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Posts Tagged ‘Southeast Asia’

According to the Tibetans, today is Buddha’s birthday. A prince with everything in the world, he set off on a quest to discover the truth of life. I’m remembering a mindfulness adventure I had this week, fifteen years ago:

borneo buddha by A.Ashman

Bornean Buddha by A.Ashman

In Borneo, I felt bored and restless at a luxe, manicured Shangri-La resort favored by fugitive rogue traders. Wandering past the watersports shack I asked to go to an outlying island in the South China Sea. No notice to the people I was traveling with, no drinking water, food or cellphone.

The white-uniformed sailor dropped me at the random spot I’d picked from his laminated map. A decrepit picnic bench sagged in the shade of a steep cliff carpeted in greenery, where faceless monkeys screeched. No facilities, no stand selling lunch, no people. Just plastic flotsam and slithery tracks lacing the sand. The hotel boat fishtailed away.

Did they write down where they left me? Lawsuit waiting to happen. Already thirsty. Wait, six-inch wide tracks. From what scaly beasts?

No way I’d approach the trees where those squiggly trails led. I was frying in the tropical sun. Unnerved to cool off in the translucent green water. What if I suddenly ‘had trouble’ swimming, or a shark came? Maybe I could flag down a passing boat to take me back. But these were pirate-infested waters.

Silly overreaching hotel guest, I was going to die on this wild island.

I picked up a 5-liter water jug and started filling it with cones and olive shells glinting among seaweed and garbage. Good stuff. My best vacations were spent shell-collecting in the Gulf of Mexico…Sanibel Island in Florida.

Heavenly new finds here. A true Shangri-La paradise. Zebra-striped scallops. Glossy limpets. Spiky orange coral.

That day as I ringed the tiny island — is that a chickpea cowrie? – I turned the corner on my own nature’s bitter edge.

On this birthday week of Buddha can you name a mindfulness experience you’ve had?

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Numerous primitive and tribal cultures believe a person’s soul is stolen when they’re photographed. I wonder if a photograph shows a soul being drained.

I’m delving into mental and photographic snapshots of my 12 year expat experience for a colleague’s blog: one highlight, one lowlight. The lowlight will be hard to choose.

My five years in Asia in the ’90s would amount to great adventure for most people, yet the evidence clumps together in my least favorite albums.

Off-camera life losses — separation from family, friends, language, community, the death of my best friend, the theft of my puppy, you name I lost it during my first longterm stint abroad — are reflected on-camera. Stripped of my cosmopolitan composure. Confident clothing. Gleaming skin. Chocolate curls. Toothy smile. Layer by layer, country by country, year by year I deplete and erode.

There are some monstrous stunners here.

Sweaty and sun-damaged with unschooled fluffball haircut, captured in the gracious gardens of Raffles Hotel. I’d given up sunscreen, as well as hair products and all hope of finding a stylist who understood fine and curly.

On the Great Wall of China, scowling Westerner in unladylike Doc Martens and baggy seersucker shorts (the only ones in the shops, I swear!), surrounded by svelte Chinese girls in platform shoes cheerfully waving tour company flags.

Thankfully these days the likelihood of snapping a picturesque portrait has gone way up even if my background doesn’t always match me.

What do your bluest images depict and how do they reveal the soul’s resiliency?

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The fresh perspective of an outsider-on-the-inside releases energy from all directions. What strikes us about a place — and may entice our fellow country-people  – often does not resonate to the same degree with the average native.

I was pleased to meet an expat woman entrepreneur on LinkedIn last week who was once a director at the American-Malaysian Chamber of Commerce. She now advises the Malaysian Tourism Ministry, sourcing products developed by foreigners so I’ve been revisiting a feverish amusement from a decade ago when I lived in Kuala Lumpur.

To enjoy the Newly Industrialized Country where hand-woven palm frond baskets were fast being replaced by pink plastic bags, I conceived a signature line of Southeast Asian travel mementoes, and a database of purveyors of exotic experiences like this on the island of Langkawi, on the island of Penang, and outside Kuala Lumpur. I called the venture first Cool Arts South Sea and then Flaming East.

Cool Arts South Sea self-image

Cool Arts South Sea self-image

Inspired by history but not tethered to it, my Flaming East concept embraced the original wonder of the region’s watery crossroads, from the Renaissance’s Age of Discovery (with its empire-building and search for trade-routes) to the steamer trunks-and-servants Golden Age of Travel. All spiked with the delirium only a good bout of malaria could provide….

homepage

homepage

By the 1990s we were missing the boat, I moaned in my business proposal:

“The part of the world that lies around the South China Sea,” as one European narrator so circuitously referred to it, was once immersed in an illustrious mystique.  Pirates and monsoons held sway on the seas while headhunters and mosquitoes did their part in the interior. Yet for several centuries an international set of adventurers, traders, colonizing industrialists and pleasure travelers risked the tropical hazards. Along with Asiatic goods and unimaginable riches, fanciful tales filtered home: of ancient races, shining temples and blue, impenetrable jungle. Even the air was different here, the east wind apparently laden with the aroma of silks, sandalwood, spices and camphor. Well, no longer.”

To be honest, Southeast Asia’s enveloping assault on the senses continued. But colorful naiveté and uncensored awe were in short supply where I came from. Writing about the past of the place caused my politically-correct, Pacific Northwest spellchecker to protest. I was flaming the East! Didn’t I really mean “cinnamon” when I typed “Chinaman”?

Have you envisioned a tourism campaign, service or product for a locale where you’re the outsider-on-the-inside? What does it show about the place, and you?

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Happily at home in Istanbul in 2007, I flipped through Unsuitable for Ladies. Edited by Jane Robinson, this anthology of female travel writing crisscrosses the globe and stretches back into ancient history. Complete candy for me.

Around the same time I was ruminating in an essay for a global nomad magazine why I’ve come to employ a defensive strategy for my expatriatism

Sense of self is my most valuable expatriate possession.

During my first long-term stint overseas in the ’90s my boundaries were over-run by circumstance and culture. Language and cultural barriers prevented me from expressing my identity. I’d tell Malaysians I was a writer. They’d reply, “Horses?”  I was mistaken for a different Western woman in Asia. A crew of Indonesian laborers working at my house wondered when I was going to drink a beer and take off my shirt. Like leather shoes and handbags molding overnight, expat life on the equator made me feel my sense of self was decomposing at time-lapse speed.

A thunderbolt from Robinson: “Southeast Asia has more than its share of reluctant women travelers.”

She compiled Wayward Women, a survey of 350 female travel writers through 16 centuries so her conclusion about Southeast Asian travelers is drawn from a massive canon. In that moment, my hardest-won lessons of expatriatism felt vindicated. 

Travelers and expats: What happens to your unique experience if you consider yourself part of a continuum?

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“Can you share a travel secret?” asked an online travel site for women prepping its annual feature of tips from women writers worldwide.

“Read the women who went before us,” I replied. “Or, read about them.”

For this expat/archaeologist/writer/traveler, cultural wisdom pools at the intersection of women and travel.  The romance and grit of historical travelogue connects me to the land — and reminds me of travel’s transformative force in the lives of women. Reputation-risking. Life-threatening. Culturally redeeming. Personally empowering.  (My post about a related controversial history.)

on set of "Anna and the King"

on set of "Anna and The King"

Adventurous Women in Southeast Asia (Oxford-in-Asia), a selection of traveler sketches by historian John Gullick, gave my own struggling expatriate experience new meaning when I was sweating it out for 5 years in the Malaysian jungle. Playing an attitudinal extra aristocrat on the 1860s filmset of “Anna and The King” with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat in 1999 (next to a pig farm during a swine flu outbreak, but that’s another post!), I appreciated learning about the dark side of the iconic governess to the Siamese court. Foster may have played Anna Leonowens prim, proper and principled but actually the lady was a scrappy mixed-blood mistress of reinvention. There was hope for me!

If you plan a trip to Turkey maybe Cultures in Dialogue holds similar promise for you. The print-on-demand series resurrects antique writings by American and British women about their travels in Turkey (1880s to 1940s), along with surprisingly political writing by women of the Ottoman empire. Contempo analysis by spunky scholars Reina Lewis and Teresa Heffernan refreshes the context of a region in transition.

Next post, more titles which add new dimension to travel. Any favorite antique travel reads? What draws you to by-gone reports?

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