Remembering past adventures in Thailand, Malaysia & China in the 1970s and 80s

“Life seems random when you’re young, the wish to travel the result of impulse and curiosity. Meandering is not the exception but the rule. But when you’re older you begin to see that a lifetime has a distinct plot.” -Paul Theroux

The view from my bed this morning…

Because of my recent new brain injury, I don’t go out a lot. My balance is not good, and my mind wanders quite a bit, never staying on any topic for very long. But the 50th Anniversary edition of Travel & Leisure magazine arrived here this week, helping me focus for a while on the many amazing adventures I have experienced throughout my life.

First I came to an article entitled “50 Trips That Stood The Test of Time.” Since I have been a lifetime sojourner, I wondered which places they would choose as somehow timeless. I was surprised to see how many of these places I visited before they became popular with tourists, places like Beijing, Shanghai, Banff, Bangkok, The Raffles Hotel in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong long before China took over, Hawaii, Japan, Venice and even Aspen Colorado.

To this list I would add two of my favorite places in China, Xian and Guilin in the south. I will never forget a boat trip I took up the Li River to see the Karst Cliffs around Guilin in the early 1980s. It was a difficult but memorable trip on what I called “The People’s Ferry” up the Pearl River from Guangzhou to Wuzhou in 1984, a trip I learned about in the book China Off The Beaten Trail back then. When we got off the small ferry, the locals crowded around us to stare. I was a little bit afraid, but then a couple PRC government tourist followers stepped up to make certain we made our next connection on the bus to Guilin. At that time Wuzhou was quite a rough and backward looking place, like a town made of mud, and many there had never seen a Westerner before.

I also remember taking the train up through Malaysia from Singapore to Bangkok in the early 1980s. I clearly remember our stay at a very old, frightfully British hotel in Kuala Lumpur, one that has most certainly been torn down by now. The parts I remember are quite curious. I remember the unusual pewter table settings, soup before every dinner, and the old-fashioned Chinese waiters who stood nearby at all times in case we needed something. I remember the sweet tea on the train, filled with evaporated milk, and the vast areas of deforestation along the way, attributable to the expanding rubber industry at that time. But my most favorite and well-remembered place was the island of Penang, a true jewel just off the coast of Malaysia. In 1980 it was not touristy at all. I loved the multicultural feel of everything from the religions to the food! One gigantic curried prawn still sticks firmly in my memory 🙂 Penang is right up there with Venice, two of my favorite places EVER.

That quote at the beginning of this piece comes from a series of reminisces from the before mentioned magazine where well-known writers describe “The Places That Changed Us.” One thing I know for sure, every place I have been changed me. Every place I have lived or just hung out for a day or two, every person I met along the way whether friendly or not, every sight, smell or sound changes us to be more open and accepting of how others choose to interact in their world.

Poinsettia trees in Thailand!

By “winning” a free trip to live in Bangkok in 1973, I was permanently changed. I had never lived in the tropics before or immersed myself in south Asian culture. Everything was new and different to me, starting with the Poinsettia trees outside my door! When I returned to Colorado College a few months later, I found it impossible to describe the totality of my experience to fellow students, telling them that it was a bit like going to the moon. I then switched my college major to Asian studies and pursued my goal until the beauty of that dream died a painful death in my late 20s.

But I have absolutely no regrets about any of my adventures, not even those that ended up being bad for my health. Live and learn! That is all we can do.

My life now: The post-concussion dizzies

I’ve been taking some time away from my online life lately. Recently, 12 weeks since my latest serious concussion, I suffer with disorientation and extreme dizziness, not unlike that horrible feeling when the world is spinning around because you drank too much. (I only drank that much once in my life, Chinese Mao Tai, 150 proof, it’s a long story…) This of course is complicated by my hypoxia and need to be on oxygen all of the time. All in all I am the classic dizzy dame lately, LOL.

I have always prided myself on my nibble mind. Not so much now. These days slow and steady wins the race, with lots of brain rest in between. Needless to say, this is not how I pictured myself in my mid-60s. How embarrassing and difficult to embrace. But like everything else I have faced in my life, I try everyday to learn something from this present state of mind. I find I am mostly learning and re-learning compassion for all of us who suffer with physical and mental pain. Recently I saw a program about Christopher Reeve, one of my personal heroes. He said one of the most difficult parts of his accident and injury was to accept that this was his life now. Extreme limitations in abilities and a gigantic change in self-image can be devastating, I know this on a personal level. Now I know I will never go ice skating again or even run or hike or any of the things I did my whole life. Sometimes I wake and find I’ve been dreaming about running or skating really fast.

My thoughts naturally turn to my bucket list, but even arranging an easy vacation like a cruise may not be possible because of my need for constant supplemental oxygen and my apparent natural vertigo at this point. Did you know only certain types of oxygen machines are allowed on airplanes? Who knew? There are still a number of places I would still like to see, but can I? I would so like to travel more. Our first trip this year will be to sea-level to see how well I can breathe there.

Then, of course, the old “Why is this happening to me?” questions arise. I know exactly how useless these questions are. Everyone at some point in their life must wonder this. Sometimes the medical explanations are adequate, but in my case my pulmonologist and I are both stymied. It just is what it is, and life goes on within you and without you.

The advantages of brain injury (Say what?)

Since my fate seems to be living with some fairly serious brain problems, I have been searching lately for the bright side of this apparently grim future I face. Some might find this attitude pathologically optimistic, but what the heck! If you can’t change it, why not go in search of the bright side?

First of all, I feel so just plain lucky to be living in this beautiful place with my loving little family, who understand endlessly my occasional forgetfulness, confusion and regular fatigue. My pup Rasta is especially sympathetic as he’s pushing 13 himself and can’t hear, can barely see or smell. He spends most of his days either sleeping or looking for a warm lap.

I have always run my mind a hundred miles an hour as a general rule, but not now. I tend to get busy early in the morning and wear out around ten or eleven. Then, for a change, I can be patient with myself… sometimes. I can settle down and meditate restfully for a while because I really cannot do anything else. I can now shut off my mind easier and just cruise mentally. I’m slowly learning my limits and now I try to only focus on one thing at a time.

Only so much brain space means less worrying and a lot less fear of death. Why? Because I have experienced hours of unconsciousness at this point and it isn’t such a bad thing. My mind simply shuts down with too much stimulation, and that limit is easy to reach. I have always enjoyed one-on-one conversations in my past, now that’s about all I can tolerate or enjoy. I enjoy focusing fully on others, just for shorter periods of time. After a nice talk with a friend, I love spacing out alone and contemplating our conversation. In fact I enjoy contemplating everything more.

I notice some of my senses are now heightened. My love of music, colors, and tastes are much more intense. I guess this is a function of where my head injuries were. Mine have been equal opportunity injuries both on the back and the sides of my brain.

Again I come back to one of my favorite quotes about the changes we may go through as we age:

“…we all know how this ends, so rushing through life is senseless. As our inner life grows ever more luminous, the chatter of the speed-and-greed world slowly fades, leaving us with greater peace, tranquility, quiet and contentment.” — Arthur Rosenfeld