The worst part of travelling is getting from one place to another, at least when you don’t have a motorcycle (never again). The whole soul and objective of travelling is getting to a place you want to be. Believe me, there are precious few insights to be gleaned from the tight, rigid spaces that characterize so much of train and bus transport throughout the world. Forget the romantic notion of a train journey, wide-eyed traveller face-pressed against a broad window gazing unto a new world of pleasures and mysteries. In reality, inter-city trips of any appreciable length take place at night, where the magnificence of the world shrinks to that of a dim carriage highlighted by a toilet light. It is in these times that backpackers like to invoke that old Emerson proverb: life is a journey, not a destination. Chances are they haven’t rode the sleeper train from Jakarta to Bali.

To the keen geographer, something about that short itinerary might jump out as being rather odd. Jakarta. Bali. What could be wrong? Both places Indonesian. The ticket I held didn’t actually mention Bali. It read: Denpasar – Business Class. The listing of some mysterious place (Denpasar) in lieu of Bali didn’t bother me. I wasn’t in the habit of understanding tickets anyway. It was the Business Class part of the ticket that filled me with the greater suspicion as the rigid 90-degree angled wooden benches were a bit too much business and not enough class. Then there were the ceiling fans, rattling about in their cages in a vain attempt to break the stifling air. A failure further compounded by the drawn-down windows ramming the thick night atmosphere into the carriage with all the harmonics of a jet engine, punctuated by the occasional thrust of the afterburners each time the train drilled its way through a tunnel. It all felt something like dozing off on a roller coaster just before careening into the scream-tunnel. Experience that on loop for a night together with the dull yellow glow of incandescent bulbs and you have the Indonesian adaptation of the “sleeper-train.” This is the journey?

Worst of all, my fellow Javanese passengers quickly fell into what appeared to be a legitimate sleep, as if the rocking carriage were their cradle. They rested on each others’ shoulders, some even tilted their heads right-back over the bench, mouths gaped open like they were awaiting a dentist. In the spirit of competition I threw myself into a pretend sleep. I rotated through several body configurations like a Tetris block. Finally laying flat against the hard wood base with my legs thrust upwards toward the ceiling, I looked like a misplaced piece all right. No row cleared.

As the night wore on, insomnia played the usual mind tricks. They’re all faking it, I thought. There was no way they’re sleeping. I bet when the train stops they’ll all jump off and have a little giggle on how they fooled the dimwitted foreigner. But there was no laughter when in the early light of the morning the train stopped and we were ordered off. I reached for an elderly lady as she gently descended onto the platform.

“Is this Bali?” I asked.

“Surabaja,” she replied.

“Bali?” I asked again, hoping for a different answer.

She turned one of her worn hands skywards as if to say: what? I gave her my ticket, which I’m confident is not what she wanted.

“Denpasar same-same Bali.” she said and handed the ticket back. She turned slightly but stopped herself. “Bali is an island, how… train going?”

I paused. “I… don’t… know.”

Sensing a mild distress she turned back like any mother would anywhere. “One thing for you,” she said, “no taking coke and water offerings from strangers on train. Too much drugs inside. You will wake up and all your things will be gone.”

“No kidding?” I replied.

She waved meekly and shuffled down the platform.

I wandered around from dawn to dusk at the Surabaya station waiting for a connector train. I attempted to sleep sprawled out on a bench, then on the ground with my back hard-pressed against a brick wall, then curled up in a corner, but always with both of my arms wrapped around my bag like it was a baby. Strange dreams visit the traveller at this time of in-and-out sleep. I felt relieved, even a little excited when the train pulled into the station that evening. I saw the hard bench of the train with new eyes. At least it was a personally designated space.

Onboard, my eyelids slammed shut. Whistle. Everybody off the train.

“Where are we going?” I asked, generally.

“Come, come,” a man said and the lot of us marched off the train and crammed into a bus outside the station.

The cushioned bus seats were enjoyed for all to brief a moment, as the bus stopped after only a few minutes and we unloaded ourselves and our baggage once more.

“Is this Bali?” I asked the driver.

“Bali going,” he replied.

A caravan of human beings hustled luggage into the belly of a ferry like ants marching food morsels back into the nest. Then it hit me: Bali is an island. It’s the kind of thought that requires a special level of ignorance and sleep-deprivation to sound profound.

I hustled up the stairwells and ladders to the boat deck and greeted our star as it chased the velvet night from the sea and sky. The sun burned with her usual mix of colourful emotions. I wonder sometimes if she ever feels guilty of the pain her great power has caused in fashioning our skin into different shades. I think maybe she keeps rising to check up on us, again and again, yearning for the day when her energy stored in the fabric of humanity unites as one, as singular as she.

Java to Bali ferry.

This is the destination.

I eased my bag to the ground, hands-free for the first time in days. A man dressed head-to-toe in khaki stood about the railing drinking a coke, gazing along the sea to Java. He invited me over on a hunch that we shared English. He crinkled his forehead at the sight of my bag. “I find the less people carry, the further they’re trying to go,” he said in a firm and friendly American accent, “What are ya travelling the world?”

I slumped over the railing and inhaled the sea air, “I was thinking about it.”

“It’s been done,” he replied.

I rotated the crinkles out of my shoulders. “But I haven’t done it… not yet. Nobody can travel the world for me… travelling is a personal confrontation with all that you don’t know, and there’s lots I don’t know. I didn’t even know Bali was an island until I saw it with my own eyes.”

The man looked out to a cratered mountain as he sipped his can. “You see that beauty over there? That there’s Raung—and I’m Bert by the way—she’s what you call a strato-volcano. Easily identified by her pyramid shape. I know this because I’m a Geologist. I’ve travelled the world many times over, and every time I lay these old eyes on a backpacker, I wonder to myself: what warped sense of purpose is keeping these people from being at home with their families, especially if they’re not making a living out of it, huh?”

The sun rose for the third time since I’d last slept in a bed, but talk of purpose is far too alluring for even the weariest of travellers—and perhaps them most of all.

“Well… You might say ‘backpacking’ exists as a verb, a philosophy if you’re really stretching it. But certainly not as a noun, not as a kind of person. It’s no more possible to identify the motives of that great throb of people probing and exploring the world by their backpacks than it is by their footwear—“

“Sure ya can: Birkenstock-hippies.” He took another sip.

I looked down at my own well-worn pair of Birks. “You know Bert, we’re all travellers, the lot of humanity, each and every day, we’re in motion, swallowing the world bit by bit—some are just going a little further than others carrying their belongings on their back, just wanting to know a little bit more of the world, and maybe even love it a little more.

“You speak of purpose,” I flipped around on the railing, and pointed the other way, across the top deck, “on that island the national leaders of the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations met for the first time in history and signed the Bali Concord, declaring their hope for perpetual peace and prosperity in SouthEast Asia. I think that’s a pretty good reason to drop by. Don’t you?”

The geographer cast a long gaze toward the island, like an astronomer absorbing the stars. “A-S-E-A-N eh? That EU wanna-be, huh? Let me clear up your head. To study a volcano, you don’t visit the desk of the cartographer. You have to climb the summit, taste her rocks and soils, and if you’re so brave, repel into her furious heart—only then may you say that you truly know her. Why would anyone survey the places where treaties have been signed?” He turned to face me, twisting the end of his white beard between his finger tips.

A series of frenzied images and emotions rolled through me. Raj. The drugs. Vietnam. The taxi driver. The train; the station; the bus, the boat. I said, “I don’t know,” and stared along the sea, which at times feels draped over the Earth for the sole purpose of human contemplation. “It’s pronounce Ah-zee-an,” is all I said.

We watched the sun rise over the waves for awhile as we made our way across the Bali Strait.

Bert broke the silence: “So what’s your plan?”

“I quit my job if that’s what you’re asking.”

“You’re committed now then,” he said with a wipe of the brow, “good luck.” Then he left the deck at a gentle pace.

I slunk down to accompany my bag and ran a finger along the gold threading of an embroidered blue patch. Backpackers sew on patches the way officers attach chevrons, a record of long ago campaigns in distant lands. We’ve all seen the veteran’s bag: a constellation of national flags, a stiff reflection of not just the places they’ve seen but the organization of our world. Just think how would this practice appear in earlier times? Imagine a young soul traversing ancient Greece imprinting the symbols of Sparta, Delphi, and Athens onto their wooly sack—their whole world a patchwork of city-states. These days, gift-shop friendly national flags are how we mark our travels. But what about the backpackers of the future (the ones that will come from every country and not just the rich west) what patches will they sew? I ran my fingers around the two symbols that adorned my bag: a flag of ASEAN painted by an artisan in Chiang Mai. And the second, a patch of the European Union’s flag shaped into a shield which I picked up in a Lisbon café.

Lisbon holds a special place in my heart because it’s where this journey began. I started there for two reasons. First, It’s the closest city on the European mainland to Canada and second and most importantly, it’s where the European Union’s most recent treaty was signed. From that first quiet moment in Lisbon, where I knelt over the sidewalk in front of the Jerónimos Monastery and ran my fingers along the plaque commemorating the Treaty of Lisbon, I set out on a pilgrimage across Europe to all those places that mark the construction of the most remarkable political project of our time: the European Union.

The ferry ride from Bali to Java brought back memories of those early days. After Lisbon, I took a train to Barcelona, where I hopped on a ferry to Civitavecchia—the port of Rome. It was a short trip, with only a night’s rest. Just long enough for my 27th birthday. A Turk joined me on the top-deck and I told him of the occasion. He said something I didn’t understand and passed over a joint. I smiled into the wind and liked to think that he knew. I realized in that moment with Europe and the world all ahead of me that I would never again feel so young, free, and full of purpose.

ferry-sunset

Only one beginning.

The ferry passed through the Strait of Bonifacio that keeps Corsica and Sardinia apart. And as the ship entered into the Tyrrhenian Sea I looked southeast where not so far over the horizon, nestled along the western shores of Italy, a tiny island called Ventotene rose above the waves like a buoy, marking a little known but remarkable moment in European history.

Ventotene Island hosted a notorious prison camp for dissidents during the Second World War. Among those imprisoned was Altiero Spinelli, a founding father of the European Union. He was arrested in 1927 at the tender age of 27 for resisting Italy’s fascist regime and spent 16 years on the island before the Allies were able to free him and his fellow prisoners. In mid-1941, long before the outcome of the war was known, Spinelli co-wrote a manifesto entitled “Toward a Free and United Europe.” The manifesto laid the blame for the two most destructive wars in human history on nationalism and called for the unification of Europe through the establishment of a democratic federation. That message, scrawled on the back of cigarette papers and smuggled off the island in the false bottom of a tin box would become known as the Ventotene Manifesto, and ultimately led to the creation of the first European federalist movement. In honour of his lifetime commitment to continental unity the central building of the European Parliament in Brussels is named in his honour. It is worth recalling the poetic language of his Ventotene Manifesto, in which Altiero Spinelli placed his hope for:

“…the rational organization of the United States of Europe, which can only be based on the republican constitution of federated countries. And, once the horizon of the old Continent is superseded, and all the peoples who make up humanity are included in a single design, it will have to be recognized that the European Federation is the only conceivable guarantee … of peaceful co-operation, writing for a more distant future when the political unity of the entire world will become possible.”

At Europe’s darkest hour, Spinelli saw the light. But many doubted then that a federation of Europe was possible or even desirable—as some still do. Right from the beginning, with the immense failure of the European Defence Community (EDC) in 1952 (which was scuttled by France), eurosceptics have dutifully predicted (and called) for the end of the project to unite Europeans. However, the failure of the EDC only closed the security path to integration and Europe found another way through economic integration and hence the European Economic Community (EEC) came to be in 1957. When Irish voters rejected a referenda on the Treaty of Nice in 2001 over concerns that it would weaken their cherished military neutrality, the Irish government obtained a guarantee that it would not have to take part in EU military adventures without the approval of the UN Security Council and the Dáil Éireann, and thus voters approved the treaty in a second referenda. When the European Constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters in May and June of 2005, the EU did not collapse. It regrouped and incorporated the most necessary elements of the failed Constitution into the Lisbon Treaty of 2009. And when the inherent difficulties of sharing a single currency without a single Department of Finance unleashed chaos unto the world’s financial markets: Europe did not shatter. The heavily indebted countries of southern Europe did not break from the Union as so many had foreseen. The Union pulled together by integrating their banking systems. For the story is always the same. With every great obstacle that has challenged this lively continent: war, communism, financial collapse, the solution has always been found in growing further into each other. That is what we mean when we speak of an Organizing Power.

Stay with me as we move through time once more: to another ferry. This one more recent than Barcelona and Bali. The latest struggle for the European Union is in Ukraine. When I boarded a ferry in Batumi, Georgia headed for the port city of Odessa in Ukraine, Russia had annexed Crimea and separatist militants were carrying out attacks in the east. To add to the tension, the ship had no way of communicating to the outside world. Ukrainian Presidential elections took place right in the middle of our four day journey across the Black Sea, just as we skimmed by Sevastopol and the Russian Black Sea Fleet. All onboard wondered what kind of world would greet us in Odessa: the tranquil aftermath of a peaceful election, a NATO bombing campaign, a Russian land invasion, or an all-out civil war. There was no way of knowing. The Russian and Ukrainian truck drivers played cards during the day and drank and sang and smoked cigarettes at night. As is the custom in Eastern Europe, toasts were made before each drink. These toasts started off with serious and generous matters, like thanking a senior driver for his years of service. But as the night wore on the toast rationale weakened, and I received a toast for being a Canadian and by the end, somebody’s cat got a toast. For four days we just floated across the still waters watching Bottlenose dolphins jump along the ship’s wake.

The first thing I saw in Ukraine was a snake slivering along the port. The second thing I saw was a Ukrainian soldier corner it. He use a plank of wood to pin it down and the butt of his gun to smash it’s head. Welcome to Ukraine, I thought.

Yet the election had gone off smoothly and things appeared to be settling down and after living the good life in Odessa for a while, I continued onwards to the epicentre of the struggle between east and west: Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kiev. Of all the treaties commemorated in plaques, and founding fathers remembered in busts, there is no other place that holds as much emotional weight in the long journey of European unity than the maidan.There, one can find even home-made versions of the blue flag with the twelve golden stars. Don’t tell me it doesn’t stand for something. It sure meant something to the people who died holding it in the Maidan. The conflict in Ukraine has showed the world that being a part of the union is worth dying for.

Now what about ASEAN? Is it worth dying for? On the other side of the Straight keeping Bali from Java, we transferred once more from the ferry to a bus which drove us into a town called Denpasar—just like the ticket promised. I stammered out of the bus: relieved, stiff and exhausted into a swarm of tuk-tuk drivers.

“Boss where you going?” one said.

“Boss, boss!” others cried, stretching their hands toward me like a pack of faith healers.

Another tried to take my bag (not a good idea).

I freed myself from the shiver and collapsed on a white plastic chair near a one-man food stand, the kind that dot bus depots throughout the world. I ordered a hot bowl of noodles while my fellow passengers organized themselves into groups and arranged their transportation. In such situations, I preferred to wait out the frenzy and let people clear away. Besides I was happy to be outside at last in the cool morning air with my legs stretched out in the early pink light. In that moment, the flimsy plastic chair felt as form-fitting and caring to the body as the curves of any adirondack lounger.

The air was still and silent, free of the constant calling-to-prayer. Bali is often described as a Hindu oasis within the largest Muslim sea. It brought a comparison to mind as I relaxed there.  A Hindu might say that the chair on which I sat is God’s, part of her creation. While a Muslim might say that the chair is God, as all things are part of God in the Islamic tradition. That little apostrophe makes for an important theological difference in perceiving God. Is a plastic chair (or any material thing) God’s or God? I found my own feelings with a simple test. Imagine you witness the chair being crushed by a careless truck driver. How would you feel? If that plastic chair belongs to God, shouldn’t you feel something? Sadness over some token loss of her creation? And if that chair is God, then surely you would feel the loss all the more. Now, instead of the chair, let’s say you saw a human being suffer the same fate. No matter how strange that person may be to you, the loss of their life would stir something deep within you. You might feel the same way toward a pet, for our brains are wired toward love and life. Personally I don’t care about plastic chairs—they are not God or God’s to me because I do not love them. This simple thought experiment reveals something of the true nature of the feeling we call God.

As things go when they slow down, I didn’t have to wait long to find a way out. The son of the owner of the soup-stand was heading to Kuta, which he assured me was the place I should also be going. And after two trains, two buses, a ferry, and a tuk-tuk drive, I finally arrived at long last in the hell-hole known as Kuta.

The moment the tuk-tuk came to a stop a man called out to me, “Boss, boss!” and tried to pull me out of the vehicle. Strange way to treat the boss.

The real onslaught began out on the street. Each and every merchant put their arm around my shoulder or seized my hand tightly, always with something they were in dire need of showing me. Of all the places to end such a tiring journey: why did it have to be Kuta? At every turn, I took the less developed, less frequented road, side-street, alley-way, anything to get off the track. After an hour like this, I stumbled into a little Ashram-like guest house, which had largely been taken over by an extended family of Malaysians. The bed was hard, broken in the middle, but I nonetheless closed the curtains and collapsed. I’m never going back outside, I thought. Never.

The word on the street is that Bali was once a friendly place; the island residents, unparalleled in their hospitality. However, once their friendliness together with the great waves drew surfers and tourists in from Australia and later around the world, the easy money attracted every cheat, swindler, and thief from the other 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia to the island—most of whom I’m certain landed in Kuta.

Map of Indonesia.

Map of Indonesia at the base of the National Monument in Jakarta (which curiously includes Malaysian Borneo). Do you know which island is Bali?

Any trip to Bali should thus be organized around the principle of avoiding Kuta at all costs. Or, if it is too late for you, and one morning you wake up to unfamiliar surroundings, unsure at first of where you are and then realize all at once that you are in Kuta. You must thrust your hand into the air and announce to the world: “I’m getting the hell out of Kuta.” That’s what I did anyway.

After what felt like a days in the shower, I dressed and hit the path. The first stop was to an internet café. Raj had emailed me:

Dear friend,

1. I should be around in Bangkok in 2 weeks time. Email me once you know your dates, and I will arrange for you to get your bracelet.

2. I was quite drunk the other night, with all the mixing of the drinks, and do not remember much of the end of the evening except waking up the next day, almost 18 hours later. I do remember getting up 3-4 times during the night as I heard you puking in the bathroom. Ha. Ha. One for the story books.

3. Take care and enjoy your trip. You have a great philosophy, but remember that the world is not kind. In an IDEAL WORLD, your thoughts are great, but this is a CRUEL WORLD. So, be practical and realistic in your approach.

GOD Bless. As always Raj A. Nandan

Be practical and realistic in your approach? Is he really speaking about ‘my philosophy,’ or warning me not to return to Bangkok? He thinks I’m afraid. He thinks he can scare me from coming back. I replied:

Dear Raj, I hope you’re feeling better. I’ve read your points but I disagree with your assertions. I think you have misjudged humanity. The world is not cruel. The world is beautiful, at times, too beautiful- it just has some cruel people in it. In order to be realistic and practical in my approach, all that is required is for good people to do good things, and the rest will take care of itself. See you soon.

I needed to take control of the situation. Starting with how I got around. There was no way I was going to survive two years of traveling by public transportation alone. I looked around. By the afternoon, I’d found a scooter to loan in Kuta. A Kuta-scooter, if you will.

“You know how to ride one of these?” asked the merchant.

“Of course.” Which of course, meant I didn’t.

But that didn’t matter. The Purple Heart of backpacking is awarded more for crushed ankles, scraped knees, and sliced feet, as a result of scooter injuries in Southeast Asia than perhaps any other injury in the world. I’d seen enough leg injuries to opt for boots and a helmet. At least while I was learning.

Naturally, I gave her too much gas on the first turn of the handle and shot forward with a great wobble, over compensating. But what a feeling, to taste that first lick of independence, it was to burst out of the seat window and join those free souls that I’d envied for so long journeying across the countryside in Europe and China and Thailand and Cambodia and Vietnam and Malaysia and Java. At the turn of a handle, a whole new world opened up before me, and to reach it, all I had to do was get a little green scooter down the street without falling off.

“You good boss,” the vendor yelled.

“Oh yeah,” I said, “boss is good.”

I tried the handle again, gentler this time. I held my feet out to the sides like a pair of training wheels, a fairly embarrassing act on such a tourist-packed road, but one needs the confidence as it’s difficult at first to balance your weight, always shifting from one side to another. Then that moment comes, after you get going, when you realize all at once that the momentum of the thing keeps you upright, and that it is your very motion, your movement, your travelling, that keeps you true and straight, and you need only to look forward to where you want to be, and the world will take care of you.

Bali.

I asked for a new helmet and an old scooter, and ended up with these.

After some days familiarizing myself with the art of scootering, I headed out to find the place where the Bali Concords where signed in 1976. Many spontaneous and delightful encounters with the waves of the jade sea characterize the short journey from Kuta to the Bukit Peninsula. Set apart from the rest of the island by an isthmus, the peninsula is an exclusive tourist micro-paradise within the larger backpacker playground. Here, hustlers are literally checked at the gate. White-privilege escorted me through security without fuss, where a pair of tall Hindu-esque uprights heralded a new world of manicured lawns, golf courses, secluded retreats, five-star hotels, international conference centres, and thus the natural signing place of the Bali Concords. I came to a stop outside a grand conference centre and kicked out the scooter’s toy stand.

For the first time in ASEAN‘s nine-year history, the national leaders assembled at this place in February of 1976. The organization was dipping its toes into the regional power vacuum following America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, and by doing so, expanding its purpose beyond regional reconciliation, to something more ambitious. The leaders issued ASEAN’s first two official agreements: a Declaration of ASEAN Concord, and a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (commonly called the TAC). But the greatest consequence of the Bali summit was the simple precedent of gathering together ASEAN’s heads of state, raising the status and prestige of the organization. After Bali, the leaders assembled again the next year in Malaysia. And though a decade followed before the third meeting in 1987, the forth happened in 1992, and the fifth in 1995, by which time, the meetings became more regular, and since 2010, ASEAN leaders have met twice a year. It won’t be so long until they meet three times a year, or even four, like they do in the European Union.

I once believed there to be a string of tidy monuments noting those place where the structures of regional integration were fashioned, like the Stations of the Cross along Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa, noting such events as when Jesus fell to a knee or wiped his (most likely brown) skin. It turns out Lisbon was something of a highpoint with it’s little plaque to the Lisbon Treaty. It was all down hill from there. Alas, the pilgrim of human organization will few markers on their journey—just plenty of elitist and far removed places. Maybe Raj and the geographer were right: just what was the point of surveying these forgotten sites? I sighed before leaving the conference centre.

On the way back toward Kuta I pulled over to a vacant section of beach—save for a pair of fisherman cooking their catch over a grill. My bag was back at the guesthouse and what a joy it was to walk on sand so light and careless, unburdened by the weight of your possessions on your back. I sat down with the fishermen on the beach. Nobody said a word and it was quiet but for the crackling wood and sizzling fish and the smoke wafted upwards in spirals to the vast full moon strutting into the scene as the sun drowned her last red and purple rays into the sea.

I rode back to the guesthouse in the breezy warm night. The Malaysian family had kicked things off: playing music, dancing, and generally having a good time. I reckoned it very fitting that I join them. The two youngest, one male, the other female, of what turned out to be a large extended family, spoke the best English. The girl was shy, always adjusting her hair, and was fond of describing everything about her life as ‘boring.’ The guy fancied himself as something of a magician, and read my fortune. While the rest of their family drank and danced, the magician separated the face cards from the rest of the pack and dealt four onto the table.

“You ready?” he asked.

“Let’s see it.”

He flipped over the first card: the jack of clubs. He widened his eyes for effect.

“You were once in love, but now alone.”

I turned up an eyebrow, “Isn’t every traveller alone? Haven’t all of us been in love?”

“So, true no?”

“As true for me, as everybody else.”

Peering over her glasses, the cute and bookish girl said, “I believe there is a truth to these games.”

He flipped over the second card: the queen of clubs; and held up his palms as muslims do during prayer. “She was your only love?”

“Fairly common, I think, for someone my age.”

“Still—it is true,” he replied. His cousin laughed behind a lock of hair that she held above her upper lip like a moustache.

He flipped over the third card: the jack of hearts. “Ah, you’re running away from her.”

“I think your cards need a bit of tuning. Not every traveller is running away from something, some of us are running toward something.”

The final card came up the king of hearts, “Ah—lucky,” he said, “you will find another girl.”

“I think you’re right.”

I left Bali the next day. Bangkok was on my mind, but I decided to make a short stop in Kota Kinabalu on the Borneo side of Malaysia to climb Mount Kinabalu, which leads me to two pieces of advice. First, only carry what you’re willing to carry up a mountain, that way you’ll be ready for anything. Second, and this comes from China, when I asked a hostel-owner whether his place was better than a rival hostel down the road, he replied:

Sun over Mount Kinabalu.

“See with your own eyes.”

The first thing I did when I came down the mountain was check my email in a quiet little café near the sea in Kota Kinabalu. My eyes popped when a chat window appeared in the corner with a simple message:

Raj: Hi There? How are you? And where are you now?

It’s him, after all these months, he’s right here, I can almost reach him. Of all the things I felt and wanted to say, I had to come up with something innocuous, to keep pretending like I don’t remember.

Me: Hey Raj, I rented a bike and am booting around the island of Bali today.

Raj: Great. I think that Bali is the most beautiful resort in the world as there is some form of magic in the air. I speak fluent Indonesian.

Urgh.

Me: I’m sure that comes in handy… are you still in Bangkok? When is a good time to come?

Raj: One of my partners is the son of the Richest man in Indonesia, I am godfather to his son and 2nd daughter.

Does he ever stop?

Me: That’s wonderful

Raj: Yes, I am in Bangkok

Me: That’s better. Do you still have that bracelet in a safe place? I’m looking forward to getting it back.

Raj: In the toilet. Is that safe enough? Ha. Yes, it is safe. That piece of coconut husk.

Me: You can’t put a price on everything

Raj: Just teasing. Learn to relax. I do not agree with your email about the world, by the way.

Me: I didn’t think you would.

Raj: You have a lot to learn.

Me: What do I need to learn about?

Raj: About life and people.

Me: I think we all have something to learn about life and people.

That’s all I had to say. I signed-out and we never communicated again. Online.

The next day, I flew back to Bangkok.

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  • Nabeela Chowdhury

    “It’s the kind of thought that requires a special level of ignorance and sleep deprivation to sound profound.”
    I really enjoyed the quirky humor you used through your moments of peak fatigue along with the pesky street hustlers. It added a humorous touch to the sense of frustration being experienced. Definitely something we all can relate to from travels in Asia minus the stretch you did without sleep.

    There was something bitter sweet about some of the elements in this chapter, reflected through the oscillating moods in between the conversations with Bert the geologist and your realization on “ the pilgrim of human organization with few markers on their journey, just plenty of elitist and far removed places”.

    The historic backdrop on EU inception with Spinelli’s reference and the EU picture story line blends in beautifully with the core premise of the book and its journey. Personally, it sparked an interest in me for a Wikipedia moment to know more 🙂

    Your knack for describing the most basic flow of nature continues from the prologue to comes across very fluently almost as though David Attenborough could be narrating the lines.
    “….the sun burned with her usual mix of colorful emotions..”
    “….and started along the sea which at times feels draped over the earth for the sole purpose of human contemplation..”

    Also, your description on the sun’s energy stored in the fabric of humanity uniting as one, reminded me of a similar reference by Rohinton Mistry in his book where he described life being a patchwork of different designs not fitting well too often ( might not be the exact words, but along those lines). I liked the way you put it across.

    Lastly, the part on how Europe’s resilience despite all historic odds to break it down only to further integrate correlated well with the situation in Ukraine, you’ve let room for the reader to interpret whether this could perhaps have the potential for an attempt for further future integration.

    Raj along with his self proclaimed bragging rights continues to be a character that is hard not to hate.

    Please tell soon what happens to him Stu!

  • Aarti Kumar

    My favourite parts are hearing how you address others who are so eager to define you or claim to understand you. You do such a great job at not being defensive and instead showing kindness and offering a different perspective.