Tuesday, August 2, 2011

a year of living dangerously

few people admire the beauty of that unassuming little blue book. its impassive gold lettering juxtaposed upon the smooth, deep leather is a corollary to the chaos that lies within its pages. it is a disposable document, at the mercy of a static expiration date. like any animate being, the closer it nears to its end, the more vibrant and storied its history becomes. and, for the last year of my life, this book has served as my dearest pocket-sized companion.

i worshipped its empty pages when i first received it, poured over every diplomatic courtesy and security tip it lists, memorized the patriotic symbols which decorate its pages. it was with the utmost joy that i received that first stamp, the curiously square stamp of hong kong. for those first few weeks the book was carefully stored in my locked desk drawer, forgotten at the novelty and craze of this new and exotic place, but a few weeks later it was once again called upon to accompany my entry to macau. after that stamp the pages suddenly became more populated. the next weekend the book accompanied me to beijing, so beginning our international tour.

for the rest of the summer my love for that little book was divided, as another love blossomed in my life. the book however unselfishly recorded it, as evocative stamps between macau and hong kong marked its pages.

my last morning in hong kong was a frenzied mess of emotion as i teased fate and nearly missed my flight. i’ll never forget the cab ride from the island to the airport as i watched the enchanting city disappear from behind the rain soaked window. i felt my cheeks dampen as i stubbornly refused to leave the island, perhaps leaving a small piece of myself behind. the book patiently accompanied me as the summer concluded with shanghai and japan joining the collection of stamps.

unsurprisingly, one doesn’t receive a stamp for reentering the country, perhaps explaining why that semester in los angeles barely registered in my life. those months were a dissonant period when i grappled with understanding what’s worth waking up for in the morning. the book remained close to my side even though i didn’t use it and at times when i thought that the events of summer were too fantastic to believe, i glanced at its pages again and beamed with memory.

i clumsily made my way through life until the book was once again called upon. this time it was not for a border entry, but to have a copy made with the promise of studying for a semester in london. the email confirming my acceptance was not only an academic triumph, but a desperately needed escape from the ache of the semester.

the book was also promised a trip to israel before london, but when weather violently interrupted the plans i found myself traveling the east coast instead, saying my long goodbye to america. though the book was never in need, it seemed as though each city i visited was a foreign place in itself. the bulk of the time was in new york as friends and family magnanimously took me in and caravanned me through the city. the first liberation from my grounded time in los angeles reminded me of what i enjoy most, that untainted mix of the odd couch, the secret restaurant, and conversation that picks at the soul. again i found myself with long intermissions of space, i spent traveling alone with my thoughts and the rush of scenery. it was an odd stint, but one that answered the question i spent months asking.

when i touched down on european soil it was an unremarkable greeting that met me in london. this first stamp marked the start of a cathartic european tour, but first i needed to settle a few things with myself. it was dark and damp when i arrived, as the city mostly is, and i was alone those first two nights. i spent most of the time by myself and recommitting my mind to the moment. i no longer needed the memories of the summer before to fill my daydreams because the book and i were about to conquer europe.

it started beautifully, and as any traveler would appreciate, on a flight purchased on a spontaneous whim to prague at the promise of seeing a dear friend from last summer. she too struggled with finding purpose after the joy we experienced in asia. while we spoke of it one night, the rest our time was spent erasing any qualms we might have, because how can one be discontent at the unfamiliar sights and sounds and smells and emotions of a new city.

the first two months were a series of rapid fire travel and the book can prove it. the winter weather didn’t suit me but somehow it became more manageable spent traipsing about the great cities of the continent. from quiet mornings spent reading in amsterdam’s cafes to the charm of edinburgh’s old city to the brilliantly young aura of berlin and all the class of dublin during their greatest holiday, the book was working overtime.

my time in london only became more stimulating and vibrant as the days passed. being removed from my usual school routine removed a lot of the stress that accompanies it. instead, i had an entire course catalogue to choose from and all the time in the world. i took classes that excited me and challenged me, i spent an hour reading the newspaper every morning, and i found myself enjoying daily runs passing monuments which people spend their life studying. the weather became warmer and the grass greener. i spent afternoons at the park people watching and feeling life pass ever so slowly and beautifully.

the book again observed a great love unfold in my life, a love that is an utter devotion to understanding people, places, and the greater context in which we live our lives. it was almost a painful love, a brief cerebral affair with every person i interacted with, that perhaps i might never see again, but will hold in my thoughts for the rest of my life.

asia called to me again in a form much like last summer and i jumped at the opportunity. my parents visited me in london soon after the news and we spent two weeks with our respective stamp books touring italy and france. for the first time in a while i was their daughter again, and after being apart for so long it felt good to be safe and loved in their presence. the trip was peppered with brief moments of sadness however, as we all knew i would spend another three months away from home.

the last week i spent in london some of the dearest people in my life visited me, prompting the inevitable grand tour. it felt so easy and comfortable saying goodbye to the city with old friends. the tour was an introduction to one another, between the city that had so fulfilled my life to the people that had unconditionally supported me.

there wasn’t much time to dwell on the transition between the two. i only had a few days at home which were mostly crammed with seeing the people that i missed most. the book and i took a trip to los angeles though, so that a curious paper stamp might be affixed to its pages, granting entry to the faraway land of indonesia.

it’s hard to write about the meaning that this last summer brought in my life, with the events still so visceral in my mind. it’s changed me again in ways i can’t fully comprehend at the moment but perhaps one day i can fully appreciate. in a way it’s quite fitting that this silly book has given me so much companionship and joy, i’m strange in the way that i fear telling people anything that might upset them, manifesting itself into times this past year when my darkest thoughts were only shared with myself. what i think i’m going to take away from this summer is the powerful yet simple conclusion that everyone shares the same pain. that my own failings and sorrow are not so different from this stranger sitting next to me in the café or any other person living on this earth. there’s something about the indonesian culture that imbues people with a graceful openness and curiosity in friendship. it is that intangible quality that has slowly chipped away at my own boundaries and made me feel more complete in the process.

now the latest stamp in that once pristine blank book is the very same one that started my journey exactly one year ago. the crushing familiarity and memory of this city reminds me of the naïve, impulsive girl who once lived here, but now she seems like more of a stranger to me than anyone else. since the moment i left, all i could dream about would be the moment i come back, but to replicate that singular time in my life isn’t a task for mortals. so for now, i am content with sitting here, leaning back in my chair, gazing at the beautiful skyline, and dreaming about the next stamp in my passport…

Thursday, June 30, 2011

in indo

i have to stop and remind myself that i’ve already spent a month in indonesia. thus far, it has been unquantifiable joy and discovery that has characterized my time here. each day is another gift, each encounter is greater than the last, and it’s a glaring realization that in just a bit i’ll have to leave just as soon as i’ve arrived.

the great ease which i’ve found myself becoming comfortable can be contributed to the lavish hospitality shown by every person i’ve met. but beyond that, it’s the simplicity and ease which people guide their lives by here. no one is too busy to stop and ask about your weekend, no one is too bothered to tell their favorite travel spots, and certainly no one is unwilling to take you to their hidden lunch haven.

i would compare it to the scheduled leisure of european living, but even that lifestyle is not akin to the indonesian way. it seems everyone here is still on village time, that perhaps since the sun is up it is time to arrive at the office, since the shadows are short you ought to be at lunch, and that now since the sun is disappearing one must head home.

further, it is a universally good nature which characterizes people here. while it’s not unusual to see an off-color argument anywhere else in the world, i don’t think i’ve ever heard anyone so much as raise their voice here.

people look at their lives with astonishing foresight. i’ll never forget the dewy-eyed virtue that my colleague spoke of when describing plans for her wedding and home she is building with her future husband, a conversation which i will hold in my memories long after i leave this country.

most of all, i think it is the genuine relationships people seek here. though i’ve only shared a few lunches and the odd cab ride with most of my colleagues i could tell you their entire backgrounds, motivations for their professional career, and probably an anecdote or two about their family. people don’t have limitations for what can be shared or discussed, and any topic you choose is exactly what they’d like to chat about with equal fervor and interest.

it is one couple in particular that has captivated me. at our welcome dinner they sat alone initially, sharing dinner and each other’s company. as soon as someone passed though, they invited them to sit down and engaged them in effortless banter. when the rounds of speakers talked, no one laughed harder and more sincerely than these two, and when the tone turned serious, they murmured and nodded just as hard as they laughed. later in the night an old friend of theirs introduced me and told me the story of the first night he had met them. as though it was yesterday the story of a new year’s eve in bali, bathed in moonlight and big band music came to life. though the couple is approaching their 80s now, he spoke of their undying chemistry and gifted dancing ability. when they looked at each other again, 50 years later, i too, was dancing with them that night.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


behind the immaculate pillars and marble entry halls, past the shaded driveways and groomed flower beds, lies the press office of the governor of jakarta. the office, like all other things in the city, serves to contradict the glittering extravagance which greets its visitors.

the office is in a separate building and has an unmarked, tinted glass door. inside three plain tables and a worn couch decorates the battered room. on a busy day, journalists fill the office, teeming with laughter and familiar banter. open food cartons and laptops line the table, and cigarette smoke wafts through the heavy air. on a slow day, one or two journalists lazily type on their laptops, and the room seems dull and empty.

there is a certain respected hierarchy among the room’s occupants, distinguished by one’s tenure to the office. a woman sits at the head of the far table, affectionately called “ebu” or mother. you want an interview with the governor? ebu will take you to the proper contacts in the main building. you want to know where the governor takes his lunch on fridays? ebu can tell you.

for an outsider, it might be nearly impossible to get that prized interview with the governor of one of the most fascinating cities in the world. but for friends of ebu? no problem.

...post script: i later learned "ebu" is spelled "ibu"

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

closing thoughts

now i have returned home, life is slower and the weather is warmer, but i have not forgotten you london. my time abroad was something special, as it is to everyone who embarks on such a journey.

for me it was simplicity and beauty of the thing as a whole: a chance to be alone and experience the pulse of a city, to think uninhibitedly and dream constantly, but above all, a time to understand myself.

the backdrop of millions of rushing faces and the rapid changes of scenery were elements of the growth, yes. but the chance to experience it all, at this pivotal moment in my life, that was the true significance of the event, and for that i am forever grateful.

the london travel guide

-Brick Lane- (Tube stop: Liverpool street) A lively street market with great ethnic food, live music, and unusual wares. Best day to visit is a Sunday to see it in full swing. A true snapshot of London with families, couples, students, artists, professionals, and (only a few) tourists in attendance. http://www.visitbricklane.org/

-Whitechapel Art Gallery- (Tube stop: Liverpool street) At the end of Brick Lane lies this gem of an East end gallery. Current exhibit is Paul Graham photography. Enjoyable for even the most uninterested viewer. http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/

-Shoreditch/Hoxton area- (Tube stop: Old street) Repeatedly proclaimed the "trendy, up and coming" area in London, of which I must agree. Great nightlife and restaurants. Recs: Cargo (club), Great Eastern Dining Room (dinner), Hoxton Square Bar (drinks). Best nights Fri/Sat. http://www.viewlondon.co.uk/whatson/shoreditch-london-feature-1708.html

-The Globe Theatre- (Tube stop: London bridge) Ubiquitous Shakespeare haunt. Standing tickets available just like in ye olde days. http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/

-Borough Market- (Tube stop: London bridge) Food market popularized by Sir Jamie Oliver himself, serves gourmet street food (oxymoron?), fancy cheeses, and international alcohols. I personally recommend the Ostrich Burger from the exotic meats stand. Open Thurs-Sat though weekends are very crowded. http://www.boroughmarket.org.uk/

-The Golden Hinde- (Tube stop: Bond street) The best fish and chips in London, period. http://www.yelp.co.uk/biz/the-golden-hind-london

-Primrose Hill- (Tube stop: Regent's park) Start your pilgrimage through Regent's park and along the canals to reach the mecca of all London parks, Primrose hill. 180 degree view of the London skyline and the perfect place to people watch/picnic/pass out. http://www.primrosehill.com/

-Angel area- (Tube stop: Angel) Visit any of the many happening pubs/restaurants in this young professional area and you won't be disappointed. Recs: Afghan Kitchen, Byron, Isarn, Le Mercury. http://www.viewlondon.co.uk/whatson/islington-london-feature-1671.html

-Wardour Street- (Tube stop: Tottenham court road) Walk down the street to see the best of London's pop-up restaurants. Recs include Breakfast Club (when you're craving proper American), Wahaca (when you're craving proper Mexican), Busaba Eathai (when you're craving proper Thai), Vietnamese Pho (if you're craving proper Vietnamese?). http://www.streetsensation.co.uk/soho/ws_east.htm

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

moments of singularity

read below for stand out moments of my time abroad:

-walking along a river eating fresh strawberries from the crate (berlin)
-understanding the complexity of a single grape (london)
-sleeping on a grassy knoll (london)
-sunset with a bottle of red and a stinky cheese (florence)
-visiting the park where my french conversation movies were set (paris)
-running beside a heard of deer (london)
-bursts of yellow flowers along the highway (aix to lyon drive)
-seeing the ocean after four months (nice)
-sharing a pizza with strangers (rome)
-listening to why someone likes modern art (edinburgh)
-sitting beside the moonlight soaked canals (amsterdam)
-trudging through softly falling snow in the early hours (prague)
-walking through a city alone at dusk (dublin)
-enjoying the perfect comfort of french hospitality (aix)
-having five semi-strangers become perfect friends (dublin)
-seeing the skyline from a castle in the hills (prague)
-reading in a quiet cafe (amsterdam)
-sharing a tiny flat with incredible individuals (london)
-falling asleep to the sound of the ocean (brighton)
-people watching with a bellini in hand (venice)
-a woman looking towards the sun, eyes tightly closed, smiling deeply (berlin)