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A little introspection over a plate of mud snails


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Well, it's been 16 months since we set off for our big world travels. Every day we witness the life of different cultures, interact with locals, eat exotic foods, stumble through conversations in a different language, see strange and beautiful plants, animals and landscapes, swim in rivers and lounge on beaches, drive motorbikes through small villages hidden within lush greenery, hike up mountains and volcanoes, and generally do amazing things that continue to push us beyond our known limits and comfort zones. But while we still relish in the freedom of waking up every day and asking each other, "so what do you want to do today?", our attitudes about travel and our personal desires are going through some major changes. Typically, our blog entries describe the sights, which are gorgeous and deserve to be shared. What's more difficult to share, however, are the smells, the colors, the sounds of the streets, the forests, the ocean waves, the bustling markets. What's even more difficult to share with our loved ones at home are our thoughts and feelings as we go through the spectrum of emotions we have been feeling over the past few months. Luckily, Penang, the pearl of the orient, has captured our attention as the food capital of Malaysia, and a couple of unplanned days in the area killing time between meals was just the thing to help organize our thoughts.

In South America, we felt comfortable, confident, joyous, grateful, energetic, in awe of the world and its beauty and possibilities. The two months we spent back in Chicago were crucial: to reconnect with friends and family; to recharge; to give us faith that when we return, we will still have a home and we won't feel estranged. When we took off again, our emotions were heightened. We expected to go to Asia with a fresh start, to be thrown into unknown and uncomfortable environments, to struggle with language, to be overwhelmed, yet marvel at the wonders of the world. What we found is that the novelty of travel is wearing off a bit, and that we've become accustomed to the overstimulation and stretching of our comfort zone. The result has been a gnawing sense of anxiety - a lack of purpose competing with the amazing sights and activities that make up our daily lives. What are we doing here? Where are we going? Bouncing around from town to town, changing rooms every other day, figuring out how to get places, visiting the temple, the waterfall, the markets, all feels to an extent unsustainable. What do we want? Why are we here? We love the freedom of having no responsibility, but we can't keep sight seeing. Where is the deep breath, the sigh we are searching for?

Last year, we determined that traveling together has innumerable benefits. I won't even try to list them. We both feel incredibly blessed to have found another human being with whom we can actually spend 24 hours a day with for nearly a year a straight and still love 99.8% of it. But about midway through our South America trip, we decided that we both need to flex our independence muscle a little bit and travel alone for a time. While it's scary to be alone, we felt it was necessary. Unfortunately, we never made the push to do it. After all, we both want to do the same things, why not do them together? But now we have decided it's a must. In the midst of existential crises, we need to find ourselves, and maybe we need to miss each other a little bit too. Abby craves a place to call her own. She has never lived alone, never even been alone for more than one day, and feels the need to explore her self-being. She will live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she hopes to find an apartment, a teaching job, an art supply store, a meditation spot, a yoga class, a rock wall to climb, and a reconnection to nature. Mike will begin his self-exploration in Yangshuo, China, where he hopes to establish a routine, play chinese chess, take cooking and language classes, find a part-time job at a bar or climb shop, hitchhike, camp, read a lot of books, and do a lot of rock climbing. We will miss each other intensely. For how long we will be separated we do not know, but we do know it's necessary. But don't worry, folks, we both feel very confident that our love for one another is solid and enduring. And there's always skype.

There are many reasons for us to be feeling this existential anxiety. Maybe part of it is we didn't feel like we accomplished anything really meaningful in South America even though we meant to. Maybe part of it is this damn inescapable heat. Maybe part of it is that our first world comforts are succumbing to our third world existence (our new camera is broken, we had a kindle, a smart phone, and $200 stolen from us, and last weekend monkeys completely destroyed our tent, which we had big plans for). We feel like we are just killing time until we settle into a place where we can hopefully find whatever it is we are looking for. We are just extremely fortunate to be having wonderful adventures every day in the meantime.

One of our friends recently expressed his desire to hear less about the places we visit and more about what's going on in our heads. While that's difficult to do at any time, especially when we are two different people, it's even harder to express distress when we know the only people that read this are people who love us and want us to be happy. Don't worry, loved ones, we are happy. We're elated. We are also sad, stressed, excited, proud, nervous, frustrated, grateful, giddy, and in love. We expected physical discomfort, which we occasionally have, but we are also experiencing an uncomfortable range of powerful emotions. All we can hope for is to find our inner beings, our passions, that sigh of relief, and just let the rest go. Once we find that, we can reassess how we feel about long-term travel and go from there, together again. 

There you go, how's that? You get into our heads enough? Great. Now how about some pretty pictures?

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Tea and Indian food in front of the Patronus Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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Huge statue (tallest in Malaysia and second tallest in the world of a Hindu deity) of Murugan, god of war and victory. Batu Cave temple, Kuala Lumpur

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Malaysian BBQ -skewers are color coded to price, choices are either grilled or stuck in pots of boiling water at your table.

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Rambutan, my favorite spiky haired fruit. Like a lychee in form and consistency

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And of course, Mike's new favorite fruit, the smelly durian. These things are so smelly, there are "no durians" signs all over.

Hands down, our favorite part of Malaysia is the food. All around, Malay, Indian, and Chinese cultures are mingled and with the plethora of food stalls open in the street and in food courts, the options for delicious food are endless. This is the stuff you only see on tv. Hot woks, giant pots of soup stock, the systematic and expert addition of all sorts of oils and sauces in precise, quick movements. Noodles being soaked, drained and soaked again, metal spatulas scraping the wok with a sound that instantly makes your mouth water. Customers order and sit on plastic stools at a table on the street, while a beverage seller makes sure you get a drink (or you get charged). Our go-to is teh tarik, iced tea with milk and sugar, poured to be foamy. There is an excellent Anthony Bourdain episode of Penang, and we went to many of the places he did, and ate almost all the same foods. It's a great episode if you can get your hands on a torrent of it (if you don't know what a torrent is, don't worry about it).

Here in Penang, our days revolve around the food. What we do in between meals is us just killing time. We enjoyed wandering around little India, listening to the music being blasted into the street, eating delicious food served from giant trays all laid out on display (once we figured out how to order it). The people here are passionate about the food, its traditions, and old family recipes. Some of these food stalls have been making the same one dish for generations, and have perfected their oils, sauces, spices, and ratios. You know where the good places are from the long lines that form. The food in Penang is some of the world's best (allegedly). The dishes are packed with powerful flavors unlike anything we've ever tried, and the sauces are thick, dark, and sinister. The food is all seriously so good, we stayed much longer than planned, because we had to go back for seconds at some places.

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Abby's favorite wonton pork mee, where there is always a line. Noodles, soup, wontons, pork, greens and pickled jalapeños? Always a winner. But at this place, it's something else

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Curry mee (mee means noodles)

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Char kuay teow

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One of the jetties, docks sticking out into the water. These are grouped into family clans and house the traditional fishing families.

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One of the places Anthony Bourdain went that we had to try is a place called Line Clear. Open 24 hours, there is almost always a line. Tell them what kind of rice, then which of many sloppy metal dishes of exquisitely dark meats or vegetables you want. The lamb was delicious, as was the fish roe. Once you are finished with your selections, they take a big spoon and dish out a spoonful of sauce from each of the dishes you ordered (and maybe one or two more), mingling all the flavors together in messy bliss. To be eaten with your hands, since this is Indian, and a glass of sweetened rose water with lime.

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Many food courts like this exist. Just order from as many stalls as you like, and sit down at any table. Sometimes there is karaoke or a live band, and occasionally some dancing. It's a really funny place
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And Mike's favorite, the local mud snail called balitong. These things are soaked several times while alive to rinse off the mud, tumbled around a wok with that wonderful metal spatula scrape, then tossed in a spectacular dark spicy sauce. Luckily we looked up how to eat these online before we went. Suck hard through the sawed off tip, spin the shell around, and suck hard on the shell opening. The snail will come out, but before you eat it you must remove the small round membrane that makes it stick to its shell (when alive). Then you can eat the little spiral shaped body with the nauseating green and gray color. Weird. The things we'll eat these days. They were so delicious we got them twice:

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Delicious duck kuay teow. All kinds of duck meat, liver, and other innards. Really good

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Malaysians like sweet, iced things. This is es cendol, which is shaved ice with rice based jellies (green things), corn, kidney beans, and sweetened condensed milk. Sounds awful, but it's actually really good and refreshing. This is apparently the best es cendol in Penang, and there was a huge line.

One day we rented a motorbike to go take care of our Thai visa applications, and ended up driving all around the island, visiting waterfalls, durian farms, and fruit markets. We also couldn't miss the massive gold deity watching us from a hillside, a huge Chinese temple complex called Kok Lok Si Temple. Beautiful.

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Hey, let us out! This is animal cruelty!

On our way into Penang National Park, we saw a couple of huge monitor lizards (they look too similar to Komodo dragons for me!) This one looking to be pregnant.
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Best camping meal ever, stir fried veggies, fresh chicken breast, and a great spicy curry paste. Prepared during an epic sunset, where the sun turned into a perfect glowing orb. Crazy.
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We loved Penang, but alas, tragedy struck. Monkeys completely destroyed our tent while we were on the beach, and our camera has been acting up lately and now only takes pictures like this. If you have any suggestions as to what I should do, please let me know.
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Posted by AbbyAndMike 07:08 Archived in Malaysia

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