Friday, August 27, 2010

laos part three: the quarter-century mark

I want to write about the most perfect day while it is still fresh in my mind. This morning, Ana and I grabbed a quick Lao coffee-to-go and hopped in a van through the rolling countryside to elephant camp. We cut through the fog blanketing the river in a motorized canoe before and suddenly, there they were. A small herd of elephants, just chomping away. After lots of photo-taking, I scrambled up one of them and took her to the river to bathe. Submerged in the water with Hambi, my elephant, with trunks flying and water spraying everywhere, I felt such  unadulterated joy. Neither Ana nor I could stop laughing--we were like two little girls, chortling with delight. It's been a long time since I've been that happy.

The elephants are both mighty and strangely delicate. You can step and climb on them as you would a ladder or a (very large) stool; their hides are thick and each toenail the size of my foot. Their hair is course like wire and their trunks strong and curious. And yet their eyes are so soulful--expressive and fringed with long lashes--and their ears are soft and exquisite. Riding an bathing elephant with your legs enveloped by its ears is like having your entire lower body embraced by the softest, warmest blanket. 

After the bath, we went to elephant camp, where the animals hungrily tossed back literal tons of grass and bamboo before heading out on a trek through the Lao jungle. We took turns riding in the "chair" atop the elephant and on its neck, with our friendly mahout explaining to us how to tell Hamong to hao (stop), bai bai (go), and san de lai (very good elephant!). 

After our sojourn, we took another van ride to a series of waterfalls, which also strangely turned out to be home to a black bear rehabilitation center. After wolfing down a lunch of fried rice and veggies, we spent the remainder of th eafternoon swimming in a pool of crystalline water. There was a waterfall which I climbed halfway down and just sat in for a solid hour, shivering with pure joy. After about an hour of contemplation, I decided to jump off the falls...and by decided, I should say that two small Lao children tricked me into it because I was too frightened to go alone! Finally, as the sun sunk into its pre-twilight glow, we grabbed a hasty snack of fried coconut before heading off to a local Hmong village. Honestly, I wish we hadn't gone--I felt so touristy and awful traipsing through and snapping photos of napping babies, straw huts, and the public television set in the center of the village. It was so different than the Chinese villages we'd stayed where, although waigouren, we were able to converse and contribute in the local community--or at least to the income of the families we lived with, however briefly. 

Otherwise, it was the perfect start to what hopefully will turn out to be a great year. Here's to a quarter-century!

Ana & I & our Mahout

One of many gorgeous waterfalls

These kids look cute but they were tricky!

Black Bear Stare!

Most adorable Hmong baby

Hmong Village

Finishing off the day with some Lao BBQ!

Monday, August 23, 2010

laos part two

The countryside, from the admittedly limited yet spectacular window of the sleeper bus, is considerably poorer than China. Many houses sit on stilts, with roofs of straw, and in the dusty courtyards you can see very young mothers nursing babies or groups of older women, clad in black sarongs, clustered around a pump for bathing. Luang Prabang is very beautiful, but very touristy--in a "my parents would like this place" sort of way, which I haven't experienced much since arriving in China. It's disorienting to see so many waigouren  (foreigners) in one place; to not be yelled at, "hello! hello!" by young and old men, like little parrots, all the time. The Lao people, from what I can tell, are friendly and soft-spoken; none of the strident tones, spitting, or near-shouting which pepper the language in Kunming.

This morning we strolled into a wat, or Buddhist monastery, where a group of young monks and a European couple invited us to sit and practice English with them. We swapped words for trading cards for awhile, learning that several of the monks had come to the monastery at a very young age--fifteen for some. Although sending one child to the monastery is customary for Lao families, I was astonished at the journey these monks--kids, really--had taken. Several were from villages a few hours' bus ride away, which in the Western world is nothing more than a slightly lengthy trip to the local Ikea. But for these young men, life in Luang Prabang is a world away from these tiny mountain villages, from which most of their families will never leave and to where they return but a handful of times. Talking with them, it dawns on me how utterly relative distance is when traveling. I'm reminded of a line from a favorite poem, "The distance is deeper in my heart than miles can show" and just how far away even a blocks can be when something separates you from the people you love. 

Of course, technology can shrink distance...a lesson the monks apparently have learned as well, given they asked me for my name and email so they could "Facebook me." Guess I'd better be a bit more careful about which pictures to post... 

Sunday, August 15, 2010

laos part one: a banner year, a splendid day

        Here I am in Luang Prabang, about the celebrate the quarter-century mark with Ana, a Costa Rican girl I’ve only known a few weeks. I think it’s telling, the difference between my 24th and 25th birthdays. Last year, I was sitting around a make-shift bonfire at Lake Erie with my two best friends and our long-term boyfriends. We drank wine and played the kind of games you can only play when you’ve known each other for years; when you love each other like family. This year, I’m alone in Southeast Asia, gallivanting around places I’ve never heard of, riding elephants and drinking laolao, the local whiskey, with near strangers.
                I may not be writing with glee at the moment, and quite frankly, knowing my perpetually (and hopelessly) romantic soul, may not until I make the inevitable mistake of falling in love again. But for the first time in a very long time, I am content. Perhaps my newfound sense of calm has a little—or a lot—to do with the fact that I am in Laos, a country of pristine mountains, gentle people, and Theravada Buddhism. This particular brand of Buddhism stresses three principle aspects of existence: dukkha (suffering, unsastifactoriness, disease), annica (impermanence, transience of all things), and annatta (non-substantiality or non-essentiality of reality; the idea that there is no permanent soul). Understanding annica reveals that no experience, no state of mind, no physical object lasts. Both joy and pain dissipate, and it is trying to hold onto these things—experiences, objects, people—that are constantly changing that creates dukkha. Anatta is the understanding that there is no apart of this ever-changing world that we can point to and declare, “This is me” or “This is God,” or “This is the soul.” The point of all of this is simple yet glorious: nibbana, or the extinction of all causes of pain and suffering.
                It seems to me that the majority of my suffering has been a result of my inability to embrace annica. The transient nature of my life has left me lost and reeling in confusion. It dawns on me that although I feel so far from everyone here, even when I am “at home” I am still apart from those whom I love most. The realization hits me like a sack of bricks: I have grown to love New Haven, my life, my friends there—and yet, a year from now I may be across the country, never to see most of these people or places I treasure again. “I’ve lost two cities, lovely ones,” Bishop once wrote—and it’s hard not to sink into a self-pitying cocoon once you start thinking that way, missing people, missing things. Loving and embracing each experience and person in that very moment—appreciating its beauty in the present, and then letting it go; this practice is my goal for my 25th year. As one Buddhist monk pointed out profoundly, “Patience is a practice. The only way to cultivate it is to remind yourself constantly that the only place your life is occurring is every moment.”
                Even though I feel slightly treacherous for saying so, Luang Prabang is a refreshing change from China. While more expensive, the city’s calm nature, cleanliness, French-style architecture and Western-syle toilets are all a welcome change from the restless, vibrant, filthy Kunming. The people are friendly and sweet: brightly colored tuk tuk drivers line the streets, inquiring, “Where are you going, miss?” (The answer to which, of course, I do not know on so many levels.) Sandwich stands and pancake makers beckon from the sidewalks with their tantalizing smells and smiling faces. Monks, clad in simple orange robes, pace the dusty streets at dawn, moving silently and peacefully along each of the two rivers that ensconce the city. I think I’m going to like it here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

back in action

After wandering through Southeast Asia without internet access (or, in China, access to non-censored internet, including this blog), I'm back in the US. I'm still a bit woozy from the nearly 30 hours of travel; a sense of disorientation that will not wear off anytime soon considering I'm flying out to Seattle tomorrow to visit my newly engaged sis. Strange, to be traveling in the States (toilet paper? air conditioning? no smoking?) and with my parents nonetheless, although I'm looking forward to it. My trip's not all pleasure though--meeting with some professors at U of Washington to discuss PhD options, so I'm actually quite nervous. It's hard to believe that after all that work and anxiety just two years ago, that I'm about to plunge right back in again. That I have no idea where I'll be living or doing this time next year, although I have my dreams. I've caught a bit of a travel bug, that's for sure--both literally and figuratively. Literally, as I'm still sick, after nearly 3 months of chronic GI infections (I never knew there were so many ways to be ill. Forget nutrition as a public health concern in China... I think perhaps they should get soap and sinks outside toilets and consider washing hands before meal preparation before getting to the contents of those meals!) Figuratively as in I've fallen in love with the itinerant lifestyle, and am already daydreaming about my next venture (Argentina next summer, con suerte). In any case, I'm going to backdate all my travel writing and photos on this blog before school starts again, so here goes...