In Twenty Years . . .

In Twenty Years . . .

“Twenty years from now you will far more regret the things you did not do, than the things you did. So cast off your bowlines, set sail away from safe harbors.  Explore.  Dream. Discover.”

— Mark Twain

We ended our time in Thailand with a flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket (pronounced Poo-ket), an island on the southern coast of Thailand.  Renee and Tony went diving while I chose to just lie on the top deck soaking up the warmth on our “mini-yacht.”  They had a couple wonderful dives – they said some of their best ever.

And then we headed to the Bangkok airport.  Renee and Tony would be heading back to Ohio for work, but I had decided to extend my time with a few days in Laos.  Oh, what a luxury, to be able to do this, to just decide I’ll go on to Laos for a few days! While it is approaching three years since I left the workforce, I haven’t lost my sense of wonder and amazement with this stage in life (while some call it retirement, which denotes lying down and slowing down, I call it graduation).  I am grateful nearly every hour, and certainly every day, that I have this chance to spread my wings and explore and grow – and sometimes, just be lazy :).

I feel so very inadequate as I write this, as I really know so little about Lao culture.  But I hope for you it is an opportunity to join as I try to absorb at least a tiny bit of the culture of this land.  To me, it’s like opening a book; you don’t know what it’s going to be about.  But you read the words and turn the pages, one by one, and discover and absorb.  Let’s start turning . . .

My flight was to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, right across the border from Thailand. I flew Vietnam Air and would be remiss if I did not comment on the flight attendants.  I think the best way to describe them is to simply say “they were the epitome of class.”  Perfectly groomed, extraordinarily polite, and every movement was graceful.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that much good posture in one place in my life!  But the flight was an uneventful hour and a half and then we landed in Vientiane.  Had to get a visa at the airport; if you’ve ever been through this process you know there’s no need to stress about it.  “They” just shuffle you where you need to go and you end up with a visa, and then again shuffle you to passport control.

I had the agent at the airport kiosk arrange for a cab for me; when traveling alone, I’m always hesitant to just walk out and grab random transportation.  Perhaps overly cautious but to me, just good sense.

My hotel was clean, simple, and certainly adequate.  The bed was the typical hard bed but I won’t complain (when in Rome, do as the Romans). And my room was all of $27.  I had to smile, though, at the repair to the door where the panels split away from the door.  In the US we would likely replace the door.  In Laos?  Just tuck a piece of toilet paper in the crack 🙂

I had a few hours left to the day and headed for the Night Market along the muddy Mekong River, just two blocks from my hotel.  The Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia (2700 miles), originating in China and ending in Vietnam, where it dumps into the China Sea.  When I think of the muddy Mekong, I always remember the time I took a swim in it to rinse off after riding my bike into a chin-deep latrine in Vietnam. One of those travel moments I’ll never forget :).

The Night Market

There were many people out on the streets and walking through the market and while it was dark, I felt very safe. There were stands and stands of textiles, food, trinkets, souvenirs.  The markets in Asia were different than some of the others throughout the world that I’ve visited; vendors were in no way pushy.  They displayed their wares and for the most part, waited for customers to approach and display an interest.  If you did, there would be some haggling on price but it wasn’t a relentless process.  It’s also important to note that there were no children begging, haggling, etc., for which I was grateful.  Items were priced so low, and I was reminded of the economic challenges the people of Laos experienced.  While not a huge number, there were a few people who were begging.  One, in particular, troubled me greatly.  A woman squatted in the middle of the walkway at the market with three small boys, a bowl held out in front of her.  The children were all lying on a small blanket/towel, two sprawled out on their back, one facedown, sound asleep on the packed mud walkway.  I deliberated about giving the woman money.  No – food would be better . . . pillows for the little ones to sleep on? I went back and forth a number of times but ultimately headed back to my hotel without doing a thing.  I wondered if this would be something that I would remember and regret in 20 years.

I woke up to several loud bangs coming from down the hallway, and then . . .the lights went out. Waited a bit and ventured out into the hallway with my i-phone flashlight brightening the way.  Never did figure out what was going – you know, that language barrier thing.  Not that it really mattered; clearly the power was out and you just deal with it.

Vientiane was the smallest city I had visited since leaving Ohio and it had a slower pace. Currency had switched to Kip (vs. Baht in Thailand) and I grabbed some cash from a nearby ATM.  Restaurants and massage parlors abounded (there were 25 massage parlors within a half mile of my hotel, with an average price of 80,000 Kip (around $8 USD) for a one hour massage).  I wondered how many were simply massage parlors, and then how many offered “other services.”  A meal at a local restaurant was around 20,000 Kip (slightly over $2 USD).  A large bottle of water – maybe 64 ounces – was $0.50.  Cars had moved back to the right side of the road (versus left as in Thailand) and the driver was now back to the left side of the car.  As I understand it, there is a bridge between Laos and Thailand where the cars/drivers make the transition.  Never saw this but it would be kind of fun and interesting to experience!

 

Tuk-tuks abounded, parked on every corner.  The number of scooters/motorcycles had increased from Thailand, and there were a few people riding bicycles.  I was surprised at how many well maintained and new model cars I saw.  I’ve always been fascinated by the mish-mosh of electric lines (I assume these are electric and not telephone lines) in Asia and some South American countries;  I just want to tidy these up!  But when in Rome . . .

Similar to Thailand, but certainly unlike Seoul where traffic was very controlled, there really was no system for traffic here (other than most vehicles generally drove on the right side of the street).  At intersections, vehicles went when they could.  As a pedestrian, I was just very careful about when I headed out into the street.

While a small thing, one of the nuances I immediately became aware of was the holes in the sidewalk. Holes where the pavement had just given way.  Holes that just waited for a distracted tourist to place their foot and break their leg!  I became really careful about watching where I was walking!

And in the busier areas, there were street vendors selling food.  Some were along the street and others were off the main drag, just in vacant lots, with grills set up as they grilled an assortment of meat.  There were numerous stands for fruit smoothies and coconut pancakes and other such foods.

A street vendor set up in a vacant lot grilling some type of meat, and a large dirt area (a vacant lot?) with homes in the background.

The city had a warmth, an ambiance, despite its somewhat unkempt state (according to US standards). People were friendly and helpful, despite the language barrier.

I ended up getting a facial, just out of curiosity.  It was certainly different than the one I had gotten in South Korea, which was a twenty step process (including the aesthetician slapping my face mercilessly toward the end, I suppose to increase blood flow?).  This one was somewhat of a non-event; she slathered a few things on and wiped them off and then put on one of those white paper Korean masks that you can get from amazon.com.  For $7, what can one expect though?

The electricity was back and I headed back to the hotel to grab a bite to eat at the restaurant there.  I had hired a guide to tour some of the local attractions; “William” spoke very good English and was very personable and knowledgeable.  The evening before at the Night Market had been troubling me, and so I asked him … should I have given? What will happen to these people, especially to the children?  He quickly responded that one should not give as it just teaches people to continue to beg and to be lazy.  Instead, he said, buy from the vendors at the market who were working hard to make a living. He also emphasized that the government has programs for those with disabilities, specifically mentioned those who had lost limbs due to the UXO bombs (undetonated bombs remaining from the Vietnam War – more on that later).  This was consistent with what our guide in Cambodia a few years ago had told us – support the local vendors and do not give to panhandlers.  A comment he made also came to mind – that it is appropriate to haggle on price, but don’t haggle too much.  Remember that you have more money than these people.  So very, very true.

Yet, it is easy to get caught up in that haggling process, sometimes haggling over a dollar, which to us means little yet to the people in these impoverished countries has significance. And so I made numerous visits to the ATM to get cash to buy from the local vendors.

Spending money to support these hard-working people – no, in twenty years, I will not regret it.

Dreams, Tigers, Elephants, Temples, and More

Dreams, Tigers, Elephants, Temples, and More

When I was young (you know, like two or three years ago :)) I was a voracious reader.  I could not read enough.  My mom always said I “had my nose in a book.”  On Tuesday night my older sibs had religion class from 7 to 8; while they were there I got to go to the library.  I would exit with armfuls of books; a good evening was when I got through three or four books.

When I was around nine, I got a book from the library about sabre tooth tigers and elephants.  Sabre tooth tigers . . . well, the book said they were extinct so I lost interest in them.  But the elephants.  Yes, the elephants.  I read and re-read about the elephants.  I knew the difference between African elephants and Asian elephants.  Their ears – I remember reading that their ears were different.  And I wanted an elephant.  Specifically, an Asian elephant.  Like really bad.

I decided to pray that God would give me an elephant.  Like really hard I prayed.  “God, just please give me an elephant.  I’ll be good, I promise!”  Every time I went to Catholic Mass – on Sundays and First Fridays and holydays – I prayed.  I put extra steam behind my prayers when I was in the communion line, and right before I received the host, I would turn it on strong, as I assumed this was the window of time when prayers were most likely to be answered.  “Dear God, Jesus, please just give me this one thing.  I won’t ask for anything else, ever again.  Just bring me an elephant.”  I imagined, every week, that it was going to show up.  Oh, I would be so happy when I got my elephant!!!

Meanwhile, I renewed the book.  Over and over.  I couldn’t get enough of those elephants.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

We grabbed an uneventful flight to Chiang Mai, which is about 400 miles north of Bangkok in Thailand.  While still a large city, it had a different feel than Bangkok – cleaner, quieter, not quite as chaotic.  Had accommodations at another great hostel, again at the ridiculous price of $7/night.

Massages, Respect, and Dignity

I’ll never forget our visit to Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute.  We showed up there first thing in the morning as we’d read that the lines could get long.  Inmates there are trained to give the traditional Thai massages; what a wonderful way to build the women’s self-esteem and give them a sense of value while preparing them for their life after prison. The women that gave us massages were conscientious, attentive and clearly wanted to do a good job. But most important, they behaved with such dignity and respect and were treated the same.  Being there, and part of this, was an awesome experience.

img_7592-1As we understand it, the majority of female inmates there had been convicted of drug-related charges. While we paid for the massages – about $7 each – none of this money went to the inmates.  And these were just kind women, not someone I would ever see as a criminal.

Karen Long Neck Women

We also made a visit to the Baan Tong Luang Village to see the Karen Long Necked Women.  I’ve knownimg_7676-1 of them for many, many years but never really expected to see them. And must admit, it was quite troubling to me.  Young girls begin to wear the gold rings around their neck when they are about five years old (rings weighing about 4.5 pounds), and more rings are added as they age.  While it appears that their necks are lengthened, in reality, their shoulders are pushed down by the weight of the rings.  While the women were obviously there “on display” it was still uncomfortable to be taking their pictures.  My assumption is that none of them came to be wearing the rings by their own volition, especially if they began at age five.  Many people believe that if they stop wearing the rings their necks will snap but that isn’t true – as the rings are simply pushing down their shoulders.  A few years ago some women rebelled and removed theirs: they were uncomfortable (shoulders) for about three days and then had minimal discomfort and functioned normally.

There are various theories why these women wear the rings but nothing is known with certainty.  Another culture, one we may not understand, but it is a way that some people on this planet live.

 

Tigers!

img_0872We got our share of animals in while in Thailand.  The one thing Tony wanted to do was play with baby tigers.  So off we went to Tiger Kingdom.  He and Renee went in together to play with a white tiger that was a bit older than a baby . . . but still young.  The instructions were clear; you can touch their back legs, their tail, or their back but nothing in front of their “waist.” Their tiger sure was a cutie!

The tigers had been raised there since they were little and thus were “kind of” tame.  But I think we all know the reality; a tiger is never really tame.  I had adrenaline running through my blood the entire time I was in there with “my” tiger – a big white one.  There were four trainers, mostly trying to keep him distracted.  At the same time I was quite aware that if he decided to go for my jugular, there was likely not a thing that the trainers could do to stop him.  They played the song “I’ve got a tiger by its tail” and had me walk around behind the tiger holding its tail; I felt pretty silly doing this . . . seriously.  Anyway, it was an interesting experience and my adrenalin has since returned to normal!

An Asian Elephant . . .

And then finally . . . after all these years . . . yes, my prayers were answered. For a brief moment in time, I was the loving companion to an Asian elephant.  Yes, it’s true.  See photo evidence.

 

Look how that baby is smiling as it reaches for Renee!  Adorable!

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A baby elephant suckling.  Just assumed the udders would be in the back like a cow but she had two in the front.

 

Tony washing an elephant with a scrub brush.  Then, the elephant . . . well, please note the stream of dirt he is blowing up and back . . . to cover his back :).  Job security, Tony, job security.

Buddhist Temples

One cannot experience Thailand without visiting some of the many, many temples. Buddhism is such a huge part of their history and their culture, and also the way that people there live.  The temples are beautiful, and there are endless images of Buddha.  Without question, I have seen at least 20,000 statues of Buddha during this visit to Asia; one place alone had a collection from over the centuries of over 10,000 statues.

 

At the same time, Tony pointed out that I was evicted from the temples not once, but twice, for indecent exposure.  A scandalous woman I am.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t share this picture of this magnificent sycamore tree in the temple area.  Simply beautiful, and oh so moving.

img_7713-2We came across this monk meditating, holding perfectly still for hours; it was captivating to observe.  Yes, this was at the temple before I was evicted.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Again, there was so much more to our time in Chiang Mai than I could ever describe here.  Most important to me is always the culture, the people, the feel of the area.  And I loved so much of the Chiang Mai culture, most notably the kindness and gentleness of the people.

And that baby elephant.  I think his mama was the one in the book.  Seriously, she looks just like the one that I had studied and pored over for so many days, way back fifty plus years ago.  Funny, isn’t it, how it all comes full circle :).

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

It was great to see Renee and Tony as they exited immigration!  They had been traveling some ungodly number of hours (30? Or more?) but were excited to finally be in Thailand!  We grabbed a taxi to our hostel; it was clean, spacious, and we had our own bathroom – not bad for $7 each.  Although as is typical in many countries, the beds were . . . well, like a sheet of plywood with a half inch layer of something “kind of” soft on them.  When in Rome, do as the Romans . . . and seriously, if you’re tired enough, you can sleep on anything!

The Floating Market and Pete the Promiscuous Python

We were up and moving by 6:30 a.m. the next day; first on the agenda was to head for the floating market.  This meant we would be boarding a wooden canoe, propelled by a local using oars, and floating down a small river/stream, where various vendors offered their wares on both sides.  There was everything imaginable – from coconut ice cream (yum!) to clothing to souvenirs of all kinds.

And then, there was the opportunity to hold some exotic animals.  Had never heard of a slow loris before and gosh, are they adorable!  Incredibly soft, cuddly, the best ever!  And as we learned after the fact, endangered. And people should not support loris trafficking, as we naively had.  Nevertheless, they were the cutest things ever and Renee and Tony just fell in love with them!

img_0089-1The same vendor asked if we wanted to hold a snake, a python to be specific.  This was an easy one for me; this wasn’t my first rodeo (or snake holding session).  I had held this big white one around my neck in Prague, and a much smaller one in Morocco; once you’ve held a snake it’s just a snake.  So out comes the python and the guy wraps him around my neck like a stoll.  He’s probably ten or twelve feet long – and cool, wet, smelly, and heavy – maybe 25 lbs.? His little head was busy as he looked around while wagging his tongue, and then he began to turn toward me and try to preach to me, which I didn’t appreciate at all.  And then Pete the Promiscuous Python decided to wrap his tail around me and goose me.  (See pic of my reaction to being goosed.)  I wasn’t so fond of Pete after that. At the same time, Pete the Promiscuous Python is one of those memories that will always make me smile.

The People

Bangkok is a crazy, hectic, loud city.  Not especially clean.  But it has an energy, and a culture.  The people were incredibly kind and helpful.  It is impossible to count the number of people who helped us on this trip. Even those who couldn’t speak English would attempt to understand as we gestured and struggled to communicate. Virtually no one was rude in any way. It makes me reflect upon myself . . . when someone asks for help, do I always try to assist?  I know that in the US I often assume that there may be an ulterior motive when someone approaches me, and I tend to back away. We came away truly appreciating and respecting the Thai people for their kindness, their humility, and their helpfulness.

Nana Plaza

Often when we explore other parts of the world, or even our own country, we are tempted to just focus on the good and fun things.  But any culture has both good and bad.  Most of you know that sex trade in Thailand is huge. So we went to the Nana Plaza – because it is part of the Thai culture.  As expected, there were many young girls, and some not so young, most dressed seductively, walking around.  It was early and business had not really picked up yet.  We stopped for a drink and watched the proceedings across the street . . . a sixty-ish businessman walks into a bar, has a seat, several girls approach. He buys them drinks, eventually one makes her way onto his lap, and then is apparently shunned.  Girls came and went for at least an hour and we eventually left, never knowing what happened.  But I can’t help but wonder at the story behind each of these girls.  I have read that in Thailand many girls are forced into prostitution at a very young age to support their parents/families and this is likely true.  Interestingly, prostitution is illegal in Thailand, yet widely practiced.

Trains and Boats and Planes . . . and Tuk Tuks and Scooters and Cattle Trailers . . .

One of the things that I remember most about our time in Thailand is the various forms of transportation.  Every imaginable kind of transportation.  Of course taxis . . . Renee would always show them our destination and then begin to negotiate (mostly through pointing and gesturing).  Kudos to that girl for her endless negotiations!  Then we moved to tuk-tuks (which involved the same negotiations), various kinds of trains, subways, and what I call cattle trailers. We were in the canoe in the floating market and later in the week, on a big boat (our mini-yacht) when Renee and Tony went diving.  A large and comfortable van which we rented one day, complete with driver.  The big double decker A380 planes, and then smaller regional planes.  And while we didn’t ride them, an endless parade of scooters, often with three passengers.

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Seriously, this looks like a really nice train, doesn’t it?

I would be remiss if I did not describe one of our train rides.  While on the way to our destination, we were able to get second class seats, which meant air conditioning and cushioned seats.  It was quite comfortable, and enjoyable to look out the window and watch the countryside go by.  On the return trip we were in . . . well, third class.  This meant hard seats.  No air conditioning.  Windows open in 88 degree, dry weather with a steady stream of countryside dust.  And we had seats right next to . . . the toilet. Not a regular toilet, but a squatty potty.  A squatty potty that reeked.  With a heavy metal door that didn’t close unless you slammed it.  I mean like SLAMMED it.  So this train is not one that glides along the tracks.  It rumbles and rolls and you are shifted from side to side every other second.  I understand that nature calls at unexpected times, but I could not understand the almost constant flow of women to the toilet.  Really, there was no way you could squat in there without falling.  No way, not with the rockin’ and rollin’ that train was doing.  Nevertheless, these women continued to show up, open the door, and disappear inside. When they came out I would motion to them to “slam it” and mouth the words.  They consistently gave the door a gentle pull and went on their way. Within about 30 seconds the stench would be so bad (passengers that were downwind would start covering their noses, nearly gagging) and I would get up, grab what I knew was a filthy door handle, and slam the door.  Anyway, we survived the train ride, have a great story to tell, and that hour and a half train ride only cost us . . . $0.67 each!!!
img_7419Once we started using tuk tuks we thought they were just the greatest thing.  They were everywhere and you didn’t need to hail them like a cab. We just approached them, Renee negotiated price, we hopped on, they zipped off, and we hopped off.  Then, we ended up with a tuk tuk driver that wasn’t so cool.  He was driving way too fast (in my opinion), and drinking an amber color liquid.  I was scared.  That was our last tuk tuk.  (Incidentally, the locals pronounce it “took-took.”)

Temples

We saw Buddhist temples. Absolutely beautiful temples.  Over the course of my time in Asia, like A LOT of temples.  Endless images (statues) of Buddha.  One enormous reclining Buddha.  But for me, the most impressive temples were located in what was the former city of Ayutthaya, about two hours from Bangkok.  These temples were built in Ayutthaya during the 14th century by the Siamese, and the city flourished through the 18th century, when it was attacked and razed by the Burmese.  The temples now exist as archeological ruins and the site is listed as an UNESCO Heritage site.  One of the things we noted was the use of bricks in many of the structures – something we haven’t often seen in ruins. Bottom line on Ayutthaya – if you’re in Thailand, it’s a must do.  It was absolutely beautiful.  More on temples later!

The Floating Nun

We had plans to visit “the floating nun” which is a well recognized attraction outside of Bangkok. I did very brief research and read that it was a Buddhist nun that floated while meditating.  So, I have this image.  In my mind’s eye, the floating nun is likely 20 years old.  She is a beautiful Asian woman with thick black hair, likely braided, and flawless skin.  She wears a glowing white gown.  And she is floating on the surface of the water in a beautiful lake, in the lotus position, likely with lotus flowers (get it . . . lotus position – lotus flowers) with the sun glinting across the clear blue water.  It is a miracle, that she can float like this. An awesome image, right?

So we get there. There are several women lounging around. There is a sign up explaining that the nun will float for 200 baht (about $7) whether you have one person or twenty.  We hand over our money.  A middle aged woman who had been slouching over a picnic table maybe a hundred yards away lumbers over. She looks grumpy, but manages to sink herself into a round concrete pool with slightly dirty water and . . . floats, in various positions!  With what I have concluded is a dark wetsuit under her flowing white garb :). I don’t think any of us will ever forget “the floating nun” and the memory will always bring a smile.

There is so much more to Bangkok than what I am able to write here.  Good people, a vibrant city with so much energy, endless sites, great food, so very many aspects to the city and the surrounding area. . . and so many wonderful memories.

Up next . . . Chiang Mai (Thailand).

As Close as I Will Get . . . (to North Korea)

As Close as I Will Get . . . (to North Korea)

I was up early for a tour to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) between North and South Korea.  It was a bit unsettling to get into a cab in the early hours of the morning while the world was still dark with a man who shared not a word of language with me.  I kept handing him the paper with the information about my tour location and he kept brushing me off and shouting at me.  Quite feebly, I kept saying “I don’t understand.”  Eventually, he got out his flashlight, peered at the directions I gave him, and navigated to the site.  In our everyday life, we overlook how many times we trust other human beings.  This becomes even more frequent when one travels in other countries; we have to trust, or we’ll get no where.  It is a good thing, this trusting and relying on other people.

I was early for the tour and grabbed coffee at a small café.  I ended up chatting with a British couple who would be on the same tour . . . about anything and everything, from travel to politics to social issues to health to family.  We ended up spending the day together, looking out for each other.  I love those kind of connections.

On some of the DMZ tours guests are able to step into North Korea.  I had hoped to tap my toe across the line, but because of security concerns on this day that was not the case.  Thus, the photo above is “as close as I will get” to North Korea.  And I’m satisfied with this!

The tour ended and I decided again to just wander.  Was headed toward a park and I had a random thought to see if I could visit a school. Heck, what did I have to lose?  A few of you have heard me say “Asking is free” and in this case, that was certainly the case.  The worst thing that could happen is that they would refuse.

A quick check with maps.me showed one within a half mile; it was meant to be!  (On occasion, when I travel internationally I will share my adventure with the kindergarten class that my niece teaches; the kids always have questions about the schools in the areas I visit and I thought it would be cool to see if I could get a first hand look.)  So I made my way toward the school, having no idea what it may be like.  Once I arrived, I began circling it, looking for the entrance.  For the life of me though, I couldn’t figure out how to get in.  So eventually found a local and asked where the entrance was. He pointed down the sidewalk. “The first door to the left.”

There was an open wooden door with a cobblestone floor.   It looked very . . . well, rustic.  I entered and glanced around, took some video, trying to guess what each small room may be.  A wooden table?  Maybe the cafeteria?  If so, it sure was small!  But where were the classrooms?  And there was no one there.  Eventually a woman made her way out.  I explained why I was there (in English).  She didn’t seem to understand and also didn’t seem happy to see me.  I followed her to another room where a woman was cooking over a gas stove.  The school kitchen?  It sure was small, and primitive.  This woman was not welcoming at all.  She essentially shooed me out the door, and not very nicely.  So I stood on the sidewalk outside, completely befuddled. And then I looked a few feet down the street.  THERE was the school entrance!!!

The door to the school was not secured and I entered and met up with a woman who was leaving.  Attempted to share why I was there; she pointed at my shoes and handed me a pair of slippers.  And then guided me to the Vice Principal, who spoke very good English and gave me a warm welcome.  I ended up spending a hour in the school, visiting classrooms, speaking with students, asking questions.

As I left I asked if there were ever any safety/security issues there.  She answered that there were on occasion, and that is why they had two female “teacher assistants” who walked the halls in case a student had an issue.

I wondered what would happen in the US if a “foreigner” who did not speak English randomly showed up at the entrance of a school and asked to tour and meet with students.  You teachers out there, perhaps you can respond to this!

A few things that may be of interest: all students begin to learn English in third grade.  Those I spoke with (third graders) spoke fluently, and could easily transition between English and Thai.  Their English accent was perfect.  After school many students take additional classes – for the lower grades this included classes like origami, musical instruments, Chinese, and a game that was similar to chess that “made their brain work.”

About half the students in the one class I surveyed were only children, and the others had one sibling. Most students rode to school on the bus. Kindergarten was not mandatory but many would take it as private instruction.  This was a private school and the students wore uniforms.  Kids were well behaved and respectful.

Visiting this school was an awesome experience and one that I won’t forget.  When you’re in doubt, remember . . . asking is free.  You just never know :).

I made my way from there to another beautiful park, and then to the night market.  Ahhh, the energy of these markets!  The next day I would depart for Bangkok (Thailand) where I would be meeting up with my daughter Renee and her amor (aka love) Tony.  Renee had thoroughly researched Thailand and had a full agenda planned; I went to bed early and slept in, gearing up for what I knew would be a wonderful week!

Seoul is a beautiful city, quite modern, yet with many historic quaint areas. The people are so friendly and helpful (except for a couple that I encountered :)).  I would highly recommend a visit.  I did not even come close to experiencing everything that is there but if you’re making a visit, the DMZ tour is a must, and everyone should consider taking in one of the jjimjilbangs!

And now, on to Thailand!

“Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost”

“Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost”

46443375_342789263162302_1480114462563237888_nThis was one big ass plane. A double decker, an A380, able to hold 407 passengers.  The surface of one wing was 4,550 sq. ft. – the equivalent of three of my condos.  It befuddles me, how this huge plane can lift off and fly seven miles up in the air when I can’t even get a paper airplane to fly across a room.  There are some really smart people on this planet.

The flight from JFK to Seoul was 14 ½ hours.  Sounds long, but it really is no big deal.  You just do it.  I had several uncles who fought in the Korean war and couldn’t help but think of them making this journey, nearly 70 years ago.  Wondering what they were thinking, feeling.  And I count my blessings, that I have this wonderful seat and am fed and am headed out only for pleasure and learning.

46503553_255319605162379_8565693431509155840_nSomehow I managed to get on the right bus to get to my hotel.  Got off the bus and stumbled around in the dark, trying to get maps.me to guide me to my hotel.  Consulted with my daughter Renee who is the maps.me expert and she explained that it was “confused.”  Eventually made it to my room, but had those thoughts of “Why in the world am I doing this????” Those of you who have done this know that feeling, right?

I had procrastinated. My planning hadn’t begun until the day before I left, and it resulted in a list of potential things to do.  I did stumble across a new site that is pretty cool; www.visitacity.com.  Definitely worth checking out if you’re planning an adventure.  Anyway, my list included hiking up a mountain with beautiful views, and that was first on the agenda for Thursday.

46332259_975805239271313_9201270629070798848_nI was frustrated.  I couldn’t get a taxi because it was the day high school seniors did college planning.  I didn’t want to mess with finding a bus or train that went there. And so . . . I threw that plan to the wind.  And just took off walking.  It is crazy, how I can go from being utterly frustrated to being on a high, having that rush, that exhilaration because . . . now, I could do anything I wanted!  My wanderings took me past a few palaces, off the beaten path, into parks, into residential areas.  To coffee shops where I could sit outside in the briskness and just people watch.  While I may not have seen all the sites or climbed any mountains, I feel like I experienced so much more – and had a small glimpse of how the Korean people lived, what they were like, to feel a bit of their culture.  It just occurred to me that my adventures are so much more about what I “feel” about the piece of the planet I am visiting and the people that live there, versus seeing tourist sites. So here are a few photos that evidence my “wandering.”

My observations:  The people of Seoul are respectful, helpful, and patient.  Nearly every one of them was neatly groomed.  They have the most beautiful skin :).   They seem to keep their dark hair well into their later years.  Many spoke some English (though not all).  I saw a few dogs out with their owners in the evening – but not many.  Saw one cat roaming the street.  Streets and sidewalks were generally very clean. I didn’t hear a lot of horns honking, and traffic was orderly.  Cars were similar to the US but I never saw a single pickup truck.  Pedestrians didn’t jaywalk, but instead waited at intersections for the walk signal.  I had concluded there weren’t homeless people . . . and then I came across an area in the evening where they were everywhere.  I always wonder, when I see homeless, what brought them to this.  And always imagine what they were like as two year old children, ready to take on the world.  One thing that was striking is how accommodating the city was for those with visual impairments.  A significant number of sidewalks throughout the city had the yellow tactile paving, and all intersections had “chirpers” to assist with crossing.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the sycamore trees that lined the streets, sycamores with the most enormous leaves that covered the sidewalks.  This is especially strange as sycamores typically grow next to water, of which there was none.  But I just couldn’t get over the size of these leaves!

At one point I was trying to get across a major highway and couldn’t figure out where there was a cross walk.  Saw a flight of stairs that I thought might connect to a bridge and climbed about a half dozen flights to the top – to find it dead ended at what appeared to be a few homes.  A woman stepped out and I attempted to ask her how to get where I wanted to go.  She spoke no English . . . but offered me a glass of water.  I declined . . . just wasn’t sure about the cleanliness.  She poured the water out. Tried again to ask her for directions. Again, she offered me a glass of water. How could I turn down this simple act of kindness?  I took it, attempted to say Thank You” in Korean, and headed back down the stairs. Those are the things I remember, the kindness of strangers.

I came across “The Secret Garden” which is attached to one of the palaces.  Oh the fall colors!  Absolutely incredible – I think the most vibrant fall colors I have ever seen.  It took a bit to peel myself away from there.

I had one “must do” for Seoul – to visit a Korean jjimjilbang (bathhouse) and have a scrub and facial.  I found a highly rated one, checked the distance – five miles – and decided that I would hoof it, knowing that I would see more of the city that way.

At one point I was a bit lost and saw a man standing outside what appeared to be his home.  Attempted to ask for assistance.  He opened the door to the home a few inches, muttered some words to what sounded like two women inside, and gruffly disappeared around the side of the building.  I was excited!  I assumed he told the women that I needed help and they would be opening the door shortly.  Was envisioning me asking them if I could see their home . . . etc.  But, alas, the door never opened.  I have to smile at that one.  Sometimes I am just plain naïve. 🙂

The JJimjilbang

img_7166So, the jjimjilbang.  I bought a package that included a hip bath, a scrub, a massage, and a facial.  Okay, this section is a bit graphic so please skip if you don’t want to know the gory details!  And there are no photos (sorry, guys!).

The first step to the jjimjilbang experience is to disrobe.  Those who are modest would probably not enjoy a Korean bathhouse.  While a few women walked around attempting to cover some of their body parts with a small towel (which quite frankly, looked ridiculous), most were just buck naked as they strolled throughout the spa.

I envisioned the hip bath to be some type of a hot tub.  Instead, I was taken into a room by a woman who spoke not a word of English; she indicated that I should sit on this two by two square box with a hole in the center. Kind of like the outhouse seats of old. Quite demurely, in my naked splendor, I sat down.  Ha!  There was no place for demureness in THIS spa.  She grabbed each of my knees and pulled it out to the outside of the box. Seriously???  I was waiting for her to bring the stirrups out – you gals all get that.  And then she proceeded to place a pink tent like cloth over me.  And that is how I became a head on top of a pink cone like tent that extended to the floor.

I could feel the heat and the steam and the oils inside the tent.  Assumed this was to soften my skin for the scrub.  But seriously, why did I have to do this spread-eagled???  I still haven’t figured that one out.  It was getting a bit toasty, and the woman returned. Ahhh, I was going to be released! Not so.  Instead, she pulled the tent up over my head, so that now I was just a big pink tent.  A roasting one.  A sizzling hot one.  Seriously, the sweat and the steam were dripping off me onto the burner below and sizzling.  I began to question if she had forgotten about me.  So I mustered up a cough.  Nothing. I contemplated that I had paid for this, paid to be tortured.  Began slightly flapping the tent to cool off.  And eventually she returned, and released me from the pink tent.

While I was sitting there, now quite demure (although still without a thread if clothing) she brought another woman in. Again, I found an opportunity to be grateful.  Grateful that she seated the woman to my side, rather than across from me, where I would have full view of the “positioning.”  Seriously, you’ve gotta be grateful for the little things.

The scrub was next. There were six tables, each covered with pink rubber sheets.  Five of which were adorned with naked women, each being attended to by a middle aged Korean woman – what I call a scrubber – wearing nothing but a pair of panties.  I questioned why they left the girls exposed, swinging freely as they scrubbed, and hoped I didn’t get smacked by one of them, envisioning them kind of like a wrecking ball.

My scrubber attacked with a vengeance, using a pink mitt that felt like a wire brush across my skin. She yanked my legs this way and that, motioned to me to turn, twist, extend an arm, a leg, as she tackled my skin from head to toe.  All the while I just tried to not jump in pain while attempting to stay on this slippery pink rubber sheet.  I imagined myself calling my travel insurance company reporting injuries for a fall off the table.  Seriously, that could happen!  But once again, this just didn’t seem right – to pay to be tortured!  And then I began to notice this “stuff” on the sheet. Downright gross “stuff.”  Yes, this was my skin, being scrubbed right off me. And that’s when I began to think this really was a really cool thing!

Next was the massage and facial.  Once again, a massage that was just downright painful, and unlike one I’d ever had before. And an incredible facial, with likely twenty different steps.  It ended with my face being slathered with this thick plaster like substance, and I was left for it to “bake.”  A while later this was peeled off – it was totally and completely hard!  After the fact I thought that I should have asked to keep it, was envisioning bringing it home, using it as a mold to be filled with plaster so I could give each of my kids “my face” for Christmas :).

Ultimately though, the jjimjilbang was an awesome experience.  I left feeling totally relaxed, and my skin is incredibly soft.  Worth every penny :).

The Ahas

There are lessons in every day.  For me, abandoning my plans and going with the flow was an aha (and one that was reminiscent of similar past ahas while traveling).  Perhaps similar to “don’t sweat the small stuff,” and consciously deciding whether an event is worth stressing over it. And then just let it go and move on to enjoy life.

I logged 20 ½ miles that day; it was such an amazing day.  Such an adventure, such a rush. I fell into bed exhausted.

Peaks, Valleys, Beautiful Views, and Dung

Peaks, Valleys, Beautiful Views, and Dung

Today was the last day of our trek.  The day prior, I reminded myself to just embrace it all, to commit to memory the views, the sounds, the smell, the trail under my feet, the way my body felt, all of it. I knew that I likely would never ever have this experience again, this trek through the jungle.

It is Friday and we’re heading for Plantera, a foundation by g-adventures, our tour company, that funds community efforts and culture preservation by local people.  We would be off the beaten path, taking a trail that in the past had only been used by the local people.  This option had been opened up just a month ago; we were the third group to take this trail. It was much narrower, with the surface maybe a foot wide.  Foliage often grew over the path and brushed our ankles.  I had worn long pants and they ended up with little green burrs all over them.

At one point I checked the grade of the trail with my phone – 24 degrees.  Not a big deal if this is for ten feet but it was for an extended stretch.  At another point, it was 34 degrees – a shorter section but nevertheless, that was the trail.  I was grateful for my trekking poles; I shortened them up and would reach ahead with them, dig them in and pull myself up.

The rain the night prior had made the trail slippery.  I went down one time (that day), very gracefully, as confirmed by my fellow hikers.  The trail consisted of a narrow trough with a ledge on both sides.  So the choice was to straddle the trough, attempt to walk on just one ledge, or just go for the gusto and tramp down the middle of the trough which was muddy and scattered with mule dung.  I elected for the trough and was more or less skiing along (it was downhill), using my poles to propel me.  At one point something went array – perhaps a particularly slippery pile of dung? – and I slid onto my backside – but promptly popped up and kept going.  Those kind of falls are the best as you’re hitting a soft surface versus a hard rock.  It’s funny though – when something like that happens you don’t even look to see if your backside is covered with mud or dung, you just keep going.  Don’t sweat the small stuff . . . or the dung in life!

I was also grateful for my waterproof, high top hiking boots . . . when there were muddy sections, I would just tromp through, feeling safer than if I attempted to skip from slippery rock to slippery rock.  Tromp, tromp, tromp, often the mud and slop splattering out the sides of my footsteps.  At the same time, I could hear, feel, the rumbling of my fellow hikers as they navigated along the trail.  It was a soothing sound and feeling, hearing their footsteps both ahead and behind me.

We had several water crossings . . . while most stopped to take their shoes/boots off, by this time I was just done.  Boots aren’t the easiest thing to unlace and pull off your sweaty feet when you’re sitting on the ground, and even harder to put on when you’re feet are still wet.  So I just plowed into the river with them on.  Got part way across before the water started spilling into my boots.  I was wearing heavy wool socks and of course they got wet too – but once back on the trail the water seemed to quickly drain out and I continued on my way.  No blisters, nothing.  But must admit my wet boots were pretty rank by the time I got home.  Made sure I put them in the overhead on the plane so the other passengers wouldn’t be disgusted.

Our journey took us through a Wiwa homestead; they were building a new structure and it was super interesting to see how the walls were formed – with forms, just like (kind of like!) we use for pouring concrete.  But it was mud!

img_3800-2At the plantera foundation we had an opportunity to meet with a Mamo.  Again, we were asked to rid ourselves of any negative thoughts – frustration, anger, sadness – and then he placed a white cotton cord on each of our wrists as he gave us a blessing.

That day the majority of our group developed the belly button down disease. No doubt it was something we ate or drank but we were grateful it was fairly short lived and toward the end of the trek! And that it wasn’t both the belly button up and belly button down disease!

I had travelled to Colombia on my own.  I reflect back on that painfully shy little farm girl who had no confidence, who didn’t say boo growing up, who was so timid and backward.  I’ve come a long way. As the decades pass we all come a long way though, don’t we?

Back to that solo traveling thing.  Some people have told me – oh my! You’re traveling alone, that would be horrible!  Not so. On tours like this, you’re not alone.  You get to know other people very quickly, like the real stuff, and while you begin as strangers you become friends.  While we share just a snippet of life, there are so many fellow travelers that I will never forget.  And some that I’ll meet again, which makes me just smile. Of course I also love to travel and explore with family and friends, which is the bulk of my travel, and I absolutely love this.  And lastly on this topic, it’s been a big step for me to let go of fear and pre-disposed ideas of how things should be and just live my life. Still have more work to do but making progress.

Saw these worms on a tree; I just shudder looking at them and had to share the photo!! It’s one of those things where I don’t want to look but I just can’t stop looking at them!

Over the course of the five days, I showed 96,000 steps (about 43 miles or 64 km) on my tracker.  The trek is said to have an elevation gain (and corresponding loss) of 9,000 ft (2700 m). Maximum elevation is at The Lost City itself at 1,150 meters, around 3,800 feet, which meant no altitude/oxygen issues.

And as my feet touch Ohio soil, I again count my blessings, that I am returning home safely, that my loved ones are well.  I learned so incredibly much, from the Wiwa practice of casting out negative thoughts to the sounds of the jungle to what it’s like to sleep in a hammock.  Really, isn’t that what life is about – expanding our horizons, learning and growing (and sometimes, just keeping going)?

We all have our journey with hills and valleys, beautiful views, and then really crappy sections. If you happen to be reading this while you’re mired in mule dung, please know that there WILL be beautiful views again and that this too shall pass. The good passes, the bad passes. At least that’s how it’s always worked for me.

Thank you for sharing yet another adventure, another small piece of my life with me.  And so I close (again) with one of my favorite quotes:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do, than by the things you do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

–Mark Twain

Random Pics

Day Four: Bugbites, The Wiwa People, the Waterfall, and Trekking

IMG_E3654How do you pick a Lost City Trekker out of a crowd?  It’s easy.  Check their ankles and legs.  Despite regular application of deet, it seems everyone becomes lunch for the mosquitos and sand flies.  I had read that ingesting apple cider vinegar could ward them off and was taking pills; I thought I was onto something but four days in, they found my legs and feasted on them.  Here are some typical legs (thanks for modeling, Janet!).  While they itch, maybe not quite as much as they look like they would.  Although one night I was tempted to use my dinner knife to attempt to gouge the bites out.  All part of the battle scars I guess!

We slept in that morning; no 5 a.m. wakeup calls.  Nevertheless, I was still up at 6:30.  Yes, the roosters . . . We started the day learning about the Wiwa tribe from our amazing guide Jose, who is Wiwa.  I find both the Wiwa and Kogi cultures fascinating; what is shared here is just a tiny bit of their culture, their history, and their way of life.  Here goes.

Our guides Felipe (back) and Jose (front) who is Wiwa

While the Kogi people have resisted all that modern society offer, the Wiwa people have taken some steps toward modernization.  Some young people have smart phones and some attend school, in addition to other things (that I can’t recall!).  There are about 7,000 Wiwa living in the Sierra Nevadas.

There is a specific ceremony when a Wiwa child becomes an adult, and their behavior changes dramatically at this time. The Mamo (refer back to Day Two for an explanation of the Mamo) makes the decision when a young boy is ready to become a man.  When it is time the boy comes into the men’s ceremonial house, along with the Mamo and the rest of the men.  The Mamo will come to the boy and give him a special bag filled with coca leaves and his first poporo.  It will be a smaller poporo and no one will see it after that ceremony.  He looks at the poporo as his new identity; he is a different person then he was before.  The elder men will start instructing him about what to do with the poporo.  (The poporo is filled with a limestone mix; the man has coca leaves in his mouth and then dips the stick in the lime, then into his mouth to collect saliva.  This is rubbed on the outside of the poporo and the size of the poporo grows over time.) Men will share what they have learned about being a man, sharing what only men can talk about when they are together.

The young man learns that he will now greet other Wiwa men by reaching in his bag and exchanging coca leaves.  He will also learn that Wiwa men do not look at each other when meeting, but usually will be using their poporo as they speak.

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Jose’s Poporo

The ceremony lasts multiple days and the boy is expected to stay awake during this time.  If he starts falling asleep the other men will hit him on the head with a stick.  During the first couple of nights he is allowed to sleep for one hour on the ground.  But I believe there is a 48 hour period where he cannot sleep at all.  Then he goes with Mamo into the forest and gives a confession for every mistake he has made in his life.  There are other steps to his indoctrination into manhood but ultimately, they will begin playing music as an announcement that he is a man.  At this point he also receives a different poporo for his daily use.

Jose and me.  Love his footwear!

Coca leaves are considered a sacred plant and they are a significant part of the cultures of the indigenous tribes.  When they are using their poporo, the men think about work to be done, their wives and how to keep them happy, their families; they put all their thoughts into their poporo. If the Mamo requests it, then he will be able to read their life.

When a man gets a poporo he is an adult and ready to get married.  The Mamo will find a wife for him – but this first wife is a trainer wife.  She is usually an older woman – a widow or a woman that is not married.  They will live together for several months and the woman is responsible for training the young man how to be a good husband.  After this first marriage the young man is ready to choose his wife from the village.  It is similar for a girl; when she reaches puberty (her first period) her gown changes and it is known that she is a woman and she is ready for her first marriage.  She receives a trainer husband for a period of time, and then is ready for her real husband.

Once married, men sleep in hammocks and women sleep on a mat on the floor in the hut.  The husband and wife do not have relations in the hut but instead go to the forest.  There may be any number of children in a family, but again, keep in mind that 40% of children die before they reach the age of 5.  Jose’s father had two wives (no doubt due to the death of his first) and Jose has 18 living siblings.

All of the indigenous tribes wash regularly in the river.  In some case the Mamo will deprive them of washing as a form of punishment for a mistake.

There is so much to be learned about these cultures.  To me there is that conundrum of whether their cultures should be preserved, or whether facets of modern society should be introduced that could improve their quality of life and health (medicine, nutrition, education).  Bt who is to say which life is better? I am glad that I don’t have to decide these things but extremely glad that I have had the rare opportunity to learn their ways.

And then there was the waterfall

By 10:30 a.m. we were on the trail, and by 11:15 we had the waterfall in our sights.  I think what I loved most about it is the enthusiasm of our group as they plunged in with little hesitation and piled up on the rocks to get their own version of a freezing water massage for their sore muscles! What a great group!

More Trekking, More Trail

We continued our trek along the Buritaca River; I never lost my fascination with it.  I hope you can see why!

The views of the valleys below are indescribable and photos don’t do them justice.  A number of times I stopped on the trail and gazed out, remembering the dreams I had when I was a little girl, those dreams when I could fly.  In my mind’s eye I lifted off and flew skyward, arms outstretched as I swayed my body, swooping and soaring over the abundant ferns and vine covered trees and the beautiful Buritaca River.IMG_3793

I stood often on the trail, just listening.  There were no sounds of modern society.  Just birds, many birds, and sometimes a background of chirping and buzzing insects.  It is a rare thing, to have only the sounds of nature, but it is tremendously peaceful.

The “experts” say that humans have the greatest contentment and peace when they have flow.  This flow is when you’re mind is so consumed with what you are doing that it is at rest. You are truly just “in the moment.” This could be due to doing a craft, putting together a puzzle, doing a woodworking project – you all get the drift.  I had flow; I was in the moment, mostly focused on the trail, one foot after another, over and over.  I had to remind myself to stop and look around as simply walking becomes hypnotic and meditative.  Not a bad thing though for our minds who are overstimulated and barraged continuously in our everyday world.

The trail continued.  I just shake my head when I look at these pictures; yes, just step right up there!  Seriously, it’s only a two foot high step, no big deal!

It was a shorter day with less than seven miles.  We got into camp and I settled into a chair with a few others as we talked about life, politics, our families, all while enjoying our ice cold Club Colombias.

It began to mist and then to rain ever so slightly, the first rain we had on our trek.  The setting of the sun was surreal and an experience that can only be had on the trail in the Sierra Nevadas. It was the end of the fourth day on the Lost City trek.

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