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Zoe Raymond: The start of something new (series)

Zoe Raymond

Despite feeling like an outsider, this curious young woman discovers the power of travel within her own family. Inspired by her mom's wanderlust, she dives into stories of exotic destinations, igniting a spark of her own adventurous spirit.

Chapter 1: The start of something new

From an early age I felt like an outcast in the world I lived. I wanted to read novels and play soccer, while most girls wanted to shop and go to cheer practice. I strived to blend in by wearing the same clothes, straightening my untamable hair, and laughing at things that were insignificant to me. Eventually, the lines were blurred, and I lost sight of what was important to me. 


I fell into the wrong crowd, searching for a sense of belonging. Among my “friends”, I felt alone. I wanted to hear stories that excited me, not complaints about how “lame” their parents were. With this curiosity, I picked up a book collecting dust on my bookshelf, “Bali; an extraordinary destination.” I was intrigued by the peculiarities of the beautiful Balinese culture and the mesmerizing scenery as well as the vast jungles, and the beautiful smiling locals. 

Sitting down at the dinner table, I asked my mom to tell me about her travels. She lit up, telling me about the wild adventures and encounters she experienced across the globe. It was evident that this was her passion in life. 


My mom gave up her nomadic spirit to establish a life of security and safety in the suburbs. Don’t get me wrong, I was very lucky to have a safe childhood, but my life lacked depth. My interests were somewhat formed; however, I had not yet found anything up to that point in my life, that cried to me to apply my talents. My mother, on the other hand, is an aspiring travel photographer and collector of beautiful pendants from around the globe. She wore funky clothes that I would never wear in public, but she didn’t seem to care.  She knew there was more in the world than the judgment of suburban moms. 

I felt suspended and directionless in a neighborhood with houses that were all made from the same blueprint. These houses were also within walking distance from stores that seemed to only differ in the color of their packages.  The mindless redundancy was beginning to close in on me and make me feel trapped.


I grew up in a world of vanilla. I began to wonder what It might be like to be on the other side of the world, experiencing a colorful life. This curiosity stayed with me as it picked at my mind. As I reached high school, I began to feel my individuality fading into my surroundings. This scared me as I have always loved my originality. 

I crawled in bed with my mom on a cloudy afternoon and watched her scroll through photos of her travels. She told me about the time she walked through the African desert beside lions. She stared up at the ceilings of mosques in Turkey. She danced in salsa bars in Spain. Living vicariously through her, I became more and more intrigued with each story she shared. “What if we left all of this and started traveling?”, I asked. Her eyes widened, and a beautiful smile lit up her face; we had a mutual goal. This idea progressed into plans. Eventually, it was all we could talk about. One courageous day, we sat down and pondered where we were going to go. 


Brainstorming on a destination, I learned about Bali, a place my mom had become enamored with years ago. She has been to many countries, but none of them compared to Bali. With the limitless nature, healthy food, and safety that Bali offered, we booked our 18-hour flight. We listed our house for sale.


After months of grueling open houses, we found a buyer. We began to rid ourselves of material possessions. It was shocking to discover the emotional connection I had to ALL my stuff. It was a liberating feeling to know that there is nothing tying us down. Slowly our 

belongings could be packed into a single suitcase. When the time came, we hopped in our taxi to LAX with our old life in the rearview mirror. 

Chapter 2: Bali, the island of the gods

The traffic flow leaving the airport was more akin to a swarm of bees than an orderly motion of modernized vehicles controlled by traffic lights. Without a single stoplight the only rule that applies is to avoid a collision. In America, a family’s means of transport might be a minivan, but in Bali, a scooter may carry two parents, a child, and a baby. Regardless of the lack of order within the streets there is not a single scornful expression among the drivers. Despite the absence of material wealth, the locals are rich, rich with happiness and contentment. I began my travels in Ubud, Bali. Residing in a local village is like plunging into an ice-filled tub where everything contradicts what a Westerner is accustomed to. Each family shares a single plot of land.

There might be as many as thirty-five people coexisting amongst each other with one communal bathroom. A bathroom consisting of a hole in the floor, a weathered plastic bucket, and a coconut shell ladle in lieu of toilet paper. The smoke swirls and rises from the kitchen stove, fueled by the daily gathering of dried palm wood. No locks, no doors. The Balinese security is powered by karma (what goes around, comes around). They simply do as they wish to receive. 


Ubud thrives on Hindu philosophy. With 3000 ceremonies a year, they dedicate the majority of their time to creating offerings, known as pakaian adat madya. Sitting for hours, the locals intertwine bright green banana leaves into baskets the size of your palm. They are held in place by splinters of bamboo and adorned with boldly-colored native flowers. After creating more offerings than one can count, they dress in their ceremonial attire. The women pull a skin-tight lace blouse over their head, binding it with a saffron-dyed sash around their waist. They pair it with a hand-made serong that has been colored with sacred patterns. As if they are wearing a painted canvas across their waist, they walk to their village temple (Pura) with offerings situated like a pyramid of freshly stocked apples above their head. All the while, the women, smiling under the beating sun, are escorted by their equally happy husbands - who do not partake in the manual process of carrying offerings.

They walk miles down the unpaved roads which lead to the village temple, a temple built from hand-carved stone and an entrance of a fierce animal, intimidatingly greeting you, like a dad on a daughter’s first date. As they place their fragrant offerings in front of the detailed altar, they kneel before their gods to pray for one of their numerous ceremonies. Placing a single flower between their fingers and raising their prayer-joined hands to their forehead, they bow their heads and inwardly thank their gods for their vitality, family, and rice to name a mere few. Ceremonies range from a tooth filling to the consecration of priests and priestesses. Ceremonial preparation and attendance is mandatory. It is as if one must go to a distant-relative’s birthday everyday for their entire lives.

Perhaps the strong guidelines in which Balinese Hindus must follow, shape them into grateful individuals. Walking into a monkey sanctuary is like walking into a enchantingly haunted forest. Monkeys scope you out from the tree tops; tourists squeal as their glasses are stolen from their heads. These monkeys have developed a strong case of kleptomania. They had found out that holding one’s personal belongings would result in a ransom fee of fresh bananas. Strolling through the forest and cautiously gripping my bag, as if it was my text book on the first day of high school, I sat down on a swing. Joined by a deceivingly cute monkey, I reached out to pet him. Repercussions were taken, his teeth latched onto my arm as if I had just deeply insulted him. Walking away with all of my limbs, I bolted towards the exit. Done, checked off the bucket list, but you won’t find me there again! 


Meandering through the rice fields allows for one for to be entirely immersed in nature. I am surrounded by 100 year old trees with roots overtaking the land, plots of land all designed so the water can flow equally through each villager’s field with countless rows of bright green fields and rice plants all meticulously planted. Basking in the glow of the sunset, the jungle plants soak up their last bit of sun. A group of

quacking ducks waddle through the fields searching for bugs to eat. The smells of the freshly-rained on earth purify my lungs.


The sky was as black as ink. The hush of the evening allows for the jungle creatures to commence for their nightly orchestra. The sounds of geckos clicking, frogs croaking, and the breeze running through the trees were all beautifully intertwined into one song. Their sedative melody seeps into the windows and carries me fast asleep.

Ubud is famous for its conscious community. When this land was first discovered for it's healing energy and medical plants it was called Ubad, which means "healing plants".  Over time Ubad changed names to Ubud. There are dozens of studios around town offering countless types of yoga. As I practiced my first class I noticed that the studio was far from an ordinary studio, It was composed of bamboo and surrounded by a vast array of trees. I walked away from yoga feeling grateful for being able to practice in the middle of the jungle. 


Afterwards, I go to eat at my favorite "warung" (local restaurant). It costs a whopping $1.75 to eat nasi campur, a dish composed bean sprouts, green beans with chili, green vegetable curry, stir fried Tempe, and corn fritters. As I wait for my food, I say, “Apa Kabar?” (How are you?), and socialize with the locals which also strengthens my Indonesian skills. The amazing things that Ubud has to offer tempted my Mom and I to stay long term and that is exactly what we did.

Chapter 3: The Diseruption

Standing on my rooftop, I peered beyond the palm trees lining my home. Thick black smoke ascended in the distance. I rushed downstairs and did some research. Mount Agung’s eruption was imminent. As this was my first natural disaster, I was unsure of what to do. Making a list of supplies and food to survive what was to come, I rode my moped to the nearest market. Loading my backpack and the front of my moped with enough food and supplies to last, there was no room for my feet for the ride home. Balancing my feet outside my moped, my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest. 


Sealing the windows with black trash bags and masking tape, the house looked more like a bunker than a home. The mason jar filled with daisies on my nightstand was replaced with a pollution mask. A backpack filled with things needed, if fleeing was the only option, waited for me by the door. The sun refused to shine through my newly set up bunker.


Pretending to appear calm, I proceeded to check off my daily tasks. I walked into the musty gym that incessantly reeked of cat food and sweat. It appeared to be empty. Grateful to not have to que for a treadmill, I leaped around the gym and danced in the mirror. With no one around, I had the freedom to do as I pleased. Initially grateful for my stroke of luck, it occurred to me that people may have been locking themselves indoors with fear for what was to come. This unsettling thought was forced to that back of my mind for the day had just begun. 


Humming some tunes on my drive to get caffeinated and crank out some school work, the once chaotic two-laned roads were quiet. The coffee shop was bustling as usual. Even during a natural disaster, people’s dependence on caffeine prevailed. Everyone seemed to be well, but sitting down I overheard someone talking about the news. Tuning in, it was as if it was the only topic of conversation in the entire coffee shop. 

Looking up, the grey skies could be cut with a knife. Ash fell from the sky as fumes blew from the neighboring volcano. Running my finger across the seat of my moped, there was a line where the dust once covered. I was informed to be home before dark, chasing down the sunset, I began to cough as if I was a chronic smoker. Quickly putting my pollution mask on, I felt myself struggling to breath. I was unsure if it was my new industrial accessory covering my mouth and nose, or if it was the sense of urgency regarding the ash-spitting volcano. The reality of this event 

only grew with time.


As days progressed the once busy town was empty, as if I was in the wild west in a ghost town. The economy in Ubud thrives on the tourism industry, without that the locals began to suffer. Buying a coconut water at a nearby stand, the vendor appeared to be smiling but there was dismay in her eyes. 


The news only forced people to panic. Tourists no longer came flooding into town like flocks of birds. There were merely a few whom resided here and had no option to leave.

A thundering sound rattled me, the volcano had erupted. Spewing clouds of ash and hot lava poured over surrounding villages. I was not in the direct line of fire, but the polluted air still attempted to seep into my home. My hands trembled, and the sound of my heartbeat overpowered my ability to think rationally.  Everything just felt so surreal, as if I would wake up at any moment. 


The airports were closed thanks to the generous amount of ash caking the runways. My mom and I brainstormed an exit strategy assuming the airports would offer us their humble services when we needed them most. Having the perfect excuse to fly to Cambodia, we booked two one-way tickets. 


Unsure if we would have a home to come back to, I dumped all of my belongings into my sole suitcase. Sitting on top of it to zip it, I dismissed the notion of neatly packing. Over time, I discovered I had developed a sense of unattachment to my home, my room, and my art. They were all things and there is more to life than things. 


Once the airports reopened, we waited a day to allow for the most frantic of travelers to flee to their hometowns. There is nothing worse during a natural disaster than a family pushing you while waiting in line, or maybe the volcano itself was worse, but that's beside the point. Nearly missing our flight due to lines that awaited us at security, we jumped on our one-way flight to Cambodia.

Chapter 4: The evacuation vacation, Cambodia

The worst part of evacuating a place you love is facing the possibility of never again seeing it or the people who made it special. I faced carrying them as an added burden with all the memories and stories I have been storing since I began my adventure with my mother. Now, under my mother’s counsel, I was required to reluctantly leave my newfound friends and home behind to seek refuge in Cambodia. My sense of loss fed a budding animosity for that place that was presented to me as a haven for my safety.My anger and despair were amplified by our only greeting at the Cambodia Airport – the scorching heat ascending from the tarmac.  This discomfort hardened my resolve to despise the country I was hoping would conveniently serve as a short-lived and crude host. The airport further validated my bias with its pungent mugginess and primitive security. Our only choice of transportation was what the Cambodians call tuk-tuk, rickety motorcycles with rusted carts hitched to them. A sign at the airport declared, “Welcome to Cambodia,” at which I glared with my arms crossed in disdain. 

Our tuk-tuk driver who carried us from the airport unwittingly fed my animus for his homeland by telling us of the corruption overtaking the country. He told us that the locals are impoverished as the government thrives. I noticed through my sour mood, though, that they managed to remain optimistic, with smiles carried across their faces. Their seeming contentment began to soften my mood, but that proved to be a temporary feeling as Cambodia became familiar to me. The anxiety-inducing reality of our situation persisted and began to take a larger part of my mind as the dismal air began to suffocate me. I yearned for our Balinese home when I was introduced to our hotel. It was built for a king, but adjacent to it were apartments with doors crafted from tin. Lines of clothes being hung out to dry served as their picket fences. The center of the town was called “pub street,” an area that slept during the day but became a lively bazaar at night. During the evenings its club music would reverberate through my chest. LED signs advertised their local delicacy of “fried snakes,” and “beer in a bucket!” Metal Buddha knick-knacks and braided jewelry were laid out on pop-up tables lining the sidewalk, while white t-shirts hung up in rows proclaiming, “I love Cambodia.” That admonition fell on the rocky soil that covered my heart as I saw the scene as nothing more than a tourist trap. The sight reminded me of the bland, consumerist lifestyle I so purposefully left. The noise and reveling fed my longing for the jungle environment and warm smiles that I left behind in Bali. Stubbornly, I woke up at dawn and hopped into the back of a taxi smelling of burnt rubber and stale french fries. I made a commitment to take a two-hour drive away from the city and into the region to see Angkor Wat, a vast Buddhist temple. I felt like a newborn baby, my eyelids heavy, begging to close. The temple greeted us with an endless bridge that demanded I walk across it to see the sight which my mother required me to visit. 

Once at the temple grounds, I took an opportunity to sit for a brief rest.  I fought my fatigue and propped my tired arms behind me to sit at the edge of the lake. Across from me, a mysterious structure hid behind the dusk sky. With time, duplicate images of the castle-like temple appeared before me as it reflected on the water. The sun crept up the back of the temple showing its first ray of light. As it lit up, the massive structure exuded its intricate details, a vast architectural work of art revealed itself to me. This sight momentarily counteracted my desire to retreat to the hotel. The scene did not seem to me to be in any way connected to the mayhem I was subjected to during the evening. This was peaceful, beautiful, and serene. The city of the evening’s past was boisterous, gaudy, and tumultuous.  

My mother forced me awake for another morning bright and early, as I was still unaccustomed to waking up before the day exuded its first notion of light. After two hours in a car driving down a dense red clay road, I stepped onto a rowboat to witness “kampong phluk,” the floating village. These are houses built on floating platforms on the murky waters of Tonle Sap Lake. They are free as they are not connected to any land, but it seems that free is all their residents could afford. The polluted waterways provided their sole resource which is the fish that they can catch. Electricity & fresh water are nonexistent. Men row their small kayaks to the nearest town to find any work that would earn them the money for their daily needs. At night they would return to three generations living in a single room encased by metal walls on their floating home.  

Rain rings against the tin roofs of these homes, while the adults worked to supply the daily provisions for their families. The laughter of children echoed through the mangroves as they played in the mud of the lake shore and climbed trees. Their pleasure did not apprehend what I saw as filth, poverty and despair everywhere I looked. 


Their joy humbled me and struck at the animosity I had been building since my mother first ordered our evacuation from Bali. Where I saw emptiness and despair, these children saw friends, families, and homes. These children created the same happiness I had known in my home endangered by that Balinese volcano. 

At that point, I realized that I had been selfishly arrogant and pridefully wallowing in the self-pity I used to evaluate the decision of my mother to move us to safety. I now realized her wisdom in the kindred I felt with the joy of those Cambodian children. Maybe I could come to buy a t-shirt that proclaims, “I love Cambodia.”

But, alas, my mother and I would not have time to try.

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