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Archive for March, 2008

Please forgive the random smiley faces in the SE Asia post

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

For some reason I always have formatting difficulties when I compose a post in Word and copy and paste it to our blog.  On advice, I pasted it first to an e-mail which I mailed myself, then copied and pasted it.  In the past this has worked fine.  But today, random smiley faces have appeared.  I did not put them there, nor can I remove them as they do not show up when I go to edit previous blogs. 

The first one by “Communist Propaganda” is perhaps the most inappropriately placed, but as I said, I don’t have the power to remove the smilies.

Please take no offense.

SE Asia “Top 10″

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

In danger of stereotyping or propagating an over simplified view of any country, we want to specify that the following are just our memories, the characteristics that we best remember from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand in the order we traveled through them.




1)       Conical hats actually worn by many, especially farmers

2)       Funky 2-tone “echo horns” bouncing back and forth between the two tones and slowly fading, used liberally by many motorized vehicles

3)       French bread and banh mi sandwiches made with French bread, a meat purée with cucumbers & other vegetables, and hot sauce.

4)       Only roman letters used for Vietnamese, no indecipherable script.  The only continental East Asian country without such a non-western script.

5)       Common restaurant signs: Thit Cho, Tim Cat (Adam’s “Meeoww!” whenever Tim Cat was said), and Com Pho, all meaning respectively: dog meat, internal organs, and rice & noodles.

6)       Motorbikes!  Lots of Motorbikes, especially in Hanoi.

7)       Narrow, tall houses/buildings with very ornate & colorful fronts, but bare concrete sides, many of them new as of 2001 (year built often written in big print at the top of the highest eave).

8)        Rampant Communist Propaganda: old-school communist painted signs and 5am broadcasts over loudspeakers reaching even the remotest rural areas.

7.5) Ho Chi Min posters, billboards, and signs everywhere.  “Uncle Ho”

9)       Hard bargaining, such as restaurant owners changing the agreed upon price when it came time to pay, as much as double the original price.

10)   Double pedaling: two people on a bike, but the person sitting on the back rack shares the pedals.

11)   Most trucks are the same old-school model with the cab overhanging the sides of the front wheels and rounded windows.




1)       Very few people

2)       Old Growth forests in mountains (hwy 8 in east-central Lao from Vietnam)

3)       Wooden houses on stilts (instead of concrete or brick)

4)       People, especially children, yelling “Sabaidee!” to us instead of the English equivalent: “Hello,” thus for the first and only time on the trip people using their own language when initiating a greeting with us.

5)       Brand new Toyota “Hilux” 4-door champagne color pickup trucks seem to be the only model of automobile on Lao’s sparsely trafficked highways.

6)       Sticky rice that comes in little baskets.  “Sticky” meaning one must use one’s hands to ball it up to eat, chop sticks are nearly impossible for the task.

7)       Beer Lao tastes good, but is expensive (US$1 for 0.5L compared to China and Vietnam US$0.25 for 0.6L) 

8)        Swimming in Rivers – rivers that were clean enough for the first time on the trip.

9)       Other bicycle tourists, usually seeing one group a day

10)   Freely roaming cows, pigs, goats, and chickens instead of them being tied or fenced.

11)   Traditional dress for women (scarves and long skirts)

12)   We started siesta time due to the mid-day heat (12:00-3pm)

13)   Loud music with big bass from select homes in the early evenings when people would receive their freshly charged car battery for electricity during the evening.




1)       Burning down the jungle for the first 140km in the north from Lao, making it look like a war zone.  This area also had very few people.

2)       The Mekong River and biking 200km or so through the “endless village” along its banks on a rough dirt road.

3)       More wooden houses on stilts (often with thatched roofs)

4)       Tall white cows/oxen and big wooden-wheeled wagon carts with 2-cow yokes hauling hay, reminiscent of the American West wagon.

5)       ATMs (the few there are) only disperse US dollars, and every one accepts dollars and gives Cambodian riel as change if less than US$1.  (4000 riel/ US$1)

6)       Pre-made food at restaurant stalls, fast and cheap (500 riel for a serving of rice, 1000 riel for one serving of a vegetable or meat dish)

7)       People eat early lunches (10-11am)

8)        Instant noodles common, even in nicer restaurants serving “noodles”

9)       Many loud weddings set up right near the main roads, with blaring Cambodian music and big bass starting early in the morning and lasting nearly all night.

10)   Common for people, especially women, to wear pajamas out and about.

11)   Sarongs with muscular men

12)   Kramas (checkered wraps used as scarves or bandanas, part of Khmer culture.)

13)   Brand new Lexus SUV’s are the most common automobile, with “Lexus” written in big print on the side of the vehicle.

14)   Older mid 1990s Toyota Camry’s are the 2nd most common automobile.

15)   Barren, dusty, flat land/rice fields as far as one could see in western Cambodia leading to Thailand.

16)   Cambodians appear to look a little Indian, seemingly conforming to the Cambodian creation story connected to Hinduism, that the first Cambodians were half Indian and half Naga (a mythical Hindu sea serpent).




1)       Big, nice, developed-country quality paved roads and divided 4-lane highways and plenty of cars and pickup trucks to go with them.

2)       Ride on the left side of the road

3)       Purposefully loud truck and motorbike (“rice rocket”) exhaust pipes

4)       Many street lights

5)       Green vegetation and obviously effective land management

6)       Black and white cows off of county roads strongly reminding us of Minnesota.

7)       7-11 convenient stores everywhere.  In Bangkok, one nearly every block.

8)        Take shoes off in some rural convenience stores

9)       Most Thai dogs “attack” bikes barking and chasing

10)   Most common meal: fried rice with assorted veggies & Phad Thai


Sunday, March 30th, 2008

There is an army of crows outside. Their constant wretched squawk is cracking holes into this feeble building left over from the East Indian Company. The road leading to it, Sudder St., the tourist street, has fallen in beneath the vigilant sentinel of construction as if to ward off invaders like a wall in reverse. I have to tightrope my bike along two narrow plywood boards to make it across.  Men in lungis (a long tube of cotton tied into a knot at the waist) work morning and night and middle of night with chisels and mullets and picks hacking away more and more of the road. We let them lull us to sleep, the last sounds of the city that fades from our consciousness.  

India rises up around me in waves of curry. I smell it as I type messages to friends and relatives in the net bar. It’s in my clothes. It calls me like a wicked finger into the streets that are stuffed with particles manifesting themselves into legs and hips and hands linking hand-pulled rickshaw to yellow cab, sari to earth-tone dreadlocked tourist to baggy salwaar rags sagging from tourist’s body to cow to cow pile to sleeping goat to street side excrement to street side urinal to Brahmin priest in white to DDT pesticide nozzles in gutters.  
 If Zen’s theory of interconnectedness were to manifest itself into literal form, India, which doesn’t acknowledge Buddhism as separate from Hinduism  – would be its incarnation. Not an ounce of space is to be spared. At least, the space that does exist tends to connect us rather than separate us.  
Walking the streets of Kolkata (the new phonetically accurate spelling change from Calcutta) gives off the sweaty, sticky fumes of being perpetually touched. And human touch, something we despise in favor of personal space and private time in the West, is becoming normal to me. Or perhaps, it was always so. I miss it like it was something I knew before. Like it was a nipple. 
I try to apply this new comfort into the care for patients at the Mother Theresa Hriday Nirmal (Kalighat) hospice for the destitute and the dying where I have been volunteering for the last three weeks. One can see from Kalighat’s meager and archaic facilities, that the intent was not to provide state-of-the-art healthcare.

The smell of antiseptics floats from the door through the isles of narrow, aging cots where patients at different levels of emaciation and pain stare at you with worrisome eyes. Volunteers are requested to make patients feel loved whether they are changing bed sheets, feeding the weak, giving a massage, or applying bandages. 
On my first day, I stood in the middle of the room shrugging my shoulders feeling the classic volunteer frustration of helplessness. Then someone gave me a ball and told me to help with “exercise”, and I soon learned how a simple act can turn into a lot if done with care and attention. The brown, jaundiced eyes of a small young woman lit up when she started tossing the ball volleyball style to the other women who were stealthily creeping up and raising their hands to catch.  
 I am not religious, but in this circle of glowing women, I felt like “instrument”. As my eyes fell on dresses coming loose, my hands instantly crept up to re-button the slit at the back. When water spilled, my legs moved to find a cloth to wipe it up. If someone coughed, my eyes searched for a cup and filtered water. I felt the muscles that throbbed beneath my fingers as I caressed. I forgot myself and my need to feel useful. I simply became whatever they needed. 

The callouses of growing up and acquiring self-awareness and a knowledge of other people’s comfort levels, mastering that innate sense of self-preservation, and an obsession with my own independence and need to make my own decisions leaves a person scalded and bald. We are not touchy-feely people, and when someone touches us on the sidewalk, a brush of a waiter’s apron on our arms, an accidental elbow jab from someone trying to get out of the subway, an intentional tap on the lap from someone who wants us to lower our voice on our mobile, we question their motives. 
 In uberconvenient Japan, where Zen influences much of the culture, life is simple. The rules are the rules, and there is very little reason to have a confrontation if everyone follows them. Pay money. Receive good. Take a number, wait, give haiko (personal identification stamp), receive service. A simple exchange of services. 
In India, what transpires is an exchange of promises, of good names and head wobbles, chatting, a cup or two of sugary chai, and in the end a symbiotic arrangement. 
 After my first visit in 2006, I went back to Japan telling people that this country was the absolute opposite to theirs. Here, people are overtly honest. If they don’t like your hair or your shirt, they tell you. If they are in a hurry, they push and shove. They shout fiercely when angry. They stare, even when you stare back.  India still rung in my ear when I was sitting on the express train from the Kansai International Airport, shell shocked from the blazing white walls and plastic seats dotted with black business suits and the tops of peoples heads looking down into newspapers and glossy mobiles and laps. 
If India’s Zen is on the ground, Japan’s in the head. India bleeds into every scrape and cleft of the old colonial bricks, Japan remains tucked discreetly into a briefcase. 
Images and sensations race at me at such a fast pace that it is difficult to write about them extensively. I can only list: the heat, the cough-inspiring vapors of deep-fried samosas and puri (a round dough rolled with spices inside it, then deep-fried into a crispy hollow bread), the smell of soap men use to bathe themselves on tile surfaces next to street side pumps. The eyes lashed in lustrous black stare so deep you forget where you are and what you are doing.  My senses are on fire and I come back to my hostel feeling limp. 
Southeast Asia is old and far away from my mind though I left it only a month ago. I have no more space for it in my head as India swallows me up whole in its spicy cauldron of haughty women and slippery hands that wiggle in the spaces between where my arm hangs from my body. Hands that lead to little dirty faces pouting professionally, mouthing the word “money”. Ammonium wafts of gutter piss will float on the raven wings of shrieking crows up to the balcony of the Salvation Army Red Shield Guesthouse where I rest for 70 rupees a night. 
 Sudder Street, the tourist street is criticized for endorsing the worst type of corruption in Kolkata: prostitutes, professional beggar businesses and drug sellers Kolkata.  Volunteers are warned by the Sisters of Charity not to give money to these beggars who will just pay their bosses rent to live and “work” on such a profitable street.  Yet, I’ve observed a level of organization and community among the street people on Sudder Street. Gossip spreads as if in a mud hut village. When a new tenant arrived a few days ago without bags and two passports, people rallied for help from their tarpaulin sidewalk tents.  
The dread built into my memory from Western accounts of Kolkata  – the child prostitutes, the brothels, the starving beggars, the slums, Mother Theresa’s house of the dying and the destitute, the grayness of photographs taken of the city under the douse of rain – has not materialized as much as the interconnectedness of Zen: everything is a continuation of everything else. Mind over matter. Despite the slums, people are friendly. I cannot walk around without someone inviting me to chai or lunch, explaining their thoughts about politics and philosophy.  
So when the French guy at my guesthouse asked me if I was ok on my second day, I said uneventfully, yes. No frightening stories to tell. Only the anticlimactic admission that I wasn’t that shocked. I sat back into the chair next to him, lulled by the ceiling fan above my head and struck up a conversation, amused by his ideas that sounded more interesting in French English. 
 He told me of the business classes he teaches teenagers living at Howrah Station in Kolkata. He doubts he’s actually doing anything to help because the street kids know more about the complex kiosk business system based on bureaucracy, borrowing, bargaining, and bribery than he does. What can lectures about supply and demand and time quality management do for street kids in India?  He has the familiar volunteer insecurity that comes from zealously wanting to help, but not knowing how.  We Westerners like concrete results for our efforts.  
Still, not sure what will come out of it, Paul just goes with it. A continuation in the coincident of human relationship.
 Most of the people I’ve met staying at the Salvation Army Guesthouse volunteer at the Sisters of Charity Missions. Some volunteer for 9 month stretches. Some for 2 weeks. Others start there, and branch off to join another NGO or to form their own. A friend of mine from Spain, started a school after numerous trips back and forth to the slums of Kolkata.  Another friend has involved himself in the community of beggars on the street, and they come to him when something is wrong.  
I have my own reservations about volunteer tourism and I have questions about the doings of many NGO’s, yet not enough to invalidate people who, through their need to help or simple curiosity, might learn something about the human spirit – how to love without wanting love back, how to forget self, how to touch. Searching in the dark to fulfill those human needs to be of use to others, we touch hands with the same needs. Others we can help thereby fulfilling our own needs. Others in transition. Others bleeding onto the smeared canvass of human connection.   
The fan that blows sleepy air around the five bed dorm room hums me into infantile solace. I remember hot summer nights when I was a child in The Bahamas. My sister and I would lie for hours sweating in our underwear, waiting for the breeze to turn cool and plump, to push itself into the cracks between the planks of our wooden house and through the blades of the whirring fan. It was this sound we heard before we went to bed every night.  The white noise webbed across the contours of barking dogs and delinquent boys breaking beer bottles on warm asphalt. 

Memories of Thailand

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

During the few days we spent in

Thailand with internet access we were too busy doing things like losing our bikes to the apparently small number of not-so-nice people or getting them improperly remade to recount our experiences there.  Even though we only biked through the country for a few days, it was an awfully pleasant experience, and we would be remiss not to discuss it at all.

The most marked change was certainly in the landscape.  Almost as soon as we crossed the Cambodian border, green fields with trees spread out around us.  This so completely contrasted with what we’d seen in Cambodia that I am rather at a loss to explain it.  Can deforestation really have such a drastic yet contained effect?

We found people constantly being helpful.  For dinner the first night, we needed water.  I stopped at the first spigot I saw (spigots having replaced hand-pump wells since the border) which happened to be attached to a fire station.  The firemen greeted us enthusiastically and not only urged us to fill our water bottles, but also entreated us to use their facilities for bathing. 

One fireman had a large pink scar running up most of his exposed arm.  He looked to be in his mid-forties, and had obviously been on the scene of many fires.  After showing me the hose and encouraging me not to be modest in my use of it to shower, he ran and grabbed a cloth and machine oil for Drew, who was cleaning up his chain.

The next day during breakfast we gorged ourselves on street food.  I purchased a pineapple and began skinning it with my small pocket knife.  A lady ran up to me holding a huge knife and a plate.  Expressing gratefulness with my features, I accepted the lent items and set about skinning the pineapple again.  However, the lady apparently saw only incompetence.  She grabbed the knife from me and proceeded to do the whole job herself, chiding me and demonstrating proper pineapple paring all the while.

During break that day, we stopped alongside a river and practiced jumping off a nearby dock.  A lady pedaled up out of nowhere and handed me a bag filled with fruit and bread snacks.  I tried not to take it, but she insisted. 

Of course the crowning act of kindness during our

Thailand days was offered by Gretchen.  She welcomed four dirty, smelly men into her studio apartment for an entire week.  Though trying to be respectful, we inevitably crashed about late at night and early in the morning, and by virtue of our bodies spread haphazardly about the floor lent a bit of hazard to trips to the bathroom and other nighttime movements. 

Gretchen never complained.  Instead she was extremely gracious and welcoming.  She even went so far as to introduce us to her Thai friends and tolerated our excessive appetites for several meals.  From her apartment far from the cluttered, touristy downtown districts, we were able to grasp a quiet, residential side of  Bangkok otherwise unattainable.  Thanks Gretchen!


Gretchen and FBR

Good Friday: A Christian in Calcutta

Friday, March 21st, 2008

I am fascinated by the inappropriate convergence of what is holy with what is common. When the moment is supposed to be reverent, and everyone is poised in dutiful and solemn attention, and then something unmistakably and unavoidably irreverent insists on happening — and the spell is broken, or at least cracked — these moments I find very curious.

Here in Kolkata it is a holy day.  Christians attentive to the church calendar will recognize today as Good Friday.  It is also the Coloring Festival, a Hindi celebration of Spring where colored paint is smeared and squirted on just about anyone passing by.  And, it happens also to be the Muslims’ holy day, Friday, as well as the birthday of their prophet Muhammad, I am told.  So this day in particular is quite a convergence of holidays.  And for Kolkata, which is home to many Muslims, Christians, and Hindis, there is reason to celebrate.

While I type, I am listening to a Muslim speaker, amplified in the streets.  This morning I passed several groups dancing and beating drums as they covered each other in bright greens and pinks, deep reds and dark browns.  As a Christian I attended a Holy Thursday service yesterday with my teammates and today a Good Friday service.  These services were a bit different than I am used to, both longer and more traditional, and yet with some perhaps distinctively Indian characteristics.

The service on Thursday seemed quite solemn and dignified when we arrived.  Many of the Sisters of Charity were in attendance–perhaps it was the same church Mother Teresa attended while living here–and the church was full.  But unlike many Catholic masses I have attended, the music consisted of a choir singing their hearts out to a Karaoke beat.  Even the sung parts of the mass waited for a synthesized beat intro in order to begin.  Since we didn’t have a bulletin, we just listened:

The Priest (sung): ”Let us proclaim the mystery of faaaith…”

Synthesizer: “Pom, chickey, chickey–Pom, chickey, chickey…” [stop]. Restart: “Pom, chickey, chickey…”


I confess some distraction.  But I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the worshipers, or question the legitimacy of the worship style.  I think trying to decipher the Indian English accent amplified with poor acoustics only made things more difficult to adjust to for our untrained ears.

One thing that did grab my attention during these hours of Indian religious integration was the deft maneuvers of either an unhappy or an adolescent thrill seeking bat that found itself in the well-lit cathedral without a place to land.  What made this most exciting was the presence of a virtual ceiling of whirling electric fans (Kolkata boasts muggy 90 degree temperatures).  So the bat, as long as it was above the fans, had mostly a clear path in cruciform.  But when it decided to swoop or dip at its break-neck speed, it would swerve dangerously close to the whirling blades.  I kept holding my breath for the convergence that would spatter the faithful with bat remains.  The bat would disappear around the corner and I would wait…  There it was!  Swooping and dodging its blind path in tight turns–straight toward a fan… swerve! at the last minute and disappear again around the corner.  I knew the bat was not part of the service, and I knew that I was not supposed to be paying attention to the bat.  It was my duty to join with the congregation in patient attention to the foot washing ceremony we could not see because of the pillars and those seated in front of us.  But this was one of those moments–the convergence of the sacred with the mundane.  I wondered if the priest knew about the bat and whether he was thinking of ways to better ignore its presence while speaking the holy words of ceremony.  Fascinating.

At the Good Friday service earlier today we had no synthesizer.  We were at St. Thomas Catholic church which proved a bit more solemn than St. John’s, and we did without musical accompaniment.  It was nice; I rather liked the blending just of voices together singing the familiar hymns like ”O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “The Old Rugged Cross.”  But I found that the gospel reading, when sung, is considerably longer than when read — and considerably harder to understand.  I imagine singing holy sections of the mass is intended to tap into the medium of angels to express these important parts rather than simply speaking them.  The down side of this idea is that often the priest is not gifted with an angel’s vocal capabilities  (I wonder if he dreads this obligation more than all the others) and many of the congregation is at best trying to stay focused while one out of four gives in to sleep for the fifteen to twenty minutes of read-singing.  I did think there were better ways to get across this important story, but the solemnity of the many moments was only broken by the fire that lit up in the Sacristy to my right.

Apparently the candle holder in front of the statue of Jesus and Mary had some candles burn down to the stainless steel base, where the melted wax formed one big candle for all the rest of the debris that had collected there.  At first I only noticed the flickering light seemed somehow brighter than before.  When my irreverent eyes turned to investigate, I was alarmed to see a small campfire-sized conflagration was now happily burning in the bottom portion of the candle holder.   Those on my right, nearest the blaze, seemed not to notice.  I was wondering if they were intentionally unconcerned–maybe this happens all the time?–or if they were ignoring the fire’s impertinence for breaking out during the solemnity of the Good Friday service, while the gospel was being sung.

After some time, a man with a rolled up bulletin (probably a deacon) began to confront the fire with his weapon, which not surprisingly turned itself into a torch as it sucked up the hot wax and lit in the flames that had been going for about ten minutes.  He tried to blow it out, but it only raged with the breath.  He was beginning to draw attention as he stamped out his bulletin and pondered his next move.  He and another man decided to drain the wax, so they put out all the other candles and tipped the fire on its side, where hot wax drizzled and pooled onto the stone floor.  Then they scraped the flaming debris into a more concentrated pile on the candle holder using the ever-effective rolled bulletin.  Several more flaming-bulletin-putting-outs ensued.  By this time back-up had arrived with a water bottle and they began dousing the fire, which now had also begun on the floor as well.  It made an inconvenient loud hissing and sputtering sound, as the water came in contact with hot steel and hot wax at the same time.  Several more heads turned as the Sacristy swirled lightly with steam and smoke.  Another woman came rushing with her water bottle and finished off the fire once and for all.  Satisfied, they resumed their seats as the service, that hadn’t skipped a beat, continued.

As I said earlier, I find these moments of combined holiness and ordinariness very interesting.  It is an exercise in holy problem solving — figuring out how to acknowledge that which is not supposed to be happening with poise and ease, and maintain a proper level of reverence throughout.  I tell these stories with a degree of amusement, because I think it’s appropriate to find humor in our human attempts to control a not-so-sacred happening in the midst of what is supposed to be a sacred atmosphere.  But these convergences are not always harmless or amusing.

I have heard stories of indignant righteous church-goers who have embarrassed new-comers by asking them not to wear such a “disrespectful” T-shirt in the house of God.  Maybe the person didn’t even realize what was written on her shirt, but was already self-conscious enough about being in church.  As the child of missionary parents in French-speaking Africa, I remember Mom and Dad laughing about an usher who was happily unaware that his T-shirt read: “Where the Hell is Frasier?” as he passed the offering bag.  But I know that some people have been chased away from God’s house in confusion because someone thought they were insulting God.  When this ”ordinary” meets that kind of “holy”–one without good will, compassion, or humility–it is not a laughing matter.

The story of the Christ at Easter is full of the mixing of holy with mundane, the sacred with the earthly.  It begins at Christmas where we celebrate Almighty God as Immanuel, a human child.  On Good Friday, we contemplate the mystery of God’s holiness dying a sinful death.  The scriptures say that Jesus, being in very nature immortal God, emptied himself and became a human–a slave who died a miserable death on a cross.  It’s this mixing of holiness and humanness Christians remember especially on Good Friday.  Ironically, it’s also the mixing of holiness and humanness that the religious leaders cited when they sentenced Jesus to die: “…It is not for any of these crimes that we sentence you, but because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

The pretense of holiness can be a powerful and dangerous thing.  Although it can be uncomfortable, I like it when reverent situations are infused with a dose of reality.  I am reminded that we are not the ones in control and that God delights in the ordinary things–the things we consider insignificant or foolish.  As Christians we seek holiness, yes, but we cannot create it through our actions or by manipulating the environment.  We must accept it as grace while we pursue it with discipline, always acting in love.

The mysterious paradox of life…

May your celebrations and reflections during this Easter season find the right mix of reverence and reality, one that would lead to a humble and grateful smile.

The Two Shall Become One

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

For those of you hoping for insight into matrimonial affairs, I’m afraid this post will disappoint you.  The title here is not referring to marriage, as is often quoted from the Scriptures–and even Hamlet takes a stab at it; no, rather it is the simple story of a movie-going experience involving a bicycle in Bangkok.

Peter and I heard through the grape vine there was a good movie showing in the excessively luxurious shopping complex in downtown Bangkok where white-gloved door people open the large glass doors for you and call you things like, ‘Sir’.   (I’m sure they are nicely compensated for their troubles…)  Well, we wanted to add as little as possible to their compensation, not out of spite of them but out of frugality, which seems to be high on our list of virtues these days — so we decided upon the 50 baht (1.50 usd) late-night showing, partly for price and partly because by the time we ate dinner and biked back to town, we’d just make it for the 9:45 p.m. showing of No Country for Old Men.

We made it in plenty of time, and locked our bikes next to each other’s near a busy street in front of the mall–albeit shaded by a sky-walk staircase–in the provided bike rack, and entered the air-conditioned world of Gucci and Vespuccio and the like.  (Those of you keen on fashion will recognize that I made up at least one of these names only partly because I cannot remember enough real designer names…)

The movie was excellent, and I found myself caught up in the story and torn in my fear, hope, and hatred for the good and bad characters portrayed in this clever snapshot of local life that is both normal and far from normal.  (I also found myself wondering how the Thai people present could appreciate the genius of the dialect and conversation when it was in translated subtitles…)   Peter and I walked out in a half-daze, me exploring the emotional residue left from this suspenseful yet charming? film.  We talked about something on the way down, I forget.  When we got to the bikes, Pete’s stood alone, it’s metal U-lock sadly smiling as if to say, “Next time, U should…”

Funny, I had just witnessed some disturbing murders on screen, and though this missing bike sobered me up, I still felt that somehow it was insignificant in the way of crimes.  I think the police whom I notified also felt similarly,  but they did their best to take the report seriously as we headed down to the station in the back seat of their Pick-up.  Other things I realized were: that this event was significant in the way of year-long bike trips; that I still had my new blinking red tail light I had purchased earlier that day–similar to the one we saw hanging on the tail of the elephant that trollomped by with it’s rider at 12:42 a.m. down the deserted city streets while we waited for the cops to arrive–the same light I had still in my pocket! Hah!;  that I would need a new helmet as well; that I would be exempt from the maybe $100 bike fee on the flight, as I no longer had a bike; that next time I should purchase a metal U-lock.

So, the two became one, and that was that.  Maybe I could make a T-shirt that says, “They snipped my lock in Bangkok” ,  and make up the difference in sales.  But probably not.  Instead I’ll see if God has any ideas (he already gave me a random $100 after I asked what to do) and look for a cool Indian bike here in Kolkata upon which to continue our journey.

Stay tuned for updates…I know I will.

Safe, sound, and wide-eyed in Kolcatta, India

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

We’ve (the boys) arrived in India. Whoa.

Walking out of the Kolcatta (Calcutta) airport into the late afternoon sun, I was greeted with a new and noticeable smell. A different smell than Thailand, and since we’d flown and the change happened suddenly within 2 hours, it was easy to notice. It was the smell of India, and I smell it now as the air wafts over me from the door of this net bar. Soon I will become used to it and I will no longer notice it. Smells are so difficult to explain, but there are food smells, curries, other spices, lassies (yogurt drinks), mixed with plenty of bus and taxi exhaust from the old style “Ambassador Classic” diesel taxi cabs.

While biking the 20 some km from the airport to the center of town I noticed that yes, the traffic here is plentiful and congested. But because we were forewarned for the worst, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Moreover, since we’d just come from biking around Bangkok, which so far is the least pleasant city we’ve biked in due to a confusing road system, narrow streets, super fast traffic, few other bikers, and plenty of fast and loud exhaust-piped motor bikes that seem to view every newly green light as the start of a race, Kolcatta’s slower traffic has actually been a nice change. After Thailand’s surprising absence of car horns, the frequent car horns here are a strange kind of comfort, reminding me of China.

Also reminding me of China, after contrasting Lao’s, Cambodia’s, and Thailand’s sparse populations, I also quickly noticed that there are A LOT of people here in Kolcatta. Known for its crowdedness, I still sense a positive vibe from the people here. When Jim and I stopped to ask for directions to Nakia’s hostel (Drew was on a bus since his bike was most unfortunately stolen in Bangkok due to a less-than adequate lock; he’s planning to buy a new low to mid range bike here - but he can tell you more about that later) a small crowd of people slowly gathered around us with several quite eager to help us find the street we were looking for, also taking me back to our Chinese days, only they spoke great English. It feels good to be back in the thick of humanity. Although I did enjoy the time to think while biking in the middle of no-where Lao and Cambodia, after 3 years of living in China, this is what I have become used to. Only here, there are MORE people and everything is even more intense than in China. I’ll probably tire of the large numbers of people at some point, but for now Kolcatta has a surprisingly huge park area (actually parks) that provides a great get-a-way for some peace and well, not quite quiet but more quiet.

A few other things that I’ve noticed in my first 2 days: taxis and buses are old but well-functioning, and real rickshaws (pulled by a man walking, NOT pedaling) are very common and used by many, unlike China that only uses more and more scarce pedi-cabs (tricycles) now. People’s clothes are distinctly Indian, especially women’s, comprised of colorful cloth wrapped and draped about them. Clothing here seems to be refreshingly the least westernized of any other country I’ve traveled in. Food (and the food is great: nan, curries, samosas, etc) is cheaper than China and most of SE Asia at the cheap stalls. I usually eat for $1.00 a meal, which actually fills me.

We’re planning to stay here for the better part of this week, as there is much to do and plenty of volunteering opportunities, as Nakia has already dove into. After that, we’ll head north 200km or so to visit one of Jim’s friends who lives in a remote village, which should be a great experience right off the bat.

Until then, I’m taking my time and trying to be gentle on myself as I mentally adapt to this huge regional and cultural shift.

Cambodian home stay: An evening with Rosa

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

My muscles were getting tired as the sun was sinking on the hazy horizon over the Cambodian Mekong River. I began to wonder where we were going to sleep. It’d been a rough and slow ride all day along the “shortcut” to Phnom Penh – a rocky dirt road following the snaking Mekong from Kom Pang Cham to Phnom Penh through a seemingly endless village of wooden houses raised 2 or 3 meters on stilts with overly excited children franticly yelling hellos at us. Not that I was worried. We could, if needed, ask any family if we could set up our two tents in their yard as Gael and Elena had done. However with 5 of us, we didn’t want to be imposing. Two foreigners who barely speak your language showing up unsolicited on your doorstep is one thing, but five foreigners with loaded bikes plus a Band Wagon can be a bit intimidating for anyone. A few nights before, we’d asked at the local Buddhist monastery if we could pitch our tents in their compound and they welcomed us with open arms, insisting that we sleep up in their large prayer hall. If we could find another monastery…

My whole body was sore and tired, but not as it usually is after biking 75km. After all, we’d only biked 50km today, but that was the problem. Going only 10-15km/hr instead of 20km/hr over rough dirt and rocks while standing up for much of it to cushion my poor road-bike wheels and trying to acknowledge as many of the children greeting us as I could was a new kind of stressful workout.

Winding around several 90 degree turns we came along a wall that looked promising. A little further we arrived at the decorative concrete gate with two nagas (snake-like creatures involved in the Hindu creation story – closely connected with Buddhism - who, according to the Cambodian creation story, compose half of the Cambodian ancestry along with the human half from India) indicating this was a Buddhist temple and probably a monastery.

We entered the gate and looked for the distinctive orange robes of Southeast Asian Buddhist monks. Spying a small group of young monks across the way, we slowly approached them and asked if we could set up our tents somewhere in their large yard and spend the night there - mostly using gestures and our badly pronounced phrase for camping in Khmer. They seemed to understand, indicating it was OK between several quick exchanges in Khmer and giggles.

We got to setting up camp. We were near the back entrance of the yard, which faced a small dirt road and the Mekong. A few people walking by noticed us and our strange equipment and stopped in to watch us set up the tents. This group then attracted other passers-by and soon there were 10-15 people watching us, as we were watching a dragon fly eating a fly on Jim’s tent (see Drew’s post). Rosa Srey Houch was one of the on-lookers.

Rosa had come by motorbike with her mother when she had heard from her neighbor that there were foreigners on bicycles down at her local Buddhist temple. Being an eager 16 yr old English student, she naturally wanted to seize the opportunity to talk with us. That opportunity soon turned into an invitation for us to move to her home. We at first told her we’d be too much trouble for her and her family, but she insisted and we finally accepted.

Her home, in Hancher Village, Kom Pong Cham prov. Cambodia, was just 200m down the dirt river road and was quite nice, elevated on stilts like the others, but complete with concrete walls on the basement level where we stored our bikes. Climbing the steep wooden steps to the living level of her home, I realized that this was my first time to enter a Cambodian home. It was beautiful, with its simple yet carefully crafted wooden slate floor and vaulted ceiling.

Rosa’s grandmother in their living room

We hadn’t eaten dinner yet. Rosa and her mother wanted to cook us dinner, but we insisted on cooking our own rice and eating the sweet bananas we had planned for our dinner.  I finally managed to at least convince them to use our rice as they proceeded to cook it for us. It was near 7pm, so her family (mother, grandmother, younger sister, and younger brother) had already eaten. They had some of their dishes left over and quickly put them before us to complement our rather simple dinner of rice and bananas. They arranged the food nicely on a cloth over the floor on which we sat. After eating, we tried to insist that we would do the dishes, but Rosa, along with her sister and mother wouldn’t hear of it. After putting the dishes in a big basin in the kitchen for later, we all sat down again on their living room floor to chat and play a little music.

Our music drifted through the wooden boards to the neighbors’ homes 10-20 meters way, attracting them to come over to check out the foreign band. As has happened elsewhere, some of the people were there more to check us out than to listen to our music, talking amongst themselves while we played. Rosa and her family seemed to enjoy our modest performance, though at 9pm kindly asked us to wrap it up since it was time for the neighbors to go to sleep.

They gave us a nice chunk of floor space with sleeping mats and pillows in their front porch/sitting room and also provided us with a huge mosquito net and a smaller one. I had a great night’s sleep.

Thanks to Rosa and her family for such a warm and hospitable welcome! It was one of my most memorable nights in Cambodia.

Rosa is the third from right and her younger sister is the second from right.

8500km Beijing to Bangkok in 6 months

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

You may be wondering how far we have riden from Beijing to Bangkok.  Now you know.  =)

Of course we didn’t take the shortest path by any means, at times purposefully going longer to visit friends (i.e. Shanghai, Changsha, and Phnom Penh).  But since visiting friends who have a deeper understanding of a city or a country is one of the best methods of travel, the extra kilometers were always well worth it. 

March 16th 2008 marks our 6 month anniversary of starting our trip and the approximate mid point of our trip.  This Sunday Jim, Drew, and I fly to Calcutta, India to begin the 3rd chapter of the Fueled By Rice story after wrapping up the 2nd chapter in South East Asia.  We still hope to make it to Europe, God willing and if finances hold out against the battering of airplane tickets over countries that won’t allow us to bike through (i.e. Myanmar and Pakistan).  We have been so blessed with encounters with wonderful people, safety, and a general smoothness of the trip.  Thank you for your continued interest, support, and prayers as we enter what we expect to be the most dangerous road conditions to bike in - India.


Monday, March 10th, 2008

I’ve never felt so little and inconsequential in my whole life. I haven’t been this close to the brink of tears since I left my friends in Japan. I am feeling emotional and not worthy of mention. As ordinary as a cockroach smashed beneath a shoe. I feel as petite as that cockroach’s hairy arm detached and picked up and carried away into the abyss of whirling dust. It is dry season in Cambodia and biking has introduced us to a significant amount of insignificant dust fibers making themselves comfortable in our lungs.

Three weeks ago, we spied on grasshoppers eating flies on Jim’s deflated tent. We backed the predators. Flies are hard to love.

It reminded me an art film exhibited at one of the 798 galleries in Beijing. The camera zoomed in on insects attempting fatally to cross a street amplified by the bullish sounds of traffic. The viewer holds her breath each time a giant car wheel or a motorcycle and bicycle zooms by, and waits to see if the bug is still plump and intact, or has it been squashed into 2D relief on the asphalt road.

I watched a fuzzy beetle crawl right into a giant lizard’s hiding spot on the banister of a porch facing the river in Kampot. The predator, with shiny black eyes bulging from its triangular head was the main attraction. The bug, stupid, trivial. I was drinking red wine and talking about nothing with my neighbor for a week, Bart, the dreadlocked Belgium boatman, advertised in the local English newsletter as such. Everyone knows everyone in this coastal town 148km south of Phnom Penh. It is petite and sleepy, forgotten in the blitz of Angkor Wat tourism, and frankly enjoying it.

The river water is salty in the dry season (from November to June it flows from the ocean in the south, and in the rainy season, July to October, it flows from the mountains in the north). I swim better in it because I am used to the buoyancy of sea water in The Bahamas. Floating on my back, I see the gray clouds hover like a heavy skirt with ruffles. I switch my position to see the mountains to the east. Tigers are there. Sensory camera’s triggered by passing paws snap, capturing the tigers in svelte night prowls.

I have been separated from the boys for a week, and one would think that being on my own would big me up, escalate my size as per decision-making power and influential capacity. I don’t have anyone to answer to. I am not swallowed up by an all-encompassing team. I am me: NAKIA PEARSON. Liberated femme fatale. Individualism never looked so good until it put on a pair of pumps and red rouge and turned its kitchen into a closet.

So speaks the post-Sex and the City generation. Traveling in Asia has made me embrace my female freedoms even more. But since I don’t have the money to go on big shopping sprees or big closets to pack 180 pairs of shoes, neither do I have the girl-entourage to sit down in cafes for chats and woman support, I’ve had to rely on something less tangible than consumerism. I am raw here without the comfort of everything familiar to me to pad me. It is me against an opposite culture of Western men and Eastern society.

I am small. Like an insect. The last niche of the traveling ecosystem. After the tow trucks, the SUVs, the cars, the motorcycles, the tuks tuks, the rickshaws, the bicycles and the pedestrians, comes the insect. The only thing left to connect my inconsequential voice and size to the rest of humanity is willpower. The will to love when one does not feel like it. To love bigger than I am.

On one of the days I volunteered at the ASPECA orphanage in Kampot, I found no adults or older teenagers around. The oldest were fourteen years old. I started organizing games, breaking in between with acapella performances of songs I usually sing with a band. I had their full attention. They loved my voice. I loved my voice. We get up and run around, kick a soccer ball, play some games, sing, play more games, sing, kick a ball, ride a bike, sing, play game.

Then, someone got hurt.

The little one (it is always the little one) with the webbed right hand has fallen completely backwards and knocked the back of his head with a muffled thud on the concrete floor. He is quickly swept up by the children (like dust) and taken inside on one of the straw cots in the girls’ dorm. The oldest girl takes him in her arms and hits him on the thigh when he kicks and screams. She rocks him, applies ointment to his head as the other children surround him and coo him back to his previous lighter mood. I motion that they must wash the scrape on his back, and the oldest girl tells me, “No problem” in English. Little girl. Big, motherly love.

I, small as a bug, realize that they have the situation under control. This little colony of children that spends most of its days without the sentinel of a round-the-clock adult staff is self-sufficient. They don’t need my help. I am mere entertainment. There goes my volunteer erection. There goes my feel good sensation. Bubble burst and blowing itself backwards out of the window, into the dust.

I am afraid of someone else falling, so I decide to sing. But they want to dance. They try to teach me traditional Khmer dance, but it is too difficult. So I try to teach them some African American Sorority steps I learned as a teenagers from the AKA’s. They, much to my dismay, bore easily. They sit me down on the floor, and put on a 30-minute performance of all the traditional Khmer dances they know. Perhaps, I am too romantic. Perhaps I do not have much experience working with people at a societal disadvantage. But suddenly, I want to cry.

These children are amazing. And their greatness has nothing to do with me. They have no parents. Tourists walk in and out of their lives all the time, playing with them for a while, bringing them gifts of crayons and coloring books, taking them on shopping sprees and a nice dinner. They have each other. They are growing up each other. All I have to do sit on the floor and watch them be amazing.

Through our hosts in Phnom Penh, Jean-Francious and Miriam, I got to stay at a mountain and riverfront house on stilts that belonged to Katie and Hallam Goad, British organizers of Epic Arts, a professional artistic company that works with deaf, blind, and disabled performing and visual artists. The two were busy traveling to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh presenting SPOTLIGHT: An Asian Festival of Inclusive Arts, which I got to see on the two last nights upon my return to Phnom Penh.

This time, as well as the time with the children at the orphanage, I was on the verge of tears. I sat and watched real artists putting on an artistic event, not a circus. As a Nepalese woman who’d only one leg, performed a flirtatious Nepalese dance with the vigor of a teenager and the focus of a professional, I felt teeny weeny and helium voiced. Like I had suddenly lost my own legs and grown the limbs of a “verminous bug” (Metamorphasis). Like I was something viable to kill.

In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa, the sole breadwinner of his family, wakes up as a cockroach, the most irrationally terrifying of insects. His human selflessness in his desire to send his sister to a conservatory to study the violin is no match for the hideousness of his hairy, skinny, legs flailing from his anthropoidal bulk. His family is repulsed by him as his human ability to express himself give way to his insect needs. Slowly he dies and his family is relieved. They forget to care.

Like Samsa, it’s my human senses that connects me to the world whether it accepts me or not. At the Mother Theresa Sisters of Charity Mission in Kolkata, India, one of their Sunday chants encourages one to seek to comfort rather than to seek comfort. To seek to understand rather than to be understood. The self is directed outward rather than drawing up all strength within. The triviality, the frailty of a bug strips one down to his or her bare elements of character where there are no fashion props or stylish jargon to bulk up our personalities. You are the one hated or the one forgotten. In the humility that this situation instigates, the only thing left is will. Desmond Tutu, one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, believes that love is an act of will.

My last week in Cambodia, I had no electricity, but the use of candles made everything – the distant motorcycles, the dogs barking at midnight, the cocks cuckooing at 5am, the cows mooing at all times, the big-eyed lizards on the wooden beams – more romantic. I sat on the porch drinking wine with Bart, watching bugs die, and wondering how to love bigger than my self.