Mystery

“Pray for all who died without happiness…
And when at night the graveyard is wrapped in darkness,
and only the dead remain there keeping watch,
Disturb not its peace, disturb not the mystery…”

-Jose Rizal, The Last Farewell-

I myself loved the Hardy Boys series.  The mysteries unfolded in those books captivated me- a young man reading about other young men solving capers.  The Hardy Boys were dogged and smart and vulnerable.  They sometimes took false turns, gave too much attention to red herrings and broken leads.  But in the end, author Frank Dixon always made things right.  The Hardy Boys figured it out, happy endings flowered.

If only the father of the Philippines: doctor, poet, and propagandista Jose Rizal could have written a better ending for himself.  On a sweltering day in Manilla, May and I venture toward Rizal Park to pay our respects to this mountain of a man.  The first thing you see at Rizal’s memorial are his written words- his Last Farewell- etched in marble with three different translations.  May elects to take on the Spanish version; I cross my hands behind my back and stare into in the English.  Moments later we are both openly weeping.

Rizal’s final prose found their way to the young Filipino independence movement when he hid them in a lamp that he handed to his mother a few hours before the Spanish executed him for treason.  The poem weaves together a great love of place, nationalist pride, and the struggle with death by martyrdom.  Think Jesus in the garden. It is both hopeful and defiant; it recognizes nature and nation and one’s relationship with fate.  I highly recommend you read it in the first light of the morning.

Rizal had the kind of stuff inside him that inspires worship, and many churches near Mount Banahaw in central Luzon assert Rizal was the second coming of Christ.  Rizalistas– they call themselves.  Instead of ten commandments they have three: LOVE–God, people, and society.    They believe that three angels picked up the Holy Land and started moving it.  The story goes that one of the angels got tired and decided to let his end touch down, right in the Philippines, and a new Holy Land was born.

Fast forward to a bus stop outside of the new Zion.  After being moved by Rizal’s words to visit the holy Mt. Banahaw, May and I stand in the black of night watching our tricycle driver trying to hail us a bus bound for somewhere else, anywhere else.  We are leaving this weird holy place after getting stonewalled by park “authorities” and, more dishearteningly, local citizens when trying to hike the mountain.  Two days of bureaucratic hoop jumping for a permit that never came and an outright stupidity by locals to accept a bribe has zapped all previous enthusiasm for our pilgrimage.  I guess I don’t blame the Filipinos, it is kind of odd that the best thing we have left of Washington is the one dollar bill and a phallus the size of a skyscraper.  (Better Lincoln, the five dollar bill and a permanent seat to rest…)

But we have learned things.  Namely, I am struck by the gallows humor of the Filipino people.  They laugh out loud when you scrape your Birkenstock on the cracked sidewalk and have to steady yourself to avoid a costly fall with a backpack.  I sense in them a joy in other’s misfortune.  Category 5 typhoons for three months of every year will do that.  You’d have a bit of a twisted sense of irony if a storm took your entire village and redeposited it in the South China Sea once a generation.  #thanksYolanda.  Plus the Pinoy are Catholic, VERY Catholic.  I have yet to see a jeepney or neckline of a basketball jersey without the image of Christ on the cross.  The rosary is a tired, sagging image of execution and yet somehow Catholics keep hanging Him.  Every hour of every day.  Hanging Him.  Even on Easter.  Hanging and pointing to the crown of thorns.

May and I point ourselves eastward at ten in the evening, haphazardly boarding the bus with a headful of frazzled nerves.  Caffeine and frustration are coursing through us and we have not even begun our night of travel. The driver does not acknowledge us but I see his hands grip and re-grip the steering wheel through leather gloves. A true driver. I can hardly get the pack off and nearly decapitate myself lunging through the aisles.  May searches for a temporary home for our beloved ukulele, and, finding none, tosses it at a seat in the very back. A comic book twang emits from the light strings. The Americans have boarded.

So many people boarded this bus that May and I will not sit together. I remain standing for a few long moments waiting for one woman, who sprawls between two seats pretending not to see me. I cough loudly. Nothing. I flag down the ticket man. He makes the necessary introductions. The woman looks at me through one stinking eye and moves to the aisle seat. I look down the length of my six-foot frame, stare into her eye, and cram myself next to the window.

The next four hours are the epitome of traveling. In lieu of air conditioning this bus has uninstalled the vents so one continuous polar blast lands on top of my head.  I have on my basketball jersey, shorts and Birkenstocks.  I have spent ten days in the White Clouds and not been this cold.  I try and turn my head to find May and receive an emphatic elbow to the ribs from my saintly seatmate who still feels I am ruining her nap. I improvise and tie the window curtain to the top of my seat, deflecting the polar vent and walling off the unruly neighbor. Then I wrap my trusty Biff scarf into a beanie and try to settle in.

The driver must think this all some video game where he can earn extra lives through swerving for imaginary coins.  How else to explain his erratic behavior?  The blind passes at seventy miles an hour.  The brakes he stands on only to swerve back onto the shoulder. He’s piloting our bus like a Masarati with a trailer attached.  I’ve ridden badly driven buses in third world countries before.  But never like this. I feel him grinding through second gear as he climbs the hills, I feel him reaching for third.  It’s like I have stepped onto the high wire between two tall buildings, and I’ve forgotten the pole, and the wind has picked up.  And then I look down.

When a hard rain begins hitting the window I become completely terrified.  The brakes begin to sound like the bleating of an innocent lamb.  I cannot bury my head anywhere.  All I see are blurred headlights and wraith-like dogs sprinting out of our path. I really wish May sat next to me. I bow and interlace my fingers, but there is no peace.  The night envelopes me. I stare into Rizal’s great mystery and the mystery
Does
Not
Blink.

Many people have asked May and I when we plan to return from this trip. It’s the perfectly reasonable question of concerned parents, coworkers and friends (hers especially!). To be sure, we have designs on the future. We have plans and schemes, jobs to apply for and places we would like to end up. As we sit here safe in the light of a beach sunset our discussion leans toward car seats and what to cook on Sunday evenings when we have guests.

I am proud of us. I think we have witnessed some great dawn because we left everything for this moment in time. Traveling, like religion, teaches us that we know not what really lies ahead.  That the path to the Divine includes corners that you just can’t see around .  And none of us…not me, or May, or even you dear reader can say for certain how this all ends.

And that realization makes each land all the more holy,
each moment all the more sacred.

Bros Need Bros

After two and a half months of exploring the world together, Chris and I can both say that there have been times for each of us when the company of the other was absolutely not what the doctor ordered.

We figured it out the hard way. Now we know the signs. I get condescending, disagree with everything he says. He acts distracted, talks like a gangster, and listens to Patton Oswald stand-up sessions way too loud. The message: I need company that is NOT you.

We’ve learned not to take it personally. I, a tomboy from birth, sometimes get gushy on the phone with a girlfriend from DC hearing about her new haircut and recent pedicure. I’m a nicer person for days after a Skype chat with a room full of lady friends, we talk about roommates, breakups, new jobs and they all want the dirt on Chris.

When Chris plays the distracted hip hop star, I know he needs some bro time. A few minutes of texting with a college buddy about early season baseball scores can help bring back the boyfriend I signed up for. But, for Chris, and I’m speculating that this is a man thing, the testosterone hit often needs to be mainlined.

Today is Holy Saturday. The day before Easter in the third largest Catholic country in the world. We are, in a way, trapped by religious customs in the city of Manila until after Sunday. It’s sweltering. It’s rather filthy. There are people sleeping in the street. Beggars, taxi drivers, and peddlers assault us on the sidewalk. We are feeling restless, listless, and anxious as super-typhoon Maysak hurls itself across the Pacific squaring off with the east coast of the Philippines.

While I get on Skype with my mom, Chris excuses himself to search out a hood game. I smile, knowing this is exactly what he needs right now. 

Twenty minutes later, I leapfrog the crazed taxis to get across our grimy street making my way to Remedios Circle. A crowd had gathered in the plaza. Teenaged boys squat in rows. Older men hold their sons in their laps or loosely manage them as they bounce and toddle. A few sit on splintered benches, more sit on the bricks. Two security officers with official-looking uniforms have pulled their motorbikes onto the circle to spectate.

I am the only woman there and the only Anglo except for the tall guy from Boise posting in the middle of the court. He’s rockin’ his brand new knockoff Nike shorts and blue Adidas tank, purchased from a street vendor for ten brilliant dollars. They’re playing four on four with a filthy ball, wooden backboard, brand new net. 

I can feel the satisfaction from across the plaza. He’s sweating hard. Stern game face on. He’s getting guarded pretty hard by a skinny Filipino in shiny yellow shorts. Both smiling and patting each other’s hips and chests after a rough play happens. A quick shake of the hands when one gets too aggressive with the other. They bump, buck, lean, push their way around the court.

Half the guys have no shoes on. A quarter are making jump shots in flip flops. A beer bellied baller has a bad imitation of Jordan’s on. One wears an NYC t shirt. The guy on the inside has a sneaky shot that he loops over his head, too short to attempt a dunk. A local yells to Chris in heavy accent “I like you tattoo.” Chris flexes his stamped right shoulder in response. 

A rooster crows. A half dead dog wanders dangerously close to the action. The air pollution is as palpable as the humidity. I am captured by the feeling that these urban Filipinos occupy this city just as if it were a cul de sac or a quiet country lot. It is a precious, neighborhood moment. The eye of the storm at the center of the sprawling megopolis’s chaos, noise, abrasion. The answer to my musings on how people can survive in an environment like this.

Coupled with this discovery is a revelation on the nature of men. It’s as if I witness sport and brotherhood for the first time. As the game comes to a close, there are high fives, ass pats, fist bumps and chin nods all the way around. The crowd of onlooking men circle in to take part in the show of camaraderie. Deep, satisfied smiles spread across every face. Little boys look alive, swimming in the manhood that they are already unknowingly a part of. 

I look on, the sole bearer of estrogen in the crowd. My soul is full, my eyes are brimming with tears of delight, my heart beats with love for my partner across the circle, steeping in bro-ness. So much the same and yet so chemically different from me. I am mesmerized by the seamless unity that is evidenced here. Overwhelmed with gratitude to witness at close range the intricate, primal and vast beauty of brotherhood.

Encounters of the French Kind

We met sunrise on the beach this morning. Pale,smooth aqua, a white-grey sky and a glowing ball or orange. Shoes off, toes plunged into the pale brown sand, one foot in front of the other, we run. The locals are just waking up, pulling wooden tables onto the sand, unstacking beach chairs and hiking up umbrellas. Gangs of old women with pale, brown skin and clear plastic bathing caps bounce in groups in the shallow waves, raising their arms, lowering them, turning heads from side to side. Their movements a subtle, elderly exercise, they smile wide at the two tall, white joggers passing by.

A peaceful start for a wonderful day. We pack our few belongings and head for Phu Quoc Island airport for our flight to Ho Chi Minh City, more charmingly known as Saigon. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the airport has just finished a marvelous vacation. Smiles, sun-kissed skin, fishing rods, shopping bags. We meet a Frenchwoman named Veronica, fifties or early sixties, unstoppable smile, 25 days of solo holiday around Vietnam, loads of trip recommendations. I’m frantically taking mental notes and we wind up talking all the way to Saigon. Chris and I had planned to just park it in the airport for the hours between flights, but as we touch down,Veronica suggests we join her in her hired car to the middle of the city to enjoy the sights she’s recommended. There’s no question of being strangers when you’re on the road. We hop in.

Whizzing through the streets of Saigon, we watch the carefully choreographed circus of moto and car traffic. Dozens of near misses, but somehow it’s harmonic. The three and four story buildings remind me of my architect friend’s famous use of the expression ‘human scale’ in reference to cities. I know Ho Chi Minh City sprawls for hundreds of kilometers around us, but we are in it’s heart, and many thanks to the legacy of the French, it is a welcoming, lovely place. We stop at Veronica’s hotel and kiss both cheeks.

The driver doesn’t understand what he’s supposed to do with the two dirty voyagers he’s left with. We tell him “post office, post office” attempting to communicate our wish to visit Saigon’s most beloved tourist attraction, the neighborhood known as Asia’s Champs Élysées. He takes our backpacks out, we put them back in. We try again to explain. He phones a friend. An english voice on his cell phone clarifies our intentions and off we go.

After the clamor and jarring of Bangkok, Saigon is a smooth, gentle breeze all wide boulevards, tree lined parks and tidy sidewalks. We feel like we’ve landed in a dream and when the driver stops, we beeline for a bistro by the park deciding that today our budget is not of concern. We feel like we’re on a movie set. At a small, round, sidewalk table, we drool over the menu. Whole grain baguette. Mixed greens. Goat cheese. You have no idea how deeply we crave this food. I order lamb and Chris has a classic, American-inspired turkey and cheese. Our fellow diners speak French while traditionally-dressed women in rice paddy hats march past selling cheap Chinese trinkets and coconut juice. In between their careful orchestration of the neighborhood’s parallel parkers, young men drink tea out of thermoses and smoke cigarettes in the summer swelter. An ethnic-looking Vietnamese man performs street side construction work with archaic tools. Audis fetch well-heeled white and Vietnamese women who totter in slim, tailored dresses and heels, glossed waves shimmering in the sun. A study in contrasts.

We’ve completely destroyed our lunches and the people watching is too good to stop. So, we order iced Americanos and the waitress effortlessly convinces us to get the three-dessert sampler platter. Each of us.

After our hedonistic lunch, we go admire the replica of the Notre Dame Cathedral and a lovely statue of Mary. We cross the wild streets to the palatial Central Post Office. Chris gets bag watch duty while I snap photos. The ponderous painting of Ho Chi Minh. The extravagantly-tiled floors. The golden-era calling booths repurposed into glamorous ATM machines. On a mission to mail a package, I am shuttled from window to window, one for wrapping, one for weighing, one for payment.

During the last transaction, I feel eyes on the side of my face. I turn to find a friendly, college-aged girl hoping to engage with the foreigner or ‘farang’ as the Vietnamese call us. While we enjoy a chat, the woman behind the counter periodically barks things at me. But, my conversation with the student persists. She’s from near the legendary town of Hoi An where traditional lanterns still light the streets at night. She’s studying finance, her boyfriend is Fillipino. Her parents do not like it.

At long last, I return to Chris and our modest heap of luggage. I find he has been the subject of much english language practice while I was gone. Three toothy teenagers huddle around him with wide, expectant eyes, pens poised over tiny notebooks as he shares the finest slang our nation has to offer. They make us promise we will accept their requests on Facebook. I have plenty of doubts as to the point of all this ‘friending,’ but if it accomplishes nothing other than a common currency to fuel encounters like this around the world, well we’ve had a lot of laughs over it and who are we to complain?

With wide smiles, we don our packs and stroll the stairway down to the street. Under the shade of plentiful trees, we hold hands and slowly find our way to the opera house. Wandering the finest streets in Saigon, we are sure we’ve found a very Asian Paris and while the French will never be first on my list for their hospitality, I feel deeply grateful for the beauty and pace they leave behind.  

Sisyphus Smiling

“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” 

–Camus–

I enjoy manual labor.  In the right amount and during the right time of day.  I find something pure in swinging a pulaski or hammer.  Especially when its cool in the morning and my wandering mind won’t come back to me.  Meditation can happen while striking nails.  Ask Jesus.

I like manual labor because I’ve had just the right amount: a lot, early in life.  At sixteen I worked tearing off and putting on roofs.  In July.  With a crew of convicts.  Once, one of the old timers got me into Gil’s K-9 bar after our shift.  I watched as he polished off three straight boilermakers, played some tunes from Zeppelin IV (faggot) and flirted with the bartender who called him “Hon.”  We shot a game of pool and he casually drove me home in his restored Chevy.  At 3PM.  We had to be on the roof at six the next morning.

Most of the guys you used to meet working manual labor jobs qualified as “salt of the earth.”  Men of physical prowess who work with their hands and care enough about an engine, a car, a foundation, a frame job, a trail, to do things right.  The boldest have figured out a way to do it for themselves.  

It doesn’t mean laborers are somehow nobler than other professions.  They still bitch about the job and bosses.  But I like how they bitch.  I like to hear them cuss at inanimate objects and find workarounds – jerryrigs.   And I like to watch them sweat.  Something about it seems right.  Like they’re just one in a long line of men straining against a giant boulder.  In shifts.  

I met the Cambodian Sisyphus a few days ago.  He’s sixteen and his name is Juen (pronounced Jew-in).  He’s the oldest boy in a family without any money.  I don’t know how Juen got his cell phone, which he uses to listen to Khmer music– sharing the headphones with a neighbor kid that sleeps beside him on the patio.  

For two weeks May and I borrowed Juen’s mattress and so we could have a place to stay and teach at the bottle school.  I felt badly, but in the mornings Juen stirs gently from his mat, replaces the items on Buddha’s altar and sets to his work.  Humming.

In the beginning I didn’t really see what he did.  I was at school.  But one day I cut out early to see how things were going on the construction project at Juen’s house.  It’s where the new school slowly takes its shape.

Juen had gone somewhere and gathered massive stones from a local quarry.  The sedimentary rock sparkled in the amazing Cambodian heat, flung up on a flatbed.  Juen’s uncles were busy building a retaining wall before the rainy season.  They worked under the supervision of the school’s Executive Director, a nice man with a short-brimmed hat and soft hands.  No callouses.

I couldn’t believe the size of the stones Juen brought.  I really took him in–the massive shoulders and biceps, the strong pecs on his shirtless, hairless chest.  I would call Juen a brick shithouse— which means he’s in his physical prime.  I’m glad May didn’t see what happened next.

Juen took one boulder off the tractor and deadlifted it to the workspace.  As no one else moved to take another boulder, so I took a bigger one and set it down beside his stone.  We started going rock for rock.  It became a CrossFit workout: high intensity, heavy weights, about fifteen minutes.  A couple rocks weighed a hundred awkward pounds.  For fun we took the boulders overhead.  One-handed.  Your turn.  My turn.  Finally, Juen got one over his head that I couldn’t.  I conceded to the teenager.  His uncles laughed the whole time.

As graciously as any teen could, Juen accepted my concession and offered me a cigarette.  We smoked together in the shade of his family’s home, looking out over the site of the new school.  I don’t know why but right now Juen doesn’t go to school.  Some day.

The last evening May and I decided we ought to throw a party.  It didn’t seem right to just give money away to the Executive Director, especially after Juen’s family had shown us such great hospitality.  May bought a huge barrell of water that will ensure cold showers for weeks.  I spent my money on Angkor beer and cigarettes that I left on the altar the next morning.  

We’ve got a great picture of the party that night.  May stands next to Juen’s mother- a warm woman with an incredible laugh.  And in the back with his arms around me is Juen the rock mover.  Sisyphus.  Smiling broadly.



Pushing Borders

This is my first post from Botumsakor in the Koh Kong Province of Southwestern Cambodia.Though we’ve been here for ten days already, Internet and power are hard things to come by.

In the short time since we left the deep peace and low bows of Thailand, we have lived a world of experiences. At 8:30 a.m.two Fridays ago, I bent to hug the lovely proprietress of the cafe we’d been frequenting in the quiet town of Trat. I packed a dragon fruit, some cashews, and a packet of cookies. Chris and I hopped in a tuk tuk headed for the bus station.

We were shortly dumped off behind a minibus for the hour and a half long ride to the Cambodian border. This was no ordinary minibus. While it was not as flamboyant as the Mexican minibuses I’ve ridden (read: technicolor Virgin of Guadalupe images, purple silk tassels, bangin’ Norteno music,) it was no more subtle. The interior was beige leather. The ceiling and side panels were decorated with swirling patterns of quilted leather interspersed with mini disco ball lights.

We were the only foreigners on the bus and both Chris and I sat somewhat tensely, as if preparing ourselves for battle. We have both experienced the thing that was ahead of us, but we had not yet experienced it in Asia. The minibus drove fast and furious through the hills of the eastern Thai coast as our excitement and trepidation grew. For this was a border crossing day. And, border crossing days are nearly always intense.

In the center of a new life on the road, one in which change is the only constant, currency, language and food become learned comforts. There is safety in knowing how much something should cost, what you like on local menus, and how to be polite. But, in the span of a few hundred yards, that relative form of safety gets yanked out from beneath your feet as you step into a brand new country.

It’s one of my great fascinations, how by crossing a line, one suddenly must learn how to use a new kind of toilet, how to greet a stranger, how to avoid offending- things to ponder on a slow and rainy day. But, on that day, Chris and I were focused on trying to avoid the dozens of ways we could get taken for the proverbial ride as we crossed into Cambodia.

Let’s me paint you a picture of exactly what I mean: There is sleeze, some amount of danger, always armed police. We are crossing into a town known as the “Wild West” of Cambodia, drug smuggling, prostitution, and other crimes have recently been commonplace here. Our passports are being dragged into and out of our pockets. Our bags are being picked up and set down, moved, picked up again. We are standing in a disorderly line, which in reality is more like a mob, everyone pressing closer and closer in a desperate attempt to secure a piece of shade to withstand the indeterminate wait. A stamp here, a photo there, place four fingers on the fingerprint reader, sign here walk through this gateway, and now begin again.

Money swarms, real and imagined. Our pockets are filled with more than one kind of currency- thousands of leftover Thai baht and hundreds of thousands of nearly useless Cambodian riel. Five baht to use a dingy squat toilet. Exchange your dollars here. Four thousand riel for a dollar. A hundred thirty three baht for a riel. Taxi ride: five hundred baht. Two dollars fifty cents for lunch. Three US dollars gets you a smile and two thousand riel back. “Fifty scents change,” they say as they hand me Monopoly money.

The taxi drivers on the Cambodian side greet you right away. Just as you’re taking a moment to revel in the music of an impoverished peddler playing traditional Khmer music on a handmade guitar. “This way! This way!” Is shouted and you are escorted to a potentially fake quarantine booth where they pretend to take your temperature. Your passport gets escorted through the visa process. We’re pretty sure we’ve paid double, but with all the currencies clouding our heads and the heat of the sun blurring our eyes with sweat, we don’t even care. The taxi driver has claimed us. He sits us at a table with a huddle of his buddies. They want to try on our sunglasses, comment on our iPhone, become Facebook friends. We pull our bags closer and wait restlessly for the return of our passports.

Bus ride four hundred fifty which turns into six hundred if you wait until it’s about to leave. “Go! Go!” they shout as we wipe the rice off our chins and run for the bus. Do we have everything? Too late now. Let’s just hope so. Please,  let’s just please both place a hand on our passports so we can rest knowing they have made the crossing with us.

We exhale with gratitude as we climb onto the air conditioned bus. It sways and swerves it’s way down the highway. Straw huts whiz past. Motorbikes squeal out of the way. Villages ebb and flow.

At last, as even the sun itself grows weary, we pull into the city of Sihanoukville, which is fodder for another post entirely. I surely pledge to write it when I have fully recovered from pushing the border.

Teaching English with Gas on your Hands

I am teaching again, but my hands smell of gasoline.  Welcome to Cambodia.

Faces look up when I gesture to English words written in blue on the white board.  Brown eyes sit in small faces and crooked teeth get in the way of L’s.  I demonstrate putting my tongue on the roof of my mouth.  Lightly.

Today at 1PM I have four students.  I am unclear who teaches who.  Whom.  Who teaches whom. English: Written, Spoken, Read.  It’s difficult.  It is.  

I bet less than 50% of you know the difference between your and yours.  I don’t! and my mom was an English teacher for over two decades.  (Sorry Kay.  It’s just not how people talk.  #callmemaybe)

I strive to write how I talk, and talk how I want people to hear me.  Simply.  My father: a colorblind engineer.  The man went past calculus but can’t spell parabolic.  I think Dad believes in the fecundity of numbers.

How many words now grace the pages of the English dictionary?  Someone Ask Jeeves.

There are too many words in the English dictionary.  T-O-O many.  Redundant, boring, stupid words.  The great poet Mary Oliver considers wild a lazy word now.  It terrifies me to think I know no synonym.  Now. Know. No.

This afternoon we’ve got numbers 1-30, upper and lower case letters, and kitchen utensils.  (Oxford comma)  I told May that she had to teach this one alone because a woman’s place is in the kitchen.  I don’t think she liked it.  Do not.  

After May forgives me she comes and works with an 11-year old girl named Kim who was the first in class to say eleven.  Smart as a whip.  Addition?  Check.  Subtraction?  Check. (#womenSTEM)

Multiplication for Kim?  Iffy.  And like most women  I know and love I need her to speak up, and clearly. A teacher teaches always. All ways.

Why do my hands smell of gasoline?  Because I want to become tinder for the great 

flame

of knowledge. 

The massage you beg to end 

The helpful young guy whose name we think is Dewey, or something in Thai that sounds very much like that, makes the call for us. A mouthful of words. A nod that she’ll be here at 3:30.

She shows up early, arriving in a white pickup marked Island Taxi. Short, straight brown hair, chestnut skin, baggy orange tshirt with Thai letters on the chest, black pants, bare fee with widely-splayed toes. Harmless enough. Efficient. Straightforward. An average Thai woman of forty or so years.

Her blue plastic tote basket of oils and scrubs has a menu tucked inside. Next to its price list are a series of images of airbrushed Caucasian women looking supple, relaxed, sublime. I’m here to tell you they did not get Thai massage.

I take a deep breath as I lay down on her table, covered with mismatched sheets, a hello kitty pillow under my head. The late afternoon wind is up and I can hear the waves respond. Austrians and Frenchmen play cards and smoke cigarettes in the distance. For a moment, there is peace.

She barks “lay on stomach” and my massage begins. Her tiny hands, the tips of which would only reach as far as my first knuckles, twist my feet uncomfortably towards one another. She digs her thumbs into my calves. Up one, down the same one. Up the same one, back down. I silently praise the heavens that I only have two legs…just one more to go.

Just when I think I need to figure out a way to tell her to reign it in, I hear her clamoring onto the table with me. She crawls up to my butt and climbs on, knees first. I’ve no idea how this is happening anatomically- I believe she is literally digging the tips of her knees into the meatiest part of my glutes and somehow balancing on them with her full weight bearing down on me. It’s as if some evil, Thai massage therapist sixth sense has revealed to her that I always forget to stretch that part of my body. Years of knots untangle beneath her weight. I feel like vomiting. I hate her momentarily.

The knee digging moves down to my hamstrings and I’m sure I’m going to die. But like the empress of pain that she is, she knows just when to move on. I feel a deep, sharper pressure moving up and down the muscles supporting my spinal column. My mind toggles through empirical data in a desperate search for what body part she’s using. It’s not until I hear her grunt in my ear that I realize it’s her pointy little elbow. She digs. She slides her entire forearm diagonally across muscle fascia on my upper back with all her body weight leaning in. I try to breathe. In. Out. Out. Out more. Out again. Finally reprieve and an in breath.

She does the same on the other side and then works her way up to my neck. Her hands. Her tiny, merciless hands. She’s using her thumbs like spoons scooping at bowls of old stress underneath my neck muscles. Holding my forehead with her palm, her first two fingers pry underneath the base of my skull. She presses deeper. Please lord if there is one help me because I think she’s touching my brain. And, release.

I am told to roll over and my eyelashes flutter open for a momentary reprieve: luscious green foliage above, the sound of the palms like fast water over shallow pebbles. The leaves over my head part and I am momentarily blinded by the westward sun. She is not torturing me anymore and I think I might be in someplace like heaven.

But soon she’s panting her way back up on to the table and starting on my legs, from a whole new angle. She sits with one of my legs leg over her lap and the other behind her. She bends them to the side, to the back, across my body. She contorts them in ways I thought anatomically prohibitive. She reconfigures herself to place an elbow and all her body weight across the flat part of my inner thigh. I feel the pulse of my blood carrying oxygen to my shocked legs, to my twisted ankles, to my yanked toes.

Her sandpaper hands scratch my scalp, which i sheepishly realize has gone way too many days without being relieved of sand and salt. She rubs them along the sides of my neck. Slicks her hands with some tiger balm and oils up my neck, working for the third time on some knots she seems to be pissed off at in my shoulders. It hurts so bad I think I might cry, which immediately turns into a need to laugh. I am paying this person to do this to me. I crack a silent, lopsided grin and let one tear escape my eye as she puts the finishing touches on my neck.

As she drums pressure points into my skull it hits me. My legs come alive. My pulse is strong and even. My senses simultaneously alert and calm. A hum, a buzz, a tingle. She leaves me to sit quietly for a minute.The breeze. The tap tap of a game or cooking project nearby. A pile of pale green coconuts at the foot of a tree. Those ridiculously relaxed models on the massage menu. I have survived and now that I am safely on the other side, I can tell you with confidence that Thai massage will never be pleasant, but if you can stand it, I swear it will be worth it.

home on the road

This post was composed two weeks ago. I’m a little slow.

If you’ve never waded waist-deep through choppy seawater with a pack on, take my word that it is hard work. So, we are on a quiet island miles from Koh Chang which is miles from the SE shore of Thailand, which is not so many miles from the Cambodian border. Geography is one thing, but for those who have never travelled as minimally as we are endevoring to do, the following post will give you a taste of what “home life” was for our two week stay on Koh Mak.

After exploring two other guest houses (one too decrepit, the other too westernized) we packed up our small backpacks for a morning walk down the beach. Until about noon each day, the beach between the western part of the island and the eastern part of the island gets blocked off by high tide. So, on this morning, we packed our packs on high, above the waist, knowing that in order to make it to the beach we wanted to get to, we would have to wade.

The sun was already hot and the constant humidity was, well, constant. We began in ankle deep water, and at several points were on tiptoe to keep our packs dry through the deeper sections. We arrived at Island Huts in the span of twenty tiring minutes. Like I said, not the easiest of tasks, but it’s kind of tough to complain.

Unsurprisingly, Chris had already befriended the best English speaker at the place on a previous dinner visit to this spot, so there were high fives upon our arrival. The slightly more serious proprietor, Mr. Nang, gave us a small smile and handed us our key.

Our hut stands in a small village of similar huts. Most, like ours, are built of imprecisely hewn, pale colored wood with corrugated tin roofs. Three rickety steps up will land you on our front porch, the roof of which is held up by two natural wood beams with no processing other than that the bark has been removed. There is a low-slung, striped beach chair and a rustic, wooden table that for some reason wound up painted bright, saffron yellow.

The hut itself is about two feet wider than a queen sized bed, has a door on the left and a small window on the right. The door has a poorly-aligned padlock as its closure. To open, press with right hand, take a deep breath, with a quick, jerking motion using all available strength, yank back on the handle. Voila, home sweet home.

The ceiling is about ten feet high with a pitch that’s slightly higher. The queen mattress is on a small platform to the right, taking up almost the entire room. Chris and I have developed a patient, accommodating style of interacting inside the hut. There’s no other way to do it. For two people to complete tasks inside, it requires much shuffling, much sliding by, and a significant amount of handing of things to one another. There is a small nook on the left side with a space to stash our packs and one, single blessed shelf at about chest level.

We’ve been here for about a week now, so we’ve begun to make it home. I strung up an extra line outside our front door for drying damp swimsuits and towels. The line on the other side of the hut is for airing our silk sleeping bags and blankets during the day. On the narrow ledge inside the front door, our knife (primarily used for slicing mangoes), headlamp for walks to restaurants in the pitch dark evenings, Chris’s harmonica. On the ten inch wide platform at the foot of the bed, our few and carefully selected toys: the iPad, a kindle, tiny speakers, a deck of cards, and two journals.

The bathroom is three cement steps down to a pink-tiled floor. A shallow, rudimentary wash basin is in one corner. The shower sprays straight out so one must stand on the second step in order to rinse shampoo. And the tiny, blue plastic mirror, which looks like it came from a children’s toy house, reflects a smeared and foggy version of you back when you look into it.

After careful consideration, we’ve unpacked clothes (two t shirts, three pair of underwear, a pair of shorts, and a long sleeved shirt each), q-tips, probiotics, and water bottles onto our one shelf. Shampoo, toothpaste and soap are lined up along a narrow ledge in the bathroom. Below the shelf, our backpacks lay nearly empty on the floor, the seemingly inadequate storage in our hut is more than enough for our meager possessions.

We sweep it out regularly with a handmade broom from local palm leaves. We carry what little garbage we accumulate to a plastic bin at the end of the walkway towards the registration desk. We have mastered the complicated art of tucking our mosquito net in. In short, it is beginning to feel quite cozy.

Chris sprang out of bed before me this morning. As I dozed I heard him calling back to the singing birds, alternately cawing, tweeting, and laughing to himself. The sound of the sea, a constant hush, hush in the background. As the morning light came into our hut, I eyed a lizard clinging to the ceiling above my head. A mosquito or two buzzed around the outside of the net trying lazily to find a way in. I will soon rise, pull on my bathing suit and begin my day. But for now, I am delighted to rest here in our humble nest.

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To Catch a Crab

I watch them steadily in the morning after raking the beach, the coffee cup warming my hand.

They emerge from the sand like fast forwarded flowers. Frittering. Engaging in combat. Digging their holes.

I don’t know why I want to catch one. Deep down it’s probably because May was born in July. I just want to have it for a moment in my hat. Then I will set it free.

Someday, there will be proof of my victory. Just not today.

Watch the video here.

Being Kept

Something bigger keeps all of us. A thing. A person. An idea. A story we tell ourselves. Some rest inside that which keeps them, occasionally rattling at the bars of the cage like an inmate who still has a chance at parole. Some carry life sentences for their inner prisons (these many deserve great empathy and compassion).

A few lucky ones know that the only things really keeping them exist externally. They are beholden still, but willing prisoners to forces greater than themselves:
Gravity.
Air.
Sunshine.
Photosynthesis.

And the luckiest and dumbest and richest of all? They are kept by only a few things:
Joy.
Love.
Awe.

Find the walls of your prison dear friends, and keep planning your own Great Escape.