Monday, June 27, 2016

Barcelona Impressions

Start up the blog again. Dust it off. I'm darting around a lot in time and place, so bear with me.

At a vegan bar in Barcelona, Flounder tries to teach me to use manual focus. I fail repeatedly.

And now, in Barcelona for a month.

First impression: My how things have changed! I thought this of myself, not the city. You see, we took a taxi from the airport to our apartment for the month. A taxi is an extravagance I simply never would have allowed myself in my past travels. So yes, things have changed. I’m willing to exchange money for convenience now. In the past, with my restrictive budget, the idea of taking a taxi when two metro rides were available would never even cross my mind.

Out the window of an extravagant taxi

Second impression: Ah yes, Barcelona is Mediterranean. Not the lush green of Alabama nor the dusty gold of Dubai. Rather, rocky cliffs dotted with stubborn shrubs, flowering cacti, rosemary growing to tree proportions.

I need that sweater and hood. I blame acclimatization. 
Flounder suns himself for warmth.
Third impression: It’s cold. I’m cold. Where are my pants?

Walking! Everywhere!

Fourth impression: I can walk everywhere! Walkability!

Broad, tree-lined sidewalks

Fifth impression: In addition to the constellation of stars on my google maps, denoting the choicest vegan restaurants, I’m constantly walking by cafes and restaurants and bars advertising vegan options. Praise!

Sign in a random bakery we walked by

Many restaurants here are Happy Cow approved :)

Sixth impression: Gracia is the hipster neighbourhood. And to me, hipster is not a pejorative. Because Gracia is where I find two shops selling food in bulk—committed to eliminating packaging and waste. It’s where I find a plethora of tattoo shops using only vegan ink, thankyouverymuch. It’s where the art gallery that is hosting Flounder’s month-long residency is (the reason we’re here, BTW). It’s where I find a vegan bakery and the cheapest vegan restaurant—the one that sells an eat pussy not meat tote bag that I’m pretty sure I have to get.

Watching a street festival in Gracia

Seventh impression: Dogs! Not only is our apartment cat named, contrarily, Dog, but literal, actual dogs are everywhere. 


This is a city that loves its dogs. We see dogs of all sizes walked on leashes, set loose in numerous dog parks throughout the city. I yearn to pet each adorable dog as it passes, but they’re all so damn well trained that they cannot be distracted even by promises of behind-the-ear scratches. Some dogs are so behaved that they walk through the busy city street sans leash, following a delectable scent here and there, but sticking close to their humans.

Puppy, part 1

Puppy, part 2

Eighth impression: Breakfast at noon. Lunch at 4 pm. Dinner at 9:30 pm. Café con leche all day long.

Ninth impression: Bottles of cava (Spanish sparkling wine made in the same way as champagne, but legally not allowed to be called champagne) for 2 euros. Glass of wine at lunch = normal. Yet I see very little drunken debauchery. For debauchery, head to a Friday all-you-can-drink brunch in Dubai.

Sangria on tap.

Tenth impression: Lots of beaches. Lots of crowded beaches. Good lord, is anyone swimming? The breeze is cold and the water colder. I think living in Dubai, where the water approaches bathtub temperatures in the spring and pools are refrigerated in the summer, has dampened my excitement for cold-water swimming. Not when we live so close to a beautiful white sand beach where dipping into the water feels like a relaxing spa visit, not a cold shock that triggers an autonomic panic/survival response in your body.

Eleventh impression: This Gaudi guy designed some strange stuff. I snapped some photos as I walked by on my way to Spanish lessons.

La Pedrera
Casa Batllo

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Alone in Sri Lanka. Or: Can a codependent married person be alone for 6 days?

The bus driver started the engine and we scrambled to get Flounder and his two bags on the bus from Kandy to the Sri Lankan airport. Whatever lingering and meaningful goodbye I had imagined was out of the question now. We hugged awkwardly as he tried to balance his bags and get on the bus, and then he was gone and I was alone in Sri Lanka.

Travelling separately when our schedules were different always seemed like a good idea, but when it came time to say goodbye, even for the span of a few days, I felt surprisingly sad.

‘My sweet Floundie,’ I thought, as I wheeled past dozens of buses and through crowds of people. The city seemed different now than it had five minutes ago. Men who had ignored me with my husband by my side decided now would be a good time to strike up a conversation. I kept my head down, checking the map for my hostel. Maybe if I looked at this map I wouldn’t feel so lost, as if it could tell me the location of my hostel and also what to do with myself now I was alone.

I didn’t use to feel so disoriented, did I?  I travelled alone for three and half years, for 40-something months, navigating with paper maps, without hostel bookings, and, for the most part, without clear direction or plans. I used to love that solitary travel. Was I so different now? Had love, a constant companion, and extension of my best self changed me?

Maybe these six days alone in Sri Lanka would help me find out.

Sri Lanka
My phone wasn’t working, wouldn’t bring up the map, no data connection. The crowd around me swelled and slowed as I held up traffic. All this technological stuff this was Flounder’s domain. For a moment I imagined sheepishly telling him about this first failure, about having to ask passersby for directions to a hostel they had likely never heard of. I restarted the phone. No luck. I stared at it. It remained unmoved.

Neurons fired in my brain. I remembered I had turned data off. First obstacle: conquered.

I found the hostel in a central, if slightly shifty, side street, and was greeted by a sweet and irony-free young man. He showed me around and gave me a hand-written list of tourist attractions in Kandy. The temple of the tooth (housing a tooth from the Buddha, likely the most sacred of sacred places in Sri Lanka), traditional Kandy dancers and performers (at this mention, the receptionist modelled juggling, fire-breathing, and sword-swallowing, with more enthusiasm than talent), botanical gardens (the largest in Sri Lanka, a well-maintained leftover from British colonial times), the Kandy lake (a dammed lake, and one whose creation in the nineteenth century had been protested by local leaders, until the king of Kandy killed them all and staked their bodies as an example to others who might disagree with him; the lake project went ahead unimpeded), and an elephant orphanage (aww).
I hadn’t the heart to tell this enthusiastic young man that my plans for my last day in Kandy were a bit more gustatory in nature.

I drank soya cappuccinos at a local coffee shop that uses only Sri Lankan coffee beans. The country is, rightly, known for its tea and produces very little high-quality coffee, but a few small producers are looking to change this.

Next I caught a bus to a little town eight or nine kilometres outside of Kandy. I had passed this road the day before (when Flounder and I went for Ayurveda treatments) and my finely attuned eye had seen a few durian vendors. I had, naturally, partaken at the time. And I was, naturally, back for more today.

Enjoying some durian at a roadside stand
I won’t bore you with my durian rhapsodies here (I’ve written volumes about durians before). Suffice it to say, durian is my death row meal, it is a large (embarrassingly large) part of the justification for moving to Malaysia, and travelling eight or nine kilometres for a lunch of durian was a no-brainer.

The next day I said goodbye to my friendly hostel host and took the bus from Kandy to Colombo. I sat next to a smiling older woman. I smiled at her. When travelling alone, I was always look for older women to hang around. No man, young or old, would dare bother me when I’m near an old lady. They’ve seen it all, don’t take shit from anyone, and hopefully feel protective of me. Fact: the most badass person in any room is always an old lady.

Once in Colombo, I decided to take a three-wheeler (better known as a tuk-tuk or rickshaw) instead of walking the two kilometres to my hostel. This was new. This was a slightly new Sarah—one who considered her two bags, the heat of midday, and the less than $2 fare and chose to spend the money and embrace comfort.

I prepared myself to bargain, but the three-wheeler driver pointed to the meter. OK then. I pulled up the map and told him the nearest landmark. He zipped off with the all the stunning dexterity of a three-wheeler—this thing could do some tiny donuts, I tell you. He went straight where I would have turned and I thought for a moment that he was going to go a longer, slower route to get some extra rupees. I contemplated saying something, but remembered another guideline of Sarah travel: be smart, but above all be trusting.

Travelling with your guard constantly up is exhausting. Guard yourself against serious dangers, and then let go. Smile at people you meet. Believe your driver. Strike up a conversation with fellow passengers. Ask questions. Be open.

So I sat back in the three-wheeler and relaxed. He quickly got on track and seemed to know where he was going. We conversed and he spoke with such gentility and kindness. He helped me find my (hidden) hostel, and wished me a pleasant stay in Colombo. I rejoiced, a small victory, for choosing trust over suspicion.

Reclining Buddha from Dambulla Cave, Sri Lanka

I was finding my groove again. Not quite the same way Stella did. No, instead I was remembering what it was like to travel alone and what had made that kind of travel so rewarding.

Openness. Connection. Trust in humanity and trust rewarded.

In small ways, my journey continued. I made imperceptible choices, choosing to talk instead of be silent, to ask questions instead of end the conversation, choosing to trust instead of be suspicious.

I met other travellers this way (an easy prospect in a hostel), but I also met some lovely locals, including a couple who invited me into their home, who asked me about my life and about Sri Lanka (‘Beautiful! Wonderful! Great food!’), and who wanted me to look them up and stay with them next time I was in the country.

Travelling alone is great—great for meeting people, for being open and vulnerable and the small acts of magic that result. But after six days, I was glad to be going home to Flounder. Ultimately, small acts of magic are simply more magical when you have someone to share them with.

Travelling with this guy! The best!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Dressed all in black: Our new life begins in Malaysia

‘Our apartment is not ready,’ Flounder told me via Skype. ‘I will stay in someone’s spare bedroom, but no one seems to have the key.’ He was sitting in a car in the heat of Malaysia, having just arrived after a 24-hour trip.

I was still in Hawaii with my parents. Just a day earlier Flounder had been with us, bodysurfing, snorkeling, lazing in the sun. Now he was in a kind of limbo in our new, dropped-everything, sold-everything, packed-everything to be there home. He would start work for a university that I had helped him find in a position I had encouraged him to take.

He continued, ‘I have to wear all black at the university and I have to punch a time clock. And I only get two weeks of vacation a year.’

My heart dropped into the gurgling, acidic pit of my stomach, for the first time that week but not the last.
Looking out the window
Expectations are a funny thing. Does anything ever go exactly as you anticipated or planned? No? It doesn’t for me either. And yet, somehow, I was surprised when upon arriving in our new home in Malaysia, nothing went as expected.

The apartment wasn’t ready, no one could direct Flounder to where he should be, he received no orientation to his new job he had moved halfway around the world for. But what was worse was that the job was not what he expected.


He expected to be valued, to be treated with respect, and to be oriented to the university and the campus. At every front instead he was met with chaos.

We expected to live here, in Malaysia, for two years, ‘maybe more,’ we would add optimistically, ‘if we like it’. But in Flounder’s first week at the job, we were simply deciding if we would stay at all.
The lake near our apartment
He sat, ignored, for most of his first days, occasionally meeting with this head and that administrator, wrestling with HR to get the simplest of things—a passcard, a parking spot—assigned to him. He was taken to the wrong department, Communications, told he would be teaching there, then the Fashion department fetched him and this is still where he is perched now. Not in an office (almost no one has a private office), not even in a cubicle, but in a row of desks, with four or six people behind him looking at his screen as he waits for someone, anyone to help him find his place in the university.

And so, just three days ago, when Flounder went to work, I searched for options. I could teach English in Taiwan or in Korea. They would pay for my flight and accommodation. We could move almost immediately.

While he sat at his desk, Flounder searched for other jobs, perhaps in Malaysia or Singapore. He even checked job listings in the States, though neither of us was keen to tuck tail and move back only days after we had left and said goodbye to friends and family.

Could we move to Chiang Mai (in northern Thailand)? I wondered. Flounder had been offered a residency there. Or we could rent a cheap place in Vietnam, where cost of living is lower, while we sorted out our next step.

I looked over our finances. Maybe we could afford to ride off on our newly purchased second-hand motorbike and go for a few months. From the peninsula here, we could ride through Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China. We could ride through central Asia and into Europe!

Our little motorbike, affectionately named Wimp
I tried to rally at this idea, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the money we had spent getting here, which would not be reimbursed, and the apartment we were staying in, which would be snatched away immediately. I thought of the savings we would have to spend and the uncertainty of income we would face.

Worse than all that, though, is the guilt I feel--hand-tremoring, can’t-eat, random-crying-spells guilt.

This is Flounder’s career, something he has been working towards, molding and growing for more than a decade. I feel responsible for this move; he wanted it, but letsbehonest: I was the driving force. The guilt burrows deep, deeper than any misery I've yet felt in my bright, bold life.

And that is how things are left now. My heart devoured, torn apart by guilt. And Flounder, sweet Flounder, standing straight, tall, and smiling at me. And, as required by his contract, dressed all in black.
All in black. A requirement for the job that would have been nice to know before we moved.

Postscript: Finally enough time has passed since our time at [redacted] University in Malaysia in 2014 that I have the sanity and ovum required to write about it. This is the first in a forthcoming series. 
A few points I want to make clear: Malaysia is a beautiful country, full of fabulous, funny, big-hearted people, gorgeous landscape, and salivatingly delicious food. We LOVED the country. We also loved our colleagues, many of whom gave us both the motivation and desire to keep working. What we didn't love was the university we worked for and our jobs there. As we both signed non-disclosure legal paper thingys, I'll be redacting and changing names, etc.

Post-postscript: In case you, like my sweet Flounder, don't like surprises, let me clue you in on the ending. We're super happy now and eventually everything worked out. 


Monday, June 13, 2016

The kindness of strangers, or: Why I suspect the world is a nicer place than it sometimes seems

Why hitchhike? It’s a question that Flounder has asked me, friends and family have asked me, and I have occasionally asked myself too. After a tense ride in which the driver, despite my repeatedly changing the subject, asks about my sex life and then grabs my ass as I leave the car, it is easy to forget my motivation for traveling this way in the first place.

And I could tell you what I tell everyone, that I like not knowing where I’ll go exactly or how I’ll get there, that I like meeting people, inserting myself into their world and leaving my assumptions at the door (of the car), and I like stepping outside (way outside) of the tourist zone.
Can you take us to Istanbul?
BTW, Flounder made this sign 'laminated' with clear tape so that we could use dry erase markers and reuse it.

But as my writing professor, Nynke, always reminded me, specificity is universal. So let me show you what I mean.

After a ride to Alanya, one of my least favorite beach towns in Turkey, Flounder and I walked to the edge of town. We stood on a busy street corner, just after a traffic light. Cars had barely any space to pull over for us and not much time to see us and then stop.

‘We should just keep going,’ I said. ‘We’ll never get a ride from…’ but before I could finish my sentence, a car had stopped for us.

‘Nereye gidiyorsunuz?’ I asked, as I always did. Where are you going?

‘Antalya’ya,’ he responded. And we were off.

These guys picked us up in Turkey and we ate breakfast with them by the sea.

It was a long ride, at least 120 kilometers, so we had a lot of time to talk. And he spoke English so I could ask slightly more insightful questions than ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘How many children do you have?’

Korhan worked as a model scout, basically, and he lamented the fact that none of his girlfriends trusted him because of this. Indeed, during our car ride with him, at least 15 girls called his phone, desperate for a job. His fondest wish was to have a baby girl, but his job seemed to be interfering with this goal.

He wondered if Flounder, being an attractive man who taught young college students, mainly girls, could sympathize. But I told Korhan that I trust Flounder, and indeed this is the only way forward unless you can find a partner who is willing to be sequestered from the lascivious eyes of all women everywhere, spending his life locked in an anti-cheating cage.

A view out the window from a ride in Western Turkey

And Korhan told us about his time in Belgium, when he arrived knowing no one, with almost no money at all. He couldn’t find a job and took to sleeping on a park bench because he was weak from hunger. After nearly eight days without eating, a man, Musa, stopped and asked Korhan what he was doing. Musa was from Turkey but had lived in Belgium for 30 years. He had seen Korhan sleeping in the park day after day and took pity on him. Musa fed him, clothed him, and found him a job.

‘He was my angel,’ said Korhan. ‘He was a second father to me and I owe him my life.’

Musa took a chance on a homeless stranger, sleeping on a park bench, and now that man is successful, hardworking, and is supporting his whole extended family. Inspired by this, Korhan pledged to help those that he could, and since we were in his car, that included us. We were his guests and we shouldn’t think twice about accepting his hospitality, he explained.

He offered us a place to stay for the night. Tired, we happily accepted.

The next day, Korhan dropped us on the road to Fethiye and Kaş. We were picked up by Doğan, a large man with a large laugh and an obsession with Alaska. In fact when he spoke of it, he spoke in all caps. ‘ALASKA!’ he boomed.

Doğan and I near a cove he stopped at for a swim

He was delighted when we gave him a postcard with a photo Flounder had taken in Alaska. He pinned it above his seat, looked at it, and said ‘ALASKA!’

Doğan also spoke English and that’s how he was able to tell us that he was married to the most beautiful woman in the world, a woman more than twenty years his junior. And he could tell us that he was afraid to take her many places because he was sure she would be discovered by a talent scout and be whisked away to model or act in movies. And he said that when they walked down the street together, both men and women would stare at her and so to alleviate the negative energy from their jealousy (the evil eye or nazar) they would pinch each other constantly.

But the most interesting thing he told us was about how he had lost $900,000.

‘I played a game,’ Doğan said, ‘and I lost almost a million dollars.’

We thought he had gambled, but no, he had invested in the stock market shortly before the 2008 financial crisis. And then, instead of selling when he had a chance, he held onto the stock and lost everything.
We stop in one of the many Roman ruins along the Western coast of Turkey - most of which have no entrance fee as the ruins are simply too plentiful

In spite of this, Doğan was generous. He bought us lunch, a ridiculously large amount of food. He drove us out of his way to drop us at the Lycian ruins of Myra, and when we ran into him unexpectedly in Kaş, he loaded us down with gifts.

He called me deli Sarah—crazy Sarah—for my love of hitchhiking, of adventure verging on danger. Korhan had said something similar, had warned us to be careful in Turkey. But when I pointed out that Flounder and I had only had good experiences hitchhiking in Turkey and that that was how we had met them, Doğan and Korhan, both responded that we were lucky. There are bad people in Turkey. Not everyone was like them.

While this statement is strictly true, I tire of this widespread idea that the world is a scary place and that you can’t trust anyone. For years now I have traveled in a way that relies on people, on the kindness of strangers. Flounder and I have relied on the kindness of over 100 strangers on this trip of ours and we have never once been disappointed. We have only been continually surprised and delighted by the warmth, hospitality, and love we have found.

Another kind stranger. He gave us a ride all the way to Istanbul, and stopped at the ruins of Troy, paid for our tickets, and showed us around. Amazing.

Why do I hitchhike? This was the long answer. The short answer is this: I love people. I believe in the kindness of strangers.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A return to blogging

After some finagling and some flattering (and a month without work in Barcelona), I'm dusting off this old blog.

I won't pick up where we left off (in Hawaii on our way to live in Malaysia); instead I'll likely jump around a bit in time and place.

Spoiler: We live in Dubai now

So without further ado...