Cool Stuff To Check Out From J and B

Saturday, April 16, 2011


Samoa: One of the Pacific islands in the time zone "island time".
The motto: "Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?"

This small group of Pacific Islands called Samoa were injected into our itinerary late in our trip, by way of volunteering for Project CURE. This Denver-based humanitarian organization collects medical supplies and equipment in the U.S. and disseminates them to developing countries based on need. That was our job. To assess the needs of the country's hospital system. We had five days to do it. Our host would be Ali, a second-career medical student in the newly accredited program at Oceania University of Medicine. He picked us up by storm at the airport at 2 am, and didn't stop talking until he dropped us off a week later. Ali, born and raised in Iran, and later a resident of Los Angeles where he became a chiropractor and successful business man, was a true force of nature. His rich patch worked history is the perfect companion to his frenzied pace and head full of intentions for changing the world. His sassy Latino wife, Ketty, who had risen out of poverty in South America as a girl and immigrated to L.A., works in the lab at Oceania, while teaching her funky Zumba workouts in the evenings. They decided to leave their privileged life in California and head to Samoa with little more than the clothes on their back and a commitment to their faith. I couldn't have made up a story or a couple as colorful and energetic as them. But that is a different tale.

Samoa was surprisingly not the tourist trap that typifies so many Pacific islands. The Samoan culture and village life is still intact, with a preservation of what they call fa'a Samoa, or the Samoan Way. The verdant islands are flanked by rocky volcanic beaches and reefs, not the kind one would seek out for swimming, surfing or cocktails under an umbrella, but beautiful in their own rugged way. The islands are littered along their edges with tsunami-induced ghost towns. The Samoans are very large people. Large in personality, and large in size. And very tough. Brett was warned not to join a group of guys for a pick-up game of rugby unless he wanted his ass kicked. Even the fafafine, the cross-dressing third gender of Samoa, were not the kind of people you wanted on your bad side. The fafafine are actually quite accepted in the culture of the Samoans, and often take on caregiver roles and provide the family glue. We spent an evening at the fafafine show, where large men lip sync in evening gowns, changing elaborate costumes with each set, to music ranging from lounge, to Bett Midler to Shania Twain. They had the performers down to the quiver of the lips, the toss of the hair, the bump of a hip. Lovely!

Unfortunately, the largeness of the population contributes to a huge problem with diabetes and heart disease. Since Samoa's Christianization by missionaries, the totem of their culture is their faith. On Sundays, the townsfolk can be seen walking along the roadside, donned in white, to and from the glorious churches scattered throughout the islands. Lucky for us, on the Sunday we spent in Samoa, Ali was looking for an excuse to visit the newer Baha'i temple. We were happy to oblige. If I were to make up a religion, I would create Baha'i verbatim. With one gross exception: just like a belief in the afterlife must precede Buddhism, a belief in God must precede Baha'i. Nevertheless, if we talk about women's' equality, the provision of aid to the needy, an acceptance of all the great religious texts, a desire for unity of all humanity and a belief in self-actualization, it is all there. The people we met at the temple embodied these concepts. And the great irony is that this religion was created by a man, or "messenger of God" in the Middle East during an era and culture in conflict with all the precepts of the religion.

So, our work. Brett and I buried our heads in interviews with everyone Ali could grab an appointment with...the nurses (who "really" run the show, as they say), the physicians, the managerial staff, the Chairman of the Board for the National Health Service, the local Rotary Club, and other titles and figure heads. We got the wish lists of each department, often receiving the feedback "the last time someone asked us what we needed, we never heard from them again". Oh, we are different. But I got the vibe that they weren't so sure. I tried to tread lightly by mentioning that this was just an assessment, and that all the pieces had to be in place before any supplies could actually be shipped. At times I felt I was contributing to false hope, coupled with a growing sense of ownership and extreme interest in making this shipment of a 40-foot container of gifts a success. By the end of the assessments, the appointments, the luncheons and the dinner meetings, our brains were swimming with questions about the facts, the rumors, the needs, the wants, and the overall status of the health care system in Samoa. All of this, compounded by the fact that Samoa is receiving a large amount of aid from China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand; and other projects, details unknown to us, were coming down the pike.
A few things we know for sure. They need doctors. They need specialists. They need help educating the people of Samoa against relying solely on traditional medicine. Many a patient had come in for treatment holding a leaf over a wound that when examined turned out to be a severe infection, cancer, or broken bone not properly set. They want a lot of expensive equipment. More data-finding for us. Having equipment does nothing if you have no one who knows how to use it and to maintain it. And, as with a mammogram machine, if you can diagnose breast cancer but don't have the resources to treat it, the technology could prove harmful. There also was an insinuation of corruption within the health care system under the ugly face of self-interest. Still, there were many people we felt were genuine and well-meaning. But we began to feel like we were in a game of Clue. We never knew quite what to believe, whom to trust. In the end, you put all the clues together as best you can, you designate accountability through certain trusted actors, and you provide the help that is most needed.

 After becoming intimately familiar with both major hospitals and their contents from IV catheters to echocardiogram machines, Brett and I decided to spend a few days resting and exploring the less-inhabited island of Savai'i. We drove the perimeter of the island exploring volcanic blowholes, tsunami-decimated churches, and rural fales, or thatched huts. We spent hours swimming in the calm surf, exploring reefs and sea life through our goggles. And we watched the sun set in the last place on earth, the western-most point of the world at Fafa O Sauai'i, holding each other and sitting atop a black outcropping of rock while shiny lizards slipped in and out of the sharp rocks around us.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Australia Down Under - Brett

We had been looking forward to this day for months. As we got out of the camper and approached the grocery store, our mouths watered and our excitement became palpable. To cook for oneself. To choose exactly what went into every meal. To eat on our own schedule. To know what each dish is. We were stoked.

And $276 later we were two of the happiest people in Australia. Refrigerator full of salad fixings, fresh vegetables, orange juice, and meat with no gristle or bones in sight. It was heaven.

After eight months in the developing world (and granted some of the best food we had ever eaten), we were very ready to be in control of our own destiny. Our own kitchen, the same sheets every night, and our own transportation – not to mention our own language and a culture that we (mostly) understood.

We flew into Brisbane the day the river crested in the worst flood they've had in 40 years. The view from the plane as we flew over the city on a gloriously sunny afternoon with clear, blue skies was surreal. Thousands of homes lost and most of downtown submerged. But Aussies are a hardy bunch and the following day the clean-up had begun. We went to volunteer, shoveling mud and scrubbing walls, but they had more people than they could use and we were soon told to go home and come back in a month when all the enthusiasm had subsided.

So instead we set about preparing our “home” for the arrival of our California friends, Soltz and CarolAnn. And in this case “home” was a seven-meter long, two-and-a-half meter wide, six-berth, turbo-deisel “CheapaCampa” motorhome with the steering wheel inexplicably located on the passenger side. The six-month pregnant Soltzes were going to join us for two weeks of beaches, mountains, and cities from Brisbane to Sydney.

And it was glorious! Enjoying gifts of Stone Imperial Stout and a 1000 IBU IPA, barbequing and playing football on the beach, riding beach cruisers and sea kayaking, and spending long evenings deep in conversation, we wended our way down the eastern seaboard from the Gold Coast and Byron Bay, through the farmland of northern New South Wales, to Nelson Bay, the Blue Mountains, and finally Manly Beach and Sydney. We hiked in misty mountains and strolled along secluded beaches at sunset. We fed insistent kangaroos and spotted lazy koala bears. We learned the secrets of marsupials and marveled at the songs of tropical birds. We celebrated “Australia Day” and toured the iconic Sydney Opera House. We floated in sensory deprivation tanks and went scuba diving with 8-foot sharks. We even bought didgeridoos and had late night jam sessions in the back of the RV after Jenny and CarolAnn led us on the giggling tour of historic Miller Street in Sydney. But the common thread that tied all of these experiences together – that made this part of our trip so amazingly special – was the companionship of little Annabelle growing each day in CarolAnn's belly. It was magical. Watching these two friends embark on this fantastic journey was one of the most rewarding experiences of the trip for me. Jenny and I listened and asked questions and sat in awe as these two soon-to-be parents shared their fears and their dreams, described their hopes and their plans, and demonstrated a thoughtfulness about bringing this new life into the world that gives me a new respect for two of my closest friends. Little Annabelle will be joining us at the end of May and I know for a fact that she could not have chosen two more loving and wonderful parents.

But time, and this journey, continue on. We hugged tearful goodbyes to the Soltzes in Sydney and Jenny and I were once again on our own. We were lucky enough to have scored tickets to Madame Butterfly and put on our best clothes (hmm, flip-flops or running shoes?) for a night at the Sydney Opera House before heading down the coast for some surfing and more camping on the beach. We eventually cut inland and crossed the Great Snowy Range, climbing Mt. Koziasco (the highest point in Australia) on our way to the Yarra Valley, one of Australia's premier wine regions. Two days of wine tasting (thanks to our Scottish driver, Alistar, and his 1990 Ford LTD limousine) in Healsville and Rutherglenn kept us quite happy on our journey towards Melbourne (pronounced “melbin” for all those dumb Yankees like us). We even managed to fit in the Beechworth Honey Experience – tasting about 20 very unique honey flavors and learning how honeybees actually do what they do (another mystery solved!).

The view from Louise and Clive's house

And finally it was on to another plane for the ends of the earth and the island of Tasmania, 200 kilometers off the southern coast of Australia. Tasmania is a wild and rugged place and truly feels like the end of nowhere. Our amazing Vail, Colorado friends Louise and Clive (a Tazzy native) picked us up at the airport and proceeded to pamper us for a solid week. To date we had slept in 128 different places and I am quite certain not a single one of them had a bed this comfortable. Louise and Clive split their time between Vail and Tasmania and have just finished building their dream home on the wild, rugged coast on this lost island. Waking every morning to the gray, menacing ocean crashing on the rocks below the house made one want to snuggle deeper under the covers. But the sun did shine and we managed to get in some sailing, sea kayaking, running, and skinny dipping (Brrrr!!!). Most of the week was spent preparing for our upcoming volunteer work in Samoa, but every evening was passed in wonderful conversation over sensational food, often prepared in Clive's outdoor man-kitchen (of which I am jealous). For the first time in nine months we had a real home. Thank you Louise and Clive. You will never know how much that meant to us.

We had just spent a whole month back in the “developed” world and it was wonderful and strange. Gone were the $5 beach cottages, replaced by $60 tourist park campsites. Palate searing Jeow Mak Keua was replaced by barbequed burgers and fries. “Namaste” was replaced with “G'Day Mate!” And our position in society as revered “Americans” was replaced by our position in society as “stupid Americans”. As much as we needed the familiarity of the West and a respite from the difficulties of travel in a foreign land, we were sad to have left exotic Asia and be back in the world of SUVs and processed food. But before heading to New Zealand we had one more foray left into the unknown. So we boarded a plane headed for Samoa and were once again thrust into an unfamiliar culture full of new smells, new friends, new foods, a new language, and the stark realization that five more months of 3rd world travel in South America just wasn't going to happen.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

New Years 2011: South Vietnam - Jenny

Phu Quoc Island

I think we both looked forward to meeting up with Lisa, my girlfriend from Denver, who fit us in to the beginning of her month-long vacation in Vietnam. We needed a fresh breath of air, some new ideas, and some nurturing from a well-rested and enthusiastic traveler and friend. We got just that. She and another friend, Penny, had made us a care package with all kinds of things from back home such as bacon-chocolate, good toothpaste, ginger candies, and sparkly fingernail polish. We spent days soaking in the sun and getting $5 massages on the beach, played sand volleyball pick-up games, did yoga and Lisa's bootcamp (ouch...couldn't walk for 3 days!). We spent an evening walking the market, which ended in a smorgasboard of all kinds of unrecognisable seafood that came from the prettiest shells we could find. (Note: pretty doesn't equal tasty). We felt a bit guilty after eating at the market, realizing that this area is so obviously overfished. The three of us rented motor scooters and rode down a squirrely gravel road to a gorgeous wide white-sand beach where we played in the water like kids. We spent a day scuba diving, which, although was a fun endeavor in-and-of itself, was pretty disappointing from a quality standpoint. The water was murky, and we saw very little in the way of creatures. Unless floating plastic bags count. Still, we got some good Lisa time. More yoga, deep conversations and beach massages. We met Bogue, a fun and intense dude from back home in Colorado, who was vacationing with his mid-western family. See ya back in CO!

Needless to say, the southern sun and Lisa's sunny disposition made us very happy.

Around this time I started having some "female problems" that warranted a trip back to a bigger city for a check-up. We left Lisa and Phu Quoc hoping to catch up again, but unfortunately I had to stay in Ho Chi Minh (HCM) for a few more days and we never got to say our real goodbyes to Lise. The medical care was AMAZING. More efficient, and as professional as anything at home. Things were fine after the doctor visit, so we spent a few days walking around HCM (Saigon, as many of the Vietnamese prefer). We met a friend of Brett's and his wife, Chris and Lucy Graham, for a great traditional Vietnamese dinner. We had a suit custom made for Brett. We found a hot little Vietnamese rock singer who played short 30-minute sets every night at an outdoor venue, singing "I Hate Myself for Loving You" and other chick rock songs. Mui Ne was our last stop on the Asian tour. It is a small coastal town filled with Russian tourists and high winds, making it a mecca for kite-surfing. We thought about learning to kite surf, but the water was choppy and the wind was relentless...and we only had two days. Not enough to do more than get dragged around the beach doing face plants in the sand with a kite while learning how to control the sail. So we went out for a surf lesson instead, which was also mediocre at best. And one of our bike helmets got stolen. I think Mui Ne was the perfect reminder that we were ready to get to Australia. Our sheets were dirty, the bus was 2 hours late, the hotel staff were rude to us, and we were tired of playing tourist with the locals who just wanted our money. When you are indundated with sensory overload, beggars, liars, pollution, crowds, dust, fear, it becomes more and more difficult to be objective, to separate the individual from the group/mass mentality, and not to feel a stirring of dislike for Vietnam, Asia, Mankind. What kind of curse is it that human beings share such characteristics as love, and yet somehow have divisive characteristics such as racism, clashing habits and values, and misunderstandings born of language and culture differences? I know that the "tourist track" puts one in a position to be at the mercy of others and the conditions of the road. This is only compounded by having little personal space, no freedom of transport according to one's own will, a limited budget and few creature comforts. Did I mention I have not seen a hairdryer for 8 months, my only shoes are smelly trail runners and cheap flip-flops, and my make-up consists of chapstick? I'm no diva, but what I would give right now to slip on some nice jeans, a cute top and some strappy sandles. We both say we know we will look back on much of our time in Asia with fondness and gratuity. But for now, we are pretty burned out.

When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on. -FDR

December: Cambodia - Jenny

Notice: Contains graphic content!

Tiny school girls wearing bright white shirts and blue plaid skirts wear their blue-black hair in tight pig-tails protruding from the sides of their head. They swing down a dirt path touching shoulders and toting backpacks , oblivious of and accustomed to the white bull lazing a few feet away in the sprawling dusty field. Arriving in Cambodia and meeting our smiling and friendly tuk tuk driver in Siam Riep, we let out a deep breath of air from our stale lungs. Cambodia would be a different place from Northern Vietnam. We hit Siam Riep around Christmas time. Despite our non-Christian status, we longed for a little Christmas caroling and baby Jesus. Well, we found Cambodian massage therapists with Santa Claus hats, and a Christmas dinner that was complete with mashed potatoes, chicken and cranberry sauce. And an Angelina Jolie cocktail. We spent an afternoon touring a silk farm which proved to be another one of those mysteries solved. The silk worm may die at the hands of man, but their short 37-day lives are immortalized in beauty, some of which will be in the form of throw pillows on our couch. Brett loves throw pillows. Especially on beds. When he gets to arrange them as part of making the bed every day. We rented clunker bikes and took a day riding around Angkor Wat, Bayon and Angkor Thom, best known to Americans as the place where the Angelina Jolie movie Tomb Raider was filmed. These 1,000 year old stone temples are the remains of a city that was built over centuries by the Kmher Buddhists and Hindus, changing hands depending on the Jayavarman (J) ruler and religion of the day. The best evidence of this was the absolute lack of heads on all Buddha statues, which had been chopped off by the Hindu J VIII. Many of the ruins have all but been reclaimed by the surrounding jungles, sporting Banyan trees whose serpentine roots and trunks grow atop and throughout the crumbling rock structures.

On to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and with a reputation as the prettiest city in Southeast Asia. We couchsurfed with Sam, a Cambodian native who studied development work in New Zealand and returned to Cambodia to apply his skills. He is well-spoken and driven. He is openly gay and is creating social and mentoring programs for gay men and HIV+ people in Phnom Penh. Sam is a force of nature. When asked what others can do to best help people in developing countries, he suggested to ask them what they want to do, and just support them in meeting their goals. Ideally, mentoring is best done by those with similar cultural values and backgrounds. Any help or change must be grounded in the recipient's own culture and social structure.

While in Phnom Penh we visited the horrific killing fields and Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as the S-21 torture site. The Khmer Rouge tortured and killed 20,000 of the Cambodian Khmers at this site. (The estimated total number of people killed by the Khmer Rouge is around 1.4 million, whether by murder or starvation.) Standing in the grassy center of an old high school building cum prison, one can imagine the sticky blood running across the floors and down the outside walls of the torture rooms, smell the stench of skin burning and bodies decaying, hear the cries of mothers as they watched their children being thrown against tree trunks or thrown up in the air and shot, and the shrieks and cries of the tortured falling deaf upon the empty city. The Khmer killed anyone with an education. Anyone who wore spectacles was fair game. First they were tortured, each and every one of them, so that their family members could be identified and also killed. They were forced to eat feces, recieve electric shocks, hang in painful positions, have their livers cut out while they were alive. They were seldom shot, but usually hit with blunt instruments or cut with razor-like palm fronds so as to save bullets. To this day when the area gets a lot of rain, remnants float to the top of the shallow, teeth, bones. The most frightening thing about genocide of this kind is how so many human minds can be influenced to PARTICIPATE in the torture and killing. What makes ordinary men mass murderers? Is it ground in fear, cowardess, peer pressure? Is human sense of morality that fragile, that easily manipulated and changed? And it is so widespread...Ottaman Empire, Russia, Germany, Rwanda, China, Cambodia, Borneo, East Timor...all in the last century.

Nonviolence means not only avoiding external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him. -Martin Luther King Jr.

We spent our last evening in Phnom Penh at a gay bar drinking coctails, where I met a Cambodian pharmacy student who had just finished a lecture in bioethics. Pharmaceutical ethics! The issues they studied were assuring knowledge and licensure of both modern pharmaceuticals and traditional practices, as well as avoiding the huge black market of counterfeit drugs. We said goodbye to Sam, and headed to the small coastal town of Kep, where we spent a few days eating freshly caught peppered crab, drinking wine, and watching the sun set over our next destination...the island of Phu Quoc, Vietnam.

December 2010: Northern Vietnam- Jenny

To what avail the plow or sail, or land or life, if freedom fail? -Ralph Waldo Emerson Hanoi. To us it felt crowded, grey and dreary, the mood matching the overcast, drizzly and humid weather. Infrastructure was poor. Decomposition gases bubbled to the green filmy surface of the lakes. Sidewalks were congested and dirty, aggressive motorbikers flooded the streets in chaotic rows 7 to 8 astride, and the gloomy people were impervious to our smiles, questions and overall presence. They seem to exist in a state of survival. Meanwhile, the ocassional $100,000 car would drive by, squeezing through a narrow street as if they placed no value on the lives of the motorbikers and pedestrians walking there. It just felt dark. We had arranged to couchsurf with John, or Jack (still not sure) Jones. Jack was living temporarily in a 4th story apartment in Hanoi while he awaited a job constructing a multi-million dollar vacation resort. Jack is from England originally, and still keeps his girlfriend from Germany, who he met while couchsurfing! Having been unemployed by choice for some number of months, he was trying to motivate himself (he loves beer!) and find some mojo to rediscover his passion for his work. Jack was very gracious, and kept us for 3 days while we explored the city. One night Jack had arranged for us to go out to eat at his favorite neighborhood spot. We walked into a crowded joint and sat down low around a table on the child-size plastic colored chairs (I think all of Vietnam got “special price” on these). A plate of thinly chopped raw meat and veggies was brought to us to cook “fondue” style. We cooked our own meat in a splattering frying pan at the table. It was delicious! But something didn't seem right. The meat didn't quite taste like beef. On the way out we asked using hand gestures (few northern Vietnamese seemed to speak any English), what kind of meat was this? When the lady pointed to a dog walking by, we stood in a state of disbelief...we had just eaten A DOG. Jack said with some amount of shock, “So I have been eating DOG for the last 3 weeks?!” My only comfort in this fiasco is the fact that most dogs in Vietnam seemed to be stray, undomesticated, and fairly aggressive and slinky. Ugh. Being in a communist country, Brett and I struggled to find evidence of its impact. While in Hanoi we visited two museums, which when juxtaposed, only added to the confusion of our understanding of communism in Vietnam; these were the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Hanoi Hilton. Uncle Ho, as Ho Chi Minh is affectionately referred, seemed to be a great man with pure ideas about equality, community and education. His museum displays beautiful quotes next to historic photographs of Uncle Ho sitting “with the people”, a working man's man. It walks through his life as a young social activist fighting for Vietnamese civil rights and follows his life through his leadership of the Viet Cong to the end of his life. We unfortunately (or fortunately) visited the museum on a day the mausoleum was closed, where we could have viewed the actual preserved body of the small aged Ho Chi Minh himself. If we weren't sure that the Vietnamese were capable of propaganda, no-- historical revisionism-- in the most blatant of ways, we were convinced by the time we experienced the museum at the old Hanoi Hilton prison site. The prison was used originally by the French during the colonization days to jail uncooperative Vietnamese. But what we are more familiar with is the building's use during the Vietnam War to imprison the American POWs, specifically downed and captured fighter pilots. John McCain's uniform was displayed, as was a picture of Vietnamese swimming out to rescue McCain where he crashed in Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi. Along with this, photos displayed U.S. POWs playing games, raising their own chickens, even practicing their own religion! One wall boasted the line, “The POWs were lucky to have Vietnamese as their captors”, stating explicitly how well they were treated. This flies in the face of all historical accounts we have read of the cruelty endured by the American military in the Hanoi Hilton. History is always told through the lens of the storyteller. But this is more than a slight inconsistency. Needing a respite, we took a bus out of Hanoi and headed for Halong Bay to jump aboard “Indochina Sails” for a 3 day sail around the area. The boat was a replica of the old wooden junks with 3-4 large sails. It was a beautiful boat. Thanks Aunt Debbie for the lead! The food was great and the room was probably one of the nicest rooms we had stayed in to date. Despite the fact that the bay was a bit crowded and the cruise felt a bit canned, it was nevertheless a gorgeous place, with bald white limestone peaks emerging vertically like gumdrops from the jellyfish-loving water. We did a little kayaking, cave exploring, and yoga on the deck of Indochina Sails. We were excited to try our hand at squid fishing which turned into something more like bobbing a fishing rod in the water with a big light shining down on, well, water. Brett swears he saw one squid under the boat. I am not so sure. The most memorable side trip was a visit to the Halong Bay Pearl Farm where cultured pearls are created. The oysters are actually implanted with mantle tissue from another mollusk to select for pearl color. A small rounded hollow shell is placed in the oyster, and they are left to do their work for 2 years. The pearl pops out perfectly, with no need for polishing or treating. I bought a pair of beautiful pearl earrings while Brett played on the blow-up water park features. A Quick Rant on the State of Things in my Head Yes, traveling creates undulating emotions. But it was in Northern Vietnam that I felt the culmination of the darkness we had witnessed around Asia. Reading a book called “The Girl in the Picture”, I felt the despair of a bright girl growing up in a war-torn, oppressed, impoverished country. Kim Phuc was shamed by her mother, told she would never find love in her injured state as a nepalm strike victim, and grew up without much compassion or empathy from others. Any semblance of a carefree joyous life was drained out of her. Combined with the worn faces of the Vietnamese I was looking at presently, I realized that life isn't just better with beauty, freedom, and the luxury of is life. I stopped feeling guilty that I had these things and others didn't...and began to appreciate them in a way I never have before. How can you lift the darkness from others? En masse? I think of the voluminous human lives throughout history spent in survival mode, experiencing little freedom, joy and pleasure in their lifetimes. I felt a gripping emotion again in the Hanoi Hilton. As I peered into the eyes of pictures of young American men, something visceral hit me. It might have been as simple as facial recognition, but a deep love swept over me. In those faces I could see the reliability of someone's word. The ability to read facial expressions and intentions. The Truth as I have come to know it. I love Americans. I miss home. Being away, I no longer subject the U.S. to the microscope the way I once did. I can readily see what we have in contrast to other countries. My internal radar about people is as functional in Asia as the plug outlets. I am tired of getting wine milkshakes, catching the 1:00 bus at 3:00, the inability to tell the massage therapist something more subtle and kind than “Ow”. When I wave am I being rude? Is my shirt exposing too much skin? When I smile am I making others suspicious, uncomfortable, or am I inviting unwarranted advances? Why do men always talk to Brett when I am speaking to them? There exists a constant feeling of acute awareness and guardedness. I want to feel a love and caring for all people. But the reality is, it is not easy to love others. People can be difficult, loud, distrusting, pushy, and manipulative. Life can lead people to prioritize survival over relationships and grace. I have such a regret when I feel angry at yet another tout being aggressive. It drives me to ignore someone, a fellow human being, when my conscience dictates that this is rude and inhumane. Kindness means nothing to certain humans, believe me I've tried. It all comes down to survival. You play a different game here. As I sit on long bus rides with plenty of reflection time, I realize I miss my bro. He makes me laugh. I've known him all my living days. Tears well when I think of him, and how he has been a constant in my life. And my parents. Have I taken them for granted? I hear Abba through my earphones and, again, tears well for my friend Karen. I miss camping, climbing, biking, skiing with good friends. I look forward to being a big part of our nephew-to-be Baltazar's life (now we know he is actually a she and will be Nora Landin). I just feel so heavy.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Laos: by Brett

Yet another overnight bus ride with 14 passengers begging the driver to slow down while various other passengers retched their guts out in plastic bags, everyone squeezing their eyes shut in sheer terror as we careened around corners and passed three-abreast at high speed through blind curves and small villages. But daybreak brought peace and our first view of the mighty Mekong river. This winding, misty waterway mirrors the swirling confusion in my own brain surrounding the history of this beautiful land. Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. All related in my mind to the “Vietnam War”, but how do the pieces fit together? Did you know that in the 60's and 70's America dropped more bombs on Laos than all the Allied forces combined dropped during all of World War II? On Laos? Was there a war in Laos? Did you know that on your last birthday, on this past Christmas day, last week, yesterday, today, tomorrow, and every day for the next hundred years, one person in Laos was or will be killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance - bombs that we (America) dropped over 40 years ago but never exploded. Thirty-seven years after our last official combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the legacy of war still haunts the farmers and children of Laos. And the same story is true in Cambodia. For two countries that were never acknowledged to the American public as being part of “the Vietnam war”, the remnants of American involvement here are everywhere. We crossed the river from Thailand into Laos and boarded one more bus to Luang Nam Tha in the very northwestern corner of the country near the border with Burma. Our goal was to trek in the Nam Ha National Protected Area and meet some of the local tribes in this unspoiled part of the country. The Karens, the Hmong, the Khmu, and the Akha would be our hosts and our guides through this remote region. But before we could leave on our three-day trek we discovered something. The Lao people smile even more than the Thai people do – if that's possible. Over the next two weeks we would find that the 20th poorest country in the world has the happiest, nicest people we have ever met. Please remind me of the definition of poverty, again? Rumor has it that Laos is a dream for motorcycles with twisty mountain roads, good pavement, and no traffic. And so it is. After meeting the amazing Martina and Sahi (our travel soul-mate couple), we set out from the capital (Vientiane) for five days of exploring, living off the bikes, and staying wherever we ended up come sunset. And it was sublime. Jenny rode like a pro on her Honda Tracker and Brett kicked the street bike habit for the workhorse Honda Baja enduro. Maybe it was just being surrounded by such nice people, but you would be hard pressed to have found two more happy souls in all of Laos. There's nothing like being on a motorcycle to make a land come alive. The countryside unrolls beneath you in sights and sounds and smells and sensations that you never get from a bus or a plane. Side roads beckon and you engage with the locals on a truly personal level. Using hand signals to borrow a tool from the town mechanic. Taking a picture by a river surrounded by a group of shy, laughing, smiling children. Having lunch with members of a hill tribe that you've only read about in books. Happening upon a local funeral procession and watching as they burn the body by the side of the road. On busses we tend to bury ourselves in books or pass away the hours of boredom with sleep. Our companions are other (usually western) travelers and our meals are pre-planned stops at uninteresting restaurants whose sole purpose is to get a busload of passengers in and out in 20 minutes. On the road, with the wind in our hair, we are wide-awake with all senses on high alert. The greens are greener, the smells sharper, and the mist penetrating our jackets makes us feel like a part of the land. The sun soaking into our necks and even the dust that cakes our faces become a part of us. We didn't want it to end. But the seed has been planted and ideas for South America have begun to churn. Could we ride motos from Patagonia to Colombia? The lure of the wide open road beckons and part of our heart will always remain in the rolling, misty hills of Laos. But all good things must come to an end (do we really believe that?) and eventually we arrive once again at the banks of the Mekong River and the cute French colonial town of Luang Prabang. After reading about the “secret war” in Laos (a book called the Ravens) we sought out the UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) museum, a very well done documentary on the continuing cost of the American war over 35 years later, and the men and women who still work on a daily basis to remove, defuse, or explode the millions of bombs still littering the Lao countryside. Sobering to say the least. But it wasn't all serious as we sought out waterfalls and swimming holes, explored the winding roads outside of town (one last day on the bikes), visited the Asian sun bear sanctuary, and took an amazing cooking class (where we learned to cook with, among other things, whole dried squirrel – teeth, fingernails and all). But the highlight of Luang Prabang had to be the “Adventure Meal” at a local restaurant called Tamarind run by a British expat and her Lao husband Joy. We were able to choose our “level of adventure” and we decided to go all the way. The first course was a fairly tame tour of local forest products and basic fishy things (cooked and raw). But the second platter was quite the challenge. A three month old egg (salty), pig brains (uhh, yeah...), buffalo lung (spongy), fried crickets (crunchy, and the bits get stuck in your teeth), pickled whole fish (salty), fried cicaidas (crunchy on the outside, absolutely revolting on the inside), fermented fish broth (six months – what a stench!), and whole frogs (again). We were both not feeling so hot by the end, but we managed to eat at least a few bites of everything. The film of Jenny and the frog is priceless. :) But our time in Laos was drawing to a close and soon it was time to pack up and move on. We have a very fond place in our heart for this beautiful country and the warm, friendly Lao people who made us feel so welcome.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Shaken up but okay in New Zealand

Hey all. If you didn't hear there was a big earthquake in Christchurch (New Zealand) today. It was really scary, but we got out okay. The place we were supposed to stay doesn't exist anymore so we've hitch-hiked south. We're definitely shaken up with some cuts and bruises, but we're totally fine. Definitely keep the folks of Christchurch in your thoughts. It's really bad.

We promise we'll post more soon.

Lots of love,
Brett and Jenny

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Northern Thailand: Taking a break - Brett

Bangkok – City of hedonism, thronging masses, commerce, sex tourism, and chess matches. And, as we discovered, land of amazing food, old friends, fantastic Belgian beers, and... ladyboys.

We arrived in Bangkok via a long walk, a taxi, three airplanes, and a train into the heart of this sprawling Asian capital. My friend Mark picked us up accompanied by his girlfriend, Meiw. Mark works for the U.S. State Department traveling around Asia assessing aid programs and deciding who gets grants from the huge USAID budget. He came to Thailand almost three years ago after a two-year stint in Mongolia, also doing aid work. And after five days in Bangkok, we came to see why he loved this place so much.

So have you heard the one about the two Americans who wanted to see the wonders of the world?

Mark, Meiw, Jenny, and I walk into a bar. As my eyes adjust to the light I realize that I am surrounded by 30-40 of the absolute most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. I had heard that Thai women were gorgeous, but this was ridiculous. It defied the laws of physics, biochemistry, and statistics. They are flirty and smiley and I can feel that weird, pleasant sensation in the pit of my stomach. And then Mark drops the bomb.

    “Brett, they're all dudes.”
    “Huh? No way.”
    “Yep, every single one. They're called ladyboys”

It's not possible. Okay, yes, I like athletic looking women, but these (wo)men have a sublime, lithe beauty that is anything but masculine. They are not cut or muscular or toned. They are just – beautiful.

My head is spinning and I feel all weird inside. I'm about as open as they come about my sexuality, but somehow I feel confused and weird and guilty and... I don't know – it's just strange. My heart goes out to these guys who feel compelled to drastically alter what nature has given them. But in some way I feel better knowing that, at least in Thailand, they are free to live life as they see fit. Another part of the world puzzle clicks into place.

So I have always thought of poverty as a lack of adequate money to fulfill one's basic needs. But we are discovering on this trip that poverty can take many forms. Southeast Asia is full of local officials who have become rich off of corruption and bribery, but who are educationally poor. We have encountered farmers who have plenty to eat, and a roof over their head, but who could not pay for a doctors visit no matter how urgent or necessary. One could easily argue that many of our peers in America are spiritually poor, given the pervasive nature of gods, karma, and puja rituals we have experienced here in Asia. And what of the joy of living every day just to live? I am a perfect example of one who has wealth, shelter, friends, family, and a bright future – but who thinks too much about what may come to pass some day. What I should be doing. What my future might hold. A poverty of peace? I have met more happy people who have nothing. But I am getting ahead of myself...

We left Bangkok headed for Pai. Chang Mai is the gateway to northern Thailand (and Pai) and we were lucky enough to stop here and hook up with Adam and Kathy, our friends from Boulder who are also traveling for a year. We arrrived on the eve of Loy Kraton – the festival of lights – and spent three nights wandering packed night markets, dodging massive displays of uncoordinated but seriously impressive impromptu fireworks displays, and experiencing a pyromaniacs dream of self-ascending flaming lanterns, floating (and burning) works of carved vegitation, and ear-drum asssulting adult toys (see our Picasa site for details), along with thousands of fellow revelers packing the streets of this old royal city.

Post-festival we moved on and finally found the peace we had been looking for in Pai. We felt like we were on the verge of imploding. Jenny had given the ultimatum. We stop for two weeks. Daily naps, writing, yoga, running, and chess games served to keep us busy during week one. But after about five days, Brett was getting fidgety and feeling like we were wasting time. Week two we moved about 4 km outside of (the already sleepy) town to an organic farm/fish pond and decided that we had found heaven on earth. Morning breakfast of home-made, organic muesli (over 32 ingredients including popcorn and pumpkin chips!), “good morning juice”, and “love tea” started each glorious day. Indeed, the menu stated that the food was made with “110% love”, and you could taste it in every bite (one morning Orn, the owner/chef told me she was upping my dosage to 120%). Brett settled in and began to enjoy this slower-paced life. And Jenny was getting her mojo back.

Not to say we did nothing. In anticipation of our upcoming Laos motorcycle tour we decided to rent motos and do some practicing. Two days of winding, empty, perfect mountain roads later we were ecstatic. This was the BEST! Jenny was stylin' on her Honda Phantom (black with flames on the gas tank) and Brett found an old rocket that brought ear to ear grins (although watching Jenny ride was even more fun than riding his own bike).

But vying for the highlight of northern Thailand was our day playing with our 13-year-old elephant. You really have to see the pictures to understand how much fun we had. After a bareback stroll through the local hills we lumbered down to the water and played. And played. And played. We got sprayed, we played bucking elephant, we got tossed into the river, and we laughed and laughed and laughed. Brett is not much of an animal person, but he fell in love with these gentle giants. Did you know that elephants live to be a hundred years old? Did you know that they are pregnant for over two years!? If we ever settle somewhere for long enough, I now know what kind of pet I want...

Thailand was now coming to a close. Our two weeks of forced rest had worked. We were both stoked on traveling again, getting along well, and feeling enthusiastic about the rest of southeast Asia. We would need it as we had six weeks of hard travel left if we wanted to see Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia before our grand tour of the far east ended and we headed down to Australia and New Zealand.

We waved goodbye to Orn and Run at Bueng Farm and boarded a bus heading east towards the mighty Mekong River and the mysterious country of Laos. We thought we were leaving the “land of smiles”, but little did we know that we were about to meet the nicest, friendliest, happiest people on planet Earth.

Thailand: Land of Smiles - Brett

It is not Life's job to tell you its ultimate meaning. Rather, it is the task of the individual to offer Life the best lived, most meaningful life one can manage. - Elie Wiesel

We emerged from our ten days of silence as changed persons. This was not a desire or a question or a hope – it was known in our core as fact. When you are sitting with a quiet mind – finally at peace with yourself on day 5 or 6 – the power of Truth can blindside you and leave you reeling. As I have often related through these pages, this journey is not just to see the world, but also to look for some of the Answers to those mysteries that burden one's soul. We have variously turned to religion, classical philosophy, and new age spiritualism as possible avenues of discovery, only to find hypocrisy, overly complicated theories, or ideas that simply did not resonate with our hearts or our heads. We have found isolated pieces of meaning across many different wisdom traditions, but how does one pick and choose? Jesus taught us to love our neighbors. Buddha taught us to be dispassionate observers. Existentialism teach us that we alone control our destiny. Ghandi taught us the power of non-violence. These are all ideas that fundamentally appeal to the soul – but why can no one agree on how to carry out a lifestyle based on these principals?
This journey has given us the opportunity to read and study and observe and discuss and meditate and contemplate in a way that is not possible in the everyday world of career and responsibilities. And after years of searching and months of travel and days of silence sitting at the top of a hill in northern India, four small words presented themselves to me with a clarity and a conviction that I have never previously experienced.

love, compassion, integrity, and grace

Four small words that finally found a home in my heart. Could it really be that simple? I felt like a piece of the big picture was finally falling into place. These words provide the guidance that I have been searching for to become the man I want to be.

You know, I remember reading somewhere that you finally achieve enlightenment when you realize that you've been elightened all along. Far from the heady claim of enlightenment I know that these answers have been inside of me for many years, yet I have lacked the courage to live a life based on these truths.

And if you read the saints and the mystics and the kabbalahs and the sufis of the world's wisdom traditions, you will find that they too have come to the same conclusion. Be a good person. Live with integrity. Give back to the world. All the world's religions boiled down to their most fundamental Truths. All the rest – the rosaries, the songs, the incense, the fasting, the rules – all are just trappings to help us achieve a foundation of love, integrity, compassion, and grace.

I now believe this as firmly as I have ever believed anything in my life. This is my God.
So is it that simple? Swimming in the bliss that often accompanies such profound (?) insights, we left the retreat full of promise and excitement, believing the next step in our lives was just beginning.

But the reality was that we had no idea how to put into practice what we had each discovered. We fought bitterly with each other within hours of leaving the retreat. But we were determined, and through steady work over the next three weeks we would experience a new level of love for each other as we learned to respond instead of react to the daily challenges of an almost symbiotic relationship. And the awareness that we practice every day helps us respond to the difficulties of different cultures, different values, and different environments with a previously unknown or undiscovered grace.

But to allow these newfound skills to flourish, we needed a break. Aside from the ten days spent in intense, mind-altering, sleep-deprived meditation, we had never been in one place longer than seven days, and that pleasure only once. One hundred different beds in less than two hundred days. Sounds like a David Lee Roth memoir.

So we decided to park it for two weeks of naps, swimming, reading, chess, and motorcycles. Our chosen spot was the tiny, northern Thailand town of Pai – population 3,500.

But first we had to get there.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Whoa - Merapi erupts!

You may recall that we climbed the active volcano Merapi ("much fire"), a couple months ago when we were on the island of Java in Indonesia. You also may have heard that it just erupted again (last eruption was, I believe, in 2006). We have talked to several friends in the area and it sounds pretty bad. Here are some pics of where we were. And here is a link to an amazing set of photos that will definitely touch your heart. Please keep the folks in this area in your thoughts.

Merapi from the village of Chanderejo where we stayed with Budi and Morni

On the steaming and very active feeling summit

WHOA! Glad we were there when we were.

Damn! We were right there!


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Vipassana Meditation Retreat-- Jenny

"Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn't anyone who doesn't appreciate kindness and compassion." - Dalai Lama
The rule book said “No talking or body language, no reading, no writing, no music, no cameras, no yoga, only two meals a day, up at 4 am, and ten hours a day of sitting meditation”. And there we were, on day “0”, handing over all of our valuables and mobile entertainment, not to be seen again for ten days. We had read the Buddhism primer. We had experienced some Hindu yoga. But we really wanted to dig in deep. We were to be in separate camps, Brett in the men's and me in the women's. But there would be group meditations. We agreed that we would not even so much as make eye contact with each other, if we were to give this a fair chance. Vipassana is a meditation technique discovered by Buddha, but accessible to anyone of any religion. It is universal. Buddha taught that craving and aversion were the causes of human suffering. The aging S.N. Goenka from Myanmar has revived the technique in it's purest form and has written a book to to coincide with his oral teachings called “The Art of Living”. For a short description see .

Day one.
I am not sure if the monkeys in my head or the real monkeys living along side us at the camp were terrorizing me more. Day one we focused on our breath. And watched as our thoughts strayed. And we focused again on our breath. And our thoughts strayed. It starts getting a bit rediculous, and you have to laugh at yourself. I told stories to myself of a gunman coming into the meditation hall, and me jumping up to save everyone. I had thoughts of creating a You Tube video of a master meditator being challenged to see how long he could sit without being distracted by feathers tickling his nose, by jokes, by noise and music. I had thoughts of the monkeys outside biting me, going to the hospital, and going into anaphylactic shock from the rabies shot. Insane! This is what they tell us. Our minds are insane. And we must not let our minds control us. I wholeheartedly agree.

Day three.
I am really sick of focusing on my upper lip. Can we do something else? I sit and watch the monkeys at lunch today. Two of them are picking fleas off each other quietly and lovingly. An alpha male is pacing back and forth, breathing fast, ready to attack something. The babies are climbing a tree, swinging, and flying arms stretched outward, landing with a bang on the steel rooftop of my dorm, then sliding down uncontrollably to the gutter, back to the tree and repeat. This flurry of activity perfectly parallels my thought pattern. I find it so striking that my eyes well up and I chuckle to myself, grinning from ear to ear uncontrollably.

Day six. “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” -Khalil Gibran
I feel something changing. I am starting to understand how this technique works. But it is difficult. The body starts hurting when you sit in one place for one to two hours without moving. The mind gets agitated and bored, you get sleepy, all tricks of your mind to keep you from meditating. I notice that Brett has resigned himself to a chair, later to find out his old MCL injury was flaring up again. He was getting bored, he was freezing, he was in pain, and wasn't sure if he wanted to continue. He started doing more meditation in his room, and then sneaking and reading his Gandhi book. But he stayed. My day six was horrible. I was also restless, I was getting upset with myself that I couldn't sit still. I was aching as well. But we were both gaining insights into ourselves.

Day seven. “Being is the stillness beneath the mental noise”.-Eckart Tolle
I had a breakthrough. I was able to experience unpleasant feelings and sensations in my body and remain “equanimous”. I didn't react to them. I was able to just observe. This is the technique of Vipassana. It is to sever the connection between the mind and the body, so that the mind and its insanity (or past conditioning) can no longer control your reactions, which manifest as greed, passion, anger, fear, jealousy, etc. It seems so simple. Remain aware, remain equanimous. No aversions, no cravings. Don't react. Everything is impermanent. My senses are so raw and acute today, that I notice minutia all around me. I watch the sunset as I have every evening. This evening I notice at first that the air is filled with a stillness. But as I examine the plants at my feet, they are ever-so-slightly rocking back and forth. They are growing too, even more slowly. They, like us, are growing and decaying. There is a constant energy flowing through everything. Nothing is as it seems.

Day ten. “Calm is his mind, calm is his speech, calm is his action, who, rightly knowing, is wholly freed, perfectly peaceful, and equipoised.” - Buddha
The noble silence we had kept for nine days is broken. Strangely, Brett and I both reported feeling very close and loving towards the people we spent 10 days with, despite the fact that we had hardly seen their faces or spoken a word. We found each other at the “common area”, and couldn't stop chatting about our experiences. We had 36 hours of plane rides ahead of us to talk, and we were looking forward to it. We still had one more lecture and a few more sittings before we were finished. The last morning we all pitched in to clean the Dhamma Hall, our rooms, the kitchen and the bathrooms. The retreat center runs on donations only, and relies on the students to help out. I sat out in the woods on the women's walking trail for the last time, watching a few of the baby monkeys in the distance. Suddenly, the big male monkey spotted me, ran up the tree above me, and started swaying back and forth on the branch, threatening me. I took the hint and slowly down-turned my eyes, creeping away. But I laughed to myself thinking that, after spending 10 days with them, I now understand the monkeys and their behavior much better, and they scare me a lot less. The same goes for my monkey mind.

In the words of S.N. Goenka: “May all beings be happy. May they enjoy real peace, real harmony, real happiness.”