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.”

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Peaceful protest... with whistles and flags

Ten things you didn’t know about Thailand

by Zane, age 8

1.)    You are allowed to put four people on a moped. (I did it with Bao, mom and Roam)                                                                  
2.)    Boys have to say kop at the end of every sentence. Girls have to say kaa.  
3.)    Thais take 6 cold showers a day to stay cool and clean.
4.)    On Koh Yao Noi 98% of the people are Muslim and 2% are Buddhist.
5.)    Bangkok is the capital of Thailand.
6.)    The toilets are squat toilets. Instead of toilet paper they use a squirter and water.
7.)    To pray to the Buddha you hold 3 or more sticks of incense.
8.)    A lot of Thais sleep during the hot part of the afternoon.
9.)    People here really love the king.
9.) Monks wear orange robes, shave their heads and have no possessions.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fried sting ray and spicy squid

It is possible to travel in Thailand and never interact with Thais.

I’ve heard the same about the US. That international visitors want to interact with local Americans and authentically experience our way of life, but they end up spending an entire holiday nattering only with people employed within the tourism and hospitality industry.

And frankly, it takes some work to get off the beaten track.

Right now, my boys are climbing on our bungalow and playing with a little Thai girl who is about three years old. They are all tossing around an old coconut and laughing wildly. The boys have asked her several times in Thai what her name is, but she just giggles and touches their hair. They are calling her Hit-hit, mainly because she is hitting them and delightedly yelling the word “hit!”

We are living with a Thai family on an island in southern Thailand. Arranging the homestay took some work, and we are staying with a man named Bao, who is our host father and the President of this island.

Bao told me that his island, Ko Yao Noi, is 95% Muslim and the primary work here is fishing and working with rubber trees. About fifteen years ago, a massive fishing trawler parked off the shores of Ko Yao Noi and started dredging and netting every fish its path. The local fishermen watched helplessly as the giant trawler scooped up buckets of their fish for export to China. Bao said the fishing grounds dried up, the coral bleached white and died, and even the mangrove swamps suffered from the environmental havoc started by the fishing trawler.

Bao, also a fisherman, started talking with his friends, first during humid afternoons while they tried to unsuccessfully net crabs or anything to feed their families. Then, with people at community centers and the local mosque. He asked, why can’t we preserve our way of life? Why can’t we be in charge of what happens on our island?

Bao rallied the people of the island, and they successfully expelled the trawlers and turned the island’s shores into a designated marine park, with only local fisherman allowed to fish under new regulations from the island’s government. Slowly, the fish returned to the coral and laid eggs within the roots of the mangrove trees.

With fishing restored, Bao secondarily realized that it wouldn’t be long before Ko Yao Noi could suffer from the same unchecked tourism development that had overrun several nearby islands.  Islands within twenty minutes by boat have international airports with non-stop flights from abroad, their beaches are filled with unregulated dive shops, there shores are crowded with miles of foreign-run resorts built on fragile land, and, being Thailand, there are red light districts catering to every late-night whim.

Bao talked with everyone in the community who would listen, and finally found a sympathetic ear from a group of study abroad students from New York.

Working with Bao and the local community, the students explained the basics of sustainable tourism and the idea of community homestays for tourists from an American perspective. Eco-tourism was a popular idea for the local people who had already worked so hard to preserve their environment. The families were awestruck that tourists would want to come and visit the island as is.  That visitors would want to eat local food, stay with traditional families, and participate in the way of life that already exists.

For his initiative, Bao was recognized by the King ten years ago for leading the Thai community on his island to embrace sustainable tourism and homestays. National Geographic Traveler gave him an award for the same work, and he built a small, thatched-roofed community center on a corner of his rubber farm.

With this as the backdrop, we have been sitting in Bao’s kitchen for the past week, learning Thai, pantomiming with him and his wife, and eating all sorts of Thai food. I cover my head with a scarf and wear long-sleeves and pants, and Bao eats at another table, both because of his Muslim faith. I think the food is delicious, but the boys are struggling with the sheer foreignness of it. It is spicy and “weird.”

But, this is why it is worthwhile to do a homestay. Big resorts often smooth out the ruggedness and rawness of travel. It is vanilla and simple to slide into clean sheets after speaking with an English-speaking staff. It is easier to be shielded from the jagged edges of Thailand.

Instead, we are sharing a table with Bao and his wife, Uni, and trying to learn the Thai names for all of the new food – the sticky rice, the spicy mussels, the sweet crab, the strange fish, and the fresh fruit. Roam has learned he loves fried sting ray. And Zane likes raw squid.

We quickly learned that our main transport would be via moped, just like everyone else on the island. And, that doesn’t mean one person per moped. Instead, the Thais pile on each moped with a balancing act of groceries, children, people and laughter. Roam and Zane have both become adept at crouching between the legs of the driving adult and peering over the handlebars as the rest of us pile on the saddle – four people for the ride.

The boys were in a children’s parade and afterwards watched the Olympics of the island. The boys helped me teach an English class for the local primary school, with all the fifth graders playing Simon Says and doing the Hokey Pokey with us. We have been invited to go with Bao’s nephew, a local fisherman, twice to help him fish. Zane learned to haul fishing nets, fish with a hand-line, and steer a long-tail boat. Roam learned to throw in the buoys, rubber-band a crab’s pincers, and untangle sharp shells from the nets.

Yes, we’ve also had long days of relaxing under palm trees, snorkeling in the turquoise waters, biking languidly around the island, and drinking fresh mango shakes. But, the memories we will hold are those of the people, the Muslim women calling, “beautiful babies!” as the boys walk by, the call to prayer from the nearby mosque at dusk, the generosity of Bao’s community as they have welcomed us.

And, don’t get me wrong, a resort has its luxurious time and place. In fact, we are heading to one for the next three-days to reward the boys for their week of patience and openness. They can’t wait for a pizza. As Zane asked when eating a plate of chicken and rice for breakfast, “why can’t we just stay in a place with a swimming pool like normal people?”

And as we left the pier this afternoon with a plastic bag full of fish that Zane had caught on a hand-line, an American backpacker stopped me and asked me for directions. “Don’t you live here?” He asked, gesturing to the Thai people who were interacting with us. I explained the homestay and he said, “Man, I wish I had thought of that.”

Monday, December 9, 2013

Comparatively Content

It’s pretty spectacular to be able to travel to the same place in your 20’s, your 30’s and your 40’s.

The first time I was in Thailand, I was in my mid-twenties. It was March and I had just finished working a trip for three months on the North Island of New Zealand, where I learned to teach 9 different novels simultaneously and also learned to run a river shuttle with a right-hand drive and a trailer stacked ten-deep with kayaks. Instead of flying round-trip back to the USA, my boyfriend-at-the-time and I requested one-way tickets from Auckland to Kathmandu, Nepal. Our next contract to work didn’t start until September, and so we figured we had a solid six months to wander around Asia and eventually figure out how to get back to the US.

After two months of trekking through the high Himalayas, we found ourselves back in Kathmandu in time for the early monsoon. The streets filled thigh-deep with muddy water and we watched as every rodent and insect in the city scrambled to higher ground. I remember slogging through the swirling, muddy water with pieces of trash and debris wrapping around my legs in the water. My pants felt like I had bags of sand in my pockets with the water tugging on the hems. We walked past a Thai Airways office and both looked at each other and shrugged. $100 and one-day later, we were in Bangkok.
We didn’t mean to spend four months in Thailand. We went rock climbing in Railay and got our Open Water scuba certificates in Ko Pha Ngan and partied on Ko San Road. With lodging and meals less than $15 a day, we couldn’t see any reason to move on. And, after my partner fell ill with Hepatitis A after eating an unfortunately prepared meal in Chiang Mai, the doctors told us that we needed to stay put for six weeks so he could recover. We checked into a place with air conditioning, and since neither of us had a place on the planet to call “home,” we stayed in Chiang Mai. I spent each day exploring the markets and temples, taking tours with travelers from around the globe, and writing emails home. When the months bled by and he returned to health, we finally bought one-way tickets to Seattle for $250 and left the Land of Smiles.

I returned to Thailand just shy of my thirtieth birthday with a group of about twenty of us – a handful of us were teachers and the rest of the group were students between 14 and 18 years old. I have since heard the imaginative stories of the trouble they got in to, but what I remember was the magic of Thailand on an unruly group of teenagers. The way we would scuba dive together – an even though everyone was stopped from talking because of the air valve in their mouths – they seemed to be laughing and screaming underwater, bouncing around like a pile of puppies through the turquoise sea. I remember climbing every day in Railay – waking up before dark to set the routes before the students awoke. I had a goal to lead a 5.10d before I left Railay called We Said. Our final day, there were groups of French climbers lined four-deep before the climb and it looked like I had lost my window. The next morning, one of my 17-year-old students woke me up at dawn and offered to belay for me before we left on our ferry. With ropes in our packs, we walked together and sat on the beach in the dark until the gray light before sunrise made it light enough to climb. I led the climb, and was forever touched by the unexpected generosity of one of many students who have become my friends. I remember so much about the five months I spent in Thailand, and I especially remember my mind-set. The decisions I made then were the decisions that effected my entire 30’s, but I didn’t know it until now. I could have turned in so many different directions. And, when I left Thailand then – I had no idea when, or if, I’d come back.

So, as I travel again in Thailand now, in my early 40’s with my two sons in tow, I am seeing the country through all of the lenses of my life. The carefree lens of my twenties, the earnest lens of my thirties, and the – dare I say – comparatively content lens of my forties. I can watch the backpackers vibe each other for the coolest place to grab a cold Singha and the eye of a pretty girl. I can witness the teachers armed with TEFL certificates and overwhelming Thai course loads who are looking for the right job and the right time. I can sympathize with the families with young children who are struggling to find a balance with their old identities and their new roles.  

As a single mom, I’m pretty much my own category on the travel scene. But, it’s okay. I might feel differently about my current status if I hadn’t already had so many different versions of myself in this country. And, traveling with my boys is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now. Comparatively content.

And here, Thais call it like it is. There isn’t any subtlety or grace in the nicknames they give each other. The Thai woman that I’ve spoken with many times over dinner said it perfectly as she yelled across the open air restaurant last night, “Hey single mom! Thumbs up!”

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Monks are Cool

Zane said that the monks must not be very happy.

And, he is probably right. In Thailand, monks quietly dedicate a rainy season or a portion of their lives to a study of peace. And, since almost all young Thai young men serve in a monastery between completing school and getting married, this is a country and a culture that is fundamentally aligned with peace.

As our final flight landed in Bangkok, the news was afire with pictures of Thais protesting in the streets against their government. Some of the protesters brought their families and strings of whistles to chirp their annoyance and desire for change. Other groups resorted to rock throwing and other acts of escalating violence. A gang of young men made the news by stealing a garbage truck and running it at full, rumbling speed into a police barricade.

This is big news for a peaceful country. The long and the short of the conflict is that there used to be a very unpopular Prime Minister. He grew so unpopular that the military threw him out a few years ago and he was replaced in a landslide election in 2011 by the new candidate, his sister. The sister, the first female Prime Minster of Thailand, has implemented popular reforms and united some very different parties within the government. She recently introduced a bill to give her brother amnesty. Bad call. The people aren’t happy with her conflict of interest and would like for her to resign. Now.
So, with this as the backdrop, we arrived in Bangkok after being canned on various airplanes for several bleary days as we circumnavigated the globe. The boys were shockingly good travelers, and despite both of them falling deep asleep 12 minutes before our landing and switching planes in Korea, they rallied through the various security checkpoints and time-zones with only a few exhausted tears.

I planned for two transit days in Bangkok to catch-up to the local time and gently explore. I envisioned walking to the mega-mall up the street and eating sterile Thai food in the food court to help the boys softly acclimate to this country. Instead, our hotel was across from police headquarters, and although we were far from the large protests outside of government facilities, there was a small protest underway replete with police in full riot gear and protesters with whistles clamped angrily in their mouths.

The boys started with questions, “why doesn’t the King intervene?” A good question. Thais love their King, and while the government structure is officially a “constitutional monarchy,” the actual monarchy doesn’t carry an authoritative position within the government. However, the King has a great deal of clout within the hearts of the people and his picture is publicly displayed on every block and within every business and home. In fact, today is the King’s birthday, and the entire country is decorated with swaths of yellow silk, the royal color, and parades are planned in his honor. And, in honor of his birthday, the King requested that the protesters and the police and the Prime Minister all take a day off from protesting and relax.

“Are people allowed to protest everywhere?” I love this question. And, no, I told them, they are not. It is one of the most beautiful and dramatic things to witness on this planet – people peacefully demonstrating to state their unhappiness with the government. We talked about peaceful versus violent protest, and when various government have used both. And, how lucky we are in the United States to have the right to publicly protest.

And so began our travels.

I don’t know how to describe how it feels to be traveling with my two boys. Right now, we have left Bangkok and are in southern Thailand.  Part of me is absolutely in love with watching them. Roam eagerly bit into the spiciest dish I have ever eaten last night with gusto, and his eyes filled with sweat and his arms started flapping – he laughed and drank his watermelon shake in one massive gulp and then said, “Mom! I don’t know what to do!” As he fanned his mouth and laughed harder. 

Zane carefully wrote a postcard to mail to his class at home and asked me for a stamp. When I didn’t have one, he walked up to the guesthouse owner, and then walked with her down the street to an adjacent store to find a stamp, pay for it in baht, and let me know he had it covered. 


Yesterday, we climbed 1,083 steps (Roam counted) to the top of a local temple and the boys asked about Buddhism and monks. Surrounded by tall golden stupas, we talked about the Buddhist beliefs regarding suffering and the elimination of desire, and the idea of nirvana. We talked about peace and reincarnation and compassion for all beings. Then, we walked back to the bottom of the thousand steep stairs, teasing each other as naughty monkeys tried to steal my camera and the boys’ sugarcane juice.

And when we were quietly sitting in a tiger cave in the temple at the bottom of the mountain, Zane asked about the protests again. He wanted to know whether there were any monks in the protests, and I told him I didn’t think so.

“Monks would be better protesters,” Zane said. “Monks are cool.”

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

I’d rather have the stomach flu in Thailand

I spent the past three repulsive days on the bathroom floor.

Turns out that a stomach bug can waylay even the most ambitious packing plans. Prior to our trip, I created a To-Do list that looked more like a Pinterest board than reality. I would be SuperMom. In addition to packing and planning a 6-week adventure with a third-grader and a kindergartener to Thailand, I would wondrously clean my closets and assemble my clothes by color. And, as long as I was at it, I would systematize my kids’ closets and sort their cars and airplanes into multi-colored bins. I would magically purge our lives of all non-necessities. I would even organize and sweep my chockablock garage, perhaps with bikes hanging from new hooks and hoses tightly coiled on the wall. I would vacuum the wilted fruit snacks and crushed autumn leaves from the backseat of my truck. I even bought inspirational cards to write and mail, despite the fact that I haven’t sent a real card in a real envelope to anyone besides my grandmother in the past decade.

Well, the stomach flu stopped all of that ridiculousness.

And, as I curled on the cold tile of the bathroom at 4:00 in the morning, my stomach cramping and my vulnerable self quietly bent on the floor – I started to cry.

Not the sweet, movie-star tears with gentle, wafting sighs. But the raw, open ragged sobs that exist on the bitter tile when the sky is inky black.

And, as I lay there moaning - I decided that I couldn’t go to Thailand. No way. How could I take my boys to the other side of the world single-handedly? What would happen if I had the stomach flu while we were traveling? After all, stomach issues are a given while traveling in Asia. Who would take care of them? I pictured myself on the warm tile of a thatch bungalow on the other side of the planet with the boys giving me sips of bottled water as I vomited. I was awash with fear. Who was I to take my small children out into the world?

Minutes... and then hours passed as I lay bowed over the toilet. My chattering monkey-brain spun with every worse-case scenario that could befall us during our travels. I saw us weaving our way through a crowded market. I saw me stopping to look at some ripe mangoes. I saw myself looking around and the boys were gone. I saw us in a tsunami. I saw us in a plane crash.

Fear sucks.

Fear is the tiny voice in the dark of night that tells our vulnerable selves to stop. To not go on. To stay safe. It is what compels us to stay home. Fear is what keeps us mindlessly completing daily tasks, and shelving the big wishes for a better time. Fear is what makes us say to friends, “I know that I could do better, but…”

And the more I’ve talked about this trip, the more people have expressed their fear. Not just fear FOR me, but fear for themselves wrapped up as a polite sentence such as, “Are you sure this is a good idea?”

And as I lay on the bathroom floor, it didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore.

But, then the sun came up. As it always does.

And although I spent the last three days in bed, I left the fear about this trip in the dark of night on the bathroom floor.

This journey is scary as hell. And, I’ve always told people if they aren’t scared of their adventures, then they aren’t really paying attention. Because, if you are paying attention – you should be scared.  It’s big.

But, my fears of this adventure are not going to keep me paralyzed on the bathroom floor. I want this adventure for me, for my boys. I want them to persevere after days of sweaty and confusing travel. I want their tongues to burn with foreign spices. I want for them to carefully sing a phrase in Thai.

Because, truth be told, I could get the stomach flu in Thailand. Or, I could get it at home. Life has hard moments no matter where we are.

And, if that is the case, I’d rather have the stomach flu in Thailand.   

Monday, November 18, 2013

Thailand. Six weeks. One mom. Two boys. One duffle bag.

I have never been able to keep stuff.

And, I love stuff.

Every time I start to accumulate possessions, something dramatic happens.

It started in my teens the first time I left home to travel abroad. I was an exchange student for a year in the Netherlands, and while I was gone, I packed all of my belongings into a closet and my mom rented out my bedroom to an industrious med student. Before I returned home, the foundation of the house cracked in the night, and the porch fell off its beams and crushed my stuff.


It happened again in college. I left my stuff in a friend’s basement. Their basement filled with water after an Oregon storm, but strangely, only the corner with all of my boxes flooded. Another time, I drove across Eugene with a pre-assembled pressboard desk in the back of my pick-up. The light turned red, and as I pressed the brake, the desk flipped into traffic and splintered on the pavement. It got so that friends started making excuses not to house my boxes between semesters because of the strange events that would destroy my belongings, and simultaneously, theirs.

Eventually, I found myself in my late twenties calling my mom from the North Island of New Zealand after my backpack, my passport, and my money belt had been stolen and I was left with only a toothbrush, the clothes I was wearing, and a credit card. “Apparently,” she said, without an element of surprise at my predicament, “not only are you supposed to wander the world, but you are supposed to do it naked and walking, as well.”

And, so, I've spent decades wandering.

And, decades trying to collect stuff.

After leading groups of teenagers and adults around the world for 18 years, I now have a house that looks like a market in a developing country. My walls glitter with masks from Africa, my shelves are crammed with Thai headdresses and Nepali dolls, and my closets are filled with traditional Peruvian sweaters and woven scarves from Mozambique.

I finally have stuff.

And Legos. Did I mention the Legos?

During this semi-nomadic journey, I managed to have two beautiful sons. And despite the chaos of babies and diapers and strollers and STUFF – I still have wanted them to go to the other side of the world. To cross international borders.

Because, the real “stuff” that I've managed to accumulate in the past decade has been more than material. I've collected a marriage, a business, a family, and a community. And, since I’m still apparently not supposed to have any stuff, some of that has crumbled right now, as well.

And, again, I find myself without much stuff.  

And, as hard as it is to be without stuff again, I've found that being without stuff seems to be when the world reminds me of what really matters.


And, what really matters right now are eight and six years old. And they are my world.

So, I want to show them mine.

Thailand. Six weeks. One mom. Two boys. One duffle bag. Maybe we’ll get some stuff.