Jesse Bowley Schlabach on Exploring Southeast Asia
Jesse Bowley Schlabach is an expert traveller – she loves spending time exploring new places and immersing herself in local cultures, sampling regional cuisines and engaging with fellow travelers to expand her experience. Growing up in a military family, Jesse was born in Turkey has lived throughout Europe and America, and has an instinctive need for travel and a vast appreciation for space. Jesse has been based in Hong Kong for the last two years as the Associate Director of Recruitment for the Savannah College of Art and Design Hong Kong, where she spent most days traveling around Asia and the South Pacific talking with prospective students, counseling portfolios, conducting workshops and attending conferences and events. In January Jesse left her position and decided to spend the next six months traveling! A few months in she’s made her way down to Austin and we finally had a chance to catch up about her incredible adventures. Here’s Jesse on some of her most memorable experiences and a few perfect tips on what to bring and expect when traveling in Asia.
By Katie Inglis
Besides turning 30 and quitting your job, what was the catalyst that made you want to travel Southeast Asia?
I had grown up in the Middle East and in Europe and in a lot of places in the States but most of Asia was a very unexplored, untouched region for me, so it was as simple as that. Because it felt like even if I didn’t enjoy it, I could do anything for a few years. I was just as excited about going to the other cities in Asia as I was about Hong Kong. There wasn’t anything specific about Hong Kong, and I didn’t know much about it when I decided to move there – it was more about the region itself.
You said you visited 14 countries in 2 years. Where did you go?
I had to leave the country to activate my visa, so Macau was the first country I traveled to right after I went there. The next one was Singapore, and then Vietnam, Thailand, and Mainland China. Then after that Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan. I did go back to Turkey, which is a weird one because it’s half in Asia and half in Europe. In the Pacific I went to Australia, then New Zealand. The most recent were Cambodia and Laos. (I guess it’s only 14 if you count Hong Kong as a separate country. You do get a different passport stamp so I think that counts. And Macau is really a territory not a country but that’s getting too complicated.)
Tell me about some of the experiences that really stood out to you in your travels.
The first time I went to mainland China I was in Beijing and I met up with one of our alumni for a night on the town. We got into his car (he had an amazing car!) and I remember looking over and seeing this little contraption that had been inserted into the seatbelt clip. He did not have his seatbelt on but he had this thing clipped in there. I asked, “Did your seatbelt break? What is that thing?” and he says, “Oh no no, Chinese don’t like to put on their seat-belts and if you don’t have it on the car goes bing-bing-bing-bing constantly. So you just buy these little clips to stick in there and the car doesn’t make the noise.” That stuck out to me because that country is so tightly controlled, those people are tightly controlled; it is a communist regime, and that was his tiny act of rebellion, enacting that little bit of personal freedom. But it was over something so completely nonsensical like keeping himself safe – like his personal freedom was more important than his personal safety.
In Japan it’s their totally outrageous, extreme visual culture, especially with fashion. I was really surprised at how, even though the people seem to love and appreciate spectacle that doesn’t equate to wanting to engage with people. In the States, you see something like Comic-Con where people get really into expressing themselves and they do that in part as a communal thing, to talk about it and geek out about it. I was devastated at how little contact the costumed Japanese wanted to have with me. Staring at them is fine and they seem to invite that, but they don’t want to personally engage with you. (This could have been as simple as them not speaking English, or because I was an outsider.)
In Bali, being in some of the schools, I loved how harmoniously some of traditional and western things lived together. The average teenager would wear a traditional sarong, and a head wrap, but sandwiched in between two traditional fabrics would be a sports jersey or Adidas or Nike sportswear shirt.
In traveling to all of these places what was the most unusual or unexpected place?
Indonesia. The first city I went to was Jakarta. It’s so different from the rest of Asia, primarily because Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims. Throughout a lot of Asia religion doesn’t really feel present. The other day we talked a bit about how Hong Kong is not a particularly religious place. A lot of Hong Kong Chinese would say they’re influenced by Buddhism, or Confucianism but they wouldn’t identify themselves as strict followers. But going to a predominantly Muslim place was a very, very different experience. I’d seen a lot of Mosques from the outside, but I don’t think I’d ever been inside a Mosque until I’d been to Indonesia. I felt it had an enormous impact, being in a place where religion is such a large presence.
What was it like going into a Mosque, in Indonesia, as a woman who’s traveling alone?
It was much more open than I thought. I’d never really thought about what would be inside a Mosque in terms of furniture, and then it makes sense when you enter, you think, “Oh right, everyone is on the floor.” Everyone is on prayer rugs, kneeling or sitting; there isn’t any furniture. Being in architecture that is not filled with anything, an unfurnished interior, is very interesting. And there were a lot of children. I was speaking with them and they were asking me questions about the possibility of studying in America. Their first questions were a lot about, “Will there be a place for me to worship where I’m going to go?” and “Will people be kind to me?” There were these very personal considerations, so before you could talk about what program they might be interested in, we just discussed a lot of things about their personal comfort, which was very unusual. It was very beautiful. Some of the people I was with were a bit nervous when some women came up to us and gave us things to cover ourselves with before we went in, and I think that kind of setup made people feel on-edge. (Putting something on your body that you’re not familiar with is enough to throw you off.) I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable. Some of that could have been that I lived in Turkey before and where I lived was a very conservative area, so it was expected that if you were going to go downtown you would have on the proper attire.
What was the place you felt you had the most personal or spiritual connection with?
I felt different types of connections. When you go to a place like Australia, its alarming how similar it feels to America. It was strange.
Like the uncanny valley – It’s so close but it’s not quite?
That is exactly right. It doesn’t sound the same but it’s very similar visually. In terms ofa more spiritual or personal connection, probably Japan. I think that is typical for designers or artists because any time you’re studying Asia, you’re usually studying Japan or India, so it was a culture that I already had a lot of context with. You familiarize yourself with the art, the furniture or the craftsmanship – you have a reference point. I’m sure that’s part of it, but the other part that I remember was being in the city and thinking, “That’s exactly how I would do it!” It felt like a place where the inner-workings of my brain were on display. Everything just made sense. It was the way you moved through a space, it just felt so intuitive. Everything about the place is so considered that it’s hard not to fetishise it. Sometimes you visit a place and you have an immediate connection to it. And for me that was, by far, Japan.
Traveling for short bursts of time, with a timeline in mind, or for business, what have you found is the most important thing to have with you?
Something to document it with. Whether it’s a journal or a camera, have something that will allow you to take notes, because it is pretty amazing how distant it can become, so quickly, once you leave. If you want to keep reliving the experience after you come back you have to be immediate about recording those first impressions. Those things that you see that make you think, “I will absolutely remember that” – it’s so easy to have absolutely no clue six months later. If I had to choose between a camera and something to write with, I would choose something to write with because you can easily recall images but it’s a lot harder to recall the detail of something that happened or someone you interacted with.
I find that journaling can help you recall your mental picture – by writing down small points you can jog your memory. What is your favorite thing to travel with, your favorite object or piece of clothing?
I always have something that is pretty impractical. It’s so easy to make a list of things you really need, but having something that is totally unnecessary can lift your spirits when you’re having a bad day of traveling. When you’re having a shitty day because your plane was delayed 14 hours, having that thing that maybe you didn’t need but really makes you happy, whatever personal memento that might be, that is the best thing to take. Or something like a gorgeous dress, that you wear one time on the trip. I think that having something that you don’t need but you want to have with you makes that day particularly special when you use it or wear it.
Do you have any advice for anyone that’s thinking about traveling to Asia for the first time?
Take some real time, a month if you can, to really make the trip worthwhile. And go over there with the right attitude. Never over plan, never have everything totally figured out before you go. That would be my best set of advice. My tactic was to book my first night or two ahead of time. But after that first day you will likely have been in a few neighborhoods and you may have just found the neighborhood that you love. A lot of people don’t want to have to move, but whatever, don’t pack a lot of stuff and it’s not a big deal. It’s way better to get to experience a few different neighborhoods in a place. Leave things open, at least a little bit, or you’re going to miss out. My most important piece of advice for Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, always have a mosquito net for your bed. You can do without running water or your own bathroom but malaria is no freakin’ joke! Also, you can’t underestimate how far things like the right tone can go. Asian languages are very tonal, and tone just has a very different connotation and context in Asia, and that permeates pretty deep through the culture. It’s just incredible how far having the right attitude can go.