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Living My Own Story

Posted in Excerpts

One of the constants of going to places where other travelers congregate is the time-honored tradition of story-sharing. It usually goes something like this: everyone gathers at a table, or around a bonfire, usually with a few beers in hand. The entire group is non-natives, except for maybe a token local that runs the hostel or guesthouse. We begin by asking where everyone’s from, where they’re traveling, before breaking off into stories about the places mentioned. The first person tells a story, often one of their best ones. The second person can only tell their story either if it has a connection to the previous story or is better. This continues until you’re left feeling either inadequate, because your stories just don’t match up to the experiences everyone else has, or exhilarated about where you’re going because of what you heard—increased expectations.

Penang, the second largest city in Malaysia, was near the Thai border, and this location brought together a very unique brand of travelers. Its cheap hostels made it one of the easiest places to transit back and forth on a visa or border run from Thailand, perfect for perpetual travelers and their stories.

I knew about these stories. The ones I’d heard in America only created expectations that were impossible to achieve, leaving me disappointed. Later on, though, in Eastern Europe, when the Trippers talked about Pamplona or Granada to people we met, the stories they told sounded a lot better than what I remembered. Like wine, the stories aged well. It was pure embellishment, to the point where you believed your falsities, the audience, your own inadequacies.

First went Paul, from Ireland. A tall freckled man with wear and tear in his hard skin, he was in his 30s and ran a guest-house with his Thai girlfriend in the hippie enclave of Pai. A friendly guy, he spent a year traveling around Ireland before going abroad, because, “I need to know my own country before I explore other countries,” an attitude which earned him accolades in my book.

“So after Ireland, where did you go?” I said.

“I traveled around Europe,” he said, leaning back into his chair and taking a sip of Guinness before diving into a long but fascinating tale. How he lived for three months in a tree-house in Amsterdam while he explored the drug and party world, and then, one day, awoke and found himself in too deep.

“One day, I saw my best friend get shot. I was so shocked, so I just walked and left,” he said.

“Whoa, you just left?”

“I couldn’t take anymore. I just left,” he said.

“Wow, good story,” said Josef, sitting to his right. But before he could start, Jason, a 26-year-old American who’d been in southern Thailand for about six years, where he was working in a national park at a cafe for tourists, began talking about his drug adventures in Indonesia.

“So then, I went up through Borneo. Borneo is fucking intense, there are people there who still are cannibals. If you ask me, it’s not entirely safe,” he said, waving his arms around distractedly, in a vain attempt to get more attention. He only talked about himself, not asking anyone a single question.

“Indonesian or Malaysian Borneo?” I asked.

“Indonesia. The Malaysian side is all destroyed, nothing special remaining there.” He continued on about his journey, his opinions on development, never pausing. I wondered how he absorbed anything about the places he went if he didn’t even care to listen.

“I even got Malaria in Borneo. I ran out of pills, man, I thought I was gonna die.”

But the most intriguing person was Thomas, the oldest of us, who’d been traveling for over a decade. He was skinny, pores of weariness in his wrinkling skin, and spoke with a deep voice that sounded like it had been through the grinder several times. After letting Josef and Jason talk, he attempted to one up them.

“I’ve had malaria not once, but twice,” he said, pausing for effect, “and also dengue fever, and other fucking messed up diseases. If there’s one place where you can get sick, it’s Sumatra. I almost god damn died in Sumatra from Malaria.”

“Wow, is it that common?” I said, scared. I was thinking of going to Sumatra after Malaysia.

“Sumatra is a cesspool of disease, they have everything. I went hiking there, and I was stuck in the village for almost a week. I had dengue I think, and all I had was my first aid kit. I stabbed some shots of Dexamethasone into my arm, right here,” he said, pointing at this lower bicep, “and thank god, after a few days, the fever went down. Always keep Dexamethasone with you. If I didn’t have it, I’d be dead now.”

I sat there, listening more than talking, amidst their experiences but wondering if I wanted to be like them when I grew older. They had all been away for years, and had no interest in going back to their home countries. Their family, their friends and lives from the past were nothing more than memories. Maybe it was cultural, but I couldn’t imagine ever leaving my family behind. There was something depressing in how they spoke, living a fun, easy life, but one that had no purpose. Was this Mike’s future? This, I thought, is what would have happened to Scott if he had decided to stay.

The next day I went up to Penang hill, in the center of the island, where there was a gorgeous, small, Hindu temple, its tower of colorful avatars painted in bright shades of blue, red, and yellow. Alongside was a small park with a polished marble floor, a colorful play area on the side. It was my first Hindu temple since Nepal, and there were few people inside.

I removed my sandals, fingered the ringgit—Malaysian currency—in my pockets, and walked in, feeling the cool of the marble run up my legs. The statues were familiar from my childhood, whether it was through visits to our own temple in Kansas City, or the movies of the Hindu epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—that my parents had us watch as children. I went up to the main altar, a large Shiva-ling, the phallic symbol of Shiva, and, cupping my hands together, said a short prayer for Amama. One year since her death. It was easy to forget about her while I was caught up where I was, but she was always in the back of my mind. When I went home in two months, she wouldn’t be there. I would never get to share my travels, my experiences, and everything that I’d learned with her.

I prayed, asked God to take care of my family, and then walked out. The sun blinded my eyes as I stepped back into the muggy tropical air. I did miss my family, and it felt good that I did.

It was hazy over Penang as I looked down at the vista of the city below. I could barely see all the way to the mainland. The air was a little cooler up here than down below in the city, but the sweat still gathered on my spine.

What a world, I thought, that allows me to feel so close to my family, to Amama, when physically so far away.