Hell, let’s Mute it


It: Mental illness

Who has heard of Bell’s campaign “Bell, let’s talk”?  Well, if you have not, it’s a mental health campaign pioneered in Canada encouraging people to talk about mental illness. Holding steadfast to the belief that discussion leads to acceptance and knowledge, people promoting the idea seek to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.


Stigma is basically the result of judging someone for something deemed shameful, disgraceful, dishonourable, or irregular.  It’s sort of like being stamped on the forehead in everlasting ink with the word DAMAGED, and sent through life as such.  You’re branded now and somehow defined solely by that ink marking that onlookers view as your makeup, your label or your unchangeable grade.


You cannot necessarily test for it.  You cannot go in to see your GP, have a quick scan, swab or blood test and take a course of antibiotics to treat it.  It’s baffling, cunning and often cannot be tested or measured.  It may appear on Tuesday and holiday from Wednesday to Sunday.  It may cause grief and despair in February and not surface again until late July.  You’re evaluated based on word of mouth answers, not urine or blood samples, not x-rays, not scans. In some senses mental diagnosis is not scientifically sound, because it’s measurably subjective.  Some people just don’t believe it exists and if they do believe it exists, it means you’re nuts and you’re walking naked on the middle of main street swerving and talking to yourself while chugging mouthwash.

It’s harder to envision mental illness as the woman at home in bed, envisioning her coffin, having cared for everyone throughout the day except herself and her sense of well-being.

And perhaps even harder to picture it as the man with the successful career feeling underwhelmed yet overly concerned about whether he’s turned off all 16 light switches and locked all seven dead bolts before saying his prayers six times in each direction.

It’s the woman who sticks her finger down her throat to vomit each night because she sees fat in the mirror when in fact she weighs but 90 pounds.  The test says “You’re dangerously thin.” It does not say “you have a mental illness”.

It’s the woman who wants love so badly but has been hurt so deeply that she pushes her love away and cuts little hearts into her arms with a razor blade because somehow she believes she’s innately unloveable. 

It’s the man who buries his head in a Hawaiian cave for a month believing the CIA is after him, spending his earnings on marijuana, ignoring his wife and child, and then outrageously surfing the pipe and winning the Eddie. All without a hint of vivid recall, and then awakens back in the cave. 

It’s the young man who longs for the companionship of others but looks a little different so he deems himself a “freak” and in turn dyes his hair black, pierces massive holes into his ears, lips, chin and scrotum and tattoos his formidable face. 

It’s the sorority girl with top marks and a Facebook full of friends who posts about feeling lonely and unloveable and then jumps off the delta gamma balcony after a break up with the fraternity president.

Mental illness has no clear lines. It’s immeasurable and it’s a ghost.

It’s the mommy with the beautiful newborn who cries herself to sleep every day until one evening she realises the baby is two and she is still crying, but now pacifying herself with a bottle of merlot, a gram of cocaine and a pack of Marlboro lights.

 and sometimes….it’s just not that extreme..

It’s just your mommy who has felt down ever since giving birth

It’s your speaker who shakes uncontrollably before a speech and generally just feels a bitter nervous talking to people. 

It’s your drinker who just can’t say no but wishes he could and knows the daily dilemma of one is too many but a thousand is never enough, swearing off drinking at eight am and finding a Heineken in his hand by five. 

It’s your friend who truly feels awkward and judged by others for no good reason and judges herself according to her own false projections. 


We mute because it’s not okay to struggle like we do.  We, as a culture,value strength, capability, and confidence and “I’ve got it all under control-ness”.

We Mute because we SHOULD on ourselves.  We literally shit SHOULD on ourselves. It’s like we’re covered in “should” shit and it reeks. We SHOULD be better parents, we SHOULD have gotten that promotion, we SHOULD have exercised this month because we SHOULD be at least twenty pounds slimmer.  We SHOULD have taken the dogs for a walk because we SHOULD care more about those who rely on us and we SHOULD spend time with our partner because we SHOULD be a better spouse. We SHOULD quit drinking, We SHOULD stop caring what others think and we SHOULD find a way to be successful and productive each and every day.

Oh! and we SHOULDN’T  even harder than we should.

We SHOULDN’T be late for work, we SHOULDN’T eat chips at 10 pm, we SHOULDN’T care what others think of us because we SHOULDN’t be so damn sensitive. We SHOULDN’T show we are weak or vulnerable, because we SHOULD be strong and resilient and if we are not, then we SHOULD be.  And if we aren’t then something is wrong with us, and if something is wrong with us, then we are inevitably defeated.  We are stamped with DAMAGED.  We are invalid and we are walking down main street chugging mouthwash and trying to bite our own ear. 

So this is why we think we think we SHOULDN’T talk Bell!!!

It SHOULDN’T be mental illness because it’s just a headache, it’s just a bad day, it’s just a this too shall pass……because I SHOULDN’T label myself, overreact, or be incapable of managing every day life. I SHOULD probably just smile and make like a good buttercup and suck it up!

Our world tells us that we SHOULD be well..even when we’re not and it normalises that being well means having it all together….when what’s really normal is the struggle everyday to just keep things as they SHOULD be….



When we hide our mental illness we think we appear stronger.  We believe we can appear to function as others do and be deemed capable and contributive. When we hide our mental illnesses ( depression, anxiety,addiction, ADHD you name it)  there is no one to say you’re just weak, or you’re choosing mental illness as a crutch. The word illness implies a detriment right off the hop.  Hop away!

Illness means sick.  We’re not sick. 

There are far too many  judgement stamp holders that reinforce the paralysing stigma. We don’t want to appear like we have grand deficits, especially when those deficits are often immeasurable and potentially viewed as constructs of our imaginations.  

Hence, there is no proper testing to trustfully evaluate the great complexities of mental illness that plagues us so.  SO We mute, and We function and We live.


If only sharing felt like coming home from work and changing into cozy pants.  If only sharing felt like a drink of cold water after a work out.  Could it be comfortable, soothing refreshing and safe?

Talking is about being vulnerable and believing that we may be understood, cared for, empathized with and potentially helpful to someone else who may also be struggling. 

Those of us who dare to face the truth and talk about mental illness, coping, and recovery, may be stamped with DAMAGED by many….if not most…. but we may also be branded with BRAVERY, COURAGE, VULNERABILITY  and AUTHENTICITY. 










Expatriate Support Group: it’s the little things!

I’m blessed to be one of those people that loves what they do so much that it doesn’t feel like work.  I’m blessed to not have to work; but I work because I love what I do. And what I love to do is to help others help themselves.  I’m also a mommy to a beautiful little 2 year old girl named Sophia, and so splitting time between being mommy and therapist fulfills me passionately.

As a rookie therapist holding a Master’s degree in Counselling, I am licensed as a Professional Counsellor Intern.  I need to complete 3000, yes 3000 hours  ( that’s shockingly about a year and a half of 40 hour work weeks, with zero days off or holidays) interning in order to receive my American full designation as a Licensed Professional Counsellor.  Somehow synchronistically I was able to find an internship opportunity close to where we live in Kuala Lumpur.  I wrote about my first experience at Rekindle in my previous blog post “Where the hell is the dirty duck”.

I’m one of the lucky ones, because although I’m a “trailing ex-patriate spouse”, I am continuing to pursue my dreams and goals and have truly succeeded in establishing my own identity in a foreign world…so far from Canada or from Texas where I began my journey as an aspiring therapist. I say I’m a lucky one, but someone once told me that luck is 90% preparation and 10% opportunity.  My ducks were in a row when I happened upon Rekindle Therapy and my respected mentor Dr. Johnben Loy.

After a month or so working at his practice, we had an impromptu conversation about the need for ex-patriate support and some of the issues women face as “trailing spouses.” A trailing spouse is really defined as “a person who follows his or her life partner to another city because of a work assignment”.  As Kuala Lumpur is home to so very many expatriates and spouses, Rekindle sees a plethora of ex-patriates as clients and Dr. Johnben had been visioning this EX-PAT SUPPORT GROUP for quite some time.  He’s married to a Canadian “trailing spouse” and so as both a husband to an ex pat and a therapist of ex-pats, he knows the need for support is real.  Once again, the stars were in alignment and the team to do the job came together.

We held our first group last week and it serves both an educational and a therapeutic need.  The group itself is not therapy, although it may be therapeutic.  The group members simply come together to discuss in a safe and confidential environment, the struggles that trailing spouses encounter on a day to day basis and the stresses resulting.

Some of these stresses are:

  1. Long hours the working spouse works and lonely days often compounded with adjusting and temperamental kids
  2. Having given up a career to support a spouse in hers or his and finding it hard to adjust to this
  3. Not having the support from home or friends. No familiar faces.
  4. Unfamiliar foods and being unsure of the cleanliness and health safety of these
  5. People judging us thinking that a maid or helper makes life so easy
  6. Troubles with finding a helper- trusting them- feeling comfortable in aspects of that relationship
  7. Language issues- not being understood, not understanding
  8. Children going to new schools and trying to make friends
  9. Feelings of alienation and having no one who understands
  10. Health care needs, differences with health care and finding it inadequate
  11.  Feeling uncomfortable and mistrusting in meeting women and joining mom’s groups
  12. Women who have moved so often that they lack the desire to keep making new friends and putting in the effort- too many hello’s and goodbyes
  13. the children simply are not happy and acting out

These are just a small piece of the trailing spouse stress pie.  Troubles are unlimited and pervasive, the pervasiveness of which women truly are unaware of.  The purpose of the ex-pat support group is to help trailing spouses recognise the commonality of the issues and support one another in dealing with them.  Regular moms groups often focus on talking about the sunshine, the luxuries, the trips , and the roses enjoyed because of ex-patriate life, but they don’t touch upon the loneliness, distress, alienation, lack of identity and longing felt by many..if not most.  Our ex-patriate support group at Rekindle seeks to help women experience confidential openness, honesty and support.

We held our first group on February 3rd and will hold the next one this Wednesday, February 17th at 10am at Rekindle Therapy in Desa Sri Hartamas.  Please call Jeremy at +603 6201 7488 to book your spot! And if you’re new here please remove the +6 and dial just 0362017488 from your mobile phone. Man did that confuse me when I first moved to Kuala Lumpur! Stress!!!! It’s the little things…..”  isn’t it La” !






















Colours that do not exist

In February we hired Divina.  She’s a 25 year old Filipino girl who lives with us, cooks for us, cleans for us and helps us care for Sophia.  One of the “extravagances” per say of living abroad in SE Asia is the affordability of hired help.  I consistently hear comments from people at home about how lucky we are to live here and have help.  People say “Oh, must be nice to have a maid,” or “get the maid to do it.” We don’t call Divina our maid.  She’s our helper.  It’s a more polite term. And although we appreciate the help to the utmost degree, we don’t just “get the maid to do it”.  We respect Divina as an individual and as any employer should respect any employee.  In fact, having help did not come naturally to us.  Greg and I have struggled with such stratified socio-economic differences, and the fact that somehow in this dysfunctional and unfair world, there are those who can hire help, and those who are the help.  Instead of this being a server, servant relationship, we look at it more like Divina is helping us immensely and we too are able to help her by providing a nice home, healthy food, a good salary, a safe working environment and hopefully a family that makes her separation from her own a little easier.

I must say that the ability to sleep in till 9am on a morning following a long night with Sophia does however feel like a luxury. Nonetheless, Having Divina with us through my three months of pregnancy sickness felt necessary and not so luxurious.  I threw up every day multiple times.  Divina was there to help with Sophia and make me noodles when I could eat them. Divina makes the best noodles. She was there through my miscarriage and D&C last April and she has become my friend and a part of our family. In fact, I don’t know how I would have gotten through those times without her.  I taught her my western recipes and she picked them up easily.  She’s a skilful and careful cook and she prepares all of our personal dishes now, although I dare say she cooks them better than I do…even banana loaf.  Working for an Indian family before us, I was surprised she was able to switch from Curry and Roti to Baked chicken, potatoes and gravy without a hitch.

Divina’s story is probably not an unusual one.  It is probably more common that I’d like to imagine and with her permission I would like to share it with my western friends and family to juxtapose with our first world problems.

Divina is 25 as I mentioned.  She became the mother of Charles Justin and Queen Jasmine before she turned 18.  Being a young mother in the Philippines brings its challenges but for Divina those challenges were compounded with her children’s father having a debilitating eye condition resulting from Marfan’s Syndrome which has left him unable to work. Divina’s factory job, making hard disc drives and medical syringes, earned her approximately 13,000 Philippine Pesos a month, the equivalent of about $278 USD. With electricity costing them 700 pesos a month and hungry tummies consuming up to 350 pesos of rice per month, they were desperate. Given the situation, with two young children and a non-working partner, she had to make the only possible decision made by thousands of Filipino women a year.  With a heavy heart but a commitment to providing for her family, Divina boarded a plane bound for Malaysia in hopes of becoming not only the reproductive but the productive force of her family.  She left her 4 year old daughter, 5 year old son and the father of her children behind.  She was 23 at the time and was encouraged to join her mother in law in Kuala Lumpur.  She was devastatingly sad to leave but nothing about it seemed alien as so many women she knew had had to make a similar choice.

In many ways, the Philippine economy relies on the money these women make and send back to keep the economy afloat. The remittances of overseas Filipino workers far surpass foreign direct investment in the country.  Yearly remittances calculate to about US $ 12-14 billion, which doesn’t account for the thousands of illegal workers that also send earnings back home.

Divina spent approximately eight months at her first placement with an Indian ex-patriate family.  She was one of two cooks and learned quickly how to live with a family and become a domestic helper.  She prepared all meals and took care of a 7 and 8 year old before and after International school.  The great paradox of the situation for these Filipino women is that they leave their own domestic life and children to care for someone else’s.  The wages earned for a domestic helper in a country like Malaysia are over double that of a single factory wage in the Philippines.  The conditions in those factories can be precarious at best, but the situations encountered in foreign homes can also be chancy.  Some of these labour migrants are mistreated, abused, or sexually harassed by employers.  Many have had their wages withheld and have encountered unspeakable cruelty.  Divina fortunately has not experienced any of these calamities, and therefore she still has an incredibly positive outlook on being a domestic helper.  We are fortunate to have someone so young and virtually untouched by these hardships.

Upon Divina’s first family being transferred back to India, we were fortunate to hear of her availability.  We interviewed her and she has been with us since February.  It wasn’t long before Divina and I became close and she felt comfortable enough to share her story with me.  Her eyes light up as she speaks of Queen Jasmine and Charles Justin, but there is a certain sadness there that a mother should never have to bear.  Being a young mother myself, the thought of being away from Sophia for any reason whatsoever is heartbreaking to even ponder. I cannot imagine the courage it took a young 23 year old to take full responsibility for her family and leave them in hopes of providing for them more adequately.  Prior to this summer, Divina had not seen her children for nearly two years.  There are times in our condo where Sophia and I listen to our special mommy-daughter songs and dance the afternoon away.  On more than one occasion, I have glanced over to the kitchen only to see Divina’s eyes full of tears.  Sometimes her pain is overwhelming.  She has told me that the loving music makes her want to sing and dance with her own children.  I hug Divina, Sophia hugs Divina, but we cannot possibly fill that void.

We took Divina to the waterpark this summer.  She was over the moon about it.  She had never been to such a place and when we asked her if she would join us she couldn’t control her excitement.  She and I rode the most massive funnel slide and she screamed “unforgettable Miss Marcey!” and I knew she truly meant it.  Experiencing such simple joy is humbling for us.  When something small can mean so much to someone, it can fill your heart to take part in that with them.

Part of our arrangement with Divina is a trip hone to the Philippines each year.  This is quite customary, and so we sent her back in August.  The emotion involved in finally seeing her children and wrapping her arms around them was beyond measure for her but she told me all about the tears her daughter shed when Divina would leave her classroom.  The separation anxiety exhibited was intense, and having their mother home for such a short time was almost like opening a wound.  For Divina, it sent her into an internal battle of wondering just how she could move back to the Philippines because leaving again would be unbearable.  She did nonetheless return to us because, she said, she’d made me a promise but also because she knew she had no fathomable choice.  The day before she left, she was able to legally marry her children’s father and that provided her with a sense of happiness to tuck into her self-sacrificing suitcase of responsibility.

Divina and I have spoken a great deal about her situation and I find it perplexing because usually to most problems that I have encountered, a solution can be conjured up. This is not the case for many people in our world. For Divina, it seems sometimes like the only solution is to find a sense of fulfilment and happiness in the existing situation, but Skype and Viber cannot hold her crying children when they are sick.

Although moving back and being with her husband and children would be the one answer to her prayers, she knows she couldn’t provide any more now than when she left.  Her husband’s eye condition leaves him unable to work and a one income factory salary could simply not support them.  The only solution would be for her husband to get the surgery he needs on his eye.  If that were possible then likely six months after that he could also find a factory job.  If both of them could obtain employment in the Philippines then they could live together as a family and have just enough to pay for the electricity, as well as buy rice and drinking water.  Together they might be able to bring in about $600 USD a month. Without any education neither of them could hope for more without one of them moving away again.  The situation with employment in the Philippines is unworkable.  Over the years promises of job availability have been made but most growth in the Philippines has been jobless.  Again, the labour remittances from women like Divina help keep the economy afloat.

Divina’s home in the Philippines is less than 200 square feet.  They have a pump that provides dish, laundry and bath water, but they have no shower.  The house has many leaks and they are consistently dealing with these troubles during monsoon season. They manually flush the toilet with a bucket of water, but at least they have a toilet. The circumstances are difficult to imagine in many ways, but all Divina could ever pray for would be to be with her family, in that house and all snuggled up together in bed as they were in August.  Nothing else really matters but being with the ones you love.  My heart aches for Divina somedays, and when I’m feeling down she can lift me up just by being in her presence and remembering what she’s doing for her family and how humbling that is.

Divina’s current goal is to save the 120,000 Philippine pesos or $2500 USD to pay for Gilbert’s eye surgery. Currently Divina hasn’t been able to save anything because she sends everything she has home.  She lives with us and we provide everything she needs including cab fare. I wish I could send her to school because she would love to have an education. We are working with her on a savings plan that will help, but it will take years for her to make enough to send home as well as save for her husband’s surgery. We will continue to help her achieve her goals in any way that we can.

I feel fortunate tonight to climb into bed and snuggle our little Sophia, but I say a prayer for Divina’s children, husband, and all the women who have to selflessly leave their children in order to do a mother’s duty and provide for the ones she loves more than anything on earth, including herself. Tonight Divina’s T-shirt reads, “I dream of you in colours that do not exist.” She sends her love back home.

IMG_4343 IMG_3200

Where the Hell is the Dirty Duck

So I’m walking to a counselling clinic that I may potentially intern at.  The Dr. that I have arranged a meeting with suggested that I get there on foot because it’s close to Mont Kiara where we are living. All I have to do is leave Mont Kiara, walk through a concrete tunnel, go up some stairs and Boom I’m suppose to be right in Sri Hartamas where the counselling centre is.  Not the case.  Sometimes there is a fine line between Beverly Hills and Compton.  We are sort of hidden in Mont Kiara, in our lovely Ex Pat bubble.  Venturing out is the only way to burst it. Well…walking across busy roads here is nearly impossible for the novice but as usual this skipper makes the attempt. I must have forgotten that three weeks ago Sophia and I took a taxi half a block because we couldn’t cross the street to get to the mall.  No joke; I paid the cabbie about fifty cents U.S. because hailing him down was easier than crossing the street.  Of course I did this for Sophia right, because alone I could have dodged a few Protons.

Anyways, here I am trying to get to my 2pm “interview”.  I made it across the first busy road like a dart. I still get confused about which way the cars are coming from since everything is the opposite over here.  Phewf…made it….one more stretch.  Pedestrian lights aren’t working.  Dodge the bullet..made it again.  Now I’m through.  Hurrah!  What the….those are the stairs? In front of me was a rickety little set of stairs followed by a ply wood make shift bridge over the overpass.  There were holes in the plywood so I said a little prayer and took a breathe as I crossed.


The path in front of me was winding and I started becoming anxious because it was very hidden and enclosed and on the one side was nothing but a huge heavy equipment storage lot.  I watch too much I.D perhaps but maybe just enough to keep my guard up in this type of situation.  Purse snatchings are common over here and actually even a huge hazard of driving.  Thieves will smash your window to grab a purse on your passenger seat.  Vroom goes their phantom motorcycle as you sit there in shock, possibly whip lashed from the fender bender you just caused but can’t remember. A decent looking Asian gent came walking along the path.  He wore a name tag and looked relatively harmless.  I stopped him…don’t worry I was still gripping my purse, and asked him “Do you speak English”? Funny thing about the inability to communicate due to language barriers; it seems the less you’re understood, the louder you speak. So when this man kind of shook his head and uttered some Malay, I probably started yelling at him…DOO YOU SPPPPEAAAK EEENNNGLLIISHHH?  I do not know why we think increasing our volume will help get us the “Oh yes, I do” that we are looking for.  You can’t understand me…Oh I must not be speaking loud enough.  I’m an ego centric white person who thinks everyone speaks English even when I’m in your country….Anyways, he didn’t and I kept walking.  His name tag and his demeanour settled me down though as did the other young professional Malaysian people walking down the same sketchy little path.


As the path ends Sri Hartamas begins.  It is certainly a far cry from Mont Kiara.  The buildings are in shambles and appear to be level upon level of congestion.  Business signs are sometimes tilted slightly sideways and the pollution, heat and humidity turns building materials a sort of blackish sooty colour and overall it looks poorly maintained.

Sri Hartamas (1)

I checked the address I had and found that the street closest was two numbers away from the street where the clinic is located.   This didn’t help because I didn’t know whether to go straight or back up and frankly in Malaysia, it seems that 3 doesn’t necessarily come before 4 all of the time.

I felt uncomfortable and maybe even a little scared for the first time in a month here.   I can remember feeling that way when I travelled here alone in 2009.  I can remember being escorted by a cab driver everywhere and went to bed a bit hungry because I wasn’t interested in eating fish eyeballs for dinner. He had taken me to an authentic Malaysian restaurant. Malaysians like the fish..the full fish..head, bones and all.  At this moment nonetheless and six years later, I realised what a bubble we live in across the concrete overpass.
We live in the ex pat Beverly Hills, a false reality of sorts, and POP goes the bubble.

So here I am…At least I have my cell phone…a nice shiny IPHONE 6 that I’m sure the phantom motorcycle can spot a mile away.  I’m safe..I have my phone, I can text the Dr. I’m meeting.  I then stopped at a little Chinese food restaurant and again…”DO YOOU SPPEAAAK ENGLISH?” To my grateful astonishment a lovely young Chinese woman said ” why yes I do”. She asked me to provide her with a landmark because even she, who owns a restaurant in that area, was unsure of the address given the many streets and levels congesting Sri Hartamas.  I texted the Dr. and asked for a landmark, not wanting to sound ridiculously obtuse.  He simply sent one word.  Starbucks. Perfect right.  Starbucks.  It doesn’t even seem like this area would have one but you can pretty much bank on it these days.  This lovely lady escorted me half way to Starbucks only stopping mid way down the alley stating “brace yourself” as we stepped over a massive dead rat….likely squished by the phantom motorcycle.  I somehow managed to speak through my vomit as I told her I’d never seen a rat before.  She left me at Starbucks and said Good Luck.  Happy Chinese New Year. Year of the Goat….not year of the rat.  Yuck.

Again I was staring at an alley of four story buildings with businesses and shops lining every inch.  I texted the Dr again and let him know I was at Starbucks and would need  further advisement.

“Naughty Babe, Dirty Duck”.

Yes, that’s what his text said…..”naughty babe, dirty duck.” What????

Am I suppose to go ask someone what this means? I’m not asking someone “excuse me, have you seen the naughty babe or the dirty duck.”

“Hello, I’m blonde, have you seen the naughty babe?”

No way!  Is this guy even a Dr? Where is he leading me to? I stopped in my tracks and weighed out my options.  I could hail a taxi and go back to Mont Kiara, or I could see where this adventure is leading me to…but safely..

Probably five minutes later as I walked to the other side of the alley and my elevation rose, I could see the overhanging of a bar …and sure enough…it said……Naughty Babe, Dirty Duck. If I’d have had a 22 I’d have busted a shot straight through that dirty duck. Target..Found. Bulls Eye.  I do not know who came up with that name but at that moment I was thankful to know that it even was a name and actually existed.

Level Two.,I made it to the clinic.  No worries….It was quite an emotionally interesting afternoon….panicking, puking, laughing.  And just so you know, I made the same walk back…through the sketchy path way and over the rickedy bridge. Phewwwwfff Safe in the Bubble…. Until I Pop out again…and you know I will. SAMSUNG CSC

Eating Wilbur

I sit here waiting at KL’s state of the art hospital to see a dermatologist about the bug bite that has been growing larger on my neck. I’m worried it’s some kind of burrowing beetle making babies under my epidermis.  As impatience allows my mind to run wild, I may as well share some interesting cultural tidbits that I’ve been privy to in Malaysia over the last few weeks.

Allahu Akbar

Malaysia is a Muslim country and Muslim people must abide by Islamic law. It is Shari’ah law that food must be Halal. Basically this means that certain foods are “haram” or forbidden. Pork is certainly the most haram of them all, however they are forbidden from eating frogs and snakes as well. In my head, frogs and snakes aren’t the obvious next prohibited meats but I didn’t write the Qur’an. These creatures are haram nonetheless, along with animals with fangs and birds with talons.

In the grocery stores here all of the pork products are behind a counter far from the regular meat department. You purchase your pork directly here so it does not contaminate the till area that Muslims also use. Muslims really aren’t even suppose to be anywhere near pork or pig’s blood or any kind of animal blood in general. Halal meat refers to the way the animal providing the meat was slaughtered. Firstly the butcher must be a Muslim who declares ” Allahu Akbar!” (In the name of God) or some variation of this, three times prior to the slaughter. The animal must then be killed with a sharp blade across the windpipe followed by a thorough draining of the blood. So in order to buy our sausages, black forest ham, salami and prosciutto we must go to the ‘non -halal’ pork department of the store. Here you can find a majority of Chinese shoppers who make a staple out of pork meat.

It’s no joke right? Islam is a strict religion and here I am living in a Muslim country. A great deal of offences are punishable by death here so I’m not going to be exhibiting my sausage meat.

Well…. I was caught completely off guard when I found a wine and pork chop restaurant inside of our local grocery store. The name of the restaurant? S.WINE!!!” I remain impressed and relieved that humor such as this is not haram. And maybe it is haram, I cannot claim to know. But obviously there are enough non -Muslims here that they can joke about eating pork and drinking wine without the fear of death.

To Cabernet and Wiener schnitzel, Allahu Akbar!


Have you ever had a conversation with a woman wearing a Niqab or burqa ? This is the Muslim covering that hides her entire body and face except for her eyes.

While waiting for my appointment a woman in a Niqab sat directly beside me. My anthropological alarms were ringing. I needed to speak to her. I noticed her sunglasses on top of her head dressing. I spoke softly and said ” I like your sun glasses. ” She looked at me and smiled.    Okay…stop here.  If you missed that then you’re not paying attention. How would I know if she was smiling. I could only see her eyes.

Was she smiling? Was she offended? Could she speak back? Was she allowed to? She said “thank you” in plain English. She then asked me where I was from. I shared that I am from Canada. She told me that she is from Saudi Arabia. There was a second of silence that felt like a decade. What should I ask next??? Right then they called my appointment number and it jolted me out of my thoughts. I had to go. I smiled warmly and sort of bowed my head and took a long blink as I said goodbye.  I wondered if few people spoke to her as I just had.  I wondered if she was lonely under there.  All I knew what that I was pleased that she had spoken back. She kept her eyes on me as I walked away.

I have many questions left unanswered and I so hope to be in that situation again. I want to ask if she wants to be covered and if so why? I would love to know if she has a daughter and what she hopes for for her.  Some people may think it is disrespectful of me to ask people questions like this. I do it however for the sake of gaining insight and knowledge. I look upon things with cultural relativism. I can thank my undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology for this. This means that I am not judging, I am seeking to understand someone in terms of their beliefs instead of my own. The truth is that, through my paradigm, I find the full face covering frightening. I am frightened because I am ignorant. Speaking to them will open my eyes and allow me to view the beauty in theirs instead of sneaking peaks at them from a judgmental distance and seeing only the black robing.

There is a major difference in Malaysia when it comes to the robing.  After my experience speaking with the woman in the Niquab, I had the opportunity to probe my Muslim nurse. (Isn’t the nurse the one who is suppose to be doing the probing?)…🙊 Anyways, my nurse wore the typical Malaysian style cover.  This type of cover is called the tudung, hijab, or khimar.  Tudung literally translates to cover.  She  informed me that in Malaysia, it is not believed that Islam makes it obligatory to cover. Women here actually choose to cover. It is certainly an act of modesty but also one of cultural pride. In fact their tudungs are often very colourful and patterned and accentuate their clothing choices. They do not need to cover their bodies with specific robing either.  They can wear all types of fashion with one caveat, that they wear long sleeves and bottoms. They must cover their arms and legs.

I was sitting there in the doctor’s office in a spaghetti strap tank and a skirt.  I all of a sudden felt uncomfortably naked.  It’s just such a different world.   She told me additionally that although covering is a choice, women of all religions must respectfully wear tudungs when entering mosques.  I look forward to selecting a tudung for myself actually.  I now find them very beautiful and much like a Kimono or a Sari.  They are representative of a unique culture.  It is sad that many of us uneducated westerners only relate them to the oppression of women.

Well… One hospital visit certainly cleared up many misconceptions that I had about covering.  I still have much to learn about the full niquab and burqua however.  This is the beauty of curiosity accentuated by cultural respect and relativism.  It is enlightening to speak to people on the inside and become one of them if for but an emic moment.

P.S. The bite on my neck…..It was an allergic reaction…no friends under the skin this time. Allahu Akbar.



Toto we’re not in Midland anymore

After journeying for over 36 hours we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The journey from Yuma, AZ consisted of a 1.5 hr flight to Phoenix, a nine hour flight to London, a ten hour layover complete with a visit to an English pub for some fish and chips
and a pint of Christmas Cracker, and finally a near thirteen hour flight to Kuala Lumpur. Was that a run on sentence? I hope so because the journey certainly ran on and on and on.
I didn’t mention the train rides in London nor the hour long cab ride to our temporary residence in Petaling Jaya. Nonetheless all travelers made it in one piece as did the luggage. The baby stroller however lost a piece somewhere between the seas.
Our temporary digs are adequate but nothing fancy. We have the penthouse suite; but it’s a 1994 limousine that’s missed a few service calls. The shower is cold…. Or so we thought until we found the hot water button. Regardless, after that journey even a cold shower was a mother’s home cooked meal after a month of camping in the woods.
We unpacked, slept and caught another cab to the airport in the morning, which, was about five in the evening according to our inner clocks. Someone tried to sell me a pair of Oakley Frogskins for the equivalent of 300 USD. I decided to hold off until Thailand where I was pretty sure they would be going for about $6-9 bucks a pop.

We caught a flight to Surrhatani, Thailand only because we could not find a return flight home on the 4th from Ko Samui. So from Surrhatani to Ko Samui we “only” had to take another 1.5 hour cab ride to Don Sak pier and then a 1 hour “high speed” bumpy as hell boat ride to the Island. Sophia rolled with the tide and we finally made it to our resort. It was a nice juxtaposition with our backpacking accommodations of days gone by. For Greg this was his first time back to Thailand after 20 years. for me, 6 years. The resort delivered in terms of luxury but frankly the journey to and fro was a welcomed balance. I don’t really think you get the full Thai experience if you don’t pee at a dirty ferry station that doesn’t provide toilet tissue or flushers and if you don’t get a cab ride from someone who probably isn’t even a cab driver. You need to feel a little sweaty And yucky in Thailand. You also need to wear some fisherman pants or just pants with elephants on them that you’re sure you could pull off back home….but then never ever do. And you never do because fisherman pants and elephant pants only suit Thailand and you’re lucky if you know what I mean. Lucky elephant. Not everyone has been to Thailand and it’s an enchanting experience. My favorite place on earth other than home and home is truly wherever my parents are.

You see, Thai people are mostly Buddhist and Buddhists cultivate inner happiness. Children play next to their shanty dwellings and want for nothing more. I can remember feeling sorry for them and their lack of “proper” toys, clothes, and most certainly homes to live in. This was before I understood that they don’t want for those things like we do in the west. Happiness comes from within and if you don’t go within, you go with- out. And going with- out actually means that you are attached to impermanent things. Attachment to material items, and things that do not last causes suffering. Buddhists believe that the human condition is to suffer. Through detachment and inner cultivation we can learn to suffer less and be more content or enlightened. We can learn a lot from these children who play happily with make shift toys and are fully present in the moment, wanting for nothing else. I no longer feel sorry for these children, in fact I want more of what they have and that is the knowledge of how to go within, instead of with-out.

So back to my story…

Diving is a passion of mine and I completed my Advanced license Padi course back in 09. Greg blew his ear drum on his first dive ever so he cannot dive now. I’ve been night diving, deep diving and wreck diving. My next goal is rescue diving which I’m sure to complete sometime soon given our proximity to the Adaman, Indian, and other deliciously 78 degree aquariums. It’s diving heaven over here. I’m thinking of getting some of my own equipment because it’s always lovely contemplating peeing in the wet suit that belongs to the dive company and then wondering how many have peed in it before. Who knows about the regulator either. The last Diver could have have had a wicked case of gingivitis and pirate tooth …. Who knows. Thank goodness for the cleansing properties of salt water on both germs and over active imaginations.

At any rate, diving is always an adventure and an experience and this particular trip to Ko Samui certainly delivered. I signed up for a Dive trip for 5000 baht. The sea was rough and The Silent Divers company did not go out the day before due to poor conditions. The little dive truck picked me up at seven am straight from the resort lobby. There were eleven divers all together, nine beginners, a Rescue Diver from France and an Advanced diver which was me.
When we arrived at the pier the beginner divers formed their own group and I was met by a Bavarian Dive Master. He had a thick German accent and his movements were all sharp and direct like a soldier from the Reich.
He informed me that he would be diving with me as well as the French Rescue diver. But first he said, take this pill and handed me a tablet wrapped in plastic.
Take this pill!!?? I hadn’t taken any random pills from strangers in over twelve years, and I wasn’t planning on starting again now 😉
It turns out the pill was for sea sickness and I’m awfully glad I inquired and indulged. The sea was a beautiful monster that day. The plan was to head to a dive site in Ko Tao but we couldn’t make it. The swells were as high as the side of the speed boat and I thought my brain hemispheres were separating like the continents did sometime after Pangea.

We had a Brazilian puker on board and there were more fish to be seen after this monstrosity than under the sea on this particular day. He probably should have taken the bloody pill. Maybe three.

We settled somewhere along the coast of Ko Phangnan and our small three person team was first to gear up and hit the water. Germany, France, and Canada made the descent. I couldn’t have been more excited to once again experience that peaceful tropical oasis that transcends the rough waters above into some kind of moksa.
But on this particular day there was no moksa at all, it was full on samsara. The visibility was less than a meter. I couldnt see anything. My buoyancy control was alright thankfully and I was weighted well. This is where I had learned to dive, I couldn’t believe I couldn’t see anything. I had yellow flippers on and I could barely see them. Germany gave us the OK sign and certainly I was fine in terms of breathing but I probably should not have OK’d him back because I wasn’t comfortable with the visibility. I had never experienced this and I have probably somewhere around 50 dives.

Within nine minutes I was lost. From Canada, I couldn’t see France or Germany. I saw a few Barracuda that swam within a meter of me, but everything else was a snowy white. It’s simple, we should not have been down there at all. Luckily we were only probably 10-15 meters. I felt frightened. I stayed put. I knew the currant was swift and I could drift quickly without knowing it. I had no compass. I’ve completed my underwater navigation but come on it’s not like I dive regularly.
So I did what I was trained to do; keep breathing and surface. No safety stop.
Bubbles and water were all I saw as I surfaced and filled my BCD. There were waves but there were no other divers at the surface. I couldn’t see the boat either. Now I was really feeling anxious.
Within a minute both divers surfaced…. But in completely different places. We had all lost each other. They hadn’t been able to see my yellow flippers either.
We swam on our backs for a while and could thankfully now see the boat. Germany then asked if we wished to go back down. France emphatically stated “absolutely not ” and Canada concurred. Shockingly, of all things Our Bavarian Dive Master could have mentioned at this moment, it was that if we told the other Dive Master that we had enjoyed anything then we would not get our money back. Certainly, I was more concerned with just getting onto the boat.
As Germany helped me up onto the ladder he mentioned with that thick Bavarian accent that “if I wiped the boogers from my nose then i might be a little bit sexy again”. I had to laugh. At least we could find humor after this somewhat dangerous experience. Snot was all over my face.

I felt horrible for all of the beginner divers because their first experience would have defeated the entire purpose of diving. If you can’t see anything than you cannot experience the beauty and how comfortable and calming it truly is to spectate under the sea. Also, learning to breathe underwater would be exceptionally frightening without visibility. You have to take your mask off during your open water course and this is just so you can learn to breath without sight…..you can do it, but it’s very uncomfortable. People who panic can wind up in bad situations.

So the mood on the boat was dismal. The entire group felt defeated and unhappy. The owner / dive master tried to suggest a second attempt for the beginners. I did sort of influence the rejection of this simply because I felt it unsafe for them.
A bumpy hour and a half later we were back on shore. I couldn’t help but ponder how at the shallow depth we were at, we could have probably stayed down there for 55 minutes. There was no way I would have hit 50 bar of air before that. It was disappointing but honestly I would take this experience over most others ,no matter what , because i was in Thailand and I was on a dive boat. The seas were rough but they were electrifyingly blue and turquoise and to me, it was still sort of my Moksa.
In The Hindu religion, reincarnation is the truth. Samsara is the cycle of death and rebirth. Within samsara we suffer. We also gain karma. Based upon our karmic interactions we are either reincarnated into something higher or lower. How well you live your life will determine your rebirth. Moksa is the liberation from Samsara. This is the equivalent of heaven or Nirvana. So yes, for me, the beach, the water and diving under the tropical sea is my Moksa. Get it? What’s yours?

Anyways, The dive shop owner proceeded to give us a very lack luster and condescending apology prior to us leaving the boat. We should have had two long dives. We should have used two tanks of air. The beginner divers should have spent three hours learning and practicing their skills. We were offered no refund but had sore noggins to account for the war at sea during the boat ride.
In my usual semi- confrontational manner ( proud of this some days, and hate it on others) I took one for the team and demanded a refund. He smirked and sighed and offered us each 1000 baht. That was about $30 USD and a kick in the face. We argued back and forth and I demanded 50%. After all I was willing to take half the responsibility for going out with that dive shop that day. Nonetheless, they are the experts and should know when conditions are downright dangerous, let alone just ‘not ideal’. Well, the owner growled and suggested I was accusing him of knowing that the conditions would be such. Ultimately, yes, I did believe this but it didn’t really matter. 50% back I demanded, and nothing less.
He spat venom as he agreed. The whole team thanked me though, because we all received half of our money back. That’s justice and I can thank my mother for instilling this driving need into my being. I hope Sophia fights for what is fair and true also.

That afternoon ,on the truck ride back to our resort, I was looking very much forward to meeting back up with my husband and baby girl and swimming safely in the pool. Back in 09 I was all about adventures, and I am still ultimately inclined that way. It’s amazing how things change though when you start a little family because it becomes the absolute most important thing to you in the whole wide world. I travelled alone when I was backpacking and I couldn’t be more grateful to now have a little family to share travels and adventures with.