Do-Over

Day 21, 500 words, 31 days.

The days here are getting longer. My body is telling me it’s 3 in the morning, but somehow my mind won’t shut down. It’s probably best I turn in soon, and but I won’t, without looking back at my day and where it all went.

For most of the day, I sat in the same spot and “tweeted” and Facebook-posted and practiced all the theoretical principles I preached earlier on in the week about using social media. It doesn’t really feel like work when I do the aforementioned things only when I feel compelled to do so. But when I’m doing it non-stop for an entire day, then I remember that it’s actually my job, and I better do it well.

My credibility depends on it. As does my team.

We started earlier than the day before, and we finished much later. The sun had officially set by the time the last of our workshop participants trickled out of the conference room with us. It was about dinner time, and we didn’t try very hard to think up a different place to go this evening, so we re-traced our steps back to the Forum mall we had gone to the night before.

This time around, though, I brought my camera with me – the Canon D20 DSLR my wife had inherited from her brother, which I then inherited from her. It’s a bulky camera with a broken flash and a screen comparable to the size of that which you find on a “dumbphone”. But, it’s the camera that I use anyway, and it is well-loved.

I decided to test out taking panning shots by the side of the road. Surprisingly, the side that we were on hardly had any cars on it, so I felt safe being on the street. I had to ask my pro photo-buddies to assist me with the technical details – as I had already forgotten how to shoot these shots. We actually had a new friend join us in the evening, a world photographer, as he would describe himself, and he was testing out the Fuji camera Matt had leant him.

So there we were, the four of us taking panning shots on the side of the street over and over, with locals passing by, staring at our odd collection of tall foreigners (minus myself, that is), shooting slow-moving “Ambassador” cabs and taking up too much space.

At one point, I started feeling that we were probably a bit of spectacle ourselves and so I wanted to move on a bit further from the rest of the group and conspicuously shoot my shots, the way I always do, hardly making the effort to talk to strangers and ask for permission to take pictures of people. But my friends’ boldness to do so was encouraging, and challenging, and compelled me, at least, to try.

There was the girl selling grilled corn whom I didn’t manage to take a picture of, and the guys at the shop making some kind of sweet, local delicacy whom I did, though, accidentally – I was actually trying to take a picture of their fryers, but one of the men noticed what I was up to and raised his arms wide, totally photo-bombing my photo, and in turn, saving it from being utterly banal and completely lifeless.

It ended up being a blurry picture but I liked it the most. It made me laugh.

I’m learning to enjoy photography again, and perhaps it’s because I’ve stopped putting pressure on myself to be great at it. I’m perfectly ok with being good enough, which isn’t something I can say for most things I pursue. It might have to do with the fact that I’m around guys far more experienced about the craft than I am, that I figured, instead, to approach photography as though I was learning it all over again, rather than having to show how much of it I already knew.

And it’s absolutely more freeing for me this way. I’m not obsessing over taking the perfect photo. I’m delighting in the process of finding a good one worth taking. I’m curious to see if I’ll stumble upon an unexpected story, freezing all these moments in time to see what I captured, even if, it turns out I actually missed everything.

Really, the more meaningful thing for me, is that I’ve remembered to stay curious. That I’m ready and willing just to learn it all, all over again.

That, in this particular way, I have nothing more to prove.

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Hitting the Streets

Day 20, 500 words, 31 days.

I can barely keep my eyes open. It’s been a long, exhausting day.

We arrived in Kolkata just after midnight. Given that we didn’t have any luggage with us, we assumed we could quickly file a claim for “lost and found” as was instructed to us by the Air Asia attendant in Kuala Lumpur, and then head straight for the hotel.

The Air Asia representative in Kolkata explained to us that we had to wait until all the baggage was claimed before we could file the report – even though we already knew that our luggage didn’t even make it on the plane. It was a policy they weren’t willing to compromise for us as we desperately tried to assert our Western-ness and explain how we needed to expedite things as much as possible to rest before our conference the day after.

Rules are rules.

We were at the airport for another hour longer than we had taken into account. By the time we booked a pre-paid cab to send us to the hotel, I didn’t even have the energy to feel the least bit frustrated. It was, what it was. I just needed to find a bed to plop upon, fast.

Two things I found surprising right as we stepped outside the airport: first, it was actually chilly. All the taxi men hanging around outside the airport for potential customers possessed scarves bundled around their necks, noses, and mouths. I couldn’t believe how cold it was. Granted, it was definitely a bearable kind of cold, the sort that you experience on an average evening in the Bay Area. But I was mightily surprised at the need for warmth in a place like India. I simply never imagined India to have a use for sweaters.

The second thing I noticed were the cabs.

These “Ambassador” model cabs had the look and feel of bumper cars belonging to to a bygone era. The short story I was told was that these British-manufactured vehicles were being churned out as such even after the Brits themselves had already left India. For whatever reason, India didn’t decide to upgrade these models and have continued to manufacture “Ambassadors” ever since. They are now an iconic staple to the gritty urban scene Kolkata’s streets have to offer.

It was well past midnight and hardly any cars on the road, which felt like another surprise. Our cab driver must have felt an absurd amount of freedom to maneuver his way around the maze of streets like a madman. He turned the steering wheel with such exaggerated movements, it was like watching a child  sail a boat, blindfolded. I was both wildly amused and genuinely frightened for our lives, alternatively. By God’s grace, after taking a route I wouldn’t be able to re-trace even if you handed me a satellite to navigate with, we made it to Chrome hotel.

I could barely sleep. I wasn’t sure whether it was the pre-workshop jitters, pulsing adrenaline, or the constant, cacophonous honking of horns I could hear outside the window – likely a combination of all three, and I figured I was in for a long night.

I managed about four hours of intermittent sleep, abruptly interrupted on numerous occasions throughout the night by noises out from the hallway or next door. Then, as insult to injury, I woke up about 15 minutes ahead of the time my alarm was supposed to ring, and I wasn’t getting back that time I had to spare.

Without getting into it here, by some miracle of heaven I got through my workshop. Equally surprising, and encouraging, was how generally engaged our participants were. We threw at them a lot of tips and terminology throughout the course of the day, and I commend them for their patience, and eagerness to learn. I was just glad I didn’t conk out halfway into it, myself.

We had just enough energy to venture out into town to find the nearest mall and pick up a few pieces of clothing to hold us over while we wait for our luggage, should it ever come. Getting around on foot and avoiding the whirlwind mix of cabs, buses, bikes, and rickshaws zooming in and out of traffic was, to say the least, a high-blood pressure inducing adventure. I can’t remember how many times I jaywalked tonight while cars rushed right at me, headlights flashing violently, as if to signal my demise. The horns, of course, were absolutely, non-stop, as if they were the only language that made sense on these streets. They hardly made any sense to me, and disorienting as it all was, I did my best to do as the locals did – I committed, crossed, and conquered.

There’s an authentic energy to this place that I only began to feel in full effect, after stepping out on its streets on foot. It is at once, both unapologetically intimidating, and inexplicably thrilling, walking these open streets, knowing full well how I really don’t belong on them, unattended. Perhaps it’s that strange and delicate balance struck when fear and excitement collide, and you have not the time or the energy to fully brace yourself for it, that make adventure exactly what it is – the purest sort of rush you can ever find.

Luggage

Day 19, 500 words, 31 days

In transit, Kolkata-bound.

Things went from bad to worse, very quickly.

Our flight was delayed from Penang to Kuala Lumpur by half an hour. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if we had just one flight to take, but we were catching another from KL to Kolkata, and we were officially cutting it very close.

When we did arrive to KL, we realized right away that the luggage we checked in wasn’t arriving anytime soon. We still had to re-check our luggage in for our flight to India, but we only had 15 minutes until boarding. After pleading our case with an Air Asia employee (which wasn’t getting anywhere), we decided that the best alternative was to have our luggage sent to India, without us, so we could catch our plane. We’d just have to find a way to pick it up the next day in Kolkata.

I still have no idea if our bags will be delivered to us, or if we’re heading back to the airport. I’m not sure if we’re getting them at all.

All I have are the clothes on my back, and all my work equipment – as in, camera, phone, Macbook. Thankfully, I have with me some leisure devices – an iPod I loaded up last night and my book, “Bird by Bird”. But I’m three-fourths of the way in it and I fear it won’t last me the rest of the week.

That of course, is a minor problem, compared to the larger one at hand – not having our stuff with us.

I’m trying to exercise a healthy perspective here. We’ve been “assured” that it will arrive in Kolkata, though when, we don’t exactly know. My luggage is just filled with clothes, and clothes are expendable. It’s a minor inconvenience, more an annoyance really, that I don’t have a fresh change of clothes tomorrow, but I’ll live. It’s not like I’m breaking much of a sweat by sitting on a four-hour flight.

These are just, things, that we’re missing. And if all goes well, not having them would only be temporary. As far as our traveling mishap goes, I suppose it could have been worse. We could have missed our flight entirely and ended up losing an entire day of work.

But we’re off to India with nothing more than what we have strapped to our backs. I didn’t envision packing this “light” on the first night, of course, and yet, I’m dealing with this unforeseen hurdle about as well as I could, considering I have no extra underwear to spare.

My friend, Nathan, and I actually managed to laugh off this misfortune, somehow finding the humour in the hypothetical event that we managed to miss our flight. We didn’t, of course, and that makes it funnier, and yet, we have another hurdle to cross tomorrow and I can only hope to take that in stride as well as I have, this one.

I’m proud of myself for not losing my cool. I just felt like I was at the mercy of a flawed system and figured it best to resign myself to any other inconveniences that might come our way.

Because maybe we don’t get our bags until tomorrow evening. If so, chances are I’ll be a sticky, smelly mess by day’s end. Of course, I can’t help but hope that’s the extent of my problems tomorrow. If the Lord could bestow extra mercy upon me and help me just get through the morning. A sudden surge of energy and optimism, supplemented by a  strong cup of black coffee, an air of unfamiliar confidence, and enough interesting points on my presentation to outweigh the unhelpful . Or at least, to make the apparent “unhelpful”, appear a little less so.

My stomach is now grumbling like a rabid animal , and I haven’t even really eaten anything all evening. A single sugar donut, followed by black coffee and a granola bar, do not, a proper dinner, make.

It’s 11:40 in the evening and the unsightliness of the fluorescent lighting the plane has to offer is killing any attempts at relaxation. If this is Air Asia’s idea of lulling us to sleep, I might have some suggestions. I’m not sure how long the snack delivery is going to take, but I’m praying that it wraps up soon so we can hit the off-switch on the lights.

Because it’s time for me to let it all go. Most of all, my consciousness. It needs a bit of a break.

———————————————

1 am. The break was short-lived.

It’s fun watching people sleep on planes. The lady that was next to me earlier managed to get herself an aisle seat across from me and proceeded to plop her face on a plastic bag. One man looked downright worshipful, with both of his hands pressed upon his face as though his sleep weren’t merely a state of unconsciousness but a spiritual experience.

Me, I sit straight up, arms crossed, and elbows in, slipping in and out of a daze. At times my eyes droop heavy and are hardly open. But right now – I’m wide awake.

I should be grateful that we’re gaining about an hour and a half of sleep once we arrive. But because the sleep cycles are broken up, it might not matter. I’m preparing for a rough, zombie-like morning, and I can only hope our workshop participants are especially gracious hosts.

Considering that I’m even on a plane, thousands of miles above sea level, en route to a place I’ve never been, these sort of inconveniences won’t undermine the gift of travel. Perhaps these aren’t the perks of the job, but I hope, still, in the surprises that await us, whenever we packs our bags and go.

Shaky Legs

Day 17, 500 words, 31 days.

Tonight I noticed how slowly the “legs” run down the sides of my glass of whisky. The jazz is on, the eyes are getting droopy, and I’m waiting for my moment of inspiration to shake me back into a state of alertness and lucidity before the evening officially ends.

I’m running out of time.

It’s 10:55 now, and I had nearly forgotten to do my daily commitment. Waiting around isn’t going to do me much good, so I’ll just write.

That friend, I mentioned – Matt – taught me the thing about the legs and the whisky. He said it was the mark of a quality drink – if the legs ran down slowly. I know nothing more beyond this statement – I don’t possess the palate to describe what particular characteristics make for a good glass, and why.

I just know that I’ll likely sleep well.

I also know that, like this particular drink, good writing also needs “legs”.

Of course, it’s difficult not to get self-conscious as I am writing this – it’s hard to tell whether any of my writing actually constitutes being “good”. But the more that I read, and in turn, write, I’m beginning to get an idea of the elements of a story, or any piece of writing, really, that make it a worthwhile piece to grapple with.

The characters – fictional or not – have to want something, and as readers, we are on the outside, looking in on their journey towards getting (or not getting) that thing.

The plot should take us places, and sometimes, even places where the characters are going, before the characters know, themselves, where they are headed. There ought to be some sort of struggle, some kind of conflict or obstacle that looks to get in the way – and compelling characters invite us to root for them to succeed.

And there has to be something relatable to us – even if the backdrop of the story has little to do with anything we’re familiar with. We’ve got to be able to see, and experience, the themes within the story that are universal. The humanity of the story and characters have to be palpable, even in the midst of the most bizarre of premises. For those of you that enjoy watching zombie flicks – think, “The Walking Dead”.

I don’t mean to dispense writing advice. Surely you won’t get any from someone halfway into his drink and three-fourths of the way to sleep. I only mean to write what I’ve found to be compelling. I only hope to write that sort of a thing, as often as possible.

That’s what’s terrifying about this whole process – chances are, I won’t. Not regularly anyway. I’d be lucky if it happened even occasionally. And putting everything up publicly is like a bold and ludicrous way to invite judgment I’m not really ready to hear. I’ve convinced myself it’s worth doing anyway, like the person that decided to do an extra set of crunches even if their abdominals already feel like hot stone.

Call it brave, but I mostly think it’s a little foolish. Maybe necessary, but it sure feels foolish.

Funny how unimaginably vulnerable you can get when you have a blank page, good typing skills, a manageable amount of liquid courage, and an exorbitant amount of time no one is keeping.

Recently, I watched an episode of “The Parenthood” which featured a character that was a struggling musician going through a serious bout of writer’s block, feeling pressured by the recording studio and abandoned by his bandmates. He played that “misunderstood artist” all of us aspiring artists are all too, and embarrassingly, familiar with. The character himself felt more like a caricature, but the writers did give him the benefit of one line that went something like this:

“I don’t fear failing. I get that, it happens. I just don’t want to be mediocre. I want what I make to be great.”

I’ve taken some serious liberties paraphrasing the line, but, that’s how I remember it sounding.

It’s true, at this point, the fear isn’t the everyday failing – some days just aren’t going to be good days. In fact, today might be one of the bad ones. The bigger fear, for me, is that I’ll only stay mediocre. That I’ll never transcend to great. Even if the whole world never knew it, at least I would. I would want to know that I’ve crossed that line, even once.

That is, the line from good, to great. Frankly, I may just be beginning to venture from bad to good, or worse, staying average. And average, feels like the worst place to be.

And yet, what if being mediocre, for a long time, is precisely what one needs to be, before ever becoming great? What if it’s only in being stuck in a state of averageness does a person fully appreciate the gift of actually being good when it finally happens? What if, the fruit really does come out of the process of becoming, than actually having “become”? What’s the point of arriving when you have little clue where you’ve been all this time, in the first place?

What if I’ve written for too long tonight and I have no grasp of what I’m saying? What then, if you have absolutely no clue what on earth I’m talking about?

Well, I only have this to tell you: I’ve exceeded my 500 words, and the glass is neither half empty, or full – just finished. I’ve surrendered myself, once again, to the words. Maybe I’ve stumbled along this far, but at least I’ve still got my legs.

The Rush

Day 16, (way more than) 500 words, 31 days.

I woke up this morning feeling inexplicably exhausted. Yes, I stayed up working well after midnight, but this isn’t uncommon for me. By 7am I’m usually up and about with my wife as she gets ready for school, debating whether or not I should go for a run, or have a cup of coffee.

Most days, coffee wins out, but today I opted for neither, choosing to prolong laying in bed as much as possible. Somehow I managed to roll out from the mattress and take Shuli to school, bed-head and all. Once I got back, I deliberated upon whether it would be another stay-at-home work day or if I would plan on doing something else with my “one, wild and precious life” as Shuli, quoting Mary Oliver, likes to remind me.

Today is Thaipusam here in Penang, one of the biggest Hindu festivals the Tamil community here celebrates. It commemorates the story of Parvati giving Murugan a spear to kill the demon Soorapadman. I won’t elaborate on the background here, and frankly, I still know very little about it. Going in, I just wondered, and worried, if the violent nature of what was being commemorated would play itself out in ways I wouldn’t be prepared for, should I decide to go anyway.

Truth be told, I had some skepticism about attending this event and witnessing the procession of its participants from one temple to the next. I was under the impression that I’d see men walking in trance-like states, with their bodies and faces pierced by rusty hooks and small spears. I imagined blood gushing out of their skin and shrieks from the crowd that I wouldn’t be able to differentiate as screams of horror or shouts of worship. I was expecting that it would too overwhelming a spiritual experience and too foreign for me an outsider like me.

I also expected the traffic would be horrendous – so I opted for the bus.

After getting kopi and some bao at one of the neighborhood cafes on the corner, I caught the 101 bus heading toward Georgetown. I planned the night before to try and catch the procession where it began from Lorong Kulit temple near the heart of the city. But I read they started at 3 in the morning!. By the time I was actually leaving, which was closer to 10, most must have made their way towards the Waterfall temple, their final destination.

But really, it was the bus driver who unintentionally made it easy for me to decide where to go. I asked him where I could see Thaipusam, and he prepared to give me a receipt for RM1.40. I kept talking and mentioned if I should go to Georgetown. Then he said, “Georgetown, two ringgit.” I thought he must not have heard me correctly – I wanted him to tell me where I should get off. Now he was holding two receipt stubs and of course, I opted to pay more, because I’m silly. I paid the two ringgit, but figuring I’d get off earlier. It still doesn’t make any sense, but at least I figured out I probably didn’t need to go as far as the city to see the procession. It’s not his fault that I mumble.

I should’ve have known that a good portion of the people on the bus were heading to the festival. Without meaning to sound insensitive, I really should have just followed the Tamil to where they were going. In fact, once I decided this was my best course of action, after getting off the bus, I started following this older Indian couple, not so discretely, listening in on the questions they were asking the officers around about how to take the bus back from the festival. It occurred to me that it was probably weird how I was just listening in over their shoulders.

Once I got on Jalan Bagan Jermal, however, it wasn’t going to be hard getting lost. Droves of people from the Indian community here in Penang were headed towards the procession route, with a handful of Chinese locals and a sprinkling of foreigners going the same way. I was surrounded by families whose wives and daughters were dressed in such beautifully vibrant, flowing saris that I told myself I had to just start taking pictures and capture all of this color.

It’s been a while since I’ve shot with the old Canon DSLR camera I inherited from my wife last year – and an even longer while since I’ve gone on a photo-trip to shoot a festival of this scale. I remember covering occasions like this before back in New York – whenever there was some kind of cultural parade down 5th avenue, I’d make sure I was there with my Nikon, two lenses, and hopefully, a fully charged battery. It just got me reminiscing.

Camera in hand, I started snapping away, rather indiscriminately, though as discretely as possible. The aperture priority setting on my camera was helpful, partially because the lighting conditions were sunny enough, nothing was moving too quickly, and I hadn’t fully learned how to use the manual features of my wife’s camera – which is my fault entirely. I also found myself shooting from the waist at times, taking a chance on whether my subject would be in the frame, without them knowing I was shooting.

I was pulling out all the old tricks, and in a way, it felt kind of fun again – shooting out on the street without quite getting noticed. Of course, I started committing the same mistakes again too. My settings, at times, were off. But more than the technical aspects – it was that feeling of voyeurism that began to creep over me again – the intrusive, outsider-looking-in angle I always settle for that discourages me from having to get too close. I work with a photographer now, his name is Matt Brandon, and my guess is, he would have little problem politely, but directly, asking people if he could shoot their photograph. From that would have come, perhaps, a single shot that could capture the essence, the beauty, and humanity of the celebration.

And that’s precisely what I didn’t do.

I settled for the shots from a distance, the interesting angles, the creative framing. But never the portrait. It was frustrating to realize I still couldn’t do the portrait, in public.

My interest for shooting the event started to wane, once I saw the “photogs” and their big telephoto lenses straddling their chests. I watched them shoot, shot after shot, just like I did, and I started to wonder how much this event actually, really, meant, to any of us that came for the purpose of leaving with that “decisive moment”.

Honestly, I was hoping to see what those spears and hooks really looked like, in person – and whether the image I had in my head matched what I would see up close.

It did, and it didn’t. I was preparing for witnessing something so graphic that I took for granted how much this whole occasion was actually quite the family affair. Little kids were here, running around and pointing innocently at the colorful offerings on display along the side of the road. There was free food and refreshments being distributed along the procession route that made it easy to forget how some men were actually walking by next to us whose whole bodies were pierced with metal. They were actually here for a different reason – one that I still don’t quite understand.

Eventually, I arrived at the end of a long line, where people stood with brown, compostable paper trays in hand, waiting to be served with helpings of rice, vegetables, and curry. I was probably one of a handful of non-Tamil people there, so, suffice it to say, I was a little embarrassed. It didn’t help that there was a young, beautiful woman handing out the paper trays, politely, yet not-so-subtly rolling her eyes at the people in line, as if she wondered why those of us who were “not like the other” were taking their people’s food. That’s how I read it anyway, and I didn’t want to keep staring, so I smiled with an over-the-top genuineness, and proceeded to look at my empty plate.

To my surprise, I received a really generous portion, of everything. I was also served by people who I’m sure, were Chinese, and then I thought, I totally had every right to be there. I also thought, that my time for picture-taking was up. With a plate of food waiting to spill over the edges in one hand and my camera in the other, I had to make a choice.

I put away the DSLR and took out my “work phone” for some quick, one-handed shooting, as I briskly walked back the opposite way. I managed just a handful of “keepers”, but at this point, my attention had shifted from finding those “decisive moments”, to avoiding eye contact, to preventing my food from falling, to nudging my way through the people traffic and getting on a bus back home.

I walked, a lot.

Blocks upon blocks, just like the New York days again, and at a blistering pace. I stopped once or twice, just to get my bearings and ask the security officers which way it was to the bus back to Tanjung Bungah. I got several different answers that didn’t make me trust any one of them, so I walked further and faster. At this point, I just wanted to go home and eat my plate of food.

The farther I went down the road, the closer I was getting to what was familiar. Soon enough, after several blocks of brisk-walking, I arrived at the intersection near Gurney Drive, and I knew I had figured out my way home. The bus stop was just around the corner and God-forbid any route changes, I was set.

Everything about the trip to witness Thaipusam today actually went a lot more smoothly than I had anticipated. All the sights I imagined in my head were, I guess, proven true, and yet the feeling I was expecting they would evoke in me wasn’t what I actually experienced, either. Witnessing a celebration that had been so foreign to me didn’t make me any more less foreign. If anything, I was both inside of it, and yet, apart.

And that’s a feeling I’m all too familiar with, by now.

But the rush – the thrill of chasing after those rare, fleeting moments, the wonder of being in the midst of something so strange yet so welcoming, the rootedness of traveling about on foot – the rush that came with all of those things…that, I had truly missed.

P.S. Pictures to come, promise.

P.P.S. Pictures here.

Routine

Day 15, 500 words, 31 days.

The coffee is always best within the first few sips. After a few minutes, it becomes the lukewarm, less bold version of itself and I have to remind myself to enjoy it just the same.

It is also best, black. Every time the cashier offers milk or sugar, I give a smug little smile, as if I know something that she doesn’t – which is the way to have a proper cup of coffee in the morning. I hope she’s not thinking I’m flirting with my silly grin. Only that I’m mysteriously wise.

It’s been a while since I’ve visited my neighborhood cafe in Tanjung Bungah. Gusto Cafe was started by a former teacher who used to work at my wife’s school. He’s a local with some “international” sensibilities – he invited me to join his fantasy football league and he makes a mean burger. I’ll probably have to sit down with him another time when he isn’t working the grill and have him explain his life story to me again, so I understand.

Having a serious cup of joe here is a treat – mainly in that it costs more than three times the sweet, milky concoction of “kopi” I can get at the shop on the corner. I want to make a clear distinction here between “kopi” and “coffee”. One is the Malaysian way, the one mixed with a generous amount of condensed milk, which I genuinely enjoy for what it is. The other is the way I expect it to be – smooth, black, and delivering of a surprising kick of alertness an hour later. Which is right about now.

I was hoping that stopping by Gusto would be more routine than what it is, but every time I visit, my friend, Jason, the owner, always asks me where I’ve been or if I was out of town. It’s the sort of question that makes me feel both welcome and distant, implying that it’s good to see me, and yet I’m not seen often enough. So I plan on making it more of a habit to be around, even if it means shelling out RM6 for a long black Americano. Suffice it to say, they make it well, and hence, it’s worth the trip.

Soon enough, I’ll get to the point where I can start ordering “the usual”. In fact, I already tried ordering this way once, and I received a blank stare from the new hire behind the register and realized then and there how I had made it fantastically awkward for the both of us. It’s going to take some time.

The routine is supposed to go a little like this: Say “Hi” to Jason, Order the Long Black Americano, Deliberate on the Best Seating Option Available, Make Myself Comfortable, Bring Out Choice Reading Material, and Stay for Hours.

So far, I never have the courage to take the more comfortable, cushioned seats downstairs because there isn’t anyone down there and I don’t like mosquitoes. Also, I tend to take my iPad with me, assuming I’ll be around long enough to get some reading and some writing done.

I set out Bird by Bird on the table, but immediately resort to checking  my e-mail on my tablet instead. This is the trouble with Wi-Fi. E-mail always becomes the first option.

Somehow, my mornings at Gusto get more productive than I intend for them to be. They’re supposed to be blocked off time for intentional nothingness and yet, I get about 3 things done that I didn’t account for, and all of a sudden, I feel compelled to remain responsible for the rest of the day.

I came across few articles on Flipboard I just had to post on Facebook – for work, of course. I wrote some people back via e-mail on my thoughts about the optimism around the Warriors because most of my friends are from the Bay Area in California and I feel the need to still try and relate. I checked who’s playing today and who isn’t. I made my daily perusal of the New York Times.

And after I did all these things, I realized, I was in the middle of the cafe, the only person drinking cold coffee by himself. It was time to go.

All in a Day’s Work

Day 14, 500 words, 31 days.

For the past several days I’ve stayed home in the mornings and afternoons, preparing a presentation I plan to give when I go to India next week.

Typically, I spend good chunks of my time at home wearing the same clothing I wore to sleep the night before. For hours, I’ll be seated in the same position and in the same place – slouched in the corner where the two halves of my couch converge to a ‘T’ usually – getting up only for the occasional restroom break or a refill of my cup of coffee or water. Many times I’d almost forget to have lunch, that is, until I start to smell whatever’s cooking next door. I try to imagine what they are having, then proceed to look for whatever that might be, among the hawker stalls down the street from our apartment.

The cats take turns chasing each other rowdily, like little children at an amusement park, or an open parking lot. It doesn’t really matter that our apartment isn’t open and large because there are several rooms for them to jet in and out of, and the furniture that we have sitting around only end up serving as an obstacle course the cats turn into their personal playground.

When they are finished exhausting themselves, they nap. And cats absolutely love to nap. When they are in this sedate state, I start thinking I have a legitimate chance at calm and constructive working conditions to last me the rest of the day. That is, unless I can manage to keep the t.v. off, or the tab of sports scores closed, or my tummy in check as it growls for more food. If I can prevent myself from indulging in these things, I could, potentially, get some work done.

But watching the cats nap is a beautiful thing. It is also rather sleep-inducing and often, I find myself getting coaxed into stretching out on the couch and letting my eyes get some shut-eye – some needed rest from too much screen time. The cats are bad, bad example.

Today, it was a miracle from God that I worked for two hours straight – likely my productivity ceiling for most days. Working those two hours made me feel like I had accomplished something significant, as if I had never gotten paid to sit in front of a computer for an entire day, before. Makes me wonder how I managed to string together eight of them on an average working day, back when there was an actual office and an actual commute to be had.

Feeling as though my day didn’t go to waste, I was satisfied enough that I spent the remaining half hour finishing up chores before picking up my wife from school. My wife, whose day is never lain to waste, is often exhausted by the end of it. She, unlike me, is actually standing for most of the day and moving her limbs as she explains basic mathematical concepts and how to properly sound out vowels to little children. By the time I fetch her at school, I concede, in my mind, who’s more tired (she is), and by the time I reach her classroom, I do my best not to say how little I had actually done. It just wouldn’t be good for either of us.

This afternoon after she finished up her prep work, we drove over to Georgetown, where the pet store is. This is not the only pet store in Penang, and there’s far more to Georgetown than visiting this pet store. But some days, we go all the way to Georgetown, specifically for this one pet store. Usually, we leave with one or two items – cat litter or vitamins to mix in with their food.

Thankfully, the store is situated near a large outdoor food court called New World Park. We decided to have an early dinner there. We both ordered a bowl of Mee Suah, a type of thin, wheat flour noodle. I had pork, and she, duck. It wasn’t bad – though it had a more herbal flavor than we had both anticipated. We ate it all anyway, mostly in silence.

By the time we were through, the plastic chairs around us were left mostly unoccupied. The noise of the food court settled into a hushed, undecipherable murmur. The sun prepared for its quiet exit behind the horizon. Meanwhile, the sky was turning a deeper orange, with the slightest suggestion of blue. And that was our cue, to head back home.

The “Go-To” Meal

Day 13, 500 words, 31 days.

Not a typical entry, but I appreciated the prompt from Jeff Goins. I live in Penang – it’s only fitting food makes it on here ever so often.

Ten minutes away from our apartment is the local supermarket, Tesco. It is surprisingly large, incredibly well-stocked, and offers enough Asian and Western choices for groceries to make it a one-stop shop for most of what we need on any given week. As far as I know, there are two of these, Wal-mart like establishments on the island and lucky for us, this one is so easily accessible.

It also happens to offer a decent food court that locals tend to flock to. Mostly Malaysian fare – offering “steamboat”, which here, refers to hotpot cooking, Chinese porridge, Noodle dishes, and the varied combinations of chicken and rice.

Tesco also “boasts” a McDonalds and KFC, but unless my wife has an intense craving for fries, we usually avoid either and opt for the local fare.

The food court offerings aren’t especially spectacular, but here in Malaysia, and Penang especially, that just means the food is still pretty good. And I’ve found my go-to dish every time we find ourselves looking for a quick, cheap meal to hold us over.

“Ayam Panggang”.

It is a roast chicken meal, and in this particular Tesco stall, served complete with yellow saffron rice, a bowl of curry, and a side of “sambal belacan” – a paste or sauce with roasted chilli peppers and belacan, a type of fish. The set costs me RM8.80, which is a little under $3.

I’ll be the first to say I’m no foodie, so I haven’t toured the island in search of the “Ayam Panggang” Penang has to offer. There are many other more popular Penang dishes worth the adventure and comparison. Laksa, Char Kuey Teow, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Mee Goreng, Hokkien Mee – the list can get extensive.

There’s just something about the chicken and rice combination that wins me over every time. This particular set manages to offer an array of taste preferences seemingly tailored to my liking.

For starters, the roast chicken itself is almost perfectly roasted every time. I’m not sure how they manage to do this. They leave the skin on so there’s a slight crispyness with just a hint of burnt taste for those that like a little bit of char on their chicken.

Secondly, the bowl of curry and the “sambal belacan” both offer a slightly spicy, mildly fishy kick to the meal, and are terrific for dipping in the chicken or pouring over the rice.

Thirdly, I really, really like rice. I especially enjoy flavorful rice. Whenever it is cooked in garlic, or fried, or stirred with herbs or in this case, saffron, I will likely finish whatever is on my plate and take whatever is left on my wife’s.

I enjoy this meal for the same reasons I tend to order Wan Than Mee if I can’t decide what I want – for the variety of flavors and textures. Wan Than Mee, by the way, is precisely what it says it is – won ton and noodles, with bits of roasted pork garnished on top and often served with a side of hot soup.

“Ayam Panggang” always leaves me feeling incredibly satisfied without feeling overly full. It has earned its place among the other comfort food dishes I like to indulge in on this island. Perhaps some of those will warrant their own blog entries in the future, but I’m no serious foodie – only perpetually hungry – so, maybe they won’t. But the locals – they will always have something to say.

Visa Run

Day 12, 500 words, 31 days.

It’s out of my hands now – my passport, that is. I’m now at the mercy of the designated runner that’s taking my passport to Kuala Lumpur to get my Visa to India stamped in, rushing it back to Penang in time for my flight.

If all goes well, I hope he gets to pocket the extra RM150 I forked out to send him off in the first place.

Apparently, there are two Indian holidays this week – neither of which I was aware of, which prompted the expedited return of my passport, and hence, the extra cost. Otherwise, it should’ve been in my possession by this coming Friday, stamp and all.

So much of this Visa application process has been a headache that it’s a little overwhelming to think I still have a job to do when I get there. Just getting approved to go has been a journey in itself.

First I had to get my passport back, as it was being processed for my spousal Visa that allows me to even be here in Malaysia. That took several days longer than I had in mind, so I was already set back from the very beginning.

Then I needed to fill out an online visa application and make photocopies of my passport, my wife’s passport, both our Visa pages, and our marriage certificate. I managed to get everything together quickly and jetted over to the Visa office located in Little India in Georgetown, only to find out upon arriving that I had printed and filled out the wrong form.

The office staff suggested an Internet cafe down the road and gave me the URL to fill out the right form online. We raced down Chulia street to find the first cafe was saw and pulled up the form, only to find out I needed to have a local Indian reference, or at least provide the information for  the residence I’ll be staying in. I opted for the latter, picking some random hotel I could, hypothetically, stay at while I’m in Kolkata. I still have no idea where I’ll actually be staying.

We filled out the form, printed out, rushed back to the Visa office, only to run into another issue – our printed form left out an entire column indicated how long I was to stay. The staff was kind enough to pull up my form online and punch in that I was applying for a multiple entry Visa.

I was wrong. Since my trip is so short, I should have opted for a “single” entry. They had to re-do the entire form, for a fee.

I was fuming. At this point, what should have been a quick trip to their office turned into a series of unfortunate events that would have delighted Lemony Snickett himself.

So we waited at the office for the secretary to fill out the form for me. Once she was through, I was finally able to pay the application fee and submit it. The process would take a minimum of five business days. Or worse, a maximum of three months.

Fast forward to two days ago – I had been waiting for over a week, giving it ample time to check my Visa application status, only, I couldn’t get through the website whenever I punched in my reference code. Turns out, I was given the wrong information. I should have been checking on an entirely different website, and when I managed to find it after some digging, I had been approved several days before.

So, this morning, I drove like a madman to the Visa office to make sure I was there once it opened. I maneuvered through Georgetown one-way streets like a pro…on too much caffeine. Except, I hadn’t had any all morning. It was my adrenaline kicking.

I parked on Chulia street, raced down the opposite way to the office, and explained my urgent situation – I needed my passport and Visa back by January 20, or I’m missing my flight.

That’s when the secretary gave me the bad news – my passport wouldn’t be back in time after getting stamped because of the holidays (which holidays???) and the only way I’d get it in time was if I expedited the processing. For a fee. Another RM200. I explained the whole website fiasco and, because it appeared she felt sorry for me, she was able to get the manager to negotiate the fee price down to RM150.

On top of RM288 for the actual Visa. Not the application fee. The Visa fee.

Somehow, I felt both irritated and grateful at the same time. At least I got it in, in time. According to them, it should be back in their office by Monday morning. I fly out that evening.

I whipped out my wallet and took out my debit card. “Sorry, cash only…”

Insult to injury – one more stop before this saga is over – the bank. I had to head down to Lebuh Pantai (Beach Street) and take out some cash to pay this exorbitant fee and get my passport sent out. I drove again like a man on a mission, a very particular and drawn out one which I was absolutely ready to end.

After withdrawing a couple hundred ringgit, I headed down Lebuh King and parked at the first spot I saw open. It was a ways from the office so I brisk-walked like a competitive power-runner back to Chulia.

And that’s when it started to hit me. A week from now, provided I get my Visa back in time, I’ll be on a flight to Kolkata.

That’s when the sights, sounds, and smells of Penang’s Little India started to come alive, a precursor for things yet to come. The Hindi music blasting on giant black subwoofer speakers in the DVD shop on the corner couldn’t have been more fitting. The booming bass and high-pitched, nasal-singing, the soundtrack for my journey ahead. The enticing smell of fresh naan bread baking, the vibrant sight of desserts the colors of the rainbow, being peddled on the side of the street. This morning, I caught Little India while it was still waking.

But so was I. Waking to the impending reality that, I’m actually going to India, for the first time in my life.

Toiling Away

Day 11, 500 words, 31 days.

I’m more than a third of the way in. The last couple days have been more challenging than the first few – a test of my resolve and commitment to this particular project.

On one hand, I’m just glad I haven’t let up.

On the other hand, there’s still such a long way to go. And by that, I don’t just mean this project. I mean the whole, writing thing. There’s still so much more to learn, to unlearn, to fail at and succeed with. For me, I keep telling myself that this has got to get past the 31 days.

But for now, the project is exactly the sort of short, intense mental workout I need to build the right sort of habits. Now if only my commitment in this area of my life could mirror that of my commitment to my health and physical well-being…

Jeff Goins gave us writers a nice little encouragement today. It was he, after all, that challenged us to take on this 500 words a day project, so it was only fitting that he told us:

“…you are enough. You are a writer, and what do writers do? They write. And all of you are doing just that. You’re showing up, availing yourself to the Muse, and doing your work.”

I’ve kept my expectations relatively simple this entire time I’ve been writing since the new year – that is, to just keep on writing. To press on as if my day couldn’t possibly end without having tried. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t feel complete, and a void would be created, to be filled, only by the weight of words.

I believe there will be a time for more meticulous editing. For the doing-over, and the taking out, and the revising again and again. There will be moments when I read over what I just wrote, and realize, “What on earth did I even mean by that?” And then, my face, buries itself in the meaty cushion of my palms, covering my shame.

But for now, my objective has been simple and by grace, I’ve stayed the course faithfully.

This feels a little like I’m toiling, though I’m sure farm workers and day laborers and doctors would have some choice things to say upon hearing such a thing. But I guess I don’t want to take for granted the essence, and necessity, of the work. The day-to-day grind of coming up with something to write – regardless of how interesting, or funny, or God-forbid, neither.

Early on in the project my wife innocently asked me, “So, what exactly are you going to write about, every day?”

I’m sure I didn’t have much of an answer. But I do remember feeling really liberated, that I didn’t quite know. In fact, I feel that way still.

Surprisingly, it’s even been liberating to write, publicly. Something about not caring that any particular piece reads perfectly or is actually, engaging, is helping me feel free to keep writing. Now, I don’t keep track of whoever’s keeping track, but I have a vague idea of which of my friends have remained loyal, perhaps even to a fault – should they instead be, actually, laboring away on their cubicles, or classrooms, or…dare I say, smartphones.

To you, I say, thanks, for putting up with me. But should you decide 31 days is just too long, I totally hear you – and no hard feelings.