Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Who would choose a toy over travel?

I’m surrounded with the chaos of pre-Christmas. The balance of the list for Santa from my two boys, ages 8 and 10, that somewhat resembles my means and values.

This means I’m taking them to Nicaragua for three weeks instead of having a traditional Christmas.

But, since I’m a sucker, it also means I spent last night crawling around Target and REI in hopes that some of our travel necessities will suffice as fairly-bizarre stocking stuffers. I mean, I know they won’t be stoked about the bottles of hand-sanitizer, but I’m going to be glad for the tiny antiseptic bottles when we get on our first chicken bus and wolf down a hot papusa, a sort of stuffed mini-pancake, on our first day of travel. And, doesn’t everyone want mosquito repellent and sunscreen from Santa? At least the collapsible fishing poles will be a big hit on Lake Nicaragua.

The biggest question I get is …. How? How do you do it? How do you travel to developing countries with two children without going broke and/ or losing your mind?

Now, I’m the first to say I’ve often lost my mind during our travels. However, there are a few pearls of wisdom I’ve learned along the miles that I’m happy to share.

1.)    Pack Light. I know, it doesn’t sound particularly enlightening (pun intended). But, it truly is. The three of us travel with one rolling duffle bag that we share. It’s got bulky, beefy wheels and my youngest son, Roam, can spin it around with his thin arms and easily hand it to someone to haul to the top of a bus. I decided years ago that I would end up carrying all of the bags at some point anyway. And, instead of carrying three medium-sized messes, I decided we could all easily fold into one big behemoth. Additionally, we each have a small backpack for personal belongings. And, although I still end up carrying everything for everyone on a sporadic basis, the point is that by sharing a duffle – I can.

2.)    Ditch technology. The battle starts at home. Everyone wants to bring a screen. A game for the long flight. An e-book for reading. A phone. A computer. If we honestly traveled with the requested amount of technology, we would need 16 extra plugs and an emergency portable power generator. Simply put – no one is allowed to bring a screen. Myself included. We bring those old-fashioned, heavy, paper books and leave them at hostels along the way.   I read to the boys at night under the folds of a heavy mosquito net, and we all share our stories together. For games, I bring cards. For this trip, I’m also bringing a few “spoons” (to play spoons) and Banana-grams. And, I’ll bring my phone, but turn off the wi-fi and data. We’ll only use my phone for the flight down and back – otherwise, a public computer in a hostel will work for an email or two, and I’m happy to escape from the constant Pavlovian- fear conditioning of my phone – for all of our sakes.  

3.)    Backpackers Love Kids. It’s true. The way to save money is to stay in backpacker’s hostels around the world. You can stay in hammocks, tents, dorm-beds, or private rooms. These are places with an eco-ethic and a myriad of interesting characters trying to make their way around on the world on rice and beer for a year. Backpacker hostels are often filled with culture, great food, curious conversation, and appealing (but a little nontraditional) activities for kids. Like catching the frogs from the campsite and trying to sell them to guests. Now, these hostels don’t advertise “family-friendly,” but, I’ve found a quick email or conversation can steer you in the right direction. In fact, these places seem to attract people who are open to the world. And, the more open and tolerant an individual is – it seems they accept all kinds. Black, white, gay, straight, senior citizen and 2nd grade alike. These places have “private rooms” with a shared bath where I can pile our circus in for a few days for a few dollars. Because, if you are doing it well – you aren’t spending too much time in a hotel, anyway.

4.)    Teach them skills. I’ve got friends in Montana who walk their children to their classroom desks even though their children are in fifth grade. Needless to say, I’m not one of these parents. Excluding special exceptions, I believe my kids need to have skills to navigate some tricky life-situations when mom isn’t around. And, travel brings on those tricky situations. My boys want to know how the man without legs is scooting around Bangkok on a skateboard when there aren’t any handicapped ramps in the sidewalks. They want to know why the Irish man at the backpacker hostel says that he has never met a nice American before he met them. They want to know why a boy younger than them is selling gum in the aisles of the bus and why he isn’t in school. And, honestly, this is why we travel. To try to answer these questions, or at least see the question. To get a new perspective on the world through the eyes of another.  And, I also tell them about the real dangers in the world. How to get back to me if you get lost in a crowded market. How to learn to trust someone who seems genuine but may have ulterior motives. How to look after each other’s back when we are moving through an unfamiliar area. How to move in this world.

5.)    The best activities aren’t paid for. I always have us live with a local family and volunteer in a school for a bit while we are traveling. The boys moan about how “weird” I am, but, long after we’ve returned home, they remember the name of the Thai boy who swam with them through the jellyfish on the Andaman Sea. They don’t really remember the exorbitantly expensive dinner we ate in a sterile Bangkok mall, but they do remember bathing orphaned elephants in a jungle river. They remember the people. And, frankly, so do I. Those connections with communities are what differentiate lightweight tours from authentic travel.

6.)    What we can’t live without.  I give them each an adapted money belt that hangs on a cord around their necks that has some money, a business card from our hostel, several emergency phone numbers, and phrases written in the local language. They aren’t allowed to leave the hostel/ tent/ homestay without it.  We create a trip journal for each adventure and we all take turns writing, drawing, and collecting scraps inside the pages.  And, I always travel with an emergency bag of chocolate, beef jerky and tins of tuna for when the food simply gets “too creepy.”

All right. Enough procrastination. Those stockings won’t fill themselves.

The other night, we were eating dinner and playing “Table Topics,” a conversational game to ask everyone at the table a single question printed on a card. The card Zane drew said, “Would you rather receive a coveted toy for Christmas or go on an adventure with your family?” Roam laughed. “That’s such a stupid question, Mom,” he said. “Who would choose a toy over travel?”

I guess I’m off the hook.

Friday, January 17, 2014

You Can’t Have Pieces of Your Soul Sprinkled Around

There is an incomplete gap in leaving the country you have traveled in for hundreds of saturated hours and returning home to the life you used lead.

Used to.

Because you can never travel to faraway lands and return to the exact same cloth. Fold yourself in the exact same pattern.

Instead, there is a gap of wonder when you can witness the life you have without attachment. With an empty schedule.

How amazingly cool. 

We left Thailand two days ago, but because of the magic of flight and an international dateline, we had 38 hours of the same, longest Wednesday imaginable. We started with an early morning taxi midst the streets clogged with the “Shut Down Bangkok” tents and sleeping protesters, and took the final ride of our journey to the Bangkok airport.

Alexander Fuller wrote about returning home after a long journey. "It should not be physically possible to get from the banks of the Pepani River to Wyoming in less than two days, because mentally and emotionally it is impossible. The shock is too much, the contrast too raw. We should sail or swim or walk from Africa, letting bits of her drop out of us, and gradually, in this way, assimilate the excesses and liberties of the States in tiny, incremental sips, maybe touring up through South America and Mexico before trying to stomach the land of the Free and the Brave. ...."

I think it is true for any journey. The shock of returning home in a frantic series of generic boarding passes and irrelevant plane food is simply too much. The modern technology which mechanically whisks us from one land and culture to the next outpaces our biological rhythms without the natural cadence to slowly re-acclimate and re-assimilate.

And I now found myself abruptly in my living room with two bags of dirty laundry and a pile of souvenirs wrapped in Thai newspapers which inadequately explain the transformation of our journey.

And, the limbo which also allows me the space to not have to explain.

Because, time will slowly sift the stories out. Time will also allow my home to reabsorb the new possessions, and time will also let us quicken our pace and step back in to our life at home.

And, some of that is joyous.

Cooking my own food. Petting my dogs. Connecting with my community of family and friends. The boys played with their buddies today and they stripped off their clothes and played together naked with the raw joy of being together again.

And some is nostalgic. 

We spent our final days in Thailand talking about things we would miss. Fresh mango shakes. Warm, salty breezes. The saffron robes of the monks. Chaotic tuk-tuk rides through narrow streets. Bargaining for exotic items and paying in colorful baht. Open days filled with the time and space to fill them however we wanted.

And now, our sun soaked skin will slowly dry and flake off in the winter cold. The reptilian shedding replicating the new selves that we bring home with us.

My Montana home seems unreasonably vast when compared with the small duffle bag I have lugged for the past six weeks. My closet is overwhelming with the choices of color and texture compared with my four travel T-shirts. The first world abundance we have is something to truly be grateful for - the boys played with their toys today like a ToysRUs ad – relishing every plastic guy, every dress-up costume, and every colorful Lego.

I want to keep some of the powerful magic from our travels with us as we journey back to our pace at home.

I want to keep some of my time with my boys screen and technology-free. 

I want to put my phone down and have uninterrupted conversations with them. I love the new dialogue we have developed and I want for them to keep talking with me about the things that truly matter. And, I want to have the quietness of my mind without interrupting myself.

I want to maintain my commitment to simplicity. 

A simple schedule. Not overfilled with too many activities that drain me instead of fulfill me. I want to balance the necessary tasks - the laundry, the food, the work – with the activities that bring me authentic joy - reading, writing, talking to new people, and learning more about the world.

I also want to have less stuff. 

The first world bounty that can toe the line on excess. I want enough, but not too much.

And, I want to keep writing. 

Writing again has brought me so much joy. It’s been years since I wrote something because I wanted to write it. During our journey, the boys fell asleep exhausted under a mosquito net each night at 8:30, and I stayed up and wrote on the front porch of each bungalow most nights until past midnight.

I love writing.

During my journey, I started writing a book. It’s ridiculously fun. I feel alive and inspired and strong. I feel like I have another four books stacks up in my brain behind it. And, what I want to do is to try to publish my book.

And, if that works, I’d like to publish another.

A good friend of mine, Puma, a shaman in Peru, says the most important part of travel is to make sure to take your soul with you at the end of a journey. He says your soul gets scattered when wandering around this world. You can carelessly fling around and leave pieces of your being unless you concentrate on who you are and call your soul back to yourself.

He calls it a soul retrieval.

I have been with him as he has guided soul retrievals for individuals and groups. You shut your eyes and, with intention and conviction, say, “Huanpui” three times to call your soul back to you.

You can’t have pieces of your soul sprinkled around and expect to be able to do anything that is true for your raw self.

And that is what I want to keep. My uninterrupted attention to what is important to my soul. Happiness. Family. Intention. Friendship. Integrity. Love. Passion.

In any order.

And, as I sit with two half-unpacked bags and two gleeful dogs at my feet, in front of my home computer with my reliable internet, I feel good about the steps to reintegrate back into my home. My community. My life.

And, keep this new chapter of me as part of the fabric of my life.

Huanpui. Huanpui. Hunapui.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Booger Eggs and Banana Fritters

“Mom, what can I do?” Roam whined as he pulled on my shoulder.

“What do you mean What can I do?” I asked in exasperation. The day was hot and sticky from the jungle and I needed to drink more water. “Watch the show.” In front of us was an arena the size of my front yard filled with water and fifteen fully-grown male crocodiles.

“Blah, blah, blah,” he said, lisping through his missing front teeth. “So what? That guy has his head in a crocodile’s mouth. Who cares?”


No one ever talks about the days of travel when, frankly, you’ve had one-too-many bowls of rice and looked at one-too-many wooden carvings, and despite the fact that everything has the potential to be rich and cool and inspiring – for the moment, you don’t actually want to be there.

And I had apparently dragged Roam to one-too-many events that day.

Saturation point reached.

In the age of selfies that can be altered into skin-flattering snapshots and status updates that tell the world how marvelous life is – it can be hard to find a voice that sometimes says, blah, blah, blah. So what?

On this journey, there are plenty of moments that won’t make the hall of fame. The breakfast when we were served boiled eggs so raw and clear the boys called them booger eggs.

The sink loads of dirty T-shirts I have scrubbed in every hostel sink that have been dipped in mud and sandy beaches, pressed on the floors of ferry terminals, and coated in slick layers of melted chocolate ice cream.

The six-hour bus ride when we drank huge fruit shakes beforehand, and then the bathroom on the bus was closed because the driver didn’t want to bother with cleaning it. We would frantically leap from the running bus at each new city and sprint to the station bathroom in hopes the bus wouldn’t leave before we were done. And rushing while hovering over a squat toilet in a bus station can be disastrous.

The evening when we ate deep-fried banana fritters for dessert and I woke up four hours later when Roam vomited strawberry-Fanta and half-digested bananas on my pillow.

The afternoon spent weaving through the jungle-y hills in the open back of a noisy tuk-tuk.  After the open air, we returned to the city in full rush-hour with smog so thick the driver pulled over on the side of the road and washed his face with a bottle of water before taking us back to the guesthouse.

The way that well-intentioned and kind Thais have touched and pinched and photographed the boys to the point where the boys have started to scowl at any group of teenagers in fear they will be forced to pose for another unwanted picture.

But, those are the details between the lines, and when we get home, we’ll download our pictures and look at New Year’s Eve in Lampang, when we went to the main plaza and lit paper lanterns to join the thousands of other orange lights bobbing in the night sky. The gentleness of bringing in the New Year with Thai families who adopted us and, at midnight, we tried to countdown from ten in Thai with circles of new friends. They told us we got a wish for each lantern, and after 25 lanterns that we lit together in group after group, I feel lucky to have my wishes scattered with the thousands of other wishes and lanterns filling the night sky with dreams for 2014.

We’ll look at the pictures of Roam and Zane standing (yes, standing) on that same crocodile that bored Roam so much and wonder when life had allowed us to have such adventures.

We’ll remember the walking tour we did around the Old City in Chiang Mai, visiting Wat Chedi Luang and the temple complex, weaving ruins dating from 1441 with another modern temple festooned with gilded flags to celebrate the Chinese New Year. We walked through the grounds and saw a banner that read, “Monk Chat. Don’t just stand and look, come and talk with us!”

Monk Chat.

We sat with a 19-year old monk who practiced his English while we shyly asked him questions. The table next to ours had two American girls asking another monk dressed in saffron robes, “You really can’t like, even, date?” and “How often do you shave your head?”

Roam whispered in my ear a question to ask our monk, too bashful to ask for himself. I had talked with the boys about the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, and Roam wanted to know whether the monk considered himself pious enough to have earned another life, or whether he thought he would come back as a mosquito.

I delicately rephrased the question, and the diminutive monk with deep brown eyes spoke softly about mindfulness. About being attentive to each extraordinary moment. Paying exceptional attention to each breath. To not get mired in thoughts about the future. To not stress about the past.

Just be.

Do you understand? I asked the boys, as if I could honestly follow such a profound and full reflection. Zane rolled his eyes at me and muttered quietly that he wanted to go. 

Saturation point reached.

We thanked the monk and continued walking.

And as I wondered pithily about the practical applications of mindfulness within my western life, and the romantic notions of monastic life, I watched the boys take off across the grounds of the monastery at a full sprint.

Mindfulness. In action. Completely in the moment.

No wonder they didn’t get it. They are it.

Active in each moment right in the center of their lives.

And, as our days in Thailand are filled with colors and strange smells, hot breezes and the sound of mopeds – it is sometimes too much to take it all in. The good and the bad. The hard and the easy.

The booger eggs and the banana fritters.

Saturation point reached.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Laryngitis, Monkeys & Trains

I haven’t uttered a single sound for four days.

And for those who know me, this is a rare event. I sing out loud. I chat on the phone. I’m a talker.

During this journey, I have filled our nomadic space with my observations about interesting sites out the window, translated complicated cultural situations, and generally told my kids what they needed to do and when they needed to it. Please.

And then I got laryngitis.

For four days, I have been physically unable to talk. I can whisper in this pathetic, raspy, dragging voice that makes people wince and touch their necks. But, I can’t actually speak above a thin whisper.

The disappearance of my voice coincided with our journey from the border of Mynamar, west to the City of Monkeys, and north for the New Year to our goal – Chiang Mai. And, although my dad had warned me multiple times about needing to get reservations for travel before the New Year, I shelved the idea because I wanted spontaneity! The thrill of unplanned travel.

What Dad knows, and I did not, is that almost every Thai from Bangkok travels north, in the vicinity of Chiang Mai, to be with their families for the New Year. Way back when I decided not to book our lodging, I saw there were 761 hotels in Chiang Mai, and I reasoned that one of them would have availability for New Year’s Eve prior to our arrival. And when I looked this week, the one hotel room left cost $1,100. Per night.

But lodging wasn’t on our radar yet. Instead, we were wrangling with transport. And, I couldn’t even answer a simple yes no question without wincing. I had no voice.

Another single-parent friend of mine has a book called Duct-Taped Parenting and he refers to his attempts to follow the ideals within its pages. Basically, put duct-tape over your mouth so you are required to shut up and let your kids figure it out. If you want happy and healthy kids with a strong sense of confidence and independence – you have to stop telling them how to do things and when. Please.

But, this quietness was extreme. I had a job - to safely lead my sons through Thailand! And now, during the 1,000 mile journey north on various busses and trains – my 8-year-old was in charge.

And he was stoked.

I tried to communicate for us, at first.

“Could you please take us to the bus station?” I whispered to the driver of the motorcycle taxi who had stopped for us. The contraption had the small motorcycle on the side of the vehicle, and a sort of couch with seats built as a cantilevered sidecar. He nodded and, in a plume of two-stroke oil, we were off.

A block later, he stopped. “Where?”

“Bus station.” He nodded and resumed driving. For another block. “Where?”

This time, Zane spoke up. “The bus station, please.” The driver smiled and drove us to the bus station.  Zane grinned at me, ecstatic. 

Once there, the driver asked where we were going.

“Lop Buri,” I said hoarsely. He smiled again and took us to a bright green bus, the bus driver was loading bags in the side compartment.

“Laem Ngop,” the bus driver scooped my bag and it disappeared under the bus. I grabbed Zane and whispered in his ear.

“No, Lop Buri,” he said clearly, as a crowd of several bus drivers came to listen. One finally laughed and pointed to an orange bus with faded plastic flowers on the dashboard.

He smiled and touched the bus and then patted Zane's curls, “Lop Buri.”

Our day of travel was filled with the type of duct-taped parenting that forced me to passively observe. I haven’t read the book, but I doubt it involved transport of dubious quality in a developing country with two children under eight.  But, as the hot air blew in from the rice paddies and we weaved through city after city, I relaxed.  

Frankly, Zane did beautifully as our guide. He led our troop for six hours of travel, through three bus stations, in and off three busses. As he spoke with Thais on our behalf, I watched a sour bus driver burst into a wrinkly smile and high five him, and another apple-faced woman gave us all a free ride on the final bus of the day.

Lop Buri is about three hours north of Bangkok and has earned the name City of Monkeys for a troop of thousands of resident monkeys who inhabit the city like furry circus performers in a massive arena. They swoop across busy intersections hand-over-hand on electric wires. They use the wires as a tangled roadway for exploration, and locals say that some monkeys have even been known to hitch a ride on a passing train for a weekend outing. Their abundance and mischief is partially sponsored by the Buddhist discouragement of killing animals. Many locals also say that the monkeys are the ‘children’ of the Hindu god Kala, and to harm one would bring great misfortune.  

In Lop Buri, Zane helped us navigate dinner at the night market, bargaining with various vendors over food items for each of us. He sat down with a strawberry shake and a stick of hot, sweet pork.

“I think I’ve finally got this bargaining thing down,” he said. “I just look at them like this…” His face dropped into one of pure and abject longing, complete with big doe eyes and pushed out lower lip. ”And they drop their price in half.” He smiled and then pointed, “Monkey!” he yelled, and ran after it with his stick.

And I couldn’t even tell him that it is a bad idea to chase a monkey with a stick.

After dinner, we checked the train schedule, and all first and second-class trains were sold out for the next week. The same with every single bus heading north. The only option was the local, third-class train to Phitsanoluk, only halfway to our goal, the next day.

When the train north arrived an hour late in a huge puff of smoke that scattered monkeys to both sides of the tracks, the boys gamely stood in line as hundreds of people queued up with us. Luckily, Thais are gentle with children, and a hoard of helpers pushed our bag inside the open door and lifted the boys above the throngs. Once aboard, we were pinned with people hanging from the doorways of the train and clogging the pathways connecting the cars. I tipped the duffle on the side so the boys could sit on the bag. They looked through the open train door at the city whizzing past and pointed out interesting sites to each other.

And I couldn’t say a word.

I gave them the scuba diver’s sign for, “okay?” And they returned affirmative. And we rode. The train would stop suddenly in a field, pushed off the track to allow a faster train to proceed, and people would get off and stretch their legs.  Vendors shoved past the boys with buckets of ice cold soda and beer, and when it was dinnertime, we bought delicious rice noodles and ate them from a piece of waxed paper.

I didn’t have any toys or any way to amuse them. And, if we had been in the States for a 5-hour turned 8-hour ride, I would have prepared a bin with a pile of activities and games for them to amuse themselves. But, without my box of commercial fun, the boys played for three hours with two boxes of empty tic-tacs and never once asked when we would get there.

We are now eddied out in a strange town neither here nor there. We haven’t met anyone who speaks English, and my Google Translate app is saving the day on an hourly basis.

Zane arranged for me to get to the doctor today. He arranged for our transport, had the driver wait while I was being seen, bought ice creams for himself and his brother, and made sure I had all of my medicine.

We are staying here another day in hopes that I’ll get my voice back. The boys think it is a five-star resort, which makes me laugh at how their perception has changed since being in Thailand. This is a run-down Thai business hotel with a beautiful swimming pool and massive holiday garnish, including electric trees and a creepy Styrofoam snowman. But the people are nice and it seems like a good place to rest until I’m up for the next leg of our adventure. Aloud.

There is a big temple to the Hindu god of destruction at this hotel. And, it’s fitting. Because this experience of silence and listening has destroyed a lot of what I used to think was good parenting. Good teaching. Good guiding.

The real lesson is that I’ve learned a lot from shutting-up. From leaving them alone and being here when I’m needed.

It’s felt good to just listen. And enjoy being with them now.

It set us all free.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Coconut Cookies and Bottled Water for Santa

We’ve been together for over 700 straight hours now.

700 hours of meals, sleeping, travel, tears, sweat, fits, laughter and mayhem.

And this also means that Christmas didn’t contain the slightest element of surprise.

The boys knew I was going to get them an elephant for Christmas. We have been in Kanachanburi, a sleepy town on the River Kwai that edges the border of Myanmar. We stayed in a small house/ raft floating on the water, and we delicately followed a maze of wooden docks to get to our thatch-roofed house each night. Our room, in simple Asian-style, had several mattresses on the ground and the boys could fish out of the window. They made hand lines from a piece of bamboo, a fishing line,and a hook - and they caught beautiful river fish that they named when they caught them (river piranha!) using a piece of white bread.

The waves would slap lightly against the side of the house and we could see the famous Bridge Over the River Kwai from our dock. The stars were bright, except for when a massive karaoke boat laden with hundreds of singing Thais would blaze past, scattering lasers and techno beats in their wake.

I had two days to try to get Christmas together.

Roam asked, “I know we are getting an elephant for Christmas, but can’t we get a real present? Like Legos?”


Panicked, I started to look for a few things for them to open Christmas morning.

And Thailand has the most beautiful items for sale – purses in thick silk with elegant gold braid, colorful sarongs with bright designs, dangly earrings made from coconut and silver. But, anything for 6 and 8 year old boys? Nothing.

We scoured the floating market, stopping at every stall with our boat, each proprietor calmly hooking our bow with a special tool designed to bring the shoppers closer. We bobbed on the river as the women gently sang in Thai, holding trinkets they thought the boys would enjoy. The pickings were slim. There were piles of handmade baby clothes with cute elephants stacked next to ornate carvings of Buddhas, but nothing interested the boys.

Instead, we bought trays of sweet mango sticky rice from another boat and enjoyed the afternoon.

And, as the boat bobbed up and down, the boys kind of forgot they wanted anything for Christmas.

By the time the big day arrived, we had found a few options. They picked out their own T-shirts from a vendor on Ko San Road, and they picked out two silver robots made from old bolts and bike chain, that weighed a couple of pounds each. I tucked them away and made them promise to forget before Christmas.

Because, those 700 hours together haven’t left for a lot of time to go Christmas shopping without them. 

And, with the exception of a few beers I had after bedtime with a Czech scuba instructor last week and our solo forays into the gent’s and ladies’ rooms, we’ve been in each other’s eye sight for quite awhile.

In our guesthouses, we usually pile into one queen-sized bed, and because they both want to be next to me, I am squished ad sweating in the middle. Zane usually has his hand knotted in the back of my hair and his leg thrown over my back, and Roam snores loudly in my ear. I often awake because someone has rolled over and kicked me in the kidneys in the process, or slapped me with a heavy, sleeping hand across the face. There is usually only one sheet, and I have to unroll Roam from the nest he’s created, and rearrange everyone’s sleeping limbs in a row, before sandwiching myself back in the middle and spreading the sheet above.


The night before Christmas, our hair was still wet from the river. Ten elephants had lumbered through the dust and happily submerged themselves in the gentle current of the water to cool down, their trunks spraying and their heads bobbing up and down. There was a mahout on each elephant’s back, the single person who is the full-time care-giver for an elephant, and they beckoned us forth.

“Come! Swim!” They laughed, as an elephant would dive down and a mahout would slide off its back, frolicking and bobbling and bathing.

All three of us swam out to a huge, quiet elephant named Rom Sai. He ducked underwater and the mahout helped us scramble to the place where the elephant would re-emerge. Rom Sai’s back breached and we all slipped off both sides – Roam tumbling to the side and Zane falling off Rom’s head. From the river, Zane laughed and used Rom Sai’s ear as a climbing rope to get back on.

It was ridiculously fun.

Elephants bobbing everywhere, swimming in the warm water, switching from one elephant back to another, the sunshine bright…

Merry Christmas.

We have a tradition that we always open one gift on Christmas Eve. This year, I gave them a pack of gummy bears each.

If those gummy bears could talk, they were probably the most loved, happiest gummy bears ever produced. We played games with them, shared them, ate them, and made them last as long as possible in the dimly lit bungalow on the river in the jungle, with the elephants trumpeting in the background.

We wrote a note to Santa and left him a package of coconut cookies and a bottle of water.

Then, under the mosquito net, we sang Christmas songs. We tried to remember the 12 days of Christmas while we chewed off a gummy bear head. We made the bears dance to Deck the Halls. We melded the sticky bears together for one colossal bear who sang Jingle Bells.

And, in the morning, the boys opened their T-shirts and the bolt robots and played for an hour. I had found a small Lego set at the local 7-11 and they put it together. I surprised them with two tooth necklaces and they decorated them with shells I had collected from Ko Yao Noi.

They gave me a pair of silver elephant earrings and a bracelet with bells and elephants.

And we went back to the elephants.

Only 450 hours to go.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Guide Secrets

A good guide never reveals her secrets.

But, like any industry, guiding has its share of trade secrets and good stories to share over a beer after work.

I’m glad I have a few professional tricks up my sleeve in guiding these two little monkeys around.

A good guide always puts her clients first. I always view it as successful if my clients have had time to enjoy the sunset, talk with the locals on the boat, and reminisce about their day. The sound of laughter is my favorite sound on this earth, and if the group I am guiding has moments of unchecked and unbridled laughter, then that is the biggest mark of success of my day.

And we laugh a lot. Roam laughed so hard this morning that juice came out of his nose, and Zane and I almost did the same.

And the success of laughter is magnified if a person has enough time and safety to be able to let the distance of travel soak in to their senses and their souls. If a person can let the outside world of work and home grow small enough to finally hear their sacred thoughts and their authentic selves – then the journey has been successful. Travel gives people their own clarity in a way that many gurus can only promise.

From a guide’s perspective, this is even richer even richer if the person finally tuning in to the nuances of their reality has no clue that the captain of their riverboat cruise is blinding drunk and the first mate is gallantly steering the ship to the harbor safely for the night. That is what a good guide does. Takes care of the behind-the-scenes details. Allows space for the client to soak in themselves.

This current trip isn’t about me and my wants and desires. It’s about my boys. And, like when I’m guiding, they need a gentle balance of activity and release to be able to engage in what they see. And, in turn, bring it home to themselves.

We are back in Bangkok and the bustle of this cacophonous urban environment. We flew back in to the city and straight into a protest of 100,000+ people whistling and waving flags for over two hours. Our taxi driver leaped from the driver’s seat, leaving us in the backseat, while he stood on the side of the parade and took pictures and clapped for the protesters. We saw people with whistles clenched in their jaws and some gripping cell phones high in the air. We learned a creative entrepreneur developed an app to mimic the shrill blast of a whistle, so people can keep “blowing,” even when their lips are tired.

We abandoned our taxi and I wheeled our duffle down the crowded streets. The boys didn’t find any drama in the situation. As we checked into our hotel, Roam looked at me and asked, “Mom, can you just turn down the volume on the protest a little bit?”

And, instead of going back to the streets, armed with my camera and my curiosity as I was compelled to do, we pulled on our bathing suits and went for a swim – what the boys wanted to do.

Another good secret of guiding is to keep your clients fed and watered. Even beyond what they would do for themselves. We are all easier and nicer with balanced blood sugar and good hydration.

If a guide tells their clients, “drink some water!” No one will reach for their water bottle except for the few people who were probably reaching for it anyway. But, if a guide fills a water bottle with ice cold water in front of the clients and takes a long, satisfied drink, perhaps even talking with clients while water is deliciously sloshing in the bottle, well, everyone stays hydrated.

And these boys have been fed and watered. There are handfuls of street carts on each block in Thailand laden with food of all kinds. Thais eat several small meals a day and there isn’t any need to bring snacks ahead of time for any excursion. We stop regularly for every kind of food. Some make the cut. Some don’t. Bags of sweet, juicy mangoes cost 50 cents. A plate of hot noodles with egg and peanut about 75 cents. The boys have started to gamely sample everything I hand them. Tangy, pulpy mandarin juice with hard seeds. Satay chicken skewers. Roam adores Thai eggs. Today, we ventured to the biggest market in Thailand, the Saturday market on the edges of the city, and the boys had popsicles made from fresh strawberries and dipped in fresh chocolate. Win win.

A good guide is also peaceful with the reins. An inexperienced guide often holds the reins too tight, causing the clients to rebel and fight. A good guide is gentle with a balance of schedule, activity and time to absorb. These boys make some small decisions about our “team” - turn left, breakfast here, let’s do that this afternoon. This lets me make the big decisions – dress culturally appropriately for the temple, watch my back at the ATM, be ready for the taxi at 7:00.

Yesterday, we went to the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Both places are rich in history and ornate architecture. At the Grand Palace, the central temple holds the sacred Emerald Buddha, a diminutive Buddha decorated in a ceremonial gold robes that the King changes with each season (cold, hot and rainy). In contrast, the Reclining Buddha is so large that it fairly bursts from its temple. Holding up a camera, it is only possible to photograph a single nostril. One of its toes is the size of a queen-sized bed.

It was important to drag the boys there. The boys don’t really like crowded sites - mainly because they attract so much attention. School girls in uniform pose around them and whip out their smart phones for a quick group picture upload. Old ladies stroke their cheeks and call them, “beautiful babies.” They both chafe at the “babies.” Men of all ages stick out their hands for repeated high fives. And everyone loves the blonde hair. The boys have started wearing hats to keep the uninvited hands at bay – and they are both constantly holding my hands.

I can’t remember the last time Zane held my hand. His 8-year-old hand feels curiously large in my grip. But, in the crowds, they each grip one of each of my hands and squeeze hard. Which is good when I have to hastily yank them out of the way of a speeding moped on the sidewalk or a rattling tuk-tuk cutting a sharp corner.  So, despite my requests that we have a better chance of getting through a crowd if we are a snake instead of a line, they stubbornly lace their fingers through mine.

And, I can’t say I push them away.

I like it. I’m soaking up this moment in time.

And, I have never once had to say, “Boys, now hold my hand.”