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Turkey Turkey Turkey

Friday, July 11th, 2008

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I have to confess that even after commiserating with Jim’s last blog about our uncertain situation, we are still managing to enjoy ourselves while we wait in Turkey.  Not that the last few days have not had their faır share of emotional ups and downs (with Nakia shouldering the brunt).  Here’s a brief (ha ha) recap of our last few days’ experiences:

June 26, Thursday — After spending the night on the sidewalk with other would-be travellers to Bulgaria, Nakia waits in line while we wait on the curb until 12 p.m. when they tell us there will be no more people admitted today.  “Come earlier tomorrow,” the guard says.  Peter doesn’t appreciate that comment and points out clearly that it would be difficult to come any earlier as we SLEPT OVER THERE ON THE SIDWALK!  His persuasive techniques coupled with Nakia’s threat to get her money back finally allow Nakia to get in to apply.  We sigh with relief and celebrate with icecream and pizza–we have to wait for a week.

June 27 - July 2 — We spend the weekend hanging out with our new Turkish friends and playing music on the street in Taksim Istanbul without complaining when people throw coins in our open guitar case.  At first we are angry about the week wait, but we realize the signs are lining up leading us to focus on music: 

1.) We meet a student named Fatih who hears our music and tells us we have to play on the street!

2.) We are staying in a house full of artists and musicians for the week, who introduce us to their friends who are also street musicians.  We play with them on Saturday night and watch how it’s done.

3.) We have nothing to do but wait in Istanbul for seven days.

4.) Our first attempt to play on the street yields genuine interest, good conversations, and around $100 USD in change and bills!  We are elated…

Our debut on European streets: Taxim, İstanbul 

July 3, Thursday 12 p.m. – We go to pick up Nakia’s Bulgarian visa only to find out they have denied it.  She tries to ask but gets no explanation — only doors closed on her, literally. 

We sit with thick anxiety as we brainstorm our options over lunch.  After making several calls and spending some time online, we decide to leave Istanbul for the border town of Edirne at 5:45 p.m.  By 7:30 we are out of the city and shopping in a small town for our usual bread, yogurt, and jam dınner with tomatoes and cucumbers when we are invited to stay at a house.  Doa, a twenty-eight year old career woman with great English, invites us to her beautiful country home suggesting we can camp in the garden.  We have a hot shower, tea, pleasant conversation, and breakfast with the Dad (an uncommonly proud Turk with a warm heart) before we continue into a beautiful sunny summer day.


July 4 - July 7 — We pedal up and down big hills.  The first day we are hailed by some construction workers while we stop to gaze out across the Black Sea.  They give us three of the “constructıon worker lunches” — chıcken, yogurt, peach juice, bread, rice pilaf — and big smile.  We eat with a couple of them and are on our up-and-down way.  We camp in the woods.  Then we camp in a field.  A friendly cafe owner gives us utensils to eat our watermelon, coffee, and finally Turkish books as a souvenir (mine is seriously bigger than most Bibles but I managed to stuff it in my pack after smiling thank you).

July 8, Tuesday — We make it to Edirne border town just before 12 p.m., when we understand the Bulgarian consulate there closes for applications.  We are hopeful after Netzy’s conversation with the Consul a few days earlier that Nakia’s visa will be no more than a two day affair.  I call at 11 a.m. along the road to make sure they know we’re coming, but am warned that no visa can be issued if Nakia doesn’t hold a visa for the next country on our journey.  Boom–pıt ın the stomach.

At the consulate the story is the same.  We spend the day trying to call and do research about our optıons.  If not Bulgaria, then what?  Greece says you must be a Turkish citizen to get a visa from them at their consulate.  Germany says the same.  We are tired and frustrated, but not without hope.  I am reminded of a parable Jesus tells from Luke 18 about a persistent widow who gets justice finally from an uncaring judge.  The moral of the story is to be persistent in prayer, because God is not uncaring like the judge.  We pray.  A few moments later, half-way through lunch we are greeted by a middle-aged man with a moustache and a good-natured frown.  He speaks to us in Turkish and we respond as best we can.  He is interested in our musical ınstruments, and before I know it he has me by the arm and is towing me across the square toward some unknown destination.  “See you later,” I call to Nakia and Peter as I am hurried away.  The man turns out to be a music shop owner who wants us to play at a bar, I think.  My Turkish is slowly improving out of necessity–but cannot actually be called Turkish because I can make no real phrases.  After about an hour I figure out that we should meet him at 7:00 p.m. and call a bar we will go to later to play music.  Okay–it’s like a scavenger hunt, and we’re getting the clues.  “Go to the music shop at seven and get the next instructıons.”  Seven hours later at 10 p.m. we are playing completely plugged-in at a music pub, and people are digging us.  We meet a young man who is also a musician and speaks good English.  He helps us find a host family.

July 9, Wednesday — Nakia and Peter manage to get in to the Bulgarian Consulate (a significant achievement in itself in our experience) and apply for the “quıck” visa–2 days– for 120 Euro.  Ouch.  But this is our path and time now is of the essence. 

We are able to spend the day using internet at our friends office to contact anyone we can think of who might be able to pull some strings — Bulgarian officials, US senators, Moms… you name it.  We wait to hear the news on Friday.

 July 11, Friday (a.m.) — I finish up this blog in the apartment of the Kahya’s as we wait for breakfast and wait for 12 noon to find out about the elusive Bulgarian Visa.  We have been treated as family here, having a place to wash clothes, sleep, shower, and sharing traditional Turkish meals with the family twice a day.

 The Kahya family: Naciye, our adopted mother, Volkan (far R), Aşkim a close friend, and Gurkan (back center)

 It has been emotionally draining turning through hope and uncertainty like the pages of the latest Harry Potter novel, but there is this thread of glistening hope and direction and blessing–as strong as steel–leading us along the way.  Whatever happens today, I am grateful to be a witness and recipient of such generous providence and unexpected adventure here in Turkey. 

As for our next step… TO BE CONTINUED ~~

A Day in Agra

Friday, June 13th, 2008

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I’m sitting in the thick shade eating my kilo of lychees and taking handfuls of self-made trail mix. It’s hot. I can feel my sweat trickling from the effort of eating, and stuff is falling around and on me. The first thing was a dead ant, its legs crinkled. Next was a leaf substance of some sort. The hostel manager comes over to talk to me about where we’re going next and how hot it is. Behind his head the culprit peeks down sideways from a hanging branch: a parakeet. Its green color is hard to pick out of the foliage, even with the scarlet beak. Most birds move in quick, jerky spurts, or bob about; not parakeets. They move more deliberately, steadily pulling the branches towards themselves as they make their way around, slowly. This one seems mostly unperturbed by our presence, and continues foraging, heedless of the litter he drops on his human neighbors.

It’s not only the parakeets. It seems like litter is everywhere–even surrounding the “Clean Agra Green Agra” signs. Before I bought my lychees I was riding down the narrow shop-lined streets, frequently braking for motor rickshaws (three-wheel taxis), motorcycles, honking cars, an the occasional ox cart or stray ox. The cows like the litter. I don’t know whose they are, but there are cows here and there, eating through the garbage or just standing with dulled eyes in the middle of the street, oblivious to the traffic rushing and stopping in jerks around them.

On a quieter street a ways back, closer to the Holiday Inn Agra, I had stopped to ask a man selling lychees off his cart, splashed with water to keep them fresh: “How much for ek kilo?”

“Ek kilo, 150 Rupees.”

Thirteen yellow flags fly up in my head, five of them registering on my face. 150 Rupees is roughly $3.75. I look at him and squint my eyes. I know this price is way too much just like he knows I’m not from around here.

“I’ll look around,” I say. I make to start off and he holds up a 100 Rupee note.

“Too late,” I mutter over my shoulder as I pedal off. It shouldn’t make me angry anymore, but I can’t get used to being taken advantage of. I want to trust people to be fair.

“Guest is God” is a Hindu saying suggesting guests are to be honored and treated with the utmost attention and respect. Sometimes we’re Guest, sometimes we’re Tourist. I haven’t heard the tourist saying, if there is one, but I could probably come up with a fairly accurate guess. Something like “Tourist is Target (for high-profit ventures).” Well, I’m just looking around anyway.

The shops seem to be themed in various areas. Here are the carpentry shops, making and selling furniture–mostly beds. Here are the hardware shops with plumbing and such. Here now are the small fried food shacks and snack shops selling a quick mixture of betel, tobacco, and spices by the packet. All the while I am winding and weaving down the road, taking forks at a whim, trying to go in a general south-east direction. Some movement along the building above me to my left grabs my attention; a monkey navigates a narrow ledge making use of pipes and wires above the crowded streets. They, similar to cows, have holy association here in India and can be found along the country roadways and in the city streets–particularly around temples or wherever food can be easily gotten.

In some areas we passed I saw signs saying, “Please don’t feed the monkeys.” I guess it gets to be a problem. I remember at The Cape of Good Hope in South Africa some years back the baboons had learned to spot a tourist with food. There the local staff warned everyone: “Don’t have ANY food showing, anywhere. Eat only in designated areas.” We thought little of it, until we saw our advisor turn his head from eating his sandwich and a baboon dropped from the roof above the table, snatched half of it, and was gone in less than three seconds. Later, a child walking behind his mother was slobbering on a popsickle. A baboon loped up to him, stripped the iced suger snack from his hands, and finished it a few yards away while the stunned family justed gasped and stared. “Tourist is Target” apparently is a well known maxim shared among more than just the local human population.

“Ahh, another lychee seller…” I pull over to find out what these small red fruit go for on this street. I stand there like a patient idiot for a few minutes right in front of his stand, as is my custom. Sometimes people are embarrassed because they don’t speak English, so they kind of ignore a foreigner. Others seem to grab at you when you least want their product. (”You want rickshaw?” “Um, I have my bike…”). This man seems just occupied in what he’s doing and biding his salesman time. When we finally make eye contact I ask, “How much?” He flaps a 50 Rupee note. “Hmmm, that’s better,” I think to myself. Still, I wait and watch other buyers. It’s my best trick; and it buys me time to think through negotiations and comparative prices of other fruits I’ve bought. Another man nods at a cluster of lychees.  “Teesh,” the salesman says. I rejoice inwardly that I know “teesh”. Teesh is Thirty in Hindi. (You pick up some things after a few months). Still I wait. A woman asks; “teesh” I hear again. In the meantime the assistant is measuring out a kilo for me and bagging it, to facilitate the buying process. He hands it to me. “Teesh?” I ask the salesman, somewhat rhetorically. He hesitates, then nods and averts his eyes. I hand him the money and leave, feeling a sense of triumph and curious emptiness. I got the price, but I just want to be human without battling for justice. I want to belong, not to win. Well, he got a fair price and I got some juicy lunch, so maybe that will help to fill me up.

What I need now is to find some quiet space to read and eat and sit, away from the business interactions and rush and stop of traffic, honking and revving. I head back to the hostel to find some thick shade in a place where I belong, if only temporarily, and hide my head from the heat of the day.  “Ahh, solitude.  Solitude and food,” I think to myself, “Great–What’s this?  Where did this dead ant come from?…”

Latha Selvaraja and the Squatting Little Village

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

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She came home and put on her “ordinary sari,” the one she cooks and cleans in.  The blue one, with not too much conceit in it, the cloth relaxed enough to exercise in.  She suggested I wear it for my morning run.

We slept on the floor of her mud-brick home last night. Three in a row on straw mats with a foot pillow lay at my feet: she, her fifteen year old son, and me on the living room floor. Her husband is a security guard in distant Coimbatore, the big city 300km west.

I really wanted to sleep well to make this night perfect. This was one of those amazing experiences you realize just how amazing in the middle of it and you curse yourself for not having your camera. But I didn’t. No visual proof that I actually slept in a mud hut in a mud hut village in the middle of nowhere in South India. So you, the reader have to suspend your skepticism of what sounds like thwarted logic, but is in fact, the unadulterated, only occasionally sensationalized truth.

And I didn’t sleep well. I tossed and turned beneath the capricious ceiling fan that at first swished and swayed away the revolting heat, then turned villainously cold much like love does overnight.  And when the fan was turned off, its villainous spite hung in the aftermath’s vacuum like the drool of a carnivorous ogre, waiting to be picked up like a baton by the mosquito militia who rushed in truculent, shoulders hunched forward, salivary needles aimed to feast on the ocean of new blood lying mangled and weak from sleeplessness.

I am accustomed to sleeping without a bed. Without a roof even, in the cold, in the rain, in the middle of a field armed by farmers lugging AK-47’s like handbags. Still, the spaghetti smell of your own sleeping bag with of your own sweat, a pad, mosquito net and a tent set up in the prime real estate of a harvested rice field behind a hill or in the middle of a bamboo forest trumps the solace of a night in the new environs of a house that is not your own.

The trauma must have been too much, because my body revealed its stress in ruthless revolt: I woke up to clinking pots and scraping grains completely and ludicrously voiceless. The ludicrous part being that when I opened my mouth to speak at any given moment, I only had enough breath to utter: “Vannakam. En peyar Nakia. Unkal peyar enna? (Tamil for Hello. My name is Nakia. What is your name?)”  Then all energy would drain synoptically from my voice to the rest of my body – my eyes, head, legs, hips – like blood leaving the heart for more mobile places. Like a daughter leaving home. What a horrible curse!

But this is not about me leaving home. This is about the aforementioned she, Latha Selvaraja, born in the coconut fringed village of Kuvanalangottai 100 km into the flat green plains of Tharangapadi Pillyarkoviluranipuram Taluk in the orange mud district of Kol. She was married at somewhere between 18 and 21 years old to a man 16 years her senior.  Her wedding pictures show a properly fed beauty feeding her newly introduced man with cake and a sly smile that betrays her peace with so astronomical an event.

The young Latha Selvaraja likes the sensation of splashed water. She likes to put her hands in a clean pool and watch it swell beneath the surface. She grabs the elusive water in her palms, individual fingers eclipsed by the depth, right before breaking the surface and tossing the water out and onto her feet, onto the grass, darkening the green moss of the backyard, until everything is wet.  It is a trait her elder husband has to attribute to the puerile recklessness of his young bride in order to restrain himself from cutting off the water supply to the house.

This night in these pictures, her family packs a van with a virgin, a dowry of clothes and pots and electronic items, and a stranger (who wasn’t actually a stranger but in fact her long lost uncle) to play husband in the epic story of marriage. 

“How did you feel?” I pointed to my face, and then screwed my eyes to indicate tears 16 years in the future when she has invited me to her “poor house” to feast on a self-replenishing mound of red chicken biriyani, chicken gravy, and pickles.

“I was afraid. But this is my life! My life is my husband and my son. Without them, I would have no life.”

Scratching my head, I crept back into the past, disguised as one of the sari donning aunties, and tried observed the young confident, elegantly jeweled 18-21 year old Latha Selvaraja.

She wears an ocean blue sari, this one silk and embroidered with gold, adorned by a dazzling cone-shaped bindi in the spot between her eyebrows. From there, the bindi points upward to gold loops that hangs from the crown of her head down over her forehead, orchestrating the bride’s face in an optical atlas that gives the eyes direction to the god within her. When she bows to her husband, the message is clear: the god in me recognizes the god in you.

A thali, or marriage locket, has just been placed around her neck. Neither she nor her husband look at each other as if to contain the laughter that would break out if they were to catch sight of each other’s bashful blushes. They focus instead on the aunties and sisters and cousins attentively putting food into their mouths.

I inch in between the crowd of wedding officials, Brahmin, auntie, sister, and eavesdrop on her inner thoughts:

I hope that your mother is nice. And that you have a good job. I won’t need too many jewels, just a pair of nice gold earings, a nose ring and a silver anklet for each leg. I hope i can have a son.

Luckily for Latha Selvaraja, the van that arrived to transport husband, wife, and dowry only had to turn the block and drive 3km before it came to a sputter, shaking out its hood, fanning out its hind, and rest its laurels at a tiny house across the street from her sister’s. She, having married her uncle, would live in her maternal village, where her father, mother, sister, brother, and extended family would always be around to give her milk to make curd rice and coconut chutney, firewood to cook with, and an ear to voice the concerns of adult life.

But Latha Selvaraja, who had the acumen to know that once you start complaining, life would never be good enough, never turned into a moaner.  She woke up at 5am the morning after her wedding, rolled the dough for the parotha, put the wedding clothes in a bucket to soak, swept the painted concrete floor, put the new pots and pans in order, and took a splash bath before her husband awoke for his first cup of chai at 7am. Happy with the swell job of housewifery she was doing, Latha Selvaraja continued the same tasks for 14 years until things got tough and raising a teenager became unsustainable on a landless laborer’s back.

Around that time, news of urban jobs where people wear crisp uniforms and watch as much Bollywood music videos as they wanted came on the backs of cart-pulling cows in the lazy little town of Kuvanalangottai.

When her husband left, Latha Selvaraja continued her private water splashing fantasies, but added a twist: she would splash water over the interior walls of the entire house and scrub it from ceiling to floor as if to shave away the smell of her husband, whom she didn’t want to miss while he was away.

The village Kuvanalangottai is scattered with mud huts, temples to Shiva, god of destruction and his wife Mari Amman. Tea kiosks selling biscuits squat with overweight men and women in moomoo’s chatting to customers. The temples sit next to ponds with marble steps where people sluice themselves before praying. The huts are awned with thatch roofs that flop to the ground like straw hats. They have grown out of the earth like an extra digit. It is hard to know whether the house starts and where the ground ends. Everything is smooth and rounded here like a Gaudi invention: no sharp edges, no straight lines. Only the old women have bent at 90 degree angles from years of planting rice paddies.

Latha Selvaraja’s house is just a rectangle, with every room serving as a corridor for the other, each visible from the street.  There is no privacy. Every matter is a village matter. 50 of Latha Selvaraja’s siblings have already come sneaking in through the living room to meet me.

 On the morning after I did not sleep, I was visited by Latha Selvaraja’s three mothers, the oldest of which had a pigment discoloration that seemed endemic in Indians as far as West Bengal. Her hair had gone as white as her skin in the shock of age and its battering of the body. Her energy, flushed out like the melanin in her skin, was mollifying.  She invited me for my second cup of coffee at 8am on the wooden cot of Latha Selvaraja’s father’s firewood store.  Caffeine ravaged my heart as I “took rest”, widening my eyes to show delight at the syrupy coffee, wobbling yes and no answers, waiting for someone to invite me to leave.

In India, the nation of villages, it is absolutely necessary to sit down and take chai before anything occurs.  To be hasty is to fight against the treadmill of the universe, which recycles itself, coming back with second rounds of tea, and three rounds of mothers. You will only tire yourself if you fight against it.

The second mother dropped in as if to relieve the responsibility of the 1st. Her hair was also white, but her skin still a supple almond brown. She spoke quickly, first to first mother, then to me, as if to indicate to both of us that she was talking about me, but not expecting an answer.

Then third mother, the haughtiest of them all, hobbled in, back bent at 90 degrees, and hair as white and curly as Punjabi’s beard. She was the type that didn’t let you get away with murder. She gripped my wrist in her slippery shaky hands and pointed at herself then out the door, to indicate that it was her home I had refused to go in for tea the night before when it was raining.  I, pretending to be stricken by her grip, bowed at the god in her, and asked forgiveness with my eyes. She wobbled her head: “Ok. We cool,” then sat next to me to me to display the fractured bone jutting out from the side of her knee.  

In this land of ludicrously green rice paddies, unpronounceable names and complicated family relations, I am unperturbed by the dearth of language. Communication is as simple as a Tom and Jerry cartoon.  Gestures are amplified, and even a mute can communicate. A smile is repaid with an invite to tea.  And a hand gesture with a head wobble, yes. My face is undergoing significant exercise as I learn to use it much like I used my voice.

I have learned to sing with it: raising my eyebrows so that they almost touch my hairline, stretching my smile so that my lips touch my ears and nose simultaneously, all the while keeping my eyes flexible so that they can look up and down, slant sideways and swivel much as my voice would hold a high note ripe and maneuverable.

Once, as I sang with my eyes, and Latha Selvaraja, with her helium voice, we hit a note of such symbiotic harmony that it was hard to separate us, and we almost morphed into the same person, my body sucked like pigment into the supple swathes of her blue sari. I felt my skin loosing its color. I saw the hair on Latha Selvaraja’s head begin to sizzle into short steaming kinks. I saw what looked like a white face peeking through the wooden planks of the entrance room separated from the living room by only a curtain.

Then, her son, the amazingly strong shot put champion Boominayagi, sauntered in pushing the world forward with his broad shoulders, and sucked back the energy of his mother. All eyes on him, Latha Selvaraja, shifted back to hostess mode and immediately asked me if I liked parotha. I nodded, and she rolled the dough, slid the twigs of firewood into her clay stove carved from the very mud of the house walls, and fried flattened wheat pancakes on an iron skillet.  She reheated the chicken gravy from the previous night, reached into a silver pot and pulled out eight magical rice flour cakes and a bag of coconut chutney. Four for me, four for Boominayagi. Then, when I started preparing my stomach to devour the feast already laid out, she reached into the voluptuous layers of her blue, ordinary, housewife sari, and pulled out an entire white icing cake!

The sly Latha Selvaraja of the marriage pictures has softened into a woman plump with love.  She pinches my cheeks then kisses her hands, the Tamil version of a blown kiss.  I am weak with love for a woman I’ve known for less than a week. How is it possible?  In the distant lands of my birth, it is not uncommon to drag an engagement on for three years, then two more just to be safe, then divorce after three years of realizing you were just not meant to be. Best friends start in primary school and go on through college and old age.  Love is slow. Life is fast.

With Latha Selvaraja, it is the absolute opposite. I have just met her and I am now sleeping with her. I have fallen in love overnight.  This is a crash course in best friendship. Relationship immersion. Like two people alone on a desert island. Differences minimized. Necessity draws action. Intentional bonding occurs.

Latha Selvaraja’s mothers, the three witches came cooing as Latha Selvaraja took a splash bath in the back yard. Meanwhile, Boominayagi sat on the table watching antediluvian Tamil music videos inches away from the ancient TV.  They talked to each other as they circled me like I was a vat, scratching their chins with their scrawny fingers, rolling their erratic R’s beneath their sharpened K’s, as they pulled the kinks out and watched them roll back in like a pig’s tail. They delighted over my mystery.

I sat, voiceless, and concentrating on the mental picture to capture this moment in my head. I enjoyed the commotion and found the fingers titillating. The clinkety clank of thier gold bangles soothed me like water.  I could hear the shaking of their old bones as they wiggled in and out of loose sockets.

Latha Selvaraja, dressed in her official sari, salmon with gold fringes, came in singing Tamil pop songs by Chitra.  The mothers suddenly intensified their evil finger work, moving down to the muscles in my face, until my non-vocal sounds began to merge with Latha Selvaraja’s voice.  

Our melody built as the the notes of a distant sitar wafted through the corridors. Thammátama drums kept a delayed beat that pulled my hips in the opposite direction of my torso until I was swaying like a snake from a basket. The witches began to clap their hands and galumph their anklet bejeweled feet, swirling the tortuous rhythm into a rapture. Latha Selvaraja’s 50 cousins reappeard at the door along with 50 of their sisters and brothers.

This was a festival of colors. Of cultures combined. I was loosing myself in the welcoming arms of Kuvanalangottai.  My bicycle tan draining away. My thigh muscles softening beneath the heavy lethargy of South India’s sun.  Could it be that this was my destiny? That I rode a bicycle for 6 months across several countries only to arrive quiescent and content in a village that would never leave me, whose sisters and brothers and cousins would always be there for me to borrow pots and deliver freshly squeezed milk?


To be continued…


Friday, April 11th, 2008

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Matthew 25: 35,40: “…I was a stranger and you invited me in…”"…I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”Mother Teresa believed these words from the gospel of Matthew and made them real in the city where she worked, Calcutta.   She sought to treat each person she served, no matter how poor, dirty, or diseased, not only with the love of Christ but as if that person were Christ himself; not just love flowing from pity, but love flowing with respect and dignity.   Love in action.When we arrived in Kolkata (Calcutta), Nakia introduced us to the people she had met while staying at the Salvation Army Guesthouse and volunteering with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity as well as a girls’ school.  It seemed like every foreigner we met was involved in some type of volunteering or service.  People from Australia, Uganda, America, France, Japan were spending time with school kids, helping to clean nursing homes, or change bandages and serve meals to the poor, destitute, dying.  Is it the legacy of Mother Teresa in this city?  Is it the clear poverty and obvious need?  Whatever the reason, people are serving others, striking a contrast with the idea we got in Bangkok.

In Bangkok you’re told you can get “anything you want… anything.”  I’ve heard it several times from different people in almost the same words.  There are Western malls full of Dunkin’ Donuts, I-max theatres, brand-name clothing, jewellry, and Mexican food.  There are tuk-tuk (took-took) drivers offering you a ride, marijuana, or a lady.  In the mall we walked (and gawked) past a Lambourghini sports car display and saw a ticket on a Porsche for 15 million Baht (about $500,000).  Of course real people live in a more average Bangkok all over the city, but the foreign section was teeming with opulence and options–for you, whatever you want.

Gretchen was different.  From the moment she welcomed us outside her studio apartment it was clear she didn’t fit the self-indulging stereotype.  Gretchen was the friend of a friend who opened her home to us, until then strangers.  She graduated from CSB (our connection) and pursued a Masters in Social Work from Augsburg in St. Paul, Minnesota.  After an initial volunteering opportunity in Thailand, she decided she wanted to come back, and found a job teaching developmentally disabled children with an organization that could use some organization.  She often finds herself working long hours teaching, as well as counseling ex-patriates on the side.  But, despite her busy and draining work schedule, she showed no reservations in hosting four stinky bikers and their gear in her one-room apartment for a week.  Our stuff took up the space along the wall and most of her narrow balcony, while our bodies took up the remaining space on the floor where we slept.  She was gracious and welcoming, even offering to give up her bed because if she slept on the floor, two of us could fit in the bed.  Jim assured her he preferred the floor, which he does.  Besides, we weren’t about to take away her apartment and her bed!  Still, her generosity showed through.

We spent several evenings with two of her Thai friends — Nu and Gium — who spoke English well and laughed often.  I asked her if she has any foreign friends or mostly Thai friends.  She said she doesn’t connect with many ex-patriates in Bangkok–she doesn’t appreciate their attitudes toward the local people–and she’s friends with the people with whom she works and lives, which are the Thai people.

Our last day together was Saturday, so after working the morning Gretchen treated us to swimming at the public pool.   In her words she wanted to “do something for us while we were in Bangkok.”  Amazing.

“Whatever you do for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do for me.”  I don’t know if Gretchen does it because of Christ, but she certainly showed us Christ-like love as strangers to a big city.  She emptied herself of her privacy for a week in order to acommodate four people she did not know.  I am challenged to think that in the midst of materialism, perhaps the most important question is not What do I want? but rather What can I give?  May her reward be great, however God chooses to give the blessing.

Drew: Feb 22, “Dragonflies”

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

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I am struck by two different wonders.  The first is the wonder of a new place, which is expected.  A foreign tourist sees ordinary things with interest, snapping pictures of houses, farmers, traffic—even squirrels—with an excited fervor that at times alarms normal people.  But of course to the tourist these “normal” things are actually very new and different.  We see large houses built three meters in the air on posts like stilts. We wonder.  We watch a man in dress clothes riding a skid around a plowed field by holding on to an ox’s tail.  We wonder.  We take a picture.  We try to capture the sensation of walking through the streets of Hanoi, dodging the torrential din of motorcycles driving through a maze of uncontrolled intersections.  We wonder how to get the best picture without being flattened.  This is all very wonderful—noticeable because of its contrast to the foreigner’s lifestyle and environment.

            The second wonder that strikes me is not one of contrast but rather ordinary beauty.  A long strand of tissue caught up in a breeze gracefully spirals toward me through sunlight.  I catch my breath.  I wonder.  Through a dark tunnel of trees one of my teammates is silhouetted against clouds of dust backlit by sunlight.  It is beautiful.  Events like these happen all the time, anywhere, and one certainly doesn’t have to be in a foreign place to see wonderful things.  But being a traveler is being an observer with the permission to spend your time observing, which does offer many opportunities to notice.

            Just a few afternoons ago we were stopped at a Cambodian Buddhist monastery with plans to spend the night.  Often the monks are very hospitable and will insist you sleep in the prayer hall rather than on the grounds, even if you have a tent.  After assuring them the grounds would be fine, we began setting up camp.  We were in no hurry since it was still before five o’clock.  Jim’s tent was laid out and we were just fitting the poles when I began to notice small dragonflies lighting on the folds.  I looked closer at one.  It had a fly clutched in its front legs—still trying to buzz—and was steadily chewing off its head.  As I watched in wonder, the fly came open like a tin can, as if the head were on a hinge, and the lucky dragonfly supped (or whatever they do).

            I had never seen anything like this.  I was amazed.  We stopped our intentions for the tent to watch a while.  There were many dragonflies, none longer than a toothpick, hovering and alighting, suddenly still with folded wings.  The flies were also buzzing about, and when a fly would land near a silent dragonfly, it would take to the air, aim, rear back, and dive like destruction bent on a bear hug.  It happened quickly.  Sometimes the fly would escape, sometimes it wouldn’t.

            We sat and watched at least three flies pinned by dragonflies and then clutched away to where they could calmly chew off their heads.  The spectacle was both wonderful and terrible, and I was reminded of my gratitude for not being a part of the terrifying insect world—and that most insects I’ve encountered so far are smaller than my hand!  Not only that, but I was also reminded of what an amazing and fascinating world exists literally under our feet; all around us we are free to discover small wonders every day.  I have seen many dragonflies in my twenty-odd years of memory, but this was the first time I had ever seen a dragonfly catching its supper.

            Soon the crowd that was watching us watch dragonflies had grown considerably, and we realized it was time to start making our own movements toward supper.  We finished pitching the tent and dug out the Frisbee for an effort at non-verbal interaction to engage our curious friends before we crouched over our boiled rice and bananas.  But of course, that wasn’t meant to be…

Drew, Feb 11: “Sam”

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

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When we first arrived at the park info center that morning we were looking for breakfast.  We were skeptical because we knew it was a tourist area and so we expected things might be more expensive.  I asked about a bowl of noodles in broth—a typical SE Asian breakfast—and the young proprietor said they were 12,000 Kip a bowl.  He asked how many we wanted, but I told him we were used to paying 4,000 or 6,000 for noodles–I’d just have some tea.  A few moments later he approached me and said, “For you, 6000 is OK.”  I said we’d have four bowls and thanked him. 

We ended up staying the day; some of us hiked in the old growth forest of the national park and some explored the area on bikes.  The young manager, who turned out to be Sam, let us leave our luggage at his place so we could more freely bike and hike around.  I don’t think Sam was his real name – at least not the same name as my cousin Sam, but that’s what it sounded like.  At least, that’s what everyone else called him too.  Saam maybe.

Sam was very friendly and the only one speaking English at the information shelter.  His was actually the restaurant next door, but he was useful for translation, so he was often running around explaining reasons to Tourists’ questions and acting as middle-man for negotiations, as well as taking orders.  At 21 he was renting the space from the village and running food and drinks for tourists and locals with his 19-year-old wife.  This was now his fourth month in business and about the same month of marriage.  We’d been biking longer.

As a member of Kiet Ngong village in southern Laos, Sam grew up to see his home become part of Xe Pian National Protected Area.  In exchange for stricter regulations for cutting trees and hunting, the villagers were provided with a means for harnessing the cash-flow of the increasingly popular Ecotourism industry, and were allowed to use natural resources as needed for personal and village use—as long as they weren’t taken outside the park and sold for profit.  Within the boundary of the park the sign said there were tigers, but rarely if ever seen.  Several other endangered species could be found in Xe Pian, as well as some old-growth forests, which, if left unprotected, could be attractive lumber sources to fast-developing nations like

Vietnam.  Most likely the park protection had come just in time.


One of the main attractions at Sam’s place was the elephant rides.  As Peter and I  sat in the shade and sipped our Pepsis, we watched about a half dozen owners guide their elephants into position for the day’s business—some with small rods and cords, others by pressing feet behind the elephants’ ears and coaxing with a few words.  Then they waited for a tourist van.  Peter and I marveled at how deftly the elephants used their trunks to grab and lift branches as big around as a half-dollar, crunching them like celery somewhere in their floppy, unhurried mouths.

Lao - elephant at Xe Pian national park (Peter)

Sam’s father also owned an elephant.  He may have been the one wearing the Minnesota hat—Sam wasn’t clear when he pointed him out.  I wondered how a Laoatian man, resting in the shade of a 90 degree January day on his elephant, came to be wearing a Minnesota Vikings derby style hat; a funny coincidence to make the world a smaller and more familiar place.  Of course we took a picture.

Lao Xe Pian Viking

Sam’s younger brother was also there, helping with tasks around the restaurant and with the elephants.  During one of the quieter times of the afternoon, when there was no tour bus, I fished out of my bags the slingshot I’d made earlier for some friendly target competition.  Sam’s brother came over with a smile.  We set up an empty water bottle and took turns aiming our stone missiles.  I managed to hit the bottle twice with the same amount of stones it took my young friend to knock it down ten times.  Seeing that he needed a more challenging target, I found a bottle cap and hung it on a stiff blade of grass.  It didn’t take him long to send that flying with a square hit at twenty paces.  Somewhere in there I surrendered my competitive spirit for appreciation of his skill.  He was twelve, after all…


Maybe because we were just hanging out all day, we developed a connection with Sam.  He seemed genuinely interested in us, and when he saw our guitars he smiled with excitement and pointed to his own in the corner.  The situation looked promising.


I got the impression that he’d been trained on how to deal with tourists and the common questions in order to turn profit.  But with us he seemed more reluctant.  Throughout the day he asked us whether we’d be staying the night for 20,000 K per person, but we said we’d rather camp for free.  In the late afternoon, as we made ready to go he blurted that we could stay here, OK no money — just camp in the information center shelter after everyone had left, and we could use the pump to wash.  Perfect.

Lao Xe Pian info office camping

Later that night, after our tents were set up, we brought out the guitars and played music together, trading Lao and Thai songs for Blues and Euro/American songs with the occasional Japanese tune.  Sam was clearly enjoying it, as were we, and soon was requesting each person to perform a song from his or her particular region.  We went around the circle and each did a song as best we could.  Jim did “Ghost Riders” as a cowboy song from the West, Peter played Boston’s “More than a Feeling”, Yusuke did a Japanese song, Nakia did a song/chant she used to sing with her friends at school, and I cheated and played Cat Stevens.  It was a cultural musical exchange jam session, as it should be.

Lao - with Sam playing music

In the morning we ate again, after Sam’s wife returned with the day’s groceries on the handles of her motorbike, and we said our farewells.  I wished him well, and I really meant it.  He and his wife seemed happy and they had a good thing going.  As for us, we were back on the road; back toward Cambodia along the Mekong River; back toward our next surprise encounter, whatever it was going to be.

New media page

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

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Why would anyone want to hear about us?  That beats us.  But we’re still here.  And to celebrate our incredulity, we’ve made a special page to feature other people featuring us. Sometimes it even features other people as they feature us featuring us.  Prehaps a bit narcissistic, now that I’ve put it that way, but go to the media page to judge for yourself.

Also, I think the links all work, but the computer I’m currently on is slowly self destructing, and I’m not hanging out in this net bar to fix them any longer. It may be a while before I see a computer again, so just email me and be patient.



Monday, December 31st, 2007

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Things have been slowing recently. We wind down the last of the wicked mountains with their fake peaks, and gaping caves that gawk at us from a distance.  We trickle down the last thumb of China’s Southeast like the spittle that painfully combs the sparse grass hairs and tickles the muddy river belly of this border town Ping Xiang. 

I can smell Vietnam. Its right there: 18km away. It smells like rice mixed with mud. We will have to cross the Mekong, which fondles the banks of the Tibetan Plateau China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, dribbling rice and fruits like a no-good man pollinates his offspring. It will be brown a lazy spittle in dammed areas a rushing gorge near the delta. Brown is not a color of shock. It’s one that dulls, like the oversized blazers and the Mao hats of old men who play Mazhong (Chinese chess) in parks. Peasants who blend into the mountains. Planters who blend into the fields. 

We honker down and wait for it to come. We are not scared, but anxious. Crawling back and forth through the street lights filtering through steaming vats of dumplings and noodles, sallowing the viscous night with their fat yellow clouds. Tapping our feet, looking up into the sky, reading a chapter, looking for food, tapping our feet, restless in this halfway city with its half Vietnamese, half Chinese signs. We have nothing else to do but wait to leave.

I have guesthouse, restaurant, net bar radars and their Chinese characters zoom into my focal vision like a movie trailer. These are the only characters I can read so I notice them even if I don’t want to go online, even if I’m not hungry. This keeps my senses tuned to the present. These big gaping signs signify safety, and I look for them like they are Bahamian flags, a safety zone in war times. I tap my feet. I rub my freezing hands together like a New York vagrant over a 50 gallon drum fire. I shiver, waiting.

People are tapping the water pipes with laughter. Vulgar, drunken yells slam against the dusty hotel window like a drunk friend who doesn’t realize how late it is. We smell excitement. Our street is shaped like a tourist attraction with red tents, outdoor seating, and delicacies like skewered rat for gullible travelers to experience. I like to experience so I pressure my friends to go streetstall hopping. We sample a few, and have a beer acting like decadent expats in a lost generation, ortravelers just passing though, the only real attention this town seems to get from foreigners, unless your Vietnamese and you own a store.

Because of our visas and the holidays, we’ve been taking three day breaks every three days.  We have no more weddings to attend or friends to meet. We have no other purpose but to get to Vietnam, and it is 18km away. Aahhh! This is more like a vacation. My mind is vacating. My memories are slowing down. I am getting fatter and slower. Every so often I get a rush, and my group members and I play the “What night was that?” game. This stream is petering out.

Soon we will be looking at China in retrospect. Soon I will be comparing every other country to China and not Japan. Soon I will be looking for concrete architecture cropped by clay roofs and hollowed by courtyards, bright red wooden gates that smell of paint instead of age. I may no longer think of simple wooden temples with ferocious guardian statues and tatami mats and paper sliding doors, colossal gates that smell of cedar.

My imagery will be replaced by more recent contact. I will look for signs of China: its smells, its language, its sounds.  Soon I will miss it. Perhaps even the frantic honking of buses and the guttural growl of coal-carrying dumb trucks breathing their exhaust onto my legs like a teenage boy kissing a petrified ear will seem faraway and romantic. Like sound blown through a conch shell. Faraway pink sand.

I speak in the future tense because I do not know what is ahead.  Perhaps this is dangerous to do because I am making self-fulfilling prophecies that might kill the surprise. This is not living in the moment. This is waiting for tomorrow, like a fiance waits for a soldier.

In some ways, our trip is only beginning now.  All five of us having lived in China for a significant period of time before cycling through it, (my four months being the shortest period), we’ve traveled through the populous, Han-predominant East, knowing for the most part what to expect, knowing enough Chinese to interact with the locals, to tell them hello, to ask them their occupation, to get a little drunk with them.

We’ve seen indicators that might prove or refute premature suspicions we might have mustered up beforehand: 1. it is much cheaper to travel and easier to bargain in the countryside, 2. people are much nicer and will invite you into their home without knowing you, 3. it really helps to speak the language to gain people’s trust and make deeper connections, 4. many Chinese love foreigners and most in the countryside have not been exposed to them, 5. Most Chinese people have no idea where The Caribbean is.  

China is present tense. It is now, smashed against our faces in its graphic market scenes of hanging meat and dripping blood. It is raucous internet bars with individual speakers at every computer blaring individual versions of the same techno bass beat. It is cigarette smoke poking dirty fingers up our nostrils as we try to look undisturbed.  It is moody restaurant bosses pushing whole chickens on us, or otherwise ignoring us when we want to ask for the bill. It is rowdy hotel ladies who, shouting while smiling, confuse our senses, making us think they are angry with us when they really just want to help.

China is uncomfortable. It is always happening. It is loud with big signs, piercing music, shouting people, shouting buses. We cannot stop this life from happening. We cannot keep the children from creeping up behind us as we eat. We cannot keep curious people from grabbing and trying to open letters we want to mail home.

China is up close and personal. People interrupt, squeeze between, slap us amicably on the shoulders, breathe on our necks as we sit and they hover, run up alongside our bikes as we ride next to fields.

China breaks us out of our comfort zone kicking and screaming.

It is 1110pm December 31, 2007 the last fifty minutes before the new year and we waitshell-shocked and exhausted like night watchmen like the MC at a New Years celebration staring at the clock waiting for the jump the ball to dropfor people to go crazy. I hold my breath for the next adventure when we will not have the safety net of language and background to settle us in comfortably. Perhaps, we will not have the innocence of non-traveled eyes, and the muck of experience will muddy the surprise of that to come.  Perhaps, our expectations of what will happen will turn out to be completely wrong.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. We still have to get through tonight’s scheduled street performance on the cold river front with the dribbling water petering out beneath the concrete arched bridge. I hope the audience behaves. But you never really know in China. Or anywhere for that matterI hope the border cops are nice  


Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

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I do have a ring I wear around my neck, but as of yet I haven’t been able to elicit any magical powers from it.  And it certainly isn’t the focus and burden of our journey, as is the ring in the epic tale by Tolkein about a misfit band of travelers crossing vast terrain full of dangers.

 But, we are five travelers and we are journeying across distant lands far from home in a place called “ZhongGuo” (which is the Madarin form of China which could actually be translated, “middle earth”).  And, like the band in the Lord of the Rings we grow weary from time to time…

And so for the last week we have found ourselves in Rivendell.  In this Rivendell instead of elves we have retired priests, and we’re not deep in ancient woods, but rather high on a hill.  We have spent the last week at a place called Maryknoll on Hong Kong island.  Here we have had all the luxuries of rest and relaxation and plenty of food that the hospitality of friends has to offer.  In the morning our balcony is flooded with light as we gaze out over the lush treetops to the vast expanse of the ocean stretching out around the cove…  During our feasts of pork chops, or potatoes, or hamburgers, or stir fry, or cold cereal!, our kind cooks will come in asking, “Do you have enough?”  Here it is peaceful and we have plenty.  We are blessed!

The generosity we have received from good-hearted people has been humbling, and our time here in Hong Kong has been full of undeserved kindnesses.  The cooks let Jim have his way with the kitchen and we ended up with homemade bread, fresh chocolate chip cookies, and peanutbutter and chocolate fudge.  The Hong Kong chapter of the SJU alumni had us out to dinner at the Royal Yacht Club and treated us to a memorable evening of banter and discussion, as well as a great view of the city at night.  Brother Sebastian gave us a personal tour of his drawing studio (where he writes and illustrates comic books that highlight social issues and offer positive responses).  Later he took us out to Ruby Tuesdays where we took advantage of his half-off membership card to remember Western burgers and enjoy the last crumbs of delicious dessert.  In between all of this we managed to get visas for Laos and Vietnam, help decorate for Christmas, interview with a television station, swim in the ocean, attend mass, watch movies, play music, eat food, sleep in, eat more, and generally enjoy ourselves and the view. 

Our time at Maryknoll was a much-appreciated period of refreshment during our trek across ”MiddleEarth” towards Europe; it was our Rivendell of rest. 

Thank you Maryknoll staff and priests for your generosity and kindness to FueledByRice this past week!  You are a blessing — may God bless you in kind.

Drew: Nov. 12, “Who we are”

Monday, November 12th, 2007

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You’ve got some of our thoughts, experiences, descriptions, and uncategorizables thus far on the blog. Much of our time is also spent interacting. We are in a sense family to eachother, as we eat, sleep, and travail together along this journey’s path. May I be bold enough to take a stab at a bit of a more intimate description of the members of Fueled By Rice…

For lack of a better approach, lets do it alphabetically.

Adam is our youngest member and second tallest. He has received some genuine compliments on his stunning array of whiskers from admiring Chinese girls. This is something none of the rest of us has been able to boast, to my knowledge. Although, I must say, save Nakia, we all have rather stunning arrays.
Adam is our most timely member. He confesses that he often does things “with a mind” and quickly when things are to be done. No messing around. He’s also the primary navigator and Keeper of the Ditu. (”Ditu” is not to be confused with “Digua”, which Adam has also carried from time to time both intentionally and unintentionally. Ditu is simply the map. Digua is a yam-like vegetable that we took malicious pleasure in hiding amongst our various members’ packs until discovered and replaced. This game lasted for a good two weeks, then appeared to be over until one day some time later Peter decided to clean out his bags. The Digua looked rather unfit for anything at that point.)
Adam has a mildly sarcastic but good-natured sense of humor and employs it well. He’s also a clear thinker and has little trouble just saying it how it is, cool like. \
Adam rides the Black Panther, a Cannondale touring bike, and is generally fueled by rice.

Drew is next, or Andrew; either way. That’s me. I’m sort of a pacifier, although I have my moments of instigation… People compliment me on my ability to put them to sleep, whether just talking or playing the guitar and singing. If a strong opinion is voiced, I’m there like Peptol, just in case. I have an unpredictable sense of humor, and at time find myself doing uncharactaristic and possibly embarrassing antics out of nowhere.
I like to sing while biking, especially in the morning. If I’m safely by myself, I may even try to conduct my imaginary orchestra. I think I have the best “thigh tan line” from my biker shorts, although none of us have compared.
I enjoy making ridiculous bets where the odds of me losing are great, but that glimmer of possibility tempts me into handing out icecreams and giving massages maybe more than a reasonable person would.
I ride the Grey Ghost (alias “Grey Donkey” when fully loaded with trailer), a Trek 820 mountain bike from yesteryears, and happen to mostly be fueled by rice.

Jim is our “Italian” from Montana. His dark beard sets him apart from the rest of us “blondish reds” and distinguishes him considerably. He is our third-bass section; one can almost feel the ground trembling when he sings the cowboy song.
Jim has a sense of humor and keen wit. He seems to have mastered the one-liner insertion at the end of a rather serious conversation to flip it into laughter. He also seems to be the most knowlegeable in general. If we have a question, we ask Jim.
He shares the “best Chinese speaker” designation with Peter while his Chinese character recognition is first rate. He most often orders our food and peanuts.
Jim has some erratic biking tendencies that will leave us confused from time to time as to why he is peeling off onto a random dirt road, or just suddenly not there, only to reappear right behind you moments later. We speculate, but none of us is certain what goes on. Perhaps it’s just avoiding a potentially embarrassing explanation that keeps us in suspense…
Jim manhandles “the Moose”, a Trek hybrid-type with surprisingly huge handlebars that look like antlers, and is equally fueled by icecream, peanuts, and rice.

Nakia is our foreign female. Her Bahamian upbringing and clean shaven visage immediatly set her apart as the only non-white non-male. She’s got guts. She’s also got a great voice and sense of adventure she contributes to our band of bikers.
Nakia writes and does music. Five a.m. will find her diligently typing away, huddled around a cup of instant coffee in the glow of her lap top. Her musical creative energy is often frustrated by her band members inability to match her flow. Still, she and Drew have been able to come up with some music worth singing and continue to work on more lines and rifts coming together in pieces.
Nakia bebops to MP3’s on her bike and is always impossibly cold (in the minds of her Minnesota grown teammates). She pedals the Black Stallion, a Giant mountain bike outfitted for travel, and though she prefers fruits and veggies generally, is often also, like the rest, fueled by rice.

Peter is our tallest member, our oldest member, and also looked to as our leader on this bike tour. He’s had the most experience biking and it was his enthusiasm and dream that brought us all together on the other side of the globe.
Peter has a positive outlook and an upbeat attitude that keeps things good, even when Drew tries to rain pessimism all over. Though he’s had five flats, he still hangs onto the threadbare tire that is presumably the original from his custom 80’s road-bike named “Forrest”.
Peter is not afraid of flashing his long muscular legs, which more than one woman has envied for her own, perhaps minus the hair and some of the muscles.
Peter plays the drum, guitar, and Erhu, as well as threading tenor lines into some of our covers and originals. Although he stands out visually here, he’s as Chinese as any Chinese when it comes to getting a deal. No one can pull the “I’ll-just-rip-off-the-foreigner” trick with Peter, to which we owe him many a “quai” (money).
Peter glides upon “The Jolly G.” (Jolly Green Giant) and is most definitely fueled by rice.

So, that’s us in a night’s nutshell. We play music, frisbee, write, read, and discuss items of interest all with generous portions of laughter. We are Fueled By Rice.

*fine print:
Drew accepts little responsibility for angry FBR’s at inadequate or inaccurate information herein portrayed and preemptively suggests they write their own posts. However, none of this information should be taken as complete representations of aforementioned identities and should also be taken with sodium chloride, generally.