The Long Road Home

And somehow it all came to an end.

It happened in the blink of the eye before I even knew it. Actually it happened in roughly a week’s time, but the next thing I knew I was back in the States, back in the groove, and back where I started unsure if I was meant for traveling in circles. Somehow straight lines had suited me just fine.

A straight line has no end. It keeps moving. Circles end and begin again. To end is one thing, but to begin again is another.

I wasn’t ready.

Yet, nine days, five planes and a lifetime away I found myself back at the beginning.

The journey from the life of my dreams back to the life of my reality began in Mumbai on a late afternoon flight to Kuala Lumpur. The hyper-extravagance of Kuala Lumpur — all glittery gold and tacky tart — was the first sign that I wasn’t ready to go back.

The crisp air-conditioned bus. A fast food chain on every corner. Megamalls. Monorails. The Asian leg of my journey began here. At the time, I found it so incredibly exotic. Upon returning, it felt remarkably reminiscent of the life I’d left behind.

I had to get out, to run away one last time. So, I ran to the deep jungle of the earth’s oldest rainforest, Taman Negara.

Wandering the jungle alone like a madman — sleeping on planks of wood in animal hides and spending my days tearing bloodsucking leeches from my feet — I explored the ancient land. I waded through chest-deep rivers, followed tiger prints, tip toed around elephant poo, and came face to face with a wild, leopard-sized Asiatic golden cat and her two cubs. I left the jungle with shoes full of blood and eyes devoid of fear.

Wasn’t that was this was all about anyway?

“To dream anything that you want to dream / That’s the beauty of the human mind / To do anything that you want to do / That is the strength of the human will / To trust yourself to test your limits / That is the courage to succeed.” – Bernard Edmonds

Man will never know his true strength until he tests it. Sure, plenty have tested their fate in much bolder, nobler ways. But this was my story. This was my climax. And I wasn’t sure if there would be another. You can never truly know what the climax of your life will be until it’s too late.

I was detained, searched, and questioned upon arrival in Christchurch, New Zealand as aftershocks rattled the ground. Border police released me two hours later after every item in my bag was meticulously inspected, swabbed, scanned, and sniffed.

My friend Karen, who served as caretaker of my things, met me in the North Island that afternoon. She had kept my luggage tucked under her downtown Auckland bed in such a way that it lifted the lower end of her mattress. The neatly arranged mementoes of my life in New Zealand had thus become a footrest.

Karen gave me a warm Western welcome, calling me too skinny and making it her goal to fatten me up in three day’s time. She had completed the same journey I did almost 15 years before and, when we spoke of our paths through Asia, we realized that, all and all, little had changed.

Three days later, after making peace with what I consider the most beautiful country in the world and a second home, I caught another series of planes – first to San Francisco, then to Washington, D.C.

Two weeks later, I caught a bus back to New York City, found a job, and the line became a circle again.

Travel is like a drug. Rather, it was my drug, and I got really high. Coming down was the hardest part.

The high began three-and-a-half years before it ended. It started with the travel bug, progressed to island fever in the Caribbean, morphed into ex-pat addiction in Oceania, dabbled in traveler’s diarrhea in Asia and ended in denial back in America.

And so, this is my last post as Mark on the Map. I’ve learned a lot transferring my first impressions and second thoughts into a blog for everyone to read.

I’ve gown up charting my journey on here. Thanks for indulging me. Thanks for reading. Thanks for caring. This blog enabled me to move on to the next stage of my life and you can continue to follow my professional career as a travel writer by checking out the information on the “About” page.

If you take anything away from this blog, I hope it’s this:

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

It’s been my motto from the very start and remains my motto today.

Farewell and get lost,

MarkontheMap (a.k.a. Mark Johanson)

The Brazen Charms of Kuala Lumpur

“KL Sentral, KL Sentral”

“You, Yes, You, KL Sentral, KL Sentral!”

“Come, Come!”

Without warning, the overwhelming cacophony of Kuala Lumpur had commenced.  Hawkers beckoned as passengers pushed and plowed their way through the antsy crowd. Moments earlier I had waited in a building I’d liken to my high school gymnasium as a family of Shi’ite Muslims had their passports checked by immigration.  How their covered faces matched a passport photo I will never know.  A moderate Muslim country, the room was an eclectic mix of Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.  It was eerily quiet.  Seconds later, an unrelenting chorus of clutter bombarded my senses, ushering me forward and welcoming me to Asia.

HEAT!  It’s the first thing I noticed exiting the plane in Malaysia.  The dense, humid air like a fortress-field coated my face with a permanent glossy sheen.  The faint smell of BO remained a constant presence and I roamed around in a damp dace.  Ferocious aircon trains shocked my body awake and left it perplexed as I shivered my way back outside.  Drops of sweat slid down hills of goosebumps as my inner ice cube melted into the gutter of KL’s frenzied streets.

The one thing you can count on in KL besides a 7-11 on every corner is the juice cart.  Fresh fruit, simple syrup, ice, and the occasional gelatinous bubbles are the ingredients for pure magic on a hot, muggy morning.  In a puritanical country like Malaysia, it’s juice for happy hour and juice with dinner.

Juice in hand, I traipsed around KL – and this was no easy feat.  Massive highways circled their way through city center, intersecting and spurting off in all directions.  A simple trip from A to B involved a hairy, high-speed crossing with shared bridges and no sense of pedestrian entitlement.  Ask for directions and everyone recommended the monorail.  “How about walking?” I’d ask, to which they’d invariably reply, “No.”

Yet, walk I did and, in doing so, I was able to witness the complex social order of this equatorial city that straddles several racial and ethnic divides with remarkable ease.  Although they generally keep to their own circles in social interactions, the Chinese, Indians, and ruling Malay peacefully co-exist.  I was told by a Chinese friend that slight prejudices exist (particularly between the Chinese and Indians), but all in all, this country is a complete rarity in this part of the world.

Barely 150 years old, Kuala Lumpur sprang from the Malay Peninsula like a magic bean sprout.  Chinese shops sit below towering mosques and Hindu temples which all hide in the shadows of modern marvels.  Petronas Towers (the world’s tallest building until 2004) burst skyward as KL races towards the future.  This burgeoning city makes its ambitions blaringly clear on all of its literature.  Kuala Lumpur, “seeks to become a World Class City” as Malaysia inches closer towards a “developed nation.”  A modern train and monorail system link the city’s sprawling quadrants and free WIFI is never far away.  In many ways, it is the business center of Southeast Asia with English posted on most public signs and used in both business and casual conversation.  All educated Malaysians speak at least something resembling my mother tongue.  In short, Kuala Lumpur is a soft landing in the region and a sturdy Launchpad for further exploration.

Yet, the full-on power of KL’s streets are sure to shock and delight even the most jaded traveler.  Take a country of over 1.5 million people and put its citizens out of their homes and into the street.  Throw in some competing boom boxes, wafting fishy smells, honking, hell-bent motorbikes and blaring lights and you’ve got downtown KL.

The sun shines in a cloudy sort of smirk and rain pounds in a sinister fury, but the streets of KL steam with food nonetheless.  You hear about the night markets in Asia, but nothing can quite prepare you for their brazen charm.  Hawkers point and push, tell you to eat instead of ask, and always have something “special for you today!”  Just when you find your diamond in the rough, you lose it to the labyrinth of carts and makeshift tables.

Not for the picky or faint of heart, street food can be a comical mystery of colors and shapes.  Have you ever been in a restaurant when a group of foreign tourists came in, took pictures of the food, pointed at it, and gawked quizzically at a dish you had eaten since you had baby teeth?  Next time you do, don’t laugh.  This is me in Asia.

Although I cannot begin to describe the street dishes I consumed, most were thoroughly satisfying.  That said, my first experience with Banana Leaf Curry set off a string of embarrassing events.  On my first day in Malaysia, I went to the planetarium.  Why?  Because, it was dirt cheap and promised a full thirty minutes of air conditioning.  Five minutes into the show my stomach began rumbling and twisting in knots.  Ten minutes in, I excused myself and shuffled past a row of twenty head-scarfed schoolgirls in the starry darkness.

In stall #1 and stall #2 I found only squat toilets.  This event was not about to take place in a hole in the floor so, to my relief, I settled into stall #3 which contained a familiar piece of porcelain.  I knew diarrhea was inevitable in a trip to Southeast Asia, but I hadn’t expected it so soon.   Nonetheless, I took care of business while simultaneously noticing the lack of a toilet paper dispenser.  In its place sat a thin wirey hose.  Welcome to Asia, I thought!

Truthfully, these sit down toilets are a relatively new novelty in the region and are accompanied by diagrams instructing the user not to stand on the toilet bowl and squat.  However, what they did not have instructions for, was this bidet…


Next Week MarkontheMap heads south to the historic city of Melaka