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Fragments and Musings

This entry is a few half thought through musings I’ve had over the last few months. None of them are sufficiently significant to stand alone as a blog, but I am hoping that the whole transpires to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Thoughtful Gifts are the Ultimate Expression of Passive Aggression

A few weeks or months ago (timeline changed to protect identities), I chanced to be at a friend’s birthday dinner. Everyone was having a lovely time, but there was the threat of some tension as we knew that someone who had been invited out of politeness, rather than genuine affection, was due to arrive imminently. There had been bad blood between the birthday-celebrator and this person and, though a fragile truce had been agreed, it was very early days. The as yet unarrived guest felt wronged, terribly so, and had brooded stubbornly for quite some time until, recognising that this strategy wasn’t working, they had eventually waved a tiny white flag.

A couple of cocktails later and we had all almost forgotten that this person might be coming, but then they appeared. Suddenly. As if with a puff of purple smoke in a cheap Halloween horror. All chatter stopped. Cigarette ends stopped flickering. We waited. Then came the gift.

The gift was self consciously thoughtful, chosen because it alluded to 3 separate nuggets of information gleaned about our host. Whilst listening to the reasoning behind the choice of gift – something that should, by all rights, be patently obvious in any genuine thoughtful gift giving scenario – it hit me: this was passive aggression par excellence. This was quiet and smug moral victory at last.

A guy I was dating a while ago – he always maintained it wasn’t dating but as a final two fingers up to him I shall evermore refer to it both as dating and as a horrendous error of judgement – was irked when I decided it would be best to stop speaking to him. He thought he had earned my everlasting (and misguided) devotion after he provided a series of thoughtful – and paid in full – gestures and experiences. He could not understand that thoughtfulness, or, in his case, remembering stuff that I had said, does not equate with debt. That is what the passive aggressive thoughtful gift giver seeks: a debt that must be repaid with contrition, gratitude and continued affection.

6 weeks into my silence, the guy sent me a text message on my birthday telling me he had bought me “a thoughtful birthday present” and asking where he should send it. I am ashamed to say that his move worked – i am a sucker for a present – and I broke my silence. To this day I don’t know what the gift was, or whether it even existed. The suggestion of the ‘thoughtful gift’ was his attack and he moved away back into the shadows of the internet satisfied that he had hit his mark.

So beware the thoughtful gift, it just might be their way of saying ‘you owe me’.

The Advert I’d Love to Put in a Lonely Hearts/On a Dating Website but I Fear the Weirdos

Ardent and mercurial feminist seeks emotionally unavailable but loyal and faithful man for frequent dinners, dates and holidays at her convenience. Must be intelligent, witty and able to read minds. Degree, job and own home preferred. No misogynists, indie boys suffering from arrested development or people who hold the view that one must continue to try olives until one is sufficiently old and sophisticated enough to appreciate them.

Why I Hate Blurred Lines So Much

Blurred Lines is undoubtedly catchy – Thicke’s deranged oscillation between earth trembling bass and glass shattering falsetto means we have all of the best of Barry White and Prince (with a bit of Orson) in one song. It is precisely this catchiness that makes me hate it SO much. I hate it because I enjoy hearing it. If I block out the hatefully misogynistic lyrics, it’s a fun piece of music to put on the radio and dance about to. I hate it because it represents the very thing that its lyrics espouse: you don’t like it, but you love it really. The ‘I know you want it’ could refer just as much to the unwilling ultimate submission to the catchiness of the song as to the voiceless female victim of the arrogant male lyricist. I don’t want to listen to it, it makes me exceptionally angry to do so, but I don’t switch it off because the melody casts some sort of spell over me. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder: Is Robin Thicke clever? Did he do this on purpose? Did he deliberately create a date rape anthem that was so creepily anthemic that people would despise the lyrics but enjoy the melody, thus creating a profound marriage of form and content? I see the game he is playing – he’s Richard III, he’s Petruchio, he’s Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham… But there’s nothing remotely sexy about this villain. So there are no blurred lines Robin, she just doesn’t actually want you at all.

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What is Judaism Anyway?

Last week, I was out for drinks with some friends. We had all had a few and there was a general spirit of ebullience and shoutyness. We had just reached the end of our first week back after the Summer and we all felt we deserved a sense of ownership over the night. One atheist friend began a discussion about religion and about why I cling to mine so tightly. I answered variously, citing tradition, belonging, culture… all of which are true, but as I do my reflection today – Yom Kippur – I ask myself: what is the tradition, culture, sense of belonging that I am clinging to?

Practising Judaism in Malaysia is almost impossible. You will occasionally happen upon something kosher in an expat supermarket, but that’s only because the customs officers, despite being vehemently anti Israel and knowing that Hebrew is banned, have no idea what Hebrew looks like. There is no Judaica (except cheap crockery that again slips under the net by dint of no one knowing what Hebrew looks like), no synagogue, no community… Not even those ubiquitous Chabad fellows have made it in. There was one Jewish man, to whom all Google links refer if you search ‘Jewish Malaysia’ or similar, but a comment on this blog a month or so ago told me he had died in China in January. I knew being Jewish in Malaysia would be a lonely business; I didn’t quite reckon with being the only one.

So how do I keep Yom Kippur? I have developed my own traditions and practices, as well as dipping into those of my ancestors and absent communities. For me, it is more important to engage with the spirit of Yom Kippur, than with the ritual, and that is what I focus on. Yom Kippur is about forgiving and being forgiven; about reflecting honestly on the person you have been in the past year, making your peace with those you have wronged, and resolving how to be a better person in the year to come. I’ve had brutally honest and difficult conversations over the past week with a couple of people in an attempt to make my peace with them and to gain forgiveness for behaving callously at times. I’ve set my Facebook status to apologise. I’ve thought and thought about things I would have done differently and made promises to myself that I will choose a better path when similar situations arise. Unlike previous years, though, I feel I am coming from a position of strength. I know I am not perfect, far from it, but I also know that I am not damned. In part of my reflections, I’ve allowed myself to dwell on the positive things I do, the things that I believe were right and good. I don’t mean that they are what G-d would have wanted, I mean that they spoke to my heart and made me proud of who I was.

I suppose that’s a start, when I consider what Judaism means to me. It’s a religion whose values speak to who I am, not just who I want to be. I ‘attend’ an online service on Yom Kippur, except because of the time different I have to attend one in the past. This year, because it is Shabbat, I had to attend one from 2 years ago. It’s a reform, almost secular, community based in the US. The Rabbis are wonderful: they are intelligent, learned, powerful public speakers, funny, and forward thinking. Everything they said in their sermons and in their stories and in their critical appreciation of the Torah made me proud to be a part of the same culture as them.

So what is Judaism? It is clarinets and cellos; it is persistence and resilience; it is humour and intelligence; it is arguing and worrying; it is a warm home and chicken soup; it is Hebrew and song; it is smoked salmon and egg mayo with onion; it is critical thinking; it is a tradition of learning that is ALWAYS side by side with commentary; it is asking questions and debating answers; it is story telling; it is interpreting and reinterpreting the past to decide the best path to the future; it is being comfortable with fact and with metaphor; it is knowing the rules and justifying the breaking of them. As I begin to be able to see myself for who I really am and not through the negative lens of a low self esteem, I see that Judaism and I are mirrors of each other. Judaism is everything that I am, but I am everything that it is. That is what it is to identify with it, to want to preserve it, to feel belonging there like nowhere else.

And it is nothing to do with my belief in G-d. But that’s another blog.

Hanoi and Halong Bay

When I woke up at 4am in a strange and, bizarrely, neon lit, hotel room, I questioned my wisdom in booking a 5 day holiday to Vietnam the day after arriving back in Malaysia from the UK. It wasn’t just the ungodly hour and the threat of jetlag lurking behind my early morning tiredness, though, there was also the memory of my trip to Yogyakarta (where I had got so bored and solitary that I’d come home 2 days early) and the certain knowledge that the one thing I really did not want or need at this particular point in my life was time to think.

The taxi journey from the airport to my hotel in Hanoi proved that Hanoi is not a quiet, contemplative city at all. Knowing of the French influence in Hanoi’s colonial past, I’d imagined cobbled streets, wrought iron tables, cigarette smoke and clinking glasses of cheap red wine. Instead, I got ‘walking streets’ that are apparently differentiated from normal streets solely by the fact that there is, technically, a pavement, but you need to sift through dozens of parked motorcycles to find it. Hanoi is bonkers. Going for a walk is a loud, noisy and nerve wracking affair, but it’s also a window onto a fast paced and determined way of life. On mopeds, entire families smilingly weave their way around so many other families on mopeds before they are over taken by glamourous business women in short black pencil skirts and cherry red helmets that match their lipstick. On every corner are scattered tiny plastic stools; these are restaurants where locals come and sit on the pavement to eat with friends. Sometimes, the restaurant may only be as big as a doorway, sometimes, it may spread up the pavement and onto the road.

I was very ambivalent towards Hanoi – I found my way around it easily, but the constant noise had me on edge and I started to look for quieter places to occupy myself. The Temple of Literature was lovely – A Confucian temple that is also a school – but it was packed as it was graduation day, so I went to the Art Gallery. There were some spectacularly good sculptures of Buddha, as well as some really interesting work blending Eastern and Western artistic tropes. In one room, there were gold laquer bamboos and a Picasso-esque still life.

On my first evening, I went to see the Water Puppets Show. This is a traditional Vietnamese act where hidden puppeteers crouch in a body of water behind a screen and manipulate puppets that seems to emerge from and dive into the water of their own volition. The narrative opened with a dragon mating with a bird, a storm, a huge egg, and the birth of Vietnamese people. After that, there were lots of vignettes of rural peasant life in Vietnam: girls dancing with umbrellas, fishermen, boys trying to impress girls, traditional dancing… It was an experience that I was glad to have had, but I see no reason ever to go again.

The following day, I got up early to go and see Ho Chi Minh in his mausoleum. I had been told that this was often quite difficult because of strange opening times, random mid week closures and Ho Chi Minh spending around 3 months of the year in Russia being preserved more efficiently. However, my luck had held and I was able to see the man himself. It was a bizarre experience. We filed in a line into a huge slate grey neo Classical temple (it wasn’t a temple, but it looked like one). We were watched throughout by an army of white suited security guards, who looked like they had stepped out of an early 90s Tom Cruise film. We shuffled along a red carpet into a dimly lit room where Ho Chi Minh’s corpse lay in the centre, in a perspex coffin, under a spotlight. I hadn’t really thought what it would be like to see a dead body. When I was in China, Mao was in Russia being primped and preened ahead of his Beijing Olympics appearances, so I had not seen a pickled Communist before. I suppose the overwhelming thing was that he did not look dead. He looked very much like someone had taken a waxwork and lain it down in a perspex coffin. No photos or stopping and contemplating the corpse were allowed, so we all shuffled all the way round him and out, the Vietnamese visitors nodding reverently and whispering to themselves. Afterwards, I had a wander around Ho Chi Minh’s residences and the Ho Chi Minh museum. I learned that he loved flowers and Stalin. The museum was an interesting series of installations representing a theme that was a facet of Ho Chi Minh’s character and leadership. Most of these made reasonable sense – collections of war paraphernalia, writing implements, agricultural tools – but one of them had an enormous white table and chairs populated by oversize fruit and was supposed to represent education?!?! I tried to post a picture of it, but I can’t work out how to do it, so you’ll just have to imagine. It was every bit as weird as it sounds.

After the craziness of Hanoi and its quirky museums and exhibits, I was ready for a slower pace. I still didn’t want time to think though, so I was a little bit worried about my 2 days on a boat in Halong Bay and didn’t know what to expect from my group. I was the penultimate person to be picked up. It was 8am, and I hoped that was the reason for the deathly silence on our mini bus. As I leaned my head against the window and prepared to enjoy the scenery, I listened in to the conversation that had started again behind me and tried to guess the relationship between the two speakers. One was a male, American, the other a female, Canadian. Something about the way she was telling him about her work suggested they didn’t know each other very well. It turned out they had met on a tour similar to this one a few days previously. The girl opposite me was also American. She ran a charity cafe and school for Burmese refugees in Thailand. As the mini bus left Hanoi behind, the conversation was flowing and I was pleased that I seemed to be on a tour with a good bunch of people.

Halong Bay was beautiful. It is difficult to explain why it is beautiful. At first sight, it’s just a bunch of grey rocks coming out of the sea, but something about the sheer numbers of rocks, the variety of shapes and sizes, the colour of the water and the mist combines to make this place a stunningly ethereal and almost otherworldly place. I spent two days in the bay, where I explored an Amazing Cave; kayaked through wet caves into secluded and enclosed bays, or else through the ‘streets’ of floating villages where children waved to us from their school windows, poised above a clam farm beneath the surface; learned how to make spring rolls; hiked up a limestone mountain and swam in refreshingly cool waters in the early morning. What surprised me the most about the trip was how much I loved being outdoors and exercising. I felt happy and energised and just peaceful. After months of questioning everything and feeling I was being consistently judged and found lacking, I had a sense of letting go, of realising that noone in this world can make me feel I’m not good enough apart from me. As I stood on the deck of that boat, laughing with  the newly wed couple I met, who reminded me that sometimes relationships are literally just about two people who believe that the other is funnier and better than everyone else in the world, I breathed in, not just clean, cool, fresh air, but I finally realised that it’s time to grow up and live in the present.

 

 

 

I haven’t written a post for a long time and this I can only really attribute to laziness. I hope you’ll forgive this being a rather introspective post, but I also hope you’ll stick with it as it is not my usual fare. I have long suspected that I am an emotional chameleon. What I mean by this is that I take a tendency towards empathy a step further and take on the emotional state of those whose company I keep. This is all well and good when I spend time with those who are emotionally healthy, but when I do the opposite, when I spend time with those who are lost, or sad, or negative, I become mired in an emotional state that is not really mine to inhabit. I suppose it partially comes of wanting to make people feel at ease, validated, even, but also it is a handy way of by-passing dealing with myself and living in a different pair of metaphorical shoes for a while. I’m lucky, in that I know and spend time with a vast array of amazing and inspirational people for the majority of the time. My friends are a collection of warm, funny, caring, intelligent and proactive people, for the most part. But some of them are lost and I want them to feel better, so I take on their burdens, prioritise their self esteem and sense of well being over my own and sometimes lose myself in the process. Recently, it was the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. Being of a certain age and a certain subculture, I know many people on whom Cobain’s suicide had a profound effect, not least of which, me. But where I found Cobain to be an inspiration when I was younger, a voice for the angst I’d found inarticulable as a hormonal and confused teenager, I now realise that latching on to his pain was an unhealthy position to have taken. I now feel that suicide, as well as being the ultimate act of autonomy in the private world of someone who feels they have lost control, is a last resort that should not be validated as an option for teenagers in turmoil. Yes, it is good to know you are not alone, but it is dangerous to empathise with someone who sees no way out other than ending their life. The music I listen to is largely influenced by whether or not I can identify with the lyrics. So many times I have turned to Nirvana, or Greenday, or Radiohead, or any other number of 90s alternative acts to articulate what I just have not found such succinct words for, but I am not ashamed to say that few songs make me happier than Fascination by Alphabeat, or Mr Blue Sky by ELO. And that tells me that surrounding myself with positivity, with enthusiasm, hope, catchy riffs and uplifting ideals, is a lot more effective for my well being than the more profound and credible lyrics that can be found in less pop-py fare. It might not be big, clever, or even right, but I’m coming to realise that, far more important than those things, is feeling comfortable, safe, and content. Today, as I sat on a rooftop in Hanoi, drinking wine and marvelling that the skyline does not exceed 12 floors (as it does and then some in KL and London), I felt at peace, smiled at others and meant it, and relief flooded me as I discovered that it’s not too late to find my way back to me after all…

Bucket List

I have started reading other people’s bucket lists. For those of you who don’t know, a bucket list is a list of things you would like to accomplish before you die. Below, I have my own version: things I know I wanted to accomplish before I died, but that I have done:

  • Swim with sharks
  • Scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef
  • Learn to fly a plane
  • See Slash play live
  • Visit Angkor Wat
  • Visit Petra
  • Travel in a helicopter
  • Meet Stephen Fry
  • Perform stand up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival
  • Live in Paris
  • Write a novel
  • Complete a masters
  • Clear all my debts
  • Attend the Olympics
  • See Prince live
  • Bake bread at 3am whilst dancing to Tom Waits
  • Wander the streets at 5am with a smile on my face

I am so very lucky to be in a position where I get to add to my list of once in a lifetime experiences on such a regular basis. Not a day goes by that I don’t consider how charmed my life has been and think about how I can give back to a world that has blessed me. As the Jewish New Year of 5773 begins, my resolutions are:

  • Continue to be involved with refugee teaching
  • Go the extra mile with students
  • Be generous with my time and my money – neither is as important as giving someone what they genuinely need
  • Feed the homeless
  • Find ways to help local students to get some of the advantages they cannot afford

L’shanah tovah everyone.

H

Vignettes of Cambodia

Floating School for Orphans, Chong Kneas

Chong Kneas is a floating village. It is usually on Tonle Sap Lake, but I came in wet season and it had moved to space itself along the river. The inhabitants of Chong Kneas enjoy all of the amenities of normal village life including: a Catholic church, a Buddhist temple, a post office, a police station, various schools, shops, a barber, a bar and an assortment of dogs and cats hanging about the place, the only difference is that their houses are buoyant and drift with the currents of Tonle Sap and the nearby river.

In advance of my visit, I had picked up some supplies for the local school. I bought some packets of felt tip pens and some Angry Birds note books. As I boarded my boat, I felt excited about passing my wares over to the children. We passed a couple of Sunday schools, one in the church and one was a sort of playgroup. Then we passed a school for orphans. My guide explained that none of these children have parents or homes. They are largely dependent on the generosity of tourists for their food and school supplies. My decision was made: this school would be the recipient of my gifts. We didn’t stop on the way upstream so I did not get a good look at the school, but the whole ‘building’ was only about the size of my hotel room so I felt that I would have bought enough for it to be a useful contribution to the classroom.

On the way back downstream we docked next to the school and I got out of the boat, stationery in hand. I met one of the teachers on the way in and, smiling, passed her my offering. She smiled and nodded her gratitude, but she did not seem particularly affected by my gift. As I turned the corner and entered the school, I could see why. There were 50 or 60 children sitting cross legged on the floor. A few Asian tourists were standing around with Nikon cameras and cardboard boxes held aloft. The children were focussed on these boxes, wide eyed and reaching towards them. I realised that the tourists were distributing snacks and drinks cartons. Rather than devouring their spoils straight away, the children were arranging them neatly in their laps, or in front of them and reaching up for more. I noticed one little girl, she must have been 6 or so, who had sat quietly and not yet received anything. She was at the edge of the room, so when there was a swell of arms and bodies when a box came near, she became obscured from view. I pointed her out to one of the benefactors and she was given a handful of individually wrapped biscuits. She smiled up at me and the woman who had given her the food and began arranging it all in a cardboard lid she had found.

I felt a fool for thinking these children needed pens and paper; they didn’t even have food. I sought out another of the teachers and pressed a donation into his hand, beginning to feel quite overwhelmed. I looked back at the little girl and saw that, rather than keep the food for herself, she had changed her mind and handed it out to the others. They were all smiling. That’s how I left them as I got back onto my boat and the driver started the engine, me powering away as their school continued to drift calmly wherever the current took it.

Brother and sister

Having been pestered all day at various tourist sites by people asking me if I wanted a tuk tuk, a massage, a scarf and even, bafflingly, a look at a guidebook for $1, I was perhaps not the best person to approach last night. Nevertheless, a plucky young boy carrying a very small baby came up to me and addressed me with the customary ‘Lady’. I was half way through giving him the brush off when he interrupted me and said, ‘No, don’t want money. I want a meal.’ That got my attention. I looked at him properly and I looked at his sister, swaddled to him with a traditional plaid khmer scarf, and sighed. ‘Show me.’ He led me across the road to the mini mart and explained that he needed formula for his sister. We entered the shop and he showed me where it was. I had no idea how much formula cost but warned him I didn’t have a lot of money on me. He picked out a small tin and we had it priced up. It was $9. To put that into perspective, that’s the price of 18 tourist’s glasses of beer. Prohibitively expensive for a family on the poverty line.

I asked him if he wanted anything for himself. He smiled excitedly and said ‘yes! yes!’ before grabbing my wrist with his little hand and dragging me off round to the next aisle. I wondered what it was that he was so keen to have. A chocolate bar, maybe? Or a can of coke? Perhaps a little plastic toy of some description? We had arrived at the shelf where the thing he coveted most was: nappies. Having been given the choice of getting something for himself, he chose nappies for his baby sister. When I asked him if he was sure, he shrugged and moved aside the scarf to show me that she had none.

I bought the formula and nappies for them and walked them back to their mother over the street. Later, when I was coming out from dinner, the boy approached me again, same shtick. When he registered who I was, a flicker of embarrassment passed across his face before he smiled ‘thank you’ and looked for someone else. Whether it is a scam or he is just stocking up for his little sister, it’s very hard to argue that a 1 month old doesn’t need food. That’s how it is here: they might be ripping you off, but it’s because they need to.

Lady Hoy

Walking around a tropical country for a year in flip flops has taken its toll on my feet. They are barely acceptable in Malaysia, but in England they’d just be frowned upon. I decided I had to do something about it and set about getting a foot scrub and pedicure. Hoy called me into his place and we negotiated a price. Before I get onto Hoy’s story, I must impart a word of advice: never, EVER have one person file your toenails whilst another scrubs your feet. It is horrific. I know I am  a bit funny about people touching my feet anyway, but the combination of ticklishness, pain and contradictory feelings in each foot was almost too much to bear.

Half way through scrubbing my left foot, Hoy announced that he was gay. This was not a shock to me: he had platinum blond, styled and straightened hair that was held off his face with a sweatband; he wore blue grey contact lenses, eyeliner and eye shadow; he kept his fingernails long and they were french manicured and he tied his T-shirt over his hip with a small elastic band. He continued, ‘but my boyfriend doesn’t want me to be a ladyboy.’ He made a sad face and continued scrubbing. After a few minutes he said: ‘Me want to be lady boy, but I too handsome.’ I smiled, wondering what he meant, but then he indicated his arms and legs, which were toned and clearly those of a man. One of the other staff, another coiffeured blond, shouted over at me, ‘Lady! I don’t want no lady!’ Either he was the boyfriend, or he was also coming out for no apparent reason.

As we waited for my nails to dry, Hoy explained again how he really wanted to be a lady boy and to be in the lady boy show, but he couldn’t because his skin was too dark and his features to masculine. He pouted and danced at himself in the mirror and asked me if I thought he would be good. I said maybe in Thailand. He sighed and said he would love to go, but he needed a new passport and those cost $150. I asked how long it would take for him to earn that. He said 5 years.

When my nails were dry and it was time to go, he wished me well and declared that we should sing Lady Gaga together if I saw him in the bar later. I smiled and agreed. I hope it’s Born This Way.

Sipadan

Around this time last year, I started telling people in England that I planned to take up scuba diving when I got to Malaysia. This was another of my attempts to idealise the new and terrifying life that was hurtling towards me at a terrifying pace. I’d waxed lyrical about my 3 bedroom apartment, my pool and tennis court, my cocktails at 3.30 and, the tour de force, my scuba diving. Never in a million years did I believe that I was telling the truth. Not for one second did I imagine myself actually scuba diving. I thought that me and everyone I knew were all in on this subtly ironic joke where we bantered about what my life might be like in order to avoid saying that I’d made a terrible mistake.

I took up scuba diving in October, when I went to Thailand on holiday with my then boyfriend. I was pretty nervous so he very sweetly offered to come too. After that, I was hooked. I did my PADI Open Water in December in Malaysia and my Advanced Open Water in January back in Thailand. The only way I can think of to describe it is that it’s like being in a powered glider when the power is cut off and you’re just hanging in blue silence. I know that most, if not all, people reading this blog will not be able to relate to that simile, but it’s just this sense of calm and quiet and space and perspective that is totally different to anything you get on land.

After I completed my Open Water, a few of us were sat around chatting and our instructor and colleague, Simon, mentioned Sipadan. I’d never heard of it. A couple of months later, after booking a liveaboard in the Great Barrier Reef, I was chatting online to my friend Nadia, who has been an avid friend of fishes and diver for years and years. She said that the Great Barrier Reef was supposed to be good, but the really great, world class, dive site I ought to visit was Sipadan. I emailed Simon that evening and he arranged a trip for 6 of us.

Sipadan is a topologically fascinating site. The island is the tip of a 600m high sea mount. When you swim the reef in Sipadan, if you turn and look out and down, you’ll see 600m of blue below you. Our first dive was pretty special. We swam along a reef, saw some pretty fish and a couple of turtles, then all of a sudden we were in the blue and a school of grey reef sharks was swimming below us, rising up from the depths before flicking their tails and vanishing again. A little later in the dive, we found a plateau with a sandy bottom and there, lying on the sand, were 4 or 5 white tipped sharks, looking for all the world as if they were sunbathing.

The next dive took us into a shoal of jacks. There were hundreds, maybe over a thousand, of them swimming all around us. When we got into the centre of the shoal, everywhere we looked was flashes of silver punctuated with eyes. After 10 minutes or so , the shoal moved on, but the magic wasn’t over because they were replaced almost immediately by a shoal of chevron barracuda, which circled us slowly and lazily, undulating like sharp snakes.

Our third dive was probably my favourite. We swam down into a cave. This cave is known for being the final resting place of many a turtle that has gone in and not been able to find its way out again. As our guide took us deeper and deeper into the darkness, the only visible part of him being his yellow fins in front of me, we started to feel the panic rising. Suddenly, he stopped and turned round, our cue to do the same. As we faced the way we’d come we saw a brilliant, luminescent aquamarine framed in silhouette by the jagged outline of the cave mouth, other scuba divers floating like shadows in front of it. The view was stunning. After a few minutes, we swam out and along the reef, finding more sharks and turtles. As we made our way back to the second dive site, we discovered a shoal of bumphead parrotfish in the shallows. They were huge, much bigger than you’d imagine from looking up an image online or in a book. They have teeth like rats and consequently looked as if they were milling around on incredibly important business. We ended the dive back in the shoal of jacks, spinning our way through the centre of them as we ascended from our safety stop.

The last dive was more relaxed than the others, less big stuff to see, but not less spectacular for it. Lots of turtles and fishes of different hues and sizes and a spectacular range of coral. On our safety stop this time, I found an anemone with 4 or 5 clown anemone fish (Nemos) playing in it and amused myself by waggling my fingers at them and enticing them out of their hiding places.

After diving Sipadan, I was tired but buzzing on returning to our resort. I’d had a shower and was lying in my hammock, reading a book when one of the staff came round to tell me that the turtles had hatched and were making their way to the surface. The resort buys turtle eggs from the locals at 10 times the going rate on the black market and then protects them during incubation before releasing them into the sea when they are hatched. They incubate buried deep in the sand, but when they hatch, the sand above them drops. A couple of days later, when the moon is out, the baby turtles explode onto the surface in search of the sea, using the moon to guide them. Apparently, no one knows quite what happens to them in the first 25 years of their lives; no one sees a 7 or 8 year old turtle. Our instructor, Kev, told me that they catch a current and drift around the world, hiding themselves in sea grass and feeding on tiny jellyfish until they reach sexual maturity, stay in one place and go vegetarian. I went down to the hatchery to watch the baby turtles fighting their way up into the world. It was lovely; the whole resort and many of the locals were all gathered to see this natural phenomenon. When they were released one by one, waddling and flapping their way into the sea, each one of 113 of them received a cheer. A perfect end to a wonderful day of diving. And I still had a day left in Mabul…

I know, I know…

Such a lot has happened since my last post that the thought of translating even one of these experiences into words is incredibly daunting, but this is the responsibility I carved for myself when I took on a blog, so I am going to try…

It is Friday 6th April 2012. I am in Fort Cochin, Kerala, Southern India enjoying my first solo holiday since moving to South East Asia. I have pottered the streets, raised and lowered Chinese fishing nets, eaten proper Indian chicken korma, shared food and booze with a local business man, invented a fiance, lain awake in damp sheets during a power cut, drifted down tree lined canals in a canoe and visited a 450 year old synagogue, the familiarity of which moved me to tears. What I haven’t done is found a community with which to spend tonight’s Passover meal.

Last year for Passover I was in Sri Lanka. As luck would have it, I had a butler at the time to whom I gave a list of items that I wanted from the kitchen and I was able to create a makeshift seder, albeit one I had to participate in alone. I was the source of great amusement in the butler community for the rest of our stay; I suppose it is not every day a guest asks for a burnt bone, a boiled egg, some parsley and a dish of salt water.

This year, in Kerala, I know now that it is unlikely I will find anyone with whom to share the festival. Kerala’s Jewish community have all but gone and of those few that remain, many are spending Passover with family in Israel or elsewhere. There is one woman, who seems broken and jaded by the depletion of the community, holding on just so that the synagogue can remain a monument to a different time. She told me yesterday that there might be a service, and it is this hope that spurs me to get in a tuk tuk at 5.50. At 5.52 it starts raining. Not drizzle, but full on monsoon rain. The kind that lashes at you until you are a smaller, colder, wetter version of your dry self. I reposition myself to sit in the middle of the narrow leather bench, but the water reaches for me on both sides and by the time I reach my destination I am drenched save for a narrow band that runs down my body from between my eyebrows.

The synagogue is down 150m of lane that is inaccessible to vehicles. I am let out outside a shop that is closing, but the shopkeeper kindly lets me take shelter inside. We stand in the doorway and wait patiently for the rain to ease. I can see across the road that the lane I need to walk down is flooded and I am not relishing the journey I will have to take any minute now. I take a photograph so that I can explain the rain to people when I get home and as I am putting my camera away, I am run into by an American man. He is seeking change for his tuk tuk. After paying his driver, he turns to me and asks whether I am planning on going to the synagogue. In the middle of a flood of near Biblical proportions, the universe has sent me the only other Jew in Kerala: Noah (I swear that was his name, what follows is the stuff of incredibly well written films or novels, but it genuinely happened).

Noah and I stand in the doorway together and contemplate our next move. The door of the synagogue said it opened for services at 6, but the woman yesterday told me it would be 6.30. It is 6.20 now. The rain starts to ease and we decide to make our move. I hitch my skirt up around my knees whilst Noah removes his shoes. We wade through what turns out to be more than a foot of water. My skirt is not hitched high enough, so I adjust it and we laugh at how ridiculous we must look to the shopkeepers who are sheltering in their doorways. I see the man I dined with last night, who shouts to me that the synagogue is closed. We shout back that we are going to pray and continue on.

When we reach the synagogue, the door is locked. We knock and hear movement inside. A little Indian man opens the door a crack and tells us that there is no minyan, no service. We beg him to let us inside, but he shakes his head and begins to close the door, repeating ‘no minyan, no service’. Noah stops him and pleads that we have come from a very long way, that his is not just Shabbat, but Passover and that all we want to do is sit and pray for a few moments in our place of worship. The man pauses, then relents and lets us in. He instructs us to leave our bags and remove our shoes and then leads us through to the synagogue.

The rain has caused a power cut. The tiny synagogue is illuminated solely by the different coloured glass oil lamps that dangle from the ceiling. It is breathtakingly beautiful and I cannot believe that I am being allowed to live this moment, that it is something that is actually happening to me. A man fetches two prayer books from behind the curtain of the ark for us as we sit down facing the Torah. Side by side, in the candlelight, we sit flicking through the prayers, searching for those that might be relevant for Shabbat, for Passover or for both, trying not to drip onto the pages. We speak fragments of Hebrew interspersed with stories about our childhoods, about living in Israel, about Judaism generally. I feel myself filling up again with Judaism, remembering what it is to be Jewish, to have this huge part of my identity being revealed again. I had forgotten how much I missed the ease of it. Like family, like coming home. It was such a beautiful experience and so filled with happiness, laughter, familiarity that if it were a film it would have been the perfect beginning to a romance, but it was real life so it neatly avoided that cliche and the kinship we both felt was never anything more than that.

After 20 minutes, we are told we need to go, but that’s fine, we have what we need. As we walk back down the lane, we notice that the flood has drained already. We agree to eat together and to drink 4 cups of wine in honour of the seder tradition. We are thwarted in that ambition because it is Good Friday and the whole state of Kerala is dry on Good Friday, but it doesn’t matter, because I got the one thing I hadn’t fully realised I wanted until that wonderful moment entering that tiny, ancient synagogue: I got to be Jewish again.

Man in the mirror?

Michael Jackson once eloquently sang: ‘If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself before you make that change.’ He was, of course, paraphrasing Gandhi, though it is not clear whether he realised that or not. It’s a fairly universal maxim: do unto others as you would have done to you; lead by example; don’t be a hypocrite etcetera. Strangely, nowhere is this maxim less adhered to than in educational inset. One would think that the one sure fire way we have of empathising with our students is to think back to and remember what we felt like when we were in their position. I am very fortunate to have had a horrendous time at school, during which I kept convoluted diaries documenting my every thought. If I wish to know what the emotional life of a bright, 14 year old, girl is, I just need to flick through the pages of my old journal and I am right back there, tears ‘n’ all. Apparently, though, this is not valid practice. No. Instead, the feedback forums of these inset sessions are taken up with parents sharing anecdotes of their young, largely inarticulate, children to see if any light can be shed on the emotional life of children 10 years their senior.

We talk about inclusivity and then use as our analogy, an experience that not everyone in the room has had. And, for the most part, for the reasons discussed, this is an irrelevant experience anyway! SURELY, if we wish to be inclusive, then we should draw on the experiences we have all had when we were children. We wouldn’t be teachers if we hadn’t been to school, but, more importantly, we wouldn’t be adults if we hadn’t been children.

Why, when I am trying to understand why my year 9 girls care so very much about what the girl next to them says about their latest test result, do I care what a 5 year old boy said to his sister in a tenuously similar situation? It’s not the same thing. What IS the same thing is when, on 13th October 1995, I wrote the following: “Mr B thinks I was crying because I got a bad mark, but that wasn’t it. I was waiting to see what Milly would say and she PITIED me. Pitied. That means that she thinks I am not good enough. It’s not enough that she thinks I am too fat and too ugly to be in her group, but now she thinks I am too stupid as well. What else do I have?”

I know that inset isn’t about systematically and indulgently seeking catharsis for our younger selves, but I don’t see why relevant experience that is part of a teacher’s own childhood is somehow considered less valid than less relevant experience of a teacher’s child’s infancy???

Apparently, if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at someone else’s children before you make that change.

Hmm, it doesn’t sound so bad when I see it written down…

Lion Dance

Last week was a week of change. It was Chinese New Year, a time when Chinese families the world over shared red envelopes of money, eat oranges and cleanse their homes and public spaces of bad things with the traditional lion dance; I earned my Advanced Open Water Diver qualification in Koh Lanta, Thailand; I embraced my Scottish heritage and participated in my first Burns’ Night by delivering the ‘Toast to the Laddies’; and my relationship of 16 months ended.

I made a new year’s resolution when I came back to Malaysia, almost without realising it. I only really noticed I was doing it when it was already happening: I decided to stop holding back. When I arrived in August, I was so overwhelmed with the difficulty of penetrating a well established friendship group, with conducting my whole social life with colleagues, with being far away from everything familiar, that I locked myself in my own head and closed myself off to so many of the wonderful possibilities that were opening up to me. For 10 weeks, I lived in limbo, waiting for my boyfriend to visit. When he was here, I was completely removed and isolated from my Malaysian life, focussing entirely on him. After he left, I was back in limbo, counting down the days until I could go home for Christmas. But when I got home, I realised that what I had been looking forward to was not something time bound, it wasn’t an event, it was something that had already been going on and that was continuing to go on even while I was in Malaysia. When I came back to Kuala Lumpur, there was nothing left to wait for, so I started living my new life.

Something else happened too. I realised that, instead of telling myself I deserved good things (and then assuming I wouldn’t get them), I began to really believe it and to catch myself smiling at the anticipation of these things happening. There is so much to look forward to at the moment, so many adventures to have. Some of them are with other people, many of them are on my own, but all of it is just living my life the way I feel it deserves to be lived.

I wrote quite a maudlin email to a few friends at the beginning of the month, complaining that I didn’t know how to be me here, that people would not accept or be interested in what I have to offer. Last night, in front of 200 people, I not only showed them who I am and what I have to offer, by delivering a comic speech written in poor rhyming couplets (of course), but I was accepted for it. So when I received a text message, while I was in the middle of just living, a text message from my ex, it didn’t make me sad, I just put my phone away and carried on.

The lion dance came to my condo complex today, to chase away all the bad things. Along with the last vestiges of a well earned hangover, I think it has done its job. Only good things from now on; I can’t wait.