Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Home is Where I Want to Be, Pick Me Up and Turn Me Round

Maybe it’s the fact that I turn 30 next year, my Sister is in the process of buying a house, my Mom just visited Juara and my Dad will be here in a few days, but lately I’ve been thinking about my sense of place. And since I’ve been with Alli for well over five years now, you could say I’ve been pondering our sense of place, too. Or maybe I’ve just been delving too deep into the Talking Heads catalogue. 

Since leaving my childhood state of Maryland in 2003, I’ve lived in a few locales: two cities in Colorado, including one where I did my undergrad; spent about four glorious years in Tucson, Arizona; and by the time we leave Juara at the end of this month, I’ll have spent a year total here. That’s 12 months in a Malaysian village with a population of about 350-400 people. The fact that Juara is on Tioman, a popular tourist island, means the village can sometimes seem a lot of larger than it is, but this is bar none the tiniest town I’ve ever set up shop in. To quote Dr. Funkenstein: “I can dig it.”

Juara Bay.
I’ve always wanted to live in a small town, err village, but never came close in the U.S. Fort Collins (CO) was the closest I ever came, but numbers there easily exceed 100,000. I just never thought my first living experience in a smaller setting would be in Malaysia.

A lot of the aspects of small town life I envisioned occurring in America also occur here, it’s just the nuances that are different. It’s not your car everyone recognizes, but your motorbike (you can literally recognize the sounds of ours, it didn’t get the nickname “Big Noisy” for nothing). Gossip is rampant, I just don’t understand it all, since my understanding of Bahasa Melayu is still miniscule. There’s no town dump, we just handle it like my Grandpa in Pennsylvania did, by burning it on windy days. Restaurants don’t have hours posted and when a wedding, engagement party or funeral occurs, the entire populace shows up.

Sometimes though finding your own space to unwind is a battle. You have to seek it out. You just can’t hole yourself up in your digs and marinate in a little R&R, well you could, but you’d probably sweat to death. Disappearing into the crowd in this setting is not an option. Plus, I’m a foreigner so I stick out double-time.

The foreigner tag is a biggie. It’s always tough moving somewhere where you’re not from. As our planet becomes more crowded, boasts and proclamations of local residence become louder. I always got a hearty chuckle out of seeing the cheeky “No Vacancy” or “Native” bumper stickers in Colorado. But I made a solid life for myself there. In Arizona I like to think I had some desert rat cred, due to the number of Gila monsters I picked up with my bare hands, street tacos I could scarf in one sitting and the 20+ year-old pickup truck I bumbled around in (no rust ya heard!). But out here it’s a whole different ballgame.

Trying to gel into a small Muslim village with strong community ties is not a cakewalk. But there’s no pressure on us to be anything we’re not, and as long as you respect the culture they have created for themselves then for the most part everyone has been welcoming, friendly, and at least, not too annoyed. Conducting conservation work can be the exception to this. Similar tensions have arisen all over the globe when (mostly) white folks pop into the developing world and start telling people what they should be doing in order to conserve this species, or preserve that space.

It is inherently arrogant, there’s no denying that. Imagine the reaction a New Englander would have if a Malaysian showed up in Gloucester telling them what to do with their cod, herring and salmon stocks. I can only imagine the colorful Massachusetts language that would ensue.

For the most part living here is also dealing with what you leave behind. I made some amazing friends in the desert and to walk away from that was tough. It’s not like visiting Malaysia is an easy task. Also, everyone in my family lives in the States, except for me. They’re scattered up and down the Eastern seaboard. I haven’t lived close to my sister in over a decade and as my Grandma nears the age of 95, there’s a solid chance I won’t be there to celebrate it. I wouldn’t be surprised too, if Alli or I become an aunt and uncle in the foreseeable future (as far away in the future as you want Tara). Are we going to be there for those moments?

So I then start to ponder if all of this is selfish on our part. Or are we running away from the type of life we were living in the U.S. The answer, somewhat, to both of those questions is yes. I love the pace of life here and the overall simplicity. I love leaving my doors and windows open at night, not having to lock up my possessions on a daily basis; leaving the keys to our motorbike in the ignition and never having to hop onto an eight-to-ten lane highway. And being sandwiched between the languid South China Sea and a stately rainforest is a colossal bonus, too.

Purple house and its resident chicken.
Alli and I are in the process of contemplating a return to Juara next year, where we would really sink our teeth in and set up shop for at least a couple years. The opportunity is unprecedented, with the possibility of it occurring in America near impossible. And the faith that people have put in us here is incredibly humbling.

David Byrne once proclaimed, in a much more famous Heads song all you readers probably know, that “you may find yourself in another part of the world.” And that “you may ask yourself, how do I work this?” Labeling this a once-in-a-lifetime chance may be a tad bit dramatic, but trying to pinpoint where I want to spend the next couple years is no small feat. I don’t know what we’re gonna do, but I’m leaning toward seizing the moment.
Kayaking to one of our favorite restaurants.


  1. A friend, who immigrated the the United States by fleeing communist Cuba read your blog. He responded by a quote, "Home is where the Heart Is." Good luck on your decision.

  2. I've just read the majority of your blog (concentrating on JTP). Sad to hear that you're not returning to Juara. As a Malaysian living in Perth, I really want to make a trip there - just can't decide when, too many factors with family and life here! Prob April, maybe early May if I can wait that long :)

    1. Hi Shee. Thanks for reading. Yes, Alli and I decided to return home to the U.S. for a bit. It was a tough decision as Juara is a glorious place. Definitely make sure to stop by JTP or volunteer if you can. One of the best organizations I've ever been involved with. Hopefully you get out there in the next few months!