Facing Adversity Abroad - When Life Is Like A Bear Hunt
I read a book to my very young students regularly because it’s a favourite of theirs. It’s called “We’re Going On A Bear Hunt”. It’s about a family that, together, faces several challenges on their walk to find a bear, such as very tall grass, a river, thick gooey mud, a blizzard, and eventually, a bear. As with most children’s books, it has a repetitive phrase: “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, oh no, we’ve got to go through it”. Its meaning is literal of course but as adults, we can read much more into it. Life is bullshit sometimes, in big ways and small ways and at times you’ve got to shovel your way through it if you want to get to the other side.
An old acquaintance came to visit me from Thailand last week. I met her when I lived there three years ago, back when my ex-husband and I took teaching jobs with her agency in Ayutthaya. Her name is Joy and that’s exactly what she is, a massive cup of joy packed into a pint-sized person. I liked her immediately. Amidst massive cultural differences, Joy and I understood each other’s jokes, cooked amazing food together, talked about sex, and bonded through our common experience of being women. She exposed me to the Thai version of a smiley face emoticon: 555. (The number 5 in Thai is pronounced ‘ha’, so 555 sounds just like a laugh. Cute right? This is simple joy.) I updated her on the last three years of my life, which was a long story of course, and it made me realise how much I would never wish to go back in time. Like that children’s story, I walked through some pretty thick, gooey mud and deep, dark forests in the past few years to get to where I am today. Haven’t we all? Thank goodness we know how to look back on things with a triple 5.
On our last day together we motorbiked to some nearby hot springs. The morning was brilliantly sunny and warm and I looked forward to the long drive ahead. Joy is so slight that having her on the back of my bike was like having a bag of apples in my backpack. It was an easy ride there. We arrived just in time for the sky to open up and pelt us with rain. We ran to the pools in our shorts and t-shirts and joined the gazillion local Indonesians marinating in hot, steamy water. Some peered at us with curious eyes, others observed with interest, and some gazed at us like we were the feast for a famished nation. Young women frocked in traditional Muslim garb stood huddled under the one inadequate overhang breastfeeding their babies whilst their men enjoyed a good long soak.
Of course I would have preferred a sunny day and pools with far less people but that is where I was for the moment and I’d driven two hours to get there. I opened myself to the sensory experience. I turned my face to the sky and closed my eyes. The sound of the rain assaulting the pools dissolved into the surrounding voices. The hot water warmed my skin and relaxed my muscles. I opened my eyes and saw Joy’s sweet face, indistinct through the hard rain, and I felt surprising, overwhelming gratitude for her. But then I smelled something absolutely vile, something akin to a sewer, mixed with rotting cantaloupe stewed in sulphur. Was it the rain? Was it the “natural” smell of the water stirred up and released by the rain? Drops pummelled me and stung my eyes until they burned and I could no longer stand it. Joy remarked that the scene before us depicted the Buddhist belief that the fate of the eternally damned is to boil in pools of hot water… essentially what hell looks like. I turned around to see a man slurp up some of the hot water and spit it back out. Yup. I got out and huddled, shivering, under the overhang with the local women - A single gray hair amongst chocolate tresses.
The rain eventually let up and we walked back towards the parking lot, stopping to buy some local snacks. As soon as we reached my motorbike the sky opened up again. I debated waiting it out and then decided that would be a stupid thing to do because we could be waiting all day. I just decided that the rain would let up, which of course it didn’t. I’m terrified of driving hills on a motorbike in the pouring rain in a land of crazy drivers with someone on the back but if there’s anything I hate more than blue cheese it’s fear so I decided to nip that one in the bud. I poncho-ed Joy up and set off. I was drenched in a matter of seconds and then I got properly cold. The rain showered my skin with pins and needles, harder the faster I went. Long blonde hairs rose on my arms, calling attention. Fuck evolution. Exactly what good does a few fine arms hairs do when you’re cold other than mock you? I prayed my brakes would stay grippy as I thought to myself, well I can’t go over it, I can’t go under it, I’ll have to go through it. We sloshed through ponds in the middle of the street, passing the locals who’d taken cover at the side of the road under trees and awnings. My Converse were sopping wet and water squished between my toes as I changed gears. Trucks passed and sprayed us with filthy road juice. I slowed through the pond-like puddles to avoid hydro-planing. I was freezing and desperately hungry.
The entire way home was a hard ride, even with a stop for fried stuff smothered in peanut sauce. During times of stress, even little stresses, my brain tends to escape to a happy place, which often involves reflecting on little experiences and finding some way to connect them to bigger events. That simple, insignificant motorbike ride symbolised my two years living in Indonesia: thrilling, frightening, uncomfortable, stressful, and totally necessary to avoid shackling myself indefinitely to a life without rain. That ride was like all the time that has passed since I met Joy in Thailand three years ago, back when I was still sheltered by a marriage and a legitimate home address. Back when I was clueless, thankfully, about all the bears I would encounter.
We ended the day with a sauna and a massage. I tested out my Thai massage skill on Joy. We laughed at the irony of it: Canadian girl gives Thai girl Thai massage. Who better to give feedback? She loved it and described it as “nice painful”. Ha, isn’t that life?
A scary two-hour motorbike ride in the tropical rain, a hard climb up a mountain, that first run after a long hiatus or five whiskeys, a break-up, a hip injury, two years living in your less than ideal place. All require reckless persistence. All require strength. All require hard fucking work. All require letting go of stupid notions about how life is supposed to go. Even ducked out, from beneath my blanket of privilege where hardship is relative I can say that avoidance, or an intent to avoid, is probably the nemesis of personal growth. Reckless confrontation is its pinnacle. You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it. Sometimes you’ve just got to go through it. So do it in style. Throw yourself on a motorbike and rave on.
Thanks for the reminder Joy, 555.
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