Month: February 2016

Bali Part Two – Falling Out of The World

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I learned earlier this week that a woman who played a significant role in inspiring this journey passed away last Sunday. Sitting at an open air restaurant in Ubud, I opened my iPhone for a quick peek and saw the words “Our lovely lovely Lisa” in the title of an email from my friend Debra and I knew. And tears rolled down my face. And I told my friend I wanted to go home. And we walked slowly along the dark, curving road and I looked up at the nearly full moon and I thought of Lisa, knowing she would never see such a sight again. And I stood still and I just sobbed.

Shedding tears in remembrance.

Shedding tears in remembrance.

I decided to take this journey for a number of reasons – but chief among them was my five-year “all’s clear” milestone last May. Knowing that five years sans cancer is a kind of big deal – and taking the “life is short” mantra at face value – I started planning. And my resolve to do this crazy thing was strengthened when I was reminded that not everyone beats this breast cancer stuff. That it can come back. Like it did for Lisa.

So for the last week as I’ve journeyed through the mountains and narrow lanes and rice paddies scattered around Bali – she has been on my mind. And until now I did not know how to write about her passing. I just knew that I wanted to. Because I will miss her and she has been with me, in spirit, throughout this journey. I told our friend Debra how very much she inspired me. And Debra kindly wrote back that my stories inspired Lisa as well.

And up until an hour ago I simply could not find the words around all of this. Because I had been trying to make SENSE of it all. The grief that has laced these last few days – coexisting somehow with the sheer joy I’ve felt upon seeing such exquisite beauty. Laughing wildly one minute with my dear friend Elizabeth and in the next, sitting at a Hindu temple, my feet dangling in the water, my eyes dripping tears. It all seemed so incongruous.

Beauty.

Beauty.

And what I have come to realize is that life just plain doesn’t make sense. It’s not neat and tidy – despite how very much I’ve always wanted it to be. Life is nonlinear and messy. Grief and joy can share the stage.

For whatever reason, I didn’t really grasp this concept until now. And I just exhaled deeply with gratitude that I am finally getting it. There is still a lot I don’t understand about this world. None of us ever really truly “gets it” I suppose. But some aspects are starting to become a little more clear.

Beauty.

Beauty.

Before I had this “aha moment” I was gazing at the ocean, listening to the ending of the audio version of the book “All The Light We Cannot See.” The narrator read the last few words, including the phrase “someone…falls out of the world…” And these beautiful words – they seem appropriate for Lisa. She has fallen out of our world. And as I type this I feel like the ocean is collecting in the back of my head, a saline taste gathering in my nose and leaking out my eyes. For in this moment … I am sad. Despite the magnificent view in front of me.

More beauty.

More beauty.

Bali – Journeying Inward

Ganesh - the Hindu elephant deity ... Lord of Good Fortune and Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles. I love him.

Ganesh – the Hindu elephant deity … Lord of Good Fortune and Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles. I love him.

On my last evening at the retreat, I finally tore my eyes away from the huge black butterfly who was trying mightily to fly away – despite the wall of glass he continued to bat his beautiful wings against. I was torn … do I help him or let him figure out that he just needs to fall back an inch and tumble down to the open window a foot below. Having decided that he would be ok without a light nudge with my chopsticks – I turned my attention to my meal. And then I glanced up and saw another magical creature. This time a lime green preying mantis the size of my fingernail. And then … just to his right – barely hidden around the corner of the old wooden window frame – two eyes bulging. A gecko … preying on the mantis. All the while, loud, cooling rain fell in sheets outside, drenching the dry rice paddies and making the flock of fat ducks rustle their feathers with apparent glee. God I love Bali.

Wee little preying mantis

Wee little preying mantis

I wasn’t convinced at first. Upon my arrival here at the Bali Silent Retreat, I glanced at a sign warning that chainsaws are being used to cut down local trees for cremation ceremonies. “Chainsaws” and “cremation.” Two words one doesn’t expect to be displayed at the entrance to a meditation center. Even though they were followed by “sorry sorry so sorry” (which I imagined being whispered in a lilting Balinese accent) – a bit unsettling.

Regardless, I was so happy to be here – having planned this stopover months ago with the assumption I’d need a bit of unwinding after five months on the road. And thankfully, my friend Amy had just the day before emailed me this little nugget from her meditation teacher Loch Kelly to ponder: “What is here if there is no problem to solve?” A virtually unconscionable concept for me … this inquiry would become my quest for the next three days.

So I began to lose myself, intermittently I’ll admit, in yoga and meditation. And I ate the most delicious food (most gathered from the organic garden springing with bright greens and vivid purple leaves and lined with tropical flowers in every shade of red and orange and yellow and pink imaginable). I ate from coconut shells and heavy, beautifully carved wooden bowls. And used chopsticks so I could slow down and savor all the tastes and textures and smells (a trick I’ll be practicing upon my return).

Beauty everywhere

Beauty everywhere

I was feeling pretty good about my progress away from problem solving and, perhaps, got a little too secure in my new found freedom. Because as I walked back from an early dinner of silky coconut corn soup and robust vegetable curry followed by lime cream covered banana cake – I spotted the labyrinth and figured it was time… My heart rate had slowed down thanks to an hour of pre-dinner meditation in an open-air arena while crickets and birds chirped all around us (almost, but not quite, masking the sounds of the distant chainsaws). And I had wanted to stroll through the ancient labyrinth since I spotted it the previous day.

I set my intention as instructed and soundlessly stepped in… following the slender paths of grass lined with small stones painted white to show me the way. I took about 10 steps before starting to question the layout and wonder if I had, in the mere 20 seconds I had been putting one foot in front of the other, gotten lost. You see… the trail started winding AWAY from the center. How could that be right? For a moment, as I stood still in the damp grass, I failed to accept the fact that labyrinths have dotted nearly every corner of our world for over 4000 years. That whoever built this one likely knew what they were doing.

The Labyrinth

The Labyrinth

And then I took a deep breath. And reflected on one of the biggest gifts I’ve received during this journey… Trust. Trust in my guides, my drivers, the animals, the people, even my own intuition. And I started breathing again and slowly, I stepped forward. Onward.

I made it through that labyrinth. And back to my open air room where the sounds of the jungle lulled me to sleep. And this morning, following 6am meditation and a long session of relaxing yoga, I returned to my seat by the window in the dining area. And I looked to the right and noticed that the huge black butterfly was exactly where I left him last night. Occasionally slapping his wings wildly against the glass. And I slowly leaned over and stretched out my hand and he finally climbed onto my finger. I gently brought my hand toward my body and then stretched it out into the open window in front of me. And off he sailed. Free.

Stranded

Stranded

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Ending Note: I hesitate to write this because it’s almost unbelievable … But when I returned to my room after my breakfast and finished my shower, I looked down at the slate ground and saw a firefly. Exactly like the one who had landed on my mat just that morning. Her body vivid green, her wings black lace. And she was struggling in the deep puddle… finally stopping and becoming still.  So I tried to pick her up and she fought mightily – throwing herself continually on her stomach. I finally coaxed her onto a comb and gingerly walked her toward the window. Finally in the bright sunshine, she sat on my finger for what seemed like minutes.   Then flitted to the bamboo wall for a brief moment.  I’d like to think she was letting her wings dry from the damp. And then I moved just an inch and off she flew.

Magic

Magic

Thailand Finale – All Creatures GREAT and Small

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I’ll admit it – it is difficult to focus on writing here at the elephant sanctuary. Perhaps it’s because this is, sadly, my final volunteer gig of this amazing journey and my head is spinning a bit. More likely it’s because every time I open this document to jot down a few notes, my attention is captured by one being or another that is far more enchanting than this keyboard.

For instance, “Won” the chicken just wandered under my hammock to inspect and then peck at my water bottle. Then puppy brothers Punk and Frank decided to play keep away with a tamarind pod. All the while my favorite little dog Kip nestles on my chest, trying to get some shut eye.

Won & puppies

Won & puppies

I think of bit of backstory is in order. I’m in the mountains of northern Thailand at Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES). Burm is Thai and Emily is Australian and they met several years ago and started this place out of their sheer love for elephants. Emily is only 22 years old and has more determination and passion than anyone I’ve ever crossed paths with.

Burm & Emily with Thong Dee

Burm & Emily with Thong Dee

To date they have rescued four elephants – three* of whom roam the valley here in the village of Maechaem where Burm grew up (*sadly one of the elephants passed away last year…I was in tears hearing Emily tell the story). Similar to the elephants I hung out with in Cambodia – before retiring here these elephants lived long, difficult lives. They spent years living in pain and under duress, laboring in the logging and tourist trades (you can learn more HERE). As Emily says, “their souls were broken.” So I am beyond grateful that they can now wander this beautiful sanctuary in peace.

As volunteers, we spend our days walking with the massive creatures – following them down a narrow river lined by steep hills and beautiful dangling, flower-strewn vines. And there’s also the “hard work” – hacking down banana trees with machetes, organizing thousands of bananas and watermelons and pumpkins, keeping the elephants’ living areas clean.

Just a few bananas and watermelons...

Just a few bananas and watermelons…

At the end of the day we get to help feed and bathe the elephants. Tonight, for instance, we’ll prepare an enormous “salad” for 70-year old Thong Dee – whose digestive tract is compromised from a long, hard life. Along with her mahout we’ll shred banana leaves, chop up melons and pumpkins and toss it all together with freshly peeled bananas and tamarind pods. The ingredients are currently waiting for her – taking up the entire bed of an old pickup truck.

When the feeding and bathing is done we’ll say good night to Thong Dee and her friends Mae Jumpee (72) and Mae Kam (a spry young thing at only 57). We then get to spend our evenings in camp surrounded by the ~30 cats, 19 dogs, one chicken and one owl who Burm and Emily have rescued over the past several years.

My dearest Kip was found in the local village after someone stole his mother (a show dog) in the middle of the night. Without anyone to show her how to fend for herself, Kip took to eating plastic and cardboard and ended up needing emergency surgery just to survive.

Me & Kip

With Kip

Mollie is another favorite. Her owner beat her severely and threw her down a flooding stream before she was saved. Her two back legs don’t work so she valiantly drags them behind her – refusing all the wheels (which she chewed to oblivion) and slings and special contraptions Burm and Emily have tried to fit her with. The other day she dragged herself all the way down the long path to where we were feeding the elephants. She simply will not be left out. (You can check her out by clicking HERE – adorable!)

Then there’s Millie – the skinny little cat who, like Mollie, only has the use of her two front legs … her back two shattered when she was run over by a motor scooter. She was left for dead until a man brought her (in a rice bag) here to the sanctuary where she was nursed back to life. Now she pulls herself around – her two back legs resembling drum sticks (not the fat, meaty chicken ones but the thin, fragile wooden sticks actually used to beat on drums).

Millie

Millie

In reading back over these last several paragraphs I’m struck at how depressing they may sound. I certainly don’t want to come across as morose. Because really – I don’t mean to be. This is simply a representation of how things are in this particular corner of the world. All the beauty of the animals and people I’m experience along the way is commingling with the occasional brutality of life here. I’ve come to think of it as “brutiful” (a term my dear friend Honey told me of that was coined by Momastery author Glennon Doyle Melton).

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So I sit here, watching Mollie shuffle by and Millie drag herself to a spot in the sun. And I am both heartbroken by what I am witnessing and floored by the enormous hearts of everyone – people and elephants and animals alike – who call this place home. They are warriors. Spirited. Resilient. Inspiring. And though I am presently covered in a layer of dirt and ash from the morning fires (made to warm the cats and dogs), with sticky brown tamarind under every fingernail, and a few errant fleas likely walking around my skin, I have a huge smile on my face. To know that this kind of place exists … and that I found my way here… to a place where every being embodies the word “ONWARD” … I am eternally grateful.

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Final note: I simply cannot write about elephants without making a plea to anyone who reads this to think twice about riding one of these majestic beasts. Elephant camps targeting tourists have dramatically increased in Chaing Mai alone over the past years. And obviously I understand their allure. But if you have your heart set on being with elephants – please investigate which park you visit. There are several where you can interact with them without riding their weary backs or, God forbid, watch them paint pictures. It is my great hope that – if peoples’ interest in these inappropriate (and pain-induced and -inducing) behaviors dwindles – perhaps some elephants’ quality of life will be improved.

Myanmar Part 2 – The Comfort of Strangers

Quintessentially Beautiful Bagan

Quintessentially Beautiful Bagan

I left Myanmar this morning with a flurry of mixed emotions and feelings. Sadness, gratitude, relief. This land was at once welcoming, confounding, beautiful, tragic, and generous. Allow me to try to explain.

In my last post I wrote about how I found Myanmar’s challenging environment to be in such contrast to the beauty of its people. And that theme continued as I traveled to the amazing splendor of Bagan, the hustle and bustle of Mandalay and the quiet countryside of Inle Lake. The one constant was the kindness demonstrated by everyone I met along the way.

With Thaw Thaw as the sun sets over Bagan

With Thaw Thaw as the sun sets over Bagan

In Bagan, my beautiful guide Thaw Thaw (pronounced Taw-Taw), her dark silky hair falling to her waist and her cheeks decorated with pale squares of powdery Thanaka, toured me around temples and pagodas – teaching me about her hometown’s ancient history and mesmerizing landscape. Perhaps my favorite part of this visit was sitting with her on the top of a temple waiting for the sun to set. As the sky changed colors and the scattering of temples and pagodas began to disappear in the slowly descending darkness, I learned about Thaw Thaw’s home, her education, her dreams. At one point we talked of our shared love of dogs and she told me of the puppies she recently found and tried to save – only one of which survived. She named him Mickey and, to my delight, the following day she offered to take me to her home to meet the little guy. Watching her patiently hold that little black and white pup while I tried, rather unsuccessfully, to ingratiate myself with proffered slices of white bread was a highlight of my visit.

A slow wooden boat then took me up the Irrawaddy river to Mandalay where my next guide UD (pronounced You-Dee) met me with a huge smile. He took me to an long, ancient teak bridge and even more ancient temples and monasteries where I got to help a smiling monk work on his English. Another day we toured other historical spots, finishing on the top of a mountain watching the bright orange sun descend behind hills topped with even more golden pagodas.

My new friends - UD and a monk from Mandalay

My new friends – UD and a monk from Mandalay

And yet again – the highlight of my visit to Mandalay was my time with UD … After hearing me mention in passing my interest in meditating, he personally arranged with the head monk of a Buddhist center for me to join the locals to sit in meditation. And insisted on driving me to the remote location on his day off. UD pulled up to my hotel on his motorbike, fashionable as ever – on this day sporting crisp blue jeans and pale tan slip-on loafers rather than his traditional longyi (a long, wrap-around skirt that looks super comfortable) and velvet flip flops. After handing me my helmet he whisked us off into the chaotic Mandalay traffic.

Before we settled onto the bamboo mats laid about on the hardwood floors, UD translated what the monk whispered to him upon our arrival: “Breath in through your nose and repeat to yourself, ‘I know, I know'”.  I desperately wanted to ask him, “But what do I know? What does the monk know?!?” But there was no time. And naturally my mind tried to figure out this puzzle for the next hour – only rarely settling into the empty, peaceful state intended. Sigh. Despite telling me when we arrived that he was only going to stay for 15 minutes, UD was still sitting next to me an hour later. It was his first full hour of meditation and we both seemed a bit giddy as we mounted his motorbike for the dusty ride back through town. When I had to say goodbye the following day, my eyes were wet as I tried to explain to him how grateful I was. I just hope he understood.

I then flew to Nyaung Shwe to visit Inle Lake and its floating villages and markets and more ancient monasteries and pagodas. Alas – I had eaten at a suspicious Indian restaurant in Mandalay and a severe bout of food poisoning laid me low for my entire visit to this purportedly beautiful region. We’re talking the kind of sick when your kneecaps ache, you shiver under your bedcovers regardless of the layers of Asia-appropriate hot-weather wear you’ve piled on, and the mere thought of the homemade Mac & Cheese you’ve been dreaming of for four months makes you physically shake your head in attempts to dismiss the nausea.

Floating high above Inle Lake

Floating high above Inle Lake

Regardless … I tried… My amazing tour company Buffalo Tours had arranged a free-of-charge hot air balloon ride on my first morning that I just couldn’t pass up. A low slung wooden boat scooted a few of us across the misty lake before dawn and our massive balloon floated above the villages as the sun rose. It was a magical site made all the more enchanting by the villagers running out of their houses waving and cheering at us. I was even able to snap a few pictures before my stomach heaved and I had to sit on the bottom of the basket (the captain had given us stern instructions to not drop anything over the side of the basket … not sure if the contents of my stomach counted).

When I arrived on the ground I told my guide Thet that I was simply too ill to continue the day’s planned outings and headed to bed. And bless his heart, he checked on me throughout the day, bringing me extra water and dehydration salts and even a thermometer – and upon seeing my pale face and shaking body mid-afternoon insisted on taking me to the local clinic. As my van pulled out of Nyaung Shwe two days later I felt heartbroken and close to tears … We drove slowly past villagers heading to the local market and wide fields of green beans and bright yellow sunflowers and lumbering, massive cows pulling old wooden carts. I’m pretty sure I would have adored this charming part of the world.

So as I close my chapter on Myanmar I feel like my time here is unfinished. That there was so much more to see, to experience. I am grateful I was here at a momentous time in this country’s history – a time when there is hope for democracy and a better life for the people here. Because they are some of the most courteous and buoyant of any I have met along my journey. I was so touched that all my guides left me with the hopeful words, “When you return…” I can’t say with certainty that I will come back to this country. And yet … and yet…

Ancient teak carving. "I know... I know..." Namaste.

Ancient teak carving. “I know… I know…” Namaste.

© 2017 Onward Voyage