Thoughts from Three Birthdays Abroad

September 24, 2010: Tokyo, Japan

“By the way, it’s my birthday.”

Unsure of how to bring it up, but knowing it was absolutely necessary to excuse the belligerency which would inevitably occur, I say it in passing as we walk into a discount sushi joint. After unloading such weighty news, I decide not to mention the fact that I don’t even eat fish. I don’t want to overwhelm him.

As I grab small plates from the revolving carousel of Japanese cuisine, I flick off pieces of raw salmon and tuna. I watch him send mass texts from his outdated cellphone.

Birthday celebrations. Shinjuku station. Get here.

We follow him through the streets of Tokyo. I feel relaxed because I no longer need a map. I feel comforted because I trust his local knowledge and know he’ll take us to the grungiest of bars. I feel fortunate to be celebrating my birthday with people I have known for longer than my nine days in this country.

I spent the day record-shopping. I find the Japanese release of Forever and Counting by Hot Water Music. Without even trying to convert the yen, I know I can’t afford it.

I try not to reminisce. Having only left Canada a month earlier, it’s probably too early to be doing that sort of thing. But I’m technically a year older, so I do it anyways.

We sit drinking at the intersections of Lost in Translation. We go to a bar where they yell at me for flash photography. We go somewhere else and allegedly, I try to steal the bartender’s cat. We go to another bar and I scream Pearl Jam lyrics while simultaneously lecturing both old friends and absolute strangers on the pointlessness of relationships. Drops of Asahi hit the group as I flail my arms and sound like a lonely conspiracy theorist when I rant, “Trust no one.” None of them agree with anything I’m saying. But they listen because it’s my birthday.

We never made it back to our hostel that night. They charged us one night’s stay, anyways.

September 24, 2011: Koh Samui, Thailand

There’s a jar of Nutella and a box of granola in front of me. I grab a spoon from the hostel, dig out a scoop of hazelnut chocolate, and swirl it around the mix of raisins, cranberries, and steel-cut oats. I let the chocolate rest in the corners of my mouth for longer than is socially acceptable. I root the bits of almond out of my teeth with my un-brushed tongue.

She hands over a TESCO bag full of other completely un-Thai foods. A baguette. Brie. Another jar of Nutella. I clap my hands and then feel selfish for hoarding all that hazelnut-chocolate spread in the first place. I offer him and his sister a slab for their toast. They both prefer Vegemite. I wince. I don’t bother to offer up the brie.

We hire a long-tail boat to take us fishing and snorkeling. We exchange stories of camping with our dads and learning to hook a lure. I catch something which looks like a  rainbow trout from Southwestern Ontario. It’s obviously not. I’m the only one to even get a bite all day and am convinced that our boat driver was in on it and had set up the whole thing beforehand. But they’re fish, after all. You know how they are. The driver smiles a silver and gold grin and wades his feet in the water.

At night, we walk across the beach. Flip flops in one hand, Chang beers in the other. I plead with a group of Aussies to lend me some of their fireworks. They tell me you can’t lend someone fireworks. I tell them I don’t have time for pragmatics. I ask again nicely for a Roman candle. I let if off too close to her feet. She screams at me predictably.

We scrawl Sharpie messages onto paper lanterns and light them off over the island. We each keep our wishes a secret but when no one’s looking, I peak at what they have written.

My wish?

Travels full of fireworks and free of injuries.

There, now I don’t feel so guilty.

I had cut my ankles on the shallow reef earlier that day. I iced my scrapes with melting cubes but hoped the scars wouldn’t actually fade. They haven’t yet.

September 24, 2012: Seoul, South Korea

I’ve already spilled a beer on myself and its only 8:00pm. She claims it to be typical. Everyone else nods in agreement. Most of these people have known me for less than six months. But when your nights become routine, so does your behavior.

We eat Mexican food outside. I hate the fact that it’s Monday. I had to celebrate a fake-birthday the weekend prior. We sit on the patio of my favourite bar and write song requests on the back of chocolate candy wrappers. People kept leaving to buy chocolate. Consequently, we kept requesting songs.

She needs to catch the last subway home. The others soon follow. With only two of us left, we finish everyone’s lukewarm beer and vow to find somewhere without so many fluorescent lights, or any lights at all. Before leaving, we steal posters for beer we will never be able to afford.

We mix Soju and Powerade on a curb outside 7-11. I clench my teeth a little because it’s harsher than expected. I don’t feel any older. It’s past 4:00 am. We zip our hoodies higher and clutch our paper cups.

A young Korean guy stops to open conversation. Both of us, in the thick of things, try hard not to engage.

He comments on our drink of choice and asks a bit too seriously for this time of day, “Are you joking?”

I’m not sure how to answer.

How Gangnam Style Ruined My Summer

In the past, I have often tried to force a “summer song” upon myself. Be it a well-timed release date or a subliminal-yet-conscious (wait, what?) effort to listen to the same song on repeat while day-drinking in the sun, my summer song (or more generally speaking, my summer record) is of great importance.

Every time I hear Shake the Streets by Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, Cheap Girl’s Find Me a Drink Home, or even anything by The Descendents, I am immediately brought back to a certain summer, a certain somewhere. A time when I couldn’t stop listening to that song, that record, that band.

My calendar has recently reminded me that Autumnal Equinox (which may be the most ridiculously romantic sounding season of them all) begins in a few short days. But because Korea seems to lack any sort of relationship to climate changes, summer could very well go on strong into November. Regardless, my summer in Korea sucked.

And I blame it all on PSY.

Yeah, that guy.

When it came to choosing a summer song or record, it’s like I didn’t even have a fighting chance this time around.

I tried to play Help by Thee Oh Sees at every available gathering. I opted to spend bike rides listening solely to the Japandroids’ newest release. I even tried to get back into The Promise Ring (I know, I know).  But these failed attempts were only mocked further by a man, sporting sunglasses indoors, and transporting himself through the streets of Seoul by means of uh, galloping.

When I didn’t have white headphones plugged into my ears, this song was everywhere. In my newsfeed, in my bakery, even in my favourite kindergarten class.

I mean, come on. Do you know how hard it is to teach ESL kiddies about equal halves and symmetry when they are all repeating “Oppan Gangnam seutail” to themselves?

Well, do you?

What began as a joke in the lunchroom among fellow teachers has morphed into a total game changer for the last four months here in Korea.

As a song, “Gangnam Style” lacks direction.

Consequently, so does my summer.

There’s really no need to get into specifics. No one wants to read about my summer of close calls (and some even bigger falls). (This is a probably an absolute lie. I can think of, like three people, who would totally feel positively affirmed after reading about a struggling Sarah.) But even if I was honest about my aimless summer, you and I both would never be able to discern if I was speaking figuratively or in relatives.

Or maybe that’s a total cop-out. And instead, I just can’t seem to concentrate on completing sentences when a song about a guy taking his coffee in one shot is making it onto CNN.

“Gangnam Style” is an image-heavy, completely unchallenging, disconnected look into one of Seoul’s wealthier districts with the exact same descriptors.

I hate that people appreciate this song.

And I hate that it, by no choice of my own, became the song of this summer.

It’s an uninspiring song which leaves no motivation to trace the rings of condensation on sun-bleached picnic tables. It’s an intolerable tune which I can’t listen to as I ride passenger to the farthest camping spot, the nearest ice cream shop, or the somewhere in-between cottage owned by your friend’s significant other’s dad’s business partner.

Both “Gangnam Style,” and the fact that parodies continue to pop up under the Recommended Videos tab on YouTube, has ruined my summer.

But as I mentioned before, Fall Autumnal Equinox is coming up.

And every season has a record.

And, appropriately so, I’ve recently rediscovered Jay Reatard’s Watch Me Fall.

It’s good.

Decisions: Things Not to Make While Hungover in El Nido

Don’t make decisions whilst you’re hungover.

And don’t use words like “whilst” either. You’ll sound like an academia failure. And no one likes a failure. Or academics.

Deciding between blueberry and chocolate chip pancakes is difficult enough whilst (see?) experiencing half-bouts of nausea, clouded short-term memory, and almost debilitating waves of regret. So don’t make it harder on yourself by making actual decisions. Especially those related to travel. No one is that qualified.

But unfortunately, these decisions cannot be avoided. So they happen as such:

  • Get the van from Puerto Princesa to…wait, scratch that. There’s already gaps in this story.
  • Get drunk in Puerto Princesa

Feed off your travel buddies’ giddiness and consume buckets of San Miguel like you’re an aged upper-middle class white male “just here on business.” (This is no doubt said with a sly wink  and an even skeezier nod towards a group of oogling local women one-fifth his age.) Order shots of tequila because it’s the cheapest thing on the menu. Reconsider your niche as a “budget traveller.” Disregard the fact that tequila isn’t really necessary at a time like this. Wake up covered in rice and beans. Try to recall if you ate either.

  • Decide to go to El Nido instead

In a moment of clarity, leave your buddies and the predetermined destination of Sabang. Come to terms with the fact that you will never be able to keep up with these males and their pace of drinking. Hear something. Realize it’s your liver. It just breathed a sigh of relief.

  • Take the van to El Nido

Convince yourself that your kidneys are failing. Realize it’s just some minor San Miguel backlash which thankfully, passes before the first rest stop. Try to stomach a package of chocolate chip cookies. They’re stale and smell like tequila. Oh wait, that’s you.

  • Commit to sleeping on a deserted island

Take an easy boat tour of the archipelago of El Nido. Have an “ah-hah” moment when you realize you’ve been pronouncing “archipelago” wrong all these years. Say it quietly under your breath a couple times to commit it to memory. Spot Seven Commandos beach. Learn that you can sleep there overnight, completely on your own. Agree without a second of hesitation. Start saying “yes” to everything else presented that day. Drive a boat with a small piece of wood for a gas pedal. Book a “free solo climbing” thing with a local. Google it later. Pretend the descriptor “if you fall, you die” wasn’t actually written. Give the bartender a rhetorical look at Balay Tabay when he asks if you want another glass of mango rum. After all, a website tells you that you could possibly die by simply climbing some limestone rocks.

  • Go Free Solo Climbing

Forget breakfast. Congratulate yourself for showing up 15 minutes early. Realize your 30 minutes late. Overestimate your ability as a rock climber. Underestimate your ability to tell time. Enviously watch your 18-year-old guide clamber across these centimetre-wide rocks in knock-off Havanas flip-flops. Debate turning around every time your Adidas cross trainers slip from a natural crevice. Turns out you’re actually kind of afraid of climbing tall rocks. Remain silent on the descent. You’re too busy salivating over an upcoming breakfast at The Alternative. Stop at Midtown Bakery on the way. You deserve it.

  • Get to this deserted island.

Sleep the night in heavy downpours and lightning. Hold your breath for that elongated second between hearing the crack of a palm tree branch and the “thud” of it hitting the ground just meters from your tent. Stay warm by sipping gin. Wake up cold, wet, and fantastically giddy from spending the night completely on your own. Realize you still have to take down your tent. Stumble over pegs and plastic. You’re a spectacle, that’s for sure.

  • Take that awful van AGAIN

Don’t make the mistake of buying stale chocolate chip cookies for the second time. Congratulate yourself for choosing the bag of Cracked Pepper Lays instead. You’re a seasoned veteran, after all.

  • Leave El Nido

Recount the decisions that you made in El Nido. Sober, sort of drunk, and especially, hungover. Agree with yourself that yes, they were all perfectly amazing in that my-heart-is-bursting-because-I’m-so-happy sort of way. Wonder why you ever made the absolutely ridiculous decision to get into a van directed back to Puerto Princesca. Oh that’s right, you’re not hungover for this one.

A Diwali Story (minus Ralphie Parker and the Red Ryder BB Gun)

Diwali is the Christmas of India.

Except with a lot more fireworks.

And you know, probably a few less Ferrero Rochers.

And since most Christmas evenings end with me gripping my stomach and rolling around in hazelnut-overdose agony whilst simultaneously surrounded by gold tinfoil wrappers, this whole firework-Ferrero trade-off is completely fine by me.

I mean yes, most holidays get exponentially better when they include golf ball-sized servings of whipped chocolate. And yes, these chocolates only seem to taste that much better when arranged in pyramid formation to resemble a seasonal Evergreen tree….

But again, Diwali has fireworks.

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Failing to Meditate: My 5 days at an ashram in Rishikesh

“We’re staying in an ashram for 5 days on the skirts of the Himalayas. There’s no internet. Whatevs. I’m totally going to throw my mind, body, and soul a serious curveball, here.”

I ended an email with this threat to my meditative self, said a mental farewell to shotty internet connections, and made  my way across the Lakshman Jhula bridge in Rishikesh to an ashram in the yogi-centric part of town.

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The Time with the Costco…and other Tourist Attractions in Koh Samui

Somewhere along the way of glossy brochures, all-inclusive organized tours, and some unrelenting need to build the world’s largest squirting clam, the term “tourist attraction” got equated with the word “fun.”

I don’t know how it happened, but it did.

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The Time I Realized I Wasn’t Invisible (or Why I Need to Buy Traveler’s Insurance)

So here’s something about me that’ll probably make you feel better about you: I’m kind of an expert when it comes to injuring myself.

No no, not in the destructive self-harm kind of way, (well maybe it could be seen as self-harm in those situations when my injuries are caused by my lack of cautionary forward-thinking paired with a blurred understanding of the terms “safety” and “danger”). But more in the way that if there is a will, there’s a way then I probably should start writing it because given my track record, my state of well-being is completely unpredictable.

Adding to my hazy definitions of safety and danger, I sometimes truly believe that I just won’t get hurt. Sure, other people will get the bruises and the scrapes and the blood. But me? Oh no, I’m above that. I’m better than that.

It’s like the hypothalamus in my brain (that’s the part which controls your response to pain…duh)  peer pressures the rest of my brain into thinking I’m untouchable. Like I can do absolutely anything and experience zero repercussions. Like my skin is a snake and even if it breaks or bleeds, it’ll all be okay. Sometimes I actually think that my hypothalamus is a bit of a mean girl-queen bee nuclei which practically convinces the rest of my autonomic nervous system that I’m invisible.

And the worst part?

The rest of my brain totally falls for it.

 

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