a lot can happen in a year

I have to get the hang of this posting frequently business. I thought that I would be lazy on blogging because I had nothing to say. It turns out, the busier you are and the more you do things, the less often you blog. I’m not sure if it is because of the time commitment, the attention span, or something else.

 

A lot has happened since the last post, and since before then too. In fact, a lot has happened in the past year, which lends credence to the whole “a lot can happen in a year” cliche. Because, you know, it’s so true. Let me serve as an example.

 

This time last year, I was sitting on a beach in Kerala thinking about which book I wanted to read next and whether I’d wake up early enough for morning yoga. I had a “routine” of sorts: wake up, maybe take yoga, grab a late breakfast (kerala coffee, whole wheat toast with pb, maybe fruit and yogurt, or even an omelette), sit on a terrace, watch the ocean, check some email, window shop, dip my toes in the water, take another yoga class, rinse, repeat. On March 2nd, I left India for Malaysia, where I spent 3 weeks in Borneo pretty much doing the same thing (minus the yoga, plus more alcohol).

 

That was my life, basically until late May. I did return to the US in early April, but, with no job as yet, I headed back to Asia for a couple more weeks – a last hurrah maybe – before finally returning and settling into the 9-5. And so, right around Memorial Day weekend, I started a job, which, for the second half of 2010, basically consumed my life.

 

But it wasn’t the only thing – the end of the year was also marked with the entry into a yoga teacher training program, which proceeded to eat up any leftover free time I had (after work sucked most of it). What a change from counting coconuts in palm trees from the second floor terrace of a beachside hotel.

 

The beginning of 2011 saw the end of teacher training, which I suppose means I am now a yoga teacher. It also saw more long work hours, and in a few days, will see the move back into a permanent home of sorts.

 

And I’m leaving out a couple of trips to Ireland, two other moves, and a gym membership that I definitely do not make the most of

 

So, in a year I went from wandering aimlessly for several months around Asia, to taking on an important and intensive work committment, to moving and moving again, to starting and completing yoga teacher training, to the beginning of a nest.

 

A lot certainly can happen in a year.

emergence

It’s been almost 6 months since I last posted, and I have no excuse except that life got busy with the new job, after a year or so of a low-key lifestyle. The difference between life “over there” and “over here” is stark. In Mongolia, I had a small community of friends, limited social activities in a smallish town, and lots of free time to experiment in the kitchen, wander the city, or take a few weeks to head into the countryside. Some things fell by the wayside – my yoga practice wasn’t regular, for example – but I did get a chance to do lots of things I’ve always wanted to do.

 

The biggest difference, I think, has been in the kitchen. In Mongolia, I got to spend time making things I’d never think about making – so long as I could find the ingredients. And when I couldn’t, I learned to substitute. And when you are forced to make something “imperfect”, and have it turn out ok, I think that slowly starts to penetrate other parts of your life too. Frankly, that’s a lesson this control freak could stand to learn many many times.

 

But here, we have everything again, and I don’t have to think too hard about making something. In fact, sometimes I don’t have to think about making anything at all, as evidenced by the other day when I ordered baked pasta for delivery. A simple 4-ingredient dish and it was much easier to order in than to go to the store and buy the ingredients and make it myself.

 

So I’m trying to get back into the habit of cooking, because I like to do so, and because it’s healthier. I’m experimenting in different ways now – instead of trying to figure out substitutes, I’m making creative dishes with disparate leftovers of ingredients before they go bad. The results have been not too bad – putting feta in polenta, brussels sprouts in risotto, persimmon in cookies, candied ginger in bran muffins, parsley and soy sausage with whole wheat pasta, etc. Freezing overripe fruit for smoothies.

 

The latest attempt tonight was cranberry ginger bran quickbread. The recipe started as muffins, before I realized I only had a small muffin tin. So I used a shallow loaf pan instead, and it baked up beautifully. After it cooled, I sliced it up and have frozen half of it for morning breakfasts (maybe with a little peanut butter?). The cranberries were dried and sweetened, but I might try fresh ones next time. The ginger I candied myself, and keep stored in the fridge in its own syrup (which I added to the recipe).

 

So here’s hoping this is the start of a new old habit again

new years resolutions

First of all, it’s been a few months since I’ve written anything. Since last I wrote, I started a new job, moved into a new place, and took a trip to Ireland. More on all of that later.

 

Right now, I’d like to share my new years resolutions. Yes, I realize it is the end of July, but if I wait until November or January, I’ll lose out on 4-5 months of potential resolution-completing time. And right now, I need a little motivation just to manage the basic things in life.

 

So here we go – resolutions for the next few months or years, to be underway by August 3rd.

 

  1. Yoga 3x a week. More, if I can manage it, but this is minimum.
  2. Pilates 2x a week.
  3. Some form of cardio 4x a week. Again, more, as possible.
  4. 2 hours of cleaning/organizing/self-managing per week. So I can stay on top of the mess/inbox/accumulation of stuff.
  5. Staying in budget. Got a set budget, need to stick to it.
  6. Meditation 2x a week. I haven’t worked this one out yet, but 1x a week I can take a class, and the other, probably a podcast or something.
  7. ??Healthy eating needs to fall in here somewhere, but I haven’t figured out how. I’ll spend some time in August working out a plan.

 

That’s it. Now get to it.

back to the grind

So I have a whole slew of unfinished posts about Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, yoga, food, and adjusting to life back in DC. But the big news for now is that I am back to the 9-5 working life or maybe more like 10-6 11-7. or whatever. This time around I’ll be working on a project a bit different than my academic interests, namely violence prevention. It’s a huge topic and one I’m excited to tackle. I’m particularly excited to be working with some incredible people.

 

But first, the daily slog. Sitting 8 hours a day at a computer is something I haven’t really done in over a year. It’s not easy to adjust back to it, especially when you already have attention span issues (which might explain why I can never update this blog in a timely manner).

 

Then there’s the whole HR/taxes/benefits deal, and don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to get health insurance coverage, but the options can be bewildering. We often made jokes about the lack of options in Mongolia, but there is something to be said for limited choice. I mean, there’s even research out there showing that people are happier and have less stress when they have are restricted in their options. Making choices is a somewhat bewildering and paralyzing process these days.

 

The commute might be the worst part, though. I am definitely not used to crowds. I miss the wide open spaces, even in UB, a city of over a million people. Now, I have to push my way on to the train (and it’s the least crowded line!) and take deep, deep breaths. Luckily, I move to a new place next week, and I can walk to work.

 

A routine is nice too. Now I can plan meals, and yoga classes, and drinks with friends, and farmer’s market trips which doesn’t really sound all that exciting, given that the past few months involved planning flights, and hotel rooms, and spa visits. but maybe that’s what the 9-5 does to you.

and back to asia

After 3 weeks back in the US, I took off for Asia once again. This time, I’ve headed to Thailand, for 10 days of detox yoga on Koh Samui. I’ve been to Thailand before, but the last time was 12 years ago, and I’ve never been south. This time around, I arrived late at night at the airport, and flew out relatively early the next day, thereby bypassing Bangkok in the midst of politics and violence.

 

The rest of Thailand is untouched by the happenings in Bangkok, and nowhere would that be more evident than in the islands, where an entirely different Thailand resides. Here, the main currency is tourism, and foreigners flock to the resorts, bungalows and beaches for some R & R and/or late-night partying.

 

Koh Samui is popular, but it’s possible to avoid much of the crowd by staying in some little retreat or hideaway tucked away from the beach. In this case, I’m at Absolute Sanctuary, home to some great yoga and a fantastic kitchen.

 

I’m doing 10 days of yoga and good food, no caffeine, no alcohol, and very little of the outside life, internet not withstanding. We have a TV, but it’s small and not really worth watching. There’s a gorgeous pool, a nice view of the ocean, and did I mention that kitchen?

 

So, Day 1 consisted of some pranayama and two low-key yoga classes. Breakfast was some amazing vegan concoction involving tofu and peppers and divine spices, plus some coconut-based yogurt and tropical fruit. And pineapple juice with ginger. Lunch was even more yummy, with fresh corn in a sweet potato soup, spicy papaya salad, the most amazing sauteed kale, and a wonderful coconut curry over brown rice. I am sure dinner will be fabulous too but before that, it’s time for my daily massage.

reverse culture shock

I’m not actually sure what that term means, but someone asked if I was experiencing it upon my return to the US. Well. I haven’t been gone that long. But a lot has changed in America, most notably in politics. There’s this whole lunatic fringe now, which I suppose might have existed before but has some how gained some sort of legitimacy. From outside the US, Americans looks a little crazy.

 

And then some things haven’t changed at all. We still eat the most disgusting foods (and too much of them), we still buy way too much stuff, we still love our professional sports players.

 

I did come back before tax day, so I do get to take advantage of the freebies that many places offer to “ease taxpayer woes” (because a free doughnut will go a long way for that).

 

Other than that, there’s really not all that different from America and the rest of the world. Today’s headlong rush into globalization is shrinking the culture gaps, especially as American culture continues its pervasive spread overseas. It’s really not that hard to come back and re-assimiliate. except of course, I will definitely not be able to go to the spa nearly as often as I used to.

heart and seoul

Seoul is my city. I could live here. I think people do nothing but shop, eat, and hike mountains. And work, of course. Maybe a lot more than I’d like. But that’s just to earn money for the shopping and the eating, and the shopping required to go hiking.

 

The city is plugged in and wired up, and everything is easy and comfortable and convenient. Of everything, I think my biggest culture shock will come from trying to navigate the DC metro, after the pampering on the Seoul subway (and I was only here for 6 days!).

 

The food is phenomenal. Traditional Korean food is probably one of the world’s best cuisines, a culture that has poured its heart into the kitchen and produced some amazing culinary delights. But modern Korean fusion is fantastic too, and the same care and vision that goes into Korean fashion and design finds its way into food too. After a year in Mongolia, where it sometimes feels like taste is an afterthought, it’s welcoming to spend a week in a country that pampers the taste buds, along with your soul.

 

So of course, I ate. A lot. And I shopped. Not a lot, though enough. You could spend hours exploring the cute little neighborhoods, each with their own personality, finding little stores in hideaway alleys where handmade jewelry, tea sets, and other knickknacks made by someone’s sister abound.

 

I didn’t hike any mountains, though I did visit the DMZ, which deserves its own post (if only for the space required for my ramblings on foreign policy and history). I think, as I end my travels, that I’ve hit a bit of travel fatigue. I could continue traveling, of course, but probably can’t muster the energy to do more than eat and shop and maybe relax in the spa. Which, really, is the perfect type of activity for Seoul.

decadence

And, in direct opposition to the previous post, here’s a little shout-out to decadence. Brunei isn’t tops on most people’s travel lists. It’s a small country, there’s no alcohol, and it’s a bit expensive to get to and be in. Unless, of course, you are already in Borneo and the border lies only an hour or so away.

 

So to Brunei, I went. And stayed at what is probably the nicest place I’ve ever been in. It wasn’t phenomenol by today’s standards – I imagine most swanky hotels in Dubai would blow it away. But for a 25-year-old hotel, it still manages to awe, and holds a charm that modern hotels have yet still to earn.

 

The hotel is the Empire, and it hearkens back to a nonexistent colonial era. It’s thoroughly European (as this American would picture it), but with a distinct Asian flare. The service is impeccable, the decor is gold-plated and ivory, and the rooms are furnished in an outdated whimsy that somehow manages to charm, despite being distinctly unstylish. It helps of course, that the bathroom is the size of a small apartment, the balconies face the ocean, and the pool is a lagoon, complete with white sand covering all 11000 sq m of the floor. Stunning is an understatement.

 

But the sultan’s brother didn’t stop there; the hotel also boasts several shops, 5-6 restaurants, water sports rental (for kayaking in the aforementioned lagoon), 2 private beaches, 2 lookout points, a full golf course, spa, and probably a bit more. It’s a miniature city, and is it any wonder I never actually got to see the rest of Brunei?

 

Not entirely true – I did see some oil rigs, and Shell Oil-owned homes. But the highlight, of course, is the Empire.

the ripple effect

I think until you travel, you never really know how the little things you do can have such an effect on others. In Borneo, I got a stark reminder of that. Do you know what palm oil is? Most people don’t. But it’s an ingredient found in a lot of processed food, in its refined form. It has little nutritional value, and might even promote high levels of unhealthy of bad cholesterol.

 

Pure palm oil isn’t bad, of course. It’s high in beta-carotene, and many other vitamins. It has a high smoking point, and when sustainably harvested can be a significant source of income for small shareholder farmers.

 

But since when do we (by that I tend to mean, Americans) like to leave a good thing alone? Instead, we’ve mass-produced palm oil and turned it into a lucrative commodity, refining it down to the point where it adds a requisite texture to processed foods. and not much in the way of nutritional value. Not to mention, the social and environmental impact – farmers selling their valuable (to themselves and to the global community) tropical forest land for palm oil companies to grow sterile unpretty tracts of palm trees.

 

The reminder is glaring in Borneo. As you drive deeper into the rainforest, you see rows and rows of palm trees, neatly lined up and clearly artificial, devoid of life and a major disappointment for those of us who are keen to see a bit of mother nature at her most turbulently beautiful. You see palm fruit lying on the ground. Perfectly manicured palm fronds swaying in the breeze. But no undergrowth. No birds. No monkeys. No elephants. In sum, no jungle at all, but a massive commercial farm like you’d see in Iowa or Ohio, but with a slightly more exotic plant.

 

When you do see jungle, it’s astonishing in its savage finery. Riots of green, ropey vines, mixed vegetation, a dozen or so birdcalls, and occaisonal flashes of hands? feet? tails? trunks? Something is visible amidst the dense growth of flora that has grown unchecked and unchanged for eons. But sadly, this true forest is dwindling swiftly, and more and more of the jungle of Borneo (particuarly along the large rivers) is losing ground to commercial greed, for which we all share a little bit of blame.

isle of whims

Wow. So. 2 weeks since my last post. I have no really good excuse for that, except that things slowed down a bit (though still just as fun) once I left Sabah. In Sarawak, I headed straight for Kuching, spent about a day in the city and then booked for the countryside.

 

I ended up at a little place in a village called Santubong, right on the South China Sea. It’s really quite astonishing to go from living in a land-locked country to seeing so much water. I’ve pretty much spent the past 2 months near (or right on) the ocean, and I’m still overwhelmed by the vastness. In Santubong I stayed in a cute little retreat, far away from the real world and quite idyllic. It was the perfect getaway and soooo relaxing after running around Sabah.

 

Then it was off to Mulu Caves to meet my cousin. Mulu is a World Heritage site, and while it’s something to see, it’s not quite as phenomenal as I was expecting. Partly, it’s been built up for tourism, so you feel a bit like cattled being herded through the caves. I realize, of course, that you can get off the beaten path (go to the Pinnacles for example), but it’s kind of a lot of effort. And since Borneo is such an easy place to travel, and perfect for the lazy traveler, it’s a bit hard to muster the energy to attempt a trek through the jungle. And yes, I realize how silly that sounds. The whole point of going to Borneo is to trek through the jungle, but since when have I been the typical traveler?

 

So I did the spa tour of Borneo instead. Starting in Mulu, heading to Miri, and then Bandar Seri Begawan. The hotels are beautiful, the ocean views gorgeous, the beds enormous, the sunsets fantastic, the spas blissful. Nothing like a scrub/soak/massage/facial extravaganza to make life goooood.

 

This is the nice part of traveling (not-so-nice part: so sick of my clothes!) – being able to change up your plans and, on a whim, check into a fancy-schmancy hotel (with a movie theatre!!) and eat nachos by an 11000 sq m pool.

 

In Seoul now. More spas. But sadly, it’s cold. I miss the warmth of Borneo already.