The Hard Rock Givers

IMG_9641The small towns of Harden-Murrumburrah, Australia has some things going on! The area is part of the traditional territory of the Wiradjuri people. However, in the 1840’s European settlement made its way into this region and soon after gold was discovered which put Harden-Murrumburrah on the world map. In 1877,  it became a one of the great Railway towns of Australia. The twin towns form part of the Hilltops region, strong in food and wine production. Many come to this region to pick cherry’s but for the most part it’s a regional country town where local life is the focus.

Glenn and Ros Stewart, are new locals, drawn to the area from Canberra in 2014. The couple came to Harden with skill sets as an electrician and social worker, but on a personal level have spent most of their adult lives advocating for the down trodden and marginalized. They are amazing parents to three grown children and have fostered for the past 15 years. When we sat with Glenn and Ros to hear their story we were inspired by their willingness to listen to the call to move from their hometown, good jobs, and family to the little town of Harden. They weren’t sure exactly what they would be doing in Harden at the time of their move, but their leap of faith paid off and soon the wheels started spinning.

Before their move, Glenn and Ros went for a ride on their Harley one day. They rode through the twin towns and saw an old abandoned house. A spark of an idea came to the couple as they saw the house as a potential place of refuge, not for themselves, but for those in crisis situations. They made note of the idea, put it aside, and continued on with their ride back to Canberra. Down the line, they were at an event and Glenn was talking to a fella who mentioned he was from Harden. Glenn was excited as he remembered the house and told the man their vision for the house. It just happened to be that the man he was talking to was actually the man who owned the house!

With no finances of their own, Glenn and Ros made a bold move and proposed that they might fix up his house, fund-raising and paying for all of the restoration, if the man agreed to let them use the house as a landing space for families in crisis for five years. It was a shot in the dark to be sure, but the man said YES! And so, the project got underway. Many of their friends and neighbors hopped on board and joined the excitement of rebuilding this dilapidated old house and making it new. Sometime later, the house was finished and has been a haven to families ever since.

After the house was finished, or maybe sometime in between, the Stewarts were praying about what was next, longing to do something with their time and resources that would bridge and build up community, specially for the two most noticeable populations in the area, the elderly and the youth. During a conversation one day, Glenn was told that some gym equipment was up for sale, and going at a really cheap price. Having never run a gym, Glenn thought, “well, that’s an idea, why not?” And so he put in a bid in and got it!

IMG_9654Then the Stewarts noticed an old abandoned grocery store building down town Harden. And, with the same humility asked the owner if he’s be open to them restoring the building and using it as a community space. The owner said, YES! Soon after, other resources, like the carpet, paint, lockers, helping hands and more fine details came to fruition. Even the instructors for all the classes came to them organically. They invited the community to come check out the space and the community responded with enthusiasm at the opportunity to not only get fit but to have such a fantastic gathering space.

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It’s been a whirlwind couple of years in Harden but as things have progressed, that leap of faith continues to bring folks through the door, and alongside the traditional gym uses the Stewart’s use the space to host faith-based gatherings, concerts, and dinners; which has transformed the Hard Rock Gym into a unique and sacred space for the community to come together and do life with one another, to build up not only their bodies but their souls. And that is super cool!

The story isn’t over, it’s only just begun. Glenn and Ros, along with whatever hands come alongside, have begun the process of restoring another home in the community, which will be used as crisis housing. And, as they walk in favor with the community, they are finding opportunities to consult with the local teachers about the youth they work with at the gym. They have been instrumental in helping to identify gifts and talents in the youth which promote a healthy life for the whole community.

Glenn and Ros are givers and we’re honored to know them and call them kinfolk! We look forward to seeing and hearing about the good things coming their way, and coming to Harden. It only takes a leap of faith.

 

The Great Wall of…Toilets

IMG_9614How about a little potty talk? I know, I know, I digress, but it’s always been a fascinating subject in my house hold.

It was the 70’s and my home a was pretty typical American home, except for the fact that my dad was the preacher man which meant there were some rules that we had to live by that my other friends didn’t. My parents didn’t talk dirty or swear, except for the occasional “damn it” when my mom would get mad at us kids which always left us a bit shell shocked. Alcohol was a no no, and so was playing cards, dancing and listening to rock music. Although, we did play cards but rock music and dancing, no no. So, I’d go to the neighbors to get my Michael Jackson or Shawn Cassidy fix and dancing, well you remember the movie Dirty Dancing right? Let’s just say, I was Jennifer Grey for Halloween one year. I was also Kimberly from Different Strokes one year but that’s a whole other story.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I feel like life was pretty typical except we had certain rules about humor infiltrating our home that was sexual or dirty. IMG_9613However, potty humor was fair game. And, those of us who could toot the most, the loudest or the smelliest were held in high regard.  Some of us would hide behind a holier than thou disgust but then would occasionally sneak one out, following up with the who farted question. Others were proud of their shameless farting and burping, expressing a sort of pride in their admittance of guilt. My mom’s side of the family, the Urcavich’s, would often say with condemnation that potty humor was a Price thing, meaning my dad’s side of the family. But to their dismay, my dad’s side of the family would grin from ear to ear and take the put down as a true complement. But I’ll tell you what, it was also an Urcavich thing and no matter what that side of the family says, I know, I’ve been in the room when one of my uncles lets one ripe filling the room with a blueish grey smog. The giggles are relentless, actually the giggles that follow are almost worse than the smell.

One time my adult cousin, who happens to be a “Price, gave our son a gift for his 10th birthday. It was small Casio piano. You know the kind that you can record a song or sound and it will add it to the repertoire? Well, he started to show him all of the cool sounds you could make with the little machine and creativity started to flow, the music was actually sounding pretty cool! Then without notice my cousin stopped and said to my son and all of his friends, “watch this!” As soon as he said it, I knew what was coming. He proceeded to belch into the recorder. Not just any belch but like a 30 second, mother of all mothers. The look on all of the kids faces was sheer excitement at the new-found opportunity and they all began to frantically lung at the machine, belching as loud as they could. It was hilarious and a bit embarrassing, seeing as we were in a Thai restaurant. Seriously, though that’s just one story of like eight hundred.

And, so it’s just sort of in my blood. I would fall into the more passive Urcavich category but I’m not ashamed of my Price roots. Personally, I tend to take the whole bodily function thing beyond the humorous to a scientific level. I’m fascinated by the studying gut function and what foods to eat to maintain a healthy movements. And, I love the word poop. Just writing it makes me giggle inside, so I’m super excited that Facebook added a poop emoticon. My family knows this about me and I’m often given books about pooping as gifts. Books like “What’s your poo telling you?” or “Perry Poops” and “Terry Toots.” *Disclaimer: I have enough books now. 🙂

Then there is my brother who is a business man by all means but one of his business does just happen to be a port-o-potty company. It’s called Captain Commodes, which is hilarious because my brother is a sailor. I remember when he first bought the company. That winter we were all sitting around the Christmas table and he pulled out all of these catalogs with all sorts of paraphernalia to do with the pumper industry. Who knew it was called the pumper industry. In that glorious moment, we were given a full-scale scope into the world of portable toilets. Then the movie Kenny came out and nailed it! If you’ve never seen Kenny, rent it tonight, you won’t be sorry.

So, it’s no wonder that as we traveled throughout SE Asia that I was compelled to take photo’s of the toilet situation. I actually started to think about it well before we left the States. I knew that the toilet situation would be different and I was excited to learn about how other parts of the world used the facilities. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous about the idea of squatting down as my knees are shot and I don’t have the strongest legs. However, it was the infrastructural limitations to processing toilet paper that really caught me off guard. Most toilets did not come with toilet paper, nor anywhere to put the paper once used. They did all have a portable hose or a water bucket and scoop, which acted sort of like a hand-held bidet. However, my quandary about how to dry off after I had squirted the water all over myself and the walls around me, was often the biggest dilemma. None the less, some of our hosts were gracious enough to allow me to ask directly but discretely how they managed through the process.  They would smile with embarrassment as they answered but behind their coy smile I could see a fellow “potty humor” comrade.

In the end, I embraced the system, whether it was the full squatter, the partial squatter or the throne. I found great comfort in the cleanliness that the hose offered as compared to the paper and really appreciated the physical strength that came from the natural workouts of squatting. Plus, I became aware of how much paper we waist in Western countries that could be eliminated if we all had the little hoses hooked up. So, if ever we are in a position of owning a home again, you can be assured that when you come to my house we’ll still have a thrown for you to sit upon but you might be wondering where the paper is. Which, in that case, will allow for a hearty conversation about poop and the environment and exploring new lands. And, who wouldn’t want to talk about that?!

Anyway, without further ado… Here is my Great Wall of… Toilets.

A huge thanks to all of our host who allowed us to first of all, use their toilets and secondly, to photography them. This will forever be a treasured part of our folk life family expedition memory.

 

Lion City

IMG_9100Singapore! What a fascinating place! This small but robust country is located at the southern tip of Malaysia, about 85 miles (137 kilometres) north of the Equator. Singapore Island originally was inhabited by fishermen and pirates, and it served as an outpost for the Sumatran empire of Srīvijaya which was a maritime and commercial kingdom that flourished between the 7th and the 13th centuries, largely in what is now Indonesia. Of course, there has been loads of history from then until now making this little fishing village one of the worlds most prestigious and innovative cities/countries in the world.

If you talk with a local they will tell you with great admiration that the modern progress and peaceful nation is due to their founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. They will tell you stories of a father who traveled around the world to progressive countries, seeking counsel and knowledge from world leaders,  on what worked and didn’t work for their societies. He then took the best of the best ideas and began implementing them in Singapore. He would walk the streets with a notepad and pen in hand, jotting things he saw in need of replacing or repair, as well as, taking note of flow. They will tell you he was meticulous and lead by example, that he cared about order, efficiency and cleanliness.

IMG_9090As visitors we sensed the importance of everyone going with the established flow and a vigilance on behalf of its citizens to keep law and order. It was actually quite enthralling to see such order, to tilt our heads in wonderment at how one gets a whole society to move with such calculated accuracy. The sociological anthropologists in us couldn’t help but asking questions, not with the desire to compare or judge but with complete curious fascination. The architecture and roadways lent to the flow of life but more that was the established rules in place; rules that were at first glance overbearing but after further review actually lent to the harmony one felt when walking the streets. There were camera’s everywhere and on more than on occasion our hosts explained with pride that the crime rate was very low in Singapore because of these cameras. There are eyes everywhere both from the cameras and from the citizens who all worked together in keeping the societal flow strong.

Some of the rules that we found sort of interesting, “no chewing gum.” You won’t see a single black mark in the sidewalks of Singapore. “No eating in undesignated areas” was another one. We actually learned this rule by accident, as we had brought granola bars with us on one of our outings and while waiting for the train, our son pulled one out. He began to eat it, but was shielded by our host, who let us know under his breath that we were breaking a rule. We all sort of chuckled at what seemed like a silly rule to us but saw our hosts desire to protect us and the plea in his eyes for understanding and out of respect immediately put the snack away.

IMG_9078“No peeing in elevators.” This was most interesting to us from our cultural perspective, as the idea of even having to make a rule regarding this issue seemed absurd. However, it was not uncommon throughout SE Asia to see men urinating in public spaces. And, migrants were  bringing this norm into Singapore. The migrants may have learned that was not allowed in public but still found ways to relieve themselves outside of a designated toilet blocks. The elevators became a hot spot for those looking to take a quick and quiet leak. Now, you have to understand that there are loads of elevators in Singapore. Most of the dwellings in Singapore are massive high-rises and each building would have multiple elevators. And so, to address this issue the Government installed a sensor in each elevator which upon impact of liquid would lock down and not reopen until the police had arrived. I’m sort of cringing and grinning even as I write this as it’s such a clever idea and as you can imagine, very effective.

IMG_9084The layout of the city was impeccable and easy to navigate with a wonderful train/bus system. We were able to enjoy a day at the beautiful botanical gardens, share meals with our hosts, including one of their favorites, Singapore Steamboats. Similar to Chinese Hotpots, the soup pot sits upon a small fire and has two sides of broth, one spicy, one mild. Then throughout the meal you add your selected ingredients to the broth. Ingredients like thinly shaved pork or beef, cubes of chicken or tofu, noodles, veggies, etc… The food was awesome but even more than that was the amazing welcome we found in Singapore.

IMG_9184Our hosts were gracious enough to not only show us their land but to allow us to stay in their space, sharing customs and encouraging each other in community. They even allowed me to cook in their kitchen, teaching them how to make one of my favorite Tex/Mex dishes and serving it to all of their friends and family.

We do not take for granted the gift of hospitality and our friends in Singapore made us feel more than welcomed. They allowed us to explore and ask questions, helping us to make sense of their land, and showering us with kindness and warmth.

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We all have our places where we feel most at home, most comfortable and being with our kinfolk through out SE Asia would be high on our list. But, if you ask our son where his favorite stop in SE Asia was, he will tell you hands down, it was Singapore. He loved the food, as well as the high-tech, modern and hospitable nature of the place. As we continue on our travels, he often is on the lookout for restaurants that cater to the Singapore palette and talks of going back there one day.

Merrymaking in Myanmar

 

IMG_0005We pulled into the Yangon Central train station at 5:45am. We were just in time to see the majestic sun waking up. We’d come from Bagan on an overnight bus and were quite the sight. We still hadn’t solidified logistics with our host in Yangon, so were feeling a little unsettled.
While at that train station we began to take in our surroundings, noting that the main hall of the train station was filling up with local travelers, many of them wearing the traditional longyis, and yellow paint of their faces. There were many side rooms in the station, full of people, sleeping on floor mats, just rising from a long night sleep.  We went to the bathroom to try to refresh. There were two ladies sitting outside of the bathroom waiting for me to pay them a few coins to use the facilities. Once in the bathroom, I thought it unusual that one of the stalls was converted into a sleeping room and realized that it probably belonged the ladies manning the door, that this was actually their house. So, we decided to wait until we got to our host home to really clean up.

IMG_0010We were hungry and found a local vender selling these delicious pastries that you dipped in a coffee like substance and eventually the four of us reunited back in the main hall. Craig had already negotiated our tickets and we had finally connected with our host and boarded our train.

As we boarded the train a few things caught our eye. First, the train car we boarded said “Ordinary Class” on the side of the car. We thought that was pretty funny that we were riding the ordinary car. Second, we were fascinated by the many riders with unusually red mouths. They were chewing something and would spit long streams of red dye out of the window of the train car. When they would smile we could see a twinkle in their eye, however, seeing their teeth was another story as most them were missing. There was one man who strolled through our car with a round metal tray filled with all sort of nuts, white powder stuff, leaves, and little bowls to crush stuff in. We later learned that he was selling a sort of chewing tobacco,  called Betle. We learned it was quite addicting and besides the loss of teeth, it’s also a leading cause of mouth cancer. The tradition runs 2000 years deep, so even with the new health information it will probably take a long while before it’s looked down upon in the common land.

IMG_0018We finally found our way to our host home and stumbled in about 9am. We were exhausted but excited to meet our new friends and hear about their journey from Phoenix AZ to Yangon, Myanmar. Mother/Daughter duo, Brenda and Nola, founders of the organization R.A.T (Run against Trafficking)  based out of Phoenix AZ, have worked for the past three years and raised thousands of dollars advocating for programs that assist victims of human trafficking. Through a series of events including a visit to Myanmar in 2013, they solidified their desire to come over and implement a similar strategy to raise awareness through their 5K R.A.T race. Three weeks prior to our visit they had facilitated their first run, which we learned was the first non-profit run in the history of Myanmar. It was a huge success and opened many doors with local leaders. We enjoyed hearing their stories of near misses and moments of divine orchestration at exactly the right time.

One afternoon, Brenda and Nola introduced us to their friend Rick Chase, who told us his story of working in refuge camps back in Canada and hearing the tragic stories of the people of Myanmar. He said, these stories inspired he and his family to give up everything in Vancouver to try to make a change. After doing a bit of research, Rick found that helping to meet a nutritional need was one ways he have a major impact. He decided to take a risk and start a local soy milk business called Snowball Soy. He shared his struggles of starting a business in a foreign country but his vision to feed one million people, orphans especially, across Myanmar, seemed to rise above the struggles. He’s brought over a Canadian invention called a Vitagoat soy food processing machine. The machines are inexpensive to set up and can be run without any electricity, which means a Vitagoat can be used not just in urban areas, but in refugee camps and the middle of the jungle.

While at lunch with Rick, we made note of his language skills and he said that it was a necessity to learn the language and learn it well. He said he felt that it was a major contributing factor in the success of his business. We concurred and enjoyed the benefit of having someone with us that could communicate in the native tongue as our food seemed to taste better and arrive quicker than normal.

IMG_9036On another occasion, in our little neighborhood, we were invited by Mai, the owner of the condo apartments we were staying at, to perform a concert for the locals on her front porch. As we set up our instruments, people from up and down the street began to gather around. Music is a universal language and for that one hour we all spoke that same language and sang our hearts out. Merrymaking on the streets of Yangon was a highlight to be sure and meeting sweet Mai, her family and all of her neighbors was a sheer delight.

As the week progressed, I found myself ill and in bed but Craig and the kids continued to explore. Craig was quite popular on the streets of Yangon and found welcome in most places with his huge mustache and bright smile.

IMG_9087As he wandered the streets, he was especially fascinated with the construction process, tools and crews. At one point, he was watching in wonderment as a crew build a three-story building. One of the workers noticed him and waved him up to the third floor take a closer look. Language was a barrier but the smiles and hand gestures were enough to understand the process. The manual labor component was intense as they would mix the concrete by hand below and then take turns carrying the loads in metal bowls, on their heads, up to the third floor, in flip flops on uneven surfaces. Craig was especially in awe of the women on the crew who would carry the same weight on their heads as the men.

Then, on one occasion, Craig popped into a convenience store looking for a calendar of the infamous Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. As he entered, the young man behind the counter quickly ran to the back of the shop to hide behind a curtain. Soon a few heads were peaking around the corner at Craig, hands to their faces to hold in their giggles. Eventually, they pushed a young girl forward and she slowly walked to the counter, eying Craig up and down with a big smile on her face, making a gesture with her hands above her lip clearly communicating that he was quite the sight. He got a kick out of their playfulness but didn’t find his calendar there. However, later, Mai from the condo, handed Craig a gift and it had a lovely calendar for him.

IMG_0019On another occasion, Craig was walking near the train tracks and saw an old-fashioned train control center. He began to poke in and around the building and was eventually invited by the two fella’s manning the booth, to come in.

He was excited to able to get up close and have a good look at the vintage mechanics of using levers to change train tracks. He walked in with his shoes on, which was a no no but the fella’s graciously gestured for him to remove them. Once again, despite the language barrier, these fella’s seemed quite happy to have Craig’s company for a little while; they admiring his big red mustache and he admiring their lever system.

 

IMG_9032And of course, you can’t go to Yangon without stopping by the ancient billion dollar pagoda in the city center. Craig and the kid went to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, known as the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. It apparently contains relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa. These relics include the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koṇāgamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa, and eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama. According to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. Out of respect, no one can wear any clothing that shows their knees, so our son, who had gone in shorts, had to purchase a traditional longyis and wear that throughout the grounds. He rocked it out.

IMG_9030History, traditions and legends aside, it was the immense amount of gold and jewels in the temple that really made an impact on the kids. When they returned they told me of the grandness  of the pagoda, exclaiming that it’s worth was upwards near US$4 billion dollars. My mind couldn’t grasp what $4billion dollars in a constructed building would look like but they described it well telling of the half a tonne of gold in Shwedagon’s umbrella alone. Then there was the 5500 diamonds – the largest of which is similar in size to one that Sotheby’s auctioned for $10-12 million, and gems galore, including 2300 rubies, sapphires, and other gems, in the main spire and 4000 golden bells. Then there was the gold, jewels, and 21st-century LED displays that swirls around many of the Buddhas. Actually, it was quite overwhelming to even think about. With all the jewels abounding, we could imagine a hilarious Pink Panther movie being filmed here!

IMG_9045Near the end of our stay in Yangon we met Polly, a shop owner across the street from where we were staying. Her little sewing shop was called Gold Rose Design and Creation and she had about eight young ladies working for her. I decided to pop my head in and see about having my pants altered before we flew to Singapore the next day. She assured me they would be finished by evening and asked me to stop back then. I went back to our host home to pack and prepare for the journey ahead. We shared our last meal with Brenda and Nola at a local joint across the way and then went back to get my pants from the Gold Rose. It was about 10pm when I arrived and some of the girls were working on a beautiful beaded piece, others were cleaning up for the day. I sat down on one of the stools and began to chat with Polly, who spoke english fairly well. She shared a little bit of her story stating that she, her husband and little daughter owned the humble little sewing shop.

IMG_9069The more I listened, asked questions and navigated language, I realized Polly’s business was a creative way of caring for her community. She was providing a safe environment for her students and workers to learn and grow. Her sewing shop was a wonderful beckon of light and offered Polly and opportunity to nurture and train up young women by equipping them not only with a skill set but with a beautiful understanding of self-worth.  As I went to pay for her service, she waved her hand and said, no, this is a gift for you. Then she handed both my daughter and myself beautiful scarves as a gift as well. I was in tears by this point feeling the love that comes when we are showered with gifts. It’s meeting people like Polly that gives us hope. And, that’s what I would say about the most of the Myanmar people we had the delight to encounter. They were authentic in their interactions and genuinely hospitable people. They cared for us in their kind looks/gestures, guided us across busy streets, smiled at us with friendly amusement, and they blessed us with radical hospitality.

What a joy to be able to catch a glimpse of all the inner makings of the local people in places far off and lands of wonder. I hope that one day, we will be invited back and that when we come that we can bless our friends in Myanmar as much as we’ve felt blessed by them.

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The Land of Ten-thousand Pagodas

map_of_myanmarWe knew we wanted to visit Myanmar (Burma) ever since August 2015,  when we sat around a table with Christy & Paul Penley in Colorado Springs and learned about all that was unfolding in the newly opened country. However, our contacts there were limited and so we tentatively only reserved 9 days in the country and planned to take it day by day to see what would unfold. The trip to Myanmar would follow our time in Thailand and we thought we’d be flying from Bangkok to Yangon. However, after more research on the history and areas of Myanmar, we decided that it would be especially important for us to visit the ancient city of Bagan.

This would change our original plan of flying into Yangon and set us back a bit as our flight from Bangkok to Mandalay would mean and overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, then a flight to Mandalay, then finally a three-hour bus ride to Bagan. It would be our most extensive and demanding travel in some weeks and thankfully, our hosts in Bangkok, the Tuggy family, welcomed us back for a short two night stay, which broke up our trip and allowed us to find the much-needed energy for the next chapter.

IMG_8794We hailed a taxi in Bangkok and set out for the airport, found the line to Mandalay, got our tickets and boarded our plane. The flight was short, about 2  hours. We landed and took an hour bus ride into downtown Mandalay. Then hopped on a short bus for the final three-hour stretch to Bagan. It was through the windows on that bus that we would catch our first glimpse of Myanmar.

We noticed that the infrastructure was simple and the poverty was striking, yet not offensive. The people were extremely friendly and welcomed us with big smiles (which may also have been a response to Craig’s grandiose mustache). Both men and women were dressed in traditional longyi and many of the women had their hair up and a wore yellow paint on their faces, which we later learned was made from tree bark. We quickly learned the “traditional” Burmese greeting, mingalaba, in hopes that the locals would sense our desire to connect with them. During one of our first interactions at a roadside stand we were well taken care of by three Burmese women who served us our first meal. It was spicy, simple and delicious.

A little history about Bagan, Myanmar. Officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar but also known as Burma, has an ancient history involving the intertwining influence of both Indian, China and Thailand. And, although historians don’t always agree on the original history, many agree that the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu people, were potentially the earliest inhabitants of Burma. They were heavily influenced by trade with India, importing Buddhism as well as other cultural, architectural and political concepts. It is said that in the 1050s, King Anawrahta founded the Pagan Kingdom and that the kingdom grew out of a small 9th-century settlement at Pagan (Bagan) by the Mranma (Burmans), who had recently entered the Irrawaddy valley from the Kingdom of Nanzhao (Southern China).

IMG_0058It is also said, that Bagan was visited by the Buddha himself during his lifetime, and it was here that he allegedly pronounced that a great kingdom would arise. Buddhism stuck and Theravāda Buddhism      (literally “school of the elder monks”) is the branch of Buddhism that is practiced in Myanmar. It uses the teaching of the Pāli Canon, a collection of the oldest recorded Buddhist texts, thought to have been written directly by the Gautama Buddha himself, composed in North India, and preserved orally until it was committed to writing during the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE. The text is believed to contain everything needed to show the path to nirvāna (or heaven).

IMG_0049During the Kingdom of Pagan’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in about a 40 mile radius, with 2200 still standing.

In its hay day, the city was a cosmopolitan center for religious and secular studies, specializing in Pali scholarship in grammar and philosophical-psychological studies as well as works in a variety of languages on grammar, astrology, alchemy, medicine, and legal studies.

After the collapse of the Pagan Empire, the city underwent centuries of changes and has maintained a humble presence as a religious pilgrimage, as well as, a one of the countries main historical tourist destinations with an average of over 300,000 international tourists each year.

IMG_0024It was late in the evening when we arrived to our May Kha Lar guesthouse, ($50USD per night for 2 rooms) where we planned to stay for one night, as that was all we could afford. It would be a short visit but we planned to make the most of our time. We woke about 8am, ate a lovely breakfast, went across the street and rented two electric scooters for $8 each and began to make our way towards the Pagodas. We didn’t have an exact route planned but rather followed our noses.

The Pagodas, traditionally a funerary monument containing Buddha associated relics, were usually built to honor a notable person, or bring lasting remembrance to an important family. They sprinkled along the roadside and fields, allowing us to stop frequently, exploring the in’s and out’s of the structures.

img_1957_lzn1Originally, the bell-shaped brick structures were set on a square or octagonal base, and rose to a gentle peak gilded with metal (usually gold) and jeweled tops with a sacred parasol-shaped decoration called “hti”. Over time, however, the structures have lost much of their facades and most have weaned down to the original brick. All were four-sided with an opening on each side and each side had a large gold leaf painted statue of Buddha in a crossed leg sitting position. Some of the Pagodas had a tunnel that connected between the four sides and some of them didn’t. Some were old ruins and some recently renovated, like the Shwesandaw Pagoda which was built in 1057 by King Anawrahta. It has a bell tower which rises from two octagonal bases and is topped with five square terraces. This was the first monument in Bagan to feature stairways leading from the square bottom terraces to the round base of the pagoda itself and this pagoda supposedly enshrines a Buddha hair relic brought back from southern Burma.

After stopping off for a quick-lunch and seeing more Pagodas than we could count, we decide to seek out some of the famous temples. We learned the temples also known as “gu” were inspired by the rock caves of Buddhist. Different than the surrounding pagodas, the temples were larger multi-storied buildings and were places of public worships that included rich murals with sacred shrines and images that could be worshipped. All of them slightly different in design but most built as square or oblong structure with outer terraces representing Mount Meru, the symbolic home of the gods, and surrounded by a thick wall to separate its realm of the sacred from the outside world.

IMG_0112History and architecture aside, as a person who questions the motives of empire and any really establishment, religious or not, I’ll admit it was hard to make sense of it all. It seemed very focused on wealth and prosperity, which seemed quite the paradox in this noticeably impoverished land. For instance, the outer courtyards were filled with vendors, making their honest yet demanding plea for passerby’s to buy their products. Inside the Temples the walls were lined with multiple offering boxes and filled with cold hard cash and later we would learn about temples in the southern region that were made of solid gold, jewels and gems. As an ascetic however, I did appreciate the offerings of simple objects such as a lit candle or oil lamp, burning incense, flowers, food, fruit, water or drinks.

While at one of the Pagodas a man was selling his traditional/religious art. He spoke english and seemed open to us asking him questions. He helped us understand that the material offerings were meant to nurture generosity and virtue, as well as, deepening one’s commitment to the Buddha’s path. After seeing all of the full offerings (money boxes) it became apparent that nurturing generosity and virtue were held in high regard for the Burmese people. But, after seeing all of the poverty around us, the skeptic in me, wondered where exactly all that money went. None the less, I knew I didn’t have the whole picture so I shelved my need to seek justice and resolved to seek out more information about what the Buddhist leadership might do with these offerings.

Plan_of_Ananda_Temple_MyanmarWe made our way to one of the most famous Temples, called Ananda. Said to have been built around 1105 by King Kyanzittha, this perfectly proportioned temple heralds the stylistic end of the Early Bagan period and the beginning of the Middle period.

Legend says that there were 8 monks who arrived one day to the palace begging for alms. They told the king that once, they had lived in the Nandamula Cave temple in the Himalayas. The King was fascinated by the tales and invited the monks to return to his palace. The monks with their meditative powers, showed the king the mythical landscape of the places they had been. IMG_0142King Kyanzittha was overwhelmed by the sight and had a desire for building a temple which would be cool inside in the middle of the hot Bagan plains.

After the construction of the temple, the king executed the architects just to make the style of the temple so unique. Unfortunately, we were not able to enter the Temple because it was closed for a private guest tour. Word on the street was that Bono was there. So, we hung out in the parking lot, which also doubled as a place for vendors to sell their wears.

IMG_8969A young woman approached me. I wasn’t really interested in buying her clothing but felt compelled to talk with her. She had fantastic english and as we sat there for the next hour, she shared her story of growing up in a little village along a river and losing everything in Cyclone Koman. With no government infrastructure to deal with the devastation she along with her large family fled to Bagan to find work. For months they drifted, homeless and shelterless and then finally found work/shelter guarding one of the temples. She and her sisters are no longer in school but rather they sell clothing at the temples to support their family. As we spoke I was taken by the thought that just five years ago this conversation would have never even been possible as the border to Myanmar had only just opened to the outside world. I was taken by her spirit and zest for life, her initiative to learn english by engaging with foreigners and I encouraged her to consider seeking opportunities to use her language skills to advocate for her people. Only 19, she smiled and thanked me for the words of encouragement. Swindled or not, I decided to use my tiny pocket-book to purchase her clothing. She suggested a traditional longyi and allowed me time to leaf through all of her choices. We exchanged e-mails before leaving and honestly, I haven’t stopped thinking of her.

IMG_0146As we turned to go, I saw Craig standing at the side of a truck filled, actually jam-packed with people, both young and old, waiting for who know what, in the hot sun. I realized as I approached the truck that they were absolutely enthralled with his epic mustache. They all sat staring at him, giggling with sheer delight for a good fifteen minutes as he stood by smiling, allowing them this simple pleasure.

From the Ananda temple we made our way to the Shwesandaw Pagoda to watch the sunset (which in and of itself is a good enough reason to visit Bagan). On the way, Craig’s electric scooter got a flat tire and we had to seek help from a local vender who happened to have a cell phone for us to borrow. We called the lady who rented us a bike and with in the hour her husband rode up and exchanged our bike for his. Luckly, the bike debacle didn’t cause to much of a set back and we arrived about an hour before sunset.

We could see the Dhammayangy Temple, also known as the Kalagya Min, the ‘king killed by Indians’, in the distance and decided to take the off-road trails to get to it. This massive structure was built by the cruel King Narathu in the 12 century and was said to be cursed because of his ruthless reign.

dirt bikeWe started to make our way but found that the sand trails were over-cumbersome for our mopeds and began to doubt our decision. We revved our engines and tried to push through but finally after a comical and somewhat dangerous drive we finally found our way back to a main road. We were covered in sand, sweat and our belly’s hurt from laughter. We never made it over to the Dhammayangy Temple. Instead, we stuck the road and made our way back to the Shwesandaw. We climbed up to the top and although it was crowded with tourists the view was spectacular. We didn’t end up getting any photos of the actual sunset but we did get one of this little darling, the sun glowing on her skin.

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After the sunset, we made our way back towards our guesthouse for dinner but found on our way that my bike battery was running low. We struggled to make our way but the battery didn’t last the whole way. Graciana, who was riding on the back of my bike, ended up having to use both of her legs to aggressively push us along. We were laughing hysterically and I’m sure quite the site and as we neared a busier part of town we began to hear cheers and laughter. Her fortitude and my steering finally found us pulled up in front of the moped rental where we exchanged the bike for our final hour in Bagan.

Our last stop was the Black Bamboo restaurant, which combined a wonderful array of French and Burmese cuisine. It was a real treat to be sure and offered a bit of a respite from our sandy, sweaty day.

After dinner, we dropped of the bikes, picked up our luggage, which the guesthouse had been minding, and made our way to the bus stop for a long night of travel. We were exhausted but so pleased as to all that had transpired over the past twenty-four hours.

We still didn’t have answers to some of our questions but we left Bagan with more understanding of the common people and our hearts were full.

 

The Flow of Pai, Thailand

IMG_9810We arrived in the northern mountain city of Pai, Thailand, on NYE just in time to join our kinfolk from Shekina Community at their NYE party.

As we pulled into town, after our 3 hour winding and rolling van ride from Chiang Mai, we made our way,  backpacks and instruments in tow, towards our little Thai hut, at Family House Riverside. We immediately felt a festive, laid back vibe and most everyone smiled at us as we wandered the city streets. We noticed backpackers from all corners of the world and the Thai people we met, obviously impacted by these visitors, sported a mix of traditional and world markings in both fashion, tattoos, dreadlocks and speech. It was foreign enough in Pai but there was also a familiarity in this unique place, a feeling of home.
IMG_9796The breeze was cool but the sun warm on our faces as we crossed over a bamboo bridge finally arriving at our little grass hut. We were greeted warmly by the owner, an Italian man named Johnathan, and his Thai friends/family. We settled our things into our huts and were soon greeted by our friend Leaf, from the Shekina Community. She welcomed us to Pai and shared a little bit about her family and community as we made our way back across the river towards a gathering at the Ford home. At the same time, a young lady, whom we had met at a backpacker hostel in Chiang Mai, happened to be in Pai at the same time, so we invited her along to the gathering.
IMG_9797After sharing a lovely dinner and music, a group of about 30 of us began to walk into town, towards the river where the NYE celebration was in full swing. It was late and dark and we were excited about what NYE might look like in this part of the world. As we strolled through the city, the streets were filled with vendors  selling all sorts of beautiful creations. The many colors, streamers, balloons, music and food elated our senses, building our anticipation.
IMG_9801When we finally reached the water, the city lights faded, we found a sky full of thousands of fire lanterns floating peacefully in the air. Soon though, the lights of sparklers came out and eventually a choir of fireworks began to pop and crackle, dancing around the docile lanterns. There really was no officiate shooting the fireworks, but rather a vendor set up with a table full of every sort of cracker you could desire and it was every group for themselves. Parties within parties, lighting their crackers at random intervals, some shooting straight to the sky, some actually launching lopsided, a little to close to the crowds, evoking a sense of excitement and panic. All of our senses were heightened and we were filled with amazement at the prospect of the sort of organized chaos echoing around us! We found a moment of solace within our group and gathering in a circle together with a number of the peaceful lanterns in hand, we released them all in a grand ceremonial launch, wishing for peace on earth and good will towards all. Needless to say, the night ended in sheer delight!
IMG_9816The next day we began to explore Pai, nestled by the surrounding mountain side, the little town boast about 2000 for it’s local population and on any given day can accommodate just the right amount of backpackers to still feel homey. We explored a few restaurants and found a healthy dose of vegan and veggie options. One of our favorite was Art in Chai, which we ended up frequenting daily for their delicious chai and near the end of the week, we ended up doing a little spontaneous concert at the venue. After the concert we met a few fellows from Argentina and Spain, we spent some time getting to know them and were delighted by their invitation to join them the next evening at their guesthouse for a BBQ.
IMG_9795The next morning we rose and spent the day riding mopeds up into the beautiful mountains, to the hot springs for a soak. We passed some of the crude elephant farms, which actually caught us off guard and elicited a sense of sadness, but finally wound our way up into the springs. There was a guard at the gate who stopped us to look over our gear and then charged us 20Baht each to get into the grounds. We rode another 5K deepening into the forest, finally coming to the springs. There were about 40 people there, mostly backpackers but a few local families taking a relaxing bath and an older, long-haired hippie, from France, who spent most of his time trying to recruit people to his Yoga class later that evening. After our swim, we decided to head back and get ready for the gathering with our new backpacker friends. On our final stretch home, we passed an open field, where a boxing ring was set up, just sitting there, out in the middle of the field. It was so hilariously out of  place that the unusual spectacle drew us in and we couldn’t help but to crawl into the ring and have a go.
1013332_10208234196716613_3277478518350916490_nThen later that evening we joined our new Spanish-speaking friends at their guesthouse. Their party was already underway and we met folks from all over South America including Chile, Columbia, Mexico, and Argentina, we also met folks from Canada, Australia, Spain, the US, Cambodia, and Finland. I wish I had more pictures from that evening because it was really quite special. We swapped songs, we told stories and encouraged these kinfolk to see life a little differently.
IMG_0067One thing that really struck me as we sat there swapping songs and story, was the openness that all of these young minds had towards each other, their desire to know and be known. They came from all corners of the earth, all different beliefs and struggles and probably in many of their homelands those, that they now sat with, would be considered less than or the enemy. And, yet, here in this place, there was an understanding and the deeper connectivity of humanity could be felt. As we all moved in unity, further into that connectivity, the “us and them” became “we” and for a still small moment, all felt right with the world.
As the night progressed, we began to break into smaller groups for more intimate conversation. I was encouraged to sit with a young woman from Cambodia, who was raised in California but travels back periodically to visit her homeland and people. She said her greatest struggle in going back is balancing the complexities of womanhood. I shared with her the stories of some of the strong and courageous young women whom I had met them in Phnom Penh at Alongsiders, women who were doing wonderful things to reshape the canvas of human rights, especially for young women in Cambodia. She was encouraged to hear about them and hoped to one day met them.  At the same time, Banjo was showing his Cajon to a few mates, teaching them some of the basics. Graciana was strumming along on her guitar, making music with a few of the friends who still wanted to sing and Craig was sitting with a group of about 7 young people from the US and Australia. I could hear him sharing intently with them, but couldn’t hear what they were talking about. When my conversation finished, I walked over to Craig and found out that the young people he was engaged with were from a religious organization called YWAM, and this was their first stop on their trek across SE Asia. It was a delight to hear their hearts desire for their generation to experience an awaking spiritually, to know the God of all gods. It was also an honor offer them encouragement by sharing stories from many our years on the road.
12509128_10153870150734028_8010103830305621202_nAround midnight, we felt it time to head home but Graciana wanted to stay out longer. We contemplated what “staying out later” might entail. So far, the group had been perfectly delightful, but they were all young loving, adventure seeking, and probably pleasure-seeking young adults and so with reluctance we obliged her. However, before we left her, we did make quite the speech, calling for all of those well chiseled and dynamic young men to gather around us and listen closely. Graciana cringed with embarrassment. None the less, with Craig and his manly mustache backing me, I instructed the young men to escort and protect Graciana through the rest of the evening. They all stood a little taller and Manuel who had taken charge for the group, concurred whole heartedly to honor her, with Jonatan, Ignacio and Dieguito nodding behind in agreement. I made it clear that no one was to touch her… including them, and that was when Manuel’s eyes went wide and he declared in his booming voice, all of their allegiance, proclaiming her virtue would be secure. Whew!
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We walked away, took a deep breath, went back to our little bungalow, crawled in bed and waited until we heard their jovial voices whispering through the air, finally settling into a deep sleep about 4am.
The next day at breakfast, Graciana shared a pleasant review of the evening and we all had a fine laugh about the dramatic speech, some of the jockeying that took place with a few of the fellas the night before but ultimately, she attested  to the good clean fun that was had, sitting around campfires, the light-hearted laughter and sharing music, including some old timey, hymns. Honestly, I am proud of my girl and these young people we met along the way, specially the young men who cared for and respected this mothers wishes. Well done young men! Your mother’s and father’s would be proud!
IMG_9811We only spent five days in Pai but fusing our fantastic time with all of the backpackers we met and the amazing sense of solace that came from being with all the kinfolk from Shekina Gardens, we’d have to say that Pai, Thailand was one of our favorite stops in SE Asia. The sense of community and connectivity we experienced in Pai during those five days are a true treasure and we do not take them for granted. Excited to see if more times will come, where we can meet our new companions from around the globe, out on the open road, or maybe even in their hometowns. We long to see them again, share a meal, story and song and be encouraged by the tie that binds us all in love.

The Heart of Pai; Shekina Gardens

We happened to be at a farm just outside of Lansing, MI last summer when we met a couple who heard our desire to visit SE Asia and India. They told us of a friend in India, whom we reached out to but found that our routing would not get us to India this time around. That friend in India, then suggested that we connect with her friends in Northern Thailand. When we heard about the kinfolk in Northern Thailand we wrote them a message and began a dialog about a potential visit. It was going to be some effort to get up to them as most of our contacts in Thailand were in the south. However, after our first conversation, learning about their community and meditation center, Shekina Gardens, for backpackers on the “Hippie Trail”, we felt deeply compelled to make every effort to visit them.

IMG_9803How we get where we go, and who we share in community with around a table never ceases to amazes us. And, so it was that we made our way 16 hours from Bangkok to Northern Thailand. We arrived in Pai, which sits three hours northwest of Chiang Mai, on Dec 31 just in time for a gathering at the Ford home. It’s a surreal thing to walk into a stranger’s home. There is a feeling of anticipation and a little bit of anxiety but time after time we find that it only takes the “hello’s” for us to feel at home.

IMG_0013We met many new friends that night, shared a meal and song and began to learn about this committed and creative bunch. The host of the NYE gathering was Rachel, a brilliant author and fantastic cook, her husband, Chinua, a fantastic musician, and their five amazing children, all of whom were an absolute delightful. We met a gentle soul named Naomi and her husband Josh, a self-described traveling monk and photographer and their darling children. We met Rowan, whom Banjo named my twin, and her husband Neil, both live performance artists in the circusy vain and our finally our initial hosts who we had been communicating with prior to our visit, the ever discerning Leaf, her husband, Brendan, a fantastic teacher, and their two beautiful children. There were many others there as well, and as the music flowed and we sunk gently into the night we knew that our time in Pai was surely going to be a refuge and delight.

IMG_9806Pai attracts people from all over the world both young and old who are looking for a chill environment to catch their breath and make deeper connections. The little town boasts about 2000 for it’s local population and on any given day can accommodate just the right amount of backpackers to still feel homey. As you stroll around Pai, there are signs out in front of businesses that lay claim to being the “Heart of Pai.” But, we reckon this committed group of four families and a few extra’s that have come together to create the sacred space/Christ centered ashram, Shekina Gardens, are the genuine “Heart of Pai.” These families have come from Australia, Canada and the US, via India, finding each other along the way. They have all exchanged their western cultural norms to live in community with one another, sharing resources, time and creative talents with each other and with those that cross their paths. Practically, the garden offers a sacred space for gatherings, meditations and meals which allows for breath and time for those who join them to genuinely connect with the Creator of the Universe.

Because of their tone of vulnerability and authentic faith we found freedom to let our hair down, so to speak, and feel things that we had been carrying since our first stop in the Philippines. We found solace and friendship in this safe haven and opportunities to belly laugh as well as cry our hearts out.

IMG_9820When we think of the experience we had with the Shekina Community, a beautiful letter written by the Apostle John to his friend Gaius comes to mind. In the letter he commends his friend and community for demonstrating a generous portion of hospitality towards others. The letter reads, “even when they are strangers to you, you treat them as family These friends tell the entire church how you have extended your hand to them in love. It’s good work you’re doing, helping these travelers on their way, hospitality worthy of God himself!” 

If there is one place that we think of going back to, it’s Shekina Gardens both for the serene canvas that Pai offers and mostly for the sincere friendship we found there with both the Saints and the Savior.

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Big Smiles in Northern Thailand

IMG_9622Most folks go to Chiang Mai, Thailand for the beauty, the many Eco Elephant safaris, the pagodas, the markets and the food but not us. No, we went to Chiang Mai to get our teeth cleaned.

2010 was our last dental appointment, so when we heard about the Chiang Mai Medical and Dental Polyclinic on Moonmuang Road from our friends and fellow travelers, Sammy and Kylie, we were stoked. We walked into the office on a Thursday and made our appointment for the following afternoon.

The next day we woke and went to our dental appointment. When we arrived we filled out a little info sheet and waited for our turns. The waiting room was packed with patients and we had to wait a bit but the facility was clean, modern and the staff was welcoming. One by one we all called in for a solid cleaning, top to bottom. At one point, I was asked into the room where our daughter was getting her cleaning and the Doctor asked if it was OK for him to replace her Mercury fillings. I had forgotten about them but was elated that he brought it up as we had wanted to get them replaced years ago but just couldn’t afford it. Of course, I said yes. All up three of us had full cleanings and Graciana had the extra work on her fillings and our total bill was $3500Tbt (98USD)! We left refreshed and so grateful for our new, fresh smiles.
Once the task at hand was complete, we were able to enjoy the rest of our time in Chiang Mai exploring the city and surrounding areas.

IMG_9615Chiang Mai is Thailand’s northern capital and the name means “Rose of the North.” The population is only 200,000 as compared to Bangkok’s 9 million, and so Chiang Mai offers escape from the whirlwind pace of life of its southern rival. The city was built in 1296 as a walled city surrounded by a moat. The old city was roughly 1.5km square. Whilst a good portion of the original city wall has collapsed the four corner bastions are still intact along with various other sections. The original moat is still in use to this day.

As Lonely Planet describes, “Chiang Mai is nestled amongst forested foothills and much older than it first appears. During the city’s medieval heyday, almost everything was made of teak hauled by elephant from the surrounding rainforest, with the notable exception of its towering wát. The monasteries still remain, centred on ancient brick chedi (stupas) in a remarkable range of shapes and styles, but the gaps between them have been filled in with modern Thai houses and traveller hotels.”

IMG_9619We stayed one night at the modest “Your House Guest House.” The price was great at $400Tbt (11UDS) but the family room we all hunkered down in, had a shared bathroom and by this point in our trip we were longing for a little bit more luxury. And honestly, Craig and I were needing a little alone time, if you know what I mean. 🙂  So we wondered the streets, poking our heads in and out of guest houses, asking for a price and availability. We were having sour luck and had resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d probably have to stay one more night at our current location. We grabbed a late dinner and while at the restaurant we struck up a conversation with our server and asked if she had and suggestions for places to stay. She sent us on to her friend’s at, Julie’s Guest House.

Julie’s was vibrant and full of life, with backpackers situated in ever little corner of the lounge room. There were folks from all over the world, playing pool, on media devices and chatting about what the next days adventures would bring. We were welcomed by the staff who showed us the rooms available and we were able to secure two room for a total of $650Tbt (18USD). Both rooms had their own bathroom, one of the rooms had two twin beds, which made our kids really happy and our room had a relatively comfortable double bed. It was worth a few dollars more for the autonomy and individual bathroom space. Plus we met a couple of lovely backpackers while there, which made the stay even more fulfilling.

Once our lodging was settled we rented two mopeds at $5 a day and began to explore the city. Craig mapped out a day trip that would take us up into the lush rainforest past waterfalls and end up at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep.

IMG_9631We ended up stopping a few time along the way to enjoy local fare, swapping songs with some street performers, who ended up handing their guitar to Graciana so she could sing them a song. We stopped off at one point to take a short hike through the woods to a waterfall where we met and chatted with a few backpackers about what they’d discovered, sharing suggestions and local finds. Then, continued to wind our way up the mountain.

IMG_9633We made our way up to the Wat but once we arrived we were shocked by the number of venders in and around the Pagoda, as well as the amount of offering boxes scattered around the grounds. It’s just that we had in our heads that we were going to a place that was meant to be a sacred space and it seemed as if all that was really going on was commerce. We just weren’t expecting to be bombarded by high pressure sales people in such a fierce way and the constant stream of money being put into the offering boxes really was noticeable and made us curious as to where all that money was going, specially in light of the poverty all around us.

IMG_9630And, then to top it off, I aways get a little ornery when I’m told I can’t do something or go somewhere because I’m a woman, so when I saw a few signs that stated that women weren’t allowed in certain parts of the Pagoda’s, I just couldn’t bounce back and spent the rest of the afternoon a little sulky, specially after our stop just prior in Pattaya, where we learned about horrors of the sex trade industry in Thailand.

Anyway, it’s always easier to see the speck in someone else’s eye… So, I’ve worked through the immediate feelings and although I can’t say that I’ve come very far, I do see the obscene hypocrisy in my own culture, politics, religion, etc… But, that’s for another conversation, down the line.

IMG_9617The ride back into town was exhilarating, winding through the mountains, weaving in and out of traffic. I’m positive that the moped rides in SE Asia will always be some of our fondest memories.

We spent the evening at the night market looking for treasure, and found a few local vendors who design and make their own clothing. The items were beautiful and reflective of the mountain culture around us. The only bummer was that the sizing was all a bit small for all of us. Although, Craig did ended up getting a lovely linen shirt and fisherman shorts from a fella whose family has been making their own designs for over 40 years. The rest of us just looked but declared that if we ever came back to Chiang Mai, we’d seek out that designer to make a few items to order.

We finished off our last night in the city, visiting The Lost Book Shop and shared a lovely dinner at Bubble Live Restaurant (featuring an organic menu including, vegan and veggie options) and then topped it all off with a traditional Thai Massage. Yep, all four of us in one little parlor, you can imagine the laughs.

If there was a beach in Chiang Mai, it would probably have been pretty hard to get me to leave. The food, the people (both backpackers and locals), the sights and sounds, the rainforest, the medical resources, and the breath of fresh air that Chiang Mai offered was much-needed and we hope to get back to this part of the world again someday!

A Little Taste Of Home in Cambodia

 We love stumbling upon a good foodie restaurant, especially one that has options for all of us (we have two vegiterians and two meat eaters in our family). So, when we were in Phnom Penh, Cambodia longing for a good burger and found Restore One Cafe we were stoked! I know, I know how do you go to Cambodia thinking your going to find a good burger but actually “the burger” has a pretty big presence in Phnom Penh, probably because of all of the western NGO’s. None the less, after 5 weeks in SE Asia we were ecstatic to find a little taste of home. And then, to learn about the bigger picture behind Restore One made our burger find even more satisfying.

While at Restore One Cafe we met the manager and local resident, Sopheavy. She shared the vision behind the cafe explaining that it’s main purpose is to be a training ground for young people at risk and that they offer a 12-month traineeship at the cafe which equips the young people for a successful career in the hospitality and tourism industry. The proceeds made by the cafe are used to support the many other offers that Restore One Charity offers, from building projects, schools, and training and equipping locals to start micro-businesses.

We ended up popping in on more than one occasion which allowed up to get to know the staff and story behind the cafe as well as try a number of dishes, establishing our favorites. We all agreed that the fresh mint and lime smoothy and the homemade ginger beer were the best drinks on the menu, although their cappuccinos and mango smoothies were fantastic too! Hand cut fries and the spring rolls were our favorite appetizers and we tried all but two of their gourmet burger choices and found the vegetarian burgers just as delightful as their grass fed beef burgers.

PS. We highly recommend street vender/local fare as well, one because it’s cheaper but mostly because it was delicious. However, if your looking for a taste of home and have a few extra bucks to spare stop in to Restore One Cafe. Tell ’em The Hollands! sent you their way.

The Highlands of Vietnam

Di Linh (Vietnamese: Di Linh; French: Djiring) is a district (huyện) of Lâm Đồng Province in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam.

As of 2003 the district had a population of 154,472.The district covers an area of 1,628 km². The district capital lies at Di Linh.

And, that is about all Wikipedia has to say about the place. But, we would add so much more!

IMG_7729First off, going from sea level in Phan Theit, rolling through hills up to about 4000 feet into the highlands was spectacular! And the stops on the way up offered a taste of some of the best coffee in the world. And, for those who don’t know, coffee is one of Mr. Hollands love languages.

The coffee city that gets the most attention in the region is Da Lat and I’m sure it’s a wonderful place for tourists. For us, however, connecting with locals and learning about life through their eyes is more important. So, we were pleased when our friend Joe invited us to come with him up to visit Di Linh, to share a meal, story and sacred space with his kinfolk, who all happen to be coffee farmers.

IMG_1214The community treated us to a traditional meal, coffee of course, and we sang together. We were honored to find out we were there first international guests! We shared our story and they shared theirs and what we learned is that they have the same struggles many of us have around the world with desires for a good, healthy, long life and dealing with the many obsticals that can get in the way.

IMG_1230We met Than, a generational coffee farmer. Thans ancestors had farmed over a hundred hectares but after the war, his families land was seized and he now farms about two hectares. From that 2 hectares he produces 10 tonnes of bean; Arabica, robusta and a third coffee which is a blend. Most is sold to dealers to be exported.

He taught us about the growing process stating that the trees last for about 50 years, and produce bigger yields each year. Harvest time is in December and he hires on about 6 extra migrant workers to help with the harvest. A tarp is set on the ground that catches the beans as the workers pull them off the branches. Then the beans are then set out in the front yard to dry for 10 days before being packaged. Than also grows red flamingo flowers in green houses through out the year and sells them to stores all over Vietnam.

Honestly, Di Linh could have been any little rural town in the US where folks are hard working, value the land they live on and care about their families and their faith. It’s off the beaten path but for us Di Linh and the people we met there will always hold a special place in our hearts. And the coffee, that was just the warm up to the truest love language there is, connection.