Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Annual New Year's Letter

Allons! The road is before us! Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d! Let the tools remain in the workshop! Let the money remain unearn’d!
excerpted from “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman

. . . even if they say it’s a recession!
excerpted from the 2009 Grumrose Mission Statement

January 1, 2010

Happy Twenty Ten, Folks,

In last year’s letter, I speculated that we’d be writing you today from Thailand; but as it happens, Eric and I are marauding about in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where we are gorging on the cuisine of Baba-Nyonya (literally, “grandpa & grandma”) and taking in fireworks over the Petronas Towers.

As you might expect, we’ve been riding out a sharp learning curve since we left on June 17. Speaking of which, let me share this helpful tip: When getting your hair cut in Bali, it’s probably best to keep things simple. A request for “layers,” for example, might yield a cut that more closely resembles a highly-terraced rice paddy than the one you had in mind.

This undertaking has certainly meant a few lifestyle sacrifices — including some of our vanity. On balance, though, we feel we are gaining far more than we are giving up. Not so surprisingly, many of our most rewarding adventures have included the culinary: fresh oysters at the Russian River; barbecued stingray from the Straits of Malacca; jellyfish salad in Singapore — well, that was revenge . . . but tasty, too; a bajillion savory pies in New Zealand; the Indian roti prata we shared for Christmas Eve dinner; our Christmas Day brunch of Chinese dim sum.

We do find ways to bring a little bit of “home” to our nomadic life. During that particular dim sum, we spied a kitschy “Merry Christmas” mug sitting upturned in the back of the kitchen — which Eric promptly asked if they might serve my coffee in. This evoked lots of giggling and nodding among the (mostly Buddhist) staff — and yes, a mug-ful of Christmas for me.

Above all, we’ve learned to trust chance and intuition, and our trust in human nature has only grown. We haven’t had to visit a police station or an emergency room, and in fact, have been graced with good health for most of the trip. And when we haven’t (see “jellyfish” above), we’ve been in good hands — perhaps unexpectedly so. (Both of us had experiences with the healthcare system in Bali that put the U.S. to shame — though we are encouraged by the recent reform, even if not ideal.)

Since we’ve been in Southeast Asia, much of our time is spent wondering, “What exactly are we looking at?” and even more often saying, “What part of this do you suppose is edible?” I can definitely relate to this passage from Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson:

Suddenly, you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.

The division of labor helps. Eric is our designated negotiator for challenges of the (aforementioned) pedestrian variety, and I field the onslaughts from the rodentia and insecta classification. And when circumstances become too overwhelming or demanding (or just plain annoying), it is our custom to look for ways to make a game out of it. For instance, one of the major annoyances one must deal with in Ubud (Bali, Indonesia) is the constant repetition of the phrase “Taxi! Taxi!” at competitive decibel levels to any and all Western tourists. Fighting the urge to explain to every tout in Ubud that it is customary in the West for the person actually in need of a taxi to employ this phrase, we instead would place our bets on the number of times we would be shouted at before reaching our next destination. (The record was 25 in an 18-minute walk.) The winner gets the last mango . . .

(This game can be modified for sultry walks in the Malaysian jungle: Players must correctly guess the number and/or location of the leeches that will become affixed to their person.)

In addition to our little games, Eric’s impersonations — notably his Jimmy Stewart and his Carl Sagan — keep me squarely focused on the positive side of traveling, as do a plethora of sweet surprises on which we alight every day. One of my favorite moments was during an otherwise forgettable meal in Bali. In between bites of fish curry, I glanced up and saw a young boy off in the moonlight. He was about ten or so, and unaware that he was being observed. He was rocking his baby sister in his arms while singing a Balinese lullaby. And he was simply entranced. (This went on for nearly an hour.) More than all of the natural and manmade wonders we have or will encounter, I hope I never forget their moonlit dance.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is in what — or rather, whom — we miss. We knew we’d miss our families and friends; but we didn’t know how much that group would grow while we were on the road. In addition to our treasured old friends, we miss so many people we’ve met over the past six+ months. Beginning with our motorcycle travels in the U.S. and Canada — from Vail to Santa Fe to Carmel to Berkeley to Portland to Vashon Island to Anchorage — both islands of New Zealand, the sleepy little fishing village of Padangbai, Bali (our adopted home-away-from-home), and most recently Singapore and Malaysia — the best part of our adventure has been the folks we’ve met along the way.

Monday will be our 200th day on the road, and it’s also the day we arrive in India. We plan to start the year holed up in an ashram where we are sure to experience many more firsts — including my first commitment to a “pure-veg” diet, four hours of yoga per day, and 5 a.m. wake-up calls. In addition to the meat- and egg-free diet, we are to abstain from alcohol, caffeine, sex, talking during either of the day’s two meals — where did the other two meals go?! — or talking before morning prayer or after evening prayer; and there will be absolutely no garlic or onions, which apparently enliven our “baser instincts.”

We hope you’ll check back in now and then with us here and on Eric’s blog. (If you are just tuning in, this video montage will pretty much catch you up on the moto leg of our adventure - minus the rain, the breakdowns, the grizzlies, unique vantage points, the nitty gritty, and an homage to my spirit animal.) We’ll definitely keep you posted on our impending ashram experience . . .

To say “thank you” in Indonesian is more literally to say tell someone that you feel loved by that person. Well, Eric and I thank you for being part of the story of our lives on this planet, and for keeping us company from afar. We feel loved indeed, and are grateful to feel your presence as we continue that journey.

~ Julie Du., for the Julie & Eric show (“We are still together.”)

P.S. The obligatory kooky "holiday" photo taken on August 27th in North Pole, Alaska — just outside Fairbanks, at the end of the Alaska-Canadian Highway (the ALCAN).

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