Archive for April, 2010

Many more moments


I left Chiang Mai, but not before I had a moment with a man. So I was buying a watermelon shake on the street. It was a hot sultry night, typical for Southeast Asia. I was waiting patiently for my shake and sensed this man’s presence next to me. I looked up, our eyes met and we smiled at each other. There was a big line-up, so we stood silently next to each other for many minutes. I was hyper-aware of his presence. His order came up first, he collected his drinks and got onto his adjacent moped. He paused and I could feel his stare. I started sweating and my heart began to beat faster. I looked up and smiled at him and WE HAD A MOMENT. I could see he wanted to stay, but I looked away and he left. And that’s when I realized I will have many moments in Southeast Asia. I am still smiling thinking about this guy and we never even exchanged a word.

I had a lovely beach vacation in Koh Lanta, Thailand. My best friend, Debora, was in Macau visiting family and flew down to join me. Every morning, we’d wake up in our beach bungalow to the sound of crashing waves (kind of made up for falling asleep to loud music from the other resorts). We’d eat breakfast on the beach, drink in the white sandy beach and crystal blue-green water, sigh and proclaim again that we were in paradise. I experienced hot yoga for the first time, but not like in the United States. In the mornings, we’d go to a 2-hour yoga class overlooking the beach in 95 degrees. We were sweating before the class even started, since we walked 20 minutes in the sun to get there. The class was pretty intense, and the sweat would just pour down my body. After the first class, I caved in, abandoned any vanity and bought a headband, like they wear on Survivor. It really works to keep the sweat from streaming into your eyes!

For 15 years, I’ve been wearing a bikini top and board shorts. I’ve grown really comfortable in these shorts because it hides my hips. But friends in Vietnam and Laos quickly told me to ditch the shorts. In Laos, women wear t-shirts and shorts in public swimming areas – not bathing suits and definitely not bikinis. One day, we were all going to a hotel swimming pool, and my friend made us all wear bikinis. The Lao women were horrified and I was as well. After I got over the initial awkward and exposed feeling, I was rocking that bikini! So I bought a bikini in Chiang Mai for $10 and felt so wonderful and free on the beach in Koh Lanta. Why was I hiding behind those shorts for so long? This journey is all about freedom and joy, and it’s amazing that even a bikini bottom can evoke these feelings.

I went scuba diving for the first time and it was glorious. It was a 2-hour boat ride to Koh Haa, and I got lucky with 1:1 instruction. Many of the other newbies were really nervous, but I just felt excited. Until I was about to jump into the water, and then my nerves got to me. There isn’t any time to chicken out, plus my friend told me I’m the most fearless person she knows. So I stepped off the side of the boat and plunged into the water. Okay so far. Then the instructor goes over a few lessons underwater, like removing my mouthpiece and letting water get into my mask. The mouthpiece was smooth sailing, but when I added water to my mask and tried to get rid of it, instead the water went up my nose and in my eyes and I was sputtering and burning. Even though I wanted to turn around and get back on the boat, I heard my friend’s fearless comment in my brain and worked through it. As soon as we dropped down deep, my breathing started to become slow and steady and I could really enjoy my surroundings. It was fabulous. So clear and fish and coral everywhere. I saw a turtle, octopus, barracuda, trumpet, clown, parrot fish, on and on. My first dive the instructor held onto me the entire time which felt safe and comforting. My second dive I was ready to break free and have full reign of the ocean – at least 10 meters deep!

Our first night in Koh Lanta, we went to a Thai cooking class on the beach. The instructor was a cute, sassy Thai woman and I was shamelessly flirting with her. We laughed a lot during every step. Pounding the curry paste evoked laughter. Firing up the wok and flash frying morning glory/ong choy/rau muong was quite an experience. I even think my pahd thai was better then the instructor’s! We returned a few more times for dinner and on our last meal there, my friend yells at my crush across the restaurant that I’m in love with her. I was so embarrassed and blushed below my tan profusely! She promptly ran over and jokes were made all around. And she even kissed me on the cheek – it was all very innocent and funny. I forgot to mention in Laos another one of my crushes also gave me a chaste kiss on the cheek. So now I’ve been kissed by straight women in Laos and Thailand, and shared a moment with a man. Who knows what is next for me?

Today, I fly to Danang, Vietnam for volunteer orientation and my one month placements in Tam Ky and Tuy Hoa. My deepest thanks to everyone that donated for supplemental items such as vitamins, medical supplies, snacks and notebooks.


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My last week in Laos was amazing. Laos New Year (Pi Mai) officially lasts for three days but is celebrated for one week in Luang Prubang. Water is a major theme of their new year’s celebration. Water is used to pour over monks, elders and Buddha images. This custom has evolved more playfully into splashing people with water through any means necessary – squirt guns, hoses, bowls and buckets of water. Everyone joins in the fun and gets doused. If I’m walking on the street, I’ll be drenched. Driving on a moped, I’ll get a wet head. They will even open the doors of your car and pour water on you! So I succumbed to the madness and became a water douser, splashing and getting splashed for many hours on the street. And of course there was dancing too. And karaoke. And many toasts (I just drank water). At the end of the day, all of my friends starting washing their hair with the hose and I politely declined to shampoo my hair on the street. And then it hit me – I felt like such a dumb American.

For two weeks, I’ve been watching my friends wash their hair in the river. Most of my friends have squat toilets in their homes, and my one friend that has a regular toilet always apologizes that she doesn’t have running water in her house when I need to use the bathroom. She told me she stayed awake until 2am waiting for the water to turn on so she could fill her buckets (which is what she uses to flush her toilet, take a shower, wash her dishes). Everyone washes their hair in any available water source because they don’t have water – duh! My friends live in a city, drive mopeds and cars, look like supermodels, but they don’t have running water. I was relating this revelation to the owner of my guesthouse and he told me he also sets his alarm clock to wake up in the middle of the night to fill up his tank with water. I had no idea – I just turn on the faucet or shower and the water comes out, so I assumed he had a limitless water supply!

In addition to the water splashing and cultural ceremonies for new year, I was also invited to a friend’s house for their new year Baci ceremony. Baci ceremonies are performed at many times in Laos, for a wedding, new baby, housewarming, etc. The new year’s Baci is supposed to be the most auspicious. The living room was filled with elders and children, circling around the offerings. After some chanting, everyone ties string around people’s wrists. First one wrist and then the other, while offering blessings. In English, my friends wished me good health, good luck, happiness, success, love and out with the old and in with the new.

After extending my stay several times, I finally had to leave Laos and arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand two days ago. Tonight, I had the best massage ever! Which is saying a lot since I’ve probably had over 100 massages. A few minutes into it, I realized it was the best massage in my life. It’s even better when as it’s happening, you know it’s the best _____ ever!

Everyday, I’m speaking in superlatives. Last night, I ate the best curry ever! In Laos, I had the best time! I just bought the best bikini! My mom sent me the sweetest email the other day. She said she can’t remember me telling her that I’ve been completely happy. And that she is so happy I’m happy now. My first reaction was to think that I’m a pretty happy person so a bit surprised by her statement. But as the days passed and I ladled out the superlatives, I realized I am the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. Sometimes, it feels almost sinful to be this happy. I get over that pretty quickly when I realize I’ve worked hard to get to this point in my life and I absolutely deserve every shred of happiness.

That doesn’t mean I’m not thankful for my life. Today, I went on a tour with a Danish husband and his son, and a Thai wife and her daughter. It was a weird Brady Bunch blended family. And they were all totally miserable. The woman was the same age as me but looked decades older. I wondered why she married her husband and about all the sacrifices she’s made in her life to create a better life for her daughter.

Tonight, I removed the strings from my wrists since it’s been three days since the Baci ceremony. I think this is going to be THE BEST YEAR EVER!

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I’ve been in Luang Prubang for ten days and extended my visit another week so I can celebrate Lao New Year with my friends. Everyone embraces me immediately. My first day here I am surrounded by five beautiful Lao women (and one American man). The day is filled with food, laughing, swimming, napping and more eating. And dancing! We go to the most charming Lao nightclub. The dance floor is encircled by large booths. A live band plays Lao music, and each song has a different dance. The band strikes up a new tune and everyone shuffles on to the floor. It’s all partner dancing, mostly girl + girl. I am delighted to see two 70-year old men dancing together ! And also drag queens! I don’t know how people can say that Asia is homogenous. At the end of the song, people clasp their hands, bow their heads to their partner and retreat to their booths for 30 seconds until the next song. They also love line dancing! Eventually, the band takes a break and the DJ plays American and Lao pop/hip hop. Everyone cuts loose for 30 minutes until the band returns. I can’t tell if they like the traditional dances more than the modern music, because everyone is having such a great time all night long.

It’s been really interesting to develop friendships in Laos. At first, the friendships are shallow – sweet, but superficial. I don’t know anything about Lao culture, and don’t want to make assumptions so am always asking questions. It probably helps to break down barriers since I also share with them about my life and American culture. A few days into the friendships, people start to open up and we have deep philosophical conversations. Everyone’s favorite topic is love. Happiness is a semi-close second. How many relationships have you had? How many times have you been in love? How many hearts have you broken? How many times have you had your heart broken? And then we talk about the correlation of the narrowing numbers. We are eating lunch by the river in 105 degree heat, and I am learning the most fascinating things about myself, love and Laos.

It’s not only laughing and lounging with the ladies. I visited one of three orphanages in Luang Prubang. This one is huge, filled with 517 children ages eight to 18. The government provides support, but only six cents per child per day. Fortunately, locals and tourists are very generous and provide supplemental donations, supplies, clothes, food, notebooks, etc. (www.lao-kids.org) I’m there with a novice monk and a group of six Australians. They have brought notepads and pens, and we go into each classroom to pass out the supplies. It goes pretty quickly, because all the students are thankful but shy. By the time we run out of supplies, one of the Aussies is determined to make a connection with these kids. He’s a primary school teacher, and uses interactive games to draw out the children. Students are volunteering, yelling out answers in English, laughing and clapping. It’s lunchtime, so the other classrooms have emptied out and the windows are filled with other onlooking students. I’m taking copious notes since I’ll be teaching English next month at Vietnamese orphanages.

In the afternoon, I go to the local library to help my American friend, Justin, with science experiments. He’s a former engineer and recently moved to Laos to start an NGO (www.villagescience.org). Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are all the rage in the US, but Laos has a long way to go. He wants to use science as a pathway out of poverty in Luang Prubang. Currently, whenever large infrastructure projects occur in Laos (roads, water, etc.) they use Lao people for entry-level jobs and import skilled-labor from other parts of Asia. Justin has setup three microscopes at the library to get children initially interested in classes. At first, they are a bit tentative, but within minutes they are animatedly peering through the microscope and swapping slides. These 13-year old children have never seen a microscope in their lives.

After the science experiments, we help the librarian develop a powerpoint presentation for her workshop in Sweden. She has never left Laos, and is nervous about her workshop and the weather. I feel somewhat useful and wonder if I can start a small business developing powerpoint decks J Besides running the local library, she has developed a partnership with a US-based NGO (www.communitylearninginternational.org) to distribute books to remote villages in Laos. Over the past five years, they have provided books to 200 different villages in Luang Prubang Province through a floating library on the Mekong Delta. She has developed a book bag concept and it costs $2 per book, with 100 books per book bag or $200 to supply books for an entire village! Children don’t have textbooks, let alone pleasure reading and it’s astounding what a small amount of money can do in Laos. We discuss getting the hotels/guesthouses in Luang Prubang to sponsor a book bag through their guests, and my guesthouse is the first one to sign up (thank you Manichan Guesthouse!).

That night, I meet three university students. They are in the inaugural class of a five-year degree program for IT Business Management. I ask them what kinds of jobs they will get upon graduation, and they tell me there are no jobs in Laos yet. No one is really ready for them. The teachers weren’t fully prepared with curriculum, and the labor market doesn’t exist yet. It’s unlikely they can get jobs in neighboring Southeast Asian counties as well. They will probably become tour guides or work in marketing, until foreign businesses come to Laos and can draw on this energetic, ambitious talent pool. I only wish I could help them attract businesses now.

It’s hard to believe I was in Seattle four weeks ago. My life seems so different now and everyday I’m thankful for this eye-opening, heart-pounding, cheesy-grin-filled life of mine.

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My first man-date

Laos is even more lovely than I’d remembered. Immediately, it’s Sabaajdii (hello) and smiles everywhere I turn. We arrive in Vientiane, and my stomach is already aching from the prior day’s dinner of dog. So I am tethered to the toilet for the entire day. Guess this is my penance for dining on America’s most beloved pet. That evening, we venture out for dinner and I swear every Laotian dog is barking at me, like they could smell it on me!

We eat dinner at a restaurant that serves as a culinary training center for street youth. A regional NGO operates the restaurant and other programs for street youth, and my friend is considering being a major donor. The staff member explains the programs nervously to us, with large pauses from our questions. His stammering makes me smile inwardly, so glad to be out of philanthropy and making people nervous all the time!

The next day, my friend heads back to Seattle and I’m alone for the first time on my trip. At the encouragement of friends from the US, I go to COPE (www.copelaos.org) and am blown away. I have often heard about the secret war in Laos and the millions of landmines, but I had never been able to really wrap my head around the devastation. At the COPE Visitor Center, I learned the U.S. Airforce dropped 260 million bombs through 500,000 bombing missions between 1965 to 1975. There are an estimated 80 million unexploded cluster bombs in Laos. The rising cost of scrap metal compounded by poverty creates a lethal equation. A mere 2,000 kip per kilogram (12 cents/pound) is enough incentive, with almost half of all reported accidents from collecting scrap metal or salvaging explosives.

The artwork, installations, videos and photos are gripping and bring the big numbers to life through stories of local people. I watch a video and feel like I’m sitting with the family as they tell the story of their 9-year old son who was killed. Children are exploited by adults in horrible ways throughout the world. In this case, the adults use metal detectors and when they find metal send the children in to salvage the metal. The three children accidentally struck the bomb and it exploded. Villagers heard the explosion and summoned the parents. The parents hired a car to take them to a hospital in the city. When they arrived at the hospital, there was no blood or oxygen. They went to another city, and the second hospital also didn’t have blood or oxygen. So they brought their son home to die. This is the reality of the lack of infrastructure in Southeast Asia. I can hear countless statistics, buzzwords and jargon, but these are the stories that stay with me and make me want to change the world.

And for the people that do survive these accidents, COPE creates prosthetic limbs. The average prosthetic limb lasts two years, and only 6 to 9 months for growing children. Of course, in most of the rural areas people are devising their own limbs from wood, plastic, metal, anything they can salvage and using them for 30 years. I was so inspired by the stories of people who are now self-sufficient due to COPE.

The next day, I go to Luang Prubang, one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia. My first night there, I go to the night market and sit at communal tables while gnawing on BBQ chicken and sticky rice. The adjacent diner speaks to me in Lao, I look up and see the most drop-dead gorgeous man. I nonchalantly lift my jaw from the ground, and we exchange the usual pleasantries. He’s from Southern Laos, works for an NGO and is in Luang Prubag for one night. He’s with two friends but they are pretty quiet and aren’t as Engligh-proficient as their friend. They invite me out for a drink, and I decide to stay open to this adventure and go with them. We promptly lose his two friends in the night market and he calls his friends. They promise to meet up with us later, and I never see them again. So suddenly, I’m on a man-date – lounging on cushions in a private cabana nestled in a bamboo grove next to the river. At first, I give him pat answers to his questions, but it doesn’t take long for me to open up and disclose more – I’m a recovering alcoholic (why don’t you drink?) and a lesbian (why aren’t you married at 40?). I also tell him my latest journeys in Southeast Asia have opened me up to the possibility of being with a man. We talk and laugh for hours, and he tells me I have the heart of a man, and I’m immediately struck by his keen observation. He asks me how I will know when I will be with a man, and I honestly reply that I don’t know. As the night progresses, it becomes clear to me how I will know, or rather how I know when it WON’T happen.

The moon is out and it’s a sultry Southeast Asian evening. This guy is devastatingly handsome and I’m enjoying his company. At first, it’s amusing when he tells me we should try to make the impossible happen tonight. But as he walks me home, he starts to get pushy and aggressive and in an instant I know that tonight I won’t end my 18-year streak of not kissing men. After I firmly reject his offers to return to his hotel room, he tells me he thinks I’m afraid of him. This is the most hysterical statement to me. Even though I’m walking with a stranger at night and alone in a foreign country, I don’t have a hint of fear. I am a strong confident woman, and am in control of myself and the situation. I don’t feel a tinge of regret when we say good night, and I wonder where my next man-date will take me.

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