Doing Wanderlust (By Opening Up Your Heart To The World)
SOME TIME IN 2009…
I unscrewed the large metallic screws that held my cabin’s porthole tight and looked out. The real threat of Somalian pirates has passed-we’re free to enjoy the transient but majestic ocean vistas once again. Looking out from Deck 3, the ocean appears close; occasionally a whiplash of water would graze the surface of the porthole. The night was jet-black, the horizons indistinguishable except for the lash, swash and slosh of the waves against the vessel, illuminated by the neon on the promenade deck. I pressed my face against the porthole, unable to take my eyes off the constant motion of the ocean and thought, “I never want to stop wandering.”
What exactly is this insatiable wanderlust that has urged me to throw myself into the maelstrom of romance and ‘consummation’ of far-flung lands? I am not an explorer, a historian nor even an avid tourist, yet consumed with a certain kind of restlessness, I had packed my bags and had set out for the unknown.
I remembered that particular day when I told my dad nonchalantly that I’m going to Myanmar to volunteer in a local village school. My mind was already made up and I was leaving in two days time. “When are you coming back?” he asked. To his horror, I said I don’t know.
It all started when I met Jeff, the Australian ex-Buddhist monk, now a freelance meditation teacher, who regaled to me how his world tours turned him into a Buddhist monk under the Theravadan tradition for 8 years. I wasn’t sure whether it was the unusual awe commanding presence that screams wisdom or the fact he could speak Thai and Burmese, chant in Pali and surf like a typical Aussie bloke, that made me want to be him. If such an unlikely character could command so much respect from the Buddhist community all over the world, then perhaps this unsuspecting awkward girl-next-door could be a world
traveler, a writer on the road, a barista in Sicily, an aid worker in Sudan or a pianist in Harlem. I could switch from skin to skin, savouring every experience that different jobs, romance, lands and circumstances can offer. I was smitten by possibilities.
LEAVING TO TRAVEL IN 2006
In Yangon, Myanmar, I stood next to the 200 cm tall Dutch backpacker, in a local Pizzeria and allowed the fellow volunteers to hoot with laugher at the amusing contrast. As he turned to look, I flashed my brightest smile at the towering figure. It was then, I first developed a crush on a fellow traveller and his native land. As we spent our remaining time travelling together through Myanmar and then eventually my home country, Malaysia, and Thailand, I had adsorbed everything I needed to know to become a proper ‘Amsterdammer’. I could recite one to ten in Dutch, roll out the strangest and archaic Dutch sayings, memorize names of canals and streets, imagined myself sitting on the ledge of the window, staring out into the canal as the Heineken horse clops by and nursing a glass of white wine as the sun shines. I even had a hankering for raw herring even though I’ve not tasted it at that time. The best cure for hangovers apparently. My heart started to beat for Amsterdam, furtively but steadily. After Teun left for Amsterdam, we kept in touch briefly. Despite the lack of correspondence, he mentioned that ‘his flat is always open to me’. I was heartbroken, but not completely. A faint hope glimmered in my heart as I returned home for a job. I needed something to get by until I have enough to leave again.
Along the way, there were other crushes, other good friends. It was a full immersion course on various cultures through the different relationships forged. I was a child of the world without leaving the confines of home.
A few months later, I dumped my cheap RM 50 backpack that I bought from one of the bargain stalls along Petaling Street for a snazzy new dark blue one, with plenty of grey straps to buckle and clasp. Deuter, a German brand, offered a promise of durability and strength. Whatever clothes and books I could fit into the bag, I did. I owned no other possessions. In the morning, I went to the Immigration Department to collect my new passport and by night, I was already on a night bus to Hat Yai, Thailand.
TRAIPSING ACROSS SOUTH EAST ASIA AND THEN, EUROPE
I wandered across the exotic and historical lands of South East Asia for another 6 months before promptly buying myself a one-way ticket to Amsterdam. I was curious to see the land that only exists in my imagination for so long. The prospect of stepping onto another foreign soil, that is so culturally different from the one that I’m brought up on, exhilarated and ignited my lust for the world again.
If there is an exam on how to become a proper Dutch, I would pass it with flying colours. I was the epitome of tourist turned native.
The herring seller on Albert Cuyp markets remembered my name, friends of Teun invited me over for dinners and drinks, his family doubled with laughter and amusement whenever I surprised them with a Dutch phrase, I knew the difference between koor ballens and the regular guys, I remembered names of local bands and festivals, and the cute looking bartender never failed to wave to me whenever I pass by Kingfisher Bar. If we had a hangover, we’d treat it with a herring and a beer after. If the weather is good, we’d start drinking at the terraces or on Museumplein from 3pm onwards. Once, when I was in a gig alone in Melkweg, a Dutch club, a guy tapped on my shoulders and told me that he recognised me from the Kingfisher Bar. How?
“You’re always drinking with the giants,” he said.
I could no longer tell apart if it was Teun or Holland who’d charmed me. I was intoxicated with the romance of adventure and a culture, so different from mine.
NEW HORIZONS THROUGH A STROKE OF SERENDIPITY
However, 2 months later, I was skint like a church mouse and I was turning restless. It was then when Italy offered to take my hand and kissed it.
“Are you still interested in the crew lecturer job that you applied 8 months ago? Can you come to Genova for an interview?” came that fateful e-mail from Costa Cruise Lines.
You’ve gotta be kidding me, I thought.
It was the beginning of autumn. The sky was a dreadful grey as the rain beat down hard on us. Teun had volunteered to send me to the Amstel Bus Station on his bicycle-with me sitting on the rusty backseat and my 15 kg backpack slung across the bar that rests between the handlebars and the saddle.
I left Amsterdam, clutching the 50 Euros and a mobile phone that Steff, another close Dutch friend, had given me. Everyone had wished me luck in a farewell drinking party that was held the night before. I had voiced my doubts in securing myself the job but Teun replied, “Nonsense. A year ago, you said you wanted to come to Amsterdam, and here you are now. 24 years old and you do whatever you damn please. You’ve got spunk for such a tiny girl, you know that? That’s why you fit in well into my group even though we’re bunch of forty-year olds. You have our respect, Ukkie Pukkie,” he said. It was a term of endearment for someone so small in size.
WANDERING ACROSS THE OCEANS AND BEYOND
As good karma or luck would have it, I got the English teaching job on Costa Cruises.
After 9 months on the ship, I was a full-fledged English Teacher and a seafarer. Italian friends invited me to spend the summer with them. In Genova, Cinque Terre and the surrounding coastal towns, I rode the back of friends’ motorcycle. My hair spun in the wind as we snaked through the different coasts of Liguria. My daily routine consisted of baking in the sun, swimming, rowing, riding and eating. I was turning Italian.
However, summer flew by too soon and I was back to being a Malaysian–yet an abnormal one that lived out of a backpack, without a home.
After a gruelling process, I got a shinny UK Working Holiday visa sticker on my passport and I moved to London. This time, I became the bohemian Londoner who harboured aspirations to be a novelist. I was a smiling barista working along Carnaby Street, having weekend coffee rituals in Monmouth and Amano Café, chatting to random strangers in Borders on Oxford St, going for walks in the different parks, going for writing and Italian language classes, taking CSers around town and working on my writing. Whenever I could, I did weekend trips to Glasgow, Amsterdam, Cork and Paris.
I was perfectly content in London: I had beautiful friends, had little rituals and spots to attach myself to, little weekend treats to look forward to. I even had things that I call my own: an expensive laptop, a digital SLR camera, a room near London Bridge.
I thought I never want to leave, but I did. My life in London was not sustainable on my meager café earnings. I was burning out fast and I didn’t even have time to write anymore-the whole point of me being a vagabond in the first place. I wanted to experience the romance of life so that I could write about it.
I was told that there was a vacancy on the ship again-this time with an Indian Ocean itinerary. North Africa, and the tiny ex-French Islands scattered like jewels just off coast East Africa sounded mighty exotic. Despite my dislike for the claustrophobic ship life, I knew I had to do it. Just one more time, I told myself. Just one more contract and I’ll have enough to do whatever I want to do next.
Tears rolled down as I hugged my best friend in London, goodbye at the airport. After I got through immigration checks in Heathrow Airport, I got calls from both Camilla and Olga. I sobbed like a baby, thinking of the people that I had to leave behind.
THE ROMANCE WITH THE WORLD NEVER STOPS
But of course, the unfolding the life of travel never stays stagnant. When the road splits in between and I pick one to travel on, the possibilities change accordingly and so does my life story.
Now, 8 years later, 5 years worth of contracts with Costa Cruises, half the world travelled and my heart broken and mended a million times over, I now know life is an ever evolving mess of all things beautiful and ugly. It can be as brilliant or as tough as you want it to be; whatever it is, you’re responsible for the writing of it. There are lessons in life’s richness. When you stop learning, you stop growing; you stop living a meaningful life.
A good friend onboard once said to me, “Someday, you will take over the world, Piccola Ying. If you stay brave and keep putting yourself out there, the world will open up to you.”
What he meant to say is that, by always opening up my heart and seizing the opportunity to throw my soul upon the wind, the cage door opens and I am free.
Open up yourself to the world, anything can happen.
The yearning heart, the laughter, the tears, they are all part of it.
IN THIS PRESENT MOMENT (2014)
P.S- My heart is no longer restless. Yes, there is so still so many parts of the world to explore but I no longer feel the crazy urge to wander impulsively now. Now, I prefer the discovery of self through writing. I want to share and put all those stories of misadventures into words. Travelling still remains as my greatest passion but my desire to put down roots and write now, is my mission. I am still that little dreamy Malaysian traveller; a little rough on the edges, but now a tad bit wiser, and feeling a whole lot more content and blessed.