Thursday, April 30, 2015

They Called Her Margo

I have just once again finished reading one of my absolute favorite novels, Paper Towns. (So technically I listened to the audio book on YouTube and didn’t read a single word but, that’s beside the point.) The last time I read the novel, I was a whopping fifteen years old and the main thing I took away from the story was that the crazier, more mysterious kind of girl you are, the more people will like you. Now of course, I’m sure this wasn’t the theme that John Green had in mind when he set out to write the novel in the first place but alas, I was fifteen and in high school and drowning in people who despite my spot on the varsity cheer squad, were still in my eyes far cooler than I.

So, I suppose for a while, that’s what I did. I became Margo Roth Spiegelman. I sought out every wild and crazy adventure that I could in my small town and desperately attempted to meet people who were willing to accompany me. It was a roller coaster, for lack of a more cliche metaphor. Over the course of those two-ish years, I became so many things to so many people. (Of course, not all of these things were positive.) For some, I was the girl who was obnoxiously obsessed with cheerleading, even though I was never really a standout athlete. For others, I was the one who never had finished her Algebra homework when first period rolled around. I was the girl that brought everyone else to the dance floor at parties and dances, and actively spoke of my dreams to travel the world. I was the girl whose two best friends had died, and was SO strong to have made it through! I was the heroic founder of Hawk Compliments. I was so many to things, to so many people. And I’m not sure what I’m remembered for most, if I am remembered at all.

Because frankly, it doesn’t matter. Upon finishing Paper Towns, I realized that the true theme of the novel is not that one must be crazy to be loved, but rather, the true craziness lies in the way we humans idealize others humans. We consistently treat the people we’re infatuated with as if they aren’t regular people but instead as something more and better. Take for example, the obvious. The majority of the women that I know worship the ground that Beyonce walks on, (rightfully so.) But then forget that she is a person with struggles, with insecurities, and shortcomings.

Last year I was projected as the perfect exchange student. I fundraised to build schools. I hung out with famous Indonesians. I made wannabe vlogs that were eventually showed at the State Department. People told me things like, “You’re my inspiration. How do I live your life? You make it look so easy.” I was the Mallory they chose to see.

But boy did they choose wrong. I don’t deserve a pedestal. I don’t warrant heaps of praise. I’m to this day insecure about my Bahasa Indonesia abilities. I struggle keeping up with my online courses. I fight with my boyfriend every other week. I get anxious whenever anyone asks about my future plans. And I have a PhD in pushing people away. 
I have become so keenly aware of the way that this romanticization of fellow humans has harmed people in my own life, and all the ways that I have failed to unmoor myself from my particular point of view. Australia was my escape from this phenomenon, as is this new chapter I've begun writing here at home - My flight from the ideas of who I am that others have faithfully built for me.

And let me tell ya, I’m pretty stoked about who I found waiting for me on the other side.

“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”

Monday, February 2, 2015

Some Thoughts on Being (American)

New friends from Iran
One of the best nights I have had since coming to Sydney was the evening that I was unexpectedly invited to watch an Asian Cup match - Iran versus Qatar. Having never been to a professional soccer game, much less an international cup such as this one, I had little idea of what to expect. I don't think I could have even pointed to Iran or Qatar on a map. But in the name of holy wanderers and adventures, I relentlessly joined. My time at Olympic Park started on a high when a bulky, Iranian man bearing a ponytail fell in love with me and felt compelled to (respectfully) tell me how gorgeous I am. I followed in his steps to the stadium, and immediately took the crowd majority's lead and rooted for the green-and-red-wearing nation, Iran. Though I had never been to either country, I was joyously embraced as though I was native to both. When halftime rolled around and neither team had scored, the already high energy of the stadium tripled. Stomping feet, waving flags, constant chants in Arabic, and plenty of, "Astaga!" But despite all of that noise and chaos and excitement and energy and rivalry, perhaps the most compelling moment of my time at Sydney Olympic Park was at halftime, when both fans from Qatar, and fans from Iran, came together to pray. Some on cardboard boxes, others on prayer rugs, but none excluded because of the colors they were supporting. Amongst these worshipping Muslims, stood non-Muslim Australian and American friends making sure they weren't disturbed - a miraculous sight given recent events in Paris and Sydney. As the second half of the game came to a close, Iran scored the only goal of the evening, deploying waves of red and green throughout the city. As I was exiting the stadium, I was invited to dance along with the Iranians, despite our countries not always seeing eye to eye. "You're very fortunate to come from such a beautiful country, I hope all the best for you" expressed one new Iranian friend. "Your country is so full of hope!" remarked another. 

Flash forward to the following week as President Obama gave his annual State of the Union address. I tuned in via YouTube along with many exchange students around the world, and fiercely participated in a Facebook group chat and Twitter conversation regarding the SOTU. For many of us abroad, there was a common theme. And that common theme was that, no matter where in the world we were, everyone had something to say about us being American. And more times than not, more people from outside of the US had something educated to say about American current events than did actual American citizens. I cannot count the number of times someone in Australia

In honor of Australia Day last week!
has remarked on me reading Hillary Cinton's memoir. Or the amount of times I hear foreign students stressing about taking the IELTS examine to enter American Universities. While I'm no believer that being American is some God-given gift, I am a firm believer that with that privilege comes some level of responsibility when it comes to taking advantage of all the things we are able to do, in comparison to people who are given far fewer opportunities. America is not perfect - but it is a place of hope. And the one thing I've learned in my journeys is that that hope, and that drive, is absolutely something to be taken advantage of. Many Indonesians I have spoke to can't imagine living the lifestyle that we are able to - so travel the world. Be an ambassador for your country. Witness Iranians dancing and the act of people coming together to play a game of soccer. Serve your country by tuning into the rest of the world, and embrace not only being American, but being a global citizen. I truly believe that that will make all of the difference. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What 2014 Taught Me

It's weird, really. Looking back to where I was this exact time last year, and attempting to make sense of where I find myself now. Thinking about the differences between who I was then and who I am today make me feel slightly awkward yet simultaneously ever so proud. Hell, I actually just LOLd. 

Last New Year's Eve was spent in Jakarta, Indonesia. That particular evening I had ultimately found myself at my lowest point on Allen Evan's famed "Exchange Chart of Sadness" and coping was not coming easy. I was homesick - questioning why I had decided to ever step foot in the chaotic archipelago and tossing around the idea of cutting my program six months short. As a few fireworks lit up the sky at midnight, the thermometer read 98 degrees. One of those ginormous cries that takes hold of your entire body stopped by for a while, but it was hard to distinguish between my tears and the drops of sweat that seemed to sprint down my face.

And just like that, the earth had completed one additional orbit around the sun, and my 2014 self was set in motion.

2014 taught me countless things in countless places. January hit me like a train with its hard lesson that sometimes what I want, and what I need are two completely different realties. And sometimes if I'm lucky, what I don't know I need can actually turn out to be infinitely times better than what I originally thought that I wanted. I had wanted to go to Sulawesi, and had so been looking forward to the adventure-filled trip during the three months leading up to it. We were to go hiking, get back out into nature, and feast on fish that we would catch ourselves. But two days before I was about to board my flight to the famous, green-tipped island, my trip was cancelled, and the excitement that I had held onto for so long was ripped right out of my hands. I. Was. Devastated. So devastated that my host mom resorted to letting me stay home from school the following day where I cured myself by eating obscene amounts of fried bananas and sweet tea. I was in the mood for some quiet time, and plucked the only book written in English from my host-dad's bookshelf. The Land of Five Towers. Long story short, I had found the most influential novel of 2014. The story's humble lessons of adversity, passion, courage, and love were exactly what I needed to hear. And as a bonus, through a strange string of events and the power of Twitter, I became pals with the author of that special novel - which really set my year into motion and inspired me to volunteer more, try harder, travel further, and understand greater. Had I gone to Sulawesi, I wouldn't have found that novel. And alas, what I wanted and what I needed were two completely different things. (Side note, if you would like to read The Land of Five Towers, you can purchase it on Amazon for heaps cheap!)  

But January was only the beginning. With each month came more steps, more tribulations, and thus, more lessons learned. March taught me what a gift my education has been and will be as I spoke with the families who were struggling to settle their kids' school fees. May taught me to stay curious about the world, to relish in its marvels as I frolicked with elephants and orangutans. June reminded me of the power of perseverance as I successfully completed my finals in a second language and graduated from high school on the other side of the world. July gently whispered that goodbyes are never final as I packed up a year's worth of new friends, family, and all of the beautiful memories that came with. August came, and I was awkwardly reunited with my American life - but was pleased to realize that family never changes. I packed up life once again to move to Australia in September, and immediately understood the importance of walking the most untraditional path possible. October knocked me off feet and suddenly I grasped the fact that no matter how many times I live abroad, every experience comes with its own set of challenges. And December? December was perhaps the best month of all. December taught me that this life is meant to be lived, and for me, sometimes that means going places I've never been before. Making an effort to cross things off of my bucket list, instead of simply adding to it. Learning to spread love, and not just desire it. Being present always, instead of daydreaming about the future or reminiscing of the past. Living for the kinds of love that are a result of friendship setting on fire. Simply being alive in the most beautiful way that I am capable of. 

Yes, 2014 has certainly been one hell of a ride with plenty of smacks in the head by reality, and today, I wouldn't have it any other way. Cheers to all that is coming our way in 2015! I am unimaginably stoked to see what it holds. Woot WOOT.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Indonesia: Round 2

The last time I left Indonesia, people asked me, “Mal, kapan kamu akan balik ke Bandung?” And last time, I had an answer. This time around however? This time I don’t know when I’ll be returning to my country of islands, my home. And that’s heartbreaking. I don’t know when I’m coming back. I don’t know when I’ll see my closest friends. Or when I’ll be able to devour es kelapa muda and ayam madu. I don’t know when I’ll again return to the life that I love so much - the place where I stand as my best self. Like I said. It’s heartbreaking

I knew that my return to my favorite archipelago would bring a wave of emotions. I anticipated  weirdness - perhaps a bit of unease. In the time that I had been away, questions ran rampant in my homesick heart. Had things changed? Would my host family treat me differently when we reunited? Had the angkot routes been modified? Would my favorite martabak sellers still remember me? Could I still handle heaping amounts of the spicy sambal that my school friends devoured? I was worried, to say the least.

But the moment that the wheels of my plane dropped and touched down in Bali on the 1st of December, I abandoned every single concern I had, and relished in knowing that I was finally home. 

On my flight from Sydney to Denpasar I was fortunate enough to meet another girl my age who was traveling to Indonesia for the first time where her “schoolies” friends were patiently waiting. When we touched down at the airport she had an Indonesian driver ready to take her to where her friends were staying. Me on the other hand? I had no idea of where I was going, how I was getting there, or what to make of the humidity that I so foolishly had forgotten about. When I accompanied her to her driver and began conversing in Bahasa, he was clearly stunned, and an enormous smile took to his face. He offered me, a random bule with no plans, a ride to my hostel, and I was once again reminded of the generosity of the Indonesian people.

Whitewater rafting for the first time with a crazy doctor from Perth
I checked into my hostel bedroom - a private all-girl dorm with two bunk-beds and about two extra square feet of walking space. Two minutes later, a platinum blonde girl from Finland checked into the same room. “So, are you traveling alone, too?” And from then on, Mari and I were attached at the hip for the entirety of my ten days on the island. 

Precious encounters like these are the ones I love most
Over the course of ten short days, us two girls had made extraordinary memories. From our first night of dancing until 3:00 am, trekking to Ubud and prancing through the monkey forest, tea tasting, and surfing well past the sunset. We did it all, and then some. And not a moment was wasted. 

My time in Bali reaffirmed a few things for me. The first, and debatably most important, is that everyone should stay in a hostel at least once in there lifetime. The sense of international community that is bred behind those walls is unmatchable, and I’ve gained lifelong friends. Rather they be crazy doctors from Perth, or sassy girls from China, friends are awaiting. You just have to go find them.

Me and my soul sister from Finland
At 8:00 am on December 9th, (after approximately fifteen minutes of sleep,) I managed to make my flight to Bandung. I had only 16 days, and I planned to embrace every one. My first day was spent adventuring with Agung in the green mountains of Lembang (surprise, surprise.) And then going home to my host family’s house in the evening. As the warm teh tarik hit my lips at home that night, I embraced the paradoxical feelings that came with. Everything was the same. Everything was different. But I was happy.

Over the course of the next few days I reunited with many old friends. Baya. Pandu. Hilfi. Lidya. Nabila. With each reunion, came more and more smiles. My being quickly succumbed to happiness. Pure, unadulterated, authentic happiness. And to be honest, it had been a while since I had felt that way.

On Tuesday evening, I took off on a trip to Yogyakarta. Baya joined me, and together we took a seven hour night train to the heart of Indonesia’s culture. Our first day we decided to go to my favorite beach; Pantai Kukup. We frolicked in the sand and splashed in the powerful ocean waves, basking in the joy that came from good company and strawberry-flavored Oreos. Just as we were preparing to leave, a ginormous wave came and swept up our bags containing both of our cameras, wallets, iPhones, clothes, shoes. Everything we had that was supposed to be of “value” had quickly been destroyed. But for once in my life, those things didn’t matter. “It’s okay. It’s just stuff.” 

So we lost our ability to take photos for the rest of our time in Jogja, and for the rest of my time in Bandung. But it was okay. Because the memories we created were far too priceless to attempt to capture in a simple photograph. 

Turns out I can't handle spicy foods anymore
After a return to Bandung, the rest of my limited days were spent eating way too much street food, having random jam sessions, exploring Bandung a bit, and getting heaps of Global Politics work done. 

And just as quickly as it had come, my homecoming trip to Indonesia was complete. On Christmas Eve, I made my way to Jakarta for one last final pitstop to meet with Fuadi to deliver raised funds for Komunitas Menara, and then went out for a final dinner with my two closest friends. 

I'll see you soon, beautiful
And now I’m here. Sitting in the airport in Kuala Lumpur. It’s Christmas. And the closest thing I have to family is the Sri Lankan man sitting next to me in this poorly lit Starbuck’s lounge. The tears want to come at the thought of being so close to Indonesia, yet now knowing that it is a thing of the past. But I think there’s a beauty in that. In loving a place so much that you’re moved to tears at the thought of not knowing that there’s an imminent return. That’s love. 

So although this Christmas season may not have been traditional, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Merry Christmas to everyone back home, everyone I’ve met along the way, and everyone that has yet to come. Much love from across the world!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Brotha from anotha motha
It's not everyday that I blog. And it's certainly not everyday that I dedicate an entire post to one person. But this one? This one is special. This one had to come out because only once in my lifetime will someone like Brandon Lucante walk into my life and completely tear things up in the most wonderfully exquisite way.

My fellow exchange students and I have often said that that the best part of living abroad is the food. And the majority of the time, I would without hesitation nod in agreement. (Martabak manis, anyone?) Perhaps some would argue that witnessing new traditions first hand is the most stimulating part of living in a foreign land. That feeling completely at home halfway around the world is most rewarding. Or the satisfaction that follows after rewiring your brain with new language pathways. Exchange websites like to highlight the selfie phenomenon and present the multitude of photo ops as the key to living abroad. And all of these things, well, they're all integral. I have experienced all of these wonderful factors of living abroad, and about twenty pages more. I had checked all of the boxes on the proper exchange student checklist. I was complete. I was satisfied. Then I met Brandon. And only then did I realize that I was truly wrong. I had been missing something.

As I stood at the foot of the train station watching from a distance as he wiped a tear before it could fall to the escalator below him, the reality of our goodbye overtook me. My mind took off on a race, trying to grasp how absolute goodbyes can be, while simultaneously clinging to the hope of a tomorrow and forever with Brandon in it. My heart couldn't fathom it, nor could my head to write the proper words. 

So for now I guess I'll just do what we do best. Write. And pray to the author gods that this will suffice. 

"So you're from here, huh?" I beamed as a fellow American had mistaken me for a local and immediately let his remark go straight to my head. I smiled once more with his acceptance of being called Princess, and the smiles haven't stopped since. From eating dinner at tiny, vegan food kitchens, to breaking into the Opera House, or gazing at sexual art in Contemporary Art Museums, I'm grateful for every moment we together have shared. Though they be few in quantity, they are standouts in quality. Even more than the list of memorial moments we have shared in this country, I'm grateful for his laughter, and for my own. It exudes out of me in twenty second increments whenever I find myself in his presence. I'm grateful for the tears that were shed on train station benches as we talked about the big moments of our pasts, and embraced the beautiful ones that have surrounded us over the course of the last few months. I appreciate his heart. His wit. His snappy comebacks that usually top my own. His optimism and resilience. His willingness to be vulnerable while concurrently standing tall. His imagination and passion for written word. I appreciate the combustion of all qualities that make up his being, and it's my hope that I embody a few of them myself. (We often joke that I'm am the female version of him, and vice versa, so I mean, I guess I might have that going for me.)

I marvel at the strange way the universe works, constantly pulling me in directions that I don't quite understand. Events and experiences stacking upon each other, building up to the grand finale. It took crossing an ocean to find each other, but boy, I sure am glad I took that leap. Brandon makes it all so worth it. 

I'll see you on the next leg of the adventure, asshole. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Real Talk

I'm lost. Completely. Utterly. Thoroughly. Lost. I'm unsure of what way is up, what way is down, and what direction my life is trying to point me in. I laugh at the paradox that has become my life- The mingling sense of pride I have for getting this far sitting beside the lurking feeling of doubt about whether or not I've really done anything meaningful.

Often times I have found myself in situations in which people will say, 

"You are so lucky."

"You have SUCH a good life!"
"Tell me your secret. I want your lifestyle."

The phrases repeat themselves, over and over and over again, getting wrapped and twisted within the hidden corners of my brain and soul. Because the truth is, what no one is able to see is, I don't have my life together. Let me repeat that again: I. Don't. Have. My life together.

Despite what the Instagram posts and tweets allude to, never in my years on this Earth have I been faced with so much uncertainty. One day my mind is in Indonesia, reminiscing on the simple, glory days of mangos and positive company. The next I'm planning my adventures to come and vowing to never look back. To keep moving in fear of what will happen if I stop. What will happen if I "settle down."

I set my heart on seeing the world but crave being a stone's throw away from my family. I relish in packing my suitcase but despise having to unpack the memories when I get home. I have about fifty college majors looming over my head but can't settle on just one. I want to have the "college experience" but I also want the "real-world" experience of sharing stories and cultures. One day I want to study. And graduate. And make my way to the top and become the next Secretary of State. The next I just want to sleep. Cry. And let myself be completely engulfed by the lack of control I have over where I will end up. I continue to push myself to be as uncomfortable as possible, while simultaneously begging for normality. There are days when I feel like I can conquer all peaks, and days when I feel like I can't pick up my feet. 

This current path I'm walking, (more like crawling down,) is hard. Harder than I thought it would be. It's dark. It's windy. And it's ruthless. I am lost. But I think that I'm lost in the right direction. And for now, that's enough for me. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

A Story

I had a good weekend.

Not just a good weekend. But rather, the kind of weekend where when I returned home late Sunday evening and quietly pressed my bedroom door closed, I felt obliged to take to my journal to write about the unexpected joys that I had experienced over the course of the short three days in fear of letting any of the fresh memories fade. I had a good weekend.

Sand-boarding over Australia's renowned wandering dunes. Climbing sandy peaks that produce seemingly infinite views of "the bush." Eating sand by the mouth full and still bearing a wide, gritty smile. Prancing on the beach as a morning storm rolls overhead. Trekking into the ocean waters in pursuit of mother whales and their babies. Being enchanted by the boundless openness of rolling waves while simultaneously attempting to dance to Taylor Swift. Hearing first-hand accounts of World War Two stories on Australian turf. Flirting with baby koalas and inquiring about their habitats. Patting kangaroos as I would my own puppy back home. Passing a football on the shore at sunset while children raced towards the last sunlit waves. Falling in love with this world and every human, animal, plant, and water source in it. All of this, and so much more.

I had a good weekend. And the goodness, the simpleness, the absolute best parts- those can't be captured in a photo collage. Those can't be put into words in a short blog post. The quiet conversations that were shared as we drove from place to place. The way the sun warmed the top of my head under my new hat. The gentle reminders of why I'm here, of why I am right where I am supposed to be. The lightbulb that went off in my head when I connected real life events to what I'm studying in Elemental Geosystems and Global Politics. My new thirst to learn. None of these things can be captured quite right, but I sure am a lucky gal to have experienced them.

I had a good weekend.