Happy Birthday, Son


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.


The Dogs


Sleeping wherever.

My day starts at 5:00am and I’m riding my bike to work by 6:15am.  This time of year, it’s still pretty dark at that hour.  But, it has been getting lighter each day and I decided to forgo turning on my hi-tech lights that my safety-conscious husband installed for me.  Not this morning.  Lovely dusky light.  Street lights dimming, sun-rising – the market lights are more than enough to guide my way.

Until I round the corner onto an unlit street.  My quiet mood spikes to high alert when I find myself heading straight toward a large sleeping dog.  I swerve at the very last moment and thankfully miss him.  Damn dog!  Sound asleep in the middle of road. Doesn’t move a muscle.   We know the ol’ adage. “Let sleeping dogs lie.”  Emergency averted.


This is the guy. Right in the middle of the road.

Soi dogs.  Street dogs.  Here in Thailand they are everywhere.  I’ve spent some time watching them since we moved here 8 months ago.  I have a low grade fear of dogs based on my encounter  at age 7 with Sweet Pea, the German Shepard owned by Mrs. Spudoni, my piano teacher.   Needless to say, my love for strange dogs and piano for that matter, never really developed.


Same spot, same dog. Right by the market.

Congregating around sources of food, (the markets, near scooter taxi shacks, around gates with guards, outside the 7-11) Soi dogs’ personalities run the gamut:  depressed, angry, impulsive, apathetic, bold, passive.  They are more often than not, mangy and flee-bitten and very skinny.  I’ve noticed that some are loners while some run in packs. The loners are very different from the dogs that have companions.   The loner dogs rarely bark.  Often, you can walk within inches of these dogs and they don’t move or even appear to notice you.  They will sometimes look up – but, with the tired, worn face of resignation.  These are the ones lying in the middle of the road, or trotting in front of cars.   I’ve actually only felt threatened by Soi dogs twice since I’ve been here.  Both times, the dogs appeared to be “guarding” a territory.   Perhaps it was because these dogs had some sort of connection with another dog or a human.  I am struck with the commonality between people and dogs.  Disconnected: homeless, alone, sick, apathetic.  Connected: energetic, assertive, loyal, purposeful.

It’s not pretty and it’s not what I think is right.   But, I admire these dogs.  Resilient. Scrappy as hell.   They have figured out a way.   They know who is a friend and who is a foe in the first seconds of an encounter.   They are cautious:  watching and waiting patiently.  And, when you are deemed a friend – a connection – they may offer a quirky dog “smile” accompanied by soft eyes.  These dogs know.

So tomorrow, I’m slowing down and turning on my headlight.  It’s the least I can do.


Scrappy as hell.  Offering a dog “smile”.





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. 


Dinner for one.


Thai Massage: It’s Complicated


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.


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.


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


It was everything.


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.


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.


The “real” view from our window.

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

Weirder Than Bangkok


Guns at the school Christmas party – my new normal

“This is weirder than Bangkok,”  Rick mumbled and looked at me in disbelief as we stood in the middle of  Fred Meyer wondering where our full-to-the-brim shopping cart had gone.    We had just finished a grueling, grocery marathon of Christmas dinner stuff – two days before Christmas.  Rib Roast, fancy IPA beer and local wines.  While all are available back in Thailand, these speciality items cost about a million Baht.  So, this was going to be an epic American meal.  

And then,  “Let’s just get a few pairs of socks”, I say.  “Let’s just leave the cart over here for a minute”, I say.  Gone.  Someone took our full cart.  The weirdest thing is, we hadn’t yet purchased anything. I hadn’t even left my purse in the basket.   Why in the world would someone take our cart?  Our first thought was someone accidentally took it  instead of their own.  Customer service helped us search the store for an abandoned buggy.  Nothing.  Finally, our frustration got the best of us and we just left.  But, as we walked out of the store, it occurred to me that it was entirely possible that someone just took our food and ran.  It would have been easy given the hordes of shoppers and nothing in the cart that would set off an alarm.  A person with a cart-load of food would have just blended into the maddening crowd.

My heart softened a bit.  My inconvenience, yes.  But someone else’s desperation to provide a lovely – and I mean lovely – holiday meal.  Just the day before, we had been watching the news.  There was a feature about  all kinds of alarms and cameras and gadgets that are available to ward off Christmas Gift  thieves.  The heightened and overwhelming expectations of the holidays.  Both material… and emotional.   My own included.

Coming home for the holidays.  I didn’t think I had “heightened” expectations, until I got here.  I read up on “reverse culture shock” and similar to when we arrived in Thailand, I thought I “knew.”  Well, not so much.

I have had a few dashed hopes and expectations.  For example, do you know how dark it is in the Pacific Northwest?  I’ve only lived here for well, my whole life, and had no idea just how dark it gets.  Even on a “sunny” day the sun never gets higher than about  a 45 degree angle from the earth.  Amazing.  And dark.


Pacific Northwest at 4:00pm. Bring your flashlight!

Donald Trump won the election.  Wow.  And, while some people are happy about this, others’ want to have the PNW secede from the U.S. to become Cascadia.   I had no idea.  My question.  What will the flag look like?  

Everyone is super casual here.  A bank teller in jeans, flannel and fleece?  Really?  This isn’t necessarily bad  but, where’s the perfectly tailored uniform with snappy hat?  I kinda miss that.

Boy, it’s expensive!!  Are you kidding me?  $80.00 for a room at the  Motor Inn (Thai equivalent – $30.00) ; $10.00 for  lunch (Thai equivalent – $2.00);  $1.50 for bottled water (Thai equivalent – $.30); $60.00 for a one hour massage (Thai equivalent – $6.00).  Good thing for the boys that I did my Christmas shopping in Bangkok!

Traffic is crazy!!  It makes no sense!!  People drive on the other side of the road, stay in their lanes and wait for an opening of at least two car lengths before merging.  Then, they get mad and honk their horns at you when you simply pass on the right.  Plus, you are expected to look before you change lanes.  Whatever.

You can drink water straight out of the tap!   O.K., this is NOT a dashed hope.   Actually, I’ve been going hog-wild on this one. (See “cost of bottled water” above.)   

Seriously, who would have thought that Thailand would ever start to feel normal.  I have actually stopped doing “double-takes” when scooters with five passengers go by; I feel constrained when I wear my bike helmet; I arrive to work after my morning market ride and can’t remember the exotic details of my journey; I get cold in an air-conditioned room and turn the temperature up; I eat soup for breakfast and add more chili to my curry.

And, because it feels normal, I realize that the trajectory of my life has changed ever so slightly.  

Recently, a friend  told me she has decided to leave Thailand and go back to Canada at the end of this year.  We talked of our shared  fear of returning to our home countries.  Mundane fears about the cost of living, the weather and driving on the other side of the road.  And our deeply raw fears:  fear of the negative results of untended relationships and long forgotten family obligations; the fear that our most treasured friends and family will not understand our experience.  The fear of not belonging.


Tending important relationships – friends for 45 years.

The fact is, this international life changes you.  And the change isn’t like this great epiphany or some sort of enlightenment.   It’s like gradually stepping outside of everything and not being able to – and perhaps not wanting to –  step back in. Yet it’s not a rejection.  It’s just a fact.  And when you think about it, not all that weird, really.


War & Peace



My earliest memory of the Vietnam war remains starkly vivid. I was at my best friend Murphy’s house eating luke warm Campbell’s Tomato Soup for lunch.  We spent the morning playing Mystery Date and arguing whether the Prom date or the Beach date was better.  Typical day in the late 60’s for a couple of young kids. As we sat eating, Murphy’s mom looked out the window and suddenly starting screaming. She slumped onto the floor shaking and crying.  I was completely confused and ran to Murphy’s older sister who was now also crying.  “Why are you crying?  What’s wrong?”  She silently pointed out the window.  Two young Marine officers in formal uniform were walking up the driveway.  Bill, Murphy’s older brother, was dead.

Almost 50 years later, I’m thinking of Bill as I step off the plane in Ho Chi Minh City – Saigon.

donut-headEleven million people.  Seven million scooters. Skyscrapers mixed with traditional vendors selling bahn mi sandwiches wearing iconic Vietnamese nón lá or leaf hats.  Rich and poor.  New and old. A city that is prospering from an evolving form of Communism which allows for some private business along side government operated entities. While only an hour flight from Bangkok, it feels quite different.  More English.  Less hierarchy.  More assertive and straight forward.  More serious.   Scratch just a little and you will find a complex people who have lived a history of sacrifice and resiliency.  

Take Tiger.  A tour operator for the last 16 years, he is our guide as we cycle 25 miles on rural roads outside of Saigon to the Cu Chi Tunnels (tunnels used and expanded by the  Northern-allied Viet Cong) toward the Cambodian border. He explains to us that while the Americans called it the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese called it the American Invasion, and the South Vietnamese called it the Civil War.  His family was a “black” family – sympathetic to the South. His mother had been a Catholic nun, but left the nunnery to become a lawyer. When Saigon fell in 1975, theIr family home had been raided and they were forced to flee into central Vietnam.  All of his extended family decided to leave Vietnam and became “boat people”. The lucky ones ended up in the US and Canada – the rest died en route.  For a fleeting moment, his eyes harden as he tells the story.


Tim with Vietnamese family

We park our bikes in front of a random war memorial – pad locked shut and overgrown with weeds.  We cross the street for a sugarcane drink called nước mía.   Sitting down to rest and visit,  a bunch of kids crowd around to stare and smile at us.  Our friend Tim who is especially out-going, starts “talking” with the kids and taking goofy pictures. Tiger talks and laughs and points out the family members running the business.  Mom and Dad  are cooking.  Children are playing while Grandma is casually keeping an eye on things.  We are the event on this lazy, sunny Sunday afternoon. Returning to our bikes, Tiger points to the memorial and says “Many Viet Cong were killed in this spot. The families that still live here, they lost their fathers and mothers.”  I glance back at the family we just met.  


Michelin Forest

We cycle into a huge Rubber Tree  forest.  Tiger motions for us to park and shows us how rubber is drained from the trees much like Maple syrup.  We learn that the rubber trade with China has tailed off because of the recent land dispute over islands in the Vietnam Sea – or South China Sea depending on who you talk to.  As he peddles ahead, he calls back, “Ask your American soldier friends if they remember the Michelin Forest”.  In the quiet darkness of the forest, it’s hard to imagine a battle here.  

We stop at the Viet Cong War cemetery.  Like all war cemeteries it’s laid out with perfect symmetry and identical headstones.  Unlike others I have been to,  it not only includes men, but woman and children.  Tiger talks about other groups he has led.  American Veterans that come back to Vietnam with a personal history.  Before each tour, he finds out the story of each man.  He says, “sometimes you must be quiet and let them remember.  I always tell them that the woman and children were part of the Viet Cong Army.  That in the game of war that the leaders created, they were the pawns that had to choose to kill or be killed.  They need to know this.”


Cu Chi Tunnel entry.

We arrive at the tunnels.  Tiger reminds us that this is a memorial for the Viet Cong.  We are going to see history from the perspective of the North. Our tunnel guide’s grandfather had been a VC soldier.  He and his family had lived in these tunnels. It was the only safe place to be in the midst of a war, where agent orange had defoliated the landscape in an attempt to uncover the hideouts. But these were scrappy people.  Men, women and children participated in the war.  The tunnels, no wider than 2 feet in some spots, are a network that spans for miles.  Offices, hospitals and living quarters were hidden under the earth and protected by bombs and boobie traps on the surface. Our guide maneuvered through the network of tunnels  like an agile cat.  Our Western bodies struggled to simply fit.  But down we went.  Hands and knees.   Cleaned up for tourists, we didn’t have to endure mud, snakes, rats, human waste or tear gas.  The story here of survival is raw and real.  Old tires made into shoes.  Traps made from bamboo.  Landmines made from undetonated US bombshells. These people were survivors.  They were able to endure the impossible.  

We crawl out of the tunnels – three points of a triangle.  The North, the South, the West.  We laugh and talk, enjoying the walk back to our bikes along a lush and green jungle path.  The moment is lovely and pure.  The memory of war woven into the history of each of our lives.  Forgiveness and healing.  The moment is peace.

Stories at 10,000 Feet


“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.


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.


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.”


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.”  


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.


Stoically poising for a picture.


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.


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.


Karen’s Prayer Flags – looking out toward Tibet.






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.

Hello Kitty Toaster

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.


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.


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.


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.


Not Doing.