A Travellerspoint blog

April 2013


Traveling in developing countries you think often about houses, about shelter. How feeble they can be, how flexible that term, "shelter." Even in Penang we had to keep the beds to one side of the room because in a heavy rain the water would fly through the vents just below the ceiling--no more than diamond-shaped holes spaced regularly in the thin wall. In Uganda we once slept in huts that seemed to be made of nothing more elaborate than thick grass. Miraculously they had electricity--a dim bulb that cast such a pallor over everything that darkness seemed preferable. We had to stoop going in, and the door closed imperfectly. Outside we were surrounded by savannah--shoulder-high grass perfect for a stalking lion--and what a thrill it was. Ishasha. We were alone. At night the close sound of chewing. Hippopotamus, or some such. Lavender lightning flashing soundlessly every three seconds. It went on for hours. The place was uncomfortable, maybe dirty. Our skin was afraid to touch itself. Now it's beautiful in my mind. Shelter at its most fundamental.

Houses in the U.S. seem impossibly difficult to construct. Even a remodeling requires the involvement of half a dozen sub-professions. In other countries, in other times, perhaps a house could be built by the labor of one or two men, using material mostly collected from nearby land. If you happened upon such a structure in the middle of its construction, you could imagine how it was started, how it progressed each step of the way. And you would think, This, too, is a house? This simple thing? It would seem both improbable and magical, like a child's fortress suddenly turned real, or like living in a treehouse.

A house is a trap, too. Wanting one, owning one. Nesting. You give up so much not even realizing it. But it is also something beautiful. I won't deny it--a beautiful trap.

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In the beginning I always feel a bit nervous, as if at the possibility of failure. I check my equipment two or three times, but I usually forget something--an unhitched buckle, a misplaced gauge. Then the plunge into the water, the shock of salt. Ears perked for the betraying hiss or gurgle of escaping air. With trepidation I await the divemaster, the signal to descend.

Below the surface all is well. Amazement takes over, brushes away the fear. Fishes distract. The deep regular bubbling of expelled air soothes me into a trance. There can be no talking now--just eyes opened wide in wonder.

Is scuba diving just the next thing I thought I would love forever? When I was in junior high I wrote an ode to skiing. In high school I thought I found myself on the tennis court. It had nothing to do with being the best or with competition at all; it was visceral joy--a body tracing pleasure, or its resounding echo.

I don't pretend to love diving as much as Chris. Perhaps the anxiety before each entry will never go away. But I confess I am drawn to the thrill of diving (which, paradoxically, is quite peaceful) and the babble at the shop later, everyone sipping tea and dripping onto plastic chairs. Here we linger, reluctant to go, rifling through fish ID books until our hunger drives us out--in the Perhentians it is to the kiosk on the other side of the island where we eat for every meal. In the morning we sit at the benches at the counter and exchange smiles with Rose and her sisters. In the evening we take a table and sink our feet into the cool, powdery sand. Here we continue our conversation about diving, extending it to the divers as well. For now that we have traveled so long together, there is nothing we don't discuss. Hardly does a stray thought cross my brain that doesn't find its way out of my mouth and into the open field of talk between us.

Tomorrow is our last dive and our last day in the Perhentians. It must come as no surprise that we are sad to go.

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Other Side

The level of grunginess is getting to me. A rash is spreading all over my body from being in a damp swimsuit all day. Chris is breaking out in hives. Our bathroom smells stale and is coated in a layer of wet sand. The mosquito bites itch, but the sea lice stings itch more. Miniscule ants are always crawling on my arms and legs. The shower water from twenty cottages drains directly into a stagnant pool beneath the buildings and then trickles slowly into the ocean. It smells faintly of sewage. The sheets are not just stained--I am fine with stains--but have patches of dirt on them so that we sleep atop our own sheet. We fall asleep on the beach and wake up hounded by mosquitoes.

The other side of the coin.

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Never After

We are lazy. Unaccountably so. We go to bed late. We read on the beach (until I am so pleased I have to stop and gloat, privately). We do not write, nor take pictures. We eat gluttonously--or it feels gluttonous. Occasionally we puzzle out life's more serious matters, but it's all abstract, felicitously distant.

We understand that there will be a return to the real world. And yet we toy with the idea of one more month, one more year. Or a break in the real world, to collect more, and then back to this, or something better, after which who knows? It is a blessing not to know what is "after."

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Penang Escape

A day of doing nothing. Eating, wandering, sitting, watching without purpose. We discovered I wasn't sick the other day--just had too much MSG. Frightening that MSG can make your brain feel as though it were about to explode out of your skull.

Looks like we might escape Penang after all. Tomorrow.

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