Asian in Asia

It’s 7am and I have a yoga class in an hour. I woke up because of the sea. Living in London, I’ve never had the luxury of waking up to anything other than the sound of urban foxes shagging. Mexico City wasn’t much better. Although sirens were often interspliced with drunken arguments, or thumping music. I didn’t realise how much I love to wake up to the sound of the sea.

The journey to get to Koh Phangan was not as tranquil.

The first night in Bangkok was spent wandering around the Khao San road shopping and avoiding teams of men in matching wife beaters, trying to drunkenly chat up anyone in grabbing reach. People like to touch here, not just drunken Brits out on a stag. I got poked in the boob, had my tattoo stroked and was awkwardly patted by a couple of giggly vendors, who may have been at the laughing gas balloons.

The night in Bangkok was a sensory overload. Lights. Vendors. Food. Massages. Rats. One of which I had an unsettling run in with that left me contemplating how much I really needed my right foot.

It was loud and bright and dirty and seedy. I liked it.

At 5am we were abruptly woken by our panicky Thai host who thought we were going to miss our flight. She had taken the liberty of booking us a taxi that was waiting as we spoke. I don’t think I’ve got packed and ready so quickly. I silently cursed her all the way to the airport.

The journey to get to Koh Phangan was a two fold nightmare. Unlike Alex Garland’s romanticised journey through jungle, jumping off waterfalls and swimming across the island, ours was more pedestrian and disgusting. The waves were dangerously high, so our speedboat jumped along the ocean for nearly two hours. The nausea it provoked was understandable. I regretted inhaling a pork bun and chilli chicken curry on the dock before we boarded. But the real kicker was the synchronised vomiting that began to take place about 20 minutes into the journey. Smiling faces handed out pink plastic bags and tissues, then the pukefest began. It was like the story Chunk describes in The Goonies: one person barfed and everyone else just joined in. It surrounded us and we sunk into our seats hoping we wouldn’t be hit by the spray.

My body’s natural defense mechanism in situations of high stress is to shut down. Much like a possum. Only more like a narcoleptic. I pass out.

When I awoke and drowsily got off the boat there was still another journey left to make. Kerry, had warned me that transport to The Sanctuary was a mafia. It’s lucky I had her and her amazing litigation skills to get me this far.

You couldn’t get a cheaper price no matter how good you were at haggling. What was worse they had decided to hike the prices up, to make the best of all the business that was anxiously waiting. We held out for as long as we could as the surliest driver in the world bitched at our attempts to bring the price down.

It didn’t feel great having to concede and get in the back of his shitty truck. It felt less great as we were hurled about along bumpy back streets out into the middle of nowhere.

Luckily we were headed towards Sanctuary.

The choice is yours

The other day I was watching Master of None when Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar came up. It has been years since I read the book. It sticks in my mind because I started it on comedy improv night. Unsurprisingly, all the suggestions I yelled out were pretty bleak as a result. They had to work for the laughs.

The fig tree has been playing on my mind a lot. Esther’s life is compared to a fig tree, and each fig is a choice she could make. She envisions herself sitting below it, unable to make a choice and watching each fig drop. Black and dead. No longer an option. Hardly the stuff of which improv is made of. A good metaphor nevertheless.

I was 21 or 22 when I first read the Bell Jar. My attitude to life was to just let it carry me where it may. I made my choices on a whim. I would take a bite of the closest fig. There was no painstaking decision. My life was a series of happy coincidences. Until things started to go wrong.

As I got older and the decisions carried more consequences, and it just became increasingly harder. Poor decisions can age you. I repeatedly made the same poor decision with an abusive ex. When I finally made the right choice I felt a hundred years older, and had no faith in my own choices.

From then on my go to move for any choice which carried a real consequence was to survey all my friends, until someone offered up an option that seemed manageable. I then decided to defer all my future life choices to that person, hoping they would just live my life for me because I was so terrible at it.

This was not a plan.

My  decision making is non-existent in relationships. The people pleaser in me comes out then all of a sudden every decision I make revolves around making someone else happy. I’m always looking after someone else’s tree, or eating the fruit they hand to me. When you are offering that much power over your life to the wrong person it has disastrous results.

Over the years, I have met so many people that would happily micromanage my life for me, and a few that returned the decision to me. Thank you to the latter for withholding judgement, and forcing me to adult. I feel like I am doing it more now than ever.

After my last break up I was bothered that no one had warned me about the immaturity and drama that came with him, as if I could have been better informed in my decision making. Transparency wouldn’t have changed anything. I would have given him the same chance. It had been my choice to make.

It had made me laugh when he informed me that I had no right break up with him without consulting him. He didn’t seem to grasp that I was allowed to make my own decisions. Maybe because I had spent a year letting him sway all my mine.

I still hadn’t understood there was so much power in a choice.

I empathise with Esther’s anxiety about making the wrong choice. I have to remind myself it’s equally bad to randomly choose anything, or to make do with the options people give you. It’s such a fine balance. So dependent on luck.

At 35 trying to get into a writing position is hard. I get told I am brave a lot, which makes me feel like I have some kind of terminal illness. Stupidity perhaps. I am sometimes overwhelmed with panic and shake that tree hard, scrambling to see what options I have managed to shake down. But that isn’t the way I want to live life, and I calm down soon enough.

My choices are simpler these days. I am learning to have more faith in myself.

I have to just trust my tree still has a few good figs left.

Image from Zen Pencils.com Check the site for the full illustrated extract from The Bell Jar.

 

 

 

Day of the Dead

Over the last few few months I have been trying rewire the way I look at life and focus on the positives rather than my relationships and other failures.

IMG_1087

The British Museum Days of the Dead Exhibition

It has been a mourning period for me in many ways. I have spent months putting to rest my expectations. Trying not to be angry about the plans that I had given up so easily, and the life I had chosen to leave behind.

It’s hard to move on. As terrible as you might feel in the place you’re in, you get used to the misery in a way. I’ve been as positive and active as I can, but it sneaks up on me. 

My ‘ex-rages’ were a symptom of the fact I wasn’t over it yet. I could be in the middle of a perfectly nice evening, travelling, or out drinking with friends, and then a wave of anger would sweep over me. It was like Tourette’s. Anyone close enough would get a comprehensive list of grievances against him, and a demand for an answer to where the hell did he get off texting me to call me a ‘waste of his time.’

When I wasn’t raging, I was trying to just get on with life. Being as busy as possible. Remembering my life wasn’t defined by a man. Then I’d find myself in tears because this wasn’t how it was supposed to have worked out.

Between the bitching and crying my observant six year old nephew chipped in his two cents worth.

‘Forget him.’

The infant was right. But how do you move past it?

Our break up had been quite abrupt. We hadn’t seen or really spoken to each other in weeks. The last act had been a death in the family.

The British Museum Days of the Dead exhibition

The British Museum Days of the Dead exhibition

There are certain expectations around death and how we should treat each other, and behave when someone passes away. It’s a time to be sympathetic, to come together to put your differences aside, and offer your support.

I had wanted to do all these things. But after endless fights, unresolved issues and his go-to-move of ignoring me for three days at a time I just couldn’t find it in me. People can kill your sympathy. Especially when they demand it of you constantly. So I left him to it.

He had expected me to be there to support him. But after so much drama, I just didn’t have it in me anymore. I ended it the following week. In true dramatic fashion I was told never to contact him again. Cross the road and pretend I don’t know him style break up.

Relationships with people you love can end abruptly. I learned that young. My little brother passed away when I was five years old. From one day to the next someone I love had disappeared from my life.

My parent’s generation are not great believers of discussing ‘adult’ topics with children. We never spoke about death. It was just something that was innate knowledge.

After my brother died, his pictures were put away. His clothes were given away. I didn’t get to go to a funeral, or a memorial. Three years of my life with another person just disappeared and I wasn’t to ask any questions, and didn’t get to say goodbye. We couldn’t say his name in the house, or speak openly about him for fear of upsetting my parents. It was something we got used to.

My parents were trying to protect us and themselves. They bottled up their feelings and were ‘strong’. But I could see you couldn’t stay strong that way. We suffered silently. The pain seemed to last forever.

Life carried on, but I felt like he was being ignored, despite him clearly being on everyone’s mind. The only remaining signs he had existed were the crying, or the look on a face when his favourite song came on the radio.

Mensajes para los muertos Messages for the dead

Mensajes para los muertos Messages for the dead

I needed Day of the Dead when I was a child.

From October 31st to November 2nd in Mexico and other countries around the world, Dia de los Muertos/Day of the Dead is celebrated. The belief is that the spirits of the dead reunite with their families and loved ones. They honour them with offerings or ofrendas, and put together on an altar for the deceased. The altars are often illuminated with candles, decorated with cempazuhitl (marigold flowers), their favourite food, drinks, photos and memories. The family will celebrate together, often lighting candles, eating, drinking and sharing anecdotes. They reminisce and celebrate the lives of the deceased fondly.

Day of the Dead helped me to come to terms with ideas of death and loss and move forward in a healthy way. It gave me a chance to celebrate my brother’s life, and the lives of the people I loved who were no longer with me. I looked forward to the beautiful ofrendas and rites that took places. From scenes of the floating of candles on the Patzcuaro lake, to bringing food, drink and even Mariachis to the graves of loved ones so they could enjoy their favourite songs with family. IMG_1086

This year the British Museum put on an impressive exhibition. They had huge skeleton sculptures towering on either side of the entrance. As you entered there was an authentic Atlanchinolli dance troupe,  performing a pre-hispanic Aztec dance ritual to remember the dead. There were also workshops where children could make their own marigold flowers to hang on a tree sculpture with their messages for their loved ones who had passed away. It was particularly child friendly. Helping them understand this concept and view on death. Something I think all children should be given the chance to do.

This weekend gave me time to reflect. I hadn’t been honest about how I was feeling. I was pushing myself to be over things. I hadn’t given myself the time to get over it, to feel sad about it, be angry or upset about it. Which is why it kept creeping up on me despite all my attempts to be happy and act like things were back to normal. They weren’t.

There is a reason why you have a mourning period. It helps you to come to terms with what happened and make your peace with it. You get to say your goodbyes and move on.

I just need a little more time.

Itchy feet

Margaret smiled at me. She looked very mum like.  I always run into well meaning mother figures when I’m abroad.

She and I were the only passengers on the airport shuttle into Budapest. We got talking about the plane delay. Complaining is a great way to start a conversation it would seem. We got on the topic of why we were in Hungary. She was there for work. I was there because I could be. I was lucky enough to have friends there, the time, and no responsibilities.

Parliament in the Pest side of Budapest

Parliament in the Pest side of Budapest

“For £500 you could buy a Eurorail pass. Travel around Europe for a month.”

It’s around £500 if you’re 18- 25. If you’re 26 or older, it’s closer to a grand to get a Eurorail pass. It wasn’t a bad idea though. When I got out in district 8, Margret told me to do it while I was still young. I thought about how ‘young’ I was. I was strongly considering it.

It had been four months of applying for jobs I didn’t really want, and getting no where.

One morning I woke up and I contacted my agencies and said I was having a crisis and wouldn’t be available for work until the new year. This may be the only time when I’d have the money to travel and no commitments. When I could take a last minute deal. Buy a cheap ticket and see some more of the world.

I’ve realised I have quite a good network of friends around the world. I’m off to Brazil in November. A weekend in Paris in December. Perhaps Singapore in the new year, or China. I also know a lot of teachers scattered around the world in schools that need an English teacher. Maybe the life of a travelling teacher could be resurrected in Europe or Asia.

My friend Diana was right. I wasn’t fat and toothless. I did have options.

There is a lot to be said for having your gap year in your 30s. On the plus side, I have some money saved. I can do it in a bit more style. Hungary was a whirlwind of G&Ts, steak dinners and strudel. It beat my pizza pie budget when I was in New York.

Foie Gras Fantasy. Not really my cup of tea. Great strudel though. The Strudel House

Foie Gras Fantasy. Not really my cup of tea. Great strudel though. The Strudel House

On the downside, my mum and dad think I’m having a mental breakdown, and my savings are starting to dwindle, while my credit card balance gets bigger. It’s all I want to do though.

I didn’t have a gap year before uni. Well I did, but I was living at a mates house after my dad had kicked me out, working three jobs and desperately trying to lock down a job at Topshop #ambition.  It was hardly ‘See the world before uni’ It was more ‘Prepare yourself for how much your life is going to suck when you have bills to pay and nowhere to live.’

I didn’t save a lot that year. Enough for a ticket to New York. I managed to meet my friends at the end of their travels, listen to their adventures around the world. We all still travel. Alone most of the time, I’ve noticed. We’ve even met up in different countries.

I think it’s something in your blood, wanting to be out there in the world alone, on your own adventure.  Some people can’t live without it.

I like travelling alone. It’s never been something I thought was unusual. I always had a friend to meet somewhere, or I would make friends when I got to where I was going.  I’ve never felt lonely. I’ve felt lonely at parties, in relationships, stuck at home. Traveling is something I’m happy to do by myself. 

The reactions I get when I tell people I’m travelling alone make me smile. The concern, the sympathy. Did I have no friends to go with? Surely I’d enjoy it more with other people? Next time I could ask them to come along.

Being a woman makes it seem dangerous, but it’s just as risky as it is for men. I have been mugged three times, but I’ve made it out unscathed and often with most of my possessions. 

You call that a knife?

You call that a knife?

The first time was at knife point and I was able to talk my way out of it. His pen knife was an embarrassment. I’d rather have been stabbed. The second time I was being an idiot, and wandering around at night with my headphones in. He got my iPod. But only as he ran away after i beat the shit out of him with an umbrella. So British. The last time I was mugged, it was at gun point, so I couldn’t really fight my way out of it. I managed to hold onto my shopping. It was worth more than the crap in my purse. Suckers.

Ok, it may seem uncertain. But it’s no more dangerous than your own back yard. You take the right precautions, you’re careful who you trust, and it all works out, most of the time. Occasionally you get a bit of bad luck, you wander into a bad area, fall asleep on the night bus with your iPod out; or date a man who thinks it’s acceptable to hold your possessions hostage because he’s teaching you a lesson for breaking up with him.

There are risks in everything we do.

Over the years my travels had introduced me to wonderful people, some of whom I’m lucky to still be in touch with. Sometimes you just spend a few nights having a good laugh, going to bars and wandering naked into the ocean. Other times you make travel buddies and end up at reggae festivals, or crossing the border into Panama.

I have had hand made pizza straight out of a make shift oven in a friend’s cave. It even had a door. The cave, not the pizza. 

I’ve soaked in thermal baths under the stars. I’ve hiked up a mountain in Andorra, cooked my own dinner and then hiked down into France for breakfast. There were parties on the beach, night swimming in lagoons, and once I jumped on a motorbike to a ghetto in Belize to shave a man’s beard off.

Dick Fountain. Or a more formal sounding name for this fine monument.

Dick Fountain. Or a more formal sounding name for this fine monument.

Traveling has been good to me.

There was never a trip I regretted. Not even this one back home. It took me to Hungary, a dick fountain, dear friends and the knowledge that Hungarians will not budge in a bar. Soon it will take me to my nap buddy, caipirihnas and samba.

I was told I couldn’t live like this for the rest of my life. Maybe what they meant to say was that they couldn’t live like this for the rest of their life. It’s not for everyone.

If you have a  travel suggestions let me know. I live out of a suitcase.

Dem Gains

As I sat watching Kickboxer, I could feel my brother staring and stifling his laughter.

It wasn’t the questionable plot, Van Damme’s excuse for having a Belgian accent, or his badass dance moves. No.

10521698_10152635903015701_2617485230616497437_n

Visual reenactment. Thanks to Piers for the use of his pale, but effective forearm.

“Your arm…”

Yes, it was a bit big.

I had been feeling like a new arm would burst out of it any day now, and wrestle the old one to its death. But you know what some girls are like when they lift a 1kg dumbbell.

I’m always saying “I’m getting huge,” forcing some poor fella to search bemusedly for a bicep muscle, and then being reminded of how diminutive I am when they show me what a real bicep muscle looks like.

My brother put his forearm next to mine, and fell off the sofa laughing.

Hmm.

This time it was no exaggeration. My forearm belonged to another person.

I’d been ‘working out’, since I came back to London five months ago. Fat burning, cross training, running 5k a day. I had been taking a 30 minute train journey to run inside on a treadmill, when I lived next door to a park. Why? Love.

It was idiotic.

I would meet my ex at the gym and run, when I could have easily have done laps around the park for free. I guess it was an easy routine to slip into. I didn’t have a job. He finished work and headed straight to the gym. If I wanted to see him, that’s where I had to go.

The one time I suggested doing something different, he had a perfectly timed foul mood. The evening was a disaster.  It ended with his wise observation that “We should have just gone to the gym.”

His gym was like Cheers, where he could walk through the door, everybody knew his name and he could start a bit of banter with the trainers, other members. I would be constantly told how nice it was to meet the girlfriend that they had heard so much about, and proudly shown around.

It took me a while to realise I was effectively walking him to the gym and home again with 30 minutes cardio inbetween. This wasn’t quality time. It was me slotting myself into his life.

When I told him I wouldn’t go with him to the gym in the afternoons, it was the beginning of the end really. He wasn’t going to change his schedule. We saw each other once a week. If that.

After our breakup, if ever there was a place where I felt like I would be judged and unhappy it was his gym. But he’d already convinced me to sign up for the year. So as part of my whole make-yourself-happy face-your-demons style of life, I decided to go there.

Everyday.

For 3 hours.

It made perfect sense to an insecure masochist.

I think everyone has their own body issues. I have always struggled to be happy with the way I look. When I had been going out with my ex, I had felt somewhat unattractive in comparison, through no fault of his own. He was someone who was in great shape, took care of his appearance, wore the right clothes and groomed himself carefully.

I was someone who often had crumbs in my hair, wanted to eat my body weight in cheese and then blog about it.

There was nothing wrong with either. But I guess when you’re not happy with who you are, you lose yourself in what other people want for you. Every suggestion starts feeling like a put down.

Growing up, I was quite underweight as a child. My mother would pinch my nose shut and make me swallow raw eggs to fatten me up. Edwina Curry saved me with Salmonella. I could have been a far rounder child.

Raw eggs were replaced with using me as a human garbage disposal, and the Indian ‘just one more’ sneak attack, in which food is shoved into your mouth when you open it to refuse.

This typically asian way of showing love, was then confused by calling me ‘moti’. ‘Moti’ meaning fatty in an endearing way. Only the latinos and south asians could possible think calling someone fat was endearing. After being plumped up like a French goose, moti was my reward.

It’s easy to see why I might take extra time to be healthy and active. Also why I have always given too much time to mindless comments about my body. Helpful observations on how the right diet and a couple of hundred crunches could boost my sexual capital from an 8 to even a 9 or a 10 have always increased my self esteem.

It’s nice to know you’re a fixer upper.

Regularly going to the gym always helped me to get out of my head more and into my body. This time though, I wanted to get into the body I had, not some supermodel’s body that I would never have.

When I came home with the 4 page training program, I asked for my brother’s help in figuring it out. He took one look at it and burst out laughing.

“He wants to destroy you.”

I had made it pretty clear to Paulo that I wanted to tone up. Be stronger. I didn’t want to body build or get ‘swole.’ Paulo had other ideas though. In his mind I wanted to build my body. I wanted to build up muscle. That was the definition of body building.

Muscle3_1789749i

Gold’s Gym was Arnie’s gym. Now it’s mine.

When you say “Body builder” the mind will go to the magnificent photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger, striking a pose and showing off his hulk like muscle definition. He is the archetypal Mr Universe. Now type Miss Universe into google and you may happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world…

Miss Universe

Miss Universe

I have spent my life, like many other women, being convinced that my body will look like Rihanna’s or Eva Mendes’ body when I work out. Or that I will develop a generic Barbie like body, because that’s what we can all look like. What we should aspire to.

Wrong.

I remember Jennifer Lawrence saying that she trained hard for Hunger Games because her character was meant to be someone young girls would look up to, without wanting to skip dinner. Not sexy, marriageable, or someone a man would be happy to wake up naked next to. Someone healthy and strong.

jennifer-lawrence-hunger-games-workout

My fears about being laughed at for my light weights, or using the weights incorrectly were ignored by Paulo. He would help. If he wasn’t there someone else would. I had to use the weights area. I paid for the gym, I used the gym.

If I was worried about being judged on appearance, I may not have been the only one. But there is no time for it. Thinking about other people messes up my reps. The less I think about anything other than what my body is doing, the better I get. The better my time gets. The happier I feel.

I judge too quickly. After a few weeks of pushing the ‘What will people think?’ anxiety out of my head, I can see that now. It’s why I think I’m always being judged. It is something I am working on.

My worries about being in my ex’s gym, surrounded by his peers were quickly dismissed. Once again, there were more lovely supportive people in the world than those that were out to hurt and judge me.

I now know all the trainers and have a chat when I see them. I can’t say everybody knows my name, but they recognise my face, say hi and help out if I ask. I am able to laugh at my mistakes with them. I will forever be known as the girl that was doing three times her work out because she can’t do maths.

I may be an idiot, but I’m one that can do 72 barbell squats in under five minutes.

Who knows what I will look like at the end.

Someone happier I hope.