The most lovely Indian woman smiled at me. She sat in a wheelchair at a cafe table in an airport. She wore a sari the colour of marmalade and a red bindi on that space where eyebrows often meet. Her black hair was streaked white like smudged chalk on a blackboard. It was parted down the middle and pulled back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck.
She wore that style of eyeglasses that makes the eyes appear larger, like framed magnifying glasses. I’m thankful for that because her eyes were beautiful, peaceful, with the crinkles of pressed newspaper that was once folded delicately over and over to create a fan, a paper crane, or to simply relieve someone’s restless hands.
Her smile revealed a Madonna-like gap between her front teeth. She wore the delicate jewelry of an humbly elegant, cared-for woman. Golden rings and coloured gemstones and dainty chains. Her face sprouted crab-apple cheeks when she smiled and her chin jut forwards like her jaw was seeking to reclaim the once-had teeth of her youth. Imagine the countless losses of a woman her age, but the loss of teeth…
Her face was really, really cute as is often the case with elderly people. And I wonder how a woman of her generation came to exist in that moment as she was, bathed in such light having lived her life in India, a place known to be hard for women. What all has she seen in her life? What has she endured? What has she loved? Where do her sorrows and stale rage reside if not in her face? In an old suitcase long ago put out with the trash? In her useless legs?
She wrung her hands, creased like rippled sand, elbows propped up on the arms of her chair. But not with anxiety or worry or impatience. Rather, like she was rubbing lotion into her hands–gently, lovingly, consciously, like she was enjoying touching her own hands, perhaps a way of staying connected to herself as she drifted into reverie, stared into space, through a window invisible to the rest of us. Her duties in life fulfilled, her existence and short time left in this world accepted.
What an incredible task, to age into such grace after the battles, the messes, the losses of a long life. To caress her own hands, is to take such simple tender care of herself, so to take care of the world, whether the world be one person or every living thing.
She stuck me as a woman who always kept a small piece of herself for herself. A part no one else can access, though they can sense it. Like that first piece of the day at dawn when no one else is around and the whole world is yours for a few moments, the whole world that fits into that tiny piece of ground and marmalade-coloured sky.
When I looked up from my page she was gone.
So, I wrote I book, which is actually a collection of blogs–my musings and stories of a two-year-long life now passed. If you’re interested in reading some amusing, crass, heartfelt stories, check it out on Amazon.com, and please leave a review! Here I share the preface/introduction to my book, A Single White Female in a Foreign Land, Tales of a Teacher Abroad :
Living two years in Indonesia was a 730-day trip of epic proportions. It was all I loved and hated in myself and my immediate airspace. Everything happened there, from within the confines of my tiny seventh floor apartment in Surabaya, and the rest of the country. With a healthy number of holiday weeks packed into my teaching contract, I had oodles of time to explore and fall in love with South East Asia, particularly Indonesia. And I just recently discovered that I do, in fact, love Indonesia with all my heart. Through all its annoyances and gill-inspiring humidity, I fell in love with it somehow. Maybe it was the country, or maybe it was the etch-a-sketchy course my life took during that time. Or maybe I’m just not overly choosey about what I love. Most likely it was a combination. But I am grateful for it anyways.
Surabaya–coined the City of Heroes–is an urban failure, from my subjective point of view, that is. But, according to Indonesia, it is the model city that resurrected itself from the industrial squalor of its past, so calling it a failure is a bit strong; it just didn’t meet my culturally-relative expectations. Even last year’s solar eclipse skipped out on making an appearance there–a galactic event. Surabaya is the second largest city in Indonesia, squashed into East Java’s snout, just out of reach of a narrow escape route to the giant Java Sea. It has all the appeal of a cinder block. In the tropics, amongst bare needle palm trees threaded with green, and humidity thicker than a wool sweater are a hundred shopping mall monstrosities and a massive cigarette industry. The pungent scent of clove cigarettes hangs in the moist air like an old dirty shirt. But the city is a gateway to incredible Mount Bromo–a few hours drive from the city, and Bali, a mere 40-minute flight away, and which needs no descriptor because the word Bali produces its own imagery of emerald rice fields, superb beaches, and richly coloured batik. And–importantly in the single woman’s life–Surabaya has one good bar with really good live music, but fill your hip flask with whiskey because they don’t serve ‘em Jacks up cheap.
The name Surabaya derives from two Javanese words: Suro, meaning shark*, and boyo, meaning crocodile. Two wild and misunderstood creatures who, as folklore has it, fought for the title of the most powerful animal in the area. Now, sharks have survived five planet extinction events, which is momentous if we consider that they will drown if they simply stop moving. And although we fear sharks, we pose more danger to them than they do to us (in fact we have greater chances of dying from being popped on the head by a falling coconut than we do from a shark attack–and the odds increase if you live under a coconut tree). Crocodiles on the other hand, can strike more quickly than we can react. A key insight to survival in this city? Beware: The potential for danger lurks as much on the inside as it does in our external environment, but pay close attention to both. In the end, the crocodile won as the legend goes. Perhaps for its ability to survive in dual, competing habitats. And the shark can’t stop moving in its native home or it will die.
There are about three million inhabitants in Surabaya, mainly of Islamic custom. Gorgeous people with as much patience as there are colours for their beautiful women’s hijabs. So many people–including those beautiful women–helped me there, in big ways and small ways. Some of them I’ve lost touch with now but they will stay with me, forever tucked away in the bones of my gratitude. The teachers I worked with are some of the most special women I’ve known. These women are humble, proud, hard-working, uncomplaining, grateful, kind, and as excited by life as the beautiful children they teach. They made my days at work akin to a sugar high, surrounding me with fluffy marshmallows, snappy bubblegum, and colourful twisty lollipops. Their energy kept me lifted and light on days when rainy season filled my heart with tropical thunder. These women represent the people of Indonesia for me. Not the young, desperate men who robbed or disrespected me, or even those who live in the dank, gritty basements of poverty.
My time in Surabaya was like two years spent in a jail cell with walls painted the blue and white of clouds and sky, with palm tree bars and a lock that didn’t quite fit the key in my desperate hands. But it was a confinement of my own creation; Indonesia painted its walls–thankfully. Had those 24 months happened in the context of a Canadian winter I might have shrivelled to the likes of–well, a few people who’ve helped me grow–and simply stopped moving. A shark dead in the water. Those two years in Surabaya marked my first time living alone, and as a single woman, recently divorced and with as much certainty about what to do with life as a fish has about flying. That time afforded me frequent escapes to Bali, Lombok, the gorgeous Gili Islands, mind-blowing volcanoes and craters, and sweet, sweet ignorance. It showed me impossibly blue sky and dense jungle green and icing sugar sand, all from within a tropical prison.
In Bahasa Indonesia–literally the language of Indonesia–the word hati symbolically translates to heart*. Piggy-backed, hati hati means be careful. Be careful. In a myriad of ways that comprises the truth of my two-year residence in Surabaya and partially, the indie rules of the English language regarding double words: Emphasis. Or, a stutter. But primarily, it suggested be very careful with your heart out there. Don’t double-up servings of your love to anything because this country is wild and unpredictable and dangerously low on boring, sensible arrangements of events or logic. And I fucking double-loved it anyways. It’s never al punto–unless we’re talking about parking tickets. It’s so many different cultures scattered across so many different islands, with so many different, similar sounding languages. All of them serving up tempeh* and nasi goreng*–no fail. All sporting Swallow brand flip flops amidst active volcanoes, ancient Buddhist temples and extravagant mosques, crushing poverty, run-of-the-mill corruption, and gaping holes in the cities’ unused sidewalks. And undersea magic and sunsets that will change your life. To find all of this in one place, from the seat of a motorbike or a seventh floor apartment is something of a miracle. To find all you want and don’t want in one place is the essence of any adventure or heartbreak and isn’t there always one in the other? So, Indonesia was my heartbreak country because I loved it in spite of all the things I didn’t like about it. And loving something will always break your heart.
This collection of what were originally published as blogs, with the exception of The Boy in the Airport, is a set of chronological stories of my experiences as a single white female (SWF) living in Indonesia. They are also a symbol of the end of my relationship with that period in my life. I’ll interact with them in my mind from time to time, and they will always linger somewhere in my body, but I will dust them off now and put them back up on the shelf where they belong. Those pages don’t need anymore turning, brooding over, or attempts at sense-making. They are what they were, and for a short time, what they became. But they will cease being it, what must happen when we close the door on any relationship. My stories, musings, self-indulgent quasi-rants will stay here in these pages–or E-ink screens as a record of a pretty wicked couple of years. They’re how I say goodbye to that incredible experience. And if I didn’t already say it–Damn! I love Indonesia!
* Suro is a mythical creature that closely resembles a shark and is generally accept as one.
* Hati translates symbolically to heart, but its literal translation is liver. Indonesians believe that emotion originates in the liver, so it’s Western equivalent is heart.
*Tempeh is a dense, soybean cake, usually deep fried.
*Nasi goreng is Indonesia’s version of fried rice
“Leen, Leen!” He yelled my name from across the street, this tiny, frail man dressed in worn, yellowed office clothes a couple sizes too big. His belt was pulled tightly around his thin waist. He was sweet-looking. Not desperate or hungry or tired, just simple and curious, asking for stamps. I saw him the first night I arrived, and he remembered me as “Leen” from Canada. He approached me in the street tonight on my way home and asked me for stamps again. “When do you return home?” He inquired. “I could give you my address and you could send me some stamps from Canada.” I told him I didn’t know when I would go home. “Where will you go next?” He asked. I replied maybe Sri Lanka. “Well I could give you my address and you could send me some stamps from Sri Lanka then.” I can’t put my finger on why this interaction was special or why this place is special, but it is.
Some things we just know without knowing how we know them. Sometimes our bodies hint to us things we can’t understand right away, like how this ground feels so familiar beneath my feet, that my eyes have seen certain images before, or how my hands already know how something feels before I touch it, that sometimes the smells of incense and curry wafting in the street remind me of a home I’ve never encountered before. Other times instinct leads the way like a scent leads a bear’s nose down a forest trail, to discover something completely new and unknown. I’m starting to realize that this feeling may be Intuition, which in my case, has a tendency to hide out in a dark corner like a shady squatter and then show its face only later when sunup casts light on my mistakes.
But here in Goa, India, on this small dot of dirt and sea where I stay, Intuition has become this shiny, sequinned showgirl amidst bright, sparkling lights. Dark shadows and premonitory niggles of danger or regret seem to have washed away with the sea to reveal gems of clarity and understanding, dappling my days like sunlight on water. There is a synchronicity here that lines up all those little dots that make us wonder about a seemingly random occurrence of events or songs played on the radio.
I went to India a few years ago, to Calcutta, which is the opposite of easy to travel in. And I went right at the end of a very exhausting year. I didn’t stay long, I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t have the eyes or the heart for it yet and like a ominous black cloud overhead, it whispered, get out, so I did. India is not for the faint of heart or the novice Western traveller, especially Calcutta. I knew I would eventually come back when I felt more capable of facing such a task. So this time around, I started with a softer India–Goa, which has a reputation for being safe, beach-y, and chill. And it is all those things. It’s an unconventional paradise. The chill factor might have something to do with the incredible ganja available, or resignation to the uncontrollable realities of quintessential Asia life like regular power cuts, empty water tanks, shitty internet–internot, if you will, and a 3-day process for getting a SIM card, which involves a semi-rigorous identity check. Really, what else can one do but adapt to her environment with a spliff and a swim, or a mini-exploration on a manual motorbike I somehow already knew how to drive?
Being in Arambol, a small coastal town in Goa, feels like being in a giant campground. Trees grow between the stout little houses and sand from a beach 300 metres away collects at my doorstep amongst the leaves, next to the pile of dirt. And my “campsite” is awesome. I stay in a little house all the colours of one of those stripy pinwheel candies, a hippie house decorated with tie-dyed sarongs, purple crown moulding, orange walls and a hammock on the front porch. What a great energy it feeds me, all those sweet colours of a summer day. The house is tucked away in a corner beside two other houses and a small cross statue which locals surround with lit candles every night. A house is being built next door, so everyday the sounds of hand-fed labour and pumping dance music fill my corner in this little corner of the world. There are so many things going on in this pocket of the world but it also feels a bit ghostly as shops and restaurants begin to close for off-season and just a few Russian stragglers remain.
When I travel to a new place I am often plagued by a feeling that the younger generation has coined FOMO–Fear of Missing Out. My mind wanders to other incredible places I’ve been and unforgettable experiences I’ve had there and part of me starts to miss those places and moments in time. But I don’t feel that here at all. There is nothing I miss when I’m here because everything about this place makes me peaceful, present, and clear-eyed. It pulls me to it and demands I pay attention, soak in what it has to offer. It’s a feeling completely new to me, that dips below the material world to an underground of resounding clarity. Like someone finally took the stars, lined them all up, handed me a piece of chalk and said, go for it.
On my walk home from a work-session-turned-talk-with-a-friend one day I experienced the most incredible sensation out there on the massive beach. I felt pulled to that spot, to that beach. Not because it is beautiful or relieves the heat for a few brief moments, but for some other reason. I knew instantly that it is a place I will return to and that I have perhaps been once before. My feet know that ground. When I returned home, I sat in front of a whirring fan, whilst some locals chanted a prayer somewhere in the neighbourhood. I destroyed a mango with my bare hands and licked its juice off my arm. And I wondered, how can everything be so amazing here? Why am I so drawn? It’s so dirty here, so dirty. Filth hangs in the air, lingers like heavy smoke. The only escape from it is that magical sea own the road. Yet, I feel so clean. There is immense space and openness in one of the most populated countries in the world. And a feeling of security that my imagination could never have paired with being in India. The way I feel is so contrary to where I am, yet everything feels in sync. Perhaps it’s the start of tempering an attachment to the material world. I love all the cool, quirky little materialisms of Asia, because they’re charming and they contribute to rich, wondrous cultures, and those things make me really like certain places. But to be drawn to a place is different. Like my feet are leading somewhere that doesn’t make sense to me because they already know the way (and they don’t rely on that Google Maps Bitch). So I go and I stay where they do, in spite of material fears and worries, because I trust my knowing feet. Perhaps that’s how we survive.
And those feet walk me down to the beach every day. The most beautiful time to be at this wildly magnetic strip of shore is anytime of day, I can’t choose. I’m down there at sunup for gloriously sweaty, sandy yoga and a swim. I’m down there mid day to catch a breeze–that time of day when the sun is the highest and the brightest and absolutely anything seems possible. And then again at sundown for the butter cream sky of a fading day. When I turn to walk home I have to stop and look back because there is something there. My feet know that ground. I feel free here. Not free from anything or free to do something, no qualification at all. Just free. What a glorious feeling to sweat and breathe and feel the sun and wear nature on your skin every day. To be amongst people and animals and trees, with a cup of masala tea, under a brilliant, smudgy sky, beside a shiny sea. Dots and clusters of beautifully dark-skinned people and candy coloured saris everywhere. To be in this most amazing world that gives us one incredible experience after another.
And every beautiful day here ends with one of those necessary, material delights: the bucket shower–one of life’s simple beauties. It so beats the contrived, even spray of a cookie cutter Phillips shower head. It’s like creating your own little waterfall under which you get to stand naked. The crisp room-temperature water, sluicing over you, cutting through the grit, the salt, the road paste settled in the skin since morning. It’s a fairly involved shower at the end of each day, I like grime, I love doing that things the make one grimy, which here is just a matter of walking down the street. And I love washing it off at the end of the day.
And the mangoes. You want to talk mangoes Indonesia? These Indian-grown babies are perfect 21-year-old breasts basked in the sun all day, warm and just a little tender on the outside but mostly, a gentle, squeezable firm. And they are oh-so-sweet. To eat them any way but on their own is an act of blasphemy. They must be what Incredible truly represents in the banner statement, Incredible India, besides the whole range of meanings inside the word Incredible, of course.
But wow–India. I almost gave up this experience in this little dot on the map of this fairly massive country for a Change of Plans. That shady little squatter in the dingy back corner flashed his shiny tooth and croaked GO NOW, and I nearly ignored him. Maybe a plan is still out there somewhere else, undecided. More likely that the plan is in every day already and it doesn’t have a beard or a heart-crushing smile, but instead a pair of old flip flops that fit my willing feet perfectly. And now, those showgirls are dancing, leading me down the right road.
One of the ways I knew I was going to be good here in India? When the plane touched down and the radio came on, the song Love Is All Around by Wet Wet Wet was playing–my dad’s favourite song. And my dad is the safest guy I know. A beautiful synchronicity before I even left the aircraft.
So I made it back to India, finally, as I always promised myself I would when I felt ready for it again. And I think I’ve learned that I’m never going to feel quite ready to face a fear. I will always have to push myself towards that oncoming train, into the dark shadows of that forest, or begrudgingly, to my desk to do those taxes. To whatever stimulus scares me.
I didn’t realize that this is what I’m doing until after I arrived in India, that it is what I’ve been doing for the past few months, possibly years. And those fears are some ugly ones. They’re the ones that fester way down deep and linger somewhere in the body, in the back or some joint, or inside an allergy or a vicious verbal attack on another person. They’re so bad that the body has to find some other way of dealing with them, until eventually the hip collapses or a relationship falls apart. So putting the Great Ones–my intangible personal fears–aside for shame’s sake, I notice that all the external fears with which I am confronted, either by my own direct hand or through random circumstance are my intangible personal fears, materialized. Fear is much easier to face when we can see it, smell it, touch it, when we know exactly what it is we’re afraid of. And Asia is always a good place to find some good fear scapegoats. There are some delightful little fear-inducing stimuli lurking here beside the Indian Ocean. Perhaps if I face those outside culprits I will simultaneously tackle the underlying insidious ones?
I mentioned house-sized spiders in a previous post but really, they’re more like a spider cross-bred with a rhinoceros–and they jump. They regularly paid my friend and I visits in Sri Lanka, showing up in the kitchen, the corner of the bedroom, and eventually the most dreadful of all places, the bathroom. They’re so hairy you could brush them and the two fangs that sprout from their heads. And they jump. Did I say that already? Some cockroaches made their way in too, but they usually got themselves all dimwitted and turned over on their backs, buzzing, panicked legs flailing, so they were easy to deal with. I don’t mind cockroaches so it was my duty to sweep them off the veranda and back into the jungle. My friend is not as bothered by spiders as I am so it was her duty to deal with those fuckers–I rightly don’t give a shit that they eat the ants, I’ll happily coexist with ants, share my rice and sugar even. I duly stood guard as she regularly chased them around our place with the broom–our weapon of defence. Most days that’s how we dealt with those silly, irrational fears, by seeking each other’s help to humanely return those creatures back to their home in the jungle. But other days those creatures resisted and persisted, like avoided fears, and we were forced to resort to methods designed to decimate those creatures to unrecognizable remnants of jungle life. For example…
One night we cornered a gigantic spider in the bathroom that insisted on hiding behind the toilet. This makes for a tricky situation in which the most necessary place to put your ass also then becomes the same one you most fear putting your ass. So we had it cornered and the odds were not in our favour. What does one do in such a situation? Engage creative, survival-of-the-fittest-inspired thought. We apologized to Buddha and then, necessarily, poured freshly boiled scalding water on the poor thing, which makes me feel like I’ve just admitted to dismembering kittens for pleasure. But there was no other way. It couldn’t escape, and I won’t describe the visual result when such a fate befalls a hand-sized spider, but it’s not pretty. Our sighs of relief could be heard through the village, though we felt bad about having taken such measures. It was a pragmatic but unsustainable act; there will always be another spider to replace that one. To be fair, we tried talking to it but it staked claim on the bathroom, not its place and therefore, an intruder (as I suppose I am in the jungle then?).
A Scorpion also joined us one evening a few feet from my feet. If fear is a sound, short, sharp minor chords struck my eardrums and I gnashed my teeth as I leapt onto my chair. You can’t fuck around with a scorpion like you can a spider or cockroach (trust a Scorpio on that one). So we stared at it and talked to it. We tried different voices. We asked it questions and offered it advice for the way home. We talked to it so much that we talked it right back into the jungle. It actually turned on its heels and took itself home. And if you’ve ever watched an acquiescent scorpion (who knew?) move, they don’t crawl, they tango.
Another usual suspect in the crowd of things to be feared in Asia is the stray dog. Some of them are in very, very poor health and so beaten down they wouldn’t know how to respond to aggression or human interaction and, expectedly so, they appear quite scared and passive. But others are outright aggressive, a different, active response to fear. I never know how seriously I should respond to aggressive dogs. Are they only warning me or do they intended to tear my tender flesh from my limbs with their sharp, rabid teeth, even without provocation? One morning as I walked along Arambol beach in Goa a dog approached me, super cute and friendly. He walked beside me for a few minutes until another dog approached, a growler with bared, flashy teeth. The two began to growl at each other whilst they circled me, NOT something I want to be in the middle of. And I know that dogs can smell fear and they’ll react accordingly; they’re street dogs in India, I might approach situations with aggression if I was a street dog in India too.
Fear has a physiological effect that we are all familiar with: tummy flutters, heart palpitations, heat coursing through the body. It’s the physical body being turned on by life, a reminder of our animal instincts in place to protect us from harm. It’s like the role of intuition in the emotional or spiritual body, the tap-tap-tap of the subconscious on the conscious self that says, “hello? we have some shady business going on here that you’re kind of just ignoring.” But what I noticed that morning is that my fear in reaction to the aggressive dog starts at my feet, and like a hot steam rising rushes up my body and explodes in my head, it makes me hot-faced and goose-bumpy and vulnerable (kind of like good sex, come to think of it). It’s a peculiar, highly uncomfortable sensation saved only for the dogs but that makes me feel alive (note: this thought does not apply to previous bracketed statement). The spiders just incite paralysis.
There are as many reactions to fear as there are things to be feared and sometimes this makes those deeper internal fears difficult to recognize, for they are often shrouded in indifference, arrogance, or disingenuous interactions with people–much less obvious than the aggressive dog on the beach or the mammoth-like spiders in the bathroom. Now, had those dogs carried a giant sign around their necks reading you will be alone for the rest of your life then okay, maybe we’re starting to get somewhere.
“If we don’t have fear we die”–words of a man I trekked with in Laos, who told me the story of his horrific motorbike accident that claimed some his basic emotions, including fear until, through conscious conditioning, his body relearned them. Interesting, consciously relearning fear as a survival mechanism, and ultimately a reminder of the beating heart and coursing blood and exploding life. We need fear and I don’t think that all fears should or even can be conquered; rather, it is our common fear response that needs reshaping. Imagine just noticing the body’s physiological response in the face of a fear stimulus, like an aggressive dog. There is a reason grounded in evolution for that fear but that sensation quickly becomes one of anxiety–the fear of our own fear. We can rationalize those responses to deal with what is in front of us, especially if we can see the symbolism in them–that perhaps they are manifestations of what’s really scaring us in the deep muddy trenches of our subconscious. Or, they’re just aggressive dogs and you run for your life if necessary.
Fear, like taxes, can’t be overcome (I think) because new fears always arise, and the same ones jump around throughout our lives like those house-sized spiders. Fear is cyclical. We don’t just face fear once and then hand it its hat and cane and bid it goodbye forever. We have to do it again and again, in different ways, in different environments, with different things that plague our dreams or slip sneakily into our morning coffee. As soon as we’ve conquered one another one emerges, the next year and the year after that, like different strains of a virus. And so we have to constantly manage them or They will come for us and They will be much more a pain in the ass than just doing our taxes like good citizens. My response to the spider in the bathroom was to seek out and destroy what is externally threatening, what scares me, instead of dealing with my response to fear towards cultivating a healthy relationship with it, learning how to manage it, instead of NOT making the spider the scapegoat and unlucky target for my deeper fears–the Great Ones, the shameful ones. Because those spiders are everywhere, along with aggressive dogs, bad people, and ultimately, taxes.
I write to expose my vulnerability in an effort to relieve it. I write because I am furious for the situations I have voluntarily placed myself in and writing is my way of escaping that anger or trying to understand it.
I write because I am trying to know myself better or I’m making up a new person I’ll like better.
I write because I like putting ordinary words together into something beautiful, and sometimes it is not about beauty but about shock, nostalgia, passion, ego, self-righteousness, and insecurity.
I write because I don’t know what else to do with my life and so writing is a great way to fill time and feel productive.
I write because there is so much to write about. Writing makes me slow down and grasp meaning, lose meaning, see details, note details, create details where none exist. It makes me engage better with the world.
I write to express the love and pain alight within me. I write to have people know me and understand me and love me or hate me. And if they hate me there is still emotion and energy and where there is energy there is life.
I write to prevent death even though death happens every day in some form. I write to carry something forward, to create new life, to leave a stamp or a footprint somewhere in the half-moon light of an evening in August because I won’t have children and that is a way of leaving something of myself behind.
I write because I need to create something where there is nothing.
Sometimes I don’t want to write but I need to the same way that sometimes I need to eat when I don’t want to or I need to go through the painstaking motions of putting on my runners and tying the laces and putting one foot in front of the other in order to stay alive. It’s something I am willing to suffer for.
I write to keep a healthy mind and a clean heart, to rid myself of the filth that longing and attachment and misplaced love create, because otherwise I am selfish and concerned about things that don’t matter and worse, unconcerned about the things that do.
I write to accept myself so that I can be free. I write in order to love and understand people. I write to discover myself more everyday, to find out what I am capable of, to tap on all the secret doors within me that hold both surprises and emptiness.
I write because I feel hollow sometimes and words fill me with something better than cigarettes and alcohol, even if they are empty, pointless words. They tide me over until I am ready to feed myself with healthy, wholesome words.
I write to alleviate the proverbial constipation of a mind full of shit and to break the rules of social convention that warn against public vulnerability.
I write to break my own rules.
I’ve met all kinds of people in all kinds of places. One of my favourite places in the world is Chiang Mai. My favourite because I don’t need a point of reference to know that I love it. I’m just free to love it. It doesn’t inspire me to travel to yet unexplored parts, it inspires me to stay. For its spirit but also for solid practical reasons. It’s a busy Asian city that feels like a community. A darling, culture-rich dot on the world map. And by culture, I’m not referring to just Thai culture. Culture takes so many forms in that city and intermixes so naturally to create a sweet urban pocket of sunshine and mountains in northern Thailand. One such recently established culture is the community of remote workers.
A place like Chiang Mai will naturally draw people from all over the world who want to stay. Come for a week and stay five years happens to many people because they fall in love with the city’s charm, and those people form a little community of ex-pats. In recent years though, this community has grown with the boom of the Digital Nomad (DN). This funky name describes the tech savvy, computer-geek, business dudes who can live wherever they want in the world because they can work remotely. The only things necessary to work are a laptop and an Internet connection, which completely wipes out the idea that constructing and contributing to the virtual, digital world, building businesses or software should mean sitting in a swivel chair beneath artificial light, waiting for that 5 pm bell to signal the top of happy hour. These guys–or gals–can sit on a shady beach working away. They can nap in the afternoon and work in the evening. They can pick it up and put it down. They can work yesterday, today, and tomorrow and then not for a few days. They’re free to manage their time.
It also covers the freelance, artsy people (yours truly) who make next to nothing but want to live a quasi-alternative lifestyle abroad. I’m trying to enter this world, albeit with much less tech knowledge than most. But, when there’s a will to reinvent oneself and earn an independent creative living there is most certainly a way down any number of unnamed, rocky roads riddled with aggressive dogs, tossing nothing but nickels your way… but there’s still a way!
In any case, the overriding theme of the Digital Nomad / Freelancer life is not money or travel or adventure. Well maybe it is for some but only because such things represent a less tangible reason for living the way they do. The number one value in life for most is, as my good DN veteran friend Rob describes:
“FREEEEEEDOM!!!” With accompanying Braveheart GIF to pictorially represent said number one value.
So I asked Rob a couple of questions about his DN start-up and existence in Chiang Mai and I share his answers here for anyone who is curious about how these guys do it:
Q: What kind of work do you do?
A: 90% of my income is from sales of my own privately labelled products on amazon.com (FBA). I also do a bit of affiliate marketing and video production for clients.
Q: Why did you decide to stay in Chiang Mai?
A: I was getting a bit tired of China and an online business partner, a Chiang Mai vet, convinced me to check it out. The weather, people, affordability, access to nature, access to western comforts, like-minded entrepreneurs, and solid night life, sealed the deal.
Q: Legally, how do you stay in Thailand?
A: Tourist visas. So far, so good.
Q: What’s the hardest part about being a DN?
A: Living off the grid means no access to credit cards, business loans, etc. With that said, I have no debts, my business was 100% started with money I earned, but access to easy cash can really help a new business grow faster.
Q: What advice do you offer people who want the DN lifestyle?
A: There are a lot of ways to make money online. Figure out what suits you, teach yourself the basics, and set up a solid foundation. Everything can be self taught, with the likes of Udemy, but finding a good, trustworthy mentor can accelerate the process. These can be for a set fee or I’ve also seen apprenticeship programs. If you decide to go it alone, don’t get sucked into the trap of buying rubbish MMO (make money online) training–most of these guys are sharks. I recommend Udemy for training.
Q: What’s the best part about being a DN?
A: (again) “FREEEEEEDOM!!!”
Naturally, when I hear someone proclaim freedom I get all gusty and tingly and antsy and jealous. And then I think–wait a minute–how can I feel jealous when I’ve made freedom my daytime playmate and bedside companion? When I have no physical, material, or social restraints right now, other than the 20kg backpack I slog around with? I certainly don’t feel free some days but perhaps that is because my idea of freedom is less tangible than that. So, I asked Rob for his definition of freedom. “I like that I’m my own boss and I’m not tied to one location.” Hmph. Location? A word so interchangeable with woman for some men (author’s humble cynicism–only some men). Guys are so simple, well some are.
So that’s freedom for one DN. What about another, aspiring one? I’ve recently started scraping together $5 here, $20 there, writing little ditties for random people on a platform called fiverr. This is towards a goal to make what I love to do a bit lucrative so I can continue exploring some different lifestyles whilst I move around the world–so I can sustain my material freedom whilst I pursue the other kind. So, I’ve been writing descriptions of things like eyeglass chains–eyeglass retention systems, if you will–and latex Donald Trump masks, for the purposes of marketing them on Amazon. And I’m loving it actually. It’s diversifying my craft. I’m practicing different writing styles, playing with words like I’m choosing bubblegum flavours. And I’m learning lots of interesting things, some useful, some not, but usually entertaining. And really, it’s incredible the things we buy.
This is a kind of freedom: The time and opportunity I have to take something I love and develop it, play with it, smack it around, pound it down, roll it around in my hands, sculpt it into something beautiful and if all I have is a heap of useless words in the end, I’ve enjoyed the process. But I do love when all the play ends in something juicy that I can savour for a long time to come. That is my freedom to be creative, freedom to anticipate, freedom to love without restriction. The freedom to feed myself what I love, to make that a responsibility to myself, one that I am strong enough to manage.
I used to have this conception of freedom as a tangible thing, a reward for a lot of hard work, sort of how to-be retirees envision life after career, or prisoners imagine life outside bars, or pet-store goldfish dream of the deep blue sea. Like freedom is a place or a stage or way of life or a stack of cash. There are a myriad of ways to conceptualize freedom, duly noted by many a great philosopher, priest, poet, an artist through his scrawls, a dancer through her body, an ex-boyfriend through excuses. Whether we’re travelling, living in Chiang Mai, or wasting days away on cigarettes and booze and darkness, everyone thinks about freedom, has a definition for it–external for some, internal for others. Connected to jobs or people, age or lifestyle, thought, will, or action. And the freedoms we subscribe to most strongly are the ones we’re trying so hard to achieve but that we can’t seem to attain, quite simply because they change form, they evolve as we do. Relative freedom is this hazy shape off in the distance that, should we manage to one day reach, will be quickly replaced by a desire for a different kind of freedom. We keep on striving for some sense of freedom or another because we’re always noticing new chains, because we have an innate will to be free. That is what makes freedom sustainable–the ability to recognize what chains us, whether it be external or self-created, and rise up anyways, to persevere in our pursuit of freedom.
So the DN life is an interesting, alternative lifestyle that is slowly becoming a little more mainstream–in Chiang Mai anyways–because of the relative freedom it appears to offer. And it’s because of the Internet, originally a tool towards freedom to send and receive information, to disseminate knowledge, but is now somewhat of a requirement for maintaining a place in the social world. Today, those notification pings and little blue checks and apps for every single thing the imagination can muster make me want to duck out, build a blanket fort and plant trees in it, and scribble juicy words on it’s walls. It makes me want a different kind of chain. I’m grateful for the Internet, because it is helping me create a new kind of freedom for myself, like those DN guys have. But sometimes I wonder about the real tangible world out there. This freedom, to be in your shower and still fight a war, end a relationship, start a business, write, publish, and sell a book, buy a whole bunch of useless crap–without actually being there is almost like breaching the Cosmos. And that freedom has some heavy, consequential chains. Because wherever the freedom to exists, the freedom from something else waits in the shadows. For this aspiring freelance / digital nomad / freedom seeker that is.
“Freedom stretches only as far as the limits of our consciousness” – Carl Jung
My first steps in Sri Lanka took me down some endearing little roads with colourful flowers and smiley people in quiet, tucked away places. They were the initial observations of a woman who spends most of her time wearing rose-coloured (or ignorance-laced) glasses. Let’s just say I like to look on the bright side of things. And such things are easily noticed when you’ve got all you need in life and a whole lot more. But, as is the case everywhere, there’s more to this place than rosy first impressions, which is why I like to explore one little place for a while, to walk a little longer down the same road. But let’s start with more of the rosy stuff first.
One of the most frequently asked questions about any place is, what of the food? It’s an important question because we spend a great deal of time and energy and love on food and eating–naturally, because food is one of our main requirements for sustaining life. I’ve come to love the worship of beautiful, natural foods–the time spent finding a good fruit stand and selecting a perfect, buttery papaya, brimming with peppercorn seeds, or gorgeous, rosy-skinned mangoes that hint at perfect, syrupy ripeness. Just normal food that grows in normal places by people who work hand to mouth on the land.
Tropical fruits are just one of all kinds of edible delights in this island country. I haven’t tasted anything that has scared or mystified me yet. Everything seems to be a wicked combination of root vegetables and herbs, stewed in curry and lentils, folded into paper-thin layers of soft warm roti. There are meals wrapped in the day’s newspaper, to be eaten that day, costing just a couple of dollars. They take a little of this and a little of that and toss in some light, meaty rice and add herbs and spice and everything nice, a gorgeous monstrosity of deliciousness. Smooth, sweet carrots and beans of green chopped and bathed in curry, tucked gently into a heap in each corner. A chunk of meaty, curried fish nestles alongside, surrounded by spiced, cooked herbs. Discovering and promptly devouring this dish was like looking through an old book for that one phrase that struck you long ago, and finding it on the first try. A magical happenstance, hidden in paper.
Now I love talking about food. If a place can draw in my taste buds and belly then it can most certainly draw my heart in too. If we’re well nourished and adequately satiated in the most basic ways, we can attend much better to our environment. This applies to travelling too–a context in which I often go hungry for long periods of time or experience dreadful intestinal aversions to the local food; my chosen, First World discomforts. And when that happens, the only things I notice are public hygiene’s appalling standards. But I have been eating well here, with my personal vegan chef, who happens to foremost, be a great friend. But every so often we go out and eat street quality roti kotu, or those warm, delightful pockets of curried joy.
So with a full belly and grateful appetite, I can walk a little further, notice a little more of what’s happening around me. All of life seems harmoniously intermixed here and that’s a really cool thing. I see the locals care lovingly for the animals around here. One day a cow and her calf were stuck in the net surrounding a little volleyball court and a couple of the guys stopped their game to gently remove them. The cows wandered off down the road after, aloof and unbothered by it all, though surely grateful for liberation. Monitor lizards and snakes cross our paths occasionally and the mongoose dart in and out of road side brush. Monkeys swing from tree to tree as we sit and eat breakfast. Late a night we hear livestock on the roof as chipmunks scurry across the tin awning, and there is chirping, buzzing, smacking, going on out there beyond the edge of the doorstep, in the blackness that is the jungle at night. Every so often we hear a rustle out there in the black, as loud as someone banging on a door, like something messing around in the trees, moving closer. And I think it’s probably just another spider, which are so big one can see each individual eye of the vile eight they wear.
Long walks through my temporary neighbourhood remind me of summer days when I was 10-years-old and knobbly-kneed, when mornings stretch timelessly into afternoons. Where tall trees filter the sunlight to dance upon old, cracked pavement, and the azure sky stretches from one side of your vision to the other. Local construction sounds of hard work and manual tools dapple the background. Other sounds are the ear-pricking, 100-bird species symphony. An old road meanders alongside train tracks and eventually leads us to the main road, where vehicles fly by and people wait for the local bus. At this junction is a little triangle shack on the corner that sells those vegetable roti bombs I might have already mentioned three times already, and other such delights. Local, barefoot men stand around wearing long lengths of traditional fabric over their small, thin bodies, and worn, white collared shirts– a reflection of pride in their appearance. They smile toothy grins, sometimes absent of teeth, or stained from betel nut. Squinty eyes sprout half moons from their corners. There are always people lined up at this place. Those same shoeless men are there every time I want one of those roti bombs.
Many people walk shoeless here, by choice or not, I’m unsure. Their long, gnarled feet tread along hot pavement, over stones, and through dirt. Shoes are a symbol of individual lives, of culture and the climate we live in, our relative comfort in life. But I see shoes as one of the most basic provisions for life, not as vital as food obviously but a sanctuary, a symbol of immunity against the sometimes hard road beneath our feet. They protect our feet from damaging elements and dangerous refuse strewn about the road. Being barefoot on city streets reflects the economic reality of a village local, a man who doesn’t have access to the resources we’re accustomed to in the ultra-developed world, a man who has probably worked his whole life in the urban wild–in the craziness of an Asian city with the jungle at its fringes–just to sustain his family. One man approached us as were stopped on the motorbike, waiting at the corner to enter traffic one day. He stood just over five feet tall, dark skinned, hollow cheeked, eyes dancing and head wobbling like those guys up in India. He smiled to reveal two teeth and pointed to his naked, scarred feet in request for shoes. We got him some flip flops from the local supermarket.
What we see as an alternative, privileged lifestyle comprises the basic living conditions for much of the world. Living in the jungle, soaking in the sea everyday, eating natural foods grown locally, living off the land. Many people from First World countries and privileged communities aspire to shave life down to an uncomplicated arrangement of basic conditions, for health, simplicity, and freedom, to spend more time on fewer things. But the freedom is in the choice to live that way and that is the biggest difference. Much of the world doesn’t have a choice, and that is evident just in this tiny community we live in for the month. Families cram comfortably together inside a small home that bleeds into the garden, inseparable spaces. A roof but no walls, a comfortable-looking raised bed but inside an open kitchen, exposed to insects and heat and humidity. My exotic is another’s basic, my choice another’s only, my romanticized another’s hard reality. It’s a cultural and environmental living arrangement resulting from–or inspired by–economic poverty, depending on how you look at it.
We walk most days down these roads through villages sat on the edges of the railroad tracks. My feet are safe in sound in supportive shoes, and my belly jiggles with nourishment. Palm trees graze the late afternoon sky and a peacock stares out at us from the middle of a rice field. We arrive at the beach a few minutes later and tuck into the sea, watching the sun go down.