Another Journey Begins

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It all seems such a blur so far. 11 Days into the trip and I am just now starting to write my travel tales. Perhaps that is a sign of enjoying my time.

Trip number 11 to Thailand started in its usual way. One difference was the direct Denver to Tokyo flight. Otherwise, the arrival in Bangkok at almost midnight, welcomed by heat and humidity, the trip to Floral Shire Resort, the room on the second floor, was all the same. The restaurants on the way to the hotel were once again full of people, a contrast to the last time I was here and the curfew was in effect.

The other distinct difference was knocking my computer off the table in the morning when grabbing for my phone to silence the rather loud alarm, made even louder by the tile floor and concrete walls. Much like bread landing butter side down, the computer landed on the side where the power cord is plugged in. The result, the DC connector was jammed into the computer and could no longer be connected to a power supply. Apparently I needed to have something interesting at the start of the trip.

Wats in Ruin

Needing to spend a day between my arrival and when it would be best for me to visit my Thai family, I opted to visit Sukhothai. In 1238 the Sukhothai kingdom was founded, the seat of power being as what could now be considered the second capital of Thailand during the 13th and 14th century. The old town is now a historical site with the remains of wats (temples) and chedis covering several square kilometers. The third king of the Sukhothai kingdom had the most profound effect on the history by laying the foundation of a unique Thai identity by establishing Theravada Buddhism as the common religion and introducing the forerunner of the modern Thai alphabet. Just a little history…

Getting to Sukhothai was even more hassle free than I could have asked for. Last trip I had attempted without much success at finding the free shuttle between Svuarnbhumi Airport (the international airport) and Don Muang Airport (the domestic airport). Finding the correct desk (located on floor 2 at gate 3) this time, I showed them my flight reservation they stamped the paper and I boarded the bus. Most my time on the bus was spent reading with an occasional glance at the humid haze enshrouded city and the traffic. An hour later I was at Don Muang Airport with plenty of time to kill before checking in for my flight to Phitsanulok, about 58 km southeast of Sukhothai.

Aging Don Muang Airport is such a contrast to the newer Svuarnabhumi Airport. The opening of one of my favorite books, Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, is “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language has ever come up with the phrase ‘as pretty as an airport’.” Don Muang Airport is a case in point. The dingy fluorescent light emphasizing the aging carpet and 1960’s tile floor. The crazy and unique thing about Don Muang Airport is the fact that there is a golf course situated between the two runways. Led me to wonder if the planes ever are hit by golf balls that are shanked off the course.

Initially my biggest concern lay in getting from Phitsanulok to Sukhothai. In my mind I knew I needed to find transportation from the airport to the correct bus station then finding the correct bus from Phitsanulok to Sukhothai. Entering the baggage claim area, my eye was drawn to the bright yellow uniform of the Nok Air agent holding the sign offering a transfer to Sukhothai from Phistanulok. Taking the easy approach, I hopped a ride in a pleasant air conditioned minivan. Turned out to be a very auspicious choice as the van dropped me off on the exact soi (alley) where my guesthouse was located. This arrangement was totally by chance, but a happy coincidence

Immediately after checking into my room, I rented a motorbike and was on my way to the old town, about 14 km from the new town. The first few meters were used to successfully get my motorbike skills up to date, all without incident. After that I was zipping through the Thai countryside in the late afternoon sun.

In 2011 I had visited Sukhothai with my friends Lek, Lauren and Fern. The trip had an incredibly frenzied pace due to a late start to drive to Sukhothai (about an hour) and the need to have Lauren and Fern back to the Phitsanulok Airport in time for their flight. Our time at the ruins was spent running up and looking and taking pictures, running back to the car, zipping to the next wat ruin, running up and looking and taking pictures. This visit took on a much more leisurely pace. Probably should have considered taking the audio tour, as that might have made viewing the ruins a little more interesting.

Arriving in late afternoon about 4:30, I stayed until well after dusk. Watching the light change as the sun was casting its last bit of light on the ruins was stunning. Especially seeing the evening star positioned just over the shoulder of the enormous Buddha at Wat Mahathat in the fading blue sky touched with strands of orange and pink over the distant hills.

Buddha at Wat Mahathat at Sunset

Buddha at Wat Mahathat at Sunset

More Ruins

Having already spent several hours at the central zone, I opted to visit the west zone located about 5 km west of the main gate. The main feature of the west zone is a very large standing Buddha at the hilltop temple of Wat Saphan Hin, which means “stone bridge”. The hilltop temple is reached via a steep 200-meter long path of stone slabs. Fairly uneven stone slabs at that. The view enjoyed by the standing Buddha was worth the climb.

Path up to the hilltop Buddha

Path up to the hilltop Buddha

Opted to continue further into the west zone to ensure I got my whole value out of the 120 baht (about $4) entrance fee. Some of the ruins I just looked at from my motorbike and took the occasional picture. On the ones with a more interesting description, I hiked up a few more uneven stone paths in the hopes that there might be more Buddha images and something interesting to see. Unfortunately most of the Buddha images from this zone have been moved to the museum in the central zone, leaving it to your imagination to picture what the temple looked like.

To be honest, I can only look at so many piles of rocks that were once wats and chedis before I lose interest. Upon reaching that point, I turned my motorbike around and headed back toward the new town. Not to mention hunger was setting in. With time to spare after eating I opted to get a massage to work out all the kinks in my muscles from about 3 days of traveling.

Buses make the 45-60 minute trip from Sukhothai to Phitsanulok about every hour. What I did not know is that there are options of buses to take. Failing to figure this out, I ended up on the slow government bus that seemed to stop almost everywhere stretching out the ride to almost 90 minutes. Getting close to Phitsanulok, the bus became more crowded. Fortunately no one really opts to sit by the farang (foreigner) unless there is no other spot to sit.

Time in Tapan Hin

Next stop on the trip was Tapan Hin, about an hour south of Phitsanulok in the Pichit province. Every trip that I can make it to Tapan Hin to visit my family, I do. I go out of my way to get there and they go out of their way to make sure that I am happy. Mostly that care and love on their part is demonstrated through their worry. They worry that I’m hungry, that I’m sick, that I can’t eat something, that I’m bored. And it is hard to convince them otherwise. I really am ok just being with them. I know the worry about me being sick part is justified, as the last two times I was there I got sick. And there was the whole ant attack thing the last trip.

The whole family greats me with warm smiles and the sensation that I belong as part of them. Nun (my little sister) and her boyfriend Not were home from University. The few days I spent with them was Nun’s chance to really practice her English. Nat had to work both days that I was there proctoring a district test, so Nun was left in charge of translating for me. Translating is a trying task and I am grateful for her being there.

Something is to be said for technology aiding communication. My conversations were greatly enhanced with the help of the Google Translate app downloaded to my phone. While Google Translate isn’t perfect and sometimes can be quite interesting in its translations, it was good enough. Instead of rudimentary conversation, I was able to share more complex thoughts. And using the app was much faster than trying to find individual words in my English-Thai dictionary.

I still believe that any farang left on their own in Thailand will lose weight. Any farang that is with a Thai family will gain weight. The entire morning was spent eating. First breakfast. Then one of the many neighbors or family showed up with fried bananas. Then dad went and bought fried potato balls, fried taro balls, fried balls with mung beans in them, fried donut like things with carmalized sugar on them, pomello and papaya. I think I spent all morning eating. And consequently, was not hungry at lunch time when Dad was supposed to take me for pad thai.

Thinking that I was completely bored, Fern (one of the neighbors) was enlisted to take Nun, Not and me to see some temples. The first temple we went to was in Tapan Hin, the extremely large Buddha rising above the temple walls looking out over the town. Here we made an offering of a candle, flowers and rubbing gold leaf on the Buddha. After a few pictures, we headed over to the train station to pick up my friend Mai. She was getting ready to go back to the University where she teaches and had a little time to spend with us. It was great to see Mai. Last time I saw Mai was almost 3 years ago.

The next temple we visited was Wat Mai Kahm Wan, located about half way between Tapan Hin and Pichit. The main bot (temple building) was an awesome spectacle. Covered almost entirely in silver mirrors it glistened in the bright sun. Even the inside is covered in silver mirrors, reflecting the gold of the Buddha statues. The next shrine was dedicated to yakkha, the Black Buddha. Yakkha is a mara (basically a demon), typically portrayed as eating the moon. The tale goes that each month he eats the moon but because he is unable to digest food, the moon reappears every 28 days. At the shrine, the incense and the offering candles are black instead of the typical gold.

The main temple building at Wat Mai Kahm Wan

The main temple building at Wat Mai Kahm Wan

While pausing to look at the shrine and the wax offerings next to the shrine, an elderly man came up and showed us what to do to make a wax token. First, you take a piece of wax and put it in the large pot of melted wax. From there, you find the mould for corresponding to your Chinese zodiac year (I am the year of the dog), take a ladle of wax and pour it into the mould. Lastly, you take one of the already made wax tokens and offer it to the Buddha corresponding to your Chinese zodiac year.

Making wax tokens with Mai

Making wax tokens with Mai

The last building at the wat that we visited was unique. A different elderly man urged us to go in for a monk’s blessing. The entrance of the building is as though you are walking into the mouth of yakkha. There you pray to the first Buddha, then move over to where the monk is sitting for the blessing. The first thing the monk does is give you a blessing bracelet. Because monks cannot had anything to or take anything from a female, he drops them in our hands for us to put on. Unlike other temples where the blessing bracelet is a multi-strand string, this temple’s bracelets are more like a true bracelet made of pink and white braided cord with a wooden bead. After the blessing, one more prayer to another Buddha and exit out of a different door than you came in.

Mugata…Yum!

The last several trips to Thailand I have been invited to go to eat mugata. Literally pork pan, the food is cooked at the table with a heated metal plate in the center with a trough of broth for cooking the vegetables. The communal cooking is fun and brings the group together. When Nat told me we were having mugata for dinner, I was super happy. Not just because I was looking forward to eating it but because I was hoping that I would have the opportunity to have it on this trip.

Nat was home when we returned from our temple tour, so Nat, Gao, Nun, Not, Name and I all piled in the car and headed off to shop for the ingredients for mugata. First stop was Tesco-Lotus to get the pork and some of the meats that were better to get there instead of the fresh market. Next was the fresh market. Nat and I mostly just walked around and talked while everyone else did the shopping. We decided we are much better at carrying things instead of buying things. One final stop at Big C for items that apparently were not at either of the other two stops.

Preparation commenced the minute we got home. Nat gave me a knife and a cutting board. Then it was decided that perhaps a better task for me would be to take the small sausages out of their casings. A simple task with less possibility of cutting myself, and probably much easier to explain what needed to be done. So pork was cut into pieces and seasoned, vegetables were prepared, sausages and faux crab unwrapped. Dad set to getting the pans ready to cook, one electric and one over the fire.

Mugata is one of those meals where you are constantly eating bite by bite. Everyone puts meat on the cooking plate and vegetables are added to the broth to cook. When the food is ready, which was demonstrated to me what was done and what was not done several times, you dip it in the green or the red (or a combination of the two) sauces and eat it. Repeat this process over and over again until you are beyond full. At which point, everyone will still encourage you to eat more.

Boat Festival

After dinner we headed into Pichit for a festival that was taking place. I still have no idea the name of the festival or exactly what it is commemorating. Pichit is the home of the long boat races held every year around Buddhist lent. For this festival, large boat structures are constructed in the river and covered in lights so they look like they are alit with fire. The temple is a swarm of people, taking on the atmosphere of a carnival with lights and vendors. Traffic approaching the temple was a nightmare and fortunately Nat grew up close to there so knew his way around the small sois.

First stop is the lottery. Like a carnival game, you buy tickets then go to the large pool of water and fish out as many small containers as you have tickets using a net attached to a long pole. Inside the little containers are numbers. When you have your allotted number of containers, you proceed to the table where workers open them, and like reading tea leaves, determine what you have won. Everyone hopes for the big prizes. I won a collection of plastic baskets, a multi-purpose can/bottle/I don’t know what opener, a bar of soap and a package of laundry soap. I kept the soap and laundry soap and left the rest for the family.

The crowd was so large it was impossible to see the performances and the only pictures I was able to get were the ones where I hold my camera as high as possible, aim it at where I think it will take a picture and then see how it turns out. We did get to see the last part of the processional of women and men dressed in beautiful outfits.

The emerald Buddha, typically housed in the temple, was out on display. People made offerings of candles that were floated on the large containers of water. In the background, the white temple was lit with ever changing colors. Was a very ethereal experience, especially as all commotion stopped as a blessing was made over the PA system.

Boat display in the water

Boat display in the water

One of the treats of northern Thailand are dried rice sheets that have been moistened with sugar water and then cooked over a fire so they puff up, resulting in a sweet treat. The cooking method is the most tricky part. Two wooden tools that look like forks that have been flattened are used to quickly flip the rice sheet back and forth over the fire until it puffs up to the appropriate size. Sounds easy, right? Nat made an agreement with the woman doing the cooking to let me give it a go. Cooking this treat definitely takes a certain skill set that I’m not sure I have. Really I think that I did alright. I didn’t drop it in the fire, even though it came close occasionally, and I didn’t burn it.

Making the puffed rice treat

Making the puffed rice treat

The festival evening was rounded out with fireworks. I love fireworks. Especially fireworks that are set off over a river. The reflection of the burst of light on the water and the amplified echo of the percussion make it even more spectacular. Perhaps I was more enthralled with the fireworks than the rest of the family, so they patiently waited while I watched them to the very end of the display.

Moving On

Last visit to my family, I was asked to make a western meal. Somehow I managed to pull off spaghetti that actually tasted pretty good (better than the local restaurant according to my family.) This time I decided to try and bring something that maybe they didn’t have in Thailand. So I brought popcorn, only to find out that they have popcorn here. Typically they have microwave popcorn, so at least it was something different to see how to cook it in a pan over a fire.

Cooking it over an actual fire is a bit of a slow process. Holding the pan over the fire is even more challenging. Somehow I managed to pull off a perfect pot of popcorn without burning the popcorn or myself. Everyone said it tasted better than the usual popcorn that they have. After awhile one of the guys decided to give popping popcorn a try. He had more difficulty trying to hold the pot and keeping it moving so that the popcorn didn’t burn. Because he kept stopping and eventually Nat took over the process, the second batch didn’t turn out quite as well. Everyone still had fun though!

Because I needed to get to Chiang Mai at a reasonable time Sunday evening and wanted to maximize my time in Tapan Hin, I decided to fly instead of taking the bus. Yes, it costs more, but it is worth it. Unlike the time I took the bus and we were running late making it to the bus station minutes before the bus left, I was under more pressure to get to the airport in time to check in. I tried to not feel stressed as I was watching the minutes pass on the clock, getting ever closer to the time we needed to leave. Because Nat was at work, we were waiting for Dad to get home so he could drive me.

Finally I couldn’t take it any longer, so we piled into Nat’s car and mom started the trip to the airport. About 30 kilometers from Phitsanulok, dad caught up with us. I should preface this part that Dad drives an ambulance for a living. So we pulled over, dad and mom switched cars and off we went. On the way, dad tried to explain that he was an ambulance driver and very good at driving safely and quickly. Really I wasn’t scared. Took a sharp breath of air in one time when we were a little close to a car in front of us or passing a car making the two-lane road into a three-lane road. The important thing is that we made it to the airport and I got checked in on time.

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Almost 3 Days in Tokyo

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Temples, Shrines and Gardens

Japan’s oldest religion is Shinto. Shinto has no founder, no holy book and not even the concept of religious conversion. The core concept is that deities, kami, preside over all things in nature, be they living, dead or inanimate. Shinto values include harmony with nature and virtues such as magokoro (sincere heart). Many Japanese practice Shinto; however, few are purely Shinto. Many Japanese also practice Buddhism. Shinto has shrines and are most easily distinguished by their typically vermilion (red) tori gateways, constructed by two posts with two rails at the top. After 3 days of walking around Tokyo looking at temples and shrines, many of them have just blended together into two categories, those with tori gates and those without.

The tour of shrines and temples started at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. Just a few steps from the subway exit, I found the Kaminarimon Gate (“Thunder Gate”). The gate was built in 946 and burned down several times, the last in 1865 and not rebuilt until 1960. Kaminarimon Gate stands big and impressive at the head of a long row of shops leading to the temple complex. Arriving early in the morning, before the area was laden with rickshaw tour operators and tour groups, made the visit reasonably pleasant and peaceful. Sensoji temple was built in the 645 and escaped damage in the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake only to be destroyed during WWII. All the buildings have been rebuilt following their Edo-era layout. In addition to the main temple building, the complex offers a 5-story pagoda, several smaller buildings, a pond with koi and several stone lanterns and statues. After a reasonably quick meditative stroll around the complex, I was on my way to my next destination on my aggressive list of sites to see during my time in Tokyo.

A popular part of the visit to Sensoji (or most temples, although Sensoji is one of the few that has them in English on the reverse side) is to get a paper fortune called an omikuji. After paying your 100 yen, you grab one of the metal canisters of sticks and make your wish. Once your wish is made, modestly shake the canister twice (or several times) until a stick comes out. Each stick has a number written on it in kanji (Japanese writing). So after a bit of matching the symbols on the stick to the symbols on the drawers containing the fortunes, you get your fortune. If it is a good fortune, then be happy with it. If it is a bad fortune, then don’t be upset. Simply tie it to the nearby rack so the wind can carry it away, ask the gods for better luck and try again later. So I dutifully paid my 100 yen, shook the canister and matched my number (66) to the drawer. No. 66 is Bad Fortune. So I tied it to the rack and walked away. When I came back to the temple are the next day for some souvenir shopping, I figured I would try it again, maybe being a little more specific with my wish. This time I got No. 97. Bad fortune again…sigh. Hopefully that changes soon.

Zojoji Temple in the Shimbashi area was my next planned destination. I say planned, because it took a little extra effort and a lot of walking to get there. I’ve navigated big cities (namely Paris when I was 17) using pretty much only a subway map and the information maps that are located on many corners at big intersections and near the subway entrances. So I got off at the Shimbashi station and set out walking in what I thought was the correct direction. When I reached the Higashi-ginza station, I discovered that I had walked about 20 minutes in the wrong direction. So I turned around, and after finding a set of elevated subway tracks, I decided to follow those as closely as I could to get to the station that was my original destination.

At the next map I found, I discovered that I was actually reasonably close to the Hama-rikyu Gardens, another spot that was on my list of places I was trying to see that day. Turning left, I headed for the garden, finding it in short order. Hama-rikyu Gardens were the family garden of the Tokugawa Shogun, built in 1654. All of the buildings and the vegetation were destroyed between the 1923 earthquake and the bombings in WWII and then rebuilt. The gardens are a nice oasis of green in the city, quiet and pleasant, the sounds of the city muffled by thick trees. Inside the 62-acre gardens the main places of interest are the tidal pond with the 3 tea houses, two duck hunting ponds, and a 300 year old black pine.

The Hama-rikyu has a free Ubiquitous Audio Tour. At the entrance they give you a smart device (basically like a smart phone) that you wear on a lanyard around your neck and an earphone. As you walk by the 27 places of interest along the tour, the smart device uses GPS technology to identify which place you are by and then plays an audio clip describing the place of interest and the history surrounding it. A lot of the extra information was very helpful and contained some very interesting facts.

One of the things I loved best about the garden are all the gnarled pine trees that look like bonsai trees on steroids. Each of the trees are meticulously pruned each year by hand. Workers remove 2/3rd of the new growth, snapping the shoots off by hand. The 300 year old pine takes 4 workers 5 days to complete. (Fact provided courtesy of the ubiquitous audio tour.)

300 year old pine at Hama-rikyu

300 year old pine at Hama-rikyu

With my feet starting to form a couple of hot spots, I continued on in my quest to find Zojoji Temple. To aid in navigation, I did actually ask the worker at the garden entrance when I returned my ubiquitous audio tour device. After another 20 minute walk and a stop for a late lunch at a curry shop, I finally found the temple complex.

The Zojoji temple complex is much smaller than the Sensoji temple. The Zojoji temple was established in 1393 and was moved to its current location in 1598 to protect the city spiritually from a southeasterly direction. The wooden temple gate is the only structure that remains of the original 17th century temple buildings. The main building was rebuilt in 1974, after being destroyed between the earthquake in 1923 and the bombings of WWII. Now the temple lies in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower, the red and white tower that is modeled after the Eiffel Tower, just taller. Seeing the tower brought back memories of my trip with my dad to Japan in 1982 when I did actually go up to the observation deck to see the view of the city.

Zojoji Temple and the Tokyo Tower

Zojoji Temple and the Tokyo Tower

After a short walk to the subway station, my feet got a little bit of a rest on the 20 minute ride to my next destination, the Kashiwa Karokuen Gardens. Finding the gardens proved to be challenging. Following the information provided on my Tokyo Subway App instead of actually checking the exit information on the signs in the station, I went out exit 8 instead of exit 2, which would have been a much better choice. After wandering around for quite awhile, I did actually find the Tokyo Dome home of the Yomiuri Giants (Tokyo Giants) and signs pointing me in the direction of the gardens… just a mere 350 meters (nearly a ¼ mile) along a white wall by baseball fields where adorable kids were having baseball practice.

When I planned out my time I had hoped to have some time to just sit in the garden and maybe write a little. With all of my navigational detours, by the time I finally reached the gardens I had about an hour to explore and enjoy. The picture in my guidebook that had drawn me to seeking out this garden was the Tsuten-kyo bridge, a vermilion (red) bridge that is a copy of a famous bridge in Kyoto that I had seen on my trip in 1982. Finding the bridge proved tricky since the location marked on the map had a different spelling than the picture and label of points of interest in the brochure that I was given at the entrance. On my search for it, I did see the Full Moon Bridge (Engetsu-kyo), so named because the reflection of the bridge in the water forms the image of a full moon. Even though renovation work was underway near the bridge, they did have enough water in the pool by the bridge to give it the full effect. I also saw the iris field and the rice paddies, and the Chinese style path and the central island, all of which were pretty but not my goal. With 20 minutes remaining until the park closed, I returned to the entrance and asked them, using a lot of pointing and short words, where the red bridge was. Armed with a location on the map, I made a bee-line for the bridge. Seeing the bright red surrounded with lush green was definitely worth all of the effort. I spent as much of the remaining time that I had in the park taking pictures and just sitting on a rock near the bridge as I could. My feet appreciated the short respite.

Tsuten-kyo bridge at Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens

Tsuten-kyo bridge at Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens

Amongst all of the temples and shrines that I visited over the course of my days in Tokyo, the Meiji Jingu (Shrine) was my favorite. Meiji Jingu is an oasis of lush green, the comforting aroma of the cedars and cypress trees permeating the air. The natural forest surrounding the shrine was hand planted when the shrine was first built. Now, generations later, it is considered a self-sustaining natural forest. A broad grey gravel path provides a meditative walk, leading you away from the main street through the forested area up to the tranquil area of the temple complex. Three unpainted cypress tori gates grace the path to the main shrine, the second or grand shrine gate, is the largest tori of that style in Japan. Each pillar is 1.2 meters (about 4 feet) in diameter and the crosspiece is 17 meters (55.7 feet) long. Very impressive and very beautiful!

Approaching the shrine, I followed the directions in the pamphlet on how to pay respect at Meiji Jingu. At the Temizuya, a cistern with running water and dippers (cups on long handles), I did the purification ritual. Using a dipper, I rinsed my left hand, then my right hand, then poured water into my left hand and rinsed my mouth, then rinsed my left hand and replaced the dipper. Then at the main shrine building, I made my wish, threw some coins in the offeratory box, bowed twice, clapped my hands twice to make sure the gods heard, and then bowed one more time. While there I also took time to write my wishes and hopes for 2014 and the future on a paper and placed it in an envelope with some coins and deposited in the box. The wishes will be included in the prayers of the priesthood at the temple.

A Blister for Each Day

In addition to walking to and around all of the temples, shrines and gardens, I visited several other places of interest in Tokyo. And I had a few more navigational issues.

Monday evening, I rounded out my first day at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observation Deck. The observation deck is on the 47th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and provides an impressive panoramic view of the city. On a clear day, which Monday was not by the time I made it there, Mt. Fuji is also visible. I am glad that I visited on Monday, since the weather was probably the best that day. While I couldn’t see Mt. Fuji I was able to see the majority of the places that I had visited while walking around the city. An added benefit to visiting was that I was able to pick up a guidebook that actually had some basic maps for key areas of Tokyo.

My second day in Tokyo started with my trip to Meiji Jingu, which is located next to the Yoyogi Park, the site of the Tokyo Olympics and the Harajuku neighborhood. The Tokyo National Stadium, built for the 1964 Olympics, is still used today. After taking a few minutes to appreciate the impressive curves of the shell-like architecture and to take some pictures, I dove into the Harajuku neighborhood, seeking out one of the largest 100 Yen Store (basically a Dollar Store) in Tokyo. Harajuku was greatly influenced by the international culture of the Olympics and remains the hot spot for the young and innovative and is a center for fashion with just about every high-end international store present.

No visit to Tokyo would be complete without going to see the Imperial Palace. The large thick, deep grey colored, stone sloping walls surrounded by a moat and the white and brown palace buildings are a stark contrast to the shiny, sleek, modern glass buildings of Tokyo. I had tried to visit the Imperial Palace East Gardens on Monday, but they were closed. Originally I had planned to visit the gardens on Tuesday; however, when I got there I felt I had pretty much had my fill of gardens. So I went to see the famous and often photographed Nijubashi bridge, the main gate stone bridge. The stone bridge reflected in the green-ish moat water accompanied by the massive stone walls, green vegetation and white building is truly picturesque.

Nijubashi bridge at the Imperial Palace

Nijubashi bridge at the Imperial Palace

My last morning in Tokyo was pretty much consumed by a walking tour of Yanaka. I’m pretty sure that Yanaka means “place of many, many temples”. The walking tour outlined in the guide book started at Nezu subway station. So I went to Nezu station, consulted the information map outside the station and started walking… in the opposite direction… again. Only figured it out once I made it to another subway station and after consulting my subway map confirmed that I had walked the wrong way. Backtracking, I made it back to Nezu station and started the tour. Finding the temples and shrines proved to be a little tricky, since for the most part they look like fancy houses with gates stuck in amongst the narrow regular buildings. The only way I found one of the temples is that the tree outside of it had an information marker telling me that it was one of the only remaining red oaks in an urban area and was located behind the Gyokurin-ji (temple).

The walking tour took me through several back streets and by literally dozens of temples. While the walk wasn’t quite as picturesque and quaint as the guidebook made it out to be, it was a nice walk. I did stop in a few of the temples, noting the shrines and the gravesites and other interesting statues and plants. Growing tired of temples and all of them blurring together in my mind and my feet feeling the sting of walking so much, I sped along to go to the Yanaka Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Tokyo.

Cemeteries in Japan are pretty interesting. Families have an altar site containing a primary stone altar with the family crest on it and maybe a few smaller stone structures. Ancestors are honored with their information written on a wooden stick which is added to the collection already there. Offerings are made by living family members and each little plot is well cared for. The cemeteries are very peaceful and several that I visited had gardenia plants, their sweet aroma mingling with the scent of lilies and incense  that had been placed at some of the altars.

Typical family cemetery shrine

Typical family cemetery shrine

My last stop was Akihabara, the famous electronics district. Home of every electronics company you can think of and a mecca for gamers. The buildings are everything you would imagine it to be – electric and overwhelming. SEGA, Panasonic, neon signs in Japanese, anime posters, all larger than life on the tall buildings that soar to the skies and assault the senses. My main destination was the Tokyo Anime Center, since my niece and a few of the young people that are in my life are interested in that. The center itself was actually quite disappointing, not offering much in the way of exhibits and offering a lot in the way of very high priced souvenirs. Walking around the area and taking in all the hustle and bustle was much more interesting.

So what to do when you discover that your flight is almost 2 hours delayed? I ended up going on a bike adventure in an attempt to find some lunch and see the last remaining trolley car in Tokyo. The woman at the hotel gave me directions to a soba noodle shop and the key to her bike and sent me on my way. Half of the adventure was just getting on the bike and getting going. The seat was set so low that my legs were bent the entire time. Eventually I got the hang of it. Off I went on the sidewalk, trying to stay in the bike lane area and  not to hit any of the people walking. Think I may have scared a couple of them with my wobbling. Finding the last remaining trolley car line in Tokyo, the two trolley cars ferrying people the short distance of the line, was my first success. On I went to find Joyful Minowa shopping street where the soba shop is located. A few interesting turns and there it was. After a couple of attempts at asking where the restaurant was, I finally understood that it was closed today. Sadly, I opted for take away tempura and some rice, went back to where the trolley line ends, and had my lunch. The victorious part of this adventure is that I actually made it back to the hotel successfully.

I have no idea exactly how many miles (or meters) that I walked during my 3 days in Tokyo. Many of the subway stations involved walks of 200-300 meters to get between subway lines. By the end of my second day I wished I had a pedometer to track the miles. At the end of my visit to Tokyo, 3 reasonably annoying and a little painful blisters graced my feet, one for each day I was there.

Tokyo Subway A to Z

I love the impressive efficiency of subways. The way the wind gushes in a rush of air in front of an approaching train. The rumbling sound as the train arrives. The constant announcements and interesting signs, especially in foreign countries. The often long escalators descending deep underground or taking you up to the surface.

The Tokyo Subway system is a model of efficiency and punctuality. Made up of two lines, the Tokyo Metro Line (9 lines) and the Toei Line (4 lines), you can swiftly get from one side of the city to the other in typically less than 30-45 minutes. Trains are spaced about 5 minutes apart, sometimes less, or 10 minutes at the most. Unlike many of the commuters, I was never in a rush to get anywhere, but knew better to stay out of the way when figuring out where I was going.

The Tokyo Subway Route Map became my constant companion. The Tokyo Subway app provided a helpful companion in figuring out which route to take and how long it the trip would be. Each of the 13 lines are color coded with an assigned letter (A, C, E, F, G, H, I M, N, S, T, Y and Z) and station numbers identifying each station. Thankfully all of the stations have the name in English as well as Japanese. I remember this being different when I visited as a child and we had to match the kanji characters on the map with the information in our guide book. Over the course of my 3 days in Tokyo I rode 11 of the 13 lines comprising the system (missed F and Y).

The most cost effective way to use the subway as a tourist is to purchase a One-day Unlimited Pass ticket. For 710 yen (about $7) you can ride all of the Tokyo Metro Line lines as much as you want. Or for 1000 yen (about $10) you can ride all of the Tokyo Metro and Toei lines. I definitely got my money’s worth of my one day passes.

Subway stations during rush hour are an interesting and fun experience. Commuters line up methodically at the designated door locations, the bigger stations having actual lanes marked out. When the train arrives, space is given to those exiting the trains. Then all of the people queued up squeeze on to the train. White gloved metro workers are present to make sure everything is orderly and to help push people into the cars if necessary.

Watching the white gloved workers greet and send off each train was a wonderful display of synchronicity and respect. Upon arrival, each of the workers would salute the driver as the train passed by. When all of the people were loaded, there was a check up and down the line confirming the doors were clear. And as the train departed, each worker in turn would point in the direction the train was traveling.

Train leaving the Minami-senju station

Train leaving the Minami-senju station

Many commuters come from well outside the city, with the typical commute taking around an hour or more. Often people would be sleeping. Watching them I wondered two things: how do they sleep standing up? And, how do they not miss their stops?

Additional Random Observations

Typically I am not a fan of major cities. I have spent almost no time in Bangkok in all of my trips to Thailand. New York City, Delhi and Beijing were overwhelming, dirty and polluted. Tokyo is an exception.

Tokyo is very clean and has pretty much no perceivable pollution. Most districts have a ban on smoking on the sidewalks. Established smoking areas, typically partitioned off with panels, are located every 5 or 6 blocks. Litter on the street is almost non-existent. Bottles are recycled religiously, with a bin located by pretty much every vending machine. Even traffic is minimal for such a large metropolitan area, a testament to the efficiency of the subway system and the considered ease of using a bicycle to get around.

On my hours of walking around the city, one thing that struck me was the conformity of it all. Most notably was the conformity of clothing throughout the city, Harajuku being a distinct exception. It seemed as most everyone was wearing dark blue or black pants or skirts, with a light pastel top ranging from white to tan to light blue to light pink. The occasional colorful dress or shirt was definitely eye-catching. Harajuku was a blast of color and individualism that I didn’t really experience elsewhere in the city. Even the buildings in most districts were relatively conforming in color. Some of the skyscrapers have unique architecture, although most of them all are that metallic blue-ish color of glass reflecting the sky. Smaller buildings and houses ranged in the tan-white-grey color palette.

Tokyo is a very new old city. The history of the city goes back over a thousand years. Unfortunately most of the buildings were destroyed during the fire following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Buildings that managed to survive the earthquake were destroyed by air raid bombings toward the end of WWII. While temples and shrines were rebuilt according to the original plans, the actual buildings only go back about 70 years. Some not even that far.

Every bit of available space is used efficiently. My hotel was a testament to this fact. My single room was about 3 feet wider and about 3 feet longer than a twin bed. In that space was a bed, table, stool, tv, waste bin and a small closet. The room wasn’t uncomfortable. Besides, you don’t go to some place to spend time in a hotel room. The bed was the typical firmness of any Asian bed. The pillow was made of a mesh bag filled with hollow pink plastic beads about a centimeter long and the diameter of a large straw covered with a pillow case. Strangely it wasn’t as uncomfortable as that sounds.

My room was on the 8th floor, the ladies floor. At the end of the hallway you could go out onto the emergency balcony for a view of the Tokyo Skytree, another tall tower offering a panoramic view of the city, and the Tokyo skyline. At night the Skytree is lit up, each night with a different color. My first morning I woke, first to the sun rising at the terribly early hour of 4:30 (I had forgot to close my actual curtain), then to the gentle rolling sway of the building. In my bleary state it took me a minute or two to realize that it was a shockwave from an earthquake.

Part of my purpose for spending time in Tokyo was to see it through adult eyes. Having visited Japan with my dad in 1982 and again in 1990, I hold many memories of places we visited and the experiences we had in our travels. Each time I heard the train announcement for the Ueno station (Ueno, Ueno des) I remembered the very first time Dad and I traveled into the city, groggy from our flight from Hawaii. Visiting some of the sites, I remembered that I had been there before. And all of this brought a smile to my face and my heart.

A Week with the Eles

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Walking About

Buriram is not really a city that draws a large number of foreign visitors. Mostly because Buriram offers very little to see. As I discovered in my almost 5 hours of walking around between Sunday evening and Monday morning.

Setting out with my not-to-scale map that was really more of a suggestion of where streets are and how they are named, I began my tour of Buriram. Just to make navigating more interesting, typically only one of the two roads at an intersection were labeled. I either knew what street I was on and had to guess at the cross street. Or I knew what the cross street was but wasn’t quite sure I was on the street I intended to be on. I’ve also decided that sidewalks in Thailand are definitely not designed to be walked on. Uneven and often taken over by food stalls or various repair shops, it was generally easier at times to just walk in the street.

Being a white foreign female in a town like Buriram, definitely draws some attention. Generally, I was greeted with curious looks that changed to a smile when I smiled at them and said “sawad dee kaa” (hello). Men would occasionally shout out a “hello”, to which I typically responded with “sawad dee kaa” or maybe just “hello” depending on the moment. The clearly drunk Thai male on the bicycle was the most interesting interaction. Holding his beer in one hand and pointing with the other, I think he was trying to suggest that he wanted me to take him to America with me. Finally I said I needed to go, so he shook my hand, said he loved me and I quickly went on my way. Reluctantly he turned his bicycle around and off he pedaled.

If I had remembered to wear a t-shirt instead of a tank top, I could have gone in the two wats (temples) that are located in the main part of Buriram. To go into a temple, you are supposed to have your shoulders covered. So mostly I looked at the temples from the street. I did venture into the City Pillar monument. I refrained from going inside the building housing the 2 city pillars since I wasn’t sure if I was already being disrespectful by being in the monument area with my shoulders not covered.

Welcome Back

Returning to the project is like coming home. This visit being my third time volunteering at the Surin Project, I was mostly aware of the changes. A new concrete and tin roof shelter has been built for Tangmo, Wang Duen, and Nong Lek to hang out. A rebuilt structure for Jaeb, since she had been working intently on destroying her last one. And just like visiting home, I have stayed in the same room and the same house each time, although now Sing’s wife, Pi Jan, is the house mom.

The week begins with an opening ceremony that is a combination of Buddhist and Kuy (Goi) beliefs. Lead by a shaman, the ceremony is a mixture of happiness and reverence. The purpose behind the ceremony is to bring us all together and to wish for us a healthy and good week. The kuy people believe in white and dark magic, so much of the ceremony is about bringing the white protective magic to all the people there.

The ceremony is also the first time where all the volunteers get to meet the mahouts, the caretakers of the elephants. The aptly named Pan, Warin’s mahout, was sitting behind me. He remembered me from my last visit, greeting me with “MJ MJ”. Three times during the ceremony, all the mahouts throw mulberry leaves at us to bless us. Several meanings are tied to this blessing. The main meaning is to bring your spirit back to your body. The kuy believe that occasionally our spirits wander off to the forest. The mulberry tree has special magic and being blessed with them helps the spirit to return to the body. Another meaning is that someone who is blessed by these leaves will be great and will be loved. Pan, Thong Di, and Em were sitting behind me so I was greatly blessed with large handfuls of mulberry leaves showered on me with great force. A terrific welcome from the mahouts.

The cast of characters, both elephants and mahouts, has remained mostly the same since my visit last December. One new elephant, Wong Duen, and her mahout, Nei, have joined the project. Another elephant, Ploy, and her mahout, Sing, have returned to the project. Unfortunately, Ploy’s baby girl Kwan has not been allowed to come back to the project by the owner. And sadly, Sai Faa and her mahout, Dao, are not on the project at the moment because Dao is sick. Hopefully she will return to the project when Dao is better.

From a project success standpoint this consistency is a good sign. Many mahouts have a difficult time with the rules imposed in their agreement to be on the project. One of the rules is that they are not allowed to use a bull hook, a 2 foot stick with a large metal hook attached to it, to control their elephant. Many mahouts view just carrying the bull hook as a talisman of protection from injury. To give up the bull hook is to give up the idea that they are protected from injury.

Life on the Project

The Surin Project is focused on helping to change the culture of elephant tourism in Thailand by demonstrating that people will come to interact with elephants in a much more natural way. As a volunteer, our primary “work” is to ensure that the elephants have at least 3-4 hours each day off their chains. This goal is accomplished through going for walks in the forest and to the river and by allowing the elephants to wander in the enclosure to eat and play in the water. (For more on the project and why it is important, click here.)

Throughout the week we take several walks through the forest with the elephants. Generally, we try to stay out of the way of the elephants, not always easy since elephants move surprisingly quietly, and just watch them as they stop and forage for food, enjoying a tasty vine here or some other plant there. One of our walks takes us to a bamboo thicket. This particular day, Fah Sai was intent on having some bamboo as a snack. Sarot hurried us out of the way as she reached for a giant stalk. With a great crack she pulled it to the ground. While watching her and admiring her great power we were momentarily oblivious to the nest of red ants that we had ended up in. These ants are particularly vicious and bite with a vengeance. The ants seemed to drop off the bushes and crawl up from the ground, all the sudden appearing on shirts, in hair, on legs, everywhere. By the time we got out of the area I had eight major bites, one on my back the rest on my legs.

Of course some work does need to be done during the week. Mostly in the form of morning and evening chores. In the morning, we have three tasks that our teams rotate through: cleaning shelters, cleaning the enclosure and cutting sugar cane. None of the tasks are particularly arduous, taking at most 30 minutes to complete. My favorite task is cutting sugar cane. Not only because I get to use a machete to hack down the 8 foot tall stalks of sugar cane, but also because I get to work with the mahouts.  I am always amazed at the speed and skill with which they accomplish their task. Clearing away the dead leaves with a whoosh whoosh of their machete and cutting the stalk with  a simple thwack of the machete. The mahouts are sweetly tolerant of my swoosh….swoosh as I copy them in clearing away the dried leaves and the thwack, thwack, thwack that it takes me to bring down one sugar cane stalk. The task is still sanook (fun) involving much smiling and laughing.

Our one project for the week was to help plant a field of sugar cane for the elephants. Sugar cane fields are planted by laying sugar cane stalks in furrows, cutting the stalks into about foot long pieces, covering them with elephant manure and then covering with the dirt. Any opportunity for me to use a machete is always welcome, so I volunteered to cut the sugar cane stalks. Careful to stand a furrow over from where I was working to make sure my bare toes were protected by a barricade of dirt, I made my way up and down the rows cutting the stalks. Using a machete effectively definitely takes consistent practice. Much more practice than my once or twice a year. Second only to getting to use a machete, the best part of doing this project was getting to walk barefoot in the soft freshly plowed field of red sandy soil.

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Another component of the Surin Project is to help support the community of Ban Tha Klang. Two of the days this week we went to a local school to teach the students. Divided into four teams, we created lessons for teaching basic conversation, body parts, alphabet letter sounds, and numbers. Autumn and I chose numbers. Though both of us teach adults, neither of us are particularly fond of teaching children. Our first day was a bit of a struggle. The second day we changed up our lesson and taught the kids a song using numbers. By the end of our hour of teaching, all of the kahnom (grade) 1-3 kids could sing: “1 little, 2 little, 3 little elephants; 4 little, 5 little, 6 little elephants; 7 little, 8 little, 9 little elephants; 10 elephants more.”

Coming from the dry climate of Colorado, the heat and humidity of Ban Tha Klang was on occasion almost stifling. Only one day passed without rain sometime during the day or night. The rest of the days included a rain shower, often in the late afternoon and occasionally well into the night. Instead of cooling the air, each passing afternoon shower seemed to leave the air twice as heavy and twice as hot. Rain showers at night were welcomed to keep the hordes of June bugs at bay and did actually make it a little more cool to sleep.

All the moisture made the landscape of the village much more vibrant. The lush green of the trees and plants contrasted with the red clay soil provided a vibrant backdrop for our elephant walks. Especially our walks to the river through the bright green of the young rice fields. Add to this tableau the shades of grey and pink of the elephants, partially covered with the red soil the elephants use for sunscreen and bug repellent. Such a beautiful and refreshing sight.

The heat and humidity also upped the number of bucket showers to be had each day. On average, I took 2 each day. Definitely a far cry from my last visit to the project where it was so cold that bucket showers were tolerated only when the amount of dirt became overwhelming. Scooping the cool water from the bucket and pouring it over me brought welcome relief from being covered with sweat, mosquito repellent and dirt. Regardless of how hot it was, that first scoop of water always brought the same cold shock of jumping into a cold body of water. And always felt so refreshing.

The week for me this time culminated with the mahout dinner and the farang (foreigner/volunteer) show. The mahout dinner gives us a chance to spend time talking and laughing with the mahouts. Sitting next to Sarot, the head mahout, can always prove interesting. When Ocha brought the traditional dish made from beef throat, Sarot took a fork and put a piece of it on it, dipped it lightly in the sauce and handed it to me. I have always lived by the rule that I will try any food that is offered to me, a practice instilled in me by years of travelling with my dad. The meat tasted reasonably good. Probably wouldn’t eat a whole meal of it, but I did reach for a second piece after a while, making the mistake of dipping it too much in the sauce which left my lips tingling for quite awhile from the spice. A while later, Sarot again took my fork and gave me another bite. I also made the mistake of letting Sarot make my second drink of Hong Thong (a wiskey-esque alcohol) and soda water. I think it had more Hong Thong than soda water.

The farang show is always good for some laughs. The girls performance was singing The Lion Sleeps tonight. Percussion and was provided by the collection of instruments we created out of a bamboo bin played with a stick, a piece of bamboo and a stick and two maracas made from water bottles and rocks. For only practicing once, we did great. Rob’s performance was sweet too. He made a rap out of all the information of the elephants and their mahouts. The mahouts always follow up with a performance, typically the frog mating dance. Even though I have seen it several times, I still don’t quite get it.

Bathing Elephants

No matter how many times I do it, the best part of the week is the chance to bathe the elephants in the river. Twice during the week we walk with the elephants to the river, spend a little time watching them eat the sugar cane, and then get in the river with them. In the water, each elephant gets its own bag of mangao, a cross between a turnip and a potato, and then the bathing begins. These massive animals so solid on land are almost buoyant in the water.

Bathing Fah Sai was one of the most amazing elephant bathing experiences I have had in a long time. Fah Sai is the biggest elephant on the project. At 5’3″, I am roughly half as tall as she stands at the shoulder. Not a skinny elephant by any means, her mass leaves me awestruck when she passes close by. To get to play with her in the water was so incredible.

After feeding her 2 bags of mangao, that Thong Di made sure each one was rinsed of dirt before handing them to me to feed her, Thong Di had her lie down in the water. I started splashing her with water and scrubbing her with my brush. To help me better reach her ear and other side of her face, Thong Di gave her a command to put her head down farther into the water. At one point I was practically on top of her head. The feeling of being so close to such a beautiful animal is hard to put into words. The heat of her body, the gentle breathing, the thick skin with the wiry hair, the power in her ears and trunk.

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By the end of the bathing, I was soaked from head to toe. Especially since Thong Di kept having Fah Sai bring water into her trunk and on command blow it at me. Each time the initial burst of warm trunk (nasal?) air preceding the blast of water from her trunk hitting me square in the face. I was all smiles sloshing out of the water beside Fah Sai, her wake making a ruckus in direct contrast to the stealthfulness with which she moves on land.

People ask me what keeps me coming back to the Surin Project (or any of the elephant projects). Part of my response is to try to help change the culture of tourism in Thailand and to protect the elephants from abuse and harm that can come to them through elephant rides, circus tricks and trekking. What truly keeps me coming back is getting to experience the energy of these gentle giants. Elephants are empathetic and compassionate creatures. Experiencing their touch and looking into their eyes refills my heart and refreshes my spirit.

Celebrating a Friend

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Life goes on

Yes, a military coup apparently took place about two weeks ago now in Thailand. Arriving at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok at 11 PM at night, you would never know the military was in charge of the government, especially if this was your first trip to Thailand. This trip is not my first trip, it is my 10th.

The differences are barely perceptible. The lack of the hustle and bustle that is the arrivals floor at the airport struck me the moment I left the confines of immigration and customs. The speed with which I passed through customs I attributed to arriving an hour earlier than my past trips. Or in retrospect, maybe immigration went faster because they aren’t scheduling very many late night planes in with the midnight to 4 AM curfew in place.  Outside of customs and immigration, the usual swarm of people greeting family and friends was greatly diminished. The overall feeling was one of stillness.

Exiting the airport, the sense of quiet continued. The traffic cop whistles and constant flow of bus, car and van engines passing through the departures and arrivals levels were strangely absent. Heading to the hotel a checkpoint on the road heading toward the airport was being set up, the night restaurants that are typically busy were nearly empty or closed, and only a few cars were on the road. One military truck was near the restaurants, I’m guessing they were actually just getting food before their shift of enforcing the curfew began.

Life after the coup seems to just go on for most Thai. Leaving Bangkok and heading for Korat and Chet’s small hometown, the idea that there was a coup doesn’t even register. People are just going about their lives.

Another One Becomes a Monk

Suvarnabumi airport was the meeting point for Tarn (our guide), Deborah and her son Jonah (ENP volunteers from New York), and Yo and Pim (Chet and Tarn’s friends). From there the plan was to take a taxi to Mo Chit bus station and then a bus to Korat. That was the plan anyway. The six of us and our luggage piled into the taxi van, the girls sharing the front single seat and the four of us squished into the back seat. Lots of very adamant chatter ensued between the Thai passengers and our taxi driver. In the end it was put to us that we could (with some rearranging of the luggage and seating configuration) have the taxi driver take us all the way to Chet’s home for 500 bhat each. The main selling point being that it would be a shorter overall length of trip.

So that is what we did. The driver pulled over into the merge point area between the 2-lane frontage road and the 4-lane highway. We piled out of the van and with traffic zooming by us on both sides and the rearranging began. Once everything had been redistributed as best as possible to provide some level of comfort, we were off. Four hours and three inexplicably long and interesting stops for gasoline later, we arrived at Chet’s village and home.

Every monk ceremony is slightly different depending on the traditions of the village, the region of the country and the individual becoming a monk. Regardless of the nuances, all of the ceremonies have two distinct parts. Part one is about purification and preparation. Part two is the transition to becoming a monk. Sometimes the ceremony takes place all in one day, sometimes the ceremony is divided over two days.

The ceremony is paid for by the individual becoming a monk. Often the young man will save up for a long time to be able to pay for the food, gifts for the monks, and everything else involved in the ceremony. It is not uncommon for relatives or friends to hold their ceremonies at the same time to help defray the costs. Chet offered to share his ceremony with his nephew. About two weeks before the ceremony, his nephew decided to accept the offer.

After a night’s rest on a mattress that gives a tile floor a run for its money for firmness, it was off to Chet’s house at the early hour of 6 am for the first part of the ceremony. Symbolic of Buddha cutting his princely locks and renouncing his life of privilege, the ceremony began with the cutting of Chet’s hair and shaving of his head and eyebrows (and a few other stray facial hairs.) Each person takes three cuts of hair, starting with mother, father, grandfather, elders, family and eventually friends. By the time I got my chance, it was hard to find much hair to cut. Once the cutting is done, all of the remaining hair was diligently and carefully shaved.

After being rinsed, Chet changed into an outfit of a white shirt, a deep maroon silk sarong tied with a large skein of blessing string tied around his waist and a white almost lace robe with gold trim. A garland of flowers and gold ribbon was placed around his neck and he was given the lotus flower and candle set he would have with him for most of the rest of the day’s activities. At this point, Chet is no longer considered man and is not yet considered monk, so he is called Naga.

Then began the procession through the village. Dancers led the way with flowing hand movement, metered step-together-step pace and call and response cheers. The band brought up the rear with music blaring from the portable platform. Everyone else ambled somewhere in between, ebbing and flowing within the pack. Chet sheltered from the sun by the yellow canopied umbrella being carried by his friends somewhere in the middle. Along the way was water and whiskey to provide some relief from the heat and physical exertion.

Dancing is a lovely way to interact with locals. A common language for communicating despite any difference in languages. There was the lovely elder woman that kept dancing with me, encouraging more hip movements. Ket (one of the village women) was most encouraging about the dancing. My attempts to mimic her hand movements, which generally have significance in traditional dance in Thailand, brought smiles. Most of all it was sanook (fun). Sanook is very important to Thai life. If it isn’t fun, why do it.

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We danced our way through the village, all the way to the shrine at the entrance to the village. Reaching the shrine, we circled the shrine three times then paused while Chet and his nephew prayed and offered incense at the shrine. After the brief prayer and offering, the procession and dancing started again in earnest, heading back to Chet’s home for food and the next part of the ceremony.

The next part of the purification and preparation process is to symbolically rinse away all of the bad things that had been done in their life. Cups of water infused with marigolds and other flowers are poured over the person becoming a monk by everyone in attendance, again beginning with the parents and elders, family and then friends. Some of the friends were a little merciless pouring small pitchers of ice water over them.

After changing back into their robes and sarongs, the longest part of the ceremony began. Sermons were given about being a monk and making all the preparations. Saffron robes and pillows were blessed by the elders. Small metal fans holding three candles each were passed around the circle of elders several times, each person taking their turn to pray and then wave the smoke and flame toward the center of the circle three times before passing it on. More sermons followed, even the shaman stopped to take a swig of an energy drink. The sermon dragged on and on, the stifling heat wilting the lotus flowers.

One part of the ceremony I had never experienced before (and have no clarification at this point about the symbolism) involved a pillar with seven layers created from bamboo. Each layer contained foods such as rice cakes and mangoes and bananas. At one point, the shaman took a coconut from the top layer and cracked it open, pouring the water into a glass. Then he took something from each layer and added it to the glass. The entire mixture was stirred and Chet and his nephew had to eat three spoonfuls of it. I can’t imagine that it tasted all that good.

After what felt like hours, most of which I spent playing papparazzi taking pictures, a task which had been requested by Chet long before the ceremony, we had a chance to participate. Each person took their turn to tie a blessing string on Chet’s wrist. After the parents and elders and pretty much everyone else, it was our turn. Taking the string, you wipe it three times down the hand toward the fingers to take away any bad spirits or energy. Then wipe it three times toward the heart to give good wishes and spirits. Then tie it around the wrist using three knots. After struggling with my knots I am utterly impressed at the agility of the elder women with the crooked hands to tie them so adeptly.

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And We Danced

Dinner was a spectacular affair, the type of which I have never experienced at any of the monk ceremonies I have previously attended. More than just a gathering of friends and family for dinner and drinking, Chet did his ceremony with a flair that completely captures his persona with a full show.

At one end of the street was a bi-level stage with a large poster for Chet’s ceremony as the backdrop. Tables and chairs filled the rest of the street, with the exception of an area for dancing. Food and drink flowed freely in a never ending train of people coming to and from the kitchen area like a trail of ants. At dusk, the show began.

Words are failing me to fully capture all of the costumes and lights and the festive atmosphere. The dancers went through probably 10 outfits ranging from full length silk skirts and shirts typical of traditional Thai dance to short short sparkly dresses. The three singers took turns singing and engaging the crowd. The male performer kept calling me out, asking my name and where I was from and then calling me “amerika” the rest of the night. The pinnacle of the show was the lady boy performance of some traditional Thai dances that enthralled the crowd.

Aided by a good amount of beer and whiskey, everyone danced. Chet’s sister, Khan, was dressed to the hilt in sparkles and insisted on dancing. Dancing to Thai popular music is not an easy feat. Eventually I got the hang of it, thanks to having done some belly dancing. Also helps if you know the song because each song seems to have an understood choreography that accompanies it.

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We were exhausted and headed back to the hotel around 10:30. The day had been long and tiring, even with a brief nap. I’m sure the party lasted well into the night when the last bottle of Chang and the last drop of whiskey had been consumed.

Transition to Monk

The Sunday morning sun shone intensely as we began the final part of the ceremony. We danced our way over to the temple, women carrying the baskets of coin flowers and all the accoutrements needed for the ceremony, the band playing, people laughing and smiling. The procession proceed around the bot (main temple building) three times, occasionally pausing in the little bit of shade offered by a tree or the building.

At the sacred stone in front of the bot, Chet and his nephew bowed, said some prayers and offered the lotus flower and the candles they had been carrying. In a mad throng they were then propelled forward by the crowd up the steps of the temple, symbolizing the support of the community and family of their service as a monk.

Prior to a monk ceremony, hours and hours of work by friends and family go into making “coin flowers”. These intricately folded flowers contain some amount of money in the center, typically 1 or 2 bhat. The 365 that I had folded over the course of the past 6 months was a small drop in the ocean of coins that were there. So as Buddha gave away his wealth and worldly possessions, the coin flowers are thrown out to all the people there for the ceremony. Madness ensues. Caught in a barrage of coins pelting me and small children at my feet furiously gathering as many coins as possible, I tried to take some pictures and to catch one myself (for good luck.) Eventually I was able to extract myself from my spot and try to take a few more pictures out of the range of fire. At the very end I think that one man thought I didn’t catch any and so he gave me one of his.

While Chet went through the remaining part of the ceremony with only his family in attendance, we sat outside and tried to not melt. Eventually, the ceremony was complete and Chet and his nephew emerged as monks in their saffron robes. As they stood at the doors of the temple everyone lined up to make an alms offering. Placing some money or other offering in their bags and paying respect.

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The whole ceremony ended with lunch. While the monks ate, we sat and waited. When at last they were done eating and had filed out of the food hall, we were served lunch. While we were eating the head monk came back in. He was worried that Deborah, Jonah and I were not going to be able to eat because the food might be too spicy for us. He also decided we needed mangoes, so he had the women cut up about 8 mangoes for us (by far some of the best mangoes I have had in a long time.) Then he decided we each needed our own green mango to take with us. He was happily surprised when I actually held up a plate to take mine from him as monks cannot hand anything directly to or take anything directly from a woman. He also decided we needed some fresh crysantheum tea and brought us those as well. After we were done eating and ready to leave, we went and paid our respects and he sent us off with chok dee (good luck) and many happy smiles.

And so Chet begins his 7 days as a monk. Being a monk in Thailand is not a forever commitment, unless that is their choice. All Thai Buddhist males are expected to be a monk for 3 days up to 3 months. Serving as a monk honors the parents and creates good karma for the family. And I was honored to be part of one of my dear friend’s ceremony.

Coming Full Circle

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Ending Where I Started

Getting to Chiang Mai from the Surin Project is a 14 hour journey. All of the mahouts gather to send of the volunteers. A flurry of “lob pop gon mai” (hope to see you again) and wais (bowing), with a few hugs thrown in much to the chagrin of the Thai, followed by a group photo and we were off. The first hour of the trip is the truck ride from Ban Tha Klan to the bus station in Buriram. Watching the green countryside roll by in the setting sun, we said good bye.

Buses in Thailand are actually pretty comfortable, especially the VIP Gold Class buses. The seats recline and have leg and feet rests. Snacks of crisps (potato chips), water, soy milk and a sandwich are provided throughout the course of the trip and the bus stops for food about 2 hours into the trip. The only uncomfortable part of this particular trip was the temperature. It was cold. Very, very cold. Once again I was grateful for the $5 wool blanket I had purchased in Nepal.

For the first 1.5 hours, I tried to type on my computer. Finally, I gave into the cold and tiredness. Huddled under the blanket provided by the bus with my other blanket pulled over my head, I slept for most of the remainder of the trip.

Christmas in Thailand

Being in a 95% Buddhist country and having traveled enough that I’m not sure what day it actually is, Christmas just sort of made itself known through the Santa hats worn by workers and Christmas carols playing at the market and shops. My plan was to spend Christmas at the Elephant Nature Park with my friends (and a few elephants.) Unfortunately for me, the park was completely booked for volunteers, overnight guests and day trip guests. But Christmas wishes do come true (and being a repeat volunteer and visitor helps.)

Every year at Christmas, the Elephant Nature Park holds a Christmas show. At the show, all the various groups at the park do a performance. The mahouts, students from the village, massage therapists, gardeners, staff and volunteers all contribute to the show.  Under the auspices of Christmas, everyone also receives a gift in appreciation for their work throughout the year. Santa (and Santee, the female Santa Claus) make an appearance to help Lek, the founder, distribute the gifts.

When Chet asked me if I wanted to go with Miss Patty to help set up for the Christmas Show at the park, I jumped at the chance. Christmas day morning, we loaded our sleigh (actually 2 vans) with the gifts, some desserts and a bottle of SamSong “rum” and headed off to the park.

Decorating for the show started in earnest after we had a chance to eat lunch. Balloons were inflated and banners hung with care. The tree was decorated with lights and tinsel, and boxes wrapped in paper and bows placed underneath. The stage was set and lights were strung from the ceiling. In short order, the feeding platform of the park was transformed into a wonderland of colors and was ready for the show.

Party balloons with Mae Do heading for her shelter for the evening.

Party balloons with Mae Do heading for her shelter for the evening.

The local village children started the show with their traditional hill tribe and Thai dances, looking so adorable in their traditional dress. Rocky did a magic show. The massage ladies did a traditional Thai dance. The mahouts played Christmas songs with a Thai feel on their flutes made out of PVC and drum made out of a bucket. And for the fourth year in a row, Chet did his fabulous job as emcee.

The best part of being at the park for the Christmas show was the chance to catch up with friends that I haven’t seen in several months. Just like a family gathering, everyone was there. Hugs, smiles, laughter and talk filled the evening. Just the way Christmas should be.

Chet and my annual Christmas pic.

Chet and my annual Christmas pic.

Afternoons in the Park

Much of my last week in Chiang Mai was spent seeing what it would be like to just exist without filling my days with motorbike rides and tourist activities. Not wanting to be confined to my guest house and longing to be in the sunshine, I headed for Nong Buak Hard Public Park. A little oasis of green nestled into the southwest corner of the old town.

The park boasts a small lake with bridges crossing over it and a fountain, playground area for children (which I believe is where all of the metal playground equipment we grew up with went when it was determined it was too unsafe), and a bevy of vendors selling fish food, bird food, people food and renting mats to sit on. Inside the park, the sounds of the city fade away, replaced by the cooing of the pigeons. Stopping to rent a mat (10 bhat ($0.30) for as long as you want to use it) I headed for the south side of the lake, out of the spray of the fountain, away from the other farang (foreigners) in their bikini tops, and in the sun.

My mat in the sun in the park.

My mat in the sun in the park.

Mostly I spent my time writing in my journal, reading a book and thinking about some of the massage workshops I want to develop in 2014. I also was on a mission to start making the coin flowers for my friend Chet’s monk ceremony that will be coming up in June 2014. During the monk ceremony, hundreds of coin flowers are blessed and then thrown out to the people in attendance. Catching one is believed to be good luck (and like kids racing for candy from a piñata, a chance to tear the ribbon flowers apart for the coins at the center.) And the majority of three out of my last four trips to Thailand have been spent making these flowers.

Making the coin flowers seems like it should be a traditional craft that everyone knows. Strangely, this actually isn’t the case. Many Thai are surprised to see a farang making these coin flowers. The flowers are made by taking 4 pieces of ribbon and folding them origami style into flowers or fish or boxes (I only know how to do a couple of the flowers.)

One of the days that I was sitting in the sun making the coin flowers, two Thai girls set up their mat close to me. After a while of watching me, one of the girls came over and asked me (in Thai) what I was doing and wanted me to show her how I was making them. She spoke almost no English, so using mostly gestures and having her follow along, I taught her how to make the most simple of the flowers. When we finished one, she wanted to make more so that she would remember how to make them. Eventually her friend, who spoke more English, pulled their mat over to join mine and we spent the next hour and a half making coin flowers and talking. With their help that afternoon, I was able to accomplish my goal of 100 coin flowers for the week.

My first 100 coin flowers for Chet's ceremony.

My first 100 coin flowers for Chet’s ceremony.

Elephant Time

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Family Time

My first stop upon returning to Thailand, was Taphan Hin in central Thailand to spend a little time with my Thai family. Family is such an important facet of Thai culture. Over the years I have become the oldest sister in the Tabjeen family, being only 3 years younger than mom. As often as possible when I visit Thailand, I try to make it a point to visit the family.

This visit, they set up my own “home stay” room. The room used to belong to Pa (aunt) Lee before she finished building her house. Now Nat uses it on the weekends to teach a special English class to a few of the kids that live in the neighborhood. The room was adorned with a bed with a silk coverlet and a blue mosquito net, pink curtains and my own bathroom. Dad even made sure I had my own source of bottled water. Such a sweet gesture to ensure my comfort while I am visiting.

Having my own room was also necessary now that Nat, Gao and their baby Nong Name and Gao’s sister are all living in the main house with Nat’s parents. Nong Name, my 6-month old nephew, is a 10 kilo (22 pound) bundle of joy and sweetness. This child is surrounded by love and caring. Lung (uncle) Buhm takes care of him every day. Just seeing the love and happiness radiating from Lung Buhm’s face when he is holding or playing with Nong Name warms the heart.

One of the days Nat took me to his school to help teach English. Nat truly enjoys teaching and wants to set his students up for success in being able to read and speak English. Having worked in the tourist industry, Nat has a true appreciation of how important this skill is. Arriving at the school, I was greeted with the obligatory stares and giggles from both the boys and girls. The interest continued as we were teaching with the grade 6 girls that gathered outside the classroom door about half way through the morning.

The morning was spent working on basic conversation skills with the grade 3 and 4 students. Keeping it simple with things like: “How are you?”; “I am fine, thank you. And you?”; “I am fine.” We also played some games to keep it interesting. In the afternoon, the entire school (about 35-40 students) joined together in the classroom. My task… teach them how to sing Jingle Bells. A slow yet successful process, culminating in a rousing singing of Jingle Bells that was a little sketchy on the verse but solid on the chorus. Two of the kids dressed in Santa costumes and came in dancing during our singing.

The students and I after learning Jingle Bells.

The students and I after learning Jingle Bells.

This trip I also did my best to try to avoid the hospital. Last visit, around 1 AM I found myself on the way to the urgent care due to a small bout of food poisoning. This trip, on the way home from the school, I found myself at the side of the road thanks to a small bout of something (probably food related). I made Nat promise not to tell his mom.  Usually I have no problem eating Thai (or Indian or Nepali) food, so having this happen twice is really unusual for me. Mom was a bit worried that evening when I couldn’t eat very much, sticking to rice and grilled chicken.

Instead, ant bites almost resulted in a trip to the doctor. Thailand has 7 different varieties of ants. I am allergic to at least one variety. The bites swell up, becoming puffy and red puffy and itching incessantly. Quickly I learned the words for ant (moot), mosquito (yoong) and itching (kraan). Insisting that I knew what was wrong, everyone in the hospital housing area produced every manner of pill and lotion that they thought would help me. The bites scoffed at the pills and calamine lotion. Eventually, the best solution was the topical steroid that Nat had. Before I left, Dad made a trip to the pharmacy resulting in two full bottles of the Kanalon Lotion for me.

This trip the request was made of me to make a western dinner. A request I couldn’t refuse since it came primarily from Dad, a wonderful man who does everything he can to make sure that I am comfortable when I am there. We settled on spaghetti, since that was the only thing anyone could come up with that represented western food and that I thought I would even have a remote possibility of successfully making. Somehow the combination of fresh tomatoes, basil, onions, garlic, tomato sauce (actually more of what we would call ketchup), ground pork and red pepper flakes transformed themselves into a sauce that reasonably resembled spaghetti sauce. Everyone said it tasted delicious, even better than the pizza restaurant in town. My heart was just happy seeing the joy that it brought to everyone.

Hanging with the Elephants

Volunteering at the Surin Project is less about doing work than it is about showing mahouts and other tourists that there is an alternative to the ways elephants are currently used in tourism. The balance of using elephants for tourism and protecting the elephants from harm is a particularly delicate balance. Elephants need to eat and mahouts (the people who care for the elephants) need to support their families. An elephant eats about 10% of its weight in food each day. To support that type of appetite, mahouts must find a way to earn money.

Mahouts and their elephants living at the Elephant Study Center in Ban Tha Klang (where the Surin Project is based) are given a stipend of 8000 baht a month. Almost half of that money goes to feeding their elephant, driving the mahouts to find supplemental income. Some of the options that mahouts have are: using their elephants in the twice daily circus show at the center where they do tricks for the entertainment of the tourists; offering elephant rides around the center piling 3-4 humans plus the weight of the saddle (150 pounds/75 kilos) on the back of the elephant; leaving their family at the center and taking their elephant to work at trekking camps elsewhere in Thailand; or leaving their elephants on chain all day while the mahouts work in the fields or other employment outside of the center.

The Surin Project offers another alternative. The Elephant Nature Foundation offers an additional 8000 baht per month to mahouts that agree to have their elephants be part of the Surin Project. The mahouts must agree to a set of rules to be part of the project. Mahouts are not allowed to use a bull hook, a foot long stick with an 1.5″ heavy metal hook on the end, used for controlling the elephant and sometimes as a means for punishment. Elephants are not allowed to be in the circus, to give rides or to participate in festivals. And the elephants must be off chain for 4 hours each day.

Off chain time is spent on forest walks, bathing in the river or roaming, swimming and eating in the enclosure. These activities are where volunteers can make the most impact in demonstrating that another form of tourism exists. Showing the mahouts that tourists are perfectly content in walking with elephants instead of riding them or bathing the elephants instead of watching them perform tricks, is the first step in helping to change the culture.

Forest walks allow volunteers to watch and be near the elephants. The elephants glide gracefully through the forest, the cushion on the pads of their massive round feet absorbing the weight of each step. The anatomy of an elephant’s foot still amazes me. Elephants essentially walk on tiptoe with tough spongy connective tissue for the sole. The spongy shock absorber and ridged and pitted sole are what allow an elephant to move so silently and sure-footedly through any terrain. The main sounds are the swishing of their bodies while they pass through the trees, the occasional snap of a breaking branch as one decides it needs a snack, and the chatter of the volunteers and mahouts.

Nong Lek enjoying her walk in the forest.

Nong Lek enjoying her walk in the forest.

Another activity where volunteers have the opportunity to interact with the elephants is walking to the river and bathing the elephants. Each of our trips to the river took different paths. The first walk was through the village to the road that would take us to the river. I’m pretty sure that a group of farang (foreigners) walking through the village drew more looks than the 11 elephants walking in front of us. The second walk was through the rice fields that have been burned off and are waiting for the next crop of rice to be planted.

Bathing elephants is an activity that has always been a very rewarding activity for me. Ever since the first time in 2008 when I splashed and scrubbed Jokia at Elephant Nature Park during a day visit, bathing elephants has been one of my favorite ways of interacting with elephants. In the river, we are given a bag of food to first feed the elephant. After eating, we begin scrubbing and splashing the elephants to get the dirt off (so that they can apply a new layer of insect repellent and sunscreen when they get out of the water.)

Bath time for Jaeb and Warrin.

Bath time for Jaeb and Warrin.

Bathing Nong Lek was wonderful. She’s one of the smaller elephants on the project, so much easier to get around with in the water. Su Chad, her mahout, is also very adept at getting her to follow commands such as putting her head down in the water or getting down on her side. With her it was like two children playing and splashing in the water. Of course, she is a bit bigger of a kid and I had to be careful to watch where her feet were going (as that is the most dangerous part in the water.) I got to scrub her body, behind her ears and her forehead and trunk and the top of her head. Looking into her beautiful sweet eyes felt like there was a soul-to-soul connection.

And then her friend Nam Fon came to play. This pair can often be seen playing in the water. Like children, they will sit on each other, hold each other down and just toss about playfully. Watching them do this in the enclosure or during the bath on the forest walks is amusing. Experiencing it close up and almost getting sat on is a whole different experience. Thankfully I managed to escape in one non-flattened piece, laughing the entire way out of the water.

Life at the Center

This week being my second visit to the project, the changes are what were most apparent to me. The biggest change is in the elephants and mahouts that are now part of the project. Only 5 of the elephants and 3 of the mahouts that I met last April are still part of the project. The elephants and mahouts that have left had their reasons. The most common reason that the mahouts leave the project is that the mahouts feel they cannot abide by the project rules consistently. Other times, they decide that they can make even more money taking their elephant somewhere else. Both reasons underlie the depth to which the change needs to occur in the elephant tourism culture.

A new minimart has opened within the study center. Now we no longer have to walk into the village for treats such as ice cream, chips (crisps) or the occasional beer. Poi with her loud cheerful voice and laugh greeted us every time we walked past the shop, which was several times a day. Mornings it was often a remark on the weather: now mai ka? (are you cold?) or now mak mak (very cold). During the day it would be waving her small child’s arm and saying “hello”, or “bye bye” in the evening. Over the course of the week, I am pretty sure our group was responsible for making her profit for the month. Especially when we cleared her out of beer, buying one for each mahout on the project at the final dinner.

A more pleasing change for me was getting to see the enclosure and forest when it is green and lush. All the green leaves on the trees provides a beautiful compliment to the reddish brown dirt, clear crisp blue sky and grey and pink elephants. On walks, the sunlight filtering through the leaves just added to the beauty. A far contrast to the dry brown landscape I had experienced before.

Every climate in the world has its own standard of hot and cold. For Thailand, right now is the cold season, which typically means lows of 60 F (16 C) and highs of 85 F (30 C). This year is unusually cold. In fact, even the farang (foreigners) on the project were cold. Every evening around 10 pm, a cold wind would start blowing. The wood houses do very little to stop the cold wind from blowing through, making for a cold night bundled in whatever blankets I had available. In the morning, after a breakfast involving cuddling with a warm glass of coffee, cocoa, tea or hot water, we would join the mahouts around their fire waiting to get started on the daily chores. At night, the field outside my house where the non-project elephants are chained was dotted with fires to help keep the elephants a bit warmer.

The field outside my house is home to 5 non-project elephants. Most of these elephants stay on chain nearly 24 hours a day. The little guy closest to my door was really not happy about his predicament of being on chain. Many times it looked as though he was plotting and trying every possible tactic to get the chain loose. Even when he would be moved to his alternate spot just around the corner he would continue his struggle. His constant straining at the chain made me sad and at the same time secretly root for him to be successful.

At night, the 3 younger elephants in the field would sleep laying down. The light of the full moon would transform their color to a ghostly pale grey. Seeing the sleeping elephants by that light was almost eerie, as if it was a specter of a future for these young elephants.

The sight of the non-project elephants being on chain, giving rides or walking down the street carrying their own heavy chains, is a sight that never gets easier to see. To me, seeing the elephants carry their own chain almost seems like putting salt in a wound. Not only does the elephant have the chain around their ankle all day, even when not attached to the post, they have to carry the weight of the chain. Nothing can be done other than to send the elephant caring thoughts, continue to volunteer and educate other tourists, and hope that the elephant tourism culture can change before it is too late.

A Little Work

Projects are another way volunteers contribute to the success of the Surin Project. Often the project teams are a combination of mahouts and volunteers, providing an additional interaction opportunity. The projects this week included planting corn, making a perimeter around the field to hopefully protect it from cattle that use that area to graze, and transferring elephant poo from a poo box to a box where it will continue to decompose and be turned into fertilizer. Cool weather and a volunteer group that was anxious to do work made quick work of the projects.

Recently, the Surin Project purchased a small amount of land where they can raise sweet corn for feeding the elephants. The mostly grey-brown clay soil had been tilled by tractor, leaving large clumps in long furrows. Our job was to go along, dig a hole every foot or so, place 5 seeds in each one and cover the hole. Having done work like this in Thailand, I made sure to pick the right tool for the job. The best tool for digging holes is a long metal pole with a curved piece of metal at the end that looks like one of the straws you get in a thick drink that acts like a spoon. I started digging and Nana (the driver for the project) dropped in the seeds and covered the seeds using his bare feet on the wet clay. He patiently allowed me to do the first 5 or so holes. Then he made me switch places with him. Taking the hole digger, he quickly went to work digging holes just deep enough for the seeds in almost straight rows. I took off one of my shoes, following behind dropping seeds and covering them using my bare foot in the mud. The corn seeds had a strangely unnatural pink color.  I’m not sure if the pink is a fertilizer to help it grow faster or something to keep the seeds from rotting while they germinate. By the end of our work, my hands were covered in bright pink dust and my foot was covered in mud.

The next day, we went back to the field to hang a sign indicating that it is property of the Surin Project and to create a perimeter around the field to protect the seed and seedlings. Farmers will take their herds of cattle through the rice fields that are between planting so that they can graze. The perimeter involves posts sunk deep into the mud every 8 or 10 feet or so, strung with the plastic string that is the primary binding mechanism used in Thailand with plastic bags tied along the string to make it visible and provide a deterrent to the birds that are another threat to the seeds and seedlings.

Nana was in charge of gathering the small trees or branches, each a couple of inches in diameter, for the posts. At our stop on the way to the field, Nana only found 4 poles that met his liking. Using 2 or 3 strikes of the machete, the small tree was taken down and just as deftly using the machete the small branches were removed leaving a pole. Once at the field, Nana set off on a quest for more branches. Watching Nana gather tree branches to use for poles is watching a masterpiece in action. Once he found all the acceptable poles he could that were at ground level, he moved to getting branches out of the tall slender trees. He would shimmy up the trees, and with a few hacks of the machete, down came branches.

While Nana collected branches, Ocha and Chris began digging holes and Siobhan and I  made our best attempt at hanging the sign. The sign, made out of plaster board painted a pale green with darker green letters, was not as easy to attach to the tree as it seemed it should be. The first obstacle was getting the nail into the plaster board. Eventually we managed that task without cracking the plaster board. The second obstacle was attaching it to the tree using the single slightly rusty 3 inch nail that Ocha had brought with him from the center.

The fields are surrounded with berms. Some berms are only a foot high, others are several feet high. This particular berm was about 3 feet high with the trees growing out of the slope about a foot and a half from the flat path along the top of the berm. At this point I should probably mention that Siobhan and I are the two shortest volunteers. Leaning across the gap, I held the sign while she worked on hammering the nail into the tree. Some progress was made, but not enough to successfully attach the sign to the tree. In the process, strikes of the hammer that missed its target were creating a crack in the plaster board and raising concerns in our minds of the likelihood of the plaster board staying on the nail should we even manage to get the nail into the tree. After discussing the situation with Chris who noticed us struggling, we decided to use the nail to balance the sign and to just use some of the string to tie it in place on the tree. At least it was still up that afternoon when Vincent and I went back to finish the string around the perimeter.

Elephant poo at the project is recycled in two ways. The first is using to make poo paper, which is turned into goods that can be sold. The second is to compost the poo in to fertilizer. To support these efforts, all the poo is gathered into poo boxes near the elephant shelters. For the fertilizer, the poo is then transferred to a composting box where the necessary ingredients are added to help it decompose completely. The last project that I helped with was moving the poo from the shelter by Nong Lek and Kahm Koon (two of the smallest elephants on the project) to the composting box. The tricky part was not working with Chris to carry the basket of poo but rather trying to figure out where to dump the bucket and having enough momentum to make it easy. Only once did I actually fall in the compost box. Definitely a moment of comic relief!

Making Friends

A real emphasis at the Surin Project is getting to know the mahouts as well as their elephants. On the first day, we do an ice breaker game to learn everyone’s name. We call it the “ay ya” game. A ball is thrown around the circle and the people on either side of the person catching it have to say “ay ya”. If they mess up, they have to stand up and name one of the people in the group, farang naming mahouts and mahouts naming farang. Failure to name a person correctly results in the performance of a dance in the middle of the circle.

Through out the week, friendships form. Even if they aren’t based on much conversation. One of my favorite mahouts was Su Chad, the mahout for Nong Lek. Su Chad is a quiet, older mahout. Surprisingly, this quiet looking man has quite the mischievous streak. On our way back from cutting sugar cane, Su Chad first cut my team pieces of sugar cane to eat. Then he proceeded to take a dry sugar cane leaf and sneakily tie it to another mahout’s bag that was strapped across his back. Then he tied a piece of sugar cane to make a tail. It was really hard not to laugh out loud at what was transpiring. I’m not sure if the other mahout noticed or if it fell off. The next day, when we were bathing Nong Lek, he splashed me with water, so I splashed him back. Later that day when planting corn, he pretended to get my foot with his hoe.

Su Chad giving Nong Lek her morning shower.

Su Chad giving Nong Lek her morning shower.

Another favorite pair of mahouts was Pan and Em, mahouts for Warrin and Jaeb. In my mind I think of them as the masked bandits, always just a bit mischievous. For the duration of the week they wore hats that covered everything but their eyes. In fact, I didn’t even recognize Em at the Mahout Dinner on Friday evening. Pan is round and jovial, always greeting me with a robust “MJ”. Em on the other hand looks like a stick figure acting as a clothes hanger. The last walk through the forest, I ended up walking with Em and Pan and their elephants. They kept trying to convince me that I should be a mahout. Talking in Thai (or trying to talk in Thai), having closer contact with Warrin and Jaeb and laughing made for a wonderful end to my week.

The interaction with the mahouts culminates in the Mahout Olympics. Mahouts and volunteers are separated into four teams comprised of a combination of mahouts and volunteers. The activities vary by season. This week the first event was a slingshot contest. The mahouts practice almost daily with slingshots, so I feel pretty proud of the one time I actually hit the bottle since I had only shot a slingshot once during the week. Next up was Mahout Basketball. Here the 2″ diameter round seeds are tossed into a plastic bottle that has been hung on a post. Between events, Vincent and I practiced with Krow (one of the mahouts on our team) for the third event. This event involved taking 5 seeds in the palm of your hand, tossing them and catching as many as possible on the back of your hand and then tossing those up and closing your hand around them. Practicing with stones was one thing, using the slippery seeds was another. At least I managed to catch 2. The last event was the 3-legged race. Despite a tricky transition where both Aed (a quiet mahout that I don’t think I had met until the Olympics) and I opted to take off our shoes, we did really well with our “nueng (1), song (2), nueng (1), song (2)” managing to take third place.

Friendships are also formed between the volunteers on the project. The group of volunteers that came together this week was one of the best groups that I have had the pleasure of volunteering with since I started volunteering in 2010. Many of the nights were spent talking late into the night about a variety of topics. Sometimes it was just one-on-one chats, other times it was 2 or 3 of us gathered around the table at the meeting point by the light of the makeshift Christmas tree (a dead tree branch that had been planted and strung with lights and ornaments, reminiscent of the tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas) until the wind and cold drove us to say goodnight. One of the best nights was listening to Christmas songs and talking about what Christmas means to each of us and our favorite Christmas songs and movies. Hopefully our paths will cross again.

On Top of a Mountain

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The Beaten Path

Bhaktapur at 5:15 AM is dark. And cold. No streetlights to illuminate the cobblestone streets and ancient wood carvings on the buildings, only the occasional headlights from a truck or motorbike. The young man at the Nyatopola Guest House was not happy that I needed to leave at that hour. Getting up and waiting in the cold and dark was worth every minute for my experience that followed.

During our day together on Thursday, Shankar invited me to attend a puja (ceremony) for the 45th day after his mother’s passing. For the puja, we needed to travel to his village high on mountain a little over 65 km from Kathmandu by car plus a 2.5 hour hike. His daughter, Swastika, skipped school that day to join us and to be my guide/interpreter during the ceremony. Picking me up at 5:30 AM we were off on our adventure.

We left the car at a small collection of shops at the base of the mountain, parked in front of the shop of someone from the village. Crossing the road, we began our trek up the mountain. Walking up and down the mountain is a part of life for most people who live in the villages dotting the lush green terraced slopes. Jeeps can make it up the steep dirt road, but the price is high and the ride is not any easier than walking. So if you want to get up or down, you walk.

The well beaten path gives testament to the thousands of feet that have traveled over it. As sure-footed as a mountain goat and as if his feet remembered the path from traveling it many times before, Shankar led the way for the beginning part of the hike. Carefully watching his foot placement in some areas, I followed closely in his footsteps. I’m not sure how many of the rests we took were for the sake of Swastika or if they were out of concern for me. Several places the path went up the side of the hill at a steep grade, other areas were a little more gentle, like the portion of the dirt road we walked along for a bit.

As we walked we talked about a variety of topics, mostly about his mother and life in the village. He talked some about his mother. How after she had passed, he and his younger brother carried her all the way down the mountain on a bamboo stretcher resting on their shoulders and barefoot. (I can scarcely imagine how difficult that must have been, especially having climbed up and down the steep slope.) And how when she was sick, he drove her up to the house in his car and at one point the whole village came to help push the car up a particularly steep part of the road. Sometimes you could see the sadness in his eyes as he talked about his mother. Even though the process of mourning is surrounded by celebration of life to ensure good things for the soul in their next life, it doesn’t change the sadness a child feels at the loss of their parent.

Along the way we encountered some kids on their way to school in their uniforms of dark blue pants and light blue striped shirts worn over warmer clothes. Some feigned disinterest me, others eyed me with suspicion or curiosity (I’m never quite sure which it is.) After awhile we had gained a very large following. Every time we stopped, they would also stop. Eventually there was some discussion about me. I told them (in Nepali) that my name was MJ. Shankar also provided some of the answers or interpreted what they were saying.

Almost 2.5 hours after we started our climb, we reach the village, left the kids at the school and made the final short climb up to Shankar’s home. As we approached the top of the road we were greeted by a welcoming party that had been eagerly awaiting our arrival. Two malas (garlands) of gold and maroon marigold flowers were placed around my neck and I was given some red flowers and some more marigolds as everyone said “namaste” to me in greeting. Everyone was extremely happy that we were there.

Shankar's village

Shankar’s village

Honoring a Mother

The particular puja Shankar and his brothers were performing is a means to offer devotion and respect for a relative, typically for a parent. Performed on the 15th, 30th, 45th and 60th day after the passing of the person and then monthly until the one year anniversary of the death, the ritual is seen as a way to alleviate any sufferings the person’s soul might be experiencing as it wanders the world for the year.

Cows are viewed as holy by the Hindus and therefore the dung is considered pure. Using a softball sized pile of dung, the ground where the puja is to be performed is purified. Shankar’s youngest brother mixed the cow dung with water and carefully spread a thin layer over the entire area. The selected area was where their mother’s body was placed when she was brought out of the house after she died. Once the area was purified, only Shankar, his brothers and the priest were allowed to step there. When the ground was dry, mats for the priest and the brothers were placed accordingly and the trays of banana leaf bowls containing rice, sugar, salt, turmeric and ghee were readied.

Amidst the flurry of ceremony preparation, food preparation, daily work and preparation for the larger fire puja set for the next day, I was introduced to the family and given the basic tour of who lives where. A tin cup containing hot milk was produced, followed by a plate of food. Everyone was very curious about me and wanted to know my history. After the 10th time and her sharp memory from Thursday evening, Swastika was very effective in providing the answers (my age, America, single, no children). And following the answers, while the men of the family chatted, I leaned over to Swastika and said “they are trying to find me a Nepali boyfriend, aren’t they?” With the Nepali side-to-side head shake, she smiled and said “yes.”

As time grew closer for the puja, the brothers readied themselves. Dressed only in a white cloth around their waist, the first step was to change the strings they wore across their chest. Following a specific pattern, the new yellow string was placed across the chest and the faded white one was removed. The old string had to be broken, because the spirit in the string is so strong that if another person tried to wear it they would have a burn left on their skin, and tossed somewhere. When they were ready, they took their places in front of the priest. Shankar sat in the middle with his younger brother to his right and his youngest brother to his left.

This puja was clearly for the sons to honor their mother and not a large family ordeal. A few of the family members gathered around for the ceremony, although most kept on with the work at hand. People were sent to gather missing items, extra small bowls and a container of water. Cell phones rang and were answered a couple of times. All while the priest continued with the ceremony I tried unobtrusively as possible to take a few pictures (with permission). Mostly I just sat and watched tying to make sense of what was transpiring and wishing I knew more about the symbolism of the ritual.

In the center of the area, three bowls made of banana leaves filled with rice were placed, the center one with a lit piece of special grass and a puri (fried bread), another with just a puri and the third with a copper bowl of turmeric. Mantras were spoken as offerings were made of the sugar, salt, turmeric and ghee. In synchronized movements, the strings around their chests were moved from the right shoulder to the left and back to the right. Tikka paste was prepared in a tin plate that looks like an artist’s paint tray.

Performing the puja to honor their mother.

Performing the puja to honor their mother.

At the end, everyone received a tikka blessing using the yellow tikka powder. The priest first gave Shankar and his brothers the tikka blessing. After all of them had their blessing, then Shankar gave the priest the blessing followed by the wives, the uncles, the sisters, and the children. When all the others had been blessed, Shankar came up to me and said that he thought it would be best for me to have one too. And with that, the ritual was done.

The brothers changed back into their all white clothing and covered their heads. Food was served in the house where the youngest brother lives. The metal plates were piled full with rice, curry, dal and pickle. The elder males had the place of respect on the slightly raised platform, a seemingly continuous flow as one would finish and another would come sit down in their place. Shankar’s youngest brother is a cook as well as my personal photographer, taking my camera and making sure there were pictures of myself and all the family eating. Shankar and his brothers were the last to eat, this meal being the first of the day because of the ritual.

Before heading in to eat, negotiations had started amongst the uncles and Shankar. Shankar’s uncle had organized a large puja for the next day, to which the whole village had been invited. A similar puja had been arranged after the passing of Shankar’s mother, which Shankar was unable to attend. His uncle wanted to know why he couldn’t attend this time. At every excuse Shankar provided, the uncles countered with some means to overcome that obstacle. First was Swastika’s school and missing two days in a row. (Uncles: Missing two days won’t make any difference on her exams.) Next was that I had already paid for my hotel in Dhulikhel. (Uncles: how much did she pay? (I’m pretty sure they would have taken up a collection if I told them).) After that was that we didn’t have enough bottled water for me to drink. (Uncles: we can have some brought up on a jeep.) Lastly was that where Shankar’s car was parked the owner of the shop was not going to be able to close his doors. (Uncles: A flurry of phone calls to confirm that there was no way to close the shop and what could be done. Resolution: Shankar could walk down the mountain, move the car, and come back up (either by foot or jeep).)

Doing the right thing and happiness is always more important than money. It was clear to me that Shankar staying would make everyone, including Shankar, happy. I told Shankar that I had no problem with staying in the village and that the cost of the hotel booking was truly unimportant. And with that, it was settled. Shankar, Swastika and I would be staying in the village. Shankar would make the trek down and back, to move the car and buy water (and an unnecesary roll of toilet paper/tissue) while he was there.

Shankar and his nephew headed down the mountain, while Swastika, one of the nieces, Shankar’s youngest brother and I headed up the mountain a little further. Swastika wanted to take me up to show me a couple of the temples in the village. The first temple was a small cobblestone wall surrounding a courtyard containing two bells and a colorful shrine. The next temple was down in a valley, bright with green crops and yellow mustard plants. After that we went to visit their other grandmother, a beautiful 81-year-old lady worn by sun and farming. She commanded that I sit, and sent the girls to go and fetch some sugar cane. The girls came back with two large stalks of sugar cane that were about three times as tall as they were. The cane was proficiently cut into smaller chunks and peeled so that we could chew on the fibrous mass to get it to release its sweet goodness. Before we left, we had to have a cup of warm and spicy tea flavored with a touch of black pepper to give it an additional bite.

Returning to the house, we joined in with the food preparation for the next day. The amount of food preparation that goes into feeding over 200 people is pretty impressive. The first job they let me help with was making the puri (round fried bread made using corn flour). My job was to help make balls of dough that the remaining 5 people were rolling out into flat perfectly round circles for cooking. At one point, Amrika asked me if I wanted to try rolling them out. To put it simply, I’m not very adept at rolling and flipping the dough in the right way so that it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin and ends up in a perfect circle. Being taunted with fresh hot cel roti (circles of dough like a doughnut but with the flavor of a funnel cake made using corn flour), I relinquished my rolling pin and block. After my snack, I went back to rolling the balls of dough.

As we worked, Amrika worked on learning a little English which actually involved a great deal of laughing. One of my habits that I picked up in Thailand is to say “ok, ok”. Amrika started mimicking me when I would say it. Through Swastika she was able to say a few other phrases by the end of the afternoon, including that she wanted to come to America with me. In between laughing, the kind old gentleman that looks a lot like Grandpa Walton from The Waltons, would smile his toothless grin and admonish her to work more and talk and laugh less.

While most of the family worked on food preparation, the rest tended to the evening chores. At one point, it was suggested that I try milking the cow or buffalo. While I would have been game for it, I opted not to. Which I think was a preferable choice for both myself and the buffalo.

As dusk started to settle, Shankar returned from his trek. Car was moved and I had two more bottles of water.

Life on the Mountain

As evening settled on the mountain and the temperatures began to drop, all the activity moved inside. The cheerful noise of people eating and talking resonated off the mud brick walls insulating us from the cold. The happiness of family and community apparent in the tenor of the talk and the smiles on the faces. Shankar was certain I was bored and many times offered that I was welcome to take a rest whenever I wanted to. Even though I couldn’t understand a single word, I was fascinated and warmed to be in the presence of such genuine love and didn’t want to miss any moment of this experience. After dinner, we moved to the other house where a wood fire was built in the cooking area and most the people went to work peeling and cutting the vast quantity of squash that was need for the curry the next day.

Finally it was time for sleep. Even though it was only probably 8 pm, I was exhausted from the long day of rising early, hiking up a mountain and meeting the family. My bed was in the youngest brother’s house. A solid Newari bed made of a wood platform and an inch thick mattress covered with the thickest blanket I’ve ever come in contact with. (Shankar’s youngest brother had brought it back from Saudi Arabia where he has been working.) I snuggled into my bed, head covered with a scarf that had I had been lent, and sank into a sound sleep in the pitch black room. The warm heavy blanket and the warmth and insulation provided by the mudbrick walls made for one of my most comfortable nights sleep of the whole time in Nepal.

Without electricity, life rhythms definitely flow with the rising and setting of the sun. Once I could see a faint thread of light around the wooden shutters and was sufficiently sure that other people were stirring about, I decided it was time to get up. Watching the day get started filled me with a sense of contentment. Each person efficiently and happily performing their chores. Large pots of warm mush (flour and water) was made for the cattle. Cows and water buffalo were milked. Goats were brought out to their stakes and their bundles of food hung from the posts. The embers from one fire being used to start the other. People washing and brushing their teeth with the cold mountain water. Shankar said it must seem strange to me. Just because it is not my normal doesn’t make it strange. In fact, at the heart of it, watching the rituals just enforces how similar all humans are despite their culture or where they live.

Of all the sunrises on the Himalaya that I saw during my week in Nepal, the sunrise from the village was by far the most beautiful. For the first time I was truly able to appreciate the height of Mt. Everest. Instead of being a small triangle on the horizon, its height a victim of perspective robbing it of the respect as the tallest mountain deserves, it appeared as a peak that truly stands above all the others.

Removing Obstacles

Preparation for the Fire Puja was a furry of activity, each person doing their part to make certain that everything was as it should be The main preparation was the area where the puja would be performed. The eldest uncle was in charge of building the altar, a 20″x20″x4″ two-tier square built out of cow dung. Once it was made, he proceeded to decorate it using white flour and red and yellow tikka powder. The white representing peace, the red action and the yellow perfection. At each corner were three flower petals. On the east side, was the name of god (Rama). On the south side, was a conch shell. On the north side, was the weapon of Rama. In the center was a wheel with spokes going to each corner. Along the sides was a scalloped pattern looking like a garland made out of powder.

Fire puja preparation.

Fire puja preparation.

The jovial priest with his effervescent personality arrived wearing a bright orange jacket with silver reflective strips and began his process of setting up the rest of the altar. Several people helped to find ways to string the cloth banners with Sanscrit writing on the wall as another altar was set up for Shankar’s mother and the images from the pantheon of Hindu gods. Music was playing on a loudspeaker, and every now and then at the appropriate moments, the priest would throw in a “hare Krishna” or just a “hare”. When I asked what I could do to help, he said to dance. In demonstration he put his hands in the area and spun around sounding a solid “hare”. My version was a much weaker attempt.

The blowing of the conch shell indicated that the ceremony was beginning. The recorded music that had been playing was replaced with a 3-piece band comprised of an accordion, a pair of drums and cymbals. Once the playing and singing began, it carried on continuously throughout the entire day. Listening to the music, it was easy to become mesmerized and start chanting Hare Krishna along with the music. The men of the village took turns filling in as one needed to go do something or just to give them a break. The constant mantras of hare Krishna filling the air, carrying the praises down into the valley and up into the heavens.

The Fire Puja is considered to be very powerful and has many benefits. For the living, the ceremony fulfills wishes, removes obstacles, improves health and increases merits. For the deceased, the ceremony is a method of purifying negative karma in order for the soul to attain a higher rebirth. During the elaborate ritual, the offering is made by tossing a large number of specific substances into the fire. Among the substances offered during the Fire Puja were barley, sugar, ghee, cel roti, and coconuts.

One of the more interesting offerings was the mound of cow dung covered with flowers. Shankar explained this to be a traditional offering to honor Krishna for saving the people from Indra’s wrath. A long time ago, the ancestors used to make offerings of their crops to Indra. Krishna came along and told them to not make the offering to Indra. This made Indra angry and so she ordered the god of rain to send furious and relentless rains and the god of wind to blow mighty winds. The ancestors went to Krishna and asked what they should do, so he told them they must lift the village to make it a mountain. All the ancestors worked together and with the help of Krishna’s little finger, they lifted the ground and were able to be protected from the wind and rain.

Offering to Krisha.

Offering to Krisha.

Shankar was absent for a good portion of the fire puja, as he isn’t allowed to celebrate through singing or clapping of hands for the year while he is honoring his mother. Mostly I again just watched and tried to take in all the detail, wishing I knew more about the symbolism. Prayers would be said by the uncle and the priest over a substance and it would be added to the fire by the priest. This pattern continued until all of the substances had been offered. The words of the prayers being overshadowed by the mesmerizing sounds of the band playing and chanting.

Finally it came time for everyone to participate. Each person was given a handful of barley and then came to stand behind the priest. I wasn’t going to participate until the priest handed me a handful of barley. Shankar was quickly summoned to explain the process to me. While chanting the name of god, offerings are thrown into the fire 3 times. The process was repeated with sugar and coconut. Lastly was a handful of marigold petals. The petals were thrown into the fire while walking around the altar. Coming back around to the starting point at the front of the altar, each person got down and bowed. This process marked the end of the first part of the ceremony.

After a short respite while the area in front of the other altar was finished being prepared for more ritual was performed. All the time the band continued to play the mesmerizing music. People from the village had begun arriving and finding places to sit on the ground in front of the house. The uncle’s oldest daughter was in charge of giving tikka blessings to the people as they arrived. Children that arrived looked at me with that blend of curiosity and suspicion. (Looking back at pictures, I would have looked at myself the same way given the state of my hair having not been brushed and my clothes having been slept in.)

Once ready, the next part of the ritual started up. The priest began by pouring a circle of water on the ground. Next he placed offerings of sugar, salt, grains and tikka powder around the circle at the six points of the star that represents knowledge. The fervor of the celebration picked up with a flurry of spinning, chanting, playing music, blowing conch shells and ringing the bell. The cacophony of sounds meant to ensure the gods hear the prayers and send their blessings.

As mid-day approached, we slipped away from the ceremony and took our last meal with the family before heading down the mountain. Once we finished our meal and bags had been loaded with fresh spinach, squash, garlic, ghee, and fresh cows milk to take back to the city with us, it was time to say goodbye. Shankar suggested that I go over to the group and say namaste to the village. When I did, the priest came over to me and insisted I first dance, indicating that I mimic him in turning with my hands held up in the air. He then placed a mala around my neck and insisted I spin again. Then he gave me an orange and insisted on one final spin. Laughing and happy, I bowed and said one last namaste. Then off we went, accompanied by his brother and one of the uncles for a short way down the road.

Going down a mountain is much faster, although not necessarily easier on the body. We avoided one of the particularly steep areas by taking the road for awhile. With great concern, Shankar kept reminding me to go slowly. I followed him, carefully placing my feet in his footsteps. Along the way, two gentlemen from the village caught up with us. They joined us, carrying Swastika’s backpack as she was struggling with the weight and had developed blisters on two of her toes. They reacted when great concern when I slipped and plopped down on my bottom and again when Shankar also slipped. An hour and a half after we left the village, we arrived at the car.

My final night in Nepal was spent in Shankar’s home. The long drive home was punctuated by stops to buy fresh butter and pick up my belongings from his brother’s house, taking time for a cup of tea and to show pictures of the ceremony. At home, I met his father, a lovely and happy old man and we had a delicious, filling meal after our long two-day journey. Shankar’s wife and everyone ensured that I was comfortable and warm. Covering myself with a fleece blanket and then the quilt, I slipped into peaceful sleep.

In the morning, after the flurry of getting the children off to school and eating some of the most delicious rice pudding I have ever had (Shankar’s wife promised to teach me how to make it the next time I visit), we took our breakfast and I loaded all my pictures from our two days onto Shankar’s computer. His father seemed so happy to see the pictures and spent the 45 minutes that I was gone to walk into Bhouda to buy a few more souvenirs looking at them continuously. Not many people have cameras in Nepal, so seeing pictures of relatives and of the village was particularly special for him.

Finally it was time to head to the airport. Shankar’s father insisted on going with us. At the doorway, his father standing outside the door and me just inside, I was given a tikka blessing, a mala and an orange. The blessing was to ensure a safe and successful journey.

The whole family is a truly kind and genuine group of people who I am so fortunate to have encountered.

A Touch of Nepali Culture

Throughout my blogs I have said very little about some of the customs that I have encountered since I felt they deserved their own special discussion.

Eating in Nepal was one of the most interesting cultural differences I encountered. Nepali eat their food using their right hand. All the food is mixed together on the plate using fingers and then eaten. My food was typically given to me with a spoon as no one expected me to follow suit. On the morning of our stay in the village, they made me a traditional meal of dhindo (thick corn porridge) and sag (cooked spinach). Several people were concerned that I would have difficulty eating this with a spoon. So, much to their amusement and surprise, I followed by example and ate using my fingers. Eating using fingers as the utensil actually makes great sense as it allows you to enjoy the texture as well as the taste of the food. At lunch, I also used my fingers, quietly and without fuss. Shankar noticed and just gave me a nod and a happy smile. Eventually someone else noticed, followed by a warm smile and a laughing comment.

Love is also shown through food. Plates are piled full of food. When the plate is nearing empty, more food is offered. Politely I would accept additional food saying torre (just a little) so as not to offend and to accept the hospitality. The idea of just a little seems to be lost on most people out of wanting to show love and caring. By the last meal in the village, Shankar’s youngest brother actually obliged by only giving me a true little bit more.

Another cultural practice that it took me some time to adjust to was Swastika and other children asking an elder person permission before doing something. The first evening that I ate with Shankar’s family, the kids asked me if they could eat prior to going into the kitchen to take their dinner. In the village, Swastika would ask permission to stand (leave after eating) and to go to the bathroom or off to spend times with the village kids. Such a simple act that shows how elders are honored in Nepali society.

The beautiful more intimate greeting between people was another cultural aspect that I found endearing. At one point during the puja on the second day there was a brief time where people took time to greet each other. The greeting is done only between people of the same gender (with the exception of the old man who greeted me following this ritual). For this traditional greeting, a pair of people say namaste with their hands in prayer position and a bow of the head, then two hugs are given with hands placed on shoulders and changing sides left to right with each hug, then fingers are placed with the thumbs at the third eye (just between the eyebrows) and with fingers touching a final bow is given while uttering namaste and the name of god (Rama). This manner of greeting is to show that you recognize and honor the god that is within each of us. As I was leaving, I honored Shankar’s wife this way.