My first WWOOF Experience

If you’ve ever thought that spending time in nature sounded nice, have you checked out WWOOF?

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and is exactly what the name says. It is an international network of organic farmers, who serve as hosts for eager travelers. It’s a chance to explore a different region/country/continent, practice some language, learn a skill, and develop amazing relationships you’d never expect.

I spent the last two weeks of my spring Eurotrip WWOOFing (yes, it’s a verb) in Basse-Normandy, France.

 

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A map of my route, for reference!

How did I choose a tiny town in Basse-Normandie? Simple. On the WWOOF website (you pay 20 Euro be a member for a year and then you have access to the catalogue of host farms in the country you choose) there is a list of filters including type of activity (IE permaculture, orchard, dairy, eco projects) and length of stay (one week, two weeks, 1 month). I had two weeks to farm; I was interested in orchards and eco projects. So I found La Fermette du Bellefontaine.

 

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A rainy day on La Fermette

La fermette means “little farm,” and that’s exactly what it was: a small scale organic farm owned and operated by a few friends. Each had his and her own plot of land and primary source of income: one is a vegetable gardener, one a seamstress, and my host, the master baker.

 

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For most French people, bread is life. It’s fresh, it’s inexpensive and it’s eaten three times a day. And why wouldn’t you eat it when the grain was grown and harvested three miles away?

As for eco projects, these included a composting toilet (of which I sadly did not take a picture, but I’ll leave that to you to research), an organic sewage system that uses water-loving plants to clean used water, and newspaper insulation. All created by my host out of his desire to “be as autonomous as possible.”

It’s amazing what you can learn when you least expect it, when you enter into a new situation with zero expectations. I left a lot more informed about steps I can take as an individual to reduce my impact and respect our planet. And I had the best cheese of my life.

 

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View of the town from a hilltop! Not pictured: the medieval fortress I climbed to take this photo.

 

 

 

 

Prague: Take Two

I fell in love with Prague five years ago on my first trip to Europe. The moment I stepped on to the Charles Bridge, I felt home. I also contemplated moving there and supporting  myself by singing opera on the famous bridge for money. I even wrote a set list. But while my chanson dreams might be on hold for the time being, I was overjoyed to find Prague’s charm and romance no less palpable on my second visit, and I have a feeling I will never stop returning to Prague.

 

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On the outskirts of Prague, waiting for our boat taxi to take us across the Vlatlava…

 

Prague has an ancient history, and some of its oldest standing buildings date back to the 14th century, when King Charles IV, ruler of Bohemia and later the Holy Roman Empire (which included all of Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, most of the Czech Republic and parts of Austria, Poland, Italy, and France) established the first university in Prague (King Charles University). It’s no big deal to walk around a neighborhood in downtown and see modern trams running next to gothic cathedrals and art-noveau buildings. This is the flavor of Bohemia!

Of course, there are also a few modern additions, including the infamous TV tower, notoriously hated by Czech people, which was built under communism. The building might be an eyesore, but it offers some of the best views of the city. We rode to the top of the tower and had a 360 degree view of all of Prague’s architectural wonders:

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View of Zizkov neighborhood from the Prague TV tower. The slanted, red brick roof are a signature style of the city; in the distance you can see Gothic spires peeking up to say hello!

In Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí), one can find the famous astrological clock (which parades a collection of dancing marionettes every hour on the hour…think “world’s biggest coo-coo clock”), as well as several churches, a memorial to Jan Hus (Protestant reformer), and this hidden gem inside the old City Hall, the Skautsky Institut (Scout Institute, non-profit and community organization for youth. If you’re there, you should visit their café inside the building on the second floor. It reminded me of several funky coffee shops in Memphis, only a bit smaller.

 

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A side view of the very old City Hall building, which is now owned by the city and rented out to the Skautsky Institut and other organizations.

No trip to Prague would be complete without a visit to the famous Prague castle, which is a huge compound that includes the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, beautiful Baroque-style gardens, and several ancient halls where kings of old were crowned and celebrated and some unpopular nobles were pushed out of windows. The castle stands on a hill top, and its spires are visible for miles. The area also offers some of the most picturesque views of the city, like the ones below. On the left is from this trip (our weather was less than ideal, but c’est la vie). On the right is from five years ago. There’s a bit more sunshine and fewer trees, but it’s still the same skyline!

When you visit the Castle, I highly recommend a guide and a comprehensive admissions ticket. I didn’t do this last time, but I am so glad I did on this trip. It is a bit pricey for Prague ($14 USD), but the ticket gets you inside of the Cathedral, the old hall, All Saints Church, and the Golden Lane, which is a small, cobblestone street with museums and displays about Prague in the High Medieval era. All in all, you get an a lot of insight into Prauge’s complex history. Bonus: It also includes a visit to the dungeon and a few dozen rusty torture instruments on display (Game of Thrones, anyone?).

The second visit was even better than the first. This was largely due to the gracious hospitality of our friend, host, and tour guide, whom I had met five years ago while studying in Israel. She took us to some truly remarkable places that were tucked away inside cobblestone lanes, including a hip vegetarian restaurant called Lehka Hlava (which means “Clear Head” and runs only on reservations) and a wonderful little wine bar dedicated to St. Agneska (Agnes), who founded a small monastery nearby in the 13th century, before Gothic spires had taken over Europe. We all decided that this place, called simply Agnes, serves the best hot wine in Prague. The key is to add raisins soaked in rum, and serve it with a spoon for fishing out these delicacies.

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I heard from my friend that the owners of this wine bar are ready to retire. They want someone to take over and continue serving wine and snacks to locals for the next few decades. My friend is too busy, but who knows? Maybe I can work there when people get tired of hearing my rendition of Ave Maria on the Charles Bridge…

One can dream 🙂

 

“Have a good Lent”

It’s been a very eventful week for me.

1: a bicycle accident

2: losing my dog…again

3: moving out of my apartment in Midtown

4: starting TEFL assignments

5: planning a Europe trip

6: oh yeah, the first week of Lent…clean week…the week that’s supposed to be all about God

How many times have I forgotten that?

I know there are lots of non-Lent people out there. The simplest way I can explain Lent is that it is an opportunity  for life to finally be not all about me. Because I am always acting in my own self-interest. Even when I make to-do lists and bucket lists and packing lists, those lists are serving my own self-interest. Lent comes at a time when life is starting over, trees begin to bloom again, and we force our bodies into social exile. Why? Because Christ did it first, for us. This is our opportunity to tune everything else out and tune in to Christ.

I wasn’t looking forward to Lent until recently. I’ve been on a roller coaster with my faith, I admit plainly, and so I was looking forward to Lent as a way to level the spiritual playing field, so to speak. But then I wiped out on my bicycle and landed in the hospital. This was Monday. Thank God I’m okay, and I do mean thank God. And my guardian angel. And helmets.

Today is Thursday. I walked outside for the first time since Monday afternoon, and I got so excited about it that I left the front door open and my dog snuck out. Here I was thinking things were getting easier but nah, that’s not real life. 

Fortunately my dog came back. But the lessons never cease. There will always be something going wrong…and that’s the thing I should devote my time to. I’ve been so preoccupied with upcoming plans and Peace Corps service that I’ve completely neglected my own body, mind, and soul. I’ve failed to be present. I wrung myself out to dry.  I got to the point where I became unknowingly careless. 

But Lent is all about forgiveness. I guess that starts with me. I need to forgive myself, recognize my brokenness (literally) and find beauty in the little things…like being able to enjoy the sunshine and walk on the concrete with both feet.

I guess I’m having a good Lent so far. 

Ironies of Comfort, Familiarity

Alain de Botton ignites my soul. Every line in his traveler’s manifesto, The Art of Travel, has me nodding my head, biting my nails, scribbling frantic responses in the margins as I read on feeling validated, awed, inspired, humbled and humiliated by my own solidarity with his words. Botton describes with painful and beautiful accuracy the sensations of traveling alone and lingering in places of eternal transience: hotels, diners, train stations, gas stations, airports.  I am not alone as I read:

Continue reading “Ironies of Comfort, Familiarity”

The Savior Complex

“A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone it must seek the ether.” –Khalil Gibran

 

If I had my way, I would be a bird. I would fly from place to place and peep in on other people’s realities, never getting too attached or involved. I would skim the surface of life, laughing at my reflection in oceans and dancing on telephone wires. As a traveler, all I have truly ever wanted is to sit in tiny rooms with friends and drink in laughter between paper thin walls, sweet, steamy chai wafting through our noses and thick, melodious languages dripping from our tongues. But I’m not a bird, and I’m not a wallflower. I exist; people notice me.

I hate that people notice me. Sometimes I wish I could just keep the inspirational experiences in my heart and leave the embarrassing ones behind. I wish I could help people when I want to help rescue them and not when I feel obligated to do so. There comes a point when one can feel so emptied that we cannot seem to be filled. Perhaps this is because “help” has turned into “rescue.”

The world doesn’t give us a break. We can’t decide when people need our help, and we can’t really decide when we need another’s help. But not asking for help when we are drowning doesn’t make sense. Yet how do we move on from a rescue?

No man is an island. But for those of us who have grown up privileged, it’s easy to think that we have some God-given power to help others because of our circumstances, because we’ve been told to go out into the world and make it better. But change isn’t a power, it’s a responsibility, and a very precarious one. If you’re not aware of your own impact, you can do more harm then good.

Reflecting on my time in Thailand, I think I felt a lot of pressure to live up this image of a rescuer that, at the time, I was not aware I had. Being part of a faith community, learning about the plight of refugees, I became very involved with the idea of saving others. I didn’t see it as anything problematic, but I wasn’t just a witness. I was an actor and people noticed me and started assuming things about me that I wasn’t aware of because I was not fully present. I was in my own head. 

I grew up in my head. I dreamed away my reality with visions of waterfalls, open fields, and a sense of life with a purpose. I am learning how to live a life with purpose, but a lot of this has been painful. I think that’s the point. The hardest part about wanting to rescue someone is needing to save them from pain. Sometimes this is absolutely vital; sometimes it isn’t. I don’t know where that line is and I never want to make that decision but I know that I will. Life is tough like that. I have a tendency to remember only the good things and forget the times I failed. But at the same time, failure can be life’s greatest teacher, even if it means giving up and moving home. A friend of mine asked me, “What do you want to learn from this?” I think that’s a great start.

I’ve failed a lot in my life, which is how I know I’m not a savior. I believe there is only one Savior. But even if you don’t, as travelers, teachers, explorers, we have to start acknowledging our own impact. We are not wallflowers and we are not birds. We might be called on to rescue someone, but we need to examine our motivations as well as our plans. Does this person need help? If so, what does that need to look like?

Never stop asking questions.

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Inle Lake, Myanmar: 2015

How To Convince Your Overprotective Parents That Travelling is Tremendously Useful for Life

In response to my last post, I’ve been reflecting on some of the incredible benefits of travelling and some arguments I would make to someone who was not an avid nomad or had maybe watched too much CNN. Here are five ways to convince your overprotective parents (or friends) that travelling is not at all like The Hangover:

  1. Travelling makes you self-sufficient. Unless you sign up for a tour, nothing happens abroad unless you make it happen–booking hotels, finding bus tickets, converting money, deciding to drink the water (or not)…it’s your impetus that helps you get places and stay safe.
  2. Travelling makes you brave. You never know how capable you are until you’re watching the last bus pull away from the station and you have to run after it, screaming and waving your hands like a chicken with its head cut off. You run into all sorts of unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations when in a new place, and you have no choice but to cope.
  3. Travelling helps you be more social. You become far more dependent on the kindness of strangers to get around. Slovakian Grandmothers, Vietnamese construction workers, and Israeli soldiers have become some of my best friends in times of navigational uncertainty (I get lost easily). When you don’t know where you are, you have to stop and ask someone, or in my case, five or six people. I’ve been delighted at the many times I’ve had a genuine conversation (in English, Hebrew, or with drawings in the sand) with a complete stranger. The desire to help people is palpable, and when someone takes time out of his or her day to stop and help you–a stranger–the world seems a little smaller and brighter.
  4. Travelling makes you more culturally sensitive. Visiting religious sites, eating the local food, and observing local customs are all ways that the traveler can develop a keen sense of cultural sensitivity. It also makes you more aware of your own way of doing things by virtue of comparison.
  5. Travelling makes you a better citizen. Less then 10 percent of Americans own a passport, and yet there is so much world outside the coasts. When you travel, you see how the rest of the world lives. You realize how much of an impact Americanism has on the world, how much of American culture is exported and mass produced and interpreted differently. Talking to locals about this helps you form your own opinions about the United States and its place in the world. Being informed is a cornerstone of democracy.

So you see, there is so much more to travelling then Bengal tigers and giant skyscrapers. Going in curious, confident and with a sense of humor can yield tremendous personal growth and a heck of a lot of great stories (to share with those family and friends back home…or not). You don’t need a tour or an itinerary to do it; you just need a good pair of shoes.

Adventures at Home: Trying Out Mountain Biking

 Earlier today I was talking with someone about how I love to write about my experiences but that lately I’ve felt like I haven’t had many exciting experiences to write about. His response: “write about the unexciting ones.” 
 
I attempted mountain biking for the first time without any prior experience. I ended up walking most of the trail, dragging my muddy bike along side me, because I had no idea what I was doing, until I came to a deep ditch full of water. This ditch stared at me, and I at it, for what felt like an eternity. All at once a blue blur of a mountain biker zipped through at high speed, leaving me and my self-doubt behind. Suddenly I heard a voice. “Do you need help crossing that ditch?” The blue blur had stopped. I hesitated, looking around nervously, and shook my head. “Uhh, no, I’m alright,” I stammered in response.  Of course I wasn’t, but I didn’t want to tell her that.
 
But she ignored my obvious lie, turned around and biked back down the hill to where I stood, my weight shifting awkwardly to one side. She zipped past me, splashed easily through the ditch, and came up on the other side. She dismounted. “Don’t look at it,” she said to me. “That’s the key. Whatever the obstacle is, whether it’s a pond or a log or whatever, don’t look at it. Look ahead of it. And just keep pedaling.” I nodded, listening intently to her instructions, debating my options as she spoke. I could just turn around and climb back up the hill, I thought to myself, but that might be awkward. This woman had stopped what she was doing to help me. She was the first mountain biker I had met that day to have done so. I had no choice. I had to go through with it.
 
“Go back a little ways so you can gather enough speed,” she instructed. She was being extremely detailed and thorough. She spoke with confidence. I trusted her advice. “Aim for my bike tracks and look up here.” She raised her hand to her shoulder. Ignoring all signs of impending disaster, I mounted my bike and started pedaling, gathering speed as I rushed down the hill on two wheels, my confidence disappearing like the wind. I looked up at her hand and kept pedaling. The wheels moved like air, without any pressure or resistance. The front wheel dipped down–zippp–and whoosh. Suddenly, I was up on the other side. 
 
“Yeaaaaaah!” I heard behind me. I stopped and turned around. My spontaneous coach was cheering me on with a big grin on her face. “Whatever the obstacle is, just look ahead of it and keep pedaling,” she reiterated through her grin. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe that had worked! “Th…thank you!!” I stammered. She gave me a hearty thumbs up. I turned away and just kept pedaling.
 
The “Tour de Wolf” Trail, Shelby Farms, Memphis, Tennessee
 
 
 

A Trip To Chiang Mai

This trip happened over a month ago, and yet I was in denial about its brevity, so I neglected to write about it until now. But I think I’m finally processing it all!

Over student midterms, for a much needed break from teaching and from city living, I took a trip up north with two friends and fellow teachers. We hopped on an overnight bus to the northern city of Chiang Mai, also known as Thailand’s “second city.” Think Chicago to USA’s New York City, except zero skyscrapers and with an ancient, Asian city wall.

One of the entrances to the Old City.

 

I love these trees. They’re all over Thailand. They remind me of the jungle.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful mix of ancient history, artistic tradition and modern innovation. If you’re familiar with the term “hipster,” it can almost be used to describe Chiang Mai, except instead of fourteen year olds skateboarding in flannel shirts you see sixty year old Greek and Italian ex-pats smoking rolled cigarettes and playing music in bars. But the feel is basically the same–laid back, adorably ironic and boldly unique.

The night markets were my favorite thing about the city. Sure they were crowded, but here you really see the heart of Thailand’s artisanal craft making scene. Everything from hand woven scarves to purses to jewelry to wooden carvings, paintings, sketchings and etchings were for sale along the streets. And the best part was that you got to witness these crafts in progress. One market, referred to simply as “the night bazaar” features a lower level indoors where brilliant visual artists draw and paint on massive canvases for the entertainment and prowess of curious tourists, all while displaying the capacity of their artistic genius . Of course, in true artistic fashion, you can’t take pictures of the work, so I leave it up to you to imagine wall to wall paintings of children, old men, Buddhist monks walking to temples in the rain, elephants, rice fields, wolves, Cherokee people and the like, all in the most beautiful colors and black-and-white charcoal depictions I’ve ever seen.

For me, the biggest treats of the trip were actually outside of the city. The first was a Thai cooking class at a special, homegrown farm in the mountains:

Our group enjoying our delicious creations.

But the second was far more edifying and less simplified. My two friends and I elected to go on a three day, two night “trekking tour” in one of Chiang Mai’s beautiful mountain terrains.  The morning of the first day, we were driven to an elephant camp that, unfortunately, did not treat the elephants humanely. I will refrain from posting pictures here. Needless to say, I learned a lot about the benefits and complications of the Thai tourism industry on that day.

Yet our journey grew increasingly authentic and unpredictable after that. We drove to our beginning pathway and hiked to a beautiful waterfall for lunch. After a quick dip, we continued on, our quick footed guide (nicknamed “Louis” but pronounced like the French) always stopping to point out tasty snacks like fire ants (I’m not kidding) and various kinds of mushrooms.

That evening we arrive at a small village belonging to the local Keren people. The Keren originally migrated from Tibet, settling first in Burma and now in northern Thailand. They speak their own language, though their alphabet is similar to Thai script. Our guide, Louis, belonged to a neighboring village but was treated as one of their own, and they extended the same warm hospitality to us.

Our guide Louis…jokingly feeding me a bottle of water.
Inside the cooking room.

After a luxurious sleep on straw mats, listening to the rain patter on the bamboo rooftops, I slid my way up the dirt path to rejoin my group for breakfast and our second day of hiking. Day two proved to be very, err, wet, as we encountered a serious downpour about an hour into our hike with no shelter in sight. Nevertheless, we soldiered on, and thank God for Louis, who was able to guide us through steep paths that had quickly turned into raging rivers. We made it to our second camp for lunch.

Before we left the Keren village, we passed through the local school, where we peeked in on children learning Thai language songs. I had forgotten what it felt like to be around children (having spent the majority of my time with college students), and I wanted to cry seeing the sheer joy on their faces. I’m including a facebook link to the video that my friend, Emi, took, because seeing them was such a beautiful reminder of what all people share in common. We may all have different words for “head, shoulders, knees, in toes” but those precious body parts are what we all have and need to protect.

I’m eternally grateful for the trip to Chiang Mai, and most especially to the Keren people for letting me into their homes for a little while. Being there was a great reminder of why I came to Thailand in the first place. Yes, I love English, and I really like teaching, and I have my beliefs. But what I have to give pales in comparison to what I have to learn just by meeting people. Sure, it can be uncomfortable–like walking through the pouring rain–but on the other side, always, always the sun comes out and dries up all my insecurities.

It’s been four months since I arrived. My first semester of classes are coming to a swift and jarring end. There are days when I feel completely, inexplicably ordinary, when I forget that I’m in Thailand all together, and it feels like just another day. I think these days are important to keep my sanity at a healthy level. But far more important to me are those days–precious few they may be at the moment–that take me outside of the ordinary and into some of the ancient and secret worlds of God’s creation. I pray that He will give me the courage to pursue these extraordinary moments with as much vigor as I try to pursue the ordinary.

With love,
Mel

The Art of Calm (A trip to Kentucky)

Kentucky is a beautiful state. I never appreciated this growing up, because (and I honestly have no idea where this came from) I had a deeply-seeded resentment of anything south of the Mason-Dixon line. Still, late fall, stress from school and eventual early adulthood brings with it dreams of hibernation, home and pie. Being able to  spend all day in pajamas is also high on my list these days. So after coming back to Memphis to visit my family for fall break, we took a road trip to Kentucky. The entire drive, I stared out the window, slightly out of breath over the forgotten beauty of so many rolling green hills. It seems I’ve developed some kind of armor to protect me from life in the northeast and, in the process, I have neglected to look up at the sky. Like Icarus, I flew too close to the sun. It takes coming home to realize you never needed wings in the first place.

I won’t pretend I’m a sophisticated northerner. I speak more slowly than many people I know; I don’t own any Ray-Bands or black high heels or know all the subway lines in Manhattan. Still, I’m noticing some stark differences between the vast, expansive south and the busy, densely populous northeast. For one, in the drive from Memphis to Kentucky, I saw more trees than people. More trees, more leaves on the trees, more blades of grass, more fish in the lakes, even more clouds in the sky. There is somehow more sky.

When the only thing you have to contest your existence against is something that’s existed for hundred of years, like a tree, you suddenly feel very, very small. It’s almost impossible  be existential in a city! There are too many people telling you you’re wonderful, and not enough reminding you that the trees were here first.

Also down south, people…are just so friendly. I always thought this was a myth, that people in the south are friendlier than in the north. “Just because people down south smile and wave and say ‘hello’ as if they mean it doesn’t make them more friendly.” Perhaps I will test this some time and see how long I can talk to a stranger in Memphis or Bowling-Green before he or she gets bored or scared of me. But at least when people greet me with a boisterous “hello,” I know they really mean it. You know that awkward semi-acknowledgement of a stranger’s presence, where you’re too shy and too busy to be genuinely interested in someone else’s day, but you don’t want that person to think a bad thought about you so you smile and eek out a timid “hi,” and the other person blurts out, “Hihow’sitgoin’?” and then just keeps walking? Yeah. In the south, strangers greet strangers with genuineness. And they separate their words.

Perhaps what I’m experiencing is a bit of rose colored glasses syndrome, that feeling you get when you’re in a new place, when you’re exhausted from what you’ve left behind, and you look at your present surroundings with admiration and bliss. To tell the truth, I never thought so rosily about the south when I lived there.

In fact, all I remember dreaming of (aside from other planets) was my fantasized, grown up life in New York City. So perhaps now as a young adult, I’ve begun to reverse the fantasy and trade skyscrapers for landscapes and subway lines for tractors. Or haystacks…

Our time in Kentucky was full of farms, animals, fresh air and Mennonites markets. I overheard the boy pictured at left (click to see the detail) speaking Dutch with his father, owner of the first Mennonite farm we visited, where my own father proceeded to buy over a hundred dollars worth of squash! Seriously.

I watched this boy, about ten, grab a basket and pluck a few leaves of kale from the stalk and then mosey on back up to his house, to sell it or to eat it.

I admit I was jealous. When I want to cook kale, I need a car, a shopper of the month card, cash, car keys, a wallet, and the patience to walk under halogen lights and stand in line at a conveyor belt while trying to ignore all the celebrity gossip and “HOW TO LOSE TWENTY POUNDS IN TWO DAYS!” advertisements.
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Perhaps this trip was exactly what I needed. Blue skies and sunshine. Apple pie, baseball games, harmonicas and dogs on my lap. I had no idea I was so…American.

“Country rooooad, take me hoooome, to the place I beloooong!”