"Not all who wander are aimless. Especially not those who seek truth beyond tradition, beyond definition, beyond the image."

Sunday, December 13

I dreamed of Africa...

Smiling faces from the township school
View from Table Mountain...the 2010 World Cup stadium is just out of view to the right!

An amazing story....read on!

1 of our many animal encounters. A herd takes their drink!

African sunsets really ARE all that!

The green and waterfalls just outside of Kruger
It's been far too long since I've written, and, well, I'd say it's about time! As I sit out looking at the 10 stars that occupy the Bangkok sky, and enjoy the 5 degree drop in temperature, which, for the record, merely makes it bearable but has me believing I'm experiencing a proper Christmas season, something (perhaps my and Rach's rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and"Circle of Life" while strolling home) has pulled me back to my journey to Africa-- and the memories are sweet.

Rachel and I landed in Joburg, South Africa with 2 weeks, the open road, a complete lack of reliable maps and planning, and our rent-a-car Zed ahead. We were out of Joburg as soon as we were in it, and passed through the most dangerous city in the world without so much as a second thought. Our first stop took us to Sabie, a tiny dot on the map surrounded by green mountains and of course the beautifully bright lavender Jacaranda trees. Our big welcome to our first South African town, after flying for nearly 17 hours and driving an additional 5, was a water problem. Meaning no shower (ouch) and no toilets until things were fixed. Our silly misunderstanding had us believing that it was just this particular guest house we pulled in to---and thought the problem could easily be solved by 1) going elsewhere or 2) getting a discount that would make popping a squat and holding out for a shower a bit longer worth it. But turns out, when the town is as small as this one, everyone in it experiences water problems simultaneously. Duh. The water never did come back on that day/night and we found ourselves 'showering' in the pool. As you do. The next day was spent painfully surrounded by green, mountains, waterfalls, and friendly locals before entering the vastness of Kruger National Park. We spent the next 3 nights in the park, acting as our own Safari guides and striking it lucky in more ways then my mind can grasp. The animals were UNREAL and there really is nothing like looking out over the flat nothingness to see animals grazing on the horizon. I think my favourite were the giraffes, but it's hard to choose a favourite when, for 3 days, you literally see more (this is only the list of the names I know...forget about the ones that had a 'what in the hell is that' reaction) hyenas, impala, eagles, giraffes, zebras, wart hogs, rhinos, elephants, guinea fowls, wilde beasts, springboks, baboons, leopards, lions, birds, kudos, ostriches, monkeys, buffalo then you can count. One of our most amazing experiences came when we cut the engine and sat on the roof of Zed watching and listening to the hippos in the lake. They alone had us mesmerized. Then we saw the crocs. Then the herd of Zebra and wilde beast walked right past us to get a drink. Then it was the buffalo's turn. Then, through the bush came a herd of 35+ elephants (babies and all) to have their drink. Then the monkey's (so carefully taking their drink---surely to avoid the fate of hippo snack) and impalas. Nothing could have shaken us from the amazement of those moments. Once out of the park, the animal sitings continued and I still can't get over driving down the highway and seeing a giraffe or other wildlife. Am I in Lion Country Safari or is this really happening?! Unfortunately our luck under the water was less successful and our attempts at diving (Sodwana Bay) were overshadowed by bad conditions and viz. One dive and we called it quits (but not before seeing some great eels, a huge rubberlips fish, having "Nemo" literally bite my lip and having a jelly wrap round my neck leaving me with a beautiful sting that Rach insisted I wipe vinegar and meat tenderizer on!) . We also were crazy enough to get into a cage with great whites---BUT, they never came. We can't say we didn't try :). We turned "luxury" the next few days as we traveled down the coast (the Garden Route, etc) and loved the shit outta some B&B places. How will we ever stay in a hostel or guesthouse again? We're doomed! All the places were amazing---the food, the staff, the views. As we entered the southern coast, the whales came out to play. And when I say Whales, I really mean WHALES. Our first siting was as we were driving 80km down the road. A quick glimpse to the sea (yes, the road is that close---) and BAM---"DID YOU SEE THAT?! WHALE!"....Zed screeched to the side of the road and we watched 3 Southern Right Whales for over an hour---only a few yards from the shore. We had so many moments like this that, if whale spotting could actually get old/boring, it might have. As we entered Cape Town, the iffy weather decided to take a hike, parting in time for a warm, beautiful Table Mountain welcome. We found a GREAT backpackers place right on the main strip of Long Street and soaked up the amazing weather for our last 3 days. 1 day spent atop Table Mountain and in Stellenbosch, tasting wine and hitting up 4 or 5 of the HUNDREDS of wineries that make Stellenbosch what it is. We did the famous Chapman's Peak Drive along the coast and timed it perfectly for the sun setting and, of course, the whales. The drive was beautiful, even if we were constantly glancing up at the walls of reinforcements intended to stop the rocks from crashing down on us and Zed! Our last full day in the Cape was spent with our tour guide in the District 6 museum, the townships, and Robben Island---as we tried to wrap our minds and hearts around the past, present and future of this beautiful country. The townships, also referred to as the slums or ghetto, were full of smiling faces, but lacking in water, electricity, sanitation and other conveniences/civilities that disappeared during the "relocations" that took place in the 1960's. Our tour guide pointed out a young man surrounded with live wires---as he tried to illegally wire electricity from one place to another so that a family might have a single light, and he may make a few bucks (yes, even Rand, the South African currency is referred to as 'bucks'!). We visited a school, where the ratio of students to teachers was shocking...as was the ratio of space to children. But they were making it work, and it filled our hearts. We heard many encouraging stories, one about a woman named Vicky and her amazing B&B right in the heart of one of these townships. She started from nothing and now has a beautiful B&B with 3 rooms that she opens to tourists---allowing them to stay in the heart of things and get a true look and appreciation of the people inside the townships. From the letters filling the walls in Vicky's B&B, it was clear what an impact this place had on it's visitors. It was an experience that they all took back home with them, and, for many, was just the encouragement they needed to step up and reach out to those less fortunate. I like win-win's. Had Rachel and I known of it sooner, we definitely would have stayed. We ferried out to Robben Island and had an ex-political prisoner guide us around the island and the prison where Nelson Mandela and so many others spent decades. Today, a few ex-prisoners have made the island their home and it amazes me that they are able to face the past with such acceptance. Our last dinner was at a South African restaurant where we sampled local beer, kudo, springbok, and ostrich (3 animals from our Kruger siting list---hehe!) and enjoyed live entertainment. A great send off. By the next morning, I'd be landing in the tiny airport of Windhoek, Namibia and Rachel in Casablanca, Morocco. My experiences in Namibia in a blog to follow shortly!

Saturday, September 5

Dear America, Love Thailand

Lesson: Touch, Taste, Smell

purpose of blindfold: Teacher's entertainment :)

As I stand on my porch and watch the dark sky threaten to swallow me, I'm reminded again how much I love this place. There is something beautiful about the blackness, the calmness just before Bangkok becomes victim of another monsoon. I can't quite explain the peacefulness, but it's a feeling that makes me smile from the inside out. Life continues---as normal---making it difficult to blog--until, of course, I stop to smell the pollution. When I do slow down, look around, and re-open my eyes, I'm reminded of the craziness that is Bangkok and I fall in love all over again. I think about how shocked and terrified I was when I first arrived and I can't help but smile. This is my life, this is my home, and nothing about it seems crazy anymore.
During one of these eyes-wide-open moments, I outwardly smiled while walking through the market. This is my kitchen, my favourite restaurant, my late night craving, my sweet tooth filling, my caffeine jump start, my healthy eating kick---all rolled in to one. I have literally cooked a total of 4 times in the last year. Why cook when you have this market, a market, covering every inch of every sidewalk in every part of Bangkok? I watch as one of the vendors delicately tastes her creation from a giant spoon before dipping it back in for a stir, and I laugh. I can hear mom's voice in my ear teaching me proper manners---telling me to wash the spoon first and I love the fact that these vendors never got that lesson. I love that, at some point in my life, I probably would have cringed, but now, I happily walk over and order what she has. I order fruit and am unphased when the vendor grips it completely in his (surely) not-so-clean hand before cutting it into my bag. I occasionally remove bugs or hair from my meals as if I'm removing the shell of a shrimp. Take it out, put it on the side, and continue eating as if there is nothing unpleasant about it. I laugh when I think that the stuff that goes on here would easily be on TV in America on one of those hidden camera shows.
School has been amazing and my kids succeed at simultaneously exhausting and fueling me. They are beautiful, smart, loving, full of energy, innocence and cheeky-ness---If I give them, teach them, make them feel a fraction of what they give me, teach me, make me feel, then I'm doing something right. Even when I want to pick them up and throw them (as I definitely do sometimes), I can't help but kiss them. Which, I have discovered, is as much a "punishment" to a 5 year old trying to be cool in front of his friends then anything else...so, threatening them with a little "joob joob" is enough to make everyone happy!
As for my schooling....There is something about being a 26 year old, illiterate, college graduate that is incredibly....humbling, exciting, amazing, frustrating. I have been taking Thai classes for the last 2 months and, when I see the fruit of my labours, I can't help but act like the 4 year old I feel like. Learning to read a completely foreign alphabet, often with the help (much to their amusement) of my Kindergarten students puts me on an entirely new level. I don't remember learning to read as a child, but I will remember learning to read as an adult forever.
The term is over in 3 short weeks and yet another dream vacation is calling. Rachel and I will be driving, camping, diving, singing, and dancing (such is the plan so far) our way through South Africa for 2 weeks before I head to Namibia and she heads to Morocco for the remainder of our vacation. Flying out Oct. 1st, back on Oct. 24th, back to work (team building and lesson planning) on Oct. 26th, and back to school on Nov. 3rd. Am BEYOND excited about some visitors in December and can't wait to share my life here :)

Tuesday, June 23

Proud...to be an American?!?!

Better late than never---some reflections!

Nearly 3o hours after leaving America, the glistening wats below welcome me and my incoming plane "home". The 3 weeks spent in the US were great. It was a whirlwind, as can only be expected, but great nonetheless. I slipped more comfortably into my previous life then I anticipated, having only to remind myself to say "thank-you" (and not "Kaupkunka") and drive on the right side of the road. I have grown to love Thailand and the people here, but being away from my own Country has only strengthened the bond I feel to it. Being on foreign soil has definitely made me "proud to be an American." The omission of "more" was not a mistake---there was indeed a time that I was NOT proud to be an American. One of the many things I have noticed in my travels is that being American comes with it's price. It's a tiny one, considering the price that so many others have paid, are paying, and will pay to make America what it is, but it does have a "break the stereotype" price. I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said that every non-American I've met has said something alone the lines of "you don't quite fit my idea of an American". I've come to understand that as a compliment---being assured that the "insult" part of that wasn't directed towards me. Though, in a more defensive mindset, I would say it kind of reminds me of someone saying "I hate gay people---but you're not like them". Um. Okay.

One of the key turning points, hands down, was the election. I went to watch the inauguration with hundreds of other Americans and the pride that filled the 3 story, packed building was nothing short of amazing. It was in those moments of complete togetherness with complete strangers that made me realize how special America really is. For everyone there, it wasn't necessarily about Obama---it was just about change, about Hope and new beginnings. Most people cried, hugged, clapped, smiled, high-fived. I took part in all of it---sharing a moment with strangers who, at that time, we're as good as family, was something that really changed my thinking. It opened my eyes to a bond that goes beyond the surface. Beyond my intolerance of the ignorant, loud, obnoxious American stereotype. Beyond the surfacy things that have kept me from "claiming" America.

When I traveled home, with a new found hope, appreciation, and excitement, it was as if I was stepping on American soil for the first time. I was taking it all in as an outsider---a view, I would argue, that gives an amazingly fresh, appreciative perception. The first thing I remember thinking was "wow, people here are super friendly"---and then, in my layover in the Atlanta airport, I got a treat. Troops coming home. I didn't fully know what was going on at first, but, because I have gotten so used to "going with the flow" living in a foreign country (if you're walking, and all of a sudden everyone stops, you should stop too---even if it takes you a long time to figure out that the King's song is playing---), I just...well, 'went with the flow'. Before I knew it, I was on my feet, applauding with the hundreds of other people around me. When I saw the troops, I got chills. I always admired the pride---the honour---the love---in Thailand. The respect they have for their King and their Country is amazing and at times, it leaves me awestruck. But the experience I had in the airport that day will always be a reminder that 'we have that too'....it's just that I've been too spoiled by it to recognize it as "special".

I continue to be in love with my life here. The culture. The people. My kids. The language. I enjoy the bonds that I've formed, am forming, and love the challenge that a culture/language barrier gives me. I face it everyday. Some moments, it's incredibly uplifting, and others, it's incredibly frustrating, and sometimes even painful. It's truly amazing how, at the root of it, people are people. There is so much that can be learned, understood, even when words aren't available. Yet, during those moments of frustration and pain, it's difficult accepting that bonds may only go so deep with these kinds of barriers. It's difficult, at times, knowing that I may never fully be able to know my kids without the help of a translator. And even then, there are many things that culture and/or language won't have a translation for. But, I'm still welcoming every aspect with arms, eyes, heart wide open. Through all this, I think I've discovered that I have a real future in education and am excited to continue running with, and growing with, that possibility. I do occasionally watch my 'homeroom teachers' with a bit of envy---and think eventually I'd like to be a 'homeroom' teacher who can actually FULLY communicate with her class! But for now, the fulfillment I've gotten from watching my kids grow (I get to keep 'my kids' through 3 grades ....that's a perk that homeroom teachers don't get!), teaching them a language that I know will help them as they get older, AND teaching them to READ ( :) :) :)), is unexplainable!

Sunday, May 10

(We've) Paved Paradise

If the Islands of Southern Thailand had a theme song, it would be "Big Yellow Taxi" by the Counting Crows (go on, look up the lyrics if you must!). We've just returned from a 2 week hiatus (from, you know, our other hiatus!) around Southern Thailand, and, while it was an amazing trip, it wasn't void of conflicting feelings. The islands and beaches of Thailand are, undoubtedely, what lures tourists. It's the scenary that books and movies are made of (namely, The Beach) and people are lining up to get a taste. So, Rachel and I set off on our 14 hour hour Phuket-bound bus, hoping for the best while trying to keep expectations at bay. We arrived in Phuket town with 2 days to spare (before leaving on our liveaboard) and immediately rented a motorbike so we could explore the island at lesiure. We went to the most popular beaches first, knowing that, if we've learned anything from travel books, it's that their most popular is our least favourite! What we found was great potential. Beautifully white beaches with clear waters and limestone surroundings---packed with farang, bars, resorts, construction, and an overall lack of "thai-ness". For 2 people who have grown to love a culture, it was painful to see, and, after seeing another topless farang (going topless is like spitting in the face of Thai culture), we hurried on our way. Every supposedely "secluded" beach/bay we came to had been developed and stripped of it's Thai roots, therefore, to us, had been stripped of it's beauty. But saying all this is met with a bit of self-criticism. If I love a country, love a culture, love a people, why wouldn't I want it to thrive?! Tourism can allow that to happen--so, in theory, I should be excited for all this development---. I guess I just want it to be preserved only for those who wish to experience Thailand in, well, all it's Thainess. (not to mention that it's the vicious cycle really---everyone flocks to a particular place beacause of it's untouced beauty---the flocking means money, development, tourism---which, unvariably, destroys the "untouched beauty" part and lasts only long enough until a new untouched place is discovered. And really, how many more of those places remain?)

A few days later, we boarded the Le Marhe boat and set out for 4 days of diving and island exploring. Luckily, our choice to go at the end of season paid off. Although the rains and rough seas flirted with us briefly (and even caused other ships to cancel their trips), they held off long enough for us to enjoy great weather, good diving, and less crowded sites. Although our dives were somewhat tainted by a piss poor (okay, that's not fair...new and unexperienced) dive guide, the trip still gave us the opportunity to find those beaches we had dreamed of. Because the Similian and Surin Islands are actually protected, the lack of development has preserved their beauty---allowing us access to crystal clear water, white beaches, and great lookouts---and all of this without the topless woman, bars, and resorts. Diving 4 times a day, taking a "break" to snorkel, swim, or laze on a deserted beach was all in all, amazing. Some say it's only a matter of time before the "protection" on these areas is lifted to allow for development and money making opportunities, but I will hold on to the hope that the protection will stand.

For a break from the beaches, we spent a few days in a small rain-foresty town (Koh Sok) which we loved. The scenary was beautiful (limestone cliffs for as far as you could see) and it was homey. We stayed in a family-run (actually, I'm pretty conviced the town itself was family-run!) guesthouse where mom took care of money, daughters took care of cooking, sons took care of driving and giving tours, and, well, adorable grandkids took care of hugging, entertaining, and melting the heart of visitors (see picture). :). We did a hike through the forest, where Rachel and I had our first experience with leeches. And, when I say 'experience', (mom), I really mean that I had a leech ON me...which left me with an "I'm so excited in a really grossed out kinda way" feeling.

I'm back to work tomorrow and I'm actually really excited about it! I've missed my kids so much and can't wait to see them again! It's hard to believe that nearly 3 months has gone by since I've taught them! So, it's back to the work world for about 4 months---then, if all goes according to plan, we're off to South Africa and Namibia in October to jump into 1 Sarah Buffie's world for a little bit and see what other cultures have in store for us.
****Many of the places we traveled to on this trip were affected, if not destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami. In this way, it was refreshing to see that things had been rebuilt and restored--allowing some degree of normalcy to return. Although my heart went out to the people back in 2004 when the pictures and stories were ripe, it wasn't until I traveled here that I was fully able to connect with the diaster and what the people must have felt. Back then, the places affected by the tsunami were nothing more then foreign names to me (a fact that made connection, and, in many ways, belief, nearly impossible)---whereas now, they are real places that I can connect with, see, touch, feel---. It's simple things like this that continue to drive my passion for seeing the world.

Sunday, January 4

Genocide, Poverty, Hope, Beauty

Cambodia 27/12/08-3/1/09
Poipet-Siem Reap-Phnom Phen-Battambang

Cambodia has rattled me to my core--in a way that leaves me eager to return. I have heard stories, read books, been warned of the poverty. But nothing would fully register until my own senses were set loose. As we travel down the 2.5 hour red, dirt road, I see things not only in the "here and now", but I also see them, with the help of a memoir by Loung Ung (First They Killed My Father), as they were 30 years ago. From 1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in a war that would see nearly 2 million (out of a population of only about 7 million) men, women and children killed in an act of Genocide so horrific, I don't have the words, or the understanding, to do a description justice. As I wander around S-21 Tuol Sleng in Phnom Phen, I look, in horror, at the evidence of a school-turned-torture-prison. Instead of desks, there are metal bed frames used to bind, torture, and kill people the Khmer Rouge saw as a threat. The children here are only learning how to survive another minute, another hour, another day. Learning what it feels like to be tortured, to stave, to be ripped away from their families. I step into one of the make-shift cells and imagine what it must have felt like 30 years before. The recency of it all sends chills down my back. At a time when my own big brother was being conceived, someone else's big brother was being tortured, starved, killed. I blink away a tear and continue wandering. I over hear tour guides giving their story. All are young and all have a story that has been brutally set by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Inside these walls, the memories are impossible to escape, but outside is a Country that continues to fight, to hope, to yearn for a better tomorrow. It would be understandable if they remained broken, but their spirit is so uplifting, it not only carries them, it carries heavy-hearted travelers, as if they are telling the world that they have survived, they will survive.

As I stroll around the ruins of the Angkor temples (built between the 8th and 13th centuries), I'm overcome with emotion. The energy it brings me will be hard to beat and the peacefulness fuels my ever increasing Buddhist curiosity. The pride the Country has for these old sites pours out of every root-entangled inch, out of every ancient carving, out of every bullet-littered lion guardian. And, although the packs of tourists frustrates me, it's a reminder that the persistent hopefulness of a wounded nation is paying off. The Angkorian temples is their pride and joy (for good reason), and the world has finally caught on. I'm left in the most awe at the sites that have been overtaken by nature. Massive tree roots are so intertwined with the ruins that my mind cannot piece together the when or how. They wrap their finger-like branches deeply, tightly, into every crevice, as if clinging to hope while trying to simultaneously suffocate a dark past.

The un-touristed Cambodia passes me by, and I can't help but think of family camping trips. Half-clothed children, permeantly stained a redish-brown from the unescapable dusty, dirt roads, go about their daily activites. Some run back and forth to the water pump, which, thanks to a "clean water act" and generous international donations, is now safer for them to drink. Some bent over a small fire, eating or cooking. Some hanging clothes on the line and others gathering wood. I remember how I felt on my family camping trips--how excited I was when I successfully hung a make-shift clothes line, or gathered the perfect fire wood--how much I loved staying dirty and running around in my little-girl underwear. The memories bring a smile to my face, but when I bring myself back to reality, I remember that this is no camping trip--no weekend of roughing it for these families. This is life. I can't help but wonder what darkness lies in their hearts. Did they too lose loved ones? Did they watch a brother, mother, sister be tourtured? Did someone in their family sacrafice so they could live? When nearly 1 in 4 people were killed in a war that ended less than 30 years ago, there is a high possibility that they would answer 'yes' to at least one of those questions---and that reality continues to haunt my thoughts and break my heart.

In the city of Siem Reap, the newly-built resturants and hotels seem too out of place to enjoy. It's impossible to get through a meal without at least one street kid coming to your table asking for food or water---or a book seller trying desperately to make a buck or two. I find it easier to say no, to continue walking past the beggers in the streets (here or anywhere--) when I know that giving them money is no solution. It becomes so exhausting saying no--to the booksellers with missing limbs (oh yeah, Cambodia is one of the most mined countries in the world), to the kids selling bracelets (12 for $1...MISSS...cheap price for you), paintings, drinks, woven grasshoppers, postcards--that I feel myself getting frustrated. But before I allow that emotion to take over, I ask myself--if saying no exhausts me, what must hearing no do to these kids? This thought kills me, and reminds me to, at the least, keep a smile on my face while saying no for the nteenth time. But when a 4 year old approaches, holding an empty bottle, wearing an infant on her hip, and asking for milk, my heart is all out of 'no's'. It's soothing watching the 2 dirtied faces eat and drink, but I can't help but wonder if my weakness in this situation only did more to hinder the solution--what ever that may be. When I get home that night, the images of the street children are fresh in my mind. When I look down at my white shirt, I notice a face-shaped stain just above my belly-button. It doesn't take long to register that this dirt-print is from the small boy who ran up to me on the street and hugged me---thus leaving an imprint on me---and my shirt!

It seemed only fitting that we would end our trip at a local orphange in Battambang. Before I came to SE Asia, I told people that ultimately, I wanted to end up in an Orphange in Cambodia. I had no idea why. The words just seemed to flow out of my mouth without much thought. But as I fought back the stench of urine in the nursery ward and held an innocent, infant body to my chest, I knew I belonged. The calmness of these babies is something I still can't get over. It saddens me to think that they are so accustomed to being alone, that, even in their few months of life, they have already learned to cope...alone. They lay, unentertained, without so much as a whimper. But, when I took 1 after another into my arms, nature took over. If it wasn't immediately obvious that they still do, as nature intends, crave human connection, it became obvious when their eyes moved from a locked fixation on my (foreign) eyes to a deep sleep within minutes of being held. As if they simple needed that reassurance, that touch, to know that everything was going to be okay. I long to do more---and can only hope that I continue to lose sleep at night. In my heart, I know I'll return. Hopefully as a more long-term volunteer at that orphanage. But until then, I'm happy to be home. Happy to start work tomorrow. Happy for the experience, as hard as it may have been. Happy that the people so openly welcomed me into their Kingdom, into their painful past, and invited me to hope with them for a much brighter future.