left, sliding the bamboo door shut.
The rolled up cloth was a pair of black, disposable knickers. I thought of a sexy, see-through diaper. I didn’t know if I was supposed to wear them or if they were optional. Did I need to keep my bra on? What about the shower? I was sweaty and grimy from walking around. At our first hotel in Ubud, I remembered hearing Mary say something about a shower and then a massage. Or was it the other way around?
I pulled back the bamboo door. The masseuse looked confused to see me again. “Am I showering and then putting these on?” I stretched the knickers in the air. The masseuse came inside the room. “Do I wear these and lay down?” I asked again. “Or shower first?”
“Yes to all three?”
“These,” she tugged at the knickers. “Wear and shower.”
Mary is fluent in Bahasa Indonesian so I’ve been relying on her to do a lot of the talking. I have a bad habit of responding in German (the only other language I know) whenever someone speaks to me in anything other than English. I’m also overly cautious about insulting someone because I can’t understand them. I smiled and nodded at the masseuse even though I still didn’t know what I was supposed to do. She left and I stripped down to my bra and knickers. I was just about to go full monty and jump in the stone tub when Mary walked in. I asked her about the shower. She looked at me like I was nuts, which I am because I am a person incapable of relaxing.
Finally unclothed and under our sarongs, Mary and I waited for the massages to begin. I pointed at a birthmark on my back. I asked my masseuse not too touch it because it’s incredibly painful with even the slightest amount of pressure.
One of my biggest fears during a massage is that I’ll start to smile from nervousness, but that the smile will be interpreted as being turned on and that’s just uncomfortable for everyone involved. Then, when trying not to smile so that I don’t look like a horndog, all I can think about is Monica Geller from Friends and how she moans sexually during massages. Then my mind turns to her whole “1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 3, 5, 4, 3, 2, 2, a 2, 4, 6, 2, 4, 6, 4, 2, 2, 4, 7, 5, 7, 6, 7, 7, 7” bit. From that point on it’s all downhill and I’m bouncing off the table from laughter.
With this massage, however, even when Monica Geller did pop into my head I was able to maintain my composure. For once I was calm and relax without even trying! Which, that means I was actually relaxed, right? Because I wasn’t trying to relax? I laughed a bit when the masseuse had me turn onto my back and she pulled the sarong down to my pelvis. I’ve never been so exposed during past massages. She massaged underneath and between my breasts and all I could think was, Don’t laugh, don’t laugh, don’t laugh, this isn’t awkward, this is natural, don’t think about Friends––oh but isn’t that 7, 7, 7 part funny? STOP THINKING ABOUT FRIENDS.
The boreh scrub is a mixture of herbs and spices meant to increase blood circulation. It felt like the masseuse was rubbing wet sand all over me, but when she brushed it off it was like she was peeling off my old skin (not in a Game of Thrones kind of way, but more of a I’m a brand new snake! kind of way). I have no idea if the scrub increased my blood circulation or what that even means, but if you want to try your own boreh scrub at home I recommend it:
4 teaspoons of sandalwood powder
2 teaspoons of clove finely grounded
2 teaspoons of ginger powder
1 teaspoon of cinnamon powder
1 teaspoon of coriander powder
2 teaspoons of rice powder or flour
1 teaspoon of nutmeg powder
1 teaspoon of mineral water or your favorite flower water
Combine all the ingredients together and pour in a bowl or glass container.
Gently massage this exfoliating scrub all over your body before you shower with a gentle body wash and rinse.
Repeat once or twice a month.
At the end of the massage the masseuse led me to another massage room, where a stone bathtub had been filled with warm water, the surface covered with floating marigolds and carnations (it’s actually a flower called patcha, but I can’t find out what that means in English, but they looked like carnations). I climbed into the tub and narrated the entire process to the masseuse: “So I just climb in this totally naked, yeah? Like, I can’t take the towel in with me? Do I wait until you’re gone––oh screw it. And now I’m getting in the tub. Oh this rim is very high. And now I’m stretching. Man this is attractive––oh my goddddddd I’m climbing into the tub, trying not to slip.” Once I was finally in the tub the masseuse set a cup of tea on the flower. She pointed at the shower head. “Flower then shower,” she said. She left the room.
I am here to tell everyone that we have been doing baths wrong this entire time. A giant bathtub full of warm water and flowers is the ONLY way people should shower. For the first time since I was ten I felt so relaxed. I mean, so chilled out that the fact that I didn’t know when the masseuse was coming back or when Mary would be done (because my cloths were still in our original room) didn’t bother me at all! I just floated in the water (because the tub was too long and deep for me to rest on the edges) and swirled the flowers with my hands and feet. It was AMAZING.
At this point I was feeling pretty confident about my chilling out capabilities. I’m in Bali! I’m traveling, which I love to do. I’m on an adventure. And, not to suddenly take this down a depressing path, I’ve lost a lot over the past fourteen months and I feel like I’ve gotten better at letting go/trying to appreciate life more. With all of these factors combined, maybe now I’ll finally be able to layback and relax!
Flash forward to the next day when Mary and I decided to be extra indulgent and get another massage. We went to a spa in Seminyak, where you could get a variety of massages: scalp, hands, feet, full body, etc. Mary signed up for a foot massage. Since I write and text a lot (oh hey there, Millennial) I went for hands.
Two masseuses took Mary and me to a dimly lit back room. There were about fifteen plushy lounge chairs, half of which were full of people getting foot or scalp massages. Two people were either sleeping or they were just that relaxed.
Right away my nerves shot up. There are other people around? I started laughing as the masseuse led me to my chair. He kicked the footstool out and moved the headrest back so that I was laying almost vertical. I stared at the chandelier on the ceiling. Don’t laugh, don’t think about Monica Geller. Don’t laugh, don’t think about Monica Geller. As soon as the masseuse grabbed my arm I realized my mistake with choosing a hand massage: with a foot massage he would just be staring at my feet, with a hand massage he would see my face and my giant-ass grin.
While my left arm was massaged, I drummed the fingers of my right hand. At some point I realized I was so tense that my back was arched out of the chair. I laughed when the masseuse pulled at my skin; not because it tickled but because I thought about how normally I don’t want a guy noticing whether or not my arms are flabby and here’s this man just pulling at me like I’m Gumby. He asked if it tickled. I lied and said yes. Then I had to laugh every time he pulled at my skin or else (in my diluted mind) he would know I was lying. A lady in a neighboring chair started snoring and that just made me laugh even more until I had to bite my lip.
Before he started working on my right arm I tried a new tactic to relax: I pulled out my cellphone, turned on my music, and listened to the dulcet sounds of Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty To Me.” It was better than Enya!
By the time Mary and I finished, she was blissed out and I was as rigged as a tree. Maybe Lily’s Spa was a fluke or maybe I have finally mastered the art of not laughing during a massage where the masseuse and I aren’t staring each other in the face. Personally, I’ve always thought I should be allowed to choose my own soothing massage music, and next time I will default to Mr. Derulo once again.
Next on the Road to (forced) Relaxation: scalp massage and foot massage. My god I hope I don’t accidentally kick some poor masseuse in the face.
*Recipe and directions from http://www.organic-beauty-recipes.com/balinese-boreh-scrub-recipe/
I’m just about to board my flight from Atlanta to Seoul and then Seoul to Bali. I don’t love flying even though I do it all the time, so the prospect of nearly 20 hours in the air is a bit daunting, but I don’t let it stop me. My plan is to be in Bali for a few weeks and then head to Bangkok, where I hope to find a teaching job. I’m a planner, and not having a definite plan has caused me one or two night terrors over the past week. I was supposed to be embarking upon this journey with my boyfriend, but the prospect of adventure scared him too much and he bailed. I’m nervous and excited to be doing this on my own (and I don’t know which emotion is stronger). All I know is that I can’t let nerves stop me, and I have to keep pushing myself to experience as much life as possible (given I survive these two flights…which I will! Right? Right.).
Thus far my resolve for this trip has already been tested. I left my debit card at O’Hare after I felt pressured to vacate my restaurant table for incoming patrons and I was creeped out by a guy sitting across from me, who wouldn’t stop staring at me. At a Bank of America in Atlanta I learned I cannot be issued a temporary card if I’m leaving the country and the best they could do was give me some cash, which was a longer than necessary process. At the airport I was tossed between Delta and Korean Airways (queueing at both counters) because neither airline thought I was flying with them. A minor rainstorm also soaked my luggage and I used some of my waiting time to dry out my clothing.
You know how they say the more mishaps a wedding has, the better the marriage? If the same is true for traveling then I’m about to have the time of my life!
So here we go, dear readers. Off to Asia and hopefully yet another place to call home! Let’s hope this blog is soon filled with some grand adventures.
I first traveled to Santa Fe in the summer of 2015. At that time, I thought everything in my life was perfect in a sappy Disney movie sort of way: I was dating my longterm boyfriend, Ross, I’d just been offered a full-ride assistantship at my graduate school, I had my friends, family, and I had hit some sort of magical writing groove where I was writing or revising daily. I had just spent part of the summer working for a hotel in Estes Park, CO. I left that seasonal position in July, picked up Ross at the Denver airport, and started on a week-long road trip from Estes Park to the coast of Georgia. During the seven-state journey Ross and I made a quick pitstop in Santa Fe. We walked around the plaza, went to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (my namesake), and ate frito pie from a convenience store that Anthony Bourdain had raved about.
Flash forward two years and two months, and I arrived in Santa Fe again to attend a Travel Memoir workshop with the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops’s Writers Lab. My mum had told me about the workshop. She thought I’d find it useful. While I agreed I’d probably find the class interesting, my primary reason for this second trip to New Mexico’s capital wasn’t education, it was escape. In the time between my Santa Fe visits my father had died unexpectedly. Ten months later Ross dumped me equally as unexpectedly and his timing––the eve of my grad school graduation––had eradicated both the sense of accomplishment I felt in my MFA degree and my love for writing in general. Then, four days before flying to Santa Fe, Hurricane Irma blew over my hometown, and destroyed my car and nearly all of my possessions (furniture, books, clothing, etc.). When I landed at Santa Fe’s tiny airport, I felt like a facade of what I had been two years and two months previous. I didn’t care about writing anymore. I didn’t really care about anything anymore. I just wanted to go somewhere where I wouldn’t constantly be reminded of all the loss.
Obviously, traveling to a city I had visited with Ross wasn’t ideal for forgetting about him (and my dad and my car), but I planned to stay as busy and preoccupied as possible. On my first night I explored the historic downtown. I went from shop to shop and watched a mariachi band in the center square. I went to a funky boutique, The Dancing Sun, and talked with the shop owner about hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the approaching Maria. As I rifled through a basket of colorful scarves I told her about losing my car and furnishings. When she insisted that I take a scarf for free I nearly teared up. I searched Yelp! for somewhere to have dinner and found El Callejon Taqueria and Grill. Although I’m an extrovert and I’ve traveled by myself, I’m not great at striking up conversations with strangers. Since El Callejon was the No. 1 recommendation in Santa Fe, I assumed it would be crowded enough that I could blend in with the crowd and not talk to anyone.
El Callejon Taqueria and Grill had a grand total of four patrons: a young, entwined couple, a girl eating chips and salsa in a back corner, and a drunk man at the bar. The bartender waved me over to the bar. I wanted to eat chips and salsa in a dark corner like the other girl, but how could I ignore the bartender? I took a seat two stools away from the drunk man and four stools away from the PDA couple.
“You would like something to drink?” the bartender asked. I nodded. He asked to see my ID. When he saw my age (29) he gasped. “This is your age?” he asked.
“I know,” I joked. “I look so young and youthful.” (I joked because most people assume I’m in my mid-thirties. I’m told it’s because I dress up a lot, but I think it’s because I’ve look like a librarian since I was 18.)
“Si,” he said. “You do look young. I would have said 21.”
I ordered a mango margarita and chile rellenos. I’m not a foodie or a food writer so I can’t do a just description of the meal, but, if states had a State Taste like they do with state birds, flowers, fruit, etc, then New Mexico’s taste would be a chile relleno from El Callejon. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen in my lungs, but the chile tasted like they had a full vine out back. It was the perfect amount of spice. I didn’t know Monterrey Jack cheese could taste fresh, and don’t even get me started on the flaky batter or the tomato sauce. While the bartender talked to me about how the restaurant was based off of his mother’s central Mexico cooking, I tried to not throw my face into the pepper.
The next day I still had a few hours to kill before checking into the workshop so I went to Meow Wolf, an interactive art installation. When my AirBnB host described it she said, “If you see a fridge, go in it. If you see a toilet, stick your head in it.” She didn’t say anything else.
If you listen to the podcast Welcome to Nightvale then Meow Wolf is sort of like Nightvale come to life. You start by walking into this seemingly normal Victorian home and you search for clues around the house as to why the family is no longer there. Your search takes you through all sorts of wild and crazy rooms (one of which you find by walking into the fridge). For some reason I was under the impression that the place was a haunted house and, since I’m a very jumpy person, I was on the lookout for something to jump out at me. I stepped through a porthole onto a couch that had melted into the floor a child jumped out at me. I screamed and flailed my arms. Then I learned that Meow Wolf is not a haunted house and that that was just a normal child. The whole place is like a mixture of Rivendale, Ferngully, a dream sequence from Rocko’s Modern Life, and an acid trip. Meow Wolfs will soon open up in other cities throughout the U.S., but each one will be different because it’ll be designed by local artists.
Images of Meow Wolf.
After Meow Wolf I checked into the Writers Lab workshop. I stayed on the Writers Lab campus, which is just south of the historic area. The campus is in the traditional adobe style that you see throughout Santa Fe and the building that I stayed in was originally built as a tuberculosis ward. (My overactive imagination was just a tad creeped out by this. When I turned on the shower one morning red water came out. My immediate thought was, Blood! I’m pretty sure it was rust though.) The TB ward was pretty unusual in that the doctors believed the cure for the disease was fresh, clean air, a beautiful, relaxed setting, and intellectual stimulation. The campus now shares its space with cloistered Carmelite nuns.
I won’t go into too much detail about the workshop except to say that it massively exceeded my expectations. The instructor, Rolf Potts (author of Vagabonding), was fantastic and my classmates were keen to write and work together, which gave the workshop a nice vibe. We chatted, we wrote, we went “flâneur-ing” (the act of idling solo through an area and taking everything in), and we buckled down and wrote our hearts out for a few days.
During the workshop I continued to explore Santa Fe. I walked into town with various classmates on the one to two mile stretch of road that is clearly not meant for pedestrians (side note: do people walk in Santa Fe outside of the plaza? I passed very few pedestrians whenever I was more than half a mile from the city center). We explored Canyon Road, the third largest concentration of art galleries outside of New York and Los Angeles (or Chicago depending on who you talked to). Two of my classmates––women who I thought were in their early forties, but were both pushing sixty––also commented that I looked twenty. Maybe the high altitude (7,500+ ft) adds a youthful glow?
By the end of the week, as I entered Santa Fe’s small airport again, (it’s so small that the airport cafe serves coffee out of a French press––a FRENCH PRESS) I felt like I had changed again. This is really cliche, but I felt renewed. My interest in writing had returned. I was still bummed about my car and my possessions, but I already wasn’t going to have all of that stuff while in Asia so was it really that awful? As I walked around Santa Fe, I thought of my dad a lot and wanted to call him to tell him about my trip, but that’s a desire that will never go away. I thought of Ross, too, but on my last night in the former TB ward I had the thought that had I still been with Ross I never would have gone to the Santa Fe workshop. Was it a life altering/career defining workshop? Probably not, but I enjoyed it, I learned a lot, and it furthered my dedication to an art form I hope to turn into a career. With Ross I wouldn’t have felt such a need for escape. Without him, I needed a break from my normal life and Santa Fe was the first opportunity to crop up. I’m not saying that I’m over the moon that Ross dumped me, but I am finally starting to see how my life will be more fulfilling without him.
Two years and two months ago my image of Santa Fe was a unique looking town with a lot of artists and yummy meals served in chip bags. My Santa Fe today is a magical city, where people give you free scarves to replace all the ones you lost, the desert mountain air makes sheds nearly a decade from your face, there are chile rellenos so delicious they’re worth marrying, and you return home feeling rejuvenated (or maybe that’s just because I can breathe at sea level again).
Just as a general note, I am awkward at introductions so please forgive this initial post. Stick around for future posts in which you can accurately judge whether my words are entertaining (which is all that I aspire to) or if you’d still rather play Candy Crush on your phone. Don’t worry, I won’t be too crushed (see what I did there?).
Hello and welcome to The Wandering Writer! I have been freelance writing for over ten years, writing for pleasure for twenty, and traveling since I was born (not hyperbole: I’m a military brat). I’m starting this blog because I am soon setting off for Southeast Asia and do not have any plans to head back to the States or settle down anytime soon. This blog will be full of my travel adventures, travel musings, and general tips and advice.
A little about this Southeast Asia trip/move:
I’m calling it a “trip/move” because, ideally, I would like to land a teaching job somewhere, but I do not currently have anything lined up. I’m also not 100% which Asian country I want to end up in. Perhaps I’ll just bop around for a bit and see what happens. I started planning this move three years ago, just before beginning graduate school. From the moment I was accepted into the graduate writing program I planned to get my degree and then move abroad.
My father passed away unexpectedly a week before I started my final year of graduate school. This loss is still something I am learning to live with (and I think you never stop learning). That first semester is kind of a blur to me, but somewhere in the fall months my boyfriend (of nearly seven years), Ross, and I decided to move to Vietnam. The plan was I would graduate in May, Ross and I would spend the summer on the coast of Georgia, where both of our families lived. I would help my mum put her house in order and Ross would finish his engineering job. We would move to Vietnam at the end of October.
Then: the eve before my graduation, completely out of the blue and over the phone, Ross dumped me. (He started by saying, “I’ve got some bad news,” but I think “devastating” or “rip-your-heart-out-and-light-it-on-fire-while-you’re-already-grieving” would have been better descriptors.) I could spend months and years wondering why he chose the night before my graduation (he called at 11:30 p.m.), but c’est la vie he never enjoyed traveling anyways so I think it’s safe to say I am better off without him. (He said he doesn’t care if he never steps foot in Africa or Asia. Why live such a boring life?)
Reeling from both of these losses—Ross and my dad—I decided to stick with my “moving to Asia” plans even if I was now going it solo. I spent the summer helping my mother get her house in order and stayed with her as she recovered from surgery. Then Hurricane Irma passed through and, like a kleptomaniac on speed, she took my car and nearly all of my possessions (furniture, clothing, books, kitchenware, etc.).
This is all to say that in the Fall of 2016 I planned to move to Vietnam for a year with my boyfriend. Now, in the Fall of 2017, balancing so much loss that it’s bordering on a tragicomedy, I’m going solo to who-knows-where, have only a general outline of a plan (flying to Bali in late October and then…), and I am pretty excited about it. I’d say “I couldn’t be happier,” but with the abruptness of a death and a break-up still weighing on me then mixed with losing everything to Irma…well check back with me in a month about where I fall on the Happiness Scale.
Why Asia? you might ask. Is it because it’s become the cliche travel destination of the millennial generation and, as a twentysomething, I am bound by my age to follow in the 50+ footsteps of my friends and acquaintances?
I was born in England and then lived in Cuba and Germany. I have been very fortunate to travel to multiple times to Europe, the Caribbean, and Central America. I want to go to Asia because I want to go somewhere completely different from where I’ve been before. It’s been a rough thirteen months. I’m ready for a drastic change.
So there you have it: the makings of The Wandering Writer. If you’ve read this far: thank you! I promise future posts will be more thought out, story-esque, and just all around better.
Let’s get ready to wander!
**Pictured above is the car that Irma destroyed: Odysseus (aka Odie, my love of ten years). He is pictured here on Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch in New Mexico—just one of his many adventures! RIP dear Odysseus.**