"How old do you think we are?"
Many of you reading this blog are going to laugh at me for this post (largely because many of you reading this blog are significantly older than I am – what up family members and professors) but this past weekend I had one of my first experiences of really feeling old. It was a strange feeling, and not one that I want to repeat too soon. However, it also led to some personal reflection (probably helped by the 10+ hours spent in a car this weekend as well). Also, as I try to type this I’m realizing the thoughts in my head are having a very hard time coming together on paper, so forewarning for this entry.
This experience came about, as almost all good travel memories do, at the hostel bar. Five of my fellow Pahangsters (we all had to come up with “cool” names for our state cohorts during orientation and for some reason Pahangsters (Pahang + gangsters) seemed to stick for us) and I decided to spend the weekend in the Cameron Highlands after all helping out with Kyle’s English camp in Kuala Lipis (snaps to Kyle for already completing one of his camps, you make us all look like underachievers) which is the closest ETA placement to the Highlands.
- Side travel note* The Cameron Highlands are a highland (duh) region of Pahang that are world famous for their tea production. The area has a cooler climate than the rest of Malaysia (it got below 70 and we all complained that we were cold) and as a result a wide variety of crops (like strawberries, yum) are grown there that would otherwise be unavailable in the more tropical climates of the rest of the peninsula. During British control of Malaysia it became a favored holiday location for wealthy families and has kept its positioned as a favored holiday destination for far longer than the British managed to keep control of the country. As a result, it is a charming area with all kinds of great tea, every possible strawberry product you can think of, a heavy influence of European architecture and amazing Indian food (sadly the result of the large Tamil populations that work on the tea plantations for abysmal wages). If you’re ever in Malaysia and get the chance to check it out, I highly recommend it.
Pretty, isn't it?
Anyways, after a day of exploring various areas of the Highlands we decide to cap off the night with a drink at the bar at Daniel’s Travelers Lodge. We weren’t actually staying there for the night (we had tried but they were completely full) and instead the 6 of us were sharing one very grimy room at their partner hotel (thank god the whole group was wonderfully adaptive travelers) However, the receptionist of our hotel recommended it as a good place to meet other foreigners. Plus, since all of us live in Muslim neighborhoods and are required to keep our houses halal (i.e. no pork or alcohol products can enter the premises) we were not going to pass up the chance to have a beer.
As we were ordering our drinks we met a group of British students who invited us to join their table. The seven of them we also in the Highlands for just the weekend. They were spending a semester studying in Kuala Lumpur and had taken advantage of the long weekend to explore more of the country. We had a great evening talking with them and it was one of those nights that remind me why I love to travel and meet new people. The hours quickly passed by as we talked about everything from how crappy Malaysian beer is to the pros and cons of universal healthcare and the differences between US and British university systems. Before knew it, it was well past midnight and both parties had morning plans that were going to come far too early for everyone’s liking.
What made me feel old about the experience is that the students we were talking with were 19 years old. 19! They were still teenagers! I thought back to where I was at when I was 19 and it seems like a lifetime ago for me and in some ways it kind of was.
At 19 I was starting my first major adventure abroad as a wide eyed teenager running around the streets of Beibei, China (props Mom and Dad, I’m beginning to realize how nerve wracking that most have been for you). I hadn’t yet discovered my passion for education issues. I had yet to teach in a Chinese classroom, climb a mountain by myself, develop an addiction to spicy food, learn how to jump our guard gate when we got back from drinks too late, or experience the sadness that comes with leaving behind friends from around the world that you know you’ll probably never see again.
I hadn’t yet spent two summers in DC realizing how much I love and hate the city at the same time, much like my feelings towards the politics that take place there. I hadn’t become a master of the DC subway system, figured out all the free food hacks that are very much needed as an unpaid intern, found my love of running, or discovered the amazing Trufam that will always have amazing memories from our time at South Hall.
I hadn’t spent summer living in Bosnia and gaining an intimate understanding of one of the most underrated capital cities in all of Europe. I hadn’t spent a summer working side by side amazing individuals dedicated to giving the young people of BiH an active role in shaping the future of their country. I hadn’t gotten to take part in the first major protest since the war. I hadn’t been lucky enough to have survivors of the war trust me with their stories of death, loss, destruction, hope, resilience, and determination to ensure the past was not repeated. I hadn’t traveled completely on my own before and learned to love the solitude it offers.
I hadn’t filmed two documentaries in some of the most tragic and beautiful locations on Earth. I hadn’t wandered the slums of Kolkata, gotten lost and miraculously found myself standing in the home of the Sisters of Charity. I hadn’t held the hand of a woman who said she prayed every night to die so she could escape the hell that was living in the mental asylum. (On a much vainer note, I hadn’t celebrated my 21st birthday at a rooftop bar with the Kolkata professional soccer team.) I hadn’t ridden in the backs of trucks to the most remote places in Thailand that no tourist will ever find. I hadn’t bribed guards to sneak a film team into places that not even the BBC or CNN can access. I hadn’t taken a boat across a river, hopped on a motorcycle with a stranger, and gotten a personal tour of the Karen state. I didn’t yet know the feeling of watching a project I had poured my entire heart and soul into premiere before hundreds to both good and bad reactions.
I hadn’t yet made the decision to leave behind everything and everyone I know and move to Malaysia for a year with no idea what I was in for. I hadn’t yet learned how little a school actually needs to still succeed in educating their students, how to make due with no electricity or water, how to connect with teenagers who have almost nothing other than their determination to learn, or how to navigate the insanity that is being a white, western woman in rural Malaysia.
As I thought about all these things and a lot of other things 19 year old me had not yet experienced, I felt a mixture of feelings. I felt very old (obviously, hence the point of this blog). I also felt an extreme sense of pride at all the opportunities I have been able to take advantage of in 4 short years. I also felt a large sense of responsibility that I make sure I continually use all of the opportunities I have been given to improve not just my own life, but also the lives of those I encounter through them. The most pressing thought on my mind though was if 19 year old me had met 23 year old me at a hostel bar, what would she have thought? Even after 10+ hours in a car, I’m not sure if I’ve come up with an answer to that yet.