Ah, Germany!

Charm, family, history, and agency. These words summarize my quick but memorable trip to Goslar, Braunschweig (aka Brunswick) and Berlin, Germany.

Berlin was my first stop in Europe; normally I arrive exhausted from a long trip and wander around the airport until I find a person or a sign to direct me to where I am going. But this time, my cousin and sister were waiting for me. I’m so used to going this alone that it was definitely a nice change, and I was so glad to explore Germany with them. My cousin and her boyfriend live in Brunswick, about two and a half hours west of Berlin. I ended up staying with them longer than expected because of some travel miscommunications, but this was fortunate as we got to explore a former medieval mining town and UNESCO heritage sight, Goslar. Below are a few photo highlights:

That’s Goslar in the background. Behind us were thick, piney woods, and above us were some daring paragliders. All in a half a day’s visit 🙂

 

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Hummus victory!

After leaving Brunswick, I went back to Berlin to meet up with a friend and former study-abroad companion. It has been four years since studying abroad and seeing her, but it felt like no time had passed. And it was so nice to talk about life and politics and how much our lives continue to be shaped by those momentous, sandy six months in 2012. She even found a delicious Israeli hummus restaurant like the ones we used to eat at in Be’er Sheva. Here’s the secret: don’t add too much tahini and serve the hummus warm.

 

I suppose no trip to Berlin would be complete without visiting some historic sites, including the Berlin Wall Memorial, which stands soberly as a poignant reminder of the futility of walls and the resiliency of the human spirit; the East Side Gallery, another remaining portion of the Wall that has been covered with beautiful and provocative murals from artists all around the world; and the Topography of Terror, a museum that covers the Nazi atrocities from historical and sociopolitical perspectives, on the sight of the former Reich Security Main Office, aka the Nazi and Gestapo headquarters.

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You will never run out of things to do or ways to get there in Berlin. I was amazed at how quickly I felt at home on the S-Bahn, even when I took the wrong train.

My friend and I talked about the politics of asylum in Germany and how quickly those policies are changing throughout Europe and the USA. It was very sobering; it seems the whole world is trying to come to Germany, while half a century ago, millions were trying to leave, and no one seems prepared for how rapidly the world is changing these days. Memorials and museums are supposed to teach us how we let these things happen and challenge to ask ourselves, “Why?” It’s so easy to remain quiet and complacent out of fear or willful ignorance, and I’m certainly guilty of that. But I listened to an American podcast last night about the US elections, and I was reminded of how empowering protesting or civil resistance can be in the face of oppression. Like the man in the picture above, I don’t have to raise my hand just because everyone else does.

I hope you’ll go to Berlin someday, if you haven’t already. I hope Germany will still be an open and welcoming place when you go. Berlin is…funky.

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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.

Christmas In Vietnam

Typical motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.
Photo credit:Noemi Agagianian

I’m really sucking at Christmas this year.

Most people in my neighborhood have already finished their Christmas shopping, sent cards and letters, hosted parties, strung lights and cozied up by the fire place at least thrice. I, on the other hand, bought a handful a presents last week that I forgot to wrap, haven’t written a single Christmas card and have forgotten that Christmas lights are a “thing.” But it’s not my fault, I swear.

Last year, I spent Christmas in Vietnam.

While most folks at home were baking pies and watching Christmas specials, I was buying plane tickets and booking hostels, reading up on sites to see and haggling for discounted bus tickets. 

View from the former South Vietnam’s HQ.

After a twelve hour overnight bus from Siem Riep to Bangkok , I flew again from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon. And yes, I refrained from singing “One Night in Bangkok” the whole time!) on December 22, 2014. We arrived late at night and took a taxi-van to our hostel. I had already noted the few Catholic churches in my guidebook, because I like to go to Church on Christmas eve. We passed a few on our way downtown, brightly decorated with blue Christmas lights and little nativity scenes. Maybe Ho Chi Minh city would be a nice place to spend Christmas, after all, I thought!

We spent the next two days touring the city, visiting the War Museum (formerly, and aptly, called the “Museum of American War Crimes”), the former president of South Vietnam’s headquarters, a densely packed textile market, the Cu Chi war tunnels, a few islands in the Mekong Delta, and quite a few coffee shops. Ho Chi Minh city is bustling and couture mix of French architecture, sundry shops, restaurants, opera houses, and markets, all sandwiched in between thousands of motor bikes whizzing around pedestrians and traffic stops.

Typical traffic outside the Cathedral
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian

On Christmas Eve day, we wandered around the city, drank coffee and took lots of pictures. Like most cities I’ve visited, we ended up walking in circles for several hours until it finally got dark and we got hungry. I was craving Western food, perhaps because of a timely longing for home, so we found a cute little “Italian” shop (though it was Vietnamese owned) that sold everything from curry to pizza to gelato. I ordered a caprese salad, which turned out to be cheddar cheese, basil, sliced tomato and olives, and a pasta dish. My friends ordered curry and a burger. Ho Chi Minh is cosmopolitan that way!

With my capricious caprese salad (forgive the pun..)

After eating our fill, we headed down to the Church for the Christmas Eve service. But we didn’t get far before we started pressing ourselves against the crowds of local residents gathered in the Church courtyard. They weren’t really concerned that a service was happening inside; a sea of red and white Santa costumes in sweaty bodies swam and danced around. Young people laughed, took selfies, and sprayed each other with snow-in-a-can. Snow-in-a-can. It was a big shock. Yet as shocking as all the Santa costumes and snow-in-a-can were to me, I still imagine the sight of three tall American girls was even more shocking to everyone else. People screamed, laughed, took pictures, and sprayed us with lots of fake snow.

One of many little boys out for Christmas Eve
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian

I was surprised at how many families were out so late at night. In my mind, Christmas means spending time with family in the home, cozied up on the couch, braving the winter weather. Obviously, you don’t need to brave winter weather in a tropical country. Babies, little boys and girls, moms and dads all posed for “groupies” by their motorbikes, laughed, chatted, celebrated.

That Christmas Eve was certainly memorable. I lost my friends, found the Chapel, and got covered in lots of wet foam. But I learned something important: Christmas, and every other American holiday, is not the same anywhere else. In my home in Memphis, Christmas is a big deal. In my family, Christmas has religious significance; it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. But somehow, that message has gotten lost in translation. The message of Christmas that managed to make it to Vietnam was not so much the birth of Jesus Christ or the quiet peace of “Silent Night,” but the red and white costumes, the snow, the jingle bells, and Santa Claus. It was difficult for me to spend my Christmas in a part of that whirlwind; those things were never part of my Christmas. 

Looking back, I see now that spending Christmas in Vietnam taught me to cherish what I hold to be true about Christmas: Christ was born to save the world. Family matters. Peace on Earth cannot be lip service. I understand not everyone feels that way, and that’s fine with me, because as Ani DiFranco said, “I know there is strength in the differences between us.” There is strength in difference, and there is value in celebrations. We become stronger when we can celebrate our own holidays differently. It means we accept that there is more to a day then the presents, or the food, or the way we hold our services.


Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy Holidays. May you and yours be blessed and joyful, wherever you are in the world and however you decide to celebrate.

Memphis Time: On Slowing Down (A picture book)

I took a walk on the Mississippi River and saw a fisherman in his boat.  I watched him circling around the river, directing his floating chariot, unaware of passersby or stalkers like me, content to float downstream.

Memphis, Tennessee
I thought of the fisherman in Myanmar fishing, alone for hours. The water might not be as blue here, but I suppose fishing in Myanmar has the same basic objective as fishing in Memphis: to catch a fish. 
I sat by the Mississippi, letting the wind kiss my face and creep up my shirt. It took me back to boating on the Inle Lake and the wind ripping through our hair. We spent hours on that boat, getting sunburned, watching the chorus of fisherman dance their way downstream, casting nets with the grace of ballerinas.  
Inle, Myanmar
The scenery is certainly different in Memphis; it’s very flat. But the company is more consistent. Maybe because of that, life feels tangibly slower. It’s definitely more predictable, which I always thought I would hate, but I’m starting to see the wisdom in a slower way of living. It’s not nearly as stressful because you know what to expect. You get a lot of time to snuggle with these:

It’s difficult to stop planning my next move. But who knows, it may come sooner than I expect. 

Are Christians resigned to wander?

“‘They straightway left their nets and followed Him’ (Mathew 4:20). The Apostles did not grudge leaving their nets for the Lord’s sake, although they were perhaps their only property…we, likewise, for the Lord’s sake, ought to leave everything that hinders our following Him…all the many and various nets in which the enemy entangles us in life.'”
St. John of Kronstadt

Are Christians bound to wander?

I heard this a lot growing up. “Christians are just…different. Being a Christian means you are different from the world.” I never really liked that feeling. I didn’t want to be different from anyone else at school, awkwardly saying prayers before lunch, skipping half days to go to Church on Great Feasts, not eating pepperoni pizza at a friend’s birthday party because it was a fast day. Perhaps that was too much for me, too many rules for a little wandering soul to understand and pray about.

Even though I fought the Church inside, and I warred with it for many years, I never stopped being different. Orthodox Christianity stopped being how I differentiated myself from others, but other things replaced that “label” or frame of mind: my love of theatre, my being “Mediterranean,” my being from Boston, et cetera, ad infinitum. It never stopped, because I never stopped intentionally separating myself from a group.

Thinking about it now, it actually seems like I looked for any excuse to drive a wedge between myself and others. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Maybe it was just me having unrealistically high expectations for my life.

But this isn’t what the Church actually teaches us. It teaches us to bind ourselves to Christ, and by so doing, loose ourselves of whatever else is standing in the way–tools of the enemy. But it doesn’t say to demonize those things or those people, because we can only “worry about the log in your own eye.”

Worrying about twigs up North.

Yet when I turn my gaze inward at the giant log in my eye, I feel the urge to run again. Not from God, but from everything around me that is casting me in a fishing net into the sea. I thought somehow that, by coming back to Memphis, by linking myself to one physical space, I would seamlessly melt into the fabric of this city, of Church life, of family and relationships. But that isn’t really happening. And I wonder if this has a little to do with the distinctions between Orthodoxy and other denominations of Christianity. Now please understand I am not a theologist or an apologist or any kind of “ist.” But it just seems to me that in the Orthodox Church there is a constant emphasis on the ephemerality of our current life, almost on a daily basis. The whole Church calendar goes from birth (Nativity) to death (Crucifixion) to eternal life (Resurrection and Ascension) and beyond in the course of one calendar year. And we celebrate those transitions every single year. So every single year, we are born, we die, and we come back into life with the Church feasts, the fasts and songs and celebrations. It’s so beautiful, but at the same time…it’s shaking. Because when you connect the fasts and feasts to the meaning behind them and the constant reminder that “there is a war for our souls” going on, it’s very, very easy to feel afraid and shaken.

I know in my head and a corner of my heart that those things are overcome, but still, life is a war for our soul,  a journey towards Heaven. And yet at the same time the world starts whispering little things about family and assets and job security. Now, those are wonderful blessings, which I pray that I might actually have one day if I live that long. But right now I feel slammed by voices that are telling me that I don’t belong, and I’m listening too much. Because, what am I trying to belong to? Christ, or the world? And does the former require me to stay in one physical space?

I wonder if any of my Orthodox Christian friends, whatever age or phase of life, feel that same shakiness and urge to run, because, in the end, that’s not what life is really about.

Or maybe I really am just that different.

Or, perhaps, we are made exactly as God intended us to be, unique and “quirky” and constantly asking too many questions.

Post-Grad: Making the Best of The Time You Have

A cliche title, but this is how I feel right now…

And once again, boxes are packed and suitcases are standing in my bedroom. Where I am going this time? It’s tempting to say “nowhere,” but that isn’t true. I’m moving back home.

Such a short sentence carries with it so much weight and societal pressure, doesn’t it?

I’ve been blessed to spend some time with my wonderful college friends this weekend in New Jersey, where I’ve been for the past week, packing boxes, visiting family and tying up loose ends before I move back to Memphis. One of the things we talked a lot about is how odd it is not to have that structure of school looming over us. This time of year is when students move back to campus, start planning their courses and their extra-curriculars, and begin that carousel dance of “what ifs” and wishes for their still mostly ethereal futures.

Only this time, and for the first time (since I graduated college and then went straight to teaching at a university), there is no class schedule to pick! No courses to look forward to, no projects to plan, no books to check out or social events to make. I try and tell myself that I’ll still be as studious, reading for pleasure and edification and cross referencing everything I see on paper. But the truth is, even in the month and a half since I’ve been jobless in America, it’s been really difficult to create any sort of routine that challenges me.

All of my caring older adult friends and family will smile and shrug and say encouraging things like “you don’t need to know what you’re doing forever; you just need to know what you’re doing next.” And this is true, and I’m very grateful for their understanding and support. Yet I’m wondering if this is the part of life, that dreaded post-college part, that people don’t really explain in detail because it’s different for everyone, and maybe uncomfortable as well.

And so I’ve been spending this last week living a bit in nostalgia-land, which I believe every person is entitled to at some points in life. I visited my old college and church, had lots of lunches and coffees and lots of talks, and started going through my old belongings, at which point I realized that I’m a book hoarder. I also discovered this insert from my old environmental biology book, which explains a lot:

A fold out map I found under my bed today.

I also found some old travel pieces from The Inquirer, old essays I wrote for school and lots of notes about random ideas in life. My brain, it seems, has always been running overtime.

One article I had saved was a piece by Rick Steves on the relative simplicity of backpacking in the age of technology, with which I wholeheartedly agree. His last bit of advice was to always keep a travel journal. He observes:

One of my favorite discoveries is that the journal entries I wrote as a scruffy 20-year-old in 1975 still resonate with the…20-year-old American exploring Europe in the 21st century.

I find this encouraging and inspiring. There’s something so liberating and magical about being your own Robinson Crusoe or Sherlock Holmes in a foreign land, even if you can now follow that land on twitter. There’s nothing like being there in person.

And this is why, as a newly jobless post-grad, joining the ranks of the wandering millennials, I feel hopeful about my future. Yes, it is so much more challenging to make things happen now. In college, everything is arranged neatly for you; you have endless options from which to choose. You see your friends all the time. You have access to databases, free Zumba classes, trips to the beach, and all the ice cream you can eat. Those things still exist in life (maybe not the free Zumba); you just have to find them for yourself now.

Look at the map. Look at Rick Steves. We have a whole world still to explore, and even in our own backyard or old college town, we can find uncharted territory. Everything and everyone has a story, and since human beings are naturally curious, it is only fitting that we seek to uncover those stories, no matter where we are physically. If you’re looking for a place to start, try your old journals, essays, or random scraps of paper stuffed under your bed.

🙂

Note:
Rick Steves, “It’s Easier to be a Backpacker,” for the Inquirer, Sunday July 28, 2013. Inquirer.com


Magical Myanmar

Four months later and I’m writing again. There’s a lot to be said and many apologies to be made but for now I’ll say that I’m home in America almost fully recovered from a nasty parasite and spending quality time with family. I don’t plan to return to Thailand, but I don’t think this is the end of my wanderlust. I’d love to give this blog a makeover and write about travelling even while stateside, but I will need a few boot-camp classes in technology first!

Anyway, I want to write about Myanmar. Myanmar is unlike any other place I’ve been, and I think it was the best time I had. Here’s why: it really does make a difference when you give yourself plenty of time to spend in-country (especially if you’re going to buy a visa anyway). I spent nearly three weeks in Myanmar; I could’ve easily spent four, but I hadn’t planned for four so my money was low, and as it turns out, that timing was perfect. I got infected (>.<) the day before I was scheduled to fly back to Bangkok. 
Here’s what I loved about Myanmar: when you start exploring, you start to feel like you’re stepping back in time or into a fantasy world. There is so much natural beauty in that land, and it feels pristine and untouched. Coupled with an unbelievable history and the strong yet gentle spirits of the locals, and I quickly understood why so many people claimed Myanmar as their favorite stop in Southeast Asia. It’s just different. 

Understandably so. Myanmar (formerly Burma) had been closed off since its 1962 military coup and engulfed in civil war and war crimes for the past 60 years. According to Wikipedia, the military junta official “dissolved” in 2011 (the same year that the Lonely Planet guide was published, incidentally), but things had been loosening since the late 2000s. Still, when I went, there were in fact some ATMs and even whispers of Wifi, but nothing as self-serving as the resorts of Thailand. And that is exactly what I wanted.
Hiking the mountains in northern Shan State. Can you spot the tiny dots in the foreground? Those are houses.
In Myanmar, I hiked above the clouds, learned how to spot green tea plants, met the niece of the last Shan princess to rule in Northern Shan state before the military takeover, walked barefoot over sun-soaked marble temple paths, and climbed a lot of pagodas. A lot of pagodas.
One of the several thousand temples left standing in dusty Bagan.
We also did a self-guided city tour of former capital Yangon (Rangoon) where we spotted old mossy-grown British colonial buildings, the famous Strand Hotel, the old Post hub and other relics from a century long occupation.
Old governmental meeting house built under British occupation in Yangon (formerly Rangoon).
I didn’t really want to leave, but my body and my wallet felt otherwise, and so with a heavy heart and a weak stomach I departed Yangon for Bangkok three weeks after I touched down in Mandalay. I took a total of two fifteen hour overnight buses (with varying degrees of comfort), climbed an ungodly number of steps, and drank about seventy-five cups of green tea. Watch the video below to see how villagers in the Pa’Oh mountains in northern Shan State gather and process hundreds of pounds of tea!! (The video turns direction at one point…sorry about that, but trust me, it’s so cool!)
I miss travelling. Until next time, I’ll relish the pictures, the stories, the teacups and the hand-rolled Burmese cigars. Ahh, the simple life!
With love,
Mel

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