Sunday, September 7, 2014

Uncovering Swaziland: Revisiting my Swaziland Experience (More to come)

I found my old blog today I used to keep up while I lived in Swaziland for 2 years.

For those of you that might recall, I used to take pictures of a small robotic rabbit in different settings I travelled to. His name... Sparky Mctwinkle. Ahh, I miss that guy.

Anyway - the blog is just barebones... but I'll try and pull up some old newsletters I used to write. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Closing the Chapter: Final Reflections on my 2-month Adventure

Well, the time has finally come... to close the chapter.

So, I'm home... safe and sound. I can’t believe it’s been over a month since I’ve written last! I recall telling some of you “if I stopped blogging it’s probably because I fell madly in love” ha... well, ha ha, that wasn’t the case… but, I’ve had some pretty amazing adventures along the way that nothing could replace. And in all honesty, I know it’s only been two months, but to me? It feels like I’ve been gone forever. I guess it’s true what they say about breaking routine to slow down time. Life has been far from routine. I’ve been from Bali to New Zealand, New Zealand back to Bali then to Thailand, Thailand to The Netherlands and back, and finally, my last journey… home. I was ready to come home.

I feel it’s suiting to wrap up this experience drawing on conversations from the very start of my journey.

The first day I was in Balian, I went for a long walk with a friend. Amongst talking about love, life, and all that comes with it, she told me of her lessons from the Balinese people, one of the most fundamental beliefs being the Yin and Yang. The symbol many of us are familiar with, but the depth of meaning maybe not so much. In Bali, the Yin and Yang it is the foundation of life. It represents the constant shift between the good and the bad. We should never be too sad they say, as well as never too happy. Life… is about finding the balance between the two.

We also talked about how sometimes in life, people provide advice… anecdotes... and at the time they seem meaningless. But sometimes it isn’t until much later that you realize what they said rings true. It is at this point, that I reflect on this conversation and realized that the Yin and Yang is a good way to look at things sometimes. In fact, there is no better way to summarize my journey than to describe it as a fluctuation between extremes.

The Ying: The Lightness

I’ve literally been to “paradise” in many shapes and forms.

The landscapes. Tropical mist glistening in the sunshine, waters so warm you could swim for days, sand so fine you feel like with each step the earth massages your toes, layers of lush green rice fields, bustling streets in Ubud with culture is bursting from the seams, spirituality that blankets everyone and everything around you.  The soothing sound of waves crashing on the shore while sipping a fresh watermelon shake… watching a sunset so beautiful you want to intoxicate yourself with it. Glaciers, hills, lakes… water so blue, you feel as though you are staring into a painting with you as the silhouette. Long treks up the mountain where every bead of sweat brings a view even more amazing. Every blink of the eye is a new postcard… a sensation like you’ve stepped inside “the dream”... living, breathing and interacting with it. Water… Clear like glass and so many fantastical fish of every colour giving the sensation of stepping into an aquarium. Watching the tide come in while under the stars and then stripping down without even a chill. Slipping into ocean and watching the water emit a bioluminescent glow with every stroke of the hand.

The Food. So many fragrant flavours, fresh fruit shakes twice a day, pancakes with banana and nutella, meat on sticks, pad thai for less than $2 made on the street in 3 minutes, fresh coconut water daily, warm and gooey stroopwaffles fresh from a street vendor, local beers, buckets, pink eggs, scorpions on sticks, new tastes and textures first explored.

The people. I’ve had a long running theory about travellers for a while. People travel for 3 reasons:

  1. They’re running from something / trying to work something out
  2. They’re searching for a place to “fit in” as they often don’t fit in at home
  3. They thrive on travel
This theory remains yet to be disproven following this trip. In many cases, people I met were either coming out of a breakup… a tough year… quitting a job and searching for something more… were a bit awkward in their place in the world… It seems travel, in many ways, is about new beginnings... and a new self.
What never ceases to amaze me is how open people are to forging relationships when travelling. People befriend those they would not associate with at home. They develop a sense of connectedness within minutes. They achieve a sense of belonging not based on political beliefs, socio-economic status or status quo. Belonging is achieved simply on the basis of interest in travel and the need for companionship.

I met some incredible people along my journey.

In Bali - Jen, the friend I made in Balian, left a special mark. Almost like kismet, we had so many things in common. I’m good friends with her brother, our parents grew up and married in the same small town… to name a few. She left a spiritual imprint, one that left me rethinking a few things. Her community, the locals, was also special. Mostly Australian and Dutch, they took me in under their wing from day one. Relationships forged within a single night, I achieved a sense of family within hours and soon enough one of those members happened to be my rescuer in my surfing accident.

Later in my journey, a late night in Seminyak in between flights, I was on a long walk to find a spa of all ridiculous things. I got stuck in a torrential downpour and was too far from the hotel to walk back. I kept walking… and continued to get more and more wet. At one point I eventually gave in and walked into a convenience store in search of an umbrella… garbage bag… something… just to fight getting more wet. The woman, a local woman from Bali, obviously with very little, pulled out her rain jacket and gave it to me with the trust I would return it the next day. Knowing quite well she probably didn’t have another jacket to wear herself that night, I refused to accept it but she insisted. So I took it, speechless. I returned it the next day of course (although I had forgotten what the place had looked like, so walked past it three times before eventually finding it).

In New Zealand – a random connection through the Crisis Mapping community, was introduced to me through a friend of mine in Toronto. Never having met, he picked me up, took my to an amazing pizza place / microbrewery… and we shut down the place. Instant friends and connected through text from that day forward, he was truly awesome.

Ao Nang, Thailand – Alex, the owner of the condo where I stayed, was one of the most unique and kind people I’ve met. He was a quiet, older man. Shy. Conservative. Wears a seat belt, which is a rarity for Thailand. Had basic English comprehension, was stoic with a dry sense of humour, slightly awkward. He picked me up at the airport with an ad-hoc sign written “Jennie” with “(Alex)” below my name. He stood there awkwardly without a smile but an innocent energy. We arrived to his car and instantly upon getting in, before I’d put on my seatbelt, he handed me a magazine. He opened it right away to a page with a group of students in front of the university and pointed “my son” he said with a smile. Wow… I thought… I don’t know if I’ve met anyone so proud before. For the drive he then told me all about his family. He talked about how he’d love for me to talk with his daughter so she could practice his English. About how great they were. He took me under his wing after that for the next week. He took me to the different markets… bought me a keychain with “Krabi” on it so I could remember… brought me food one day… tried to connect me with other couples in the area to share on day tours. One day, he even arranged for me to go on a boat tour, of the Islands around the area, and being the first time he recommended it… he hopped in the taxi with me and came along to the pier to make sure I took off ok and that they were a legitimate company. It was a bizarre friendship, but a special one. Was sad to say goodbye to him. Such a sweet man.

Then there was Kho Phi Phi, I met two wonderful Dutch girls. Instantly friends, one of them ended up spending the day with me in Amsterdam showing me around a week later… hauling me along on the back of her bike. Awesome of her. Her other friend, reunited with me in Kho Samet, and we made many more great memories. Another friend, a truly amazing guy, I met at that same shit hotel I posted about earlier. He ended up being my travel buddy for the last week of my journey and leaves me smiling at the personality just bursting out of him.

The Yang: The Darkness

With this journey, there were also many difficult times.

The landscapes. Although incredibly beautiful, brought challenges. My near-drowning experiencecatching Chikungunya and getting painfully ill from a single mosquito bite… a boat ride to see “The Beach” beach where torrential waves, wind and rain left us wondering if we’d make it or disappear, culminating into a single headline in the twitter-verse for a day or two.  The disaster of missing my flight in Denpasar… spending 6 hours trying to get my flight rescheduled and then finally after it being rescheduled realizing they’d mistakenly changed my return date as well to 4 months later, 3 months past my return date to Canada. Almost missing my flight on the way back from Bali to Thailand.  Feeling physically ill from the energy in Pattaya, Thailand. It was a novelty the first night of sex shows, strip clubs, lady boys and prostitutes. So foreign to the normalcy of life, I was in awe of this world that existed. But as time passed, especially during the daytime, the town started to feel like an oversized brothel where every women had a price tag and men were the consumers. The town was all men.. single men.. groups of men… probably single and some married… all there craving human possession… sex. Either rented or “only for tonight” …I felt hunted, like a piece of meat for grabs. It took me a couple days to recover.

The food. Although great…  came with illness. There was the expected Bali belly… Thai tummy… for the first month in particular my health depended on the day. You could never predict when something would just not sit right. The food in the restaurants was surprisingly not THAT awesome… it was all about street food.

The people. There were some great people… but there was some not so great.

Rejection. The misperceptions about connections i.e. the moments where you realize the assumption made of a mutual connection was not so mutual. When you take the initiative to meet-up again and later receive no response, receive no response and then randomly see them with someone else, or receive a response to cancel because they are ill but then seconds later receive a message from that same person, to someone else, making plans. It all happened. The reality is sometimes you just aren't cool enough, interesting enough, attractive enough, etc., to gain the attention of those you seek. It's a battle we fight to accept from youth to adulthood. Yet for some reason, travelling... and travelling alone at that, definitely compounds the need for acceptance at times.

Alienation. I worked a lot, and that definitely both labeled and alienated me. People made assumptions when they'd see me sitting in a bikini or a beach dress working on my laptop in a beach bar. Some people emanating a sense of shame on my behalf, would glare over like something was wrong with me that I wasn't able to disconnect and take advantage of my surroundings. There was one instance, in fact, where I was kicked out of a cafe because I'd overstayed my welcome at an hour and a half. Meanwhile the couple beside me was reading the newspaper for longer and received no friction. I was left, in many instances, with the choice of working alone in my room or opting to be surrounded by people that were, periodically, disapproving. Don't get me wrong, in many instances it was awesome! But... the odd time, on the days where I felt a little more fragile, a single look made me consider getting a t-shirt printed or pulling out a megaphone and sharing to the world... the freedom this work time was actually buying me. Fortunately, I was never pushed that far.

Isolation. I spend a solid portion of this journey in isolation. Soooo many "selfies." To be clear, I had many MANY empowering moments... and often I chose to be alone. It's quite a luxury when you have the opportunity in many ways. And in the tough times, I was able to get myself out. It was empowering in many ways, that the more travel alone you do the more self-reliant and secure in your ability to "always find a way" you become. Loneliness was a study in itself sometimes. Why do I feel lonely? What is it that I need when I feel lonely? What's interesting in this journey, is that time and time again, the cure to loneliness is often not to surround yourself with people. In fact, the loneliest times were when I was surrounded in groups of people that seemingly all knew one another. As such, I was mindful of soliciting the company of others only when I wanted their company, not just because I wanted to be with anyone. And, after a while you get tired of saying where you’re from, your relationship status, age, career… etc.

Conservations, both locals and foreigners... would often be about how old I was and my relationship status. I don't know how many times I had the conversation...

"No... no I don't have a boyfriend"
"No, no there is nothing wrong with me"
"Yes, of course I want children"
"Yes, I know I "should get on that" don't worry I know I'm getting older.. thank you..."
"Yes, thanks... I understand it's harder when you get older"  
"No... I'm not just going to get married to have children... but thank you for your suggestion"

Ugh. The age thing, in particular, was a big one. One guy after finding out, said "Ahh... So, you on the hunt then?" Argh. Another guy, a Canadian of all things, told me I should consider freezing my eggs as I’m getting up there. Another two fellows, two French men, 24 mind you, would not relent when they found out my age. The conversation literally got to the point where they were essentially admitting they were shocked to find that “even though I was 34, they were still attracted to me.”

In turn, I really had to be mindful of not letting my age get to me this trip. When you’re with someone it’s perhaps not as pronounced… because you’re both in the same boat maybe? Not trying to blend in the same way? But when alone, maybe it’s different. I found almost every person I met, wasn’t just 1 or 2 years younger.. but at least 7..8…? 

Aside from age, isolation also stemmed from moments it was hard to connect with people. And I remember distinct moments where I was bursting to talk about what I was going through, the thoughts… realizations… etc., and there was nobody interested, nor capable of having that conversation. And when you travel alone, those moments where you'd turn to the person beside you to discuss what you're seeing... you discuss with yourself. As such, I found myself in constant running dialogue. So much to say... and sometimes, bursting to share! The odd time you do burst… some people respond, in others, people look at you like you’re crazy. 

Emotion. Emotional moments, in particular, would strike at the oddest of times. When I had the near drowning experience, I cried. Hard. I had some support, but just wanted to be hugged… and for a long time. Near to the end of coming home, when I started to become more ready to come home… there would be periods where tears would just come out of nowhere. You miss stability after a while. Be it hearing Nat King Cole in Starbucks in Indonesia, walking out of airport after airport and never having anyone waiting, a sappy movie where a family sits around the dinner table drinking wine together, two friends sitting in silence with their history as ground… the tears, at times just came, anywhere, anytime, in private or in public. 

The Balance
At the start of my journey, we talked about the notion of Paradise in Balian. My friend there said many times people express jealousy of her. “You’re so lucky” they say, “You live in Paradise." Her response, however, is that it’s not paradise. Paradise is what you make it. This is a reality I’ve definitely reaffirmed this journey.

I had a hand at meditation over the past couple months. In Bali, I did so daily. As the trip continued, however, I found myself in places where I couldn’t align with the energy of the surroundings to find a peaceful place to meditate. I did learn a lot from mindfulness though. And spirituality. Not really a spiritual person prior, I’ve had a few experiences that make me question my understandings prior to this trip. And I find I’ve started to become more in tune with the energy of my surroundings and the way it makes me feel.

I really do think that paradise is something you define. Along my journey, paradise for some was only working 5 months a year, getting stoned and partying every night in the off season… For others, it was surfing every day… for everyone I think it truly is different. But one thing I think I’ve learned is that Paradise, for me, is the freedom of knowing I can be self-reliant and shoot for whatever it is I want to do. Perhaps for me, paradise is not about a specific location, but it is a state of mind and autonomy in life that allows you to try the things you dream of doing. This journey, despite its tough times, was that. Almost daily, despite my mindset, I did acknowledge my privilege and felt humbled by it. Speaking the language that is most widely understood, working towards an occupation that grants me the freedom of more than two weeks of holidays, waking up in the morning and actually looking forward to working on my thesis… Paradise truly is relative.

I suppose, however, the commonality between all of us it as that Paradise is, about the Ying and Yang. Paradise truly is a state of achieving ultimate balance. We just all have to find our own way to get there.

Thanks for following along with me on this journey. It’s back to reality now… but reality also brings many colours with it. Stay tuned soon for a post for the New Year!