It’s Okay To Suck At Bike Riding

And other lessons I learned from Haruki Murakami

It’s not often that I have a special experience surrounding a book I read.  This one involves the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and what was probably the worst bike ride of my entire life.

September of last year Yun and I planned a do or die trip to Jeju Island, the so-called “Hawaii” of South Korea. We were leaving Korea soon and it didn’t seem right to do so before we paid a visit.   Why not go all out, we thought, and turn it into an epic bike trip. So with some thought we planned our itinerary, where we would stay, and how we would pack.

We didn’t exercise as much thought when it came to the weather.

About two days before the trip it occurred to me to check the weather status on Jeju Island. “Constant rain,” the Internet told me. All three days we would be there. All day long.

We shrugged it off. What’s a bit of rain, anyway? We figured. Isn’t that part of the adventure? A raincoat each and we’d be set. How bad could it be? (Here I take a moment to pause and exhale ever so slightly…)

When we arrived in Jeju City the rain was fairly mild. See, this is nothing! My psyche made a valiant attempt to see the glass half full. We hopped on a bus headed south and crashed that night at a “pension” (something like a Korean B&B, minus the breakfast part). We had ordered our rental bikes to be dropped off the next morning. And then the next morning came.

Rain. Frenzied, relentless, pell mell. Half filled with dread, half mortified I couldn’t look Yun in the eye. The rental bike guy came with our bikes to the hotel lobby at around 9 am. Seeing our hesitation he asked, “You know how to use these…?”

“Well…”

It’s not that we didn’t know how to ride a bicycle. Rather it was at this moment we realized the second critical error we had made.

The bikes we had rented were…how to describe them?  Professional bikes. Bike enthusiast bikes.

The kind of bike with the hand bars one foot lower than the seat so that you’re bent forward like a yogi. The kind of hand bars that have little horns you have to grip on top so that it’s almost impossible to pull the brake without killing the muscles in your pointer finger. These were bikes meant for true athletes, meant for aerodynamic cruising around hairpin turns. They didn’t even have kickstands. My idea of a bike was (and still is) a low-rider with a fat, cushy seat and a big basket in front for carrying a thermos of lemonade. We both stared for a moment in silence.

The bike rental guy showed us how to adjust our seats (even the lowest setting still put us in the leaning yogi position) and with a brusque, I-don’t-have-time-for-this kind of attitude sauntered back out into the rain and drove off in his rental van.

The hotel manager watched us from behind the counter and said, “Are you guys really going to ride those things out there?” I don’t understand Korean all too well, but I can’t imagine what else he could’ve said. I’m pretty sure at that moment both Yun and I reconsidered what we were doing, but we had checked out of the room, paid for the bikes, and the ship had sailed.   We donned our helmets and our pitiful rain ponchos we’d bought at a convenience store and headed out.

Something to note about riding in the rain: there’s riding in the rain on a level surface. And then there’s riding in the rain uphill. And then there’s riding in the rain uphill in the wrong clothes.   And then there’s all of those factors, in addition to riding on a bike you have absolutely no experience with.

I did okay until it got to the uphill part. I tried to think of it as a whimsical sort of misadventure I could sort of laugh my way through. That’s when my thighs started to die.

I was wearing jeans – probably the worst thing you could wear in a rainstorm – and they were soaked to the core in seconds. Along with my muscles they resisted the upward pull of my legs as I pedaled. I was thoroughly out of humor by the time I reached the uphill peak, and my exchanges with Yun were few and terse.

Downhill, however, was a nightmare.   As you recall, the position of the bike forced me into a leaning forward position. This meant that in order to look up, my neck and shoulders experienced a terrific strain. But if I looked down I couldn’t see my path ahead, and in rainy conditions this was nothing short of suicide. In addition to that, the brake was near impossible to pull and I almost wiped out at one point. After a few moments of primal, childlike crying from shock I remounted and changed the position of my hands. I was now able to reach the brake easier, but at the cost of my hands and wrists being uncomfortable.

Over the few hours biking on the road along the south coast of Jeju Island we experienced little variation and a lot of monotony. When uphill became too painful for us we stopped to rest under a bus stop – otherwise we kept moving. When downhill became too painful we got off and walked. Any time delaying at a restaurant or store just meant more time until we reached our destination. Almost every second of riding the bike was miserable, but the anticipation of getting back on the bike was even worse. So we just kept going.

I have two distinct memories of that epically disastrous ride. The first was when we passed the “Health and Sex” museum that happened to be next to the road. I’m not sure why, but we stopped and took a photo. The museum name was too long to get in the shot, so in the photo is Yun, standing in a field, in his helmet and poncho, next to the giant letters “S-E-X.”

The second memory was another time I nearly wiped out, although I managed this time not to hyperventilate. The front end of my bike swerved this way and that, and I had just enough presence of mind to steer it and pull on the brakes before crashing into a fence. When I finally stopped and looked up there was a giant, brown cow standing a few yards in front of me.   Its huge, unblinking eyes directly met mine. The sight of me had probably stopped it in the middle of chewing its cud. Normally I find cows to be less than intelligent animals, but this one regarded me with an unmistakable expression of both wonderment and disgust. I quickly backed up and rode off, ashamed.

Through some sort of miracle we made it all the way to Seogwi-po City, the only largish town on the southern coast. To add insult to injury the first two hotels had no vacancy. Finally we found a decent place with a friendly and sympathetic clerk. We peeled off our clothes, showered, found a Laundromat, ate a dinner of pork barbecue and called the bike rental guys to come pick our bikes up early. They said they would be happy to, but it would take a while because they had to pick up some other bikes that their other clients had quit using. Gee, go figure.

***

The next day of our Jeju Trip Yun and I were walking and riding in cabs instead of biking, but the memory of the day before still stung. After seeing a couple of waterfalls we found a coffee shop. It was another cold, wet day and we needed something warm, but we didn’t intend to stay long.

Unlike Seoul, the people of Jeju Island are rather friendly and casual. When I rattled off a stock-memorized sentence in Korean (“Do you happen to have hot chocolate?”) the barista became delighted and tried to start a conversation.

Oh dear.

I tried to muddle my way through her questions, grasping at any words I recognized and answering her as best as I could understand. Of course, I denied that I could speak Korean well, but this seemed to have no effect on her. She said something else I couldn’t understand, and came back a few moments later with a book in her hand. An English book. It was What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami.

“It’s one of my only English books, so you can read it,” she said, in essence. “This is a very special book to me.”

Gratefully I plopped down into a chair with my hot chocolate mug and it didn’t take me long to realize that Mr. Murakami’s book was strangely apropos to my whole Jeju misadventure. I lost track of time and soon had read the whole thing.

For the record, I have not read any Murakami novels. I am aware that he is a both a bestseller and a sort of darling of the critics, and maybe for that reason I felt a bias and didn’t bother. Illogical, I know. I guess I imagined he was someone pretentious and boring. And for all I know, his novels are that. But his memoir, Running (I’ll call it that for short) is anything but pretentious. And certainly anything but boring.

In a modest but riveting 127 pages Murakami matter-of-factly explains why he enjoys running long distances and how the self-discipline and enjoyment of it help him write novels. He shares pieces and glimpses of his life and his beginnings as both a writer and as a runner. I can’t tell if the self-effacing way he talks about his flaws and foibles is a Japanese cultural thing, personal modesty, subtle humor or all three – whatever it is, it’s delightful. His attitude is either genuine and honest, or so brilliantly contrived that it doesn’t matter if it’s not. He gives you the straight talk on marathons he’s run and the leg cramps, dehydration, crappy weather and other ignominies he’s suffered along the way.

The ecstatic moment for me on that rainy day in the coffee shop, though, was when he began to share his triathlon experiences. Guess which is his least favorite part in the triathlon. One lucky guess.

Murakami seems to feel almost as awkward on a bicycle as yours truly. I think I laughed out loud when he described the hunched leaning position as “a praying mantis with a raised head.”   “It’s next to impossible,” he tells us, and goes on to say that:

Sometimes it [cycling] strikes me as an intricate form of torture. In his book the triathlete Dave Scott wrote that of all the sports man has invented, cycling has got to be the most unpleasant of all. I totally agree.

 If a worldwide bestselling Japanese novelist and triathlete feels like cycling is “torture,” I guess I’m not quite such a baby after all. Not quite, anyway.

But Running is a memoir filled with so many more witty and straightforward insights than cycling. After all, it is mainly about running. And about inspiration. Above all, it is personal – he never claims to have found the ultimate answer to anything, but rather, shares his own experiences as an artist and as a runner, for what they’re worth.

One thing (among many) that I think Murakami hits on the head is the concept of pain – and by extension, effort we put into anything we do. That could also include writing a novel. Or overcoming the discomforts of traveling to a new destination:

It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive – or at least a partial sense of it.

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The glorious cliffs of Jusangjeolli.  Was it worth it?

I felt cranky, tired, dirty, soiled and grimy on that long bike ride. I felt pain both physical and figurative. And yet I certainly felt alive. It was the pursuit of that aliveness that gave me the mad impulse to go out in the rain anyway, even though the hotel manager and Yun and I knew it was folly. And while I will never get on one of those lousy praying mantis bikes again I can’t deny that there was a sort of triumph of overcoming.   Yun and I first felt a spark of that triumph when we managed to get our bikes all the way to the cliffs of Jusangjeolli and forget our misery for a few serene moments as we stared at those ranging waves rising towards the sky like something out of a 19th century Romantic painting.

Sometimes pain is worth it. And even when it’s not, it can make for a great story later.

The barista was kind enough to let me read Murakami’s memoir till the end, but she did rather anxiously let me know that I needed to give it back when I was finished. It was one of her few English language books, after all, and other patrons needed a chance to read it. Maybe some day another poor unfortunate soul on a praying mantis bike would stumble in and need some validation. Or not. Either way, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a book that goes wonderfully with hot chocolate, and it just might change your life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book #24. The Beach. By Alex Garland.

Be careful what you wish for. It might make you temporarily insane.

I knew, ever since Yun and I began to plan our Southeast Asia trip, that I had to read this book.

Mention The Beach within a circle of travelers and you will probably see heads nod and eyes gleam. As far as I know, it’s the only famous backpacker novel in existence. Apparently Leonardo Di Caprio starred in a decent film version but I didn’t want to spoil the plot by watching the movie first. And boy am I glad I didn’t. You could say this book is the literary equivalent of a gourmet burger: exciting to plow through, but you’ve got to be sure to pace yourself, because when it’s gone, it’s gone.

The star of the plot is Richard, a roguish lone traveller who you could say is sort of a Gen X version of Humphrey Bogart. Richard sets out for an adventure in Bangkok but is soon bored by his touristic surroundings. That changes quickly when he ends up rooming next to a crazy guy who calls himself Daffy Duck. Daffy commits a gruesome suicide soon afterwards, but not before leaving Richard a handwritten map to a secret, unspoiled island. An opportunistic young French couple wants in on the action, and soon the three are paddling off in search of the alleged tourist-free Shangri La.

A duller and more literary book would have Daffy’s mysterious island tantalizingly out of reach and not quite real. But in The Beach it’s real. So real that cannabis farmers living on one side of it almost cross paths with Richard and his friends and the three barely escape with their lives. Only after stumbling along a bit further do they discover an incredible colony of like-minded expats, living in blissful and tropical self-exile.

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Although The Beach is supposed to be on an unnamed island in Thailand, there’s a well-founded rumor that Alex Garland drew his inspiration from an island in the Bacuit Archipelago, Philippines…  Possibly this one?

Sal, the enigmatic leader of the colony, welcomes the three newcomers and gives them tasks to earn their keep. Their fellow islanders seem more or less ready to welcome them in and life unfolds at a paradisiacal slow pace as everyone helps out with fishing, cooking, farming and building. But nothing is too perfect to fail.  In the case of the island (and its equally paradisiacal beach) things can actually go bad. Quite bad.

The Beach is like a psychedelic mixture of Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness with an extra shot of adrenaline but still enough ideas for a book discussion.  Is it a cautionary tale for those who are too eager to chase extreme forms of adventure? Is it simply an imaginative thriller? A bit of both? Certainly the narrative is deft and the writing is smart, in spite of a few plot holes and over the top scenarios – but isn’t that part of the fun?

Richard is an ideal narrator in many ways because he does not distract the reader with too many moral observations about himself or about those around him – you could say he is a truly reliable narrator. He is openly flawed, matter-of-fact, selfish, bored and honest:

Collecting memories, or experiences, was my primary goal when I first started traveling. I went about it in the same way as a stamp collector goes about collecting stamps, carrying around with me a mental list of all the things I had yet to see or do. Most of the list was pretty banal. I wanted to see the Taj Mahal, Borobudur, the Rice Terraces in Banave, Angkor Wat. Less banal, or maybe more so, was that I wanted to witness extreme poverty. I saw it as a necessary experience for anyone who wanted to appear worldly and interesting.  

Sound familiar? Many people whose weakness is travel may recognize these aspirations. I almost winced, like a mirror had been held up. Can even travel become…banal? With the wrong attitude, there’s no doubt about it. That’s why adventure junkies like Richard are perfectly primed for the self-destruction that lies behind a travel destination that is too good to be true. That’s not to say you need to be a backpacker or travel junkie to appreciate The Beach. It’s fast-paced, funny, lush, full of lurid yet likeable characters and it ends the way it should. Ideally it should be read in a gently swaying hammock overlooking a pristine a propos shoreline in the middle of the day. If you have no choice except to read it at night, though, you just may want to consider a nightlight.   The Beach is certainly entertaining, but it doesn’t shy away from the darker side of human nature. 

What I (think I) learned this past year

Almost exactly one year ago I was sitting in my apartment in Seongnam, South Korea and realized I was going to turn 29 soon.  And then somehow I decided that it would be a great idea to start a blog and read 29 books within a year.

Getting older is a mixed bag, emotionally speaking.  On the one hand, dreams fade and doors close (or slam) as you realize you no longer have enough time left on earth to do all the cool things you had hoped.   With growing alarm you realize that even some of the basic things – like buying a house, setting up car insurance or investing in some sort of savvy retirement plan – you’ve yet to accomplish.  Not only are your dreams of being a prodigy dashed, you suddenly find that you are “average,” or even below average compared to your peers in 21st century Americana.

On the other hand, you gain confidence.  You’ve boughten plane tickets, opened bank accounts, had successful job interviews, moved multiple cardboard boxes of stuff multiple times to multiple homes and set up shop and somehow made it work.  And where else does such confidence come from but sheer experience?   Perhaps confidence is a misleading word because it suggests some sort of proactive, can-do attitude that conjures up an image of an attractive person in a pantsuit making lots of important phone calls.  To me, that’s not confidence.  Sure, some people are natural networkers and go-getters (not me), but I’ve experienced that confidence is simply this: the inevitable result of willingly doing boring, demanding “grown up” stuff on your own over a period of time.  Not only do you survive and not screw up or blow your credit to hell – you do just fine.

So yes, as I get older I realize there’s a lot of stuff that I’ve done alright, and that makes me feel good.  There’s still other stuff I haven’t done, but that’s okay.  Not everyone can be Mark Zuckerberg.

2016 was a good year for me as far as, “doing stuff alright.”  The biggest highlights include the travel I did (mostly with Yun) and actually finishing my goal to read 29 books.   Predictably, some of the books were better or more enjoyable than others.  The predictable question I suppose, is, “what did you learn from it all?”  Or better yet, “did you learn anything at all?”

The short answer: Yes.  The long answer requires putting words crafted in an original enough way that I hope can stick with you, instead of evaporating like a trite meme on Facebook.  But how to do that?  And how to condense the foggy but powerful impressions I experienced?  Is there anything profound or true that I gained, or was it a lot of emotions and aesthetics?

Here is the best way I can sum up what I (think I) learned in 2016:

1. Anywhere can be boring.

The most interesting thing I realized while traveling this past year was that anywhere you go, you are on someone’s mundane and familiar home turf.  “Exotic” and “exciting” are completely relative terms.   Diving with sea turtles may be the experience of a lifetime for you, but for your dive guide, it’s her bread and butter.  Mind-blowing jungle landscapes in Malaysia had me slack-jawed, while the holiday makers from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore were mainly interested in strawberry markets.  Strawberries, for crying out loud. Because to them, the European imports are that much more interesting than rafflesia flowers and pitcher plants.  Things that are familiar become boring.  In the worst case, you may not even care about preserving or understanding them (a problem for the jungles in Malaysia, anyway, according to our guide Joe).

But there’s something very good here.  If anywhere can be boring, simply invert that and you discover that anywhere can also be really exciting.

It’s all perspective.  Now, of course Yun and I paid with our hard-earned savings to travel to these different places because we wanted to experience something “different,” and we did just that.  But the more time we spent talking to guides and other locals, the more we realized that the beauty and excitement in something has to do with how you associate it.  Do you see elephants as a commodity, or do you see them as otherworldly creatures that bring you joy and and inspiration?  A lot of that would have to do with how and where you grew up.  A Thai elephant trainer and a middle class American woman are going to see that one very differently.

The cool thing, though, is that perspectives can change based on enough experiences (or just a touch of wisdom and sense).  After living in South Korea for almost five years I returned to my hometown in Arizona and found it absolutely surreal.  As I sat in my dad’s truck listening to him tell stories about the Lost Dutchman and ore mines in the mountains it almost seemed like I was on another tour of a new and faraway land.  Except this time it was my birthplace.

My dad knows a thing or two about this subject.  He used to work at a hotel, sometimes arranging tours for guests who came from as far away as Japan and Germany.

“Early in a morning a jeep would pick them up and drive them far out north, out towards the mountains like we’re heading now.  They would see a rattlesnake in the wild and have a chance to fire powdered bullets out of a pistol.  Later they’d build a big fire and have a steak dinner and the guide would pull out a guitar and start playing cowboy songs.  And they loved it.  One lady came to us in tears the next day and said it was the best experience of her life.”

A few years ago I would have just laughed at that.  I wouldn’t have believed it.  But I get it now.  And the Phoenix valley no longer looks boring to me.  It’s exhilarating and sublime, in fact.  I even have an interest now in the history of the miners and the Native tribes and the Mexican settlers.  And the ironic part is that it’s thanks to spending enough time on the other side of the Pacific ocean, in places where rain forests, Buddhist temples and tuk-tuks were “normal” and “boring.”

2.  I can’t believe that I only read British and American novels for so many years

How to explain.  How to not sound hoity-toity.  The truth is, it really was eye-opening this year to read so many books written in other countries.  I still read a lot of British and American novels, mainly because my options were limited due to geographical reasons, but the international books I was able to read (mainly Asian) added so much color and fun to my traditional diet of “classics.”  Of course, traveling to a lot of those countries solidified it – but I don’t think travel is necessary to enjoy a book.

Until last year, I didn’t even realize the Philippines had a national literary hero who almost single-handedly inspired a revolution.  I read his novel (Noli Mi Tangere), and it was fascinating.  Until last year I’d never read a Korean novel, so I found a few of those and gave them a try.  I even ventured into the kind of books that would normally appear on post-colonial reading requirements for a college course (Things Fall Apart, anyone?), but I actually enjoyed them – probably because I didn’t read them as a requirement, but instead out of my own curiosity.

The bottom line is, it’s fun to learn about different places where different cultural values and customs are the norm.  Frankly, it helps you understand your own norms.  Learning about the rigidity of Korean family roles I realized the things I take for granted in my life – such as not even addressing my aunt and uncle by their titles.  Reading a post-colonial Indonesian novel (This Earth of Mankind) in which the author himself admits that in spite of the cruelty of the Dutch, the Europeans overall treat their women better than the locals suddenly presents interesting ethical food for thought.  And sometimes, the most surprising things of all are when you discover that characters, for example in 1920’s Japan, are all too relatable to people you meet today.

In hindsight, it’s like I was seeing through a small crack – whereas now that crack has broadened into a small hole.  The more countries and cultures I learned about, the more familiar, less strange and intimidating, and more interesting they became.  I can’t say whether the similarities or differences between such cultures and ours are more important, because both are crucial to get the full picture.

3. Dream big, but plan small – for now

It’s kind of a miracle I actually managed to read 29 books in a year.  Not that it’s hard to do so.  I actually have a dear friend who managed to finish about triple that in the same space of time.   I’m just lousy at keeping goals.

But the difference this time was that I kept it modest, and I kept it specific.  If I had strived for anything over 30, I would have choked in the dust.  My curse is that I am interested in too many things at a time, and tend to browse superficially through them – or focus too hard and then burn out soon afterwards.   Even worse, I am something of a perfectionist and dislike doing something if I feel I can’t do it just right.  That often comes into play when writing blog entries.  It almost drives me nuts that I can’t replicate the quality in my own stuff that I recognize so readily in other people’s.  But a lot of that boils down to pride, the most major pitfall of all.

I obviously didn’t go viral this year and get rich this year, nor did I even write nearly as much content as I’d hoped.  But I did keep going, kept reading, kept writing, and I’m still here.  And I don’t intend to go away.

This year is going to look very different from last, now that Yun and I live in Arizona rather than South Korea.  There are no big international trips on the horizon, and may not be for a while.  But if I am to practice what I preach, then any place can be exciting and interesting, with the right perspective.  And not being able to physically travel far away gives me all the more reason to travel and discover new stuff and ideas in the form of books.  Happy 2017 and happy reading, everyone!

The Completed List of 29 Books for the year of 2016:

1. Please Take Care of Mom, Shin Sook Kyung

2. Middlemarch, George Eliot

3. Love’s Executioner, Irving Yalom

4. The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

5. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

6. Naomi, Junichiro Tanizaki

7. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

8. 198: How I Ran Out of Countries, Gunnar Garfors

9. The Calligrapher’s Daughter, Eugenia Kim

10. To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

11. The Vegetarian, Han Kang

12. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, Jason Stearns

13. The Lost Executioner, Nic Dunlop

14. First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung

15. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster

16. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

17. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams

18. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

19. Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell

20. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

21. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

22. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen

23. Noli Mi Tangere, Jose Rizal

24. The Beach, Alex Garland

25. Sightseeing, Rattawut Lapcharoensap

26. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M Pirsig

27. Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, Shamini Flint

28. The Princess Bride, William Goldman

29. This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer

There’s no such thing as the “real” Japan

The Mrs. Moore vs. Adela Quested Way to Travel

For some reason I keep going back to Japan.

I first visited Kyoto two years ago and found it disarmingly quiet and serene. The mute, modest brown and gray homes with bonsai plants in the courtyards, the bicycles on every street corner oozed some sort of otherworldly charm.  Osaka and Tokyo followed, and they proved that the big cities were equally enchanting in their own reserved way – light years apart from the commercialized feel of Seoul. When I sat on the old, worn seat cushions on the Tokyo metro I wondered if I’d actually gone back in time. Quaint and retro aren’t quite the right words, but something was in the atmosphere and I couldn’t put a finger on it and it began to drive me crazy.

The craziness got the better of me. I returned to Kyoto and Osaka last month, determined to become more intimate with Japan. This time I wanted to put a dent in the surface. I wanted to meet Japanese people. If I could sum it up as a question, I guess it would be: “What makes Japan Japan?”

In so doing I almost fell into the same trap as Adela Quested, the heroine of A Passage To India.

The first thing out of Adela’s mouth when we meet her is, “I want to see the real India.” Her tone is almost plaintive. She has just arrived on Indian soil and been quickly ushered into the local bubble of expat British society. Her fiancé’s friends and colleagues are watching a play called “Cousin Kate“ – it’s already played back in England and as you can imagine, it’s about the most un-Indian way to spend an evening possible. A contemporary example would be arriving in Agra for your first time ever, primed to hit the Taj Mahal and maybe watch an traditional dance performance when your expat friend grabs your arm and says, “Hey, the newest Avengers movie just hit theaters here. Let’s go!”

To this you might rightfully respond: “Come on, Jake. I can see the Avengers anytime. I want to see the real India.”

“As opposed to the ‘fake’ India?” Jake retorts. “What exactly do you mean by the ‘real’ India?” Admit it, Jake has a point.

I had already seen red torii gates, shrines, neon lights and zen gardens. This time around I wanted to drink in the same rich scenery, it’s true, but I knew I would always have a one-dimensional view of Japan if I didn’t actually meet some people and have more interactive experiences. I feared I would feel like Adela who, “would see India [or rather Japan] always as a frieze, never as a spirit, and she assumed that it was a spirit of which Mrs. Moore had had a glimpse.”

If Adela Quested is any example of the wrong traveling attitude, her friend Mrs. Moore is a great example of having the right attitude. I’m still currently in the process of trying to be more like Mrs. Moore. Maybe one day when I’m as old as her.

Like Adela, Mrs. Moore is not exactly excited about watching “Cousin Kate.” But instead of complaining that it’s not the “real” India she goes and does something. She goes on a walk and explores a mosque. And that’s where she runs into the one-of-a-kind Dr. Aziz. The two of them – unlike in every outward way you can imagine – unexpectedly hit it off and achieve a sort of cross-cultural understanding. Adela is excited and envious to hear the story, and she too wants to meet “real” Indian people and (to her credit) get outside the artificial confines of the expat community.

Adela does get to meet her share of Indian people. But unlike Mrs. Moore she is unable to really get close to any of them.   She is so conscious of their identity as “Indian,” and in trying to study and understand them as such that she altogether fails to see them as regular people and appreciate them for their own sakes. She even does this to Mrs. Moore’s friend Aziz – “In her ignorance, she regarded him as ‘India,’ and never surmised that his outlook was limited and his method inaccurate, and that no one is India.”

When I last went to Japan, I knew better than to expect that Japan could be put into a box. Yet I couldn’t help but hope for a “glimpse of the spirit” of something deeper within Japan – within the culture. I wanted to do something less touristy and more “authentic” to try to get that glimpse.

Meeting Japanese people spontaneously among the ruins the way Mrs. Moore met Aziz is not quite feasible. It’s a nation full of introverts who usually stick to busy schedules. With that as an excuse, I sought out the company of Japanese people ahead of time, through a program called Nagomi Visit. My first host was Chise, a longtime resident of Kyoto.

Chise met me on a Sunday evening at Fushimi-Inarii Station in the middle of a typhoon.   We tried to make small talk, but the storm was too loud. We laughed instead. As soon as we staggered into her apartment, more than a little wet, a surreal feeling hit me. Maybe it was just because I was in her home, but I felt like I was in the company of a friend– not a Japanese person per se, or a Chinese person, or an English person or an American person, for that matter. We were just two people, in an apartment that could have been in Berlin, Los Angeles, Cape Town or anywhere.

The conversation came easily.   Somehow fifteen minutes into it Chise mentioned she has a friend who lives in Utah.

“Are you serious? I have a friend who lives in Utah, too.”

To which Chise laughed one of her beautiful, open laughs,teeth exposed, the complete opposite of how stereotypical Japanese women are assumed to laugh – except her way still had its own feminine gracefulness.

“Ah, really? That’s great!”

We didn’t keep track of time, except when it came to the soup. Chise was following a family recipe. As she showed me how to prepare the broth using the dried bonnet fish and seaweed I reminded myself: I’m in Japan, in a Japanese person’s home. And yes, you are halfway across the world with someone you have never met before, but the beauty of it is not how different and foreign it is, but how familiar and universal it is. And after a while you start to wonder what exactly is the difference. That is the really wondrous part.

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Chise making Udon soup.

Chise and I had an informal Q & A discussion about our respective cultures. Some of the things Chise told me about Japan resonated with what I’d heard before (young people are reluctant to marry), others were quite similar to Korea (many social expectations), yet others were not all too different from the US (fewer young people are planning practically for the future). Of course, Chise herself had to be unusual in some ways from a lot of her fellow Japanese. She spoke English quite well and already had friends from other countries.

 She seems so unique and free-spirited – are many other Japanese people like her? Is she really Japanese? There was the Adela Quested coming out in me! Yet again I was comparing reality to an expectation, to an idea. It distracted from the moment, but it was there all the same.

As I walked with Chise from a pharmacy (where she helped me find cold medicine) back to my guesthouse I couldn’t shake my sense of déjà vu. “I feel like I’ve known you a long time,” I told her, as we stood outside saying goodbye.

“I have that feeling too.” She smiled. It wasn’t anything sentimental or wishful. It was just a fact.   My heart felt light when we parted because I had a feeling I would see her again. Just not sure which country or continent, and it honestly didn’t matter.

“Paul” Fukuyama was different in many ways from Chise, besides the fact he was a man. He was older and he had a family of his own. His cobalt blue shorts and Hello Kitty car seat covers spoke to a fashion and style that to my western imagination must be more “typically” Japanese. I think he was just as pleased yet anxious about meeting me as I was meeting him, so both of us were sort of studying the other at first. It was certainly no soul mate connection like Mrs. Moore and Aziz at the mosque. But it was still pleasant.

“So, where you want to go first?” He gripped the steering wheel with one hand and eagerly raised the other hand upwards in a cupping shape, as though it were holding the question. He smiled but didn’t look directly at me.

“Well, let’s see…”

“You been to Golden Temple?”

“Yes, but we can go there again. I don’t mind!”

“Okay, Golden Temple – let’s go.”

Like a lot of people, Paul played music while driving, even though our chatter was almost continuous. The Adela Quested in me half hoped and half expected it would be some sort of classical Japanese folk or rock music that he could expound upon. Instead it was a collection of Paul McCartney hits – one of my childhood favorite artists. Weird déjà vu feelings once again.

“Woah, you like Paul McCartney?”

“Of course! I saw his concert before – in Osaka! It was amazing. I tried to see his concert one more time, in Yokohama. But that time it was too expensive.”

The typhoon clouds were lowering once again when we arrived at the Golden Temple but that’s not the reason why Paul wanted to stay in the car.

“I wait for you here. I seen this place too many times. Not interesting to me.”   He waved his hand back and forth, as though to dismiss the Golden Temple from his presence. “You have a good time.”

The irony when you meet people from other countries is that the thing you find novel and exciting about where they live is often dull or mundane to them, and vice versa. I went to Antelope Canyon four years ago and was shocked at all the Korean and Chinese tourists. Perhaps they were there to see the “real” Arizona. They might have been just as puzzled to meet me and the tape of K-pop songs blasting from my Toyota RAV4.

The folly of thinking that there is a “real” version of any place is that it all goes back to an expectation that may have some credibility, but can never match the complexity of real life. A Victorian B&B is still as “real” as a ryokan, even if both are in Hokkaido. A TJI Friday’s in New Delhi may not be as traditional as a curry masala restaurant, but it’s still in India so at least in some scientific and philosophical sense it has to be “real”. You could argue that what makes a place real and authentic is the people. The thing is, people are more complex than anything else. They are also more important than anything else.

It’s harmless enough to say that you want to eat sushi and not hamburgers in Japan because sushi is real Japanese food. Same for TJI Fridays and curry. But to say that you want to meet “real” people from a place who “represent” the place and the feeling of it underscores the fact that no two people are alike, even when cultural patterns may occur. The bigger the area the more obvious this is. That’s why it is such folly for Adela Quested to assume that Dr. Aziz represents all of India. It would be just as crazy if I thought that Chise and Paul represented all Japanese people.

In A Passage to India the characters talk a lot about India being a “mystery.” So is every country, in its way. I went to Japan hoping to learn and understand it better – and in some ways I did – but part of me now is content to leave it be a mystery. A beautiful and intriguing mystery, just out of reach. I’m pretty sure that Mrs. More was content to leave mysteries alone and just enjoy things in the moment, for their own sake (Adela, on the other hand, “hates mysteries”). Maybe by the time I’m seventy I’ll be almost as mature and wise as she was. There is hope yet.

Book #15: A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster

“Oh man,” I thought, after I finished reading this book for the second time. “How do I do this?”

A recurring theme in A Passage To India is how multifaceted India is and how it’s impossible to put her into a box. Likewise, the novel itself has multiple ideas and aspects that can’t be summed up easily. Is it colonialist, post-colonialist, or neither? It’s a book that has managed to offend both British and Indians (and Edward Said), yet ultimately it’s not even a book about “India.”   Or is it? Like the elephant and the blind men in the old proverb, seven people could read it and each come away with something different but still relevant.

Maybe that’s why I read it twice.

The British Raj is on the wane in the 1920’s when the action begins. Most of the main characters are British, and so is the author. Yet the opening scene is a dinner gathering exclusively of Indians.   The big question of the evening is: “Is it possible to become friends with an Englishman?” Many of the diners argue, “No.” Among them is our eventual protagonist Aziz – a young widowed doctor with a passion for poetry:

“They all become exactly the same, not worse, not better.  I give the Englishman two years, be he Turton or Burton.   It is only the difference of a letter.  And I give any Englishwoman six months.  All are exactly alike.”

It seems hardly coincidence, then, when sometime later that evening Aziz stumbles upon an older Englishwoman while both are out for a stroll on the grounds of a mosque. Aziz is mortified at first, but soon realizes the old woman – Mrs. Moore – is open-minded and genuinely interested in exploring the new culture. An unlikely connection develops between the two and Aziz begins to reconsider his previous opinions.

Mrs. Moore has in tow a prospective daughter-in-law, Adela, who also fancies herself open-minded but seems to be hell-bent on seeing “the real India” and having some sort of romantic, whirlwind Oriental experience. Mrs. Moore’s son Ronny is busy trying to keep his head above water with his job as a government worker and does not at all approve of Mrs. Moore and Adela’s dallyings with Aziz and other locals:

“We’re out here to do justice and keep the peace. Them’s my sentiments. India isn’t a drawingroom.”

 “Your sentiments are those of a god,” she said, quietly, but it was his manner rather than his sentiments that annoyed her.

 Trying to recover his temper, he said, “India likes gods.”

 “And Englishmen like posing as gods.”

Luckily Mrs. Moore and Adela – and Aziz – find a new friend in a school teacher, Cyril Fielding who is even more liberal in his attitudes than the two ladies and even less caring of what his fellow “Anglo Indians” think of him.

Fielding, Aziz, Mrs. Moore, Adela – along with Godbole, a Hindu colleague – begin a fragile but exciting new friendship together as they share food, conversation and poetry. Then one day, a planned expedition of theirs to the famous Marabar Caves goes horribly awry and leaves Aziz in greater doubt than ever before as to whether true friendship with English people is possible.

When I really like a book, I instinctively hold back from summarizing the whole thing.  A Passage to India is worth the read and so I won’t spoil it – especially not the famous climax at the Marabar Caves.  But I will highlight what it is that keeps me thinking about this book, long after I’ve finished reading it.

  1. The Characters

I think Forster had to be a sympathetic character during his lifetime: he was a gay man living in Edwardian England and as such was compelled to keep his identity a secret. In one way or another, all of his most important characters are outcasts or sympathetic.

Aziz is obvious: as an Indian he receives more than his fair share of prejudice and injustice from most of the British characters, although he identifies himself as a Muslim, not as an Indian (the British outsiders mostly fail to appreciate these distinctions within India, which is another recurring theme). It’s only when his negative experiences with the British leave him so embittered that he stands in the rain in a pivotal moment and realizes, “I am an Indian at last.”

For all his tribulations, though, Aziz is not without flaw. His passionate and easily provoked nature leads him to losing faith even in those he could still trust – namely, Fielding.

The relationship between Fielding and Aziz is one of the most memorable in classic literature. Detached and logical Fielding is the perfect foil to Aziz’s more reactive personality and their conversations are barbed and delightful:

(Aziz): “If money goes, money comes. If money stays, death comes. Did you ever hear that useful Urdu proverb? Probably not, for I have just invented it.”

 (Fielding): “My proverbs are: A penny saved is a penny earned. A stitch in time saves nine; Look before you leap; and the British Empire rests on them. You will never kick us out, you know, until you cease employing M.L.’s and such.”

Forster had an Indian Muslim friend in his own life – Syed Ross Masood. Most agree that the character of Fielding is patterned after Forster himself, and Aziz was very possibly inspired by Masood. It would make sense: the most convincing and dynamic relationships in literature usually seem to have a basis in real life.

The character of Fielding may not get the flack Aziz does, but he is on the periphery of Anglo-Indian society as he generally prefers the company of Indians to his own people.  He never had that attitude back in Britain – rather, he finds the expat crowd in India to ironically be more closed-minded than the English who live in England.  By siding with Aziz he effectively chooses to go against his own people.

Adela Quested is not your typical heroine, either.  She comes to India restless and full of expectation that’s set up for disappointment. She is well meaning but awkward. When she meets Aziz she sees him only as a label, not as an individual:

In her ignorance, she regarded him as “India,” and never surmised that his outlook was limited and his method inaccurate, and that no one is India.

 Adela, like Aziz, has to go through her trials and misadventures and in the end becomes a more mature (if still awkward) person for it. Even Ronny, Adela’s uptight fiancé is not without redeeming qualities. He does his best to be patient with his mother and her opinions, which he considers to be idealistic. He tries to be reasonable and understanding, but his stressful and political work life makes it difficult.

One touch of regret – not the canny substitute but the true regret from the heart – would have made him a different man, and the British Empire a different institution.

 It would be easy enough for an author writing a critique on British colonialism to depict those in charge as shallow and self-interested. Indeed, some of the more minor characters are just that – but examples like Ronny prove that it’s not always that simple and the reality isn’t black and white.

 2.The Ideas

 The narrative style of A Passage to India is simple and traditional, compared to certain other novels that were written around the same time (think, Virginia Woolf). In that way, it’s an easy and pleasant enough read. But the ideas themselves are anything but simple.

One of the most profound and disturbing parts of the book is when the characters enter the Marabar Caves and hear the endless “ou-boun” sound – the sound that represents the annihilation of every individual quality in life as it’s absorbed into one great whole. It’s a Eastern, particularly Hindu concept, but it freaks out western characters like Mrs. Moore who comes from a culture where individuality and immortality of the soul is paramount. Of course, the revelation in the cave – the “ou-boun” sound – is just fiction, but it gives rise to the thought: why is annihilation of the self so terrifying? Does the self live on after death, or does it get absorbed into something else? What’s the meaning of life, anyway?

A consistent theme I’ve noticed in reading novels that are written post World War I (this one included) is a heightened fear of death that comes with a doubtfulness as to there being any meaning in life. I know that sounds depressing, but I can’t really blame anyone who’s survived World War I for having those thoughts.  In A Passage to India it’s interesting to explore these thoughts with a new spin that involves Eastern religious worldviews.

This novel is, in fact, filled with uncomfortable but important questions. Another one is, “how is England justified in holding India?” It’s a question that Aziz’s friend Hamidullah puts to Fielding.

“It’s a question I can’t get my mind on to,” he replied. “I’m out here personally because I needed a job…”

 “Well-qualified Indians also need jobs in the educational.”

 “I guess they do; I got in first,” said Fielding, smiling.

 “Then excuse me again – is it fair an Englishman should occupy one when Indians are available…?

 Finding himself in a corner, Fielding gives the honest answer the one can only give in such a situation:

“I can’t tell you anything about fairness. It mayn’t have been fair that I should have been born. I take up some other fellow’s air, don’t I, whenever I breathe? Still, I’m glad it’s happened, and I’m glad I’m out here. However big a badmash one is – if one’s happy in consequence, that is some justification.”

 Forster is not one of those authors who takes a nihilistic view of things and claim that truth does not exist. However he suggests that the truth of some matters is more complex than we might assume. The values that the British and the Indians hold respectively lead to culture clashes and confusion. In the foreign atmosphere that is India, one cannot take anything for granted:

But nothing in India is identifiable, the mere asking of a question causes it to disappear or to merge into something else.

As a reader you have to wonder if Forster literally means us to understand India in that way, or if India is a metaphor for the world or even life itself. For all the metaphysical rumblings, it never gets dark or bitter like so many other 20th and 21st century novels. The ideas are just clear enough to be discussable, but deep enough to be tantalizing and discussion-worthy.

  3. The Writing

Finally, what is a great novel is the writing is not up to par? A Passage to India can admittedly be a bit dense at times, but the conversational passages are generally wonderful, and some of the descriptions are lovely as well. Here is one example:

The faint, indescribable smell of the bazaars invaded her, sweeter than a London slum, yet more disquieting: a tuft of scented cotton wool, wedged in an old man’s ear, fragments of pan between his black teeth, odorous powders, oils – the Scented East of tradition, but blended with human sweat as if a great king had been entangled in ignominy and could not free himself, or as if the heat of the sun had boiled and fried all the glories of the earth into a single mess.

 Forster traveled to India twice before finishing this novel. It’s not surprising to me, then, how alluring and vivid his descriptions of the scenery are. His India is not a perfectly beautiful one, nor is it sordid and dismal, but rather an intoxicating and arresting mixture of many qualities that resonates with other accounts of India that I have come across over the years. I have always wanted to travel to India, and this novel has only piqued my interest.  I’d be curious to know what people who have been to India think of this book.

There are those novels whose authors are masterful at character development (Jane Austen), others which are intellectually stimulating (Dostoevsky) and yet others which are beautifully written (Lolita, by Nabakov). A Passage to India does not rank first in any of these categories, yet it manages to succeed in all three of them. A testament to this is the fact I have 17 pages’ worth of highlighted passages in my reader, and still haven’t sifted through them all. You could settle down for a book discussion with your friends on a rainy day with a pot of tea and some lemon scones and after three hours still not be done with this book. If I ever am able to make it to India – and it’s high on my list of places to visit – I will definitely read A Passage in India again and will probably find several more new vantages to look at it from. But it’s possible I’ll read it again even before then.

Is It Okay To Be “Just” a Tourist?

I read a lot of travel blogs.

Sometimes I even skip the commentary just to salivate at the photos. These blogs are vicarious travel for me. Thanks to others who have been, I can visit remote, un-trafficked places like Easter Island, Bhutan or Turkmenistan.   I read because I itch with curiosity to know what these places are like.

Some of these blogs are meant purely to inform. They are run by faceless groups of people who spare you the details of their personal lives and focus on giving you the “low down” of each destination. Wanna find out how much a Big Mac costs in Kuala Lumpur? Interested in knowing the characteristics of the different regions in Spain? Look no further.

Many of these blogs, on the other hand, have a personal twist to them. Usually they have a cute name (“Battered Passports,” “The Eternally Wandering Guy”, something like that) and are run solely by a hip and inspired individual greeting you from the sidebar in a photo with sunglasses and a bandana.

I’ll call the people behind these blogs the Enlightened Vagabonds – the EVs.

Here is a fairly typical example of a profile description from an EV’s homepage:

“Hey there! I’m Denise and in 2012 I quit my secure job as a financial consultant to backpack through Vietnam and Thailand for three months. Little did I know it would turn into the love affair of a lifetime. Four years and three continents later I’m still on the road, going strong. I have an insatiable passion for Earl Gray, incense, and making new friends on long train rides.”

Other profiles may or may not be a little lighter on the whimsy, but you get the main idea. These people are living the dream.

Who wouldn’t envy them? I do sometimes, anyway. I would love to impulse-buy a last minute plane ticket to Madagascar and stroll amongst the baobab trees the very next day. Or make a Trans-Siberian journey from Beijing to Saint Petersburg. Or traverse the deserts of Namibia, catch a cargo ship to Saint Helena and wend my way up to Rio and thence on to the Amazon. Sounds enthralling.

EVs emphasize the importance of “slow travel,” and being able to go “off the beaten path” in order to make more meaningful connections with locals. In fact, considering how many years out of their lives EVs spend traveling, they haven’t covered as much territory as you might think. But what they have covered, they’ve often done in depth. With no job or family commitments back home, they have that freedom – provided their Internet livelihood earns enough money (How cool would it be to support yourself on the road by playing the stock market?).

EV lives, like ours are not perfect. They get sick and pay hospital bills, too. They have bad hair days. But the fact remains: Eternal Vagabonds lead an existence that most of us would consider “epic.”

Not all EVs are alike, either. Some – most, actually – are humble and helpful and informative. Others can be a bit high-minded and blasé about all their worldly experience. But there has been one thing in common that I’ve noticed. In all my months and months of reading their travel blogs, I have yet to come across a single Eternal Vagabond who said, “A life of travel isn’t for everybody.” I have yet to find a person who has said, “A nomadic lifestyle isn’t better or worse than others – it’s just what works for me.” (Watch, since I said this now, I’ll probably stumble across someone’s blog tomorrow that features that exact sentiment. Jinx.).

On the other hand, what EVs do say, to varying degrees is: “This was the best decision of my life. It can be your life, too.”

 EVs rarely describe themselves as “tourists.” If they use any term, it’s “traveler,” “nomad,” “wanderer,” “backpacker,” or something else a bit more cultured sounding. There is a tacit understanding that the word “tourist” has a sort of tacky ring to it.   An EV blogger may use the word “tourist” this way:

My time in Florence was lovely for the most part, but there were unfortunately hordes of Chinese/Japanese/American tourists who arrived near the end of my stay, talking very loudly in the Uffizi gallery and generally spoiling the serene atmosphere.

Obviously, the tourists in the above example are what most would call “package tourists”: people who travel through a tour group that prearranges everything and shuttles them around on a coach with the result that they have minimal interaction with local people and culture.

If you look up the word “tourist” in the dictionary, you’ll find it really just means “one who travels for pleasure and sightseeing.” That’s obviously a lot broader.

Yet in the Internet subculture of these travel junkies aka Enlightened Vagabonds there seems to be a taboo in using this word. It’s as though anyone who takes travel seriously is one who hits the road for weeks at a time, while a “tourist” is someone who hangs out by the swimming pool and takes selfies in front of iconic monuments. The vibe I get from some of these EV bloggers is that the “higher” life is one of adventure and defying convention, while “tourists” are amateurs who merely dabble in travel and sometimes make a mess of it.

I’m sure when asked most EVs would quickly agree that traveling only a little bit is much better then not traveling at all. But my question is this:

 Is it okay to be “just” a tourist, instead of a full-blown rolling stone? Can I be just as tolerant, open-minded, informed, fulfilled and happy an individual if I keep my desk job and only travel during my 2 week vacation period – or is it necessary that I quit my job, dump my boyfriend, sell my house, give my dog away and travel for the long haul if I’m to achieve all those qualities fully?

Many of these Eternal Vagabonds promote their lifestyle as an alternative to the materialistic, consumerist humdrum that many of us refer to as “the Rat Race.” Who cares about wealth, status, convention and all that jazz? You only live once, after all. The EV’s message is one of enlightenment: “Leave everything you know behind and come and find out what life is really all about when you see the rest of the world.”

Yet even the lifestyle of the EVs and their message can become self-defeating as soon as it turns into an obsession. Just as one can never have enough wide-screen TVs, upgraded smartphones and plastic surgery, one may also never have seen enough countries, taken enough photographs, had enough random experiences with charming strangers, or checked off enough bucket list items. Any virtue can become a vice – even, I’m convinced, world travel.

Don’t know if I’m preaching to the choir here, but I have myself in mind more than anyone when I think about falling into the potential EV pitfall. Not that all of them are obsessive and dissatisfied. On the contrary, I believe most of them are not. But just as it seems the couples who brag about each other and upload kissy pictures (gross) the most on Facebook are often the ones who are the most unhappy in reality, I can’t help but wonder if just maybe some of these hardcore travelers are not in fact as happy as they claim to be. And perhaps I could fall into the same trap were I to gallivant off into the wild blue yonder tomorrow.

“Ah, but Brenna, are you just trying to justify your point of view because you can’t make a living by traveling the world? Do I detect sour grapes, here?”

I won’t lie and say that I don’t like the idea of being a vagabond myself. You do only live once. So why the heck not take off for a month in Mongolia and ride a horse across the steppes? Why not ride a motorcycle in Che Guevara’s footsteps (tire tracks?) across South America? Why not join that camel caravan you’ve always dreamed of across the Saharan Desert?

For the same reason I will probably never try to watch every film, listen to every indie band, start up every hobby and read every award-winning novel: there’s no end to it. There’s simply too much to experience on this earth to squeeze into a lifetime, even if you narrow it down to a single subject. Needs may be limited, but wants and “what ifs” and dreams will never have a limit. And that’s okay.

So going back to the original question: is it okay to be “just” a tourist? Do I even need to answer this? Ultimately, I would say it’s all about your motives.

If you genuinely want to get out and see some new scenery, but you also want to keep your job as an accountant because you like living in your hometown and your clients then a two-week trip once a year may be right up your alley. Thanks to state-of-the art photography and filmmaking, armchair travel is also more doable than ever.

If you have a bit more time to travel, but don’t necessarily want to go on an intrepid adventure collecting fodder for a story to tell others, that’s fine, too. It’s even okay to ride in a coach and take selfies all day, as long as you act respectful – I’m not one to judge.

I strongly agree with many that travel is a good thing, and a great way to broaden your worldview. It can liberate and change you for the better. The question of “how much” travel, and in what manner depends on each individual.

And Enlightened Vagabonds: no one is questioning or contesting the life you’ve chosen. You often blaze the trail for the rest of us – thanks for that. But some of us like living in a house and eating 24-hour drive-through Mexican food. Some of us don’t want to give up our pet parakeet or our swimming pool.  If we are truly happy with this arrangement, who is to judge? Maybe no one is judging – I just need the reminder for myself from time to time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cambodia: Tourist Survivor Guilt 101

I returned from Siem Reap two days ago and I’m still trying to reconcile the amazing time I had there with the acutely depressing experience of reading Loung Ung’s “First They Killed My Father” on the plane ride home.

Book Number 14 is too depressing for a regular entry.  I need to interject more personal feelings and allow myself more freedom to write about it.  Even now I’m sort of dreading it.  So I’ll start with my own experience in Cambodia.

Think about that soft-spoken, kind and beautiful neighbor of yours who always wears a smile when you see her.  She’s charming, she’s genuine and likable.  Then one day, you somehow learn that your neighbor survived a nightmarish history of abduction and rape in her teens.  In hindsight, you realize there was a kind of sadness and reserve about her that you had failed to detect.  You only noticed her kind smile.

Your neighbor is the nation of Cambodia.

If I wasn’t already aware of the country’s tragic history when I arrived, I might not ever have guessed that Cambodia has something brewing beneath the surface.  Siem Reap was a sleepy town with pleasant tuk tuk drivers, generous hospitality workers, and people on farms and in rice fields who would smile and wave as you rode by.   It was sort of picture perfect.

But I knew it had to be far from perfect underneath.  On our last day, we rode horses in the village area outside the main part of the city.  Our guide, “Johnny,” was quick with a joke and obviously had a repertoire.  He called Yun “Cowboy,” and humored him by spouting off words in Korean.  We talked about the different people he’s met from different countries, and the superficial banter began to die down as Johnny told us that he has never been outside Cambodia.  He doesn’t have a passport – he can’t afford one.

“People who come to Cambodia only see a nice picture, you know.  A few days of beautiful sights.  Everything looks so nice.  But actually, we have a lot of problems.  Our situation is not good…you know?”

“Yes, I know.”

Well, I did know.  But I couldn’t truly understand.  And that’s where the guilt began.

Here the three of us – a Korean guy, an American girl, and a native Cambodian guide – were trekking on horseback through the “undiscovered” parts of Siem Reap.  At every corner were stray dogs, chickens, skinny cows with loose folds of skin, and tiny naked children running up to say hello.  No one begged or put on a show.  The whole place was genuine, if a bit used to seeing other horse-riding, helmet-wearing tourists coming through on their turf.  But the difference is that to me the scenery was quaint and exotic, whereas to Johnny it was normal and mundane.  Perhaps he’d rather be somewhere else.  Maybe he was bored – how many other tourists must he have made the same joke with about that random shack on the water buffalo farm being the “VIP guesthouse”?  Perhaps he really did think it was funny.  I’ll never know for sure.  But I’ll also never forget the sad, deflated look on his face after we got back to the ranch and said our goodbyes.

Perhaps I can’t ever understand or fully see the “real” Cambodia – but at least I could catch a glimpse of it, from Johnny’s point of view.  I try to shake the feeling of guilt that I can come and go freely, while he is “stuck” in Cambodia.  Oh wait, but is that patronizing?  Must not have arrogant preconceptions towards the local people.  These are the joys of ethics debates when you’re traveling Southeast Asia.

The other big “aha” moment I had while in Siem Reap was probably when I went to the bookstore.  I scoured the Cambodia section, hoping to find a novel or a memoir to catch my interest.  Something like a travelogue, or maybe historical fiction from Angkor times.  But there was nothing of that nature.  Instead, it was all books about the Cambodian genocide.  Title after title, anything you could want: “The Gate,” “When Broken Glass Floats,” “Voices from S-21,” “Brother Number One,” all the ones that circulate in your Amazon feed of “suggested reading” when you type in “Cambodia.”  I didn’t have luck earlier looking online, so why was I surprised at the bookstore?  Perhaps it was just seeing the long row of books lined up, in the flesh, one after the other.  So many different accounts of suffering, torture and anguish under the one, same hideous event.  It was all but impossible to not read a book about the genocide if I was going to read a Cambodian book at all.  So I buckled down and went for one of the most popular titles.

We picked up First They Killed My Father from a vendor outside one of the Angkor temples.  Yes, that’s how inescapable the genocide is: along with scarves and bracelets, the vendors will bring it straight to you if you’re too lazy to buy it yourself.  Plus, it’s hard saying “no” to your duty of being historically informed when the price has been halved.  Plus, I already knew a bit about the genocide.  How disturbing could it possibly be?

Oh gosh.  What did I know?

I was sensible enough to save it for the end of the Siem Reap trip.  While sitting, bored, in the airport terminal in the bright morning light I felt confident.  This will be an interesting book.  This will be an insightful book.  And it was.  For the first eighteen pages, it was exactly that.

First They Killed My Father is an absolutely devastating memoir.  As one reviewer aptly put it, “it burns like a firebrand.”  I’ll tell you why.  It’s not written from the point of view of an adult woman looking back on what happened.  It’s written from the point of view of a child, because the author was a child when the events happened.  She relives it in present tense, lending a mood of immediacy, suspension and dread.  Seeing and experiencing the horrors through a child’s eyes seems beyond the pale, but that’s exactly what her story is.

Loung Ung, up until age five, has lived a charmed life in a middle class family in Phnom Penh.  She recalls fondling going for cyclo rides with her mother at the market, and her father’s loving acceptance of her unruly personality.  She had six siblings to play and mess around with.  Then one day, she comes home to her mother hurriedly packing and telling everyone else to get ready to leave their home.  Ignorant of what’s happening, five-year-old Loung repeatedly asks, “But, why?”  So might the reader who also fails to grasps the brutal absurdity that was the Khmer Rouge.  “Why?”  becomes a fairly central question in this book.  Unfortunately, there aren’t many answers.

You know a book is going to be a tough read with a title like this, especially with the adverb “first” at the beginning.  It suggests that there will also be a “then,” “next,” “after that,” and a “finally” – the family member body count is up to your imagination (I will say this much: not everyone dies!)  Even though Loung’s dad is marked for obliteration from the cover page, you can’t help but love and revere him as he wisely guides his family through the terrors for the first half of the book.  When he dies, it almost feels like your own dad has died.  When Luoung looks up at the night sky, hoping her father is watching her from the stars as she cries out, “Pa, I miss you,” every painful cathartic memory of watching The Lion King rushed back from my childhood.  The cruel senselessness of the killings and the destruction as witnessed from a child’s point of view was honestly hard for me to handle.

Luong isn’t exactly your normal five-year-old, though.  She is amazingly resilient and strong-willed, to the point that I had to wonder at times if the author was being 100% honest about her younger self’s mental abilities.  Her fighting spirit ultimately lands her in a training camp for child soldiers.  Even as she is indoctrinated with Khmer Rogue propaganda she continues to nurse her hatred for these same people who caused her family’s suffering.  Her hatred is what keeps her alive.

My hate empowers and scares me, for with hate in my heart I have no room for sadness.  Sadness makes me want to die inside.  Sadness makes me want to kill myself to escape the hopelessness of my life.  Rage makes me want to survive and live so that I may kill.  

Perhaps one of the darkest moments in the book are not the tragedies that befall Luong and those around her, but a scene soon after the Vietnam invasion in which a Khmer Rogue soldier has been captured and tied up before an angry mob.  Demanding justice, the crowd declares he should die a long, painful death.  Finally, two women come forward asking to do the deed.  Both of them recognize the solider as a murderer of their families, and they want revenge.  Luong watches as the women hack the solider to death.

The frightening thing is, at this point in the narrative you feel nothing but sympathy towards the victims and wholehearted approval of as much bloody vengeance as possible.  The hatred and rage is palpable.  Absent here are any notions of forgiveness or grace from God – there are no Corrie Ten Booms nor are there repentant soldiers.  Instead of a sublime afterlife is the belief in karma: “What goes around comes around.”  It’s bleak, but it oddly makes sense because you are inside the child Luong’s head.  Considering where she’s come from and what she’s been through, anyone would hesitate to cast a stone.  Yet she does not fancy herself a hero, either.  She simply tells things as she experiences them.  The lack of pretense, of sermonizing or over-reflecting is one of the most powerful points of the book.

In the Author’s Note at the beginning, Ung informs the reader: “Though these events constitute my experience, my story mirrors that of millions of Cambodians.  If you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too.”

Don’t know that I can argue with that.  So that leads to the thought: “Wow, thank goodness I wasn’t living in Cambodia at that time.”  And right after that comes a smidgin of a feeling some call Survivor’s Guilt.  “Well, why wasn’t I around at that time?  Why was I spared?”

Logically I understand that I am not guilty.  There is nothing I could have done to atone or to change the situation.  The Cambodian genocide happened before I was born, in fact.  I think the guilt pops up when I ride in the back of a tuk tuk around Siem Reap, surveying the beautiful scenery and having a wonderful time when the people living here, all around me, are part of this tragic legacy that they are continuing to deal with.  The entire nation of Cambodia is essentially still suffering from PTSD, and it’s reflected in the economy and in the culture.  PTSD doesn’t go away after one generation, especially when it’s killed 2 million people.  And there are even more real kinds of aftermath in Cambodia, like land mines that continue to claim lives every year.

So is it a bad thing that I have a great and fun time while I’m in Cambodia?  Or do I need to mortify myself with history books and interviews lest I act irreverent while on holiday?  I suppose it’s a balance – there’s nothing wrong with being happy and enjoying yourself.  It’s how us humans naturally want to feel.  But it’s important to be informed of the sober realities as well.  It’s all part of the package.  And don’t forget to smile, lest you take life too seriously.  It’s how the Cambodians seem get through life these days, and they do a great job of it.