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THE WEIGHT OF THE DECISION to leave a home is often overshadowed by the logistics of the move itself, so much so that we forget about the courage it really does take. No matter your reason for starting a new chapter in a new place, once the luggage is sorted and the tickets are confirmed, only then do we feel the full force of the stamina required to take this risk, the spirit to not be disappointed with what we encounter, and the nerve to not long for what we left behind.

Some days it pours from the moment I wake up. They say this weather can extend for months in my corner of East Asia. Breathing in those last few moments of unconscious twilight, the rain slapping the tin overhang could just as well be the rhythmic, steady click-click-click of drizzle coating the air conditioning unit balanced out the window of my old apartment halfway around the world. But I’ve been away for long enough to know that it is not. And I’ve been away for long enough to know that on some days, just some, the thrill and deliciousness of navigating this newness, this confusion, this excitement I’ve sought out will be, well, damp.

These are the days I miss my last home. The trusty dependability of it all, the level of control I felt, its predictability. I feel exposed navigating this city that’s now supposed to be my own: “Hey, look, her expat is showing!” But having the courage to get up and go was just the beginning. It takes an ongoing emotional toll to keep from romanticizing our past lives too much, to let go of the places we craved to leave.

Largely, no matter where you go, you’re leaving behind a dependable life brimming with dependable people on dependable schedules. I boasted a steady income and a gorgeous apartment and friends who each have kept a piece of my heart. But I stirred, kept awake at night by an unidentifiable monotony, a certainty that I was not in the right place and a faith in somewhere I hadn’t even been yet. I’d fight sleep, suffocating on the fear that when I woke up it would be an identical day, five years later.

So I left. I left stability, familiarity. I left people who meant everything to me. I left the bartender who had my drink served up by the time I took my seat. I left my local lunch haunt, where they always added on extra avocado. I left rooftop conversations of equally poured portions of incredible importance and inconsequence, feet dangling over the edge as I gazed out on the Empire State Building with a friend-turned-roommate-turned-sister. I left fresh bagels.

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10 signs you’re from Kansas City

1. You’re fiercely loyal to local ‘que and know your way around a grill.


Whether you claim allegiance to BBQ powerhouses Gates and Jack Stack, Missouri-side Arthur Bryant’s, Kansas-side Oklahoma Joe’s, or (my favorite) small-fry LC’s, you think of them when anyone mentions barbecue. Roll out the smoker and soak those wood chips — hot dogs and hamburgers just won’t cut it.

2. You’ve grown accustomed to crappy sports teams.


KC sports fans can’t catch a break. Anyone will tell you when we last won the big one: 1985. We beat our cross-state baseball rivals in what was dubbed the I-70 Series. But the Royals, god love them, haven’t made it to the postseason since.

And the Chiefs, who were competitive in the heady days of the early NFL and flirted with postseason success in recent years, have had an even longer drought. We won Super Bowl IV, more than four decades ago. Len Dawson, quarterback for our one Super Bowl win against the Vikings in 1969, covers sports for Channel 9 and still calls games on 101 The Fox — we’re all secretly hoping we can pull one out before he retires. 

3. You know the Timberwolf is the most terrifying rollercoaster in the world.

It’s made of wood and goes way faster than any wooden machine should, jostling you around on the way up the big hill and rattling your teeth in your skull on the way down. You start to understand why people thought Model Ts would kill everyone. When not safely enveloped in plastic, steel, and fiberglass, anything that goes faster than 10mph feels like a death trap.

4. You’ve downed a Skyscraper Soda…and lived to tell about it.

Winstead’s — KC’s diner staple decked in ’40s pinks and blue-greens with chrome finishings — makes the Skyscraper Soda in a GIANT GLASS VASE. Piled high with vanilla and chocolate ice cream and topped off with soda, it’s practically a rite of childhood to split one with your siblings/cousins/neighbors, dueling with long-handled diner spoons and jockeying for position with the doubled-up long straws so you can gorge yourself until you want to puke. 

5. You have a picture of you with the giant shuttlecocks.


Yes: 20ft-high replicas of white-feathered shuttlecocks dot the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It’s said that the sculptors were drawn to feathers because of the local Native American heritage, but designed the shuttlecocks because from above, the museum grounds resemble a badminton lawn. Everyone has a picture of themselves next to one, behind one, even jumping in front of one. They’re a magnet for area brides, so during the summer watch out or you could photobomb a wedding party.

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If I could go back to Kyoto for a day…

I’d fly into Osaka International this time, and cut my transit time to the city center in half.

I’d hop on one of the regular buses headed toward the city and prepare myself for the near-hour of silence, as I don’t speak Japanese and the driver doesn’t speak more than five words of English. He’d turn up his Japanese radio or news station, and I’d sink back into my travel playlist for the six tracks of juice I’ve got left before my iPod dies. I’d wait for the things passing outside the window to look familiar. They never do.

I’d get off the bus at its first main stop, across the street from the Avanti Department store downtown on Higashikujo Nishisannocho. I’d cross the street and head into the department store, not because I want to do any shopping (yet), but because I remember a not-so-secret my grandmother told me on my last trip. I’d head straight for the basement, to find an enormous plaza of stalls serving every kind of food imaginable.

kyoto for a day

Photos clockwise from bottom left: Hideya HAMANO, Robert S. Donovan, Trey Ratcliff, Evan Leeson

I’d immediately gorge myself on the freshest maguro sashimi I could find, dipped in enough wasabi to make up for the lack of caffeine I’ve had so far. I would marvel at the amount of fish I was getting for the price, and entertain the fleeting notion that perhaps Japan was not that expensive after all. To balance out the healthiness of the tuna, I’d probably supplement with some shrimp and sweet potato tempura, and round it out with a Red Bull. After all, I’ve got a big day ahead of me.

I’d grab a Pocari Sweat for the road and return to Higashikujo Nishisannocho. Midday, I’d begin my incredibly sticky 2.9km trek, knowing full well that I’ll be soaked in sweat by the time I get to my destination, not out of exhaustion but out of humidity to a degree far more unpleasant than I’m used to.

Almost an hour after leaving Avanti, I’d finally have arrived at the very edge of the Shinkyogoku shopping arcade. I’d grab another Sweat — partially for the novelty, and partially because I’ve found the lemony oily drink strangely addictive — and take a moment to search my memory.

I’d recall the hours I spent here with my uncle and younger brother on my last trip, mentally retracing every step and desperately trying to remember where the store I’m looking for is hiding. Though the image is clear (neon lights and brightly colored toys, kitsch of the coolest variety, lots of nerd-paraphernalia, and a life-size foam statue of Giger’s Alien in a batmobile as the centerpiece), I’d be unable to remember its name or which of the zillion identical side streets it’s on.

I’d spend a few hours ducking and weaving through the crowds and the commerce, up streets and down alleys. Struggling and a little anxious, I’d overshoot the shop and find myself at the far end of the Teramachi district, just in time to grab some Shakey’s pizza for lunch, and I’d chuckle to myself about eating lackluster pizza in Japan.

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“YOU CAN’T SEE ANYTHING from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.”

– Edward Abbey

Read: What we lose by traveling too fast

“Do we get mats?” I asked.

“This is real yoga. No mats.”

Determined to do “real yoga,” I followed his instructions.

“The floor’s a little cold,” Sholeh said.

“You will become warm,” our teacher told us. He went over to turn off the air conditioner and opened the window. The brackish, humid air pushed into the dining hall yoga studio.

Our instructor then came back over and kneeled down on the floor between us and yanked on my leg. “I must pull your leg this way,” he told me, “to stretch it.”

“What about the asanas?” I asked. “Don’t we do the poses ourselves?”

“Don’t you want to do Indian yoga?” He left me and edged over to Sholeh. He sat down cross-legged next to her, rubbing her arm.

“It just seems strange,” I said. “It’s not like home. Not even a little bit.”

“Have you done yoga in India before?” he asked.

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“YOU DANCE LIKE AN ANIMAL!” he growled at me through gold teeth and an accent heavy as lead. At first I smiled, a dumb wide-eyed gape, thinking he meant it in a primordial, ferocious way. Like I danced like a goddamn tiger would if it was bipedal and moved by the sounds of Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning.”

He shook his head, clasped my shoulder, and laughed, “No, no, you dance like shit!” And just like that the confident winds and homemade wine that had pushed me onto the stage of an Eastern Bloc nightclub rolled back, replaced with the sobering flush of shame.

Through the smoke machines, bodycon dresses, and defiantly superior Soviet cheekbones, I was reduced to feeling like a terminally uncool American tourist with a cheap halter top and no rhythm. It was not the first nor would it be the last time I found myself fortunate enough to be invited but not quite cool enough to belong.

When I was younger, the main source of my international insecurity came from fellow travelers. In youth hostels and bars, the conversation would always dissolve into something akin to a dick-measuring contest. Who has been the furthest and suffered the strangest: I hitchhiked from Cape Town to Cairo with nothing but chewing gum and steely resolve, I invented dubstep with a deflecting Buddhist monk I met in Bristol, I lost my virginity to Jacques Cousteau’s grandson, the ONLY way to see Vietnam is on the back of a vintage hand-built Indian motorcycle, yeah my necklace was made for me by a local shaman using the teeth of his enemies, Poland is the new Prague, this tattoo is Sanskrit for “be here now”…and so on in a loop of one-upmanship anchored by snot-nosed rich kids trading passport stamps like baseball cards, smoking clove cigarettes, experimenting with alternative hair and life styles.

I’d be lying if I told you these perennial boner wars didn’t cause me my fair share of self-doubt. The question was always where are you going and where have you been, and I came up short on both lists. Slowly though, through enough miles and subjugation to terrible expat bars and even more terrible expats, I realized that if I wanted to hear obnoxious people talk about their own exploits, I didn’t have to leave home to do it.

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I WAS BORN AND RAISED in Jakarta until I was shipped off overseas for university. It wasn’t until I came back a few years later to the “Big Durian” that I experienced my own form of culture shock. Since then, I’ve developed a love / hate relationship with this city, which is probably how most people who visit also feel. Here are 13 things you’ll experience when you come.

1. 15 minutes of fame

If you’re Caucasian, you’ll probably be treated like Richard Branson. Poor locals will fall at your feet and kiss the steps you walk on, hoping you might grace them with your magical white touch and some dollar bills for their families. Walking down the city streets, or even traveling to the malls, means stares, questions, and at times, a few photographs with the bule (foreigner).

2. Cigarette ads everywhere

Many Indonesian citizens smoke, so don’t freak out when you enter a restaurant that allows smoking indoors. I’m pretty sure even the trees produce smoke instead of oxygen. The richest man in the country earns his wealth from tobacco, and the poorest man in the country will sell his soul for a cigarette. You see grade-school children around the city smoking, and even orangutans.

Every street has a billboard or banner promoting local cigarettes, although they’re all purposely vague (as per government regulations — the cigarette itself can’t actually be shown). There are disclaimers at the bottom of each ad, and at the end of every commercial it states smoking causes cancer and heart disease. This doesn’t really make an impact, but it helps the government feel a tad better. “Hey, at least I warned you this was going to happen!”

3. Gigantic malls

These aren’t your typical shopping centers. These are giant, marble-floored, extravagant malls, sometimes with apartments nestled on top for convenience (who wants to walk outside when you can go down the elevator in your pajamas to shop?). These malls seem to appear out of nowhere, and each one has a reputation.

There are around 173 malls in Jakarta, which means 173 places you can meet your friends. You go to shopping centers without the intention to shop, but to hang out at indoor cafés, restaurants, karaoke bars, or billiard lounges. Q Billiards is usually the go-to stop for people from different schools to meet up and mingle. OKCupid has nothing on Q.

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It was in Paradise Lost that John Milton introduced the notion that Adam and Eve ate an apple from the tree of knowledge (thus explaining why your “knowledgeable” elementary school teachers may have had the infamous symbol sitting on their desks). The writers of Genesis left the forbidden fruit unspecified, but scholars have since claimed it could’ve been a grape, possibly a fig, even a pomegranate. Whatever it was exactly, the first Biblical book is clear that its consumption was the ultimate sin — and ever since the Western world has equated knowledge with a loss of innocence. Banned from Eden, the original sinners were also the original knowledge seekers, and the idea that understanding means corruption is widespread, often seen in dubious platitudes like “ignorance is bliss.”

Throughout history, innocence has been lost when new knowledge is gained, and the most common way for that to happen is by leaving home. By temporarily or permanently saying goodbye to what she knows best, the traveler willfully treks out from the light into the dark, plucking an apple from the tree of knowledge on her way.

The realm of the unknown is perhaps humankind’s greatest fear, but as the philosopher Spinoza said, “There can be no hope without fear, and no fear without hope.” To travel is to hope, but it’s also to confront one’s fears. To stay in your tiny corner of the globe is to stay ignorant, and, indeed, it can be blissful. Yet what a warped perspective this blind contentment gives. Prejudices and naïve thoughts bask in restfulness and immobility.

Travel can inadvertently cause people to become scared of the world.

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The white marble platform of the Shwedagon Pagoda is warm under my bare feet. Yangon, Myanmar, is already steamy, and it’s only 8am. Up here the hum of engines and sharp bursts of car horns below sound distant, but the humidity is as thick as it is on the root-tangled streets.

A smiling woman in uniform points at my ticket. It’s a kitsch photograph of the gold-plated cone of the Shwedagon. She checks the date stamped on it while I look at the creamy smudges of thanaka on her cheeks — tree-bark paste that’s dried like thick brush strokes. She nods and points down a quiet alley between rows of shrines.

I set off slowly. There are reverent groups of men in dark sarongs and smart shirts, women in bright oranges and pinks. I find myself looking at everyone’s toes. Their bare toes poke out bold and separated. They’re not jammed together, not like the toes of the old French women I’ve met, swollen and bulging with bunions in tight, low-heeled loafers. I look down at my own feet, my Zimbabwean feet that’ve seen the insides of too many winter boots. I find myself hoping no one notices how my big toes have started to point inwards, because in my heart I’m the kind of person who has the country feet of hot countries, and since I can’t speak a word of the Myanmar language, my toes are all that can speak for me. I want them to say we have something in common.image

From: Barefoot in Yangon

THE LITTLE GIRL FROM NEXT DOOR slips through the fence and knocks at my parents’ sliding door. She sits herself down at the kitchen table and asks for a biscuit. We’re not really used to having neighbours, but we’re getting better.

Voilà,” my mother says, handing her a chocolate digestive, and Manon begins to nibble it.

Merci.”

Her mouth grows slick with saliva, and every now and then she delicately turns the biscuit this way and that, unsure of her line of attack.

“How did you learn to speak English?” she asks finally, unable to conceive a world beyond this little town in Brittany. Unable to conceive a non-France.

“The same way you learned French,” I say. “When you were a baby, it was the language you learned from your parents. I learned English from Rosie and Jay and they learned from their parents.”

“Oh. Like when you were in the tummy?”

“Yeah…sort of.”

“Where are your parents, Rosie?”

My mother puts on her matter-of-fact-face and says, “Ils sont morts.”

“Oh,” says Manon and continues to eat her biscuit.

“Are they in the cemetery here?”

“No, they’re buried in the mountains of Zimbabwe,” says Ma, deciding it’s easier to say buried than sprinkled, because then we’d have to explain cremation.

“I kind of know what buried means, but could you tell me again?”

“Well,” I say glancing over at Ma, “when you die you get put into a big box called a coffin and they dig a really deep hole and then they put the coffin in the hole and cover it over with earth.”

“And they throw beautiful flowers in too,” says Ma with a big smile. “White ones and pink ones and yellow ones.”

Ah bon,” says Manon, her eyes magnified by her tiny pair of pink glasses, crumbs all around her mouth, “And red ones too?”

Oui!

Suddenly she pops the rest of the biscuit into her mouth, jumps off her chair, zips into the office, and comes back with a piece of paper and a pencil. Her mouth is still bulging with soggy digestive as she sketches a smiling person in a long box surrounded by flowers.

“Like this?” she asks and turns the page around to show us.

Manon's grave

“Exactly.”

She turns the page back, her pencil poised.

“Should I cover it over with dirt now?” she asks, starting to scribble over the picture.

Non, non!” I say, “It’s perfect just like that.”

“Do you know who it is?” she asks.

Qui?” asks Ma.

“MANON!” she says with a grin and pens her name onto the paper with the cursive letters they teach French kids.

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