The Great Leap

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Puerta Vallarta,  Mexico, 1989.  “Hey mister! You wanna Scuba?” Almost asleep on the beach, I look up to see our friend Mitch, negotiating a Scuba adventure.  “What’s your name, mister?”  asks the deeply tanned dive guy.  “Mitch”, replies Mitch.  “Feeeesh?”, the diver repeats with a half smile.  We all burst out laughing and sign on for the next day.  For our friends Barb and Mitch, this is no big deal. Mitch was a master diver and Barb was married to a master diver.  Both experienced.  Me?  I knew how to swim. So the next day, I don a mask, fins and tank and jump into the Pacific Ocean with the knowledge that only a 27 year old has – the unwavering knowledge of immortality.  And, apparently I was right because I lived to eat the scallops we gathered and sit on some beach where we drank buckets of Corona with the diver and two boat guys and sang “Gloria”  accompanied by Rick on a beat up, out of tune guitar.  Perfect.

On return to the great Pacific Northwest, we officially certified.  But, the Pacific Ocean in Washington state is VERY different from the Pacific Ocean of Mexico.  That, and a couple adorable children that required all of our attention and every penny we earned.  Clearly, our Scuba careers were doomed.

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Sorry. Gotta put a cute picture of us when we were busy with these two!

Fast forward – Thailand, 2017.  Sitting in the school canteen, I casually ask my friend Richard, “What did you do over the weekend?”  His reply changed the course of the next several months.  “Oh, I went to Pattaya and did my Scuba certification” he said, referring to a city about 2 hours from Bangkok. I perked  up.  “Really?”  I quickly gathered the necessary information from him, emailed Rick, and we were signed up for the class that night – for the following weekend.

Pattaya is – well – different.  We arrived on a Friday evening to an area called Jomtien.  It’s mostly populated by Expats here on the generous Thai retirement Visa.  (Must be at least 50 and show evidence of a substantial savings account.  Renewable yearly for a fee.)  Apparently, this was a popular R&R location during the Vietnam War.  What has lasted from that era is the innumerable number of “comfort” men and women available for hire. So we gawked and wondered about the individual stories that brought all of these people together.  Without exaggeration, it is mostly older Western men with young Thai men or women.  I hoped that everyone involved in these arrangements had clear and open expectations.  

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Pattaya. After 33 years, we each fully understand our “arrangement.”

The next morning we met our instructor, Noc.  Small and sturdy, she walked us through our written exams (during which I panicked on the math and she patiently calmed me down); our pool work (where she admitted she wasn’t sure I’d make it at first – after the math ordeal – but, was pleased I could swim); and our open water checkout dives (where I became dehydrated and learned that if you throw up under water, it’s no problem).  We were certified!

If you’ve never had to breath underwater, it’s important to know a lot of stuff about – well – diving.  Our first few dives were basically all about staying alive.  My heart would race with anxiety each time I made that giant step off the boat and into the blue unknown.  Constantly checking my air supply, hand on my regulator to make certain it didn’t slip out of my mouth and simply trying to control my buoyancy occupied every brain cell.  Lucky if I noticed a tiny fish, I was jubilant upon completion of each dive.  I had again survived!  I still wasn’t sure I liked this Scuba thing.  It took the first 10 dives to begin to feel even remotely comfortable.

Recently, Rick and I did our 15th dive, and our 5th with Yann, our French divemaster, while on Palawan –  an incredibly beautiful island in the Philippines.   It’s the low season, so it’s  just the three of us.  After two dives in spectacular coral and spotting 5 reef sharks, and a meter long turtle – he says we are ready for a drift dive.  We set in and off we go – floating in suspended animation and allowing the current to scoop us along.  Amazing. Plus, more sharks, and an eagle ray.  I almost forget about breathing.

Back on our small Banca (a Philippine boat that has outriggers on both sides that give it a decidedly “spider” look), we eat our sandwiches and talk.  Yann tells us that he just “discovered” our last dive site a few weeks before.  Unfortunately, another site that he used to go to has been recently decimated by dynamite fishing. If you are unfamiliar with this illegal practice, fishermen detonate explosives underwater as a means to catch fish.  Killed or stunned by the shockwaves, the fish float to the top where they are gathered up in nets.  Unfortunately, everything in the radius of the explosion is killed.  Including the coral.  We have seen these large areas of dead coral – grey as ash with no noticeable marine life.   I ask Yann if he’s ever heard the explosions.  He nods gravely, “many times”, he says. “But it is worst when you feel the shock waves while diving.”  He taps his chest.  “You can feel it here.”   We silently take in his double meaning.

So far, we have seen sea turtles, stingrays, eagle rays, reef sharks, moray eels, lionfish and the incredible manta ray.   I saw a dugong (very shy creature – much like a manatee)  off the bow of a boat in Indonesia.  We swam with Dory and Nemo and all their little friends. We have seen indescribable coral reefs in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.  Every dive is a new adventure into an untamed wilderness of incredible beauty.  And maybe because of the knowledge that only a 54 year old can have – that I am, indeed, mortal – it’s all the more wonderful and sweet.

And for this, I have two old friends to thank.   Barb and Mitch.  I never would have made that first great  leap in Mexico without them.  Thanks for high adventure, stupid choices, crazy laughter and unforgettable memories.  And, thank you for reminding me to say “yes” as often as possible.  I have never regretted it.

 

 

 

 

Hail Plastic!

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Shoes are always removed before entering a Buddhist Wat. Here is a great sample of some typical plastic shoes.

Before I came to Thailand, I had tremendous disdain for plastic.  Anything made of plastic was “cheap”, shoddy and downright tacky.  And, the tackiest of all plastic items?  The plastic shoe. Are you kidding? From up on my high horse, I could clearly see the faults of these synthetic fakes:  they don’t shape to your feet, they don’t breathe, they cause blisters, but worst, they look like, well – plastic. “Give me leather or give me death!”, I would holler from my saddle.

Then, it rained.  

I’m not sure I have adequately described the rain here yet. As a Pacific Northwest girl, I am pretty much a rain expert.  That is, the Chinese Water Torture style rain –  a slow, continual  stream of water dripping, dripping, dripping.  Endlessly.  

I wasn’t prepared for the sudden torrential rain with thunder and lightning that could dump a month’s worth of water in one hour – and then, just as suddenly stop, leaving up to 12 inches of standing water on roads and sidewalks.

And while you can sometimes get away with “waiting it out” in a convenient location, that’s not always possible.  When it rains like that here –  you’ve still gotta go to work. Or ride another quarter-mile to get home, or get your grocery bags to the taxi.    Hail the plastic shoe.

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The REI Leather Collection. The pampered Birkenstocks haven’t even left the house.

First time it happened, my $100 all-leather Keen walking sandals (Jeez, I am SO from the PNW) got so stretched out I could barely keep them on my feet. Take off your shoes, you say?  YOU take your shoes off in dirty, critter invested flood water!

Well, at least I could use my Chacos, right?  Admittedly, these are my best REI shoe purchase for Thailand.  They are rubber soled (e.g.plastic) but the straps are a woven fabrics that gives them that natural, hippy flair that from my high horse, look just right. And they are pretty good for light hiking.  But, get them wet and with the high humidity, they still quickly grow mold and mildew. Nice.  

So I’m down to another pair of leather Keens.  I’m hiking in high humidity.  No rain but very hot.  Feet feel great until the end of the day.  Itchy feet.  Dang.  Swollen?  What? Worst heat rash of my life.

I have sequestered my beloved Birkenstocks to indoor duty.  They will never go outside here.  Too risky for these iconic shoes.

And there is another issue I hadn’t anticipated.  Style.  Thai style is not Pacific Northwest, natural fiber, flannel and beanie style. Nope.  It’s more Southern Belle meets Hello Kitty.  From super cool to super cute.  I was starting to look weird.

So, REI, I am sorry to say, I’m moving on. Everyday footwear like jewel bedecked flip-flops  or flowered wedgie sandals are found at Big C for a few dollars.  For my better quality footwear, I shop at the Croc store.  Every style and color  imaginable in plastic from the classic Croc to a simple black plastic pump.  Get dirty? Hose’em off.  A little mold?  Hose’em off.   Because whether you are out to dinner or grocery shopping, a sensible woman is always ready to walk through a foot of flood water.

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A sensible woman.

 

 

 

 

Pirate Gratitude

“I guess I’m done being afraid.” This thought struck me as I boarded a tiny boat with 8 guests, two guides and two boatmen.  We had arrived in Labuan Bajo the day before.  This small town on Flores Island in Indonesia, has seen the fast influx of backpackers heading either to sea or to the jungle.  It reminds me of the “ports of call” depicted in pirate movies.  Booze, women, fishnets.  Smell of garbage and gasoline.  Unpaved roads with deep ruts cut by monsoon rains.  A rugged frontier town ready to make a buck.  Remote.  Rough.  

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Selamat Datang or Welcome  to Labuan Bajo.

But today, as we head out to sea toward a group of isolated islands between Flores and Salawesi, “remote” takes on a whole new meaning.  There is nothing but sky, water and hundreds of unpopulated islands.

Time for our safety briefing.  Simple.  “Life jackets in the back.  Follow the captain’s orders,” explains our guide, Mikel.    The captain grins, takes a drag on his Lucky Strike, and salutes us.  And we’re off.  Adventure on the high seas!bow of boat

Today we are snorkeling our way toward our campsite.  We see a Dugong off the bow.  These giant sea cows are much like a Manatee.  Paul, our “guide in training”  says we are very lucky.  He is disappointed that he missed it.  And then the turtles!  The joke is that every time I use the head, a turtle will be spotted. I missed seeing three of them this way.  But there were plenty more of them.  Along with the dolphins, porpoise and sailfish. And then the giant turtle we spotted while snorkeling.  Easily a meter long.   One friend saw a shark.  Me? Not so lucky.  

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Bungalow #1.  On my way to the outdoor shower.

Arrive at our campsite as the sun is setting.  Little open air bungalows with mosquito netting.  Solar powered lights.  Dinner at the canteen and planning for day two.

Komodo Island for the infamous Dragons.  Apparently, these creatures were hunted almost to extinction.  Then, the government banned all people from the island for four years and now it is a national park.  You can only visit with a park pass and must have a guide with you.  

Our guide is bravely armed with a big stick.  Oh good.  That will do it.  Our first encounter is with some VERY old Dragons that have the pensioner responsibility of entertaining the tourists.  A stick was more than enough protection from these old geezers!  Still, they are amazing creatures.  

We head  back to the boat for more snorkeling and this time diving.  

I’ve seen pictures of Manta Rays, and have never really thought much about them. So when I jumped into the water and found myself next to a five meter wide gentle giant, my mind was blown!  Indescribable.  We did a short “drift” dive and found ourselves underneath the Mantas.  Then we snorkeled and watched them from above.  Swimming in schools of 3 to 10, we saw them in their feeding “station” and their “cleaning” station.   Everyone on board, including the captain, jumped in to experience this incredible moment.  

And then suddenly it was our last day.  A lovely hike on Rinca Island produced a wild Komodo. OK, I was worried that the stick wouldn’t cut it.   We also saw a baby – just a little guy at 4 feet long.   More snorkeling.  And a long, leisurely sunset cruise back to Labuan Bajo. Not a single light on the dozens of islands we pass.  

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No filter.  Really.

The solitude is broken when we head into the crowded port well after dark.  We “raft” up and haul our bags across three boats just to reach the dock.  We say our goodbyes and move on.

I feel incredibly grateful to have these adventures.  Maybe I could become a pirate? I’m not afraid.

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Happy Birthday, Son

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Who’s the wise one here?

My younger son turned 23 yesterday and I am 7000 miles away.  In many ways, I have Phillip to thank for this.  He has taught me so much about living life courageously.  I suspect he has no idea of his influence.  So, this blog is a gift to my son, Phillip.  Happy Birthday, man!

When you first meet Phillip, you quickly notice he is a man of few words.  But when he does speak – listen!  It’s usually funny and dry or carefully considered.  And, it won’t be said twice.

Choose words carefully.  They are powerful.

The boy is comfortable in his own skin.  Phillip does what he wants and is friends with people who value that.  His confidence is subtle.  No puffing up or strutting about.  Just Phil.  Take it or leave it.

Be your authentic self.

One of the most powerful lessons I have learned from this guy is that being alone is not a problem.  Phillip was one of the first people I knew to fully embrace a level of introversion without apology.   Growing up, my generation was not tolerant of this.  We were social at all cost.

Being alone does not mean you are lonely.

Over the years, Phillip has had some uncomfortable challenge.  A series of surgeries that have interrupted his life at various times.  I have been amazed at his patience and resilience during these periods.

You can endure more than you thought possible.

And here I am, at age 54, getting my life lessons from my 20 something son.  Thank you!  I’m honored to be your mom.

Alone

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Me and Hickory

About 30 years ago, I was on the city bus in Seattle.  Coming or going to work, I don’t remember.  I do remember the woman who sat next to me that day.  I remember when she got on the bus and she was looking for a seat – our eyes met, and I must have smiled or something because she walked past several empty seats to sit next to me.  And, as she got closer, it was clear that something was wrong.  

Within a matter of minutes she had introduced herself and explained that she liked to ride the bus, to nowhere in particular really.  She said she often rode the bus for hours each day and said it was the only real relief she had found since her husband had died almost a year before.  She talked about his clothes, his habits, their routines as a couple.  Her eyes would quickly well up with tears, and just as quickly sparkle with pleasant emotions from remembering.  And then, she was gone.  Hurriedly getting up and getting off the bus with purpose-driven energy.

After 33 years of marriage, Rick and I have never spent more than a few weeks apart from one another.  And, today he flew back to the U.S. for a month.  As I write this, it seems so silly for me to be feeling the strong emotions I have.  Embarrassed that at age 54 I have never really been on my own.  Embarrassed to be overwhelmed by the prospect of 30 days without him.  Like the woman on the bus, I think about our habits and routines that are as comfortable as an old shoe.  Our unspoken language and experiences known only by the two of us.  Our natural ebb and flow; give and take. Our shared silence and quiet smiles.  Living life with my best friend and lover.  I am haunted by the prospect that if this is what it feels like for him to simply leave for a month, what will it be like for the one who remains when the first one dies?  Because it will happen.  

Today I am alone.  I have decided to sit with my emotions and feel them.  To allow myself to dive into the ocean by myself.  To sit in the bathroom stall at work and cry; to sleep at 4pm; to ache; to smile.

Today, I am alone. 

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Dinner for one.

 

Thai Massage: It’s Complicated

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Rick makes an audible sigh from the cushion next to me.  I barely open my eyes and glance over at him.  The woman is standing on my husband.  Feet nimbly embedded on his thighs, slowly shifting weight from side to side, she works her toes into his tired muscles.  I smile.  Thai Massage.

Typically weighing in at well under 100 lbs, the majority of Thai massage practitioners are incredibly strong and agile.  Take Pan.  The woman who walks on my husband.  Pan is about 4’10”, petite build, and is roughly 70 years old.  On first meeting, you are charmed.  A quiet smile and gracious bow.  “Saw Wa De Ka “she murmurs in quiet tones.  She leads you into a low lit room with lovely mats on the floor and gives you soft pajama-like garments to slip into.  She silently slips away while you change and just as silently returns when you are ready.  So lovely.  She starts with your feet and begins with gentle pressure using her hands.  But what begins as something akin to a Swedish massage, full of feather strokes and light kneading, quickly becomes a full-body encounter  with feet, knees, elbows, thumbs and forearms.

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Starts out real nice, and then…..

Rolling her forearms across my calves, I love/hate the experience.  I’m reminded of my older son’s description of what he called the “stick”.  As a competitive distance runner, he had a wooden bar that teammates would roll over his tight muscles – as hard as they could muster – to loosen and relax his legs.  Pan’s “forearm stick” technique accomplishes the same and it hurts about  as much as when she does a full plank on top of me as I face the floor.  Toes planted on the soles of my feet,  knees in my thighs and elbows and forearms working the muscles of my back.    I weirdly love it.  It’s almost as good as when I sit cross-legged and she is behind me and puts my arms straight up above my head and literally lifts me off the ground – by my arms  – so my spine can hang freely for a few moments.  I weight about 150.  Little Pan is not a force to be reckoned with.

Thai Massage can be quite social.  Joking and laughing.  Not necessarily silent.  Lots of comments.  “Oh Madam.  You need more massage.  One hour, no good.  Madam needs two hours.  Too tight!! What’s wrong with you?”  Yeah right.  Two hour workout with a hard-body gym rat.  Nice try!

And when it ends, I’m a little sad.  My body feels amazing.  Relaxed, more limber and definitely more “aligned”.   I feel both calm and energized.  Pan kneels in front of me and quietly bows.  “Kap Kuhn Maak Ka.”  She thanks me and slips out of the room.

As I get ready to leave, I ask to make another appointment.  “Next week?”   Pan gives me a toothy smile and nods, “Yes, Madam. Two hours?”  “Yes” I reply sheepishly,  “Two hours.”

God, I love/hate that woman. It’s complicated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sour Spicy Yummy

“What are ya eating, John?” I called down the hall at school.  John, 11, turns around and smiles. He’s holding a snack package with a kid friendly design and Thai writing. “It’s my favorite Miss Melissa!  Do you want some?” I walk closer.  It looks interesting. Long brownish strips on sticks.  They look a little like beef jerky. “What is it?” I ask as I reach out my hand to accept his invitation to share.  He says something in Thai and I smile innocently.  Then I take a bite.  Fish.  Dried fish.  Salty, crunchy and VERY fishy.

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Salty Fish Snack. Thanks John!

One of the things that you will notice when you come to Thailand is that while people are generally smaller than Westerners in overall stature, they also tend to be much more trim.  Both Rick and I lost weight almost immediately after we arrived. Literally.  Within about a month, I lost almost 10 lbs and Rick lost 20.  And, it’s not like we were dieting or doing anything with an intention of weight loss. After years at a certain size, it was weird to move down a notch and stay there.  Because of this, I’ve actually done some unscientific research on the subject.  And after 7 months here, I’ve got a few ideas.  

More appears to be better. You can get food EVERYWHERE. Food stalls cover almost every square inch of unclaimed space on the streets.  Grilled pork, chicken and shrimp.  Whole grilled and salted fish “pops”.  Fruit cups with watermelon, mango and papaya. Fresh coconut hacked open for a creamy drink.  Little sit-downs with spicy salad or hot noodle soup.  Scooters with grills attached like a side car that drive down the street.  Stuck in traffic?  No problem.  A vendor will sell you little snack bags while you wait in grid-lock.  Kind of like a drive-in on the freeway.  A while back when we went to the beach on a long weekend, I met a mom of three young children.  I said something about bringing snacks to the beach since kids are hungry all the time.  She gave me a puzzled look and said, “why do I need to bring snacks?  There is food everywhere!” And, so her kids snacked on grilled meat, fruit and little cups of soup.

Eating all the time seems to help.  I get to school every morning around 6:30am and the eating has begun.  We have about 15 food vendors in our school canteen.  The variety is awesome:  Korean, Thai, Western, Noodle Shop, fruit smoothies and little pancake treats.  My friend, John, is there every morning and always has rice (molded in the shape of a teddy bear) with a piece of grilled salmon and a seaweed strip.  I grab a smoothie and a banana even though I had a yogurt with granola at home. We have a milk break at 9:15am and lunch at 12:10pm. Both offer food first and when you are finished, recess.  For students in grade 2 through grade 12, children select and monitor their own food.  The preschoolers and kindergarteners  get morning snack, lunch and a snack right after nap time.  These are prepared and delivered to the classrooms.  They get super cute kitty jello mold treats or little moon cakes or something else in a “just right” size for snack.  Lunch for the “littles” is traditional Thai. Grilled chicken and rice is the Thai version of “nuggets and fries.” And then there is sticky rice.  Ah, sticky rice.  Available everywhere in little Nona leaf packets or steamed right inside a bamboo shoot.  Flavored with sweet fruit bits, mango, or of course, fish. Eaten with your hands.  Very good and very sticky!  Perfect kid food.

Fresh and fast.  People are constantly shopping for food.  Whether you are at a street market, or at Tesco Lotus (a super market chain) people shop for fresh food often.  Buying fresh vegetables, fruit and meats occur several times per week. Very few homes have an oven-just a cooktop.  So food is prepared quickly and in small, one meal batches.  Soup just takes about 15 minutes as well as about every stir fry.  Making a chili paste does takes longer but this is made ahead to be used in several meals.  Or, you can buy homemade paste at the market for less than a dollar.  Compared to the shoulder to shoulder crowd in the produce and meat sections at the supermarket, the aisles with canned and processed foods feel like a ghost town.  Quality and freshness matter.

Flavors.  Salty, spicy, savory, sweet. I’ve actually come to except a surprise when I bite into something.  And when I’m not surprised, I get a little annoyed.  “This has no flavor!  Did I get the ‘farang’ version because I’m an obvious Westerner? Don’t they know I have a finely tuned palate after half a year in Thailand?  Where are the super hot bird’s eye peppers?  Where are those bitter green things that look like giant peas but are definitely NOT peas?  I want my SALTY fish!” Food becomes a bit of an adventure – an experience.  My 4th grade friend,Patti, said it best in a poem she wrote for school.  

Som Tum

Sour, Spicy, Yummy

Noodles put in the mortal and with the pestle chop chop chop!

Sour, Spicy, Yummy

Then the Papaya, mmm!  Now is put.

Now the lemon, delicious it will be!

It will be the best Som Tum ever.

Sour, Spicy, Yummy

After that, the chili.

I hope it tastes fabulous for me and my family to eat.

Sour ,Spicy, Yummy

Bam.

It was everything.

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2016 is put to bed. 2017 is ready to go!

2016.  So many have said it was a lamentable year.  No matter what side of the coin you are on, it seems that we have all grown tired of negative rhetoric and pessimism.   However, I can truthfully say that I have learned so much  from this “less than perfect; very UnHallmark, don’t post that on Facebook” year.

Life, it turns out, is pretty unpredictable and often uncomfortable and difficult.  When did we begin to believe that everything is perfect?  When did we begin to believe our problems could be solved in the matter of days – let alone at all?  

You might be thinking, “Jeez, you’ve been traveling the world – away from all this political hoopla.  What do you know about ‘less than perfect’”?  And, you are likely correct in your thinking.  My “less than perfect” has been very different from my U.S. friends and family.  And while I have been 7000 miles from the circus, this past year has given me the opportunity to become more reflective and, I hope, compassionate about “being human.”  

Lessons Learned in 2016:

Nothing lasts forever…and that’s o.k.  Rick spent the first several months of 2016 helping to sell his father’s home.  Nearly 40 years of life and memories.  Then, selling and moving out of our own family home of almost 20 years.  Difficult?  Yes. Regrets?  A few.  But, those chapters of our life built the foundation for the upcoming chapters. Our history can stifle or launch us.

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My family in front of our home of 20 years. So many important memories here.

Embrace fear.  Leaving was by far the most difficult and scary thing I have ever done.   Saying goodbye to our children.  Rick quitting his job to create his own business.  Buying a condo (how old am I?).  Walking away from all that was familiar to a land unknown. Unbelievable guilt and worry.  

And then I found that the fear turned to hard work.  Living in the Thai culture as a distinct minority; getting sicker than a dog after eating “something”;  total confusion in downtown Bangkok;  giving the taxi driver a 1000 baht bill instead of a 50; constantly thinking ahead. Exhausting.  

Finally, the hard work turned to excitement.  Traveling to 9 different countries in 6 months; eating bugs that taste pretty good; Rick jamming at the local hang-out and making music on a daily basis;  scuffling with aggressive monkeys; writing; exotic Wats; sublime beaches; Rick “forgetting” to get his hair cut.  

Exhilarating and incredibly eye-opening.  But, notice.  I didn’t say ,“great” or “awesome.”  

Reality is better than Facebook.  The pictures and stories I post are just the shiny top  of a deep and interesting experience.  Like the view out of our Tacoma window,  I can show you Mt. Rainier in all it’s glory and crop out the noise and traffic of Highway 16 traffic just below.  Or, I can focus my lens on Highway 16 and crop out Mt. Rainier.  My choice of perspective. But, in reality, life is both.  It’s good, it’s beautiful, it’s bad, it’s ugly, it’s sad and disgusting. It’s everything.  That’s what makes it great.

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The “real” view from our window.

And, for me, that’s what made 2016 great.  It was everything.  

Stories at 10,000 Feet

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“Have you ever been to Tibet?” I asked our guide, Dzoji.  He was quiet for a minute, took a sip of grain whiskey from his plastic camp cup and smiled.  “Yes. I’ve snuck in twice.”  “Really?”  I hadn’t expected that.  “Tell us!”  Dzoji went on to explain that while Bhutan has always welcomed the Chinese people as individuals, the diplomatic relationship between the countries is strained.  He said, “Before I went to University a group of us decided to trek into Tibet.  We wanted to see if we could do it. It was a two day hike over that pass (as he pointed into the distance).”  “What would happen if you got caught?”, I asked.  He smiled again and laughed.  “Oh, a fine and probably write, ‘I will not go to Tibet’ one hundred times.  It would not be bad.  The problem is small.”  The talk moved to the Dalai Llama and his expulsion from Tibet and I lamented the Chinese occupation.  But Dzoji smiled and said, “India was occupied by Great Britain for 160 years and Gandi was able to return the land to its people using compassion.  So, why can’t this happen for Tibet?  But, we must be patient.  Maybe not in our lifetime.”  Then he frowned and said, “The Dalai Llama has never visited Bhutan.”  I looked at him and said, “Dzoji, I don’t think he needs to.”

I’m not sure when my fascination for the Himilayan mountains began.  It was never really about Mt. Everest, although that’s a pretty interesting history of mountains continuing to conquer man.  No, my attraction has always been Tibet.  The elusive country, once ruled by the Dalai Llama, now occupied by China.   A place where the governance was based in Buddhist philosophy:  harmony, compassion, non-attachment.  A place that had figured it out.  A place of happiness.  It filled my hippy heart!

Well we all know what happened.  The Dalai Llama was expelled and lives in India.  The Chinese now occupy Tibet and have outlawed many  Buddhist practices – even installing their own Dalai Llama –  and have continued to limit human rights.  

And through all this turmoil, right next door, quietly smiling, is Bhutan.

I’m embarrassed to say that until my Bhutanese friend, Sonam, suggested I go, I knew nothing about this small, land-locked oasis.  Rick was underwhelmed by the prospect of visiting.  In fact, it wasn’t until we were landing in Paro, on a medium size jet – literally weaving through mountain passes (only 20 pilots in the world are certified to land there), did he start to get excited.  And there is a lot to get excited about.   The stats are impressive:  700,000 total population.  Only 100,000 visitors allowed each year.  No stop lights in the country.  Television was introduced in 1999.  Mountains aren’t even named until they are over 14,000 feet.  It’s the world’s only carbon sink.  That means, it absorbs more CO2 than it gives out.  Citizens have a constitutional obligation to preserve and protect the environment.  It is a place where people happily live almost organically with nature.

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No need for stop lights when you have this fine fellow directing traffic.

But the facts don’t even begin to describe this Buddhist nation.   Bhutan is a place best explained through stories.

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The Tiger’s Nest.

We are hiking up a mountain to visit an historic monastery, built in the 1600’s.  Dzoji and our driver, Tzensin are with us, as they always are.  (You must use a government sanctioned tour agency to visit Bhutan.  This includes a guide and driver that accompany you during the day.)  Dzoji explains that all monasteries – and they dot every mountain – are filled with monks who are meditating for 300 days in complete silence.  They are fed and cared for by sponsors or family members.  But, this monastery was special.   One of the meditating monks is the reincarnation of the architect  that designed and built the world famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery.   “How did they know he was the reincarnation?”  I ask.  “Because he knew all the details of the building and told his parents about it when he was just 3 years old.  He is now 26 and about half way through his 3 year meditation.” Dzoji explains.  “What happens if you don’t want to continue your meditation?”, I ask.  Dzoji looks at me with surprise and said, “It is a promise.  Everyone finishes.   Unless you die.”

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Before things went side-ways. Looks real cute and all….

As we are climbing down, a mountain goat gets a little feisty with Rick and starts charging him.  Dzoji gets between them and tries to distract the goat  but the goat turns and  head-butts Dzoji  and he nearly falls off the ledge.  Tzensin bravely takes the goat by the horns and holds him still while everyone gets past.  Then, he gently releases the goat.  Dzoji turns to the goat and smiles.  “I was just trying to be compassionate”, he tells the goat.

Eating lunch with a woman named Yangchen.  She is my friend’s cousin and owns the tour agency we used.  We are engaged in a conversation about my job as a counselor.  I share with her that one of the most common issues I see in my student population is anxiety.  She is quiet for a moment and then says, “Here in Bhutan, we have our problems, our worries.  I am sure that there are some big worries that I don’t know about.  But I wonder.  Is it so bad to have a problem?  Maybe we shouldn’t push our difficulties away.  Maybe we should hold them and learn from them and become stronger and more compassionate because of them.”  

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Standing at the top of a mountain pass, we are hoping desperately for the clouds to part so we can catch a glimpse of the tallest Himalayan peaks.  No luck.  Oh well.  We chat, laugh and begin our short descent down to the parking lot.  Suddenly, a dark cloud rolls over Dzoji’s face.  He quickly walks away from us onto a grassy field stewn with the garbage of lazy tourists.  He picks up every piece of garbage and disposes of it.

We are sitting on mats on the floor of a farm house drinking butter tea and talking about all things Bhutanese.  This is the home of the town’s elected “mediator.”  The husband is called upon to settle all types of problems from land disputes to marital issues. If people can’t settle the problem, he will.   We have been told that at no time should our feet point toward another person.  Extremely rude.  Not a problem if you are sitting cross legged.  But, Rick is struggling.  He’s not a yoga guy and this sitting position is clearly taking a toll on his knees.  The wife’s eye’s soften and she motions for Rick to stretch out on the mat.  All’s well and we finish with a Bhutanese version of Saki, more talk and Rick lounging on pillows.

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Stoically poising for a picture.

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Off to do who knows what.

We are visiting Punakha  the historical capitol of Bhutan.  As we cross an incredibly beautiful river toward the Dzong, two very young boy monks walk up from the river.  They are maybe 9 years old and obviously best buddies.  They are talking and laughing.  I smile and motion that I’d like to take their picture.  They are clearly not excited about this and start to walk away. Dzoji comes over and speaks to them in Bhutanese.  I’m sure the translation went something like this, “Look, you two need to shape up right now and let this nice lady take your picture.  Be kind.   Don’t give me that attitude.  30 seconds of your time won’t kill you.”   I quickly snapped the picture and just as quickly, they shoot off like lightening running at high speed to do whatever 9 year old boys would rather be doing. We all laugh out loud.  Boys.

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Hiking with a machete. This is not for wimps

Hiking along a ledge, our trail suddenly narrows to about 18 inches wide due to a wash-out.  On our right, a rock face going straight  up and on our left, a cliff covered with dense follage.  “O.K.”, I think.   “If I fall, I’ll probably just get caught up in all that brush.  No problem.”  The trail continues to narrows a bit more and now we need to climb over a boulder that is wedged into the spot where the trail is completely washed out.  Alright then.  Heart-beating, I clambor over this and the trail thankfully widens and we reach a small monestary where we stop for a quick break.  Rick asks, “Hey Dzoji, are there any more treacherous spots on this trail?”  Dzoji looks confused.  “Treacherous?”  New vocabulary word.  Rick says, “Yeah, you know, dangerous”.  Dzoji nods with understanding and matter-of-factly says  “Dangerous?  Yes.” and continues down the path.

30 minutes later we are on yet another ledge – also narrow.  We round a bit of a bend and the follage disappears to our left.  It is a 400 foot shear face, to a teeny, tiny river below.  We come to a place where we need to step over a gap while hugging our body against the rock wall.  Then, step down about 2 feet onto a very small ledge and manuever onto a steel ladder that has been drilled into the granite.  Remember, we are 400 feet up a shear rock cliff.  The ladder steps are about 3 inches deep and the ladder handles maybe 6 inches off the rock. It is as if we are repeling without that little thing on your butt and the person at the bottom controlling the ropes.  We climb carefully down about 50 feet before we get onto another small ledge and then back on the trail once again.   (My hands are sweating as I type this.)  What does Dzoji say?  “Ah Melissa.  You are what we call a tomboy.  You are strong!  You can sit up proud after that!”  Thanks.

It’s 6:30am at 13,000 feet.  Probably 20 degrees and we are above the clouds.  The sunrise is indescribable.  Our newest dog friend, Mamasita is hanging out with us.  We think she’s pregnant, hence the name.  We have an 8 mile trek ahead of us down to the Tiger’s Nest.  But before we go, we hike up to the top of a ridge that faces Tibet.  I hang a 100 foot string of prayer flags among the stunted trees.   I know my sister Karen would have liked that.  I cry and remember.

Compassion. Happiness. Sadness. Life affirming. Athentic living. This is the direction of my life. I look out toward Tibet and know that this is my heart, my “Tibet.” Bhutan.

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Karen’s Prayer Flags – looking out toward Tibet.

 

 

 

 

Simple

Yesterday, I bought a “Hello Kitty” toaster.  It wasn’t an easy decision. Not because it was inanely silly but, because up until now, all of our purchases have been made with the intent of bringing said item home to the states.  But  I can’t use this toaster in the U.S – wrong voltage, it won’t work.   Until yesterday, I have psychologically been a visitor to Thailand.  Well, I am not visiting.  I live in Thailand.  And frankly, all the craziness and loneliness, excitement and exhaustion is growing on me.  I love being in the moment of our simple life.

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Hello Kitty Toaster. Every homes needs ones.

For me, entering into another culture has been nothing short of mind-blowing.  And while my first blogs have humerously expressed my shock and humiliation, there is so much that is amazing and wonderful about this  experience.  Here’s what makes me happy in Thailand.

I am becoming a fan of Heineken.  I know, I know.  This is blasphemy from a NW girl where beers like Wicked Cousin or Bodice Ripper are the norm.  But, it’s nice to go simple.  And, in comparison to our local selection of Leo, Chang and Singha – Heineken is truly the king of beers.

No car.  Need I say more?  O.K., I will.  No driving, no gas, no parking, no repairs. Sigh.

No scooter.  We had one and took it back.  Thank GOD!  We had to end the madness.  It’s not just going fast on scary crazy busy streets, it’s also going SUPER slow through a market and trying to keep the scooter from tipping over.  Enough.

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Going to work at 6am. Simple.

If not a car or scooter, then what?  I ride my bike to work everyday.  Rick rides his bike for errands around our neighborhood.  Longer distances?  Took a 4 hour train to Hua Hin for about  $6 each.  One hour cab ride into downtown Bangkok for about $9.  Same distance on the water taxi is 50 cents and it’s about a dollar on the Sky Train.  Plus, you can take a scooter taxi or a tuk tuk or bus thingy.  Just walk along and stick out your hand (palm down of course – otherwise it’s somehow offensive) and you will eventually get a ride.  Bonus:  someone else is driving.

No T.V.  Don’t misunderstand.  We can GET T.V. – we choose not to.  We get our news when we want it.  LOVE THIS.  And, we access a variety of internet news services from the US, Thailand, UK, Hong Kong – interesting to see the world from different perspectives.   Yes, we watched the debates… on Youtube.  Sick of hearing about the emails?  Fast forward.  Sick of the converation about groping?  Fast forward.  Simple.

Cash-based society.  Day to day stuff is found in street markets that spring up everywhere.  You can buy ANYTHING at a market.  Food, clothes, household goods, extension cords, fans, potted plants, pets, car parts, computer gear, toys.   We pay our bills at 7-11 in cash.  The only time we use our debit card is to take cash out of the ATM machine.  I can’t tell you how much simplier our financial life has become.  We just subtract our ATM cash withdrawals from our balance and Voila!  We know how much money we have.  Simple.

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Yes. That’s all going on the back of the scooter. How else do you get merchandise into the narrow lanes of Chinatown?

Letting go.  For those of you who know me, this is kinda big.  Thailand is a place where our lack of control is starkly evident.  For me, I know this intellectually.  I know I can’t really control everything in my environment or the outcome of events.  But, being the human I am, I valiantly continue to try.  Here, laws that have offered a sense of control are non-existent.  You spill hot coffee on yourself and get a burn?  Bad luck.  Can I help you get to the doctor?   Taxi driver take you to the wrong place?  So sorry.  Big smile.    But, what do you do?  Mai Pen Rai.  No need to blame.  Let it go.

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Get hit by a train? Bummer. No law. You probably should have moved.

Boredom.  The simple nature of our Thai life has offered a chance to do nothing.   Many of the distractions of our US life have been slowly peeled away.  My sister Karen once said that being bored is a good thing because it allows us a chance to find and do what we really want to do.  I would add that it also offers a chance for self-reflection.  If you’re open and allow the reflection to occur, this can be powerful and sometimes painful.  The good, the bad, the ugly.  So far, I’ve seen a little of each.   And, it’s all o.k.   

Thank you Thailand.  It’s as simple as that.

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Not Doing.