Author: Kathryn Gilmore (page 1 of 4)

Just Keep Going

Happy to be back near one of my favorite hiking at home

Happy to be back near one of my favorite hiking at home

So … I’m home. It is virtually impossible to wrap my head around the idea that my 6-month journey is in my rearview. That said … the title of this blog – Onward – is still apt. Because of course forward movement continues regardless of the fact that I’m no longer flitting around Africa and Asia. Which brings me to the title of this post…

“Just keep going!” is one of the most important pieces of advice/biggest gifts I received on this adventure. This statement was literally foisted upon my friend Elizabeth and I as we stumbled up a highly suspect hill on our way to find yet another spa in Bali. “It can’t possibly be up this random path…” I remember thinking just as Elizabeth asked an elderly local woman if we were heading in the right direction. The kind lady smiled and nodded as she urged us to “just keep going.” And Elizabeth and I immediately jumped on this simple statement, adopting it as our mantra … through rainstorms and impossibly long treks down “this-can’t-be-right” paths and other various and sundry challenges along the way.

Happily – this proclamation of ONWARD continues back home. Yesterday morning I decided to hike a trail I wandered up before my departure last fall. It’s a beast. And in the past, I typically only made it to the top with friends in tow, urging me to eschew the tempting benches perched half-way and continue up the steep incline to the rewarding view at the hill’s crest. So yesterday as I began the climb, I questioned if I would make it to the top. It’s not only steep … the crumbly ground makes is treacherous. In the past I’ve turned around at the mere glimpse of clumps of rocky soil just waiting to turn my ankle. I was just too apprehensive. Scared really.

View of San Francisco from the trail.

View of San Francisco in the distance from the trail.

But today I felt strong… both physically and mentally. Hauling wheelbarrows in Africa and luggage throughout Asia helped build muscle. But more importantly – I’ve found that I just feel more secure – more confident. I literally marched up that mountain. Yes, I hesitated at the lovely bench. I even perched there for a minute to enjoy the view. But in the back of my mind I just knew I had to get to the top. And as soon as I arrived up there, I felt exuberant. Giddy even. Because I feel in my bones that this is my new M.O. Saying YES to things. Overcoming challenges. Knowing that I am capable of far more than the whispers of my inner critic would have me believe. We all are, really.

They got that right!

They got that right!

So I’m thrilled that I returned with more than a bunch of air miles and a few magical gifts for friends and family. I have a feeling more shall be revealed… that further reflection on my journey will continue to teach me about myself and how I want to live my life. But this first “aha” was a big one. I was apprehensive about returning. Worried that I would feel stalled after so much intrigue and adventure. So I’ll keep my mantra “just keep going” near and dear. Onward? YES!!!

View from the top - a gift

View from the top – a gift

Bali Part Three – Marveling at Mother Nature

Beautiful Bali

Beautiful Bali

Tomorrow, March 9, will mark one of the most sacred holidays in Bali – Nyepi Day. Also known as the Bali Day of Silence, it will be a time when all of this beautiful land’s Hindus follow a ritual called the Catur Brata Penyepian, roughly the ‘Four Nyepi Prohibitions’: no fire, no travel, no activity and no entertainment. For many it is a time of contemplation. Which I hope to mirror. However my favorite description is this… “a chance for Mother Nature to ‘reboot’ herself after 364 days of human pestering.” And I get it … she sure could use a break. But despite our abuse, Mother Nature’s work here is, to date, indestructible. She was not messing around when she painted this swath of splendor called Bali.

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I have seen coral in colors I never even imagined. I have smelled flowers whose mysterious scents I can’t even begin to describe. I have inhaled creamy, ghost white mangosteens and tangy, bright yellow passionfruit whose exotic, heady tastes simply cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Magical Mangosteen

Magical Mangosteen

And the animals… The brightest green grasshopper who jumped at least five feet in the air when I got too close. And the fat, light blue-striped geckos that look like stuffed toys. And the fish! Orange, yellow, red, turquoise, blue, striped, polka-dotted, minuscule, massive… all just floating by in gangs of hundreds or lolling about pecking at dancing seaweed as I stare at them in wonder.

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But the very best bit … the greatest gift Mother Nature provided (in my eyes) … Manta Rays and turtles. And, lucky girl that I am, I have been blessed to swim with both of the past few days.

Our boat driver Captain whisked Elizabeth and I away from Nusa Lembongan – speeding over dark blue water toward the jagged cliffs of a neighboring island where the Manta Rays were said to be easier to spot. She and I fell into the sea with our fins and snorkels and within a minute Elizabeth broke the surface exclaiming that she had seen a Ray. I swam around madly for the next 20 minutes in hot pursuit. Alas… only fish. I climbed back into Captain’s boat moping like a young child, my head hung low with the belief that I was just not meant to see one.

Manta Rays (no ... I did NOT take this picture ... But this is what I got to see)

Manta Rays (no … I did NOT take this picture … But this is what I got to see)

Thankfully Captain would not be deterred and he hurtled his boat to one more ruggedly beautiful spot in the sea. And then he raised his fist and pointed and exclaimed something in Balinese that I took to mean “Manta Ray!” I threw my flippers on and fell once again into the ocean and there … just in front of me a massive Manta Ray. Spiraling quietly and slowly. Easily the same size as me. Sharp black with a white underbelly and piercing eyes. Floating, then quickly hurtling toward me. And then a second one. Just as big on my right. And then the first one dove beneath me as I became still. Unable to move. Just a tinge of fear keeping me in one place. I was able to glide over to Elizabeth several feet away as I watched them and grab her hand. She squeezed mine back. Hard. The tears that came when I swam with the Dolphins returns and I broke the surface, grinning like a school girl.

And then yesterday morning – turtles. I’m on a smaller island now (Gili Meno). Elizabeth flew back home the day before yesterday. So it was just me and a lovely couple from England, our boat driver and our “guide” (in quotes because he honestly couldn’t have been more than 17 and hung out in the boat listening to Indonesian house music for the majority of the time. I loved him regardless.) We launched out to sea in a simple boat with a swath of glass on its bottom. After a short 10-minute ride our guide said simply, “Now” and we descended into the warm, aquamarine water. He pointed to the bottom of the ocean and there it was. A huge, glorious sea turtle. Motionless. Taking a nap. And then two others glided into view and I was off … moving as quickly and silently as I could after them. Watching them motor through the blue … their small flippers moving slowly… their rotund shells sliding silently past every color of fish. But I only had eyes for the turtles.

Again ... I didn't take this picture but, if I had had a fancy Go Pro, this is what I would have captured...

Again … I didn’t take this picture but, if I had had a fancy Go Pro, this is what I would have captured…

Soon, too soon, other people arrived. One girl swam maniacally in front of me, her Go Pro poised to take selfies from every angle. But she didn’t even bother me as I gazed at the turtles. Especially since, at one point, she got too close and the bigger turtle essentially brushed her off – flicking a flipper and accelerating faster than I ever imagined possible – leaving her and her gadgetry and bad manners in his wake.

Go Pro chick gave up and swam off but I couldn’t help but follow him. He was immense. His shell painted seaglass green with mosaic-like patterns in lighter sage and dark olive and chocolate brown. He had even more intricate lining – almost like a honeycomb – around his eyes – which I was able to see in the bright sunlight when he surfaced less than a foot from me – poking his beak out to grab a breath. I followed him so long and so far, feeling like I was holding my breath so as not to disturb him, that our guide had to scream at me across the sea to return to the boat.

I will leave this part of the world in a week – starting my trip home. It is my great hope that I get to see another turtle or two off the coast of these little Balinese islands. But even if I don’t – I know how lucky I have been to have had such magical experiences. So in tomorrow – on Nyepi Day – I plan to be silent for a large part of it. I want to display my deep gratitude to Mother Nature for creating such splendor. And I want to honor the creatures who have kept me company, inspired me and given me such incredible moments of joy throughout this journey.

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.

Myanmar – Opening Up

The "Sisters" at Kyaik Pun Pagoda - Bago, Myanmar

The “Sisters” at Kyaik Pun Pagoda – Bago, Myanmar

I arrived in Yangon yesterday afternoon and was immediately treated to a sunset drink and early evening stroll around town with a lovely woman from Buffalo Tours. While I didn’t fall hard and fast for this city as I did for Hanoi, our walk amongst its dusk-covered pagodas and Catholic Churches and old, colonial buildings helped me become quietly smitten with Myanmar.  That said, upon awakening this morning and setting out to tour the outskirts of Yangon, I discovered that …

This part of the country is not, at first glance, exactly beautiful. The city is, quite literally,  rife with bumper to bumper traffic. Many of the old colonial buildings – while architecturally stunning – are seemingly painted with a deep gray layer of ~100-year old sooty grime.

A dog nestled into soft, discarded plastic enjoying a coveted crate in the shade

A dog nestled into soft, discarded plastic enjoying a coveted crate in the shade

When we escape the city the streets are lined with sad piles of rubbish – layers of tattered plastic fluttering amidst a scattering of discarded bottles and random bags filled with who-knows-what. Even the lazing dogs seem dustier and skinnier and, perhaps, even a little less dogged (sorry couldn’t help myself) than their brothers and sisters elsewhere in Asia. And that’s saying a lot. And yet…

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A nun shrouded in pink smiling from underneath the weight of fresh apples

There are glimpses of splendor everywhere I look – if I just look hard enough. Especially when it comes to the people. Their smiles, though timid at first, burst open as soon as I grin and nod their way. I seem to be a bit of anomaly in Bago – its remoteness apparently keeping other westerners away. So small children and even older women appear to warm as I approach – their friendly, curious stares making me feel oddly welcome.

Woman (and cat) happily posing for a shot

Woman (and cat) happily posing for a shot

Even unobserved they seem buoyant – whether it’s a gaggle of young women chatting animatedly as they hang mightily onto the metal cage surrounding the back of the pickup “taxi” they’re riding in. Or the quick grin of a guy stirring a local curry in a giant wok on the side of the road as my driver MinMin pulls over to ask for directions. Or MinMin’s look of sheer delight as he watches the 20-foot long snake at the “Snake Monastery” undulate toward a shallow pool – his eyes shining as he catches my glance … making him look a five-year old kid.

The aforementioned snake … beautiful and, though you can’t tell, roughly the width of my leg

I cannot yet tell if my growing regard for this country is solely due to my longing for the grittier, edgier Asia I’ve been craving of late. But I recognize that I would have been moderately horrified by the surface aesthetics – the trash, the traffic – earlier on my trip. This “reality” would have once again shattered my romanticized, and yes, delusional, expectations of glimmering, green rice paddies framing quiet lanes dotted with quaint tea shops and colorful lanterns. I’m coming to realize that this idyllic version of Asia is, at least in my experience, hard to come by. And I don’t mean to sound cynical. There are still jaw-droppingly gorgeous things to see here – some of which I hope to glimpse as I travel around this country over the coming weeks.

But today’s trip made me realize that I am coming to know, and finally accept, the real Asia. And this is because months of travel have thankfully made me more observant, less judgmental (because let’s be honest – I was). My gaze seem to have softened. I’m able to see the pageant in front of me as merely the way things are here. And as I embrace it – rather than yearn for the way “things used to be” – I am coming to see the beauty.  And I am grateful for this lesson … That beauty is always around if I keep my eyes – and my heart and my mind – open.

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Speaking of beauty – this woman is selling (and wearing) a local “beauty product” called Thanaka, made from a tree grown only in Myanmar. I saw the pale paste made from the branches of this tree decorating the faces of almost half the women – and quite a few men and children – in Myanmar. All of them beautiful.

“Home”

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I booked my plane ticket “home” today.  I won’t land in California for a few months yet … still… GULP.

The word “home” is in quote marks because, at this point, I’m not sure exactly where that will be. When I left last September, I sublet the adorable California bungalow I was renting in Oakland with the assumption I’d move back in come April. Alas – my landlords are changing things up such that I won’t be able to live there any longer when I return.

I initially met this news with fear and self-pity. Really?! I am supposed to continue living out of my luggage for an indeterminate amount of time? I won’t get to sleep in my own bed as I’ve been dreaming of doing? At least not immediately I guess… Thankfully, I’m gaining a modicum of seternity around the situation. And though I’m still not 100% at peace with the idea … onward, right?

And this little kerfuffle prompted me to really evaluate what a home is. I’ve learned over the past months that I can live with just a few belongings in a suitcase and a roof over my head. And I’ve been telling myself since I landed in Africa and saw how people lived that I wanted to downsize. Certainly to simplify. So – someone was listening and I get to do just that. I have no idea what “that” will look like. How could I? But as I write these words, I’ve gotta say … I’m actually a bit excited.

So what does all of this have to do with this Onward blog? Aside from the obvious (keep moving forward, regardless of what comes up) – it’s really gotten me to thinking about all the homes I’ve seen and visited over the past several months. And the lives people live in and around these homes. So I thought I’d reflect a bit on what I’ve seen in each country I’ve traveled through, on how people live, on what “home” can really mean…

ZAMBIA

School kids in the village where they live.

School kids in the village where they live.

At home in the bush

At home in the bush

ZANZIBAR

Proud Rama and family in front of their home

Proud Rama and family in front of their home

Heading home after work

A chat before heading home from work

VIETNAM

Girls traveling home in the mountainous trails outside of Sapa

Girls traveling home in the mountainous trails outside of Sapa

Stilted homes on the Mekong

Stilted homes on the Mekong

CAMBODIA

A "pig palace" we built in a local village

A “pig palace” we built in a local village

The cemetery at Elephant Valley Project ... the final home for three of the elephants

The cemetery at Elephant Valley Project … the final home for three of the elephants

LAOS

Monks heading home as the run rises on Khong Island

Monks heading home as the run rises on Khong Island

Ducks waddling through the main drag of my fave village

Ducks waddling through the main drag of my fave village

THAILAND

Dogs relaxing in front of their home in a Chinese Koumintang village outside of Pai

Dogs relaxing in front of their home in a Chinese Koumintang village outside of Pai

Thailand: In A Fog

The misty Kiw Lom Pai mountain range in northern Thailand

The misty Kiw Lom Pai mountain range in northern Thailand

So sadly … I’m sick again. Thankfully this time I’m not staring, bleary-eyed, into toilet bowl full of tiny frogs. This time – just an annoying head cold brought on, perhaps, by dramatic changes in climate and elevation as I traveled up and down the mountains of northern Thailand. Or maybe my body is simply saying enough. Four months of travel can wear a girl down a bit. Regardless of how it happened, my weary body and foggy mind are having a tough time figuring out what to write about my time here. So as before, I’m going to be a bit lazy and rely on pictures to tell the story of the past seven days in this beautiful country….

Mountains of fresh curry paste in a fragrant local market in Chiang Rai

Mountains of fresh curry paste in a fragrant, local market in Chiang Rai

A long time fan and student of Thai cooking, I was drooling over this display. I’ve tried as many kinds of curry as I can here and have yet to be disappointed.

Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai

Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai

Local artist Cha Lerm Chai has stated he’ll work on this modern marvel until the day he dies. I think Elton John would like it here.

Wat Chedi in the center of Chiang Mai

Wat Chedi in the center of Chiang Mai

My former-Buddhist-monk guide sat with me in front of the Buddha statue at this historic temple, patiently answering every question I could think of about Buddhism…which is a philosophy (NOT a religion) I’m coming to admire more and more.

Lod Cave - in Pang Ma Pa

Lod Cave – in the Pang Mapha district

With a majestic, shallow, koi-filled river running through it, this “spirit cave” was a magical place.  We were lucky enough to be there at a time when we were surrounded by silence – no other tourists in sight. Far into the cave sit several coffins believed to be thousands of years old. Staring down at the narrow teak boards just barely held together – several of which previously held the remains of mothers and children – was staggering.

Pack of pups at Fern Resort, Mae Hong Son Province

Pack of pups at Fern Resort, Mae Hong Son Province

Perhaps my favorite spot in Thailand to date … These dogs gathered around me when I arrived and found me at this fire pit early the next morning as I tried to warm myself against the chill.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

After drafting this post I was struck by my feeling that these pictures – even these words – don’t have a great deal of soul. Perhaps my cotton head, which is making me feel dull and numb, is contributing to this lack of joie de vivre. But really – I am coming to realize that my feelings about Thailand are quite different to how I felt about Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. There isn’t as much grit here. Thailand’s edges are polished, its people more tame. At least in the areas I’m visiting.

I miss the rawness of the first three countries I visited. Granted, the strife they have and continue to experience causes them to struggle more than their neighbor Thailand. The people of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have had to overcome much more and their progress has been, understandably, challenging. They aren’t as modern, as advanced, as westernized. And I loved that about them. And I miss it.

Don’t get me wrong. There are things I love about Thailand. Upon entering a public bathroom in a national park I found a “western” toilet WITH a toilet paper dispenser which I literally greeted with the words, “hello lover” (a la Carrie Bradshaw upon seeing her beloved Louboutin’s glimmering in a Park Avenue boutique window). And I so appreciate this country’s progressiveness. I’ve had not one but two female tour guides (only male guides in the previous countries) – one of whom was named Beer (yes, BEER!).

So – I’m conflicted about Thailand. Is it beautiful? Yes. And I t’s often referred to as “the land of smiles” – which I find apt. But as I get to know this country – I am happily learning as much about myself. I’m finding that shiny and modern is not my speed. Give me bamboo huts and crazy drivers and inexplicable customs and mysterious food any day. I feel so strongly about this that I have decided that, rather than travel to the sunny, white sand beaches of southern Thailand next month, I will return to the jungle and my beloved elephants – hours outside of Chiang Mai at a remote “retirement home” called BEES Sanctuary. And we’ll just wait and see if I’m still praising the simple yet wild flavor of the jungle – and the more primitive way of life found there – after a week of no internet and cold showers 🙂

Laos Part 2: Loving Village Life

Cruising the Ou River

Cruising the Ou River

Without question, these past two days have left me with my favorite memories of Laos. Which I was not expecting as I climbed into the van with my guide Song yesterday morning – heading to a remote village about which I knew little. I hadn’t really done my homework this time – researching the region and learning about where we were headed (north perhaps?) so I really had no idea what was in store. I’m learning that this MO works for me.

We drove for almost four hours up and around scenic mountains on the ubiquitous rutted roads I’m getting to know all too well. Then we arrived in Nong Kiew – a tiny town nestled on the Ou river dotted with bamboo thatched bungalows popular with the backpacker set. Song led me down a steep path toward a waiting boat – explaining that we were about to embark on a 1 1/2 boat hour trip down the river to our home stay…well past Muang Ngoi – another somewhat well-traveled backpacker destination. You see – we were headed to an even more remote village where most tourists don’t travel – no less spend the night. I only realized this after Song explained that I would be their first western overnight visitor in some time. I could hardly wait.

Sop Jaim - The Main Drag

Sop Jaim – The Main Drag

We arrived to find a few local women bathing in the calm river. After crawling out of the boat, we climbed a sandy hill and the small village finally came into view. Consisting of about 50 families, Sop Jaim has one main “road” (more of a wide swath of hardened dirt) lined by a scattering of sturdy bamboo houses covered by corrugated tin roofs. Most families have an “outhouse” with a squat toilet. Some don’t. Electricity hasn’t made its way to this part of the world yet. They power things (like the boom box that played obscenely loud Lao house music for a long hour in the late afternoon) using batteries charged by hydro-power from the river. A small school squats on a low hill on the outskirts of town next to a path that leads to the next village. No English is spoken here.

Perhaps my favorite part of this quiet spot in the world was the tiny beings buzzing all about. Small children sporting mismatched t-shirts and muddy shorts were everywhere – boys pushing sticks after small wheels and girls huddled together holding hands – giggling as I wandered by calling out “Sabaidee!” (Hello in Lao).

A Cluster of Kids

A Cluster of Kids

And everywhere I looked – babies. Not human babies… Groups of chicks skittering around on toothpick legs, and tiny yellow and brown, just-hatched ducklings racing after their fat waddling mothers. And a lone, rotund puppy, racing under a house, which I nearly started to follow on all fours until I came upon a full litter of six minuscule pups lazing about on a slab of dirty cement. I think I visited that gang of warm puppies eight or ten times over the next 18 hours (the too brief duration of our stay)… letting them suckle my fingers, piling three at a time into my now dirt-filled lap, rubbing their bald, warm bellies and trying to stop them from gnawing on my sandals. And then the kids came to play with us. And at one point the kids and the puppies and the ducklings were all cavorting together. I could hardly stand it.

Pile-o-Puppies

Pile-o-Puppies

There was also the lone, black cat who assertively approached me as I sat on another low slab of cement listening to Song chat, uncomprehendingly, with the locals. The thin feline crawled into my lap and when the clouds gathered I grabbed her warm body and hurried over to the protection of the tin roof covering the narrow balcony outside my simple room – the black cat nestling back down in my lap as the skies opened and the rain poured down – rivulets of water steaming from a few holes in the roof on either side of us. I sat there on a hard wooden chair for over an hour just gazing about, listening to the pouring rain and then the shrieks of the kids as they emerged from their homes to inspect the puddles. I was mesmerized by the simplicity of the place.

My abode for the night

My abode for the night

This simplicity – this purity – was mirrored in our evening meal. I got to sit with the village “chief” and his wife and mother (the kids were still playing throughout the darkened paths surrounding their beautiful two-story hut). We ate squares of delectable crunchy river weed (a Lao specialty made of a local seaweed-like substance, covered in a smattering of sesame seeds and lightly fried) and bowlfuls of fragrant soup brimming with of slivers of chicken and even more chicken bones along with handfuls of fresh herbs I could not identify that I had helped the mother clean and trim an hour earlier. Bowls of boy-choy-but-not-bok-choy swimming in salty, ginger-laced broth were surrounded by smaller bowls full of soy and garlic and ubiquitous sliced chilies (the Lao people like their food SPICY). We ate all of this with small clumps of warm sticky rice picked out of bamboo baskets – rarely using utensils and often dabbing our sodden fingers on tiny homemade cloths weaved by the village women.

The men drank rice wine…the conversations becoming more animated as the sky darkened. There was talk of government corruption and education and farming – my guide chattering away and then leaning over and explaining the foreign words to me. My favorite topic, however, came at the end of the evening… Once again Song leaned toward me to translate what the cluster of men had been discussing. “Gays!” he exclaimed – going on to explain, “We talk about why no gays in village – only in city. Think chemicals – here in village they eat all natural – only organic. In city – chemicals! Gays!!” I was speechless for a moment. He hadn’t seemed critical in his explanation … more curious in a way. I tried to offer that perhaps there were some gay people in some villages – that maybe they don’t know about them or that these “gays” aren’t comfortable … and I struggled with the words “coming out” because I just knew it wouldn’t translate. And then I stopped talking. And I looked across the table at Song’s blank stare. And I decided to just smile and nod because I just couldn’t imagine this conversation going anywhere… And it was a beautiful evening and debate was not on the menu.

The next morning, after being awakened from my mozzie-net covered, thin, firm mattress by unbelievably loud roosters at 4:30am, I wandered the village as it came to life…watching a little girl feed her ducklings and a woman return from the river with buckets full of water draped on a bamboo pole over her neck and a man chopping slivers of wood for kindling with a huge, thick knife.

A Girl & Her Ducklings

A Girl & Her Ducklings

After a simple breakfast of fresh eggs and greens and more sticky rice it was time to say goodbye – much too soon. After asking Song to translate my deep gratitude to our hosts (my simple “kop jai” <thank you> seemed wholly inadequate), I followed him down to our awaiting boat. Which had a dead battery. So we got to travel back on a local boat – narrow and low to the water and slow … the perfect vehicle from which I could gaze at the towering trees dripping with garlands of thick vines in every shade of green Crayola makes. The river was a mossy jade color – still as a glassy lake. Our boat driver navigated the river over the next hour – at one point narrowly missing a herd of water buffalo out for a morning swim.

Our original "big" boat ... and my favored small boat

Our original “big” boat … and my favored small boat

I was sad to leave the children and the chief and the puppies and the serenity that greeted me when I visited Sop Jaim. But I am hopeful that this tiny village will remain small and sleepy and slow – and that I might just visit it again some day.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
End note… This experience is one of the many reasons I am eternally grateful to Buffalo Tours – the agency that helped me plan much of my Asia travels. Their ability to work with local communities and develop extraordinary and unique outings has helped make this journey unforgettable. If you’re interested in experiencing this kind of Asia – let me know and I’d be more than happy to help make connections.

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