Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Perfect Day

I wouldn't think of making this up or sensationalizing. Everything below accurately captures how it felt to be alive on Saturday June 23, 2007.

The sun hadn't risen when I popped out of my chalet at the South Pacific Resort. An order of hashbrowns and banana waffles and I was off along the Western coast to Tekek, the hub of Pulao Tioman (also known as Bali Hai - my special island). Refreshing winds lazed across the beach as monkeys played in the palms, dropping coconuts onto the sand below (just like in the cartoons) and the walk was cool and calming.

I turned off the main road past the village Mosque and into the thickets of the island's interior. And what an interior - trees a hundred feet tall lined the slopes as the stone covered trail led deeper into the foilage. All around, birds sang and branches cracked as monitor lizards, monkeys and small deer ran from the massive orang putai (white man) trekking about. I can't say the trek was easy, exactly. By the time I got to the top of the hill (four kilometers later), sweat covered every stitch of clothing I had on. That's probably why the breeze from the ocean that met me as I crossed the ridge felt so nice. And the view stretched out resplendently - mountain ridges and valleys melting into the welcoming Juara bay below.

I checked into the secluded, beach-side Rainbow Chalets and immediately set about to some serious relaxation (oh so welcome after the six-mile hike). Lazing on a beach cot with a good book and plenty of water took up most of the late morning and into the early afternoon when I went exploring the rocky point near the resort. A lunch of pineapple fried rice, roti telur and a refreshing coconut juice gave me enough energy for the long hours of swimming in the crystal clear waters that spread out from the beach. As I reclined in the ocean waves and played with some of the local children who came for a respite from the hot sun, crabs scuttled across the rocks and fish jumped in and out of the surf.

By this time I was already exulting in this God given gift of a day. Juara was nearly deserted and the travelers that were there seemed content to work on their tans from the comfort of their own chalets, granting free reign. It was like the whole beach, nay, the whole island belonged to me and me alone. As the sun set, I walked back to my chalet, changed for the evening, and traipsed over to a nearby restaurant serving banana milkshakes and the Bushman - a local concoction beyond description.

A storm moved in while I was eating and lightening split the sky. After finishing the food, I crossed through the downpour and put on my swimsuit again - this time to go play in the rain. The tide moved out, leaving dead coral across the beach, and the falling water felt crisp, cool and wonderful. My senses crazed in the moment: the smell of rain on sand, the touch of the cool water, the sound of the ocean waves and surrounding storm, the sight of flashing lights against the darkness, and the taste of the dinner so lately eaten. The wonder of being alive.

I walked across the bay and left even the small signs of civilization that were there, coming to a stretch of beach entirely deserted. Knowing no one was around, there was only one thing I could do - I took off my swimsuit and walked naked across the beach (nothing sexual here - it just felt right). Soon after, the storm ceased and the moon and stars began to shine down. I stopped, sat in the sand, and sang softly to the sea. On my way back (clothed again) I felt filled with energy, and began running across the sand. A couple of miles dodging coral and breathing in the sea air passed quickly and as I got back to my chalet the rains fell again, washing off the sweat and refreshing my muscles.

The prayer I said that night was filled with gratitude at the wonders of the world - and for the chance I had to live another perfect day in it.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Two Men on a Bus

Canadian (in a heavy Montreal accent): Hey, you know where this bus is headed?

: Central Station.

(pause. both look at the passing scenery.)

: You been in Malacca long?

: No, just two days. I'm going to Kuala Lumpur now and then back to Taiwan.

: You live in Taiwan?

: For about seven years now. I live there with my girlfriend and her three kids.

: Huh ... so what brings you here?

: I take photographs for a French Canadian travel magazine. It doesn't pay much - enough to keep me traveling. Where are you from?

: The States. Utah originally, but I'm living in California for the summer.

: I love Utah. You've got Moab. Bryce. Arches. I used to go mountain biking in Moab. Great times.

: What got you into all this traveling?

: Well, I ran away from home when I was 16. I couldn't stand my dad and one day I just started hitchhiking across Canada. It took me about two months. In the end, I loved it so much that I just kept going.

: Hitchhiking, huh, how was that?

: Fantastic. A lot of people will say, "no, you can't hitchhike anymore. Maybe twenty or thirty years ago, but not now." But they are wrong. If you smile and shave and look presentable, people will pick you up. I even hitched around the Western United States for several months through California, Nevada, Arizona ... Utah. It's not dangerous at all and I love meeting new people. What are you doing here?

American: I'm doing an internship in KL at a law firm. I used to live hear about four years back and figured it was time to come again. Once Asia gets in your system, there's no way to get it out.

Canadian: You said it.

(More time goes by and the two talk about a stolen motorbike, trips to China and the future of that country's growth, photography, and religious policies in Malaysia. If you're still looking for a point ... stop. The only point is that not all Canadians end sentences with 'eh.' And that is cultural understanding.)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

One Nation Under ... Dressed?

Malacca lies two hours south of Kuala Lumpur on the West Coast of Malaysia. Between the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, it became one of the most active port cities in Southeast Asia controlled by various imperial powers (most notably, the Portuguese). Blessed with an incredibly rich blend of history and culture, the Malaccan people crown this Asian treasure. It's a highlight no matter what reasons you have for coming to the country (and a great way to start a post). And now, into the heart of today's issue.

Last Saturday when I arrived at my hostel - run by a rag-tag collection of Islamic natives- the manager(who was really more like a mother than a proprietor) immediately began asking me about myself. Typical questions like "What was I doing with my life? What brought me to Malaysia? What was life like back in England?"

And that made me pause. England? Forsooth ...

"Actually, I'm from America," I said with a democratic twinkle in my eye.

"Oh, you just looked so nice and proper that I thought you must be from England. They always wear nice clothes and comb their hair and everything," she replied nonchalantly. "Americans don't usually look that nice."

And that got me thinking. I was in a nicer polo and I did have some exceptionally well-cared for hair that afternoon (for me, anyway).

Could it be true? Was I really part of a nation of shaggy citizens soiling the world with their fashion sins? And more importantly, could I bedevil the local citizens about my origins merely by combing my hair?

Amidst claims of dumbing down and fattening up, it seems logical that the next step would be for Americans to begin lowering our fashion standards and start slumming around. Even if that were the case, though, as travelers we don't exactly have a corner on the market. Honestly, have you seen English backpackers? That old-school British charm simply doesn't accompany them en route. In fact, it really doesn't matter what country they're from, backpackers just exude slumminess (and that's probably ok).

Back in the states, however, things do seem to be getting a bit sloppier. For a lot of people, dressing up just isn't at the top of the docket. Kind of sad, really. I mean, Form should never entirely be at the mercy of Function (though the Form devotees bowing to the Gucci gods are just as bad). Otherwise, sweats and baggy shorts would kick the inseams off khakis and we'd all grow a little bit flabbier for want of proper motivation. Though our language may be on the downward slope (TMWFI), our looks shouldn't be destined to follow.

Comfort and ease are nice, but respect is optimum. I started running because health and wellness are among the first steps towards gaining real self-respect. Taking care of our appearance is another. A clean shirt and a washed face are just that much easier to love.

In reality, I'm not worried that we're going to be outclassed on the hostel circuit by Brits or anyone else anytime soon. But we could all probably stand a little bit more attention to our appearance no matter where we are (in an "I care about myself" way, not an "If you think I'm sexy and you want my body" way). I don't think clothes always make the man, but they do seem to show a lot about who he is.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Mystic Law of the Universe

Everything about the highlands was peaceful ... the temperature, the people, the food - even the storms were downright friendly. The Camerons are about a five hour bus ride outside of Kuala Lumpur on the most curvy, sea-sickening road I've ever encountered (including East Malaysia - and that's saying something). Still, the views were amazing ... and how many people can say they've been naked in a rainstorm in the heart of the jungle?

But the best part came yesterday when I met Buddhist apologist extraordinaire, Mr. Jeffrey Teoh. Within 10 seconds of our chance encounter near a waterfall, I was already knee-deep in the mysteries of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

"We are all Buddhas," Jeffrey explained, "but in mortal form. We can only become eternal when we are chanting."

Curious, I asked exactly what we should be chanting (though quite adept at "Pie Jesu Domine," I'm always looking to further my repertoire). He told me. I looked befuddled. He repeated and I continued, in my own silly way, to look befuddled. He wrote it down for me.

And this, in full, is what it said - "Nam-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo."

"This is the essence," Jeffrey said, "it's the same as chanting all 84,000 normal sutras that the rest of the Buddhists chant. But this, this is The Mystic Law of the Universe."

I asked him what the words meant and he said something about lotus flowers and water cycles or whatever. But the key is what he said as I was getting ready to leave.

"Chant this and any problem you have, any difficulty you encounter, will be automatically corrected. The more you chant, the better your life will become."

How can that not be awesome? So there it is, my friends, the answer to your next excrutiating law school final exam is simple - chant. Chant long. Chant hard. And, you've got a moment, put in a few chants for me.