Friday, January 31, 2014

Not Searching

Sometimes when you search for something specific, you miss what you have already found. I am grounding again! I must admit, travel through Thailand has been challenging at times. Being guided by others creates expectations that have confused my experiences. I’ve been searching what, for me, isn’t even there.
“You’ll just love Chiang Mai”, said so many of our friends. The city was a bustling, busy, polluted, crowded (mostly with tourists) city. Hundreds of massage places, bars, restaurants, and advertising for adventure excursions crowd the streets of the city. Beautiful, ornate temples abound, and, there are very few people inside praying. There are considerably more tourists in the city than Thai so the culture seems to be overtaken by tourism. And the Thais serve. I continue to be uncomfortable with the idea of guests overtaking a city.

The southern islands of Thailand are, undoubtedly beautiful and we had fantastic, chill time in various locations there. We snorkelled and scuba dived and kayaked. We rode motor scooters and bicycles. We ate delicious Thai food and enjoyed the beautiful warmth, spectacular sunsets and inspiring hikes on the sand and in the woods. The Thai islands are a unique and spectacular sight to be seen! And it is still definitely a resort town populated and culturally driven by tourists and travellers. Again, the Thai people serve.

That’s why going off the grid has been so fulfilling for me, away from tourism and surrounded by nature and real life.

We eat many meals with families of the Lahu tribe. Pork is a staple and, at this point I pretend to be vegetarian. I can’t eat one more piece of pork! Sometimes I even pass on the meal completely and sit outside to play with the many children who live there. I watch the chickens leading their baby chicks, and observe the pigs wandering around the village unaware that this might be their last walk.

I observe the richness of culture. Sometimes while here, I am amazed at the differences of the ways we behave.

It is the New Year and the festivities continue all day and night. The firecrackers resound in the mountains constantly, some just crackling. Some burst with explosive power and enormous sound. The children are the ones who light them. I am regularly alarmed at the danger of children, as young as 7 years old lighting firecrackers. But the adults don’t mind. In fact, there are few adults in the streets. They are all somewhere else, either in their homes, or preparing for the festive dancing that happens sporadically throughout the day and night.

We spend several hours every day in the villages sharing in the New Year’s festivities. I have grown to know many of the children and we enjoy playing. They love candy and being carried around on our shoulders and playing chicken. Sometimes they graciously accept candy or ice cream from the local shop in the village. Most children don’t attend school. Very few speak English. I rely, (usually successfully) on body language, gentle touch and smiles.
I am overwhelmed with emotion as I watch the slow, precise steps of the dancing that happen in along with the music from the pipes played softly as they move. It is spiritual, meditative, inclusive and joyful, without any mention or reference to God. I watch them move and I smile at the same time that my tears form in my eyes. It is very beautiful! They dance, not for us, although we are welcome to observe. Occasionally a hand reaches out to invite me in the trance-like march. It is their ceremony and we are merely welcomed visitors.

The costumes, each indicative of the village from which they have come, are colourful and bright and decorative. Ornate headdresses sit atop some of the womens’ heads, some with dangling jewels and tassels. Carefully applied make-up accentuates beautiful eyes and the smooth skin of the various aged girls. Gentle lip-sticked smiles display a quiet joy of celebration and reverence.

During the ceremonies I regularly revel in the amazing experience! I feel so fortunate to have given up the search and have found what is right here in front of me. I am so happy to be in this wonderful place with such amazing people!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mountain Bliss

What a way to spend my birthday! The route to the Lahu tribes’ village in the mountains of Chiang Rai was not an easy one to traverse. The saongtow (an open pickup truck with a canopy) brought us to the Hot Springs of Chiang Rai. There we are met by Noi, the owner of the Limeleaf Eco-lodge. We travel with her, first to her house part of the way up the mountain. There we deposit most of our belongings so that the trek to the lodge will be manageable. We drive almost to the lodge in her truck. Then we walk the last 800 metres on our own.

It isn’t easy! The slope up the narrow dirt path angles approximately 45 degrees at times. I must admit, I have to stop often to catch my breath. I am, after all, 16 hours older than I was yesterday!

In the community we are joined by residents, volunteers, and travellers searching for refuge from busy city life, and, also for a place to work to build the land, plant organic food, and build a natural sustainable environment for living. The owners of the property, Noi and Wanai are both Thai. Chris is English and lives here half the year. The other half of the year he is a chef on a huge, expensive yacht working for very wealthy people. In his heart, though, he strives for simplicity and basic living. He finds it here at LimeLeaf Lodge as he helps run the activities here.

Scattered all around the mountains, sometimes even visible from our lodge, I can see small gatherings of huts clustered together. These comprise the homes of the various tribes who live in the mountains. The Lahu tribe is the closest, living directly below our lodge. Many other tribes live in nearby areas. Each have their own language, specific culture, costume, and ways of being. Several Lahu people find work with Limeleaf and prosper from their presence.

Our accommodations are very simple and perfect. We live in a brick cabin with a fireplace and tin roof. It sits on top of a small cliff overlooking the kilometres of trees and plants of herbs and vegetables. Bananas, coffee, and ferns grow all over the surface of the land. It is truly beautiful! Communally-built structures sprout across the property. Various cabins for sleeping, porches with long wooden tables for eating, and little terraces for sleeping scatter everywhere. We know that everything that stands here, was built by the community of Lahu, visitors and volunteers that live or pass through here.

Life has quieted down for us since we’ve arrived. With no internet or cell phone connections we take the opportunity to disengage. It feels good, and, at the same time, uncomfortable. I don’t generally feel the need to disengage. I welcome the embrace that my life has to offer me. My children and the communication I have with each of them, my on-going discussions about my working opportunities, and my interaction with others in the world enhance my existence always. And yet, taking a few days to regroup and regenerate my energy is rewarding. I have been barefoot since we’ve arrived.

The people who come and go here come from various countries. Our mates now are from France, England, Norway, U.S.A. We gather together often after they have finished their work for the day. They are building mud houses and taking care of the extensive organic gardens that are here. We’ve been playing together in the Lahu villages, visiting the beautiful natural and desolate waterfalls, drinking delicious fresh coffee, cooking and eating communal meals, playing music and engaging in fascinating and invigorating conversation. I am filled with the joy of sharing time with such interesting and diverse people of all ages. From 21 years old to 60 (that’s Paul) we share so much of what we have, and, I recognize once again, the gifts of the young and the old and I revel in the chance to share it all together!

Yoga, meditation in the mountains, talking quietly with others, observing the flow of nature and living peacefully amongst the residents here, reminds me of the wholeness of who I am and helps to strengthen my soul as I move through my day. I am definitely finding peace!

Tonight as I look at the stars above, I thank Noi and Chris, the volunteers who have become our friends and all the energies that come from around me, for another wonderful day! I, once again, feel completely blessed.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Feeling So Strong

Next week is my birthday again! Some people avoid celebration or acknowledgement of their birthday preferring to keep it low key and quiet. I don’t need to be loud about it, but I do like to recognize the anniversary of the day I was born! It reminds me to give thanks to my parents for giving me life. I get to remember my siblings who were there with me during the whole first part of living. I think about all the people who have contributed to the person I have become. And I also like to reflect on who I am now and how I want to continue to grow and give credit to myself and to the years I have lived.

I am excited about moving in to my 60th year! I feel good and healthy and strong. I am excited about my life and grateful…oh so grateful for the life I lead! Daily, I give thanks for the choices I have made and for the places I find myself, physically, intellectually, and spiritually.

This week, for instance, I climbed 1,257 steps to the top of the Tiger Temple in Krabi, where the Buddha sits ominously watching over the landscape of the city. Along the way I pass many people, both younger and older than myself, who don’t make it to the top. I feel strong though, and, although I’m not afraid to stop, I do feel determined to make it all the way up! And when I do get there, I spend time looking down upon this beautiful city, and sit alongside Buddha to take some time to be quiet and contemplate. I feel strong!

I have spent several days while in Krabi, motor-scootering around visiting the beautiful natural hot springs of Klong Thom. I have grasped the ledge under the waterfalls of the springs and allowed the force of the water to massage my head and back. I have visited the clear waters of Emerald Pond and walked for kilometres through boisterous busy jungles to get from one place to the next. I have figured out how to get along with monkeys and how to avoid their wrath when they don’t get my ice cream or a chance to share whatever I am eating at the time. I have learned to hiss back, playfully, at them when they try to assert their place in the woods.

I have had several transports by long-tail boats to get me to various beaches around Krabi. I have climbed the cliffs of Raileh Beach and wandered through the wild woods from one side of that beautiful island to the other just as the masses of mosquitoes descended. I watched and listened as they feasted on Paul’s skin. They don’t touch me for some reason. Maybe it’s my patchouli!

I’ve paddled in a kayak with Paul for hours off of Ao Nang Beach exploring the banks of the mountains and cliffs of the area. As we paddle I remain in awe of the beauty that lay in front of us. The cliffs, covered with growth in places and bare rock in others, jut out of the water in different shapes and sizes and groupings. The view is spectacular and paddling through the caves compound the experience.

I have spent 2 full days on Booze Cruises with 20 -30 year olds (at least pretending) to keep up with their alcohol consumption. I snorkelled and scuba dived and walked and climbed through caves. I jumped off cliffs of about 10 meters high and bounced around on a motorized long-tail boat as it carried me across the Andaman Sea.

I ate curries and seafood and pad thais. I tasted deep fried seafood and tempura vegetables while drinking Chang beers and delicious fresh fruit shakes. I stayed up late (at least till 11!), woke up early and loved every single minute of experiencing life in Thailand with my partner Paul.

Yep! Turning 59 next week is exciting for me! My 60th year will be rich. I’m not ready to slow down yet. I am ready for new adventures and a new perspective. I deserve it. I’ve earned it. I’m ready!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Island Life on Phi Phi

I get a big thrill out of seeing the world differently.

Bob is the brother of our neighbour on Gabriola. We met Bob last summer while he was visiting for a few months. Bob lives in Thailand where he runs a business from Phi Phi Island called “Bob’s Booze Cruise”.

If you knew Phi Phi Island, the name “Bob’s Booze Cruise” wouldn’t be so outlandish! Phi Phi Island is small…about 50 km southeast of Phuket. There are several places on the island where you can see limestone mountains with sharp cliffs, and caves that open to long white sandy beaches. The entire island is about: 8 km in length and 3.5 km wide. There are no vehicles on the island. Pushcarts and bicycles help pedestrians get from one place to another. Longboats and ferries travel around the perimeter. I  come to realize that most of the people on the island aren’t old enough to drive anyway! Paul and I were definitely the oldest!

The population on Phi Phi is said to be about 2,000-3,000, but I would say that that number more than triples when you account for the tourists. Once again, it seems that western presence overwhelms that of Native Thais. Restaurants, resorts, entertainment, bars and spas appear overwhelmingly throughout the island. Young travelers (mostly 20-30 year olds) come to Phi Phi for beautiful beaches, lots of alcohol and on-going partying!  Thais serve.
We played with Bob and his Booze Cruise for two days. Monkey Island, cliff jumping, cave touring and checking out 100-year-old wall paintings are all a part of the adventure. I passed on most of the booze, choosing bottled water instead, but, I have to say, I marvelled at the amount of alcohol most young people could consume. In the two days, there were several drunken young people walking off the boat. It was fun though, and really nice to be hosted by our friend, Bob. He liked it too. It was the first time in a long while since he had conversation with someone over the age of 28.

Bob took us scuba diving! I love breathing with the rest of the life underwater. It’s just like communing with a whole different culture. I tune into my breath so completely when I swim, and maintain a rhythm that keeps it comfortable. With SCUBA I know I can stay under water so much longer. I often stop just to ‘fish watch’.
The colours off of Phi Phi Island are subtle. Browns, tans, beiges, dark greens comprise the backdrop of the coral. So much of the sea foliage looks like the same design as the human brain. All shapes and sizes are scattered across the sea floor. Every so often as I swim, I see a spattering of bright colour in the growth. Splashes of violet, or sunshine yellow stand alone sporadically. It reminds me of a Steven Spielberg movie with his splash of bright red against a background of black and white and grey.
Scattered along the floor are these amazing vase like structures, with an exterior of pure purple and the inside an ivory clear surface. Each one I see, I think to myself “who made this? I want to buy one!” But there is no one on the bottom of the sea selling it.  These perfectly square shaped tall receptacles stand solidly on the sea ground appearing as if they are waiting to be filled with fresh cut flowers. Instead, they sit empty, the waves flowing over, with occasional fish investigating what’s inside or maybe even hanging around for a bit of a rest.
Beautiful fish of different sizes and shapes and incredible colours, yellows and purples, solids and stripes travel in schools. I wonder where they’re going and where they’re coming from. They probably wonder the same, as they look back at me, obviously curious at what they see. I stare back with my hands folded comfortably in front of me, a sign that I promise not to touch. I am a tourist in another world once again and I just want to continue to observe……

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Koh Lanta

We’ve never been to Thailand! There is a lot about the country for us to learn. We know to begin our trip slowly. So we make our first stop a beach. The islands of Thailand tend to be very touristy and magnets for constant partying. We want quiet, beach time and simplicity. After reading and talking with friends we decide to make our first stop Koh Lanta.
The island of Koh Lanta is a slow, laid back island in the province of Krabi. A one-hour ferry ride from Phi Phi, Koh Lanta has a wild natural ambiance with warm white beaches. The views are spectacular in every direction. Which area of the island you choose will make a difference to the social vibe you’ll experience. Koh Lanta has it all. And it’s a perfect place for recouping energy after grueling travel and recovering from a bad chest infection.
Our home for the week is a basic hut with a thatched roof. The walls are made from tightly woven straw. We are about 200 feet from the water. With restaurants, bars, massage spas and entertainment, there is nothing we lack here! Next door is a very large 5 star resort and spa, the kind that we too, used to stay in when we had 2-3 weeks holiday each year. On the beaches, everybody looks the same.
I’ve been here such a short time, and I’ve been pretty under the weather, but there are several things about Thailand I’m noticing.
The relationship between Muslim and Buddhist cultures here in the south is interesting. The vibe is comfortable and respectful. There is a mix of cultural background, Buddhist, Muslim and Sea Gypsy. Each retains its own practices while living harmoniously side by side. Yesterday when I ordered my eggs, I specifically asked for no bacon. “Bacon!” exclaimed the server. “We are Muslim here. There is no bacon.”  In the next door 5 star resort, Paul and I wander through the grounds and notice the statues of Ganesh and Lakshmi scattered around the area. These are representations of Hindu deities. As we travel further south, a more Native Thai vibe is apparent with fewer and fewer westerners.
Most of the people here, it seems, subsist because of the tourist business. They seem to love what they do and are completely devoted to their jobs. I’m not sure about how I feel when I notice that tourists outnumber residents. There just seems to be something unnatural about one’s country being dominated by ‘guests’. As Paul and I venture out on our scooter, we see that actually, many of the residents earn a living by farming, fishing or working on rubber plantations.      

The topography is wild. Banana, rubber and coconut trees crowd the grounds of the rugged mountains and tropical forests that line the sides of the one road that circles the island. The gravel and sand beaches meet crystal clear warm waters of the Pacific. The ocean offers a perfect swim! Once we get healthy enough, our next stop is Phi Phi Island. Paul and intend to dive there. We hear the coral and sea life is incredibly special and unique!
I am surprised about the absence of spirituality in the atmosphere. People have often said about Thailand, “It’s just like India, but it works”. I thought I knew what that meant, but I don’t anymore. I don’t find it at all like India. Everywhere in India I feel spirit. Here I feel none of it so far. I suppose as we venture away from the islands, ‘real’ living will be more present.
My first thought about coming to Thailand happened a few years ago as I was lying on a beach in British Columbia. I overheard two young teenagers talking. “But what do you do in Thailand?” one of them said to the other. “What do you mean?” her friend answered. “You hang out on the beach and eat Thai food!” Yep….that’s what I’m noticing so far. I’m guessing there’s probably more than that!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Sick in Beauty

How lucky that we have chosen to come to this beautiful island of Koh Lanta for our initiation to Thailand! We’ve both been pretty sick with respiratory infection and we’ve had to take it really slow. Some days I don’t even eat! Imagine sitting in a gorgeous little beach side café in Thailand, holding a menu offering delicious food, and not wanting to order anything!  My recovery has been slow. I’ve been to the doctor twice. Yesterday I finally gave in to prescription drugs. I slept my first full night and the coughing has finally begun to subside.
I think I feel guilty about being on vacation. “Vacation” has always meant, for me, ‘to vacate’, a practice that I needed in my life to allow for stress reduction and relaxation.  My heavy work schedule, busy family life, desires to continue learning, and my commitment to social justice, kept me constantly busy and stressed! Vacation was a necessary remedy for that choice of life style! My life is still full. I love the work I do with teachers and youth. I’m still committed to social justice. My family still takes a lot of my time. I have an array of interests that keep me learning and occupied. I have a rich and colourful social life. I just don’t have the same kind of stress any more! My ‘vacation’ needs have changed.
I’m not used to allowing myself to be sick either. I rarely took off sick days from work, and my kids were hardly ever home from school either. We have been, generally, a very healthy group. This week I’ve taken advantage of the chance to be sick. If we were here for a couple of weeks, I might feel badly, as if I were wasting precious ‘vacation’ time. But I have the luxury of taking this little reprieve and allowing myself to heal.
Paul and I travel a lot during this time of our lives. That might change soon, as we are embarking on building our house on Gabriola. In the meantime, we travel in the winter months. We never think of it as a vacation. It is for us, an opportunity for exploration, learning, and engaging with others, as we experience living in different cultures.
So, what have I been doing? Actually….not much!
Each morning when no on else is awake, I go outside of our thatched hut and walk down the path towards the beach. As I move, the music of nature overwhelms me. Insects of all kinds, unusual birds, each take their turn to express their own life song. They are waking up to a new day too, and joining me as I do the same. The ocean, settles where it meets with the light, soft brown sand. The waves roll in to moisten the ground as the crashing sound finds it’s place in harmony with the rest. I sit quietly on the sand listening each morning, until, Whela, the owner of the café comes for his long working day. We say “Good morning”, and talk a bit about how we each slept and then, as we continue our conversation, we cover the tables with cloths and fasten them each with four clothespins. “Thank you”, he says! It is completely ‘my pleasure’.
I have been reading books faster than I have read since I was teenager! Diana, a friend of mine from Toronto is my book Guru. She sends me 5 book recommendations at a time when I request. I get the books onto my Kindle, and read through them, one by one. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been able to spend a whole day reading books! And I have read such great books since I’ve been away! It’s been fantastic!
I have been too sick to practice Yoga. And my body craves Asana! So I’ve discovered Thai Massage! With an experienced Thai masseuse, Yoga practice is done for me. Kneading, stretching, pulling, pounding, twisting, when my massage is done, I feel as if I have had an hour of asana. Today was the first day I was able to practice in the morning on my own. But I still intend to visit Anha later for my daily Thai massage!
I think we’ll take one more day to recuperate. It’s beautiful here. We now know many of the people and we’re comfortable. What am I doing? Not much! And for now…. that’s just fine!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Just Coming Together in Thailand

The sun streams directly above casting a pink and orange light across the ocean. I watch her gently fall as I lie on the warm soft sand of Long Beach on the island of Koh Lanta. I listen to the evening approach and marvel at the beauty of where I am. I turn to Paul, “Look where we are!” I say. As I begin the sentence he knows what I am going to say and we finish together. It is not the first time we have said this.

We arrived in Thailand 3 days ago. The trip here was not an easy one. Stormy weather in the east prompted cancelled flights and almost prevented me from departure. Perseverance, determination and many patient customer service workers from Expedia made sure I got to where I needed to go. The cost to me was 36 hours in either airports or airplanes over a 48-hour period of time. That was costly! Ridiculous exhaustion, chest congestion and achy body muscles left me feeling too sick to move. 
The journey to Thailand is brutal, even without complications. China Eastern Airlines might not be the best way to travel. The service was lacking considerably. For a 12 ½ hour trip we saw the flight attendants for the two meals and a mid flight snack. Other than drinks with the meal, they were invisible unless called upon for help. The P.A. system was ineffective, and the quiet voices and heavy accents made it impossible for me to understand announcements.

I found the stopover in Shanghai a bit oppressive. Even though we weren’t even leaving the airport, we had to go through serious security, and the officers were commanding and abrupt. It began to influence my feelings when I heard Chinese being spoken around me. And the Chinese are a significant presence in Thailand with many visitors and transient residents. With Thailand being a 5 hour flight away and a much better climate during the winter months, many Chinese come here for Winter refuge. It is the East’s ‘Florida’.

Cathay Pacific is my new hero. First of all, they were the only airline flying out of New York during the (supposed) storm. It wasn’t really a storm…just a few dusts of snow and cold temperatures. But New Yorkers are a little wimpy and don’t really know how to deal with unusual weather conditions. Anyway… Cathay Pacific Airlines made the New York – Vancouver leg of their flight to Asia available at the last minute. I happened to catch it when it became available and grabbed a seat. They also offered me a free upgrade to Business Class and I thoroughly enjoyed such comfort for my 5 ½ hour flight home. The service was beautiful. The attendants were pleasant and helpful, and it got me home in time to meet Paul at YVR Airport.

The worst part about the trip is the way it left me feeling. Ridiculous exhaustion was only exacerbated by extreme congestion in my chest. The coughing kept me (and Paul) awake day and night and I probably hurt my muscles just from the intensity of the action. I just couldn’t overcome jetlag! So yesterday I went to a local doctor. She assured me there was no infection, gave me a prescription for antibiotic just in case it didn’t improve, and directed me to nearest pharmacy to purchase a natural cough medicine.

Today I am on the repair. Breakfast was my first meal since I arrived…the first time I actually felt hungry!

When my United Airlines flight got cancelled in the onset of my journey, my friend Sandy said, “Everything’s going to come together”.

As I watch the sun setting this evening and I am comforted by the warmth of the sand under me, I know I have finally arrived. Yes Sandy… everything does always come together somehow!