October 2017: A Year in Asia

Dateline: Bukit Lawang, Sumatra. On the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, where orang-utans still swing in the trees, gibbons sing out for mates, pythons slither and corpse flowers stink. Brown-eyed boys tout jungle treks and strum lovelorn tunes on their beat-up guitars. They roll their r’s and they adore American rock ’n’ roll – Guns N Roses above all. (It’s hard to hold a candle in the cold November rain.) For breakfast we eat fruit named dragon and passion. We sit on the veranda and watch the jungle across the river. Most days it rains. For a thrill you hop in a truck inner tube and float down the riba and bounce over the rocks, and there’ll be a monitor lizard on the bank sliding by. The smiles are genuine, the showers are cold, and the wifi is fast, until the power cuts out. Then you listen to the boys play their guitars and watch the jungle or go tubing. All good.

“Apa kabar?”

“Bagus.”

So I’m bagus, doing great, overall. Really I feel like summer in Alaska. When it’s sunshine 24/7 and there’s lots of water – snowmelt and rainfall – so things are growing like gangbusters, you can practically watch the plants grow, and it’s all so green and lush. Like that in my soul. Jungle almost. Creatures swinging in the trees. Pythons. It’s hard to know what to tell you that I won’t want to revise tomorrow and again the next day. Please consider this a snapshot.

I’ve been in Thailand, Malaysia, Lao and Indonesia. I find a place I like, I stay there as long as my visa lasts, a month usually, longer if I renew the visa. I’ve learned I’m not much of a tourist, not interested in the sights. I’ve visited three temples the whole time, and two were because they were shortcuts. I’d rather walk through the streets and see how people live or sit in a café and people-watch or hang in the common area of wherever I’m staying and maybe say hello to whoever walks by. I’ve made a fair number of friends, fallen in love (!?!), and learned to play “Wagon Wheel” pretty good on the ukulele. I’m also working quite a lot – writing, editing. And my spiritual/emotional life continues to be the hub for everything else – that hasn’t changed.

It’s impossible to summarize all that’s happened in the past 11+ months. I imagine the main effect is what you would guess: I’ve grown lots in self-possession, self-confidence, self-awareness. I hadn’t quite realized how (self-)suppressed I’d been before. In the first months here, I felt like a little delicate plant that had been stepped on over and over and was finally beginning to straighten up and fill out and grow taller.

Blossoms to follow, I hope!

A few highlights:

– Arriving in Bangkok, after dark on a rainy night, and experiencing my first personal encounter in Asia. You can read that anecdote here (scroll down into the comments) if you so desire.

– The whole two months Kate joined me and I discovered traveling with someone can be fun. And meeting up with Ryan in Chiang Mai, and we mostly just stared at each other because we’d both changed so much and words seemed unnecessary.

– Taking part in an Indonesian family cookout on the Fourth of July – to celebrate the end of the durian harvest – and helping make lemang (a dessert, coconut sticky rice roasted in bamboo), playing with the kids in the river, chewing betel nut (ew) with the old ladies.

I’m working at freelance writing and editing. Mostly I write abstracts of political books – I’m assigned a book and I boil it down to five pages. I also write a bit for the Globe-Miami Times back home and have a couple of editing clients. The political abstracts are mentally challenging and emotionally sobering – books about European history, American current events, resource exploitation in Africa.

This figuring out how to make a living is an epochal thing for me. Something you might not know about me – how I’ve always depended on partners to support me and how the few times I’ve been on my own it’s been a trainwreck. I’m not lazy – sometimes I’ve been the one with the job, supporting my partner – but whenever I was on my own I couldn’t make ends meet. Nothing went right. It was one of the reasons I was so scared to leave Reevis, I was afraid when I left it was going to be “like that” again. And indeed it was. Kablooey. Holy seventy-nine cents in the bank, Batman. My single biggest motivation for coming to Asia was that I’d found out about the low costs of living here. On the other hand, I was pretty terrified. If freelance work ran dry or I had an unexpected expense, I couldn’t just crash on my mother’s couch, and I was done asking friends and family for loans. And if I couldn’t figure out how to make ends meet in Asia – where costs are a fraction of in the USA – well, h*ck.

I really felt like it was sink or swim, do or die. At the age of 49, it was high time to figure this thing out or die trying. So when I got the abstracting client, which turned the tide … well it was very important. There are still ups and downs and narrow ledges to traverse – I still keep a spreadsheet forecasting my cash flow down to the baht or rupiah. I still feel like I’m walking a tightrope without a net. But on this issue I’ve clearly turned a corner, and this is a wonderful thing.

And I’m writing. I’m working on a novel, much farther along than I’ve ever been with a book before. It still often feels like my shoelaces are tied together, but finishing and publishing a book no longer feels like a fantasy. I’m looking for a writing partner/circle/group, by the way. Please get in touch if you’d like to play in the sandbox with me.

Those are two humongous things, income and writing. But there’s one more, and I’ll only mention it and rhapsodize for a moment because other than that I don’t know what to say. I met someone in Thailand. There was this week-long Roman Holiday thing. And then he went home. It was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Has made me rethink a lot of things and raised a lot of questions.

Most likely I won’t make it back to the USA until fall 2018 at the earliest. Going to bop around SE Asia and India a few more months, then head west and bicycle up and down France and the U.K. through the summer. Or not!

One day I’ll get a motorcycle and boy am I excited for that, but everything in its season.

Everything in its season.

Pelan pelan, they say here. Tapi pasti. Slowly but surely.

 

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