Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Hike, Some Beer and the Stars

Great are the lessons one can learn
Through a hike, some beer and the stars.
Great teachers opening up the truths of life:
That silence has a voice;
And things happen for a reason;
That there is a world outside of ourselves;
And that, despite our differences, we are very much the same.

Making us feel so alive
By bringing us back to that which is essential:
Reminding us that work is not an end in itself
But a means to an end;

And that end is to live life.
For life, in all its beauty, fullness and mystery
is best lived through a hike, some beer and the stars.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Under the Harvest Moon

Sitting by the beach under the presence of a harvest moon,
The stars caught in a thin net of clouds.
I listen to the sweet song of the waves—a prayer, a chant.
I watch the water foam as it kisses the shore—a brilliant flash of white
And, quickly as it appears it is no more,
Replaced a split second later by a new generation of waves.
So must our lives seem to the gods: brief and easily replaceable.
But for that one brief second we explode and share in the majesty of existence
As real as the stars and the moon.

I am Still Happy

Happy camper. 22 months ago.

Where do I begin?

It’s been about 6 months since my last posting and I’ve had so many experiences that it would be impossible to catch up. I’ve been on two trips outside of Thailand, several trips within, met new people, read new books, been hospitalized with dengue, had both an mri and ct scan to look at my sinuses, had visitors from home, squashed at least 60 cockroaches that have run out of my bathroom drain and said goodbye to my dearest uncle. I even voted for a new president!

Hail to the Chief!

All these experiences (and there have been so many more) have their own stories and I hope to eventually share a couple. But for now I’ll share this:

I am still happy.

I’ve been in Thailand 22 months and while there have been times when I’ve felt that I’ve been here too long (22 months too long at times) it has been a great experience overall—one I know I will always look back on with fondness. I’ve learned so much about myself (not all good things) and I’ve stretched myself in ways I never would have thought possible. I have never regretted my decision to do what I am doing but I’ve certainly had little regrets over the course of my time here—not writing more being one of them. I do take heart however in knowing that though I did not get to write about my time here as much as I would have wanted, I did make sure to savor every experience and squeeze as much from them as I possibly could

In his beautiful essay, The Eloquent Sounds of Silence, Pico Iyer writes, “silence is only as worthy as what we can bring back from it.” What do I have to offer after 6 months of silence? Well, I am not necessarily more mature nor am I significantly wiser now than I was 6 months ago (countless hours spent on fantasy football might in fact have made the opposite true). I’ve also found that I have lost all ability of writing poetry and while I am still charming as ever, my 22 months in a Thai village have weakened my English skills to a disturbing degree (and its hard to be charming and witty when the words don’t flow quite easily). Hmmm…what do I have to offer? Not much it seems.

But I am still happy.

If, through the craziness that is known as Peace Corps life and through the pain of losing one so dear and the uncertainty of what to do after my time here, I’ve managed to remain happy—not just the “I’m okay” kind of happy but the “my cup is filled and I’m excited about life and I still laugh from my stomach” kind of happy…I must be doing something right. And this isn’t such a bad thing to offer. I know the last 4 months of my service will be filled with experiences—good and not so good; exhilarating and mundane. I will have moments that will make me want to stay longer and moments that will make me excited to pack my bags and leave. Through all these different experiences I know my faculty to appreciate and find blessings will be as strong as ever.

And I will continue to be happy.

Now if could only consistently write about it.

Still "laugh from the stomach" happy

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Hammock

Come lay dear friend by the hammock
And speak to me of olden times
The world were told
Is dark and cold
And seen its best days pass it by.

And yet dear friend
Here by a hammock
Under skies no plane has passed
We share a view—a joyous view of a world that has
lasted quite a while.

And remains quite young.

Neither dark nor cold
Nor bland and old
Our world has aged with grace

As the gentle wind blows on our hammock strings
So too, has been the passing of our days.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Those Crazy Americans

*help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of Thais
*help promote a better understanding of Thais on the part of the Americans
--Goals 2 and 3 of Peace Corps

“It’s so refreshing” my friend Maria told me “to be around crazy Americans.” The crazy Americans she was referring to were my friends Tony, Pedro and Kathy who, at the precise moment of her comment, were walking around the local mall wearing masks (Pedro was a power ranger, Tony was Voltron, Kathy was a panda) and waving at confused Thai children. Refreshing was one word to describe their visit. Entertaining, Ridiculous, Hilarious and Crazy are others that come to mind.

The month of March, that found me hosting four friends from California, was nothing short of hilarious, entertaining, ridiculous and crazy. It was also a lot of fun. It was such a joy being able to share this part of my life with friends. Not only did I get to expose them to a life I had been living for about a year but I also got to see my own experience through new lenses. Seen through my friends’ eyes, nothing was too mundane or commonplace. Things I had come to take as routine—lizards running all over my house, the food, the chill vibe that reverberates throughout the village, my muay thai fighting villagers—were all sources of wonder for my friends. And their excitement was contagious. I’ve always been a big fan of Thai food but having my friends rave about how good it was (not to mention how cheap) reanimated my taste buds and I found myself not just eating for eating’s sake but eating the way eating should be done—with full enjoyment. I went through the gai yang, tom yum, som tum and kaoniaw with a gusto that I had not had for a while....around one week. Meals became a major part of my friends’ itinerary and we took full delight in it. My villagers of course, as is the norm in Thailand, have made sure to point out that I’ve gained some weight.
Perhaps the single best thing about their visit (other than the chocolates they brought over) was the interaction they had with my village. One of the best privileges that comes with being a Peace Corps Volunteer is the opportunity to serve as a bridge between American culture and that of the host country. My friends got to see and partake in a Thailand not seen in travel brochures and my villagers…well, they got to see some crazy Americans. I took my friends to work with me and had my kids attempt to teach them the local dialect. Let’s just say my students got a glimpse of what I go through trying to teach them English.

I must admit I felt a lot of pride watching my kids interact with my friends. When I first arrived in the village, these 5th graders were too shy to speak. Now they were asking questions to foreigners they met for the first time! I told my kids that Nikki worked in fashion and they all got the impression that she was either a designer or a model. With my limited vocabulary, I think I led them to believe she was actually both. One of the first things they asked her was to teach them how to walk like a model. My 5th grade girls absolutely loved it (so did the boys) and one afternoon, my thousand year old ruins were transformed into a catwalk with Nikki and 5 of my students as the models. What the monks must have been thinking!

How to sway hips and a horrible ear for tonal languages were not the only things my friends brought over of course. Through my friends, my villagers got to see the diversity and the energy that makes America so beautiful. That none of my friends were the blond, blue eyed Americans my villagers associated with America cemented aspects of America I've been sharing with them all along: that America is a truly diverse country; that we all don't look alike, don't sound alike, don't have the same religion and yet, we are all Americans; that beauty is not measured only through a light skin tone but by who a person is inside; that Americans are in fact interested in other cultures and peoples and are in fact willing to travel to a rural village in northeastern Thailand inorder to learn more about other cultures and spend time with other peoples. My villagers, while appreciating my work here have always wondered why I would leave America to live amongst them in rural Thailand. They've always thought I was a bit crazy for doing so. Meeting my friends and seeing their genuine appreciation for life in the village was a source of pride for my community. I'd like to think I became even less of an anomaly in my villagers' eyes after the visit.

As I continue to work on Goal 1 of Peace Corps—to help a country meet its need for trained men and women, I’m glad to know that Goals 2 and 3 are being accomplished…one crazy American at a time.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Manifold Expressions of Life part 1

“I spent more hours than I can count a quiet witness to the highly mannered, manifold expressions of life that grace our planet. It is something so bright, loud, weird, and delicate as to stupefy the senses.”
- from the Life of Pi

Ajan Mai sits on a stone block, shirtless, devotedly working on wood carvings of the Buddha as I bike past his home in the afternoon. At night I head to school to call Caitlin and he is still there—a lone fluorescent light bulb his only source of light.

Across the street my eighty four year old neighbor’s bare breasts dangle like balloons filled with water as she peels papayas.

I see a kindergartner from my school, stick in hand, walking barefoot as she leads five emaciated
cows home. She smiles and waves.

A 5th grade student of mine is picking petals off a flower. She is reciting “he loves me, he loves me not” in a language I now understand.

I watch my Thai grandmother weave silk. It is meticulous work. After a while, she notices me observing her. She smiles her beautiful toothless smile and asks if I have eaten. Three minutes later she is serving me a fried egg and some sticky rice.

Some of the village boys approach me while I am reading by the ruins. They carry a chicken. They then proceed to throw the chicken as high as they can before chasing the frightened animal all over the place. Their laughter (not to mention the chickens panicked cackling) fills the temple. I can’t decide whether I am more amused by their game or by the fact that their playground happens to be one thousand year old temple ruins.

It’s 5:30 PM. I watch the monks as they feed the fish, their saffron robes in visual harmony with the colors reflected by the lake. The sky basks in a brilliant sunset.

It’s 6:30 AM. The women of my village are beautiful in their silk dresses. There is a peaceful deliberateness in their stride as they carry food baskets to the wat.

It’s 7:00 PM. I am in my room unwinding over a book and listening to music. I hear my Thai grandfather chanting. His room is right next to mine. He is meditating. I turn down my music and continue reading, mesmerized by the ancient language reverberating through my room.

It is 9:00 PM. I step outside my house to take out the trash. The entire village is asleep. All I hear is the sound of crickets.

It is 10:03 PM I hear my Thai grandfather wake up to use the bathroom. I hear his bed creak, his door slide open. I hear him pass gas.

I am attending the funeral of Ajan Wichits brother in law. We eat tom yum, steamed fish, fried pork and sticky rice under a tarpaulin tent. Everyone I know from the village is there. Ajan Wichit sits by me, his shoulders sagging. He says, in English, “I am tired”

My 5th grade girls start telling me their crushes. They all giggle and blush.

I see my student, Gon, walking alone along the lake. I form my right hand into a fist and bounce it atop my left palm. He does the same. We start playing paper-rock-scissors from across the lake. We take turns winning but he ultimately beats me. I shake my fists at him playfully and I can see him laughing. There is more oomph in his step as he walks home.

I help my friend Ej with his life skills camp. One of the activities entails us making a grid in the ground. The grid is set up in advance. The next day we come in early only to see that the kids have made up their own game using the grid. Their laughter can be heard from the meeting hall.

I hitch a ride from the main road down to my village. Along the way, we stop to pick up some offerings for the temple in another village. I see two teenage boys passed out on a hammock, 7 bottles of beer lying on the dirt floor. It is 3 PM.

It is the beginning of the school year. I am teaching my 5th grade class when I notice an extra child in my classroom. A tiny kindergartner is sharing a seat with her older sister, coloring in her coloring book. She attends my class everyday for a week, sharing her older sister’s seat and coloring while I teach about pronouns. No one seems to mind.

I sit by the lake. I see my neighbor teaching his grandson how to use the slingshot. The child is focused, exuding only silent determination as stone after stone disappears into the lake. My neighbor, the new grandfather, is basically squealing in delight.

I am in one of Bangkok’s overcrowded outdoor markets that cater mostly to foreigners. My friend haggles down the price for some bootlegged watches. The seller, getting visibly impatient as my friend decides which exact watch he wants, snaps at us and yells for us to leave his stall. It is one of the few times I’ve ever seen a Thai get upset.

I’m at the arrival terminal of the international airport in Bangkok. A Thai lady my age is waiting for her 45 year old Canadian boyfriend. She has been waiting in the airport longer than I have and all she has is a flight number. I try to teach her how to understand the arrival information on the screens but she has difficulty following all the times and info. In the course of our conversation, I realize that she is not sure whether she can distinguish him from the other white men coming out of the arrivals gates.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Living Quotations

As a person who appreciates quotations and poetry, I’ve been fortunate to meet people, who, in their own unique ways, have embodied some of my favorite quotations and poetry, bringing them out of the page into life. My friend Kristin for example, exemplifies Thoreau’s quotes of “living deliberately” and “sucking the marrow out of life.” A buddy, Ej, with his uncanny knack of turning otherwise ordinary trips into something extraordinary, gives life to Francis Quarles’, “The world’s an inn, and I am her guest.” Whitman’s song is shared by my friend Susan who is always “afoot and lighthearted” as she takes to the “open road.” The opening lines of Robert Service’s The Tramp bring me back to my dorm-room days with my college buddies:

Can you recall, dear comrade, when we tramped God’s land together,/
And we sang the old, old earth-song for our youth was very sweet;

(Of course, when it comes to my college buddies, there has certainly been more than a few of them that have personified Henry Youngman’s quote: When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.)

Caitlin’s ability to light up a room with her laughter and bring out the best in people is an embodiment of William Saroyan’s “Seek goodness everywhere and when it is found bring it out of its hiding place” and several people I met during my work in the Catholic Institute for La Sallian Social Action (people like James, and Jaime, and Devin, and Casey) embodied Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Recently, I’ve witnessed two people bring another favorite quote to life.

I’ve always admired these words from Martin Luther King Jr:

"If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well."

I admired the words for its poetry and romanticism but primarily for its message. It’s been a thrill to see it come to life in an extraordinarily ordinary way.

In an earlier blog, I mention my new found appreciation for running around my village lake. What I don’t mention is that on my way back to my home, I pass by a tiny house with a tiny garden. Everyday, there is this kid and his grandmother tending to the garden. I’ve certainly seen people water plants before but for some reason, I’m drawn to this kid and his grandmother and I always stop even for the briefest of moments to watch them at work. There is a consciousness to their actions, something special— not necessarily in the same way that listening to Beethoven’s 9th is special or reading one of Hamlet’s soliloquies or looking up at the paintings of the Sistine (or gazing at the David)—but special nonetheless…in its own simple way.

Perhaps its how the grandmother seems like an extension of the earth as she bends gently tending to the plants or how the kid dutifully fills his bucket with water from the lake across the street and carries it back to the plots or how the two of them, without talking, seem to communicate to the other what needs to be done or how, when juxtaposed against the sunset, their garden seems to blush in golden hues—a manifest illustration of nature’s tranquility.

Or perhaps it’s simply because in their heart of hearts, they were called to work in a garden.

And they do their work well.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

When My Mind is Full

When my mind is full
I often go for a walk
And walks take me far.

Often, it’s as if I go back in time
Where all is untouched by industry
‘Tis when I see the young monks at play
Their robes—brilliant saffron; sun kissed
And their laughter in harmony with the bird’s song.

Often it’s as if I walk into a glimpse of the future
Or at least what the world would look like
Should we learn to lay down our arms and biases.
Tis when I see the elder monks at peace
Their robes—a wise hue of brown; wind blown
And their presence in harmony with the wind’s song.

Often, it’s as if I walk into a more conscious present
where life is lived with full awareness.
Tis when I see the monks close to my age,
Their robes becoming; deliberate like the night
And their laughter in harmony with my own soul’s song.

When my mind is full
I often go for a walk
And walks take me far.