"Fuck you!" she heard as she hurried off in anger. I was with my mom in Bali and as I ran to catch up with her, I again wondered what I had gotten myself into.
I had come to Bali with my family a few days earlier. My cousin had just gotten married and for their honeymoon they decided to travel to Southeast Asia, visiting the places of his childhood. Rejected from graduate school and "between jobs" (read: unemployed), I decided to accept their invite and serve as their translator, porter, honeymoon photographer and all around handyman -- my own indentured servitude. Adrift in my own sea of uncertainty, I joined my family on a journey to a land known for its beaches and beauty.
Most our days in Bali followed a similar pattern: touristy sites, then beaches and fabulous dinner -- a routine that forced me up early each morning for a workout lest my beach body paranoia lose its daily battle to my "I'm-on-vacation" eating mindset. The pattern was comforting, but after a few days, sitting and sipping cocktails was just losing its charm. Shouldn't I be doing something productive?
There was a Hard Rock Bali and a Planet Hollywood Bali. I don't think I traveled across an ocean to eat a Hollywood Burger or a New York Strip. After awhile a beach is a beach, a bar is a bar and hotel pools are just hotel pools. Don't get me wrong, these things are amazingly fun, but why spend your entire time just doing the same things you can do anywhere? Where is the soul of a place that makes the journey worthwhile?
It's ironic that I learned from my parents that trying out local customs, language and just trying to blend in makes for an amazing adventure. Walking along the streets back to our house, we passed cabbies who called out "Where you from?" and she responded with "Pilipinas."
In her mind, she heard, "Oh Pilipinas? Fuck you!" When I finally caught up to her and asked what was wrong, I laughed saying "Nanay, they were saying 'Oh Pilipinas? PACQUIAO! PACQUIAO!" (Manny Pacquiao being one of the greatest boxers in the history of the known universe. Not that I'm biased at all.) This incident just another fun battle in my mother's ongoing war of English accents.
To me it comes down to this: do you want to be a tourist or a traveler? Do you merely observe the world or live as a curious and active part of it? Amazing new experiences require us to step out of our comfort zones. Yes it can be frightening and embarrassing to sound like a baby learning its first words, but nothing comes perfect the first time. These missteps tend to be the most memorable parts of a trip.
Every morning I set out to learn a new Balinese phrase from the staff. Agung and Nygoh took turns laughing at me as I tried to phrase out a proper "suksama" (thank you) after receiving my breakfast (nasi goreng I miss thee!). Curiously asking our temple bench companions in Ubud why such a huge crowd had gathered that day, we discovered we were sitting next to local royalty. A casual conversation with our captain in Komodo taught me he has been at sea almost all 20 years of his life. At 20, I think I was just figuring out how to balance my checkbook.
The rangers in Komodo explained all the wildlife they had seen and the problems they faced keeping their park healthy and vibrant. Despite the language, I still understood the horror of stumbling upon one of the dragons tearing apart a goat. I would have never learned any of this merely lounging on my chaise in Seminyak.
By getting off that chaise, I learned many Tagalog and Balinese words are similar, and they even share the Filipino sense of humor. As we were driving through Kuta, we started laughing as we passed an Italian Pizzeria, run by French ex-pats, in the middle of Bali, Indonesia. As we laughed over this "Western food invasion" our driver Thomas told us to never ask for "Western food" as it's a local phrase used to describe the "dahon muda" or "young leaves" trolling for rich old white men to date. We ask how they got this name, and he laughs saying, "Because these old men, they like to eat and run!"
This is what travel is about, tasting that local flavor and coloring a little bit outside the lines of our daily lives. Next time you take your passport for a spin, don't forget to try the local flavor -- because you never know what the Western food will hold.