Heading Home Again…

•April 9, 2012 • 2 Comments

Six months ago I started this blog with a poem by Mary Oliver called “Wild Geese”.  At the close of this particular journey, I see it fitting to recall that poem from our memories:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

This poem was great comfort to me at the beginning of my trip, but I must admit that I did not think of it much on many trying days during which it would have been helpful.  Reading it again now, I am filled compassion for myself and for all of those who I had the joy of meeting along the way.

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”  I think it is important to remember the challenges along with the good.  I’ve focused most entries on the exciting trips I’ve made, but between these excursions, there has been loneliness, isolation and health struggles.  But “Meanwhile the world goes on.”  Indeed it does.

I’m writing this from my parents’ lovely screened in porch on a spectacular Easter Sunday in Villanova, Pennsylvania.  I cannot tell you how much the shift in climate from 100+ degrees and humid to 60 degrees and dry has done for my mental and physical health!  I have been so fortunate to come home to two loving parents who have doted on me and put up with my terrible jet lag.  While home, I spend my time shopping with my mom and cycling or motorcycling with my dad–a very nice vacation…from a vacation.

But what brings me here to Villanova so soon?  I had initally planned to stay in Southeast Asia until April 15th, traveling the last 2 weeks with some close friends and returning to San Francisco with them afterwards.  Unfortunately, the health problems I had been struggling with for the 7 weeks leading up to their arrival were still unresolved.  As much as I wanted to push through and go to Cambodia and back to Krabi with them, my body had had enough.  My mind was imploding from the stress and pressure of pretending everything was okay.  So I left early and I do not regret it!  Although brief, the 3 days I did get to spend with my friends were a wonderful way to finish my Thailand journey and included moments I will never forget.

Morgan Levey, Rachel Hochman and Chris Anderson arrived in Bangkok last Sunday, April 1st.  I met them at the airport after completely moving out of my apartment.  My friend Aim was kind enough to drive me to the airport and store my extra belongings during my final travel days.  Seeing my friends again was so easy, so natural.  It felt like the 5 1/2 months we’d spent apart did not happen at all.

We hopped on the BTS to check into our hostel then were off to explore Wat Po, one of Bangkok’s most beautiful temples.  On our way, we stumbled upon a classic tourist-friendly Thai food court so that they could get their first taste of real Thai food.  Then we grabbed a boat on the Chayo Praya River that took us directly to the temple.

Although by this time, I was generally templed out, I really enjoyed exploring Wat Po.  The vast complex includes an enormous Reclining Buddha that just barely fits inside a temple.  Morgan studied Buddhist iconography in Northern India in college, and it was great to have her educate us with tidbits of information as we roamed through the chedis and Buddha statues.

Rachel and I at the Reclining Buddha

Chedis of Wat Po

Amazing ceramic detail

Even though they were pretty jet lagged, they managed to stay awake to meet Aim for dinner at a local restaurant right on the river overlooking the Rama VIII suspension bridge.  Afterwards, Aim dropped us back off at the hostel and we crashed in preparation for an early flight to Chiang Mai the next day.

Eating dinner at In Love along the Chayo Praya River

Rama VIII bridge

Morgan and Rachel crash hard on the drive back to the hostel.

In Chiang Mai we met up with Meg Donovan who had just finished her time volunteering with Burma Border Project in Mae Sot.  We had a very relaxing first day that included Thai massages at the Women’s Prison.  On Tuesday we woke early for a full-day adventure with elephants at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai.  This was my last day in Thailand, and it felt so good to spend it with such gentle, affectionate, large creatures.

Hey lady!

Feeding the elephants

The elephant controversy in Thailand is complex.  Wild elephants are protected, but unfortunately, worker elephants are not.  Many elephants were caught and tamed to be used in Thailand’s logging industry.  However, when that crashed in 1989, there was nowhere for the elephants to go.  Most ended up in the hands of mahouts (trainers) that wanted to use them for profit through tourism–elephant riding or begging on the streets of cities (now illegal but not well-enforced).  Many mahouts use very vicious and cruel tactics to tame elephants into submission.  These include caging elephants in tight quarters for days and stabbing them incessantly all over their bodies, including their eyes which often ends in blindness.

Lek poses with one elephant for tourists to take photos

In the early ’90s, an amazing woman named Lek was able to get her hands on some elephants in desperate need of help and some verdant land in a valley near Chiang Mai.  She began an elephant sanctuary and has since traveled around Thailand rescuing elephants from horrible situations.  She now has 35 elephants at the Park and works with them daily.  As a tourist visiting the Park, you can go for one day or several to help maintain the facilities.  Our one-day trip involved a lot of time feeding the elephants, who eat 10% of their body weight a day, and bathing them in the river.  It was a very relaxing day.  We literally just chilled with elephants all day.  I could not imagine a better way to feel connected to  the beauty of Thailand.  I felt so grateful to share this last experience with my friends.

Morgan gives this elephant a drink of water. She fills her trunk with water then shoots it all into her mouth.

Bathing the elephants = throwing buckets of water on them

After bathing, she immediately gets dirty again by putting on her natural sunscreen

The next day, my friends left for an overnight trek, and I hopped on a bus back to Bangkok, then a flight to Tokyo, then Detroit, and then finally, after 44 hours of travel, Philadelphia.

Goodbye, Thailand, until next time.

At the end of the day, we each received slobbery kisses from this lovely lady

Khop jai lai lai, Laos!

•March 31, 2012 • 1 Comment

(Thank you very much, Laos!)

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As I embarked on my final solo journey, I was full of anticipation for who I’d meet along the way and how the Laotian culture would compare to Thailand.  I caught a 7am flight to Chiang Rai then hopped on a local bus to Chiang Khong on the Laos border.  I arrived around 11am.  Chiang Khong is a tiny town and I was settled at a guesthouse with a view of the Mekong River before noon.

Unfortunately, and to my great disappoint, the skies of Northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are full of smoke and haze during the summer months (March-May).  They still practice slash and burn farming—in order to clear farmland and return nutrients to soil, farmers burn everything from the previous season.  This method is outlawed pretty much everywhere else in the world because it causes terrible air pollution.  Some days the smoke was so dense my eyes burned.

Despite this, I was still thrilled to be there and excited for the border crossing in the morning.  That evening I went to the weirdest and worst yoga class of my life.  I saw signs for yoga early in the day and discovered a small studio run by an older expat  couple.  I scheduled a class for 6pm.  The instructor was probably in her late 60s and practiced therapeutic and prenatal yoga for many years in Australia before retiring and moving to Chiang Khong.  The class was very frustrating for me because the level was far below my ability to the point of boredom.  Plus, there was no flow to the class.  She constantly referred to her notes and had given each position different names than are traditionally used.  Each position was more like a simple stretch than yoga and she never stopped referring to the habits of her past students.  I was the only student and could not do anything except go along with it for nearly 2 hours.  She was so gracious but I was not the right fit for her class and was very happy to leave afterwards.

The next morning I successfully crossed into Laos and was ready to board the slow boat to Luang Prabang by 9:30am.  The slow boat is one of the cheapest yet slowest ways to get to LP and is generally filled with drunken tourists.  I was attracted to it by the romantic concept of boating down the great Mekong River, past rural Laotian villages and through beautiful jungle.  The reality was not quite as I had imagined.  Due to the burning, you could not see much past the riverbanks.  Also, the first day was a miserable disaster.  Although I was probably the first person ready to board, I was grouped with some people through an agency that were very late so we ended up being the last people on the boat, which was overbooked.  We were shunted to the cabin at the back of the boat behind the engine—deafening and filled with exhaust and cigarette fumes.  It was hell.  I knew I couldn’t handle it for the 7-hour trip so managed to squeeze in a seat just on the other side of the engine, which was worlds better but still far from ideal.  The boats have been outfitted with old minivan seats, odd but pretty comfortable.

The only positive outcome from the day was that I befriended one of the couples in my group and we immediately hit it off.  Wes and Kelsey are two American teachers living in Chiang Mai.  Our shared experiences led to very similar perspectives and travel plans.  We booked a room together for the overnight in Pak Beng and were determined to get good seats on the second day.

Pak Beng is a small town on the Mekong that’s livelihood is built around the tourists shuttled in nightly.  The town consists of a handful of restaurants and guesthouses.  It is pretty sketchy but we felt completely safe.  Locals sell drugs to tourists in the dark streets and in the well-lit restaurants.

Day 2 was a 9-hour journey and much closer to that romantic dream I had initially signed up for.  Our seats were near the front of the boat, far from engine noise and with great views of the river.  We spent the day chatting, reading, sleeping and playing cribbage.

We arrived in Luang Prabang after dark and I was able to get a room at the same hostel that Wes and Kelsey were staying in.  We roamed the beautiful city that night, soaking in the French colonial influence juxtaposed with temples and teak.  I spent the entirety of my time in Laos with Wes and Kelsey.  Over the next 4 days we explored the city and surrounding areas.  On our first day, we crossed the Mekong and hiked through a small village with several temples lining the river.  Two young girls (9 and 10) gave us a tour into a cave that wound deep into the hillside.

The second day we kayaked down the Nam Ou and Mekong to the Pak Ou caves.  These caves are filled with hundreds of Buddhas that have been given by locals over the years.

The third day we grabbed a tuk tuk to the Khuang Xi waterfall, hiked to the top and swam in the bright aqua waters.  You have to take the same tuk tuk to and from the waterfall and they give you about 2 hours to explore.  We were not satisfied with so little time and decided just to stay longer and catch a different ride back.  We were mistaken—our driver sought us out and told us that no other driver would take us back.  They all know each other and work together to make sure tourists don’t do exactly what we wanted to do.

On my final day, I took a silk weaving and dying class from Ock Pock Tock, a local organization that fosters traditional art and weaving in hill tribes throughout Laos.  Ock Pock Tock means “East meets West” and was named for the British and Laotian female founders.  I had a great time learning about silk worms and how the natural dyes are created.  I then made my own dye of lemongrass, seeds and sappan wood.  I only had time for a half-day class because I flew out in the afternoon so didn’t have the opportunity to do any weaving.

My words here only skim the surface of my experience in Laos.  I’m sure I’ll tell you more details in person.  I feel so blessed to have met true friends there.  Laos is far less developed than Thailand and much poorer.  However, the people are incredibly kind and laid back.  I really enjoyed the vibe and flow of the city and look forward to returning one day to explore the country further.

Swimming with sharks…

•March 30, 2012 • Leave a Comment

On Thursday, March 15th, after overseeing the administration of my final science exams and wishing Ari a very happy birthday, I hopped on a plane to a small town called Surat Thani.  Then, after a 7-hour wait, I boarded the 11pm night boat to Koh Tao.  For 8 hours, I “slept” on a two-inch mattress among dozens of other weary travelers.

Sunset in Surat Thani, waiting for the night boat

After seeing the sunrise through a small window, we docked in Mae Haad, Koh Tao.  I quickly grabbed a taxi to the diving school I booked through–New Way Diving.  They quickly set me up with a bungalow that I was stretching out in by 7:30am.  I was too wired to sleep more and was soon up and about exploring Sairee Beach, the small town where I was staying.

Sunset view from Sairee Beach

Sairee was packed full of drunken tourists ready to rage and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.  This was not my ideal setting, but after getting my bearings, I found beautiful people and places around the island.

View from the top of Koh Nanyuan, a small island off the northeast coast of Koh Tao

Chilling on the beach at Koh Nanyuan

Crystal clear water

Highlights include yoga in a wooden hut tucked in the rainforest and later on hill-side patio with a sunset view, diving among huge schools of barracuda, nudibranchs, trigger fish, eels and sting rays, climbing on granite slabs on the top of one of Koh Tao’s highest peaks (not very high), and snorkeling with black-tipped reef sharks!

Moon at sunrise from the dive boat on the way to Sail Rock

Mike, my climbing guide, setting up a top rope shortly before the downpour

Shark Bay is located on Koh Tao’s southern tip.  My friend Joyce and I took a water taxi there, jumped off the boat and into crystal clear water a few meters deep.  Joyce was really nervous so stuck close to my side.  After a few minutes of drifting, she tugged on my arm to point out a graceful 1.5meter shark gliding through the water in front of us.  I looked and counted 1, 2, 3, 4…they were everywhere!  Their beauty blew me away.  They didn’t care about us at all and although Joyce wanted to return the boat at first, she eventually calmed down and embraced the wonder of the moment.

Rocky shoreline on the way to Shark Bay

One of my yoga instructors was an enchanting Brazilian woman named Flavia.  She graciously invited me to meet her wonderful friends and we explored the island together.  In addition to teaching yoga, Flavia instructs free diving.  After discussing the practice, I have definitely put it on my bucket list.  Free diving is the act of diving deep without air—just you, a weight belt, fins and a guide rope!  Although intimidating at first, you learn how to maximize your air capacity and meditate to control your breathing.  Flavia has been on a 10+ minute dive to 70meters!  As much as I love SCUBA, the freedom and intimacy of free diving is very evocative.  If I had more time, I would have taken a course, but alas, that adventure will have to wait for another day.

Last dinner on the island with Flavia, Joyce and Jeanine

Instead, I hopped back on that night boat and was back in Surat Thani at 4:30am.  A taxi drove me to the airport, which was closed.  My flight was not until 8:45am.  This was one of the weirdest experiences I’ve had traveling.  The place was dark and deserted yet the automatic doors opened so I let myself in and used the toilet and fell asleep on a comfortable chair at a café.  When airport workers started arriving around 6am and lights slowly switched on, nobody even looked at me.  Apparently, it is totally normal for tourists to camp out in a closed airport.

Hello, March!

•March 6, 2012 • 2 Comments

The closer I get to the end of the semester, the more I fall in love with my students.  Check out these photos of my precious M.1 students (equivalent to grade 6 in the States).  Also, my colleague, Jang, made me an awesome crocheted monkey.

Jang (left) and Yu--two of the most charming M.1 students...Jang often runs up to hug me and say, "I love you!"

North (left) and Farahan--two cute but sometimes annoying M.1 students

Mind (left) and Pop--these girls get away with too much with their smiles.

Tess (left) and Alexis--two of my awesome colleagues

Jang with Jax, my new monkey! (Jax = Jang + Alexis)

I had a fantastic weekend with friends, new and old.  It started with a Friday afternoon Skype date with Tori Evans–a great friend from my study abroad days in Australia.  Tori has been living in Cairo for 3 years and is about to make a BIG move to Paris with her boyfriend.  Even though we’ve been living in completely different places, it’s amazing how many shared experiences we have.  A quote from a recent email from Tori resonates with my feelings about leaving Bangkok (with the exception of harassment of women): “Suddenly I don’t see things I won’t miss, things I despise even (the constant harassment war of men on women … shoddy sanitation standards … the general sensory overload on eyes/noise/ear – why does every cab that passes me need to honk 8 times?  (If I needed a ride I would ask!)”

FLASHBACK! I shaved Tori's head for her St. Baldrick's fundraiser back in 2007. (photo courtesy of Tori's FB album)

Later Friday evening, I was fortunate to meet up with Lara, my roommate from orientation, because she was visiting Bangkok for a few days.  Her school semester is finished and she is embarking upon a whirlwind tour around Southeast Asia with her sister.  It was great to reconnect because we hadn’t seen each other since New Year’s.  After dinner we met up with some other friends from orientation who I thought I’d never see again.  I couldn’t stay out too late though because I had a 6am departure Saturday morning for Pattaya.

After visiting Pattaya during orientation, I swore I’d never return, but I decided to come back to earn my PADI Advanced Open Water certification to refresh my SCUBA memory and prepare for a big dive trip to Koh Tao in two weeks.  This time, I avoided Walking Street (the infamous alley packed with sex shows and prostitutes) and enjoyed the luxury of cliff-side, sunset-view restaurants and long days on a boat.

My friend Aim joined me and was again kind enough to drive.  She dropped me off at the pier Saturday morning at 8:30am where I met my dive instructor, Steve (http://www.private-scuba.com/).  I hopped on Steve’s motorbike and he took me to the boat at the very end of the long pier.  After other guests arrived and some paperwork, we were off!  Before I knew it, I was geared-up and back in the water after 4.5 years!  I experienced a brief moment of panic—breathing underwater!  This is not natural! –but soon relaxed and it all came back, like riding a bike.  The first dive was on a wreck that sits 28meters below the surface to earn my deep adventure dive credit.  I actually thought to myself, “I’m in the aquarium!” as I swam down the deck and past huge schools of fish.

In addition to the deep dive, I did wreck, navigation, peak performance buoyancy and drift adventure dives to earn my certification.  My diving has greatly improved even with so much time off.  I credit this to the yoga, meditation and breathing exercises I’ve done in that time.  I did 3 dives on Saturday and 2 on Sunday.  It was just Steve and I Saturday, which I appreciated so that I could gradually get back into the swing of things.  On Sunday, we were joined by some of his old students—3 French and 1 German expatriates who where great company both in and out of the water.

The diving in Pattaya is nothing to brag about; however, I did see some fun wildlife:  blue-spotted sting rays, pufferfish, barracuda, batfish, a very small shark hidden in coral, a variety of crabs and a NUDIBRANCH!  Now, some of you are very familiar with my nudibranch obsession after my 2010 Halloween costume.  I may have expressed my disappointment that I had never seen one, but I was lying (unintentionally).  After reading through my dive log, I realized that I saw 2 nudibranchs back in 2006 while diving the Yongala—a beautiful wreck off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  Anyway, the nudibranch I saw on Saturday was beautiful and tucked in a small piece of coral.  Read about them here: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/06/nudibranchs/holland-text.  What can beat brightly-colored mollusks with the ability to use the toxic defenses of their prey?!

Speaking of pufferfish, Steve told me a sad story of some Burmese fishermen who caught one off the coast of Pattaya a few days earlier.  They are extremely poisonous with tetrodotoxin—a neurotoxin that paralyzes you and causes you to suffocate.  You can read about the story here: http://www.pattayadailynews.com/en/2012/02/29/two-burmese-fishermen-die-after-eating-blow-fish/

On Sunday, another friend, Adeline, came down to Pattaya to spend the day with Aim.  After I finished diving, they picked me up and we went to Cabbages and Condoms (http://www.cabbagesandcondoms.com/restaurant.php), a restaurant with a breath-taking view of a private cove overlooking the Gulf of Thailand.  Cabbages and Condoms is a small chain started many years ago by a Thai businessman to promote family planning and protected sex.  Part of the proceeds go to fund the Bamboo School in the Buriram Province that strives to shift emphasis from rote learning to a more holistic approach to learning.  Its values are democracy, integrity, entrepreneurialism, philanthropy, poverty eradication, environmental protection and gender equality.  Needless to say, I was more than happy to support the effort while enjoying a delicious meal and watching a spectacular sunset.

Note:  I forgot to bring my camera on this trip so all photos were taken from various internet sources.

R&R on Koh Samet

•February 27, 2012 • 1 Comment

As I enter my remaining weeks of teaching and living in Bangkok, I’m filled with anticipation for everything that is coming.  When classes finish mid-March, I’m taking a trip south to Koh Tao to go diving followed by a trip north to Laos (hopefully)!  Then after moving out of my apartment, 3 awesome folks from San Francisco are visiting for my last two weeks of travel.  More on that to come…now, back to the present!

I think spending 3 straight weeks in Bangkok is beyond my limit.  Although I really enjoyed the two local weekend trips to the Amphawa Floating Market and Koh Kret, my body rejected the pollution, traffic and general stress of getting around the city.  After two weeks of struggling through various health issues (with thoughts of Sara Eddison whispering advice in my ear), I am happy to say that I am finally on the mend.  Spending the past weekend on a beautiful island in the Gulf of Thailand called Koh Samet certainly helped the healing process!

I spent my days swimming in these crystal clear waters

Ferries and fishing boats docked on the main land

What do you do on Koh Samet?  Relax.  Swim.  Sunbathe.  Read.  Sleep.  Eat.  It was the perfect way to heal my ailing body and mind of the Bangkok blues.  My friend Aim was kind enough to drive us, which made traveling a breeze.  I didn’t see too much wildlife on the island except for a few fish in the rocks, lizards and, strangely, a few anemones burrowed in the sand!  I’ve never seen that before.

Lizard hanging out outside our room












What up, anemone?

I’m back in Bangkok now and am gearing up for the end of the semester.  My school featured me and a few other teachers on some English Program advertisements–the photo below shows me on the cover of a folder they give out.

Look, there I am!

Hidden Gem: Koh Kret

•February 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I’m really excited to tell you about the tiny island called Koh Kret that is off the beaten track in Bangkok’s Chayo Praya River.  Jenna and I ventured there for a day-trip this past Saturday.  I rose at 6am to reach the ferry pier by 7:30am to catch the express boat, which only runs until 8.  However, after watching other boats pass us by, we realized that the express boat does not run on weekends.  We caught the next boat and napped on the long journey  down the Chayo Praya, stopping at most of the 30 piers along the way.  We then grabbed a van to reach the ferry for Koh Kret.  Finally, four hours later, we arrived!

Koh Kret is tucked between the banks of the Chayo Praya, with probably 200-500meters to spare on either side.  It is a 5k+ walk around the island and inhabits just shy of 6,000 people, mostly Mon.  The Mon people are some of the oldest people in this area and first moved here between the 6th and 10th Centuries.  Today, most of the Mon that live in Thailand are refugees from Myanmar and have very little rights.  The Mon on Koh Kret are known for their beautiful terra-cotta pottery and live a calm life growing durian, papaya, and mango among other produce.

We were so fortunate to get their early because the vendors were just opening and we pretty much had the island to ourselves.  We leisurely walked around the island and enjoyed the serenity of no cars!  The sidewalk that circumnavigates the island is a raised concrete slab.  Most of Koh Kret is underwater even without the flood but people everywhere were serenely going through their daily lives.

I really cherished this island because I felt like I had escaped Bangkok all together and was in a remote Southeast Asian village watching tall palm trees sway in the damp breeze.  I hope you enjoy the photos!

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A Rat Tale

•February 10, 2012 • 1 Comment

Last night, I went to the toilet.  It was a bit late, and I was tired.  When I opened the door, the light was still off.  I heard a splash, glanced at the toilet bowl and saw something big moving around.  I quickly backed out and shut the door.  It was a rat.  I collected myself and took another peek with the light on.  Yep, a rat was stuck in my toilet bowl, trying desperately to get free.  It was average-size (I guess, I haven’t seen many rats)–probably 6-7in nose to end of tail.

I shut the door again and considered my options:

1.  Flush the toilet?  Cruel. Not acceptable.  Plus, it probably would just crawl right back up again.

2.  Bludgeon it do death?  I’m not capable of such a thing.

3.  Do nothing?  I needed to urinate.

4.  Catch and release?  Done.

I found a big paper cup and a piece of cardboard then went for it.  I managed to trap it in the cup and threw it outside.  Mission accomplished!

False.  About an hour later, I went back in the bathroom and saw a rat scurry across the floor and down the shower drain.  Gross.

Same rat?  It’s brother?  Sister?  Mama?  Papa?  Buddy?  Baby?  Who knows?!

I covered the drain with my teapot full of water for the night and resolved to deal with it today.

My landlord just left with the “rodent guy” (for lack of a better name).  Their solution= cover the shower drain with a metal grate.  Does this remove the rats from my pipes?  Certainly not, but at least I won’t have them swimming in my toilet and I won’t have to kill anything, clean up any dead thing or be exposed to rat poison.  I’m okay with that!

Oh, one more thing–neither my landlord or the rodent guy speak English.  The whole interaction involved a lot of gesturing, and when they left, all I could understand was “hang, hang, hang.”  This means “dry”–she was telling me not to use the shower until the caulk for the grate dries.