Friday, June 12, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #5: Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and PoP

Chocolates, vanillas and strawberries,

Much love and many hugs from Semanyak, Indonesia. This email is long overdue, but I'm going to skip through many of the travel stories and just provide the who/what/when/where so I can get straight to the final insight that concludes most of these updates. The reason for this is because I assume most of you don't have the time to read all the way through these, and I'm hoping you'll take the time to make it to the end of this one, especially if you have any interest in the evolution of Pencils of Promise.

I last wrote from Kuala Basu, Malaysia, the jumpoff point for the Perhentian Islands. It took 14 hours of exhausting overland travel and a shady late-night border crossing from Thailand to get there, but we made it around 2am as rains crushed us from above. The next morning we took a boat across the most beautiful water I've seen in my entire life, water that's so saturated with color that it makes the sky jealous, and arrived in Long Beach on the big island. No accomodations were available except tents by the beach, so we spent our first night in a tent. Traveling the backpackers way... The next day we took an amazing snorkling trip, swimming with sea turtles, sharks, and fish of all shapes and colors.

After a few days of snorkeling we took an overnight bus to Kuala Lampur, arriving at 4am and walking the city streets until we could find a decent hostel to get some rest. Two days of touring the sprawling malls of the great Malaysian city (including a hysterical haircut experience at a styling academy in one mall), and then we hopped a flight to Brunei. Why the tiny nation of Brunei? Simple... because I don't know a single person that's ever been there, and recalled the middle school fact that the Sultan of Brunei used to be the richest man in the world. Brunei turned out to be one of the most fascinating places I've ever seen. They've become insanely oil rich in the last 50 years, as there's no income tax and everything is subsidized and completely peaceful. But there's a deep commimtment to simultaneously maintaning many of the elements of traditional life. They have the world's largest sea village, with 30,000 residents living in basic wooden huts on stilts that you might find in any impoverished region of SE Asia, but the entire place now has wireless internet and apparently on the mainland most families have 4-6 cars! Fire trucks, police cars and school buses for the sea village are all just fast boats of various colors. Just 10 minutes down the Brunei river is the Sultan's Palace that's over 2 million square feet, has ~1800 rooms, 18 elevators and more than 165 Bentleys. 10 minutes past that and we felt like we were in the Amazon, finding rare birds and packs of long-nosed Probiscus monkeys jumping from tree to tree. It's an amazing dichotomy of contrasts, and was well worth the two day diversion.

Next we took an all day bus into Malaysian Borneo, passing many passport checkpoints on the lengthy ride before arriving in the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu. Several days of snorkling, amazing sunsets on the waterfront esplande, riding ATV's along the beach, a bit of hitchhiking around, city exploring, witnessing a Malaysian Idol-type singing contest outside our guesthouse on Mother's day, one wild night at an all-Asian danceclub with a sick live band, and then we hopped a flight to Jakarta, Indonesia.

Jakarta is a bustling city of 8 million people, but all I cared about was that the Burger King there had the first barbecue sauce I've found in 2 months. It was delicious, and we actually found the city to be pretty cool in our 24 hours there. Next it was off the cultural city of Yogyakarta followed by a 9-hour sunrise tour of the spectacular ruins at Borabadur and then Prambanan. Absolutely amazing. We then hopped on an 8-hour overnight bus with no AC to Probilinggo, immediately grabbed a 4am minishuttle up to Mount Bromo, witnessed the sunrise from the exact lookout point where Baraka captures the mystic beauty of this place (google it... trust me), walked along the rim to look into the fuming volcano, and then immediately returned to the bus station where we traveled 11 hours by bus/ferry/bus/taxi to get to a family friend's house where we're now staying in Semanyak, Bali. The past few weeks have been a furious itinerary of travel, sightseeing, and stimuli for all senses. It's been exhausting and overwhelming and great.

Key Trip Info
Days- 65
Song of Note- "Skyline" by Dan Teicher. A ballad of beautiful lyricism and soaring classical strings written by the most dangerous artist on the NYC music scene.
Album of Note- ESL Remixed by Thievery Corporation. So good it hurts. Throw it on during a sunny day andjust try not to smile while bobbing your head to the euphoric rhythms.

Now onto the insight-

We spent a lot of time underwater snorkling in the past few weeks, and it's so fascinating to realize just how much activity is going on below the surface of a calm sea. I was blown away by the diversity of wildlife, as there seemed to be a limitless supply of differing species swimming amongst myself and the others. While there's certainly an appeal to the brightest, the biggest, and the fastest, I kept on finding myself observing the large groups of similar fish that swam together... How did they know to all turn left simultaneously? Why didn't they ever bump into each other? How did they maintain perfect space between one another at all times? Even more interestingly, what impact were they having on the sea of activity and the bigger fish around them?

Since Pencils of Promise was founded in October, I've been on thousands of emails regarding the organization and probably spoken with hundreds of different people about it. Listening to the advice of those with significant nonprofit and leadership experience has been invaluable, even if most of them consistently told me that PoP couldn't be successful without attracting large individual donors, which is something we have not done. Nevertheless, the organization is on the verge of its first major tipping point, as we're about to complete construction on our 1st school in Laos, launch an amazing website, begin a summer internship program, host an event with over 1,000 NYC youths, and surpass the $100,000 mark in donations received all within the next month. While snorkling one day I began recalling the many conversations about PoP with people of all ages over the past 8 months, and in paying closer attention to the fish underwater, I realized just how much they represented what we were accomplishing and why it's happened.

A consistent weakness of youth is a lack of wisdom that says "Don't try that because it can't be done". We don't know yet that certain things are impossible, and in that idealism lies our ability to prove that they are not. They're possible when we join together. When many little fish move in a unified direction with shared purpose and intent, they create ripples of powerful change that even the big fish in the sea must heed and acknowledge. This is the essence of Pencils of Promise. Not one of us is independently capable of creating the impact we hope to enact in the developing world, but when we collectively combine the vast resources, knowledge, experience and passion amongst us as a whole, as individuals bonded by our commitment to basic education, the impossible becomes possible. And what do we call these many fish swimming as one? They're not called a pack, a herd or a flock... they're called a school.

Walkin down the many roads,

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