Category Archives: Gecko Spoor

Verona Episode 2

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After nearly 2 months in Verona, we still haven’t found a home. Before moving here, I’d signed a contract to rent a beautiful top floor condo in Borgo Trento. But the owners sold it, and our contract was negated. We found out after arriving. We’ve gone from one airBnB to the next, all while apartment hunting. It seems every time we find a place, something goes wrong. On top of it all, we have to register with the questura (local police), arrange for all our boxes to be delivered, and get our son off to school every day.

In case you missed it, here’s Verona, Episode 1.

Note: As we began recording Verona Episode 2, I started a five minute countdown on my phone. After passing the four minute mark, Max became unresponsive as he focused on the timer. He seemed to think that we had to end exactly at 5 minutes, and he wanted to alert me when time was up. If he hadn’t diverted his attention so completely to the time, I think he would have answered our questions about Italian language and history classes. We’ll see how we do next time.

Revisiting my Cautionary Tale and Mentor … in Verona

Maria Callas was neither the voice, nor the diva to me. To me, she was a mix of cautionary tale, and mentor. 

Here, in Verona, I first noticed the Maria Callas Exhibition during a house hunting trip back in May. Yesterday, I bought a ticket, slipped the audio tour headphones over my ears, and slowly progressed through each exhibit room at the Palazzo Forti Verona. Each display was mildly interesting, but two specific displays brought back vivid memories. 

One detailed the timeline of Callas’s relationship with Aristotle Onassis. The other, a room of manikins wearing dresses – Biki, Yves Saint Laurent – from her post-fat diva life. 

In December 1996, I was 24 years old, and just six months into my new career at a silicon valley semiconductor company. I flew to Boston and presented at a conference in Boston’s Copley center. My talk was on using configurable processors, simple chains of multipliers and adders, to implement filters commonly used in DSP algorithms. Applications ranged from radar communications to video manipulation. I was a green engineer. My talk was mediocre, and it was at a conference organized by the company my father was a director at. So my notions of grandeur were tempered somewhat. Still, I remember wanting to feel important, like a contributor to the Science. After the talk, to about nine attendees, in a small room off to the side of the convention, I didn’t feel terribly important. But – I didn’t feel small either. I’d answered most of the questions well enough, and a couple attendees said the presentation was informative. Good enough for me – I was on my way. 

My parents were staying in a room down the hall from me. I still felt like a college student – with my parents paying for dinners and chaperoning me around. One day, my mom noted that I dressed like what a college student might think a professional dressed like, and suggested we go shopping. She noted that I now had a silicon valley salary,* so why not spend it? I responded as I usually did with my mother: I tacitly agreed that it sounded a good idea, but I took no action. 

One night, my mom and I took in a play at Boston’s Wilbur Theater. It was Master Class by Terrence McNally. Faye Dunaway played Marie Callas. It was, if I recall correctly, the first time I’d ever heard of the opera singer. But I knew Faye Dunaway from Bonnie and Clyde. 

The story was set in Juilliard in the mid 1970s, at the end of Ms. Callas’s career. By then she’d lost her voice, as well as all the people she’d ever loved. She was unreserved and harsh as she dispensed curt advice to her students. She admonished them for childish notions such as sentimentality or not giving every performance the full measure of their hearts. As each student began a song, the stage would go dark, all except for a single spotlight on Faye Dunaway, and she’d reflect on her life. Two recurring topics were Aristotle Onassis and fashion. 

Numerous times, she referred to her role in her relationship with Aristotle as being that of a bird in a cage. She was his trophy, his prize to possess. She was on display for him. She filled this role easily, as she was the preeminent songbird of their time. 

I discovered, in the Maria Callas exhibition, that, prior to meeting Arno, she’d spent a couple years losing close to 40lbs. She’d cultivated a diva persona, and taken on the role of fashionista. To match the voice, she’d groomed her plumage to match.

Ultimately, however, there was a cage between Maria and her lover, and even as she hoped to be let out, she privately knew she never would. Confirmation came when reading the paper one morning. He’d married Jacqueline Kennedy. Faye Dunaway reenacted the scene on stage. It was heartbreaking to watch, but I couldn’t help but think she was an idiot all the same. Why would you choose to get your personal fulfillment by being someone’s bird in a cage? That imagery has stayed wth me for two decades. As has the motto of Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire**, “I always rely on the kindness of strangers.” Damned fools! 

Walking through the exhibit, I discovered new information about her relationship. For example, she renounced her US citizenship in order to be legally available to marry Mr. Onassis, should he ask her. He never asked her. Also, she had his child, but Homer failed to thrive, and only lived a few hours after birth. After Ari, and the death of her baby, she was never the same. From then on, a haunting emotion came through when she sang. Watch and listen to this 1973 performance in London.  The voice, the song, the feeling. Bellissima. And Gah – that gown. I love it. 

In the play, when she snapped back to coldly lecturing her students, she gave them her thoughts on fashion, being a diva, and how to make an impression on people. She advised wearing understated but well fitting and top quality clothing. And a scarf. A scarf that said who you were – that you could wear with purpose and conviction. She configured it through the class depending on her mood, and it somehow boosted her presence. 

The next day, my mom asked me if I wanted to go shopping. I readily agreed. $300 later I owned a new, perfectly tailored suit, a couple sleek blouses, and a scarf. To this day, I’m particular about wearing clothes that fit. I tend toward pieces that convey an understated message of confidence. When the air has a bit of a chill, I wear a scarf. I still have the scarf that I bought in Boston that week I saw Maria Callas.

*note: SI Valley salaries were high back then, but nowhere near what new engineers are paid today.

** Oh Marlon Brando. Swoon. 

Verona Episode 1

Verona-Episode1

Two weeks ago, my husband, my son, and I moved to Verona Italy. This is the first in a series of podcasts about a family of Americans adjusting to life in Italy.

It’s our second overseas jaunt. We come here by way of Penang, Malaysia, where we lived for four years. The first two years were as employees of a semiconductor firm. We’d moved there on an expat assignment, having worked for many years at the same Silicon Valley semiconductor company. After two years in Malaysia, we quit our jobs and began living off of savings. This is what people in the early retirement community refer to as FIRE (Financial Independence / Retire Early). But after four years of perpetual summer, I couldn’t take it anymore. My husband, Dirk, didn’t want to move back to the states, so I chose Italy. Now, here we are. And this is our story.

Want to know what happens next? Here’s Verona Episode 2.

The Jewel of Banda Aceh

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Sari is a Muslim feminist, university professor, and peace activist, not to mention PhD.  The first time I saw her she was running toward me through a light rain in central Banda Aceh, Indonesia.  I stood in front of the main Mosque, with all skin duly covered; I wore long pants, long sleeved shirt and scarf to cover my hair.  As if anyone could be wooed by my stringy thin hair.  But this was a mosque and I’d been instructed to dress appropriately.

Her toothy smile grew with every stride toward me.  We made quick introductions and then she found us a becak driver and hurriedly gave him directions to her home.  Max, my son, and I piled into the tiny motorcycle side car, luggage and all.  We crouched under the plastic tarp while Dirk, my husband, climbed on the seat behind the driver.  Sari disappeared.

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The view from inside the becak en-route to Sari's house from downtown Banda Aceh.
The view from inside the becak en-route to Sari’s house from downtown Banda Aceh.

We motored off into traffic and what now was heavy rain.  Max told me about apes who crush leaves to make medicines, wondered whether black holes could swallow two suns whole at once, and brainstormed ways to design jet-packs.  Such are the daily conversations when living with an eight year old boy.  I watched the streets of Banda Aceh go by.  While similar to Malaysia, the feel is more like Cambodia, but with more hijabs.  I didn’t see a single woman with uncovered hair.

Fifteen minutes later we were at Sari’s house.

I first discovered Sari on couchsurfing.org, just two days prior.  With Max having a week off of school, we decided to go somewhere.  Dirk had heard good things about Sabang Island, so we booked a few nights at a budget beach-side resort there, and set to find a place to stay in Banda Aceh for one night in transit.  I sent a few requests to people on the couchsurfing.org website and Sari was the first to accept.  “Meet me at the main mosque, Baiturahman,” were her instructions, adding, “please wear a proper clothes when you are around mosque because people will see you strangely if you wear not a proper one. I am sorry I have to say this.  I will be there around 3.30-3.45. I will keep watching a husband and wife with one kid :-)”  Later she emailed to recommend we bring a mosquito net.  “Uh oh.” I thought.

Just arrived at our couchsurfing.com host's house
Just arrived at our couchsurfing.com host’s house

Now here we were, three expat Americans in Indonesia for the very first time.  Sari brought out a tray of coffee and pastries.  She lives with her mother in a relatively large house, and works at the local university teaching gender studies and English.  She studied in Australia and Virginia.  She disclosed some personal thoughts on religions but I’m not at liberty to tell them here. Sorry.  Let’s just say she loves meeting people and learning about their experiences.  I could tell I was going to love her as a host.  She was warm and welcoming and well, she served us coffee and pastries – Sari’s a grade A host.

Then she showed us to our room.

Now that we’re living off of our savings, and frugally embracing free travel on couchsurfing.org, I’m not fussy with accommodations.  But walking into our bedroom I felt reticent.  Watermarks on the wall indicated an old and still at-it leak.  Dust dunes filled in the screens of the half moon cut-outs above the interior windows.  Immediately, I dug out a loratadine and a monolukast sodium from my ziplock travel dispensary.  

Readying myself for any kind of allergic attack triggered by dust mites or mold, I took the pills andI hastily inhaled a squirt of Qnase in each nostril.  I then verified we had the prednisone… just in case. We did.  Phew.

Now to be clear – this hyper sensitivity is something I have to deal with everywhere we go. Sari’s house was great!  Aside from some issues that were squarely my problem, I was thrilled to be there and liked Sari immensely.  She had welcomed us with engaged hospitality.

When we emerged from our sleeping quarters, Sari offered to walk us to the corner and point out the good places to shop and eat.  We accepted.

We passed a coffee shop that was popular with the aid workers in the years after the 2004 tsunami.  I asked why it didn’t look like a devastated city.  It seemed old and in tact.

Sari explained.  “The water stopped 8km from the shore, but this area is 9km away.  People moved here and further inland after the tsunami.  Our house was just one km from where the damage ended.  So this area still is of the old roads and houses.  But we didn’t go unscathed; our house shook in the earthquake.  It cracked quite a bit.”

We walked to a local food cart, ordered a spicy noodle dish and sat down.  Similar to how we’re treated in rural areas of Malaysia, people stared at us, especially at Max.  His blue eyes and strawberry hair are novelties to in areas of southeast asia where the locals are unaccustomed to ginger foreigners.

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Over an early dinner Sari explained that she works to encourage more women to run for elected office so that women and children can make their voices heard.  She explained the history of the Aceh struggle against Jakarta from the seventies to 2004, when the tsunami hit.  As usual, it came down to resources.  The Acenese wanted a greater cut of the profits from this province.  They were getting 25%.  They wanted 75%.  So for 30 years they fought.  Ironically, it wasn’t war that brought compromise, but another devastation: the tsunami. In 2005, the Acenese gained what they had fought for for so long.  Among other compromises, Jakarta gave them their 75%.

I asked about a picture I’d seen in Sari’s house.   It was of her family decades ago: mother, father, Sari and Sari’s brother.  In it, they all wore western clothes. Sari and her mother wore stylish hair, uncovered. I asked why her mother and she wore hijab now.

“We have to.  It’s the law.”  she explained.  “In 1999 in Aceh province, the leaders made a law saying all women have to cover up in public. We could be arrested if we didn’t wear it.  The strong leaders were from the rural areas, where people are very conservative and very religious.  We were fighting the government and the rural leaders held the most power among the rebels.  It was then that they made the law requiring all women to cover themselves.  Of course, at that time, only men were in power.  Women and children had no voice.”

“So that’s why you wear the hijab…” I thought aloud, “because it’s the law.  Would you not wear it if it wasn’t the law?”

“No! I wouldn’t wear it!”  Then she shared her true and colorful feelings about the law.  But I won’t share them here.  I wouldn’t want to get her in trouble.

Later in the conversation the topic of ISIS came up.  Recently, they published a declaration that Islam dictated they should take women and children into slavery wherever they conquered infidels.  Sari shook her head.  “I know, it’s awful.  Nobody thinks like that.”

On the walk home, we found ourselves snaking between cars and scooters in high density barely-moving traffic.  The intersection was chaotic and noisy.  People inched forward here and there trying to gain position so that if and when traffic started flowing, they’d be first to go… all of a few inches more.

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Sari noted the traffic was heavy because so many people had moved into this section of town since the tsunami.  The infrastructure was inadequate for such a high population.  This traffic jam had all the chaos of Saigon, and the vehicle density of the 405 in LA.  Poor bastards.

Later that night, after the traffic cleared, Sari’s brother drove us to a part of town where the tsunami had deposited a fishing boat atop a house.  Sari explained that she had lost her sister-in-law’s family in the tsunami as well as a dear childhood friend.  Everyone lost loved ones.

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We returned home and thanked Sari for the day.  After preparing for bed and placing my go-to allergy armory on the bed stand, we rigged up the mosquito netting and Max and I climbed in.  I remained as fully clothed as an orthodox muslim.  I wasn’t going to take any chances with those skeeters.

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Dirk slept in his tighty whities. Guess who got bit all along the portion of his leg that touched the netting during the night? That’s right.  This guy:

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The next morning, Sari joined us on the front porch.  She served us coffee that her brother had brought from a village in the Inodesian hills.  It’s where her family is from, and they still have extended family who live there.   Then she called to confirm our cab ride to the ferry.  It was time to leave for Sabang Island.

Sari arranging for a car to take us to the ferry en-route to Sabang Island.
Sari arranging for a car to take us to the ferry en-route to Sabang Island.

Over 160,000 people died in the 2004 tsunami.  Sari said everyone lost loved ones.  She lost her sister in law and a dear child hood friend. As we drove to the ferry, we passed the Tsunami museum.

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I was relieved not to have time to visit.  It would make me very sad. And I wanted to stay happy, because I was so thrilled to have met Sari. Indonesia is a rich country indeed, with jewels like the one we found in Banda Aceh.

The asthmatic budget traveler

[editor’s note: this is a post in progress]

My husband and I recently retired from our Silicon Valley engineering jobs, and have settled in Malaysia. ‘Gecko Poop’ are posts about living in retirement and budget traveling in Southeast Asia.

Why ‘gecko poop’? Soon after moving to Malaysia, we discovered exotic geckos everywhere. But so was their poop. Geckos are good in that they eat bugs, but they’re also an indication that, well, you are living with bugs. Geckos and their poop are metaphor for life and travel in SE Asia.

The poop is everywhere in dashed expectations and inevitable setbacks. In all of this, it’s easy to miss the geckos. But if you keep your eye out, you glimpse the fantastic and experience vibrant life.

It’s easy to miss the geckos and see only their poop. Just like in travel, it’s easy to get hung up on the inconveniences, but if you keep your eye open for it, you may spot a sweeping vista or person being authentic and kind. These are the geckos.

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On a scale from one to allergic, I’m orders of magnitude beyond the uppermost limit, clearing the ‘explosively allergic’ hash mark by hectares. The sight of mold, dust, unwashed linens, old mattresses,cats, dogs, horses, mildew, pollen, grass, hay and pretty much anything otherwise natural and good, sends my hackles up as I prepare for hours of snot-drenching throat-itching alveoli-wheezing dysfunction.

Luckily, we live in a time when numerous biological weapons are available, and I stock my arsenal with them all.  I start my day by deploying daily cluster bombs in the form of histamine inhibitors, aka loratadine.  It’s a preventative measure just to make sure the the local and hostile histamine worshipers don’t get any ideas.  And oh how I love the smell of monolukast sodium in the morning!  Just as lit napalm terrorizes the flesh, so does my monolukast antagonize all of those little bitches known around town as leukotriene receptors.  Take that immuno-response system!  Make all the stupid leukotrienes you want mo-fos… and then suck it, because all those stupid leukotrienes won’t have anywhere to lock on to after I’ve swallowed that little square pill with rounded edges.  Oh yeah, that’s right you jerk-offs, that pill’s real easy to swallow and guess what, there’s more where it came from!

If the enemy takes up position in my lungs, they can’t hide for long, what with all that tell-tale wheezing and coughing they can’t help themselves but set off.  For these mo-fo’s I’ve got my AGM-114 Hellfire missles aka  Levalbuterol HCl, aka Xopenex.  Those hostile beta2-adrenergic receptors don’t know what hit ’em when this broncodilator goes boom!  Yeah baby.  I could go on: I’ve got Nasonex, Qnase and Symbacort.  And oh, what is this?  What’s that sitting there in my pocket?  That’s right, it’s the nuclear option: predinsone.

I take this weapons cache with me every where I go – because there is one thing I’m sure to encounter when budget travelleing, and that is filth.  And along with filth comes everything I’m allergic to.

Here’s a post about couchsurfing in Banda Aceh Indonesia, where my arsenal came in handy.

I Live in a Tier 3 Country – Am I Really OK with That?

I nearly ranted online against the rampant human rights violations in Thailand. It was in reaction to people posting comments in a Mr. Money Mustache forum thread about wanting to retire there. I wanted to scream, “But Thai corruption is pervasive, and often police, after ostensibly ‘saving’ refugees, sell these vulnerable people into slavery.” Anecdotes for you:

Reuters Article
Economist article

I cited, as further evidence of Thailand’s reprehensible state of existence, the fact that the US State Department classified them as ‘Tier 3’ in the 2014 Human Trafficking Report.

Then, before posting, I looked up Malaysia, our home right now, in the State Department report. My jaw dropped. ‘Tier 3’.

That report pulled the rug out. I can’t believe human trafficking is as bad here as it is in Thailand. So I read more of the report.

‘Tier 3’ means the government is making little to no effort to comply to international standards for combating human trafficking.

The actual trafficking is different in each country. In Thailand – it’s what those articles point out. Corruption is endemic at all levels of government, and government agents often take active roles in the trafficking. In Malaysia, the government simply looks the other way. It has also created laws that work against the vulnerable. For example, in 2013 Malaysia passed a law putting the onus on immigrant workers to pay for and deal with all immigration costs/issues – not the recruiting agencies who bring them in and subsequently turn them into indentured servants. So in Thailand, officials actually engage in misconduct. In Malaysia, the government is more passive – turning a blind eye to shady practices and with that law, somewhat enabling private agencies to violate the rights of immigrants. Neither country is making much effort to rectify human trafficking abuses or fix structural problems that disenfranchise immigrants.

I’m having a mini-crisis here. How can I live in a Tier 3 country? Cognitive Dissonance? Looking into the details I still think Thailand is much much worse. But, it’s not non-existent here. I’ve met two Filipino maids, one here and one in Singapore (admittedly Sing is not in Malaysia), who are essentially indentured servants. Both women have small children back home who they only see ONCE A YEAR FOR A WEEK! And the other 51 weeks of the year they’re raising other peoples’ kids. And they’re making NOTHING.

I’ve written a few drafts on my FB status but haven’t hit ‘post’. The latest draft:

“To my expat friends in Malaysia – if you are looking to hire help for around the house, please hire locals and pay them market rates. There are scant protections for foreign workers recruited by agencies.

Don’t be a part of the reason that Malaysia, in 2014, fell to ‘Tier 3’ status on the US State Dept. Human Trafficking Report. :(. We can do better. (http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/226847.pdf)”

But IDK. I’m a guest here. Not an activist. But how can I just be okay with ‘Tier 3’?