Reblogged: Mesi & Brad = Love

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Here’s a beautiful interview with Mesi about our relationship and photos taken by our talented friend Grazina. We are lucky to have many friends who happen to be awesome photographers!

Mesi describes a bit about how we got together and some of the challenges we faced doing long distance. She has a way of talking about our life and experiences in a way that is much more insightful and meaningful than I could ever be.

What would be your advice for long distance couples?

We started figuring out stuff in a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. It was a month long retreat where we studied the teachings of the Buddha, learned meditation techniques and stayed away from the outside word and touching each other for the whole time. It has totally rocked our world, like our common path together was blessed through that process. And our brains transformed. That was 6 months before we moved together permanently in Budapest.

So my advice would be instead of going on holidays together (what we did for a while) where you most likely are going to stay in your comfort zone, wear your best dresses, eat well, drink even better and most likely never really get to know each other’s deeper aspects, I recommend something more profound where there is a space to cut through the layers of superficiality and you have the opportunity to shift the bond to a deeper level to see if it’s the idea of the other/relationship that you so want or you actually appreciate who the other is and feel that not continuing together is not even an option anymore.

Read the rest of the interview and see some (slightly cheesy) photos on Grazina’s blog here.

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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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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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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

Szia, Budapest!

After one incredible year, we are leaving Budapest. I’ve really loved living here. It is a breathtakingly beautiful city, and I feel much under-rated as place to live. We have made some great friends, finally built ourselves a ‘normal’ life and Mesi has established herself as a regular yoga teacher in one of the city’s best studios (why are we leaving again?).

The other night at our farewell party, someone asked me the three things I’m going to miss most about Budapest. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Sztrapacska at Potkulcs
Potkulcs is a nonchalant rom kocsma in the 6th district that is nowhere near as famous as other iconic ruin bars in BP such as Szimpla, Fogashaz or Instant. What it lacks in notoriety, however it more than makes up by offering one of the tastiest meals in all of Budapest. ‘Sztrapacska’ adheres to traditional Central European cooking philosophy by incorporating three of the region’s most commonly used ingredients: meat, carbs, and an indifference to vegetables. The dish is essentially potato dumplings with bacon bits, sour cream and a hint of onion. I don’t know what else they put into the meal at Potkulcs but it’s very delicious and even better than the sztrapacksa I had in Slovakia (where the dish originates).

My buddy Jeremy and I came to Potkulcs almost every Friday during winter and I’m pretty sure we were known to the staff as the quaint sztrapacska-obsessed foreigners who needed to get out a bit more. I put this on the list as one of my favourite things about Budapest, not only because I was here so much, but also to acknowledge that, despite the grandness of the city – with its architecture, its baths, its world-famous ruin bars – the simple things are often the best and, when it comes down to it, the stuff ‘real life’ is made of.

 

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2. Dogs in bars, cafes, restaurants
Hungarians love their dogs and it shows in the way people go about their lives – if you have a dog it comes with you, everywhere. What makes this even cooler, is that proprietors of bars, cafes and restaurants are incredibly accepting of this, and it’s not uncommon to see a dog pop out from under the table during lunch or wander up to you during a morning coffee. It doesn’t even have to be in the middle of the day: dogs hang out in bars at night, looking forlorn into their drinks while telling other dog buddies about the latest bitch that left them. It’s amazing, but probably to be expected from a people that purposely bred a dog that looks like a mop head.

 

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3. Riding across one of Budapest’s seven bridges
The Danube River that separates Buda from Pest is for me, the most beautiful aspect of the city. Most of the architecture along the Danube (and indeed in the old part of Budapest) was built at the turn of the 20th century, when Budapest was the Hungarian jewel of the wealthy Austro-Hungarian empire. At that time, 20% of all construction budgets had to be devoted purely to aesthetics – a rule which means that today you’ll find grand buildings adorned with sculptures and beautiful, decorative finishings all over the facade.

Walking along the river you have not only this architecture but iconic pieces such as Buda castle, the Parliament building and a series of small but spectacular churches. Together, it’s a grand mix of breathtaking architecture and natural beauty that is just unparalleled in this part of Europe.

When I first came to Budapest I lived in Pest, but had Hungarian classes in Buda. Every morning I was ‘forced’, as part of my daily commute to cycle across Freedom Bridge and every morning I took in the views across the Duna. After a month of this, I couldn’t NOT stay.

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Budapest feels like home to both of us, and we plan to come back to Budapest many many times. But it’s time to move on and jump head first into the next adventure.

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Fact of the Day

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