Stories of Dhaka

Dhaka is one the world's megacities with 15 million and rising

Dhaka is one the world’s megacities with 15 million and rising

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Across the road from the hotel where I’m staying is a large watery slum, built on the surface of Banani Lake. It sits right in the middle of the city, just a brisk row away from Gulshan, the Manhattan-esque isthmus where the city’s expats, diplomats and elite reside. I’m at the hotel restaurant and an American from the USA arm of BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, which incidentally owns the hotel I’m staying at, comes over to introduce himself. We talk for a bit, and then I excuse myself to go outside. Just around the corner is my favourite chai wallah, and I sit in his makeshift stall while an endless stream of cycle rickshaws ferry their passengers through the sea of traffic.

Development expats, rickshaws, diplomats, chai wallahs, slum dwellers, and the world’s largest, multi-national NGO are crammed together in this neighbourhood – an area no larger than a college campus. This is the reality of modern Dhaka. Over 10 days I weave in between all of these worlds, glimpsing enough of each to get a sense of how all these parts fit together in this marvellous, crazy corner of the Earth.

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Off-the-beaten-track: a Bali road trip

170 km around the east of Bali

170 km around the east of Bali

Take a map of Bali and circle the main tourist spots: Kuta, Seminyak, Ubud, Sanur, and the entire Bukit peninsula – it’s an amazingly small part of the island, I’m guessing less than 10%, that captures the imagination of 3 million visitors every year. What about the other 90%? What’s there? When my friend Chris arrived for Chinese New Year break I suggested we do a bit of road-tripping, to go off and see what lay out beyond the well-trodden paths. The result was unbelievable – a two-day adventure of draw-dropping jungle-mountain-ricefield vistas, quaint villages, cops and gun men, and underwater exploration. We set off on two scooters, with little more than a full tank of petrol and rough idea of where to head first.

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A discussion with Komang from Calo: On weddings, family and freedom

Komang from Calo

Komang from Calo

View over Komang's family's fields

View over Komang’s family’s fields

Today we had an interesting encounter with a Balinese man Komang, 29. He lives in a small village of 2000 people, Calo (pronounced like the Hindi word for ‘let’s go’, challo!). He travelled the world for four years working on various cruise liners, learnt to speak four languages during that time and recently returned home this year, in August, to marry his high school sweetheart. They are expecting a baby in April.

Our friends and current house mates, Adam and Zsuzsi befriended Komang a weeks ago, while we were on a visa run to KL. Today, they decided to meet to catch up and also because Adam (a filmmaker) wished to shoot Komang’s family harvesting rice for a feature he is working on.

We followed A&Z, through a wonderful series of rural roads north of Ubud, past rice fields, gorges and rivers. The tourist density once you get ten km away from town drops dramatically, and you’re left with lots of simple villages and a glimpse into what life must have been like before the explosion of visitors to the island. Forty-five minutes later we found Komang in Calo, in his corner of paradise.

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Forget the bucket list

The ultimate travel bucket list

The ultimate travel bucket list

I used to have a bucket list, and I used to think completing it would make me happy.

In 2009, after finally ending a long, drawn-out battle with my doctoral thesis, I set out into the world, with a backpack and a ticket to India and South America. On my journey, I dutifully intended to complete the predetermined things that ‘I had always wanted to do before I die’:

  • see the Taj Mahal,
  • trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu,
  • take those incredible surreal reflection shots on the Bolivian Salar de Uyuni,
  • pair wine and steak in Mendoza,
  • party it up in Buenos Aires,
  • go to Carnaval in Rio.

Maybe, if I got round to it, I would also snake my way north to spend time living in a celebrated, world-class city like New York or London (forgetting that I had come from a celebrated, world-class city already, Sydney).

It was a list of my so-called ‘life goals’, things that I had gleaned from glossy travel magazines, movies, documentaries, Lonely Planet guides, friends’ Facebook albums and a lifetime worth of other bucket-list creating impulses. For sure, I imagined, getting these things ticked off would make me a more complete, satisfied person.

Carpe Listem!

Or something like that.

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Humans of Peter Dias Rd.

When I was living in Mumbai, I used to come out of my apartment every day and see this small hut. Most of the time it was closed, and even when it was open, there was rarely anyone in there – just a lot of books. I often wondered what the hell is this place? A friend wrote a great blog post about this store and the man who runs it. Not only did it answer some of my questions, but it paints a beautiful picture of simple existence in a massive city. Bombay has 22 million stories just like this guy – people coming from all over India, just trying to carve out a life in their corner (or small hut) of the world.

The things you own end up owning you

Some of the great fin possessions during our cleaning spree

Some of the great finds during our cleaning spree

After two years away, I returned to Sydney to clean my room.

Of course it wasn’t planned that way. No one returns back to their home town after a long absence thinking, y’know what sounds like fun? Cleaning! Forget catching up with friends, enjoying the warm weather, let’s get tidy! But looking back, I can definitively say thats what I devoted most of my energy towards during our month in Sydney. I banned myself to my room and cleaned out.

This post needs a backstory: When I was a teenager, my mum purchased a house and we – mum, my brother and I – upgraded from our small apartment, and I got my own room. Over the years, I accumulated a teenager’s worth of things and then a university student’s worth of things, and finally left home at 22.

I moved four times during my 20s. While the biggest purchases occurred on my first move out of home, I didn’t just transfer my possessions from one share house to the next. I kept accumulating more things, sometimes leaving the pieces unwanted in the next move, back in the room I grew up in.

I left the country at the end of 2012 and because there was no new house to put it in, I had to cram everything I owned – four homes, and a lifetime’s worth of stuff – into my childhood room. Ironically, despite being full of my life, the room became totally devoid of life: It was dark, dusty, cluttered and heavy with the past.

And it was this heaviness that I returned to, with Mesi, when we arrived in Sydney a month ago. Three months on the road in such uplifting places as India and Bali, and we found ourselves living in a space that was the antithesis of everything we had experienced.

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Navigating the Bali Rental Market

Typical DIY rental advertising in Bali

Typical DIY rental advertising in Bali

We arrived in Bali not as tourists, but as potential future residents. It meant travelling the island with a different eye. We spent our days scooting around soaking in the vibe of neighbourhoods rather than sight seeing. The important questions: Can we see ourselves being part of this community? What are our neighbours and landlords like? Does it feel safe here? How long will it take to get to yoga? Is there decent coffee in ‘roll-out-bed’ distance? Finding a house in Bali is one for the explorers. We used two methods with limited success: real estate agents and Facebook groups. However, the most effective was simply getting on a scooter and jetting around neighbourhoods, looking out for “FOR RENT” signs that landlords placed outside their empty houses. Whenever we saw one and the house looked good from the outside, it was usually a matter of calling the accompanying number and waiting 5 to 10 min to be shown the house. No appointments, no missed connections, simple and efficient.

I get the feeling that Bali, at least now is slightly tipped in favour of the renters. There’s so much construction going on and enough vacant houses that we felt we could hold out to find the house that was perfect for us. We saw a lot of houses in Bali over four weeks. I lost count but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was around 30. The thing about looking for a home of course, is that basically every single inspection is on some level, disappointment, until you find the right one. Every time we jumped on the scooter we felt the excitement of hope – that maybe this time, this house, would be the home we’d been searching for. And every time, except the last, we left empty handed.

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We’re moving to Bali!

We're moving to Bali!

We’re moving to Bali!

Ubud's famous rice paddies

Ubud’s famous rice paddies

Mesi and I had the crazy idea from a long time ago that we’d move to Bali. Back then it was clearly a dream – an ideal for some unspecified time in the future when circumstances – work, relationship, finances – would magically coalesce and we’d end up in some paradise of our imagination. This ideal was even more fuzzy given that neither of us, up until four weeks ago, had ever been to Bali. It was a half-plan based on a romantic daydream. Elizabeth Gilbert would be proud.

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My Grandmother’s life in photos: From Canton to Borneo to the Fragrant Harbour

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My Por Por is now 87, and she’s lived quite the life. A successful woman who didn’t even complete high school, she fled the Japanese and then the communists, raised a family in Sandakan in Borneo, then gave it up to restart in Hong Kong in the 1970s as an amateur stock trader.

I knew bits and pieces of her story, but never from her directly. In Hong Kong I got the chance to interview her to put the full picture together.

She was born in 1927 in Seklong – a city in Guandong, China. It was a difficult time to be born Chinese. The Japanese invaded when she was eight years old, and her family had to flee into the countryside to avoid the conflict. They stayed there for a while, but returned only to find the Japanese sill in control. Her half-sister was raped by the invaders. Like many of their generation, both of my grandmas maintain a distrust of Japanese people – an opinion borne from a difficult period in Chinese history.

The Japanese stayed around for almost a decade and throughout WWII. No sooner had the Japanese left however, the Communists arrived. Her father had some business interests through Asia, and managed to buy a lot of property. Back in those days, deeds were bought Monopoly style – one purchased the whole street! My great grandfather had more than 100 houses, and was well educated. Not exactly a great profile to have during the Communist uprising.

The family fled to Hong Kong in 1949 and up until that time my Por Por had spent half of her life under threat. She told me that it was a very scary experience. That said, elements of her time in China were not all bad. She loved going to school. She started quite late, around the age of 10, because one of her mothers (her father practised polygamy as was the custom at the time, and had two wives) did not think school was for girls.

But when she was finally allowed in she excelled. She skipped grades. Her favourite subject was history. Most kids (including myself when I was younger) take school for granted. For my Por Por, school was a luxury – something she had to fight for – and you could tell in her voice, even after all these years, that she loved being in class.

“If you liked school so much, why didn’t you go to university?” I asked.

“Because I got married!”. She met my grandfather in China, and they were married when she was 21. That was the end of all possibility of further education.

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My Por Por and her mother-in-law / aunt

My Por Por on her wedding day and her mother-in-law / aunt

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Sisters reunited

There is a fascinating story about their meeting. My grandparents’ mums (my great grandmothers) were sisters but they were born into a poor family and were given up for adoption after birth. They didn’t see each again, indeed didn’t even know they were sisters, until they became adults. When they were finally reunited, this was a obviously a really joyous occasion for both of them. In the end this was how my grandparents met – so technically they were cousins.

I asked my Por Por whether she liked Seklong and she told me simply: “Yes, it was where I grew up. It’s my home”.

When they got to Hong Kong, a year after they married, my grandparents had nothing to do. She told me that they spent all their days going to movies to pass the time – sometimes watching three movies a day! It’s a sweet, romantic picture I have in my mind of my grandparents – two newlyweds idling away the days in a post-war Hong Kong, before kids, before responsibility and before their marriage stopped working.

My family bought a farm up in Yuenlong, in the new territories of Hong Kong. They started farming on it. The thought of my rather bourgeoise grandparents working the land is amusing, bordering on hilarious. No one in my family even closely resembles a farmer – and the lack of practical skills is a trait that has been passed down to me. My Por Por told me her favourite part of the farm was playing with the chicks, holding them in her hand and weighing them.

My great grandfather, my Por Por’s father-in-law, was one of the first Chinese to settle in Malaysia in the 19th century. With his brothers, they started a massive business conglomerate – originally a series of timber plantations, it sprung up to include palm oil, shipping, hotels and banking. My grandfather was called to continue the family business in 1953. He didn’t really want to do it, but my Por Por enjoyed it – and didn’t mind because the Hong Kong farm was struggling.

My great grandfather rocking the old Chinese threads

My great grandfather rocking the old Chinese threads

My great grandfather with his huge family (three wives and children)

My great grandfather with his huge family (three wives and children)

They lived in Sandakan on the east cost of Sabah. The photos from this era evoke such a special, frontier-like wildness. It must have been such a fascinating time to be in Borneo. Soon after, Malaysia and the rest of the tiger economies began their rapid industrialisation – for better or worse, they were never the same again.

In the space of six years she had five children – my mum and my aunts and uncles. They lived a very comfortable and privileged life on account of the success of my great-grandfather’s business. Besides taking care of the children, my Por Por spent her time playing Mahjong and swimming. Our family owned the only swimming pool in Sandakan. It was on a rubber plantation.

My grandparents did not enjoy a happy marriage. By all accounts they argued a lot – mostly about money, which is a shame considering how well-off they were. However, the only time I saw my Por Por cry was at my grandfather’s funeral more than thirty years after they separated.

My Por Por on the timber plantation in Sandakan

My Por Por on the timber plantation in Sandakan

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My Por Por's children - my aunts, uncles and mum (the middle child)

My Por Por’s children – my aunts, uncles and mum (the middle child)

Straight from Wong Kar Wai's 'In the Mood for Love'

Straight from Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’

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My Por Por with my aunt (left) and mum (centre) at the pool

In 1975, at the age of 48, my Por Por moved to Hong Kong to start a new life. It was the age of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, the world was deregulating one industry at a time. Everyday she would go to the stock market (back then one could not buy and sell from the comfort of an internet cafe) and trade. I asked her how she learned and she said she just spoke to people around her, gleaning bits of trading advice and stock tips.

Within one month she had quadrupled her small piece of capital. I think this is pretty remarkable for a woman who did not complete the full complement of high school, and spent almost all of her adult life as a housewife. She got so successful that soon people came to her for advice. I don’t know whether she was truly good at trading, or was just caught up in the rising tide of rapidly expanding global economy, but the fact remains she did it.

She has stayed in Hong Kong ever since. Now retired, she spends her time playing mahjong with her friends. Family visits often and that gives her a lot of joy. When I asked her what makes her happy she said that she likes watching TV, playing mahjong and buying diamonds: a weird mix of the quotidian and the hedonistic. She is extremely generous with her family and I suspect that’s the cause of her deepest fulfilment.

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My mum, Por Por and I enjoying a glass of Hungarian Tokaj wine

Leaving the Nest: Teaching Yoga in KL

Warming up to take flight

Warming up to take flight

While we were in Hungary, Brad had an ‘out-of-the-blue’ idea that I should teach yoga on our travels. I thought it was great, because it would keep me in touch with teaching, and soothe the somewhat difficult process of giving up classes in Budapest. We looked up studios in cities we were going to hit, and wrote to the ones that felt sort of intimate and less commercialised as most of the yoga spaces in big Asian cities can be. We had a response straight away from this place called Aravind Yoga in KL, and after a bit of back and forth, we agreed on me teaching a class.

I choose the theme LEAVING THE NEST, which was to be a two hrs class full of challenging bird poses. The aim of the class was to inspire confidence – enough to be able to “fly” so to speak, and leave confined comfort zones, expand and explore outside of what we know and what we feel at home with. Basically, the concept touched on the very essence of my life right now, and I must have chosen it sub-consciously as the correlation between the theme and my current experience didn’t occur to me at the time.

We left our home in Hungary roughly a month ago. We had an established life, and more importantly, a very comfortable and rewarding one. We both were doing what we are passionate about, we both had a nice circle of friends and also common friends for the first time in our relationship. Leaving all that behind felt wrong at times. So the subject of the class seemed like a pretty good analogy for what I was going through: leaving our Hungarian nest, our home, and flying into the big wide world.

As you may have read in a previous post, it didn’t take long for India to teach us a a very hardcore lesson in dealing with discomfort. Then I headed into Asia proper: the far East, a culture I was (and still am) completely new to. I’ve never been in this part of the world before and, I’m going to be honest here, I found it quite intimidating. Almost everything about it, starting with the food, the size of the cities, the consumerist attitude to life and the obvious lack of open communication, was challenging. In Hungarian they have a saying “Ez nekem kínai!”, which Hungarians use when they don’t understand something. It translates into “it’s Chinese to me”.

Chinese culture is basically Chinese to me. Insight of the year.

So then I went on to teach. And it was fun. 20 people showed up, the owners of the studio were super sweet and we had a smashing class. I’m really happy that Chris and Phillipe, took a chance on me, and it all turned out really well. If you ever end up in KL I couldn’t recommend their yoga studio enough.

Me and the owners of Aravind Yoga, Phillipe and Chris

Me and the owners of Aravind Yoga, Phillipe and Chris

Fun fact: a Hungarian guy, Akos, and his Malaysian girlfriend, Cheryl, showed up to the studio (but accidentally an hour late, so they didn’t participate in the class), and we went out to have coffee afterwards with them and their friend Su Mei. So the five of us, in a surprising, but totally awesome, Malaysian-Hungarian cultural exchange, ended up in a Hungarian Bistro (in a KL food court) run by this older Hungarian woman called Piroska (shown on picture). We ate kurtos kalacs, a typical Hungarian sweet, and drank some bad Hungarian coffee. Akos and Cheryl invited us to a Hungo ex-pat party to celebrate one of the girls’ birthdays. We went and had a blast. More Hungarians than Malaysians showed up and we thought it so strange that we could find ourselves in a bar in Kuala Lumpur in this situation, when only hours before we didn’t expect this at all.

Piroska and her kürtős kalács

Piroska and her kürtős kalács

The Hungarian ex-pat party

The Hungarian ex-pat party

The next day Brad and I went out for sight seeing and for some reason I was in a foul mood. I was whinging about the heat outside and then the antarctic AC settings inside, the culture, the contrast of our value systems, blah blah blah…then Brad stopped me. He reminded me what I talked about in my class to others just the day before: about how to broaden our minds, how to become comfortable with the unexpected and how now I wasn’t applying any of it.  That’s not exactly what we call walking the talk…

It was not nice to hear as you can imagine. He doesn’t confront me a lot, or question my integrity but when he does I do listen because I know he is coming from a true place and I need to go straight away and get some real perspective.

So I went.

This is where we are right now. I’m working on finding that constant calm, that space inside where I can always retreat to regardless of the circumstances. A place which is always there for me to tap into, and guides my behaviour. I do believe that we all are the same in the end, we all just want to be happy…

Right now, we are on the plane to Singapore after a week spent in bustling Hong Kong with his mum and granny. A post on that is coming soon, but for now we are spending the day with our good friend from Sydney, Chris in an another Asian mega-city. Then tomorrow we are off to BALI!!! Finally! Back to my own Zen Paradise! Or not… Will see soon enough…

Another chance to practise being at ease with the unease.

For updates on where I’ll be teaching in the future like my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/yogamesh

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Fact of the Day

  • 9,735 animals were saved in the making of this blog