In Which I Recognize Bias

During last night’s walk, while Google Maps led me to a dark alley behind a massage parlor instead of to the restaurant I’d plugged in, I tried to suss out examples of my own implicit bias.  It’s an exercise I do sometimes in order to weed out anything harmful I might accidentally be doing to the impressionables. It’s usually kicked off by some thought I’m horrified to have, like when I was strolling the beach at sunset and couldn’t find a straight line because of the sheer amount of women leaping over the waves and into the horizen.

They never made it on the first try, and as their companions trained the cameras from 15 or so feet away- I should probably measure in meters here- they’d jump over and over and over, with a studied smile and the infinite patience of the obsessive Instagrammer.

“Asians,” I thought, as I wove my way through the lenses, “take entirely too many photographs.”  

“Oh, no!” was my immediate reaction.  “Alert!  Alert!  You are making a gross generalization!”

And then I rode that thought train to its terminus.  What else did I kind of secretly think of people, and exactly how might that manifest itself unfairly?  

“Australians,” I discovered I imagined as I listed groups of people, taking note of whatever impressions came to me, “have an inflated sense of the importance of their own volume.  Same can be said for Americans.  Jewish people are surprisingly unreligious.  South Americans (of which I know one- no, two) are genuinely pleasant, but with a ‘sexy and I know it’ twist of attitude.”

I like to think of myself as an equal opportunity humanist, but clearly I have some work to do.  

I’m not alone in this.  The restaurant at which I eventually found myself ended up serving me the fourth bland green curry- with cauliflower and other western veggies- in as many days, and I was chagrined.  It was good.  Just not, you know, CURRY.

See, four years ago, during that fateful trip when the monkey chomped me and I almost Thai-died (exaggeration legitimatized by use of hilarious “Thai-die” construction) I fell madly in lust with the food here.  In Bangkok in 2014, I had a curry so spicy and delicious that I cried and took to my bed.  It was amazing.  Transcendental.  One of the reasons I chose to finish my abroad-ness in this country.  

After last night’s meal, though, I was rather unattractively pouty.  I was nice, mind you- kindness is magic- but when the sweet lady working asked me how it was, 

“I actually like it really spicy- Thai spicy,” I said.

“Oh!  You look western, so… I give you that.  Come back tomorrow.  We do curry spice.”

Gah!  Her bias about western culinary standards o’ blah had hit me right where it hurts: in the t-buds.  

Nevertheless, we grinned at each other and I agreed to return posthaste.  

Tonight’s sunset walk was top form.  I had had a good work day and was all inspired, plus Ray was doing his “Best in Show” routine o’er the surfers.  

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I didn’t get lost in any scary alleys, and I knew that the sidewalk tables of the Zugar Bar were about half a block past these weird street toilets.

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And when I arrived?  Score.  A zapping curry made its way to my placemat and the only delicious vegetable I recognized was baby corn.  “Girl, I want to make you sweat” was pumping through the thick evening air, and I followed its directions as I ate.

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“Asians make the best food in the entire world,” I thought, somewhat biased.  

This time, however, I didn’t bother to kick myself.

On Community, Well Being, and Pool Etiquette While in Thailand

This dainty looking girl, in a modest bathing costume with flowery ruffles, just leaned over and hoicked a juicy monster into the pool vent.  I am horrified and give her the accompanying agape, aghast look.  Now I’m going to have to pack up and go to the other pool, and the fact that this is my spoiled complaint is also irksome to my first world self.  

It’s just that I’d prefer to be in the bathwaters of the adjacent Andaman, but the layer of polluted beach plastic is so depressing I thought I’d take my laptop poolside to get some work done.  I am equal parts annoyed with humanity and my own whiny narcissism.  Why can’t we just be a darned community and have some respect for the things we all share?

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about community as I integrate the wisdom gleaned from my Fulbright research.  It’s something we are sorely lacking in individualist, capitalist cultures like the US, so while the country as a whole has accumulated vast and flashy wealth, our ingrained instinct to care for each other is smashed down or redirected, often with dire results.  Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide are way up in Australia, said one of the presenters at the Positive Schools conference, and those statistics mirror those in the US.  People are feeling isolated and disconnected, and our search for a tribe leaves us thrumming with anxiety and anger that get lost in identity politics and political echo chambers.  

It’s scary.  And it won’t get better unless we make some sweeping changes.

The Ministries in Singapore recognized that a country so caught up in the idea of creating an impenetrable defense of driven, rugged, academically superior individuals was eventually going to backfire, and hard.  If people were achieving for themselves or their families alone, there would be no room for the cultivation of that kampong spirit, that sense of belonging and connecting with and working for neighborhoods and communities.  And there’s a ton of research out there that correlates a sense of purpose to other people with happiness, well-being, health, and longevity.  

Humans are social animals, evolutionarily disposed to living and learning together.  We don’t need others to stay alive in the short term, necessarily, but we do need others to thrive.

So Singapore made some changes.  They started building void decks in public housing where people could hold weddings and funerals in their own neighborhoods; they built new complexes (about 80% of Singaporeans live in this housing so it’s quite significant) around playgrounds and hawker centers where people could gather to eat and share.  

In schools, they started requiring character and citizenship education, where kids would learn relationship skills and coping skills.  Belonging to an athletic, artistic, or uniform group after school became mandatory.  These decisions were based on research showing that learning is social, belonging is human, and achievement is tied to both of these things.

While I was in and out of these Singaporean schools, I was also getting some messages from my students back in the US.  They were trusting me with a lot of things about self, school, and family, and I was feeling pretty good about creating a school community back home that allowed them that sense of support.

But then I took an analytical look at the ones who contacted me more than a couple of “touch base” times.  Out of eight kids, six were first or second generation Americans who come from a more collectivist culture.  Three of four high school kids who reached out were the same.  For context, here’s a district graphic showing demographics of our students.

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This shows incredible diversity, and is pretty much a social studies teacher’s dream.  I really worry, though, that as hard as I work to cultivate a warm, trusting set of student-teacher relationships, the ones who are using that resource most effectively are the ones for whom a strong, tightly-knit community is already more the norm.  And I worry that over time, those kids’ll assimilate into a more isolated, competitive American culture that prides independence without nuance and personal dominance without social compassion.  

I’m afraid we’re trying to force a single globalized American culture instead of series of overlapping social networks and communities.

So what can we do?

First, we should treasure and support any kind of healthy, open social network: athletic, artistic, and otherwise.  We should encourage every single kid in our lives to find others with similar strengths and passions and join in their pursuit, and we should expect the same from ourselves.  We should use those communities to get to know and respect our people, and if necessary, discuss differing ideas from there.

We should make it ridiculously easy for all of us- especially young people- to taste and move and play and experience ideas and activities in different ways.  People should be able to share without judgment, and then eventually, to judge without contempt.  

We should ditch the instinct to shame people via social media, even when those people are public figures or politicians.  We don’t change minds when we do that; insult is the lowest form of attempted rebuttal, and all we can hope to do is push people to dig in their defensive heels.  Walls: up.  Community: broken.

Penultimately, we should get to know the science behind all this so we can defend the action we take toward greater well-being as a species whole.  Through reading I had time for (thanks to Fulbright) I’d suggest Martin Seligman, Sebastian Junger, Kirke Olson, Daniel Goleman, and Angela Duckworth.  I’d also suggest finding people who know more for a far more comprehensive list; I got a lot out of these five, but I’m sure there are valuable others.

And finally: don’t hoick in a public pool.  Please!  We share these things and it goes against everything I’m trying to promote here when I’m angry with you and your phlegm.  

Ah, shoot- I guess I’m still a work in progress myself.  I suppose I’ll end with another appeal, but one from my better and well-read nature:

In the words of the venerable Vonnegut, “goddammit, you’ve got to be kind.”

TOP TEN TEMPLE TIPS FOR ANGKOR WAT

Slightly after 4:30 this morning, I picked up my pre-packed breakfast and ambled over to the curb with the nighttime security guard, who only speaks Khmer. After about 30 minutes of gesturing awkwardly at each other, during which I used a variety of increasingly frantic non-verbals that I also use while singing “The Wheels on the Bus” with toddlers, he finally realized I was extremely agitated and at risk for some gasket blowing.

I was supposed to be at Angkor Wat for sunrise, and my ride was missing. On a pre-dawn bucket list morning, I wasn’t pleased.

This leads us to tip #10: learn to speak Khmer. It’s time consuming, but will save you that ulcerous half an hour.

“Don’t worry,” said the man we woke up (there was a sign in the lobby saying “The nighttime receptionist isn’t available this evening” so no help there) as he raced me toward the temples through an ever lightening sky. He leaned on the horn as he pedaled to the metal. “There is still time for the sun to rise.”

“The sun is rising right now,” I answered, annoyed.

“No, the sun does not rise until 6:30.”

“Incorrect,” I said flatly. “My phone says it rises at 5:34. I also know you’re wrong because I’m looking at your face and I can see it.”

“No, no,” he reasoned, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years so I know best.”

Tip #9 is to breathe. Control what you can, and then roll with it.

Tip #8 is to get there as early as you can to buy your ticket. I believe the booths open at 5, which would have been perfect. As it was, I waited in line for a bit and then scrambled. They have to take your picture and it’s kind of a whole process, so I had my phone in one place, my bag in another, and my hands free to grimace at the camera. As soon as it was done, I bolted to try to catch as much of the sun rising over the holy site as I could.

Tip #7? Don’t leave your phone near the ticket booth. It’s a longish tuk-tuk ride from the temples, and there’s no possible way of easily retrieving it unless you immediately recognize your mistake. I did not. More on that later.

Angkor Wat is actually a gigantic campus. It’s the biggest religious structure in the world, and there are huge, open green spaces as well as a complex of smaller temples around it. Most of the people don’t even pretend to follow the “please be quiet” rule, so I would recommend (tip #6) finding a solo spot to watch the sunrise. It’s backlit so tough to get a good picture unless you’re a professional, but it really is breathtaking. If you can manage to sit still long enough with a contemplative eye on the temples, you can almost totally remove yourself from your fustercluck of a morning.

Until you snap a few photos, and your batteries run out. Tip #5: bring extra batteries. Especially if you intend not to have your phone as a backup.

Tip #5 is the first one I personally managed with ease, so I switched out the double As and returned to my driver, who had finally arrived to cart me around for the day. Pretty much everyone gets from temple to temple via tuk-tuk, which is a solid way to casually check out the macaques lining the road or the people scything the median. It does not, however, have a shock absorbent system for even mildly buxom travelers. I followed the temple rules of no shorts/no visible shoulders, but I wished I had someone to give me tip #4: wear something that tamps down all the jiggling.

I do (tip #3) recommend more than just Angkor Wat. At the very least, you’ll have bought an all-day pass, and I loved seeing all the temple monkeys at Bayon.

Ta Prohm was also fantastic. That’s the one of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider fame, with massive, gnarly trees growing through these thousand year old ruins.

This would be a good spot for tip #2, though. Bathrooms are plentiful in the areas around the temples, and the one I used wasn’t too shabby. “Bathroom” sounds a lot like “Ta Prohm”, though, to drivers who are much more comfortable in Khmer. In order to avoid the lengthy and needless detours, go with the word “toilet”.

And finally! Tip #1: carry a leeetle bit o’ bribe money.

“Your phone isn’t here,” said the ticket booth people a mere four hours after I’d left it.

“What do you mean? The guy who found it said I should pick it up here from you. He said it would be safe.”

“Nooooooo,” he informed me, with the slight sneer of a ranking officer/no hint of a gentleman. “We took that to the police a long time ago. You have to go there- fill out a report.”

“What?” I looked at my driver and gave him my most incredulous eyebrows. “You said it was safe here and I should pick it up at the end.”

He turned and walked away, and all I could do was follow.

It was quite a long ride to the tourist police, and I couldn’t help but worry on the way. What kind of paperwork was this? How much was it going to cost me? Did they actually have my phone or was it all an elaborate runaround?

We got to the station.

“Sit,” said the captain. I sat.

“You must fill this out.”

I looked around and didn’t see my phone anywhere, but I did note this ridiculous collage filling the entire southern wall. It appeared the police station was methodically documenting all of the missing items they returned. Why? Why couldn’t I just pick it up at the ticket booth and save at least three people an extra trip?

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“I need your signature here, thumbprint here.”

Jeez.

“Okay, now you must write a thank you. Here is an example. Start with your name and where you are from and describe what happened like on the report. We will then take a picture and put it in the book.”

OH. MY. HILARIOUS. BUDDHIST. GODS.

What a racket- I filled out the form:

took the picture while holding hands with the officer along with my returned phone:

made him WhatsApp me the photos because I knew I needed them public, and then left my only remaining two dollars, for which they “asked” in exchange for their services.

You guys, I had a decent day. Follow my tips, and yours’ll be even better.

3 Signs of a Hypocritical Classroom

The entire conference room- there must be over 500 teachers in here- has been conscripted into a 9 a.m. line dance.  Everyone’s supposed to stand up and copy this ridiculously enthusiastic morning writhing in unison with all the other strangers.  I hate it.  It’s my worst nightmare, minus the ebola.  I’m hiding in the back behind a piling thinking I would only do something like this if it were a wedding, open bar, and we were making up our own moves and giggling.

In other words, we if we had some autonomy.  

The irony is that one of the big messages in these conference sessions is that to create cohesion in a classroom- thereby creating an engaged, compassionate, and high-achieving community- you must give students choice and control.  Autonomy.  It’s weird to me that they’re starting today with brainless, compliance-based call and response.  I know that it’s intended to be fun, but the assumption that everyone would find it so and joyously join the drones is weird to me.  There’s pressure.  

Whether or not I jump in, I’m awkward, ashamed, and annoyed.  

I do recognize that what I’m feeling is bigger than today; it’s a greater frustration with teacher training- both preservice and inservice- and specifically with how we don’t practice what we preach. 

Here are three signs of a hypocritical classroom:

#1: We tell kids their bodies are their own, then we set up activities in which they have to touch and be touched, expecting full participation.

Yesterday, this disingenuously (to me- I was grumpy at what seemed like manufactured enthusiasm, which is the most effective turnoff since edible bath salts) cheerful drill sergeant got on stage and demanded that we take a “BRAIN BREAAAAAAK!!!!!!!”  

We were told to stand up and do this activity at our table- I didn’t know anyone at my table, as I don’t know anyone on the continent at the moment- in which we’d have to link arms and get physically close. I immediately went into full anxiety mode about how I don’t like touching strangers, I don’t enjoy potentially offending people by sitting it out when that hasn’t been outlined as an option, and oh my gosh- am I sweaty?  

I’m a veteran adult and I was hijacked by unhealthy cortisol and resentment that the person in charge was “making” me touch people.  The implicit message was that in some situations- when other people like it and even if you’re uncomfortable- just suck it up and let it happen.  Sure, this situation was intended to be harmless fun- but listen lady: let me choose those to whom I get physically close.

#2: We tell kids to eat well and exercise to be healthy, then we cut recess and poison them with school-sponsored sugars.

The American Heart Association recommends between 12 and 25 grams of sugar per day for children.  Excess sugar consumption is linked to obesity and diabetes, of course, but did you know it’s linked to cancer, liver disease, Alzheimer’s, depression, and anxiety as well?  Also man-boobs, said this nutritionist for a laugh, but then she explained the science behind it and yeah: man-boobs.  I checked the nutrition information from the Oakhurst Strawberry Fat Free Milk that we expect our kids to take at lunch, and there are 25 grams of sugar in just one serving.

One serving is their entire recommended sugar intake for the day.  My district does a comparatively great job at lunches- we have a salad bar, a wellness policy, and clear emphasis on the importance of fruits and vegetables- but we’re dropping the ball with this milk thing.  

Recess, too.  We can’t just tell kids they have to move on their own time; we need to show them it’s a priority by carving out time for them to get out during the day.  Research has shown over and over that this is better for brain and body.  Schools send a message by ignoring that.

And finally, #3: We preach the importance of kindness and respect, then implement reward systems that foster competition, resentment, and lower intrinsic adoption of prosocial behaviors.

I was excited when my school leaders started publicly shouting out teachers for doing good work.  It’s great to be recognized for doing something well, and neuroscience actually shows that people who practice gratitude are happier, with overall increased mental health (thanks, science!)  Now however, I get uncomfortable when it’s time for that.  There’s increased anxiety about whether I’ll be mentioned, how to react if people look at me, and whether or not I’ll resent it if someone else gets recognized for something I did, too.  I hate that part of myself that gets jealous and vain, and it comes out when things are public and seem like a contest.

Another issue is when I’m recognized for something that isn’t really true, and my thoughts are like: well first of all, you don’t even know me.  And second, why did you say that?  Do you really think that’s the thing I do that should be recognized, or are you just saying something to fill space or superficially make me feel good?  

It doesn’t work.  

On the other hand, when people come into my classroom and leave a post-it about something specific they like, or when they send me a thank you via email or say something nice to me (just to me)- well, that just makes my damn day.  

We have to rethink how we’re rewarding kids for their behavior as well.  Are we creating hierarchies with public recognition, with all the entitlements and resentments those entail?  Are we using rewards systems that achieve compliance in the short term but move kids toward behaving well only when public and when they can possibly be rewarded?  Because the scientists who study whether rewards systems are working are saying that they aren’t.  Kids become less empathetic, less compassionate, and less likely to become intrinsically kind when we reward them publicly instead of teaching, modeling, and expecting that same behavior.

Now, before you decide I’m the jackass lecturing from afar, let me be clear that I’ve probably made every mistake in the book, included those listed above.  I also continue to hold a heck of a lot of respect for people who I know still make these mistakes.  I know how hard we all work, and I know that the intentions behind those decisions are good.  

We do the best we can with the information we have.

I hope that as a group, though, we can use the research to reflect on what we’re doing.  If the science indicates that present practice will lead to a generation of anti-social, gender-nonspecific boob-havers… well, isn’t it time we reevaluate?  

For the sake of these precious little nuggets, let’s say yes.

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Kanga Walkabout

“Koala,” said Kirby, “is an Aboriginal word for “old man who doesn’t drink much. Koalas are identified by unique patterns we see by looking right up their nostrils, and they poo up to 100 times a day.”

So you can see already that hiking into the You Yangs- a mountain range about an hour’s drive west of Melbourne- with a conservationist guide and unabashed koala lover was an excellent idea. If you need visual proof, however, see this:

Koalas are pretty flippin’ cute.

They don’t move much, though, because apparently eucalyptus is not a great protein or vitamin source, and further, it’s full of toxin. Since it’s winter (50ish degrees… so chilly, but not, like, bone cold Maine) and they’re sluggish anyway, they pretty much just put their backs to the sun, tuck their heads under, and chill.

Like this:

So that was initially really exciting, but got kind of slow. Thus, I was thrilled to come across this family (a bunch of them are called a mob- isn’t that fantastic? A mob of kangaroos) later in the trek:

We also saw wallabies

(animals are exciting, photo is boring; skipping it)

brightly colored birds like the flame robin (animal is gorgeous, photo is blurry; skipping it)

and emus:

It’s cold out, but I’m still in love with Australia. Anybody want to move here with me?

Bondi Beach Walk

My feelings for Sydney grow deeper, as I now have ten more picturesque miles logged on the clodhoppers. This place has taken my love for beaches and clever boutique names, mixed it with equal parts garden vista and flamboyant neighborhood, and topped it off with the existence of a bike sidewalk that is separate from the pedestrian sidewalk that is separate from the road. I didn’t want to kick anyone as I was walking today! Usually I want to petulantly and violently kick the bikes that are trying to kill me. In Singapore, we all “shared” a lane.

In Bondi Beach (pronounced Bond-Eye, like what Daniel Craig would devilishly give you from across the room) however, it’s just a bunch of people on foot and dying at the views.

Look to your left, it’s this:

Look to your right, it’s this:

Look ahead, and around this corner

and you will likely see a shirtless jogger. There is an extremely high proportion of disheveled sexy people on this path, and many of them are shirtlessly running, hugging, and doing push-ups (yay).

Fortunately for the less prurient-minded, there is plenty of other stuff to watch. The ocean is a marine plethora of colors, and it’s sprinkled with surfers that look like little black seals. I saw one wipe out so hard it should’ve been set to music; the waves here are definitely varsity.

Oh! It’s time to go. Seeing Ice Cube at Light Up Sydney at the Opera House today and I don’t actually know where the entrance is.

Regardless, though: today was a good day.

Jungle Trek

If you ever find yourself in Singapore, one thing you should do is leave Singapore and pop over to Sumatra for a vicious and beautiful hike.  Bob Fest- to whom I will only refer by his full name because I love it- recommended that I do this because Sumatra is one of only two places left- the other being Borneo- where you can see orangutans (from orang = human and utan = forest) in their natural habitat and honey, it is nuts.  

“Fockin ‘ell!” as one of the Brits with me said.  And he wasn’t kidding.

The hike started with a pleasant stroll through a woodsy area, where farmers were harvesting the rubber trees and monkeys snapped banana breakfast off the bunch.  

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The bloody mozzies- I’m allowed to say stuff like that now because I spent the day with Rory and George, a couple of UK-raised city boys out for a laugh- were also breakfasting, except on me.  Note to self: jungle bugs are no joke.  If the airport confiscates your aerosol DEET, replace it.  Replace it so, so hard.

Speaking of hard, did you know that Sumatra is mountainous?  I suppose if I had thought about it, the word “highlands” might have come to mind, but I did precious little thinking about anything but great apes when I pictured this trip.  And I am definitely recommending this trip, but before you go: get in shape, girl.  Going up, it was so steep that my k-caps were closer to my chest than the ground for each step, and we’d use thick, sturdy branches to haul us up further.  It’s quite a workout for the whole glutes area.  Difficulty levels were the same going down except knees- instead of buns- took the brunt, and we went way up and way down five or six times each.  I spent a lot of the hike trying not to breathe too loudly because I was with four men, all of whom were 10-15 years younger, and I wanted to represent.  

It was absolutely worth it, however, when we came upon the orangs.  The first couple were just hanging out being gentle and lazy near another bunch of monkeys, so we hung out, too, gaping and wide-eyed and clicking away.  Our guides, Hermie and Juju, kept pointing us toward the best photo ops and giving us tidbits of helpful jungle knowledge.  

“The orangutans’ natural predators,” Hermie said, “are pythons and tigers.”

Eh?

Well, that was a bit worrisome until he eventually added that pythons are nocturnal.  As for tigers, they rarely see them, but carefully monitor motion-sensitive cameras in order to stay out of their way.  Humans are in the same family as orangutans- in fact, we’re more closely related to them and to other great apes like gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos than apes are to monkeys- and the apes tend to warily ignore us here.  Tigers, on the other hand, are not afraid to make the first lethal move.

I should back up and say that there is one terrifying orang named Mina.  Mina has apparently attacked over a hundred visitors and guides, and is locally famous for her propensity to bite.  Like, people: she bites people.  When we hiked through her territory, Juju went way ahead scouting, and then made sure she was continually fed (fruit) while we scuttled and stared.

This is Mina:

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And this little one swung around nearby:

Of course, I had to capture more Thomas’s Leaf monkeys:

And then after five or so hours and a solid leg and eye workout, Juju and I broke off for the duration.  The other guys were spending the night on a platform in the jungle or some other such craziness so hiked deeper into the underbrush.  I, on the other hand, dunked myself almost immediately upon reaching this river:

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and then it was time to raft!  It’s about a half hour of drift, occasional whitewater, and monitor lizards sunning themselves before arrival back at the guest house, and I thought my day was complete.

But oh!  Another adventure!  

This nice local man popped by my room to check on tomorrow’s ride and payment, and that’s when we realized that the guesthouse only takes cash, and I had none.

“No worries, no worries,” he grinned, “I’ll take you to ATM on motorbike.  I’m very good driver.  It’s only 8, 9 kilometers away.”

Ohhhhh, the fear.  If you know me, you know that I’m locked in a lifelong struggle with anything with two wheels.  Bikes?  Crashed, or crashed into.  Scooter?  Goodbye, $1000 and hello, shredded shin skin.  And those are the only three times I’ve attempted since 2001.

Until today.  

Somehow today, I felt obligated.  I found myself (seconds later, and without forethought) helmetless on the back of a motorbike, knees in a death grip around this Indonesian stranger and putt-putting down a road that looked a lot like this

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except with more potholes and fewer cooperative rocks.  Also without the benefits of vehicular laws or courtesy.  There was bouncing and swerving.  There was a bridge over troubled water that was barely wider than we were, and it was made of strung wire and rotting wood.*

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*I didn’t have a camera at the time, but later I was able to snap this thing so you could get a vague idea.  Picture this, but with fewer wires and boards.  Yeah.

“Oh my… oh,” I shuddered.  “That was really scary.”

“That’s because some of the planks are falling off.”

Again I say to you: eh?

We sped up after the bridge and dodged water buffalo, literal chickens crossing the road, and then ducks and a single cow.  We passed fires and tires-as-speed-bumps.  Children were yelling hello to me, despite the hundreds of other motorbikes weaving on the roads.  I forced smiles at them, whiter even than usual but trying to be the friendly Caucasian.  

A machete-wielding man worked the rice paddy to our left, and past him danced the Muslim ladies’ outdoor aerobics troupe.  A van stopped short in front of us, and opened the door in our faces as we passed on the right.  Another cut us off horizontally, then stopped dead in the road.

“That’s Indonesia,” said my driver after our skid, good-naturedly shaking his head.  My hands had become claws on the grip bars.  

In my absolute terror, and in the middle of the trip, I managed to look up.  We were passing a river in which the happy little nakeds were bathing, and there was a jungle behind it, mountains behind that, and all was capped by a fiery start to the sunset.  It was magic hour, and all of a sudden magical.

This has quite possibly been the most exhilarating day of my life.

Good thing, too, because when, after 20 minutes, we got to the ATM, I had definitely forgotten to bring my card.  Fear factor for what, now?

Doesn’t matter- as I write this I’m having a pleasant porch beer, and I’m highly recommending this adventure spot.  Go here, guys: Bukit Lawang, Sumatra.

Motorbikes notwithstanding, it’s the good life.