Celebrating a Legacy in Senegal

The trauma of losing loved ones is universal and impacts mental health in everyone, but the cultural responses are so unique.  My own life and relationships have often been shaped by grief for lost loved ones, which gives me a personal interest in how others mourn, grieve, and honor legacies.I often wonder why there is so much stigma when talking about the long-term scars of loss. Personally,  I am comfortable talking about, and celebrating lost loved ones, but I have learned that this isn’t easy for everyone. When strangers ask typical background questions about my parents or sibling, I watch them suffer in the awkwardness of my responses. Often, in that moment, I feel worse for their discomfort than for myself. So, instead of deep conversation, changing the subject is the best distraction with people breathing an obvious sigh of relief.

Generally, after initial memorials and condolences fade, there aren’t often secular spaces for celebrating legacies of loved ones within standard American culture. As time passes, we hear that “life goes on” as new people enter daily life bringing fewer ways to naturally share enduring memories. So, they start to fade…leaving a mix of sadness and a bit of guilt at not honoring the lives of those deeply influential people. I would even say that there is an unspoken timeframe when people begin to feel awkward bringing up someone who has died, as if a mention will harm hearts with reopened wounds. Instead, there can be a degree of invisibility to everyone but the person silently suffering in grief.

These thoughts are inspired by the deep imprint of a recent celebration spent in Nguekhokh, Senegal where we honored my friend Adama’s grandmother, Ada Mariama Diallo in her village home. It was the six-year anniversary of Ada’s death and the local village remembers her with food and prayers each year.

Although I won’t ever meet Grandma Ada, throughout the preparation and events of the day we developed the kinship of dreamers. In 1982, Ada purchased a plot of land in an isolated village and built more than a house – she built a human oasis. While others teased at her remote choice of a property, Ada knew it would be a special place for creating her lasting legacy, so she purchased herself a plot of land. Others soon followed, likely drawn by the creation of memories unfolding before their eyes. As we toured the property, Adama nostalgically told stories of eating from the fruit trees, playing with the animals, and enjoying games with the other village children. “You should have seen it then,” was a common theme of the place where she learned much about life through the loving lens of her family matriarch.

On the day of the celebration, we arrived to find Ada’s lifelong friends stirring steaming pots of porridge and comfortably chatting in the back of the yard. Her inner circle watched the events of the day from a loving distance – spending time in fellowship honoring their friend while focusing on the preparation of celebratory sustenance. Throughout the morning, neighbors strolled in and joined the family at large rugs near the mango trees, where they gathered to share prayers and faith. Many were prompted to make the village trek by personal memories that included the young teacher who traveled each year to remember the woman gave him shelter and shaped the successes of his life.

After prayers and sharing by Adama’s father, we marked the day with a commemorative meal and time together. I asked Adama how they spread the word to so many people. She said there is really no need to send invitations because people just know the date and remember to come. That is when it struck me that I wished for the same. It’s funny because I am not a person who enjoys celebrations that feel forced. While I love time with others, surprisingly, something as simple as birthday recognition can be a struggle. I often forget and feel like I can’t find the perfect gift under pressure of a specific timeline preferring “just because” gifts in natural ways. But with death, it is different; finding the place for recognition is hard, so reserving this special day for Ada felt right. It served as a place to remember a loved one and invite new friends to meet the person who so importantly shaped so many lives. The party served as a powerful release, and to me, provided a space that reduced the stigma of grief.

After the celebration, the inner circle of family extended their time together with visits to local friends and a delicious dinner near the beach. With the foundation of honor set by morning events, everyone seemed tugged by the reminder of the power of one person and relished these precious moments of bonding. I know that I did.

While I never met Grandmother Ada, I am grateful for the time we spent together and will look for ways to instill the value of powerful legacies in my own life.

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Loving “Teranga” in Senegal

Connecting with Senegalese partners about mental health often lead to similar conversations on the impact of stigma, the challenges of receiving adequate support, and the need to encourage conversations that heighten awareness on this topic. Discussions center on low reporting of suicide cases and how they are rarely shared openly because of deep religious implications on impacted families including the inability to provide a proper burial and significant judgment from others. From hospital hallways to NGO offices, everyone agreed there is much work to be done in a system where therapy and medication are lacking at all levels.

At the same time, daily life in Senegal offers a glimpse into how informal systems exist, as people shared about a culture that strives to build neighborly connections where people work together for common good. Offering support to others is tangible here. It is found at tables during family meals, in daily group prayers, and with a concept I have grown to love – TERANGA!

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While I believe I could knock on doors of family or friends in a crisis to find support, in most cases, I just wouldn’t do it. The idea of “just showing up” without a plan seems intrusive and a bit disrespectful. Teranga topples those norms by making it ok to just show up. Teranga, which is known as the act of hospitality is a true open door policy for foreigners and friends where people are welcomed for last minute visits with drinks and open conversations. Woven within the guise of hospitality, there are tenets of mental health support for all involved.

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I made lovely friends in Senegal who gave me a slice of their everyday lives. As we traveled to local destinations for errands, they would often pull the car over for a quick visits along the way. During these times, and since I don’t speak French, I was able to deeply hone into the support offered during these moments of connectedness. The idea that “you matter” was clear upon arrival as people were welcomed with open arms and quickly-assembled drinks. Even as a guest, I grew to love bright greetings and the “always ready” hospitality. Conversations seemed light with the deep listening as important as the stories being shared. As the chatting and laughter commenced, the environment seemed warm with the time and place offering a natural space for family leaders to share wisdom and insights with young people who sat within the mix.

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Throughout my time in Senegal, I would lie awake thinking about the mental health connections that are deeply embedded in the culture I observed. While people say, they do not have mental health support here, there is something incredibly hopeful in the intuitive care and support offered through Teranga.

As a final thought, I do realize while talking about people throughout my journey, my perspective is limited by my own experiences. I am in no way implying that these are the experiences of every Senegalese person or that I have captured depth in my awareness, but this is what I observed during my short journey into Senegal.

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Visiting Accra Psychiatric Hospital

More than once after arriving in Ghana, I was told it was a shame to begin a year-long journey there because I will never meet nicer people in another country. “You should have saved the best for last,” is what they said. After just a short time, I got it.

Ghanaians tend to work as a collectivist society where everyone looks out for each other. As you wander crowded streets, people step in and guide the way. There isn’t a consistent system of addresses commonly used. Instead, landmarks describe locations which makes the network of strangers as essential as GPS. This seems to work for locals, but is hard to navigate when you aren’t sure where you’re going in the first place. For me, this collective system of help was always needed to get from place to place. As for safety, I was also told that as long as someone is around, people are safe in Ghana because others will physically jump in to defend against injustices they see. Even the names of businesses and signs on storefronts showcase a spirit of general good will for others. Ghana is a special place.

If visiting a new country feels like swimming in an unfamiliar pool, then committing to do so while engaging in conversations about mental health is a bit like being pushed into the deep end. Navigating mental health openly can feel awkward when battling years of silence and stigma, but the added element of doing so in a less familiar place requires pushing yourself on a personal limb of outreach, listening, and learning. Even with that, I am aware that I am likely making unintentional mistakes along the way, which makes relationship-building an essential aspect of the Hope Travels project.

Despite this underlying challenge, wherever I turned, Ghanaians tossed lifesavers to guide me through learning about their current progress spreading mental health awareness, building advocacy networks, and creating spaces for hope. At the same time, they were open and anxious to share the significant challenges still to be faced.

My learning began during a visit to Accra Psychiatric Hospital where I was guided through the expansive compound by Emmanuel Aboagye. He shared how the stigma related to mental health runs deep in Ghana and that many of the patients who stay here have been dropped off indefinitely at the hospital and may never be seen by their families again. Fear of lingering curses, judgment by extended families, and a lack of resources can push families to make this painful decision. For this reason, Emmanuel believes that mental health outreach is a critical and urgent need in all available venues. Breaking stigma and spreading the message that, “It’s OK not to be OK,” is going to require a deliberate focus beyond the hospital to reach families, schools, churches, and local NGOs.

The hospital is broken into a variety of wards for women, men, children, and criminals. As we walked each ward, there was obvious disrepair, limited resources, and dated facilities. Emmanuel said that getting funding from the government is hard and housing people is different than providing funds needed for comprehensive care. Last year, the staff went on strike to fight for more facility resources – even though doing so left the hospital with only a bare bones staff and minimal care for patients. For them, the radical discomfort caused was the only way to be heard. Some additional funding was granted, but so much more is needed. People who work here are committed to doing the best with what they have, but feel stretched by the crisis.

There is a “vagrant” unit which houses people found on streets years ago when there was some funding available to do so. Sadly, the money dried up, and the people who live in this unit are those left behind – many who are named after the day of the week and place where they were found. At this point, most of the people are expected to spend the rest of their lives here.

Patients receive therapy during the day and access to medication. These are expensive services that are not readily available to most people who are struggling with mental health but live outside of the hospital.

There are some signs of growth at the hospital. An NGO recently funded an occupational therapy center that will open soon. The brand new tennis court looks slightly out of place now, but is a flag of hope for things to come.

As my visit ended, Emmanuel and I chatted and found much commonality centered on the need for advocacy and prevention services. He noted that self care and mental health support is essential for people who work at the hospital who often ignore their own needs to focus on others.

I asked Emmanuel how people can help and he said, “Honestly, anything helps because we need everything from basics like food and clothing.”

If you would like to learn more about Accra Psychiatric Hospital, you can contact Emmanuel Aboagye at spiritosdusanctus@gmail.com.

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Arriving in Accra

There is a risky feeling when preparing for middle of the night arrivals at a new destination. It’s easy to sit on a plane and ruminate on the potential challenges the mind creates. Airports are typically dark, empty and heavy with a foreboding air. Darkness fills the unknown city outside ominous glass doors. Pioneering an inaugural trip to an unfamiliar hotel fills the mind with potential pitfalls of seeking reliable transportation. And, then, just as typically, the eerily anticipated arrival is seamless, and all is well. This was the case when I arrived in Accra, Ghana at 2:30 AM after three weeks in the Canary Islands. Although the taxi driver struggled to find my New Town hotel, we navigated with the universal system of stopping, rolling down the window, and asking for help. Even at that late hour, outreach efforts proved to be a success that added to the air of hope for this leg of my journey.

New Town is an interesting neighborhood in Accra. It’s an area with fewer visitors than other parts of the city – which opens doors to great opportunities for neighborly relationship-building. On my first morning, I wandered to a nearby school where a group of boys were playing soccer. They graciously covered a small set of viewing stairs with a small nylon backpack and gestured for me to sit down and enjoy their game – all the while showboating their talents and making sure I didn’t miss an opportunity to take pictures and praise their moves. Sadly, my soccer cheering knowledge is pretty much limited to, “Wow, great kick.” As I watched, and “oohed and aahed” at what felt like appropriate moments, booming drums signaled the beginning of a church service in the school building.

I was drawn in for a pastor’s message that was hopeful for the onset of my journey and filled with spirited preaching about resisting darkness and negativity. Sounds of the soccer game competed with these inspiring words and the ball occasionally made its way through the door and into the front of the service – only to be tossed back without a blip in the message. As I sat and enjoyed some spiritual development, small children giggled and waved from the open windows. Some inside would stop near my seat with curious stares, smiles, and whispers of “Obroni.” One toddler boldly planted herself on my lap to the intrigued and somewhat shocked eyes of her peers. It’s easy to become smitten with kids who are so curious and willing to connect. One of my favorite interactions has been watching a young girl sitting on my lap and trying to wipe away the birthmarks on my face – only to become frustrated by the fruitless process.

Walking is an interactive social event in Ghana with endless opportunities to meet people. By early afternoon, I had done more chatting than my combined three weeks in Spain. A young girl named Apene quickly became my local friend and pretty much the handler for every need that arose – with some needs that I didn’t even knew I had.

Apene is not your typical sixteen year old, with confidence and independence typically earned through a lifetime of experiences. “Resourceful” is the word that comes to mind, as she guided me through busy streets, while telling stories and asking questions, negotiating the best prices for services and goods, and finding every opportunity for selfies with my phone and to chat with friends and family along her way.

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We visited Apene’s home and it was easy to connect with her grandfather TeTe who is a retired teacher. It doesn’t matter where you live, far and wide, teachers share common experiences and can endlessly enjoy school chatter. Our time together was a welcome wagon overflowing with openness, generosity, and kindness that I aspire to have. His gift of a beautiful homemade straw hat is already a cherished treasure. As Apene showed me her talent for beading, her young neighbors and family members entertained me with their songs and games.

Throughout the week, Apene religiously knocked on my door each morning to prepare me for fully-scheduled days she had outlined in her daily journal. She arranged for us to paint a Hope for the Day mural at her school and taught me about the history of Ghana, pop culture for young people, and highlights of Accra. The kindness of Apene and her family are an unexpected gift in Ghana with weeks more of adventures to share.

As I travel, I am purposed to share the Hope for the Day message of proactive mental health while engaging in conversations that reduce stigma that often interferes with addressing mental health challenges. Their team sent me armed with outreach stickers, bracelets, and resources to provide collaborative workshops on this topic and the mission of connecting with global partners in this work. In only one week, doors have opened wherever I turn, with a clear interest in others who are anxious to share their ideas and learn together. Mental health dialogue is a global need that is slowly becoming a familiar conversation. Much more to follow in this area including meeting with local NGOs, learning more about how students with unique needs are supported, and providing a staff workshop at Global Mamas. You will be able to find more specifics on the Hope Travels initiative on the HFTD webpage soon.

Speaking of Global Mamas!!!!!! If you don’t know this organization, you should! My cousin Kristin has tirelessly spent her life in service to the mission of developing women-owned businesses in Ghana, with a side benefit for her family and friends being introduced to their beautifully unique clothing and jewelry. I often wear Global Mama dresses to school and work at the hotel – and enjoy sharing their success story. It was my great pleasure to meet Kristin’s partners in Ghana and visit their store. I have quickly given away all the colorless dresses I brought from home and replaced them with bright, beautiful options. You can buy their clothes online – but I feel like my visit to the store was a pilgrimage by one of their big fans – that exceeded all of my expectations. Plus, Apene was able to visit for a fall photo shoot – sadly in the rain – but still an opportunity for her to meet new local friends.

My first impression proves Ghana to be an easy place to love. As always, travel makes me more aware of the world, while also tangibly reminding me that I have so much more to learn.

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Let’s Get This Adventure Started!

“A year? What will you do?” People asked so many logical questions when hearing about my leave of absence. And – I’ve had limited answers for the “where are you going” and “what are you going to do” small talk. For the last three years, it was hard to even dream about specific destinations while working, working, and working to save the funds to make it happen, so I decided to choose a starting point and let the rest of the journey unfold. Booking a ticket to the Canary Islands served as a gateway to flexibility for further travel in either Africa or the Middle East. From this restful spot, it’s easy to get anywhere.

Plus, it sounds so exotic, right?

But, here I am. It’s my seventeenth day in Tenerife, and it is the first one where I am starting to feel like I have a bit of life in me – and am not just forcing myself to be out and about. My sleep has been more on than off – and I’ve been okay with spending lots of time in my tiny hotel room – just reading and watching some Netflix. My hair’s been kind of greasy – and my pajamas have been my best friend. I’ve worn my black $10 Walmart dress for just about every single trek outside of my room without a desire to plan for more. I have been relatively invisible here. Most people would say that I probably could have done these exact same things at home…which is true.

In reality, after years of running and a summer of decadence and fun, my time in Tenerife was purposefully filled with a mental and physical detox. I felt tired and unsettled with my physical fitness and self care. Knowing that it would be hard to connect with others in this state, there seemed to be value in taking time to recharge the strained pieces of my heart and mind. Usually, a calendar and daily flow of life dictate my actions. Instead, I created a daily plan that included drinking more water, working out, and eating in ways that prepare me for a rigorous year in unfamiliar places.

So, today, my hair is clean. I am dressed in something different. I am feeling ready for what comes next. In eight days, I will leave for Ghana after enjoying a short visit in Tenerife with my aunt, Bones.

The unknown excites me and there is a lot of that to come. Glad to have my partners at home to share the journey on my blog. Thanks for joining the fun! While I still don’t have answers to the questions, I am one step closer to finding the answers on this journey.

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I Will NEVER Do That!

As we get older, it’s natural to define and refine our tastes and preferences based on life experiences. For example, I know I don’t like OKRA. I’ve tried it fried, baked, and mixed with other vegetables, and I just know that it has been slimy and gross every single time I’ve tried it. When people serve it, I don’t have to taste it again to know that I’m going to gag as soon as it hits my tongue. I’m good with that.

I’ve also noticed, both in myself and others, that life experiences and this refining process have the potential to close doors…sometimes when we don’t even remember why. Like the one time I visited Martha’s Vineyard years ago and heard someone say that tourists are always hurting themselves by renting motorcycles they don’t know how to drive. I don’t know who was hurt, how they were hurt, or anything specific, but motorcycle rentals were just kind of checked off of my life list –  which is kind of odd because people also warn me regularly about walking alone, traveling by myself, eating food from street vendors, and traveling on night buses, but I do all of those things.

So, when Jason arrived in SE Asia three weeks before me, I had a growing sense of agida as he texted how much he was enjoying motorbike trips after a lesson at a bike shop. Yep, one short lesson put him on a bike in the heart of the crammed streets of Bangkok traversing over bridges, across highways, and through intersections bursting with people.

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City two days after school was dismissed with a feeling of being transported into a world of impending adventures. Canceled flights, mechanical problems on planes, missing luggage…all lost in a sense of curiosity and wonder about what stories would fill my empty journal pages.  So, when Jason asked if I was ready to be on the back of his bike for the next four weeks, all of that  “I’ll never do that” stuff just kind of got lost in the jetlag shuffle, and I was on the back of a bike heading to the Cu Chi tunnels.

Busy motorbiking riding in Vietnam

Busy motorbiking riding in Vietnam

We quickly learned that maps provided general guidelines on where to go, but the best way to find our destinations were quick stops where we combined hand gestures, smiles, and questioning eyes with the name of our destination to unsuspecting, but willing locals. Our first ride started to feel a bit like a parade with us waving our arms and yelling, “Cu Chi?” to everyone we passed. It was the first of many rides that were longer than expected and where Jason focused all of his energy on navigating dangerous potholes, people, and unexpected obstacles while I enjoyed hours of reflecting, daydreaming, and sightseeing from the bumpy backseat.

Time in SE Asia renewed my focus on “what comes next” in life. These summer adventures are more than opportunities to get away. To me, they are stepping stones. What inspires me most are interactions with people who are living life successfully in all different ways. When I am invested in life at home, it’s easy to forget that there are people living in non-traditional ways – making money and just being in the world.

I should have blogged during the trip because I like the way it highlights more authentic emotions as they are uncovered, but I couldn’t even jump start my motivation to jot postcards on this trip. Dreaming was good enough for me. So now, that story is over, but after reading this blog post by Elizabeth Gilbert about traveling, I was struck by her words and a desire to take a few minutes to reflect on the highlights of Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.

I have just passed a memorable three weeks of adventure, shared with two people whom I love with all my heart — two people who will not live forever. I will not live forever either; that’s the contract. But I have filled my mind with stories and encounters and pictures that I get carry around with me to the end of my life.

I have given myself something to remember me by, when I am old.

That’s why I travel. ~ Elizabeth Gilbert Author of Eat Pray Love

The first days in Asia are stimulating and a bit tiring for no reason other than your senses are in overdrive with the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. They are so different, but enticing. Outside of the Cu Chi tunnels, most of the time in Ho Chi Minh City was spent eating noodles and drinking tea and fruit drinks. The tunnels offer perspective on hardships faced during war and history lessons I wish I learned in school. An AirBNB in Hanoi was a bit off the beaten track, but near a small lake with local restaurants and lotus-filled ponds. I couldn’t help but laugh when we had our fancy chicken dinner with feet that were more fun to play with than eat.

The Chicken Dance

The chicken dance

Sapa, Vietnam was dreamy. Riding through the rice fields, mountains, and even the clouds is the reason I’m glad I gave up the motorbike bias because of the opportunities to see the smallest parts of nearby villages. Stopping on the side of the road at a makeshift fire pit grill for corn, potatoes, and bamboo rice provided the perfect warmth for another otherwise cool and rainy day. At this point, I was sniffling a bit and feeling congested. While I tried to keep it to myself, Jason soon found himself in the same boat – but much worse – “ravaged” with a sour stomach, headache, and more…all while enjoying at least one 20 hour bus trip from Sapa to Laos. Okay…in the spirit of full disclosure, I made fun of him saying he was “ravaged” and didn’t really have much empathy. While looking at pictures for this blog post, I spotted this one, and a sense of guilt welled in my heart. Sweaty, pale, and thin…I think he really was pretty sick.

REALLY Ravaged By Illness

REALLY ravaged by illness

I can’t think of one word to sum up the overnight buses to Hanoi and then to Laos. Generally, overnight buses are a great way to travel because you save hotel dollars while moving to new spots without losing daytime hours. As soon as we squooshed ourselves into the sleeping capsule seats, we recognized that the overnight buses in Vietnam are definitely built with locals in mind. With our knees crouched to our chests, and carry-on bags in our laps, we “slept” and traveled for a few hours at a time before a leg would fall asleep and we’d have to do a shake and flip.

The trip to Laos started with the overnight bus, continued with a border stop and switched to a smaller van. As we sat on the van, with two others who quickly became our friends,  our seats and aisle were quickly filled with bags of rice, appliances, boxes, and a few mini chicks who were quacking from their seats on the roof of the van. With a big bump, one of our van tires took a dive into a small roadside hole. We all climbed over the stuff, took a peek, and watched the bus driver and male passengers push the van out of the hole. Me…I took pictures.

Sometimes a bus needs a little push

Sometimes a bus needs a little push

After a few hours, we did a quick change to another van. What makes this fun is that you never know what to expect on these journeys. What is sold as a 12 hour ride may be closer to 19. We quickly gathered that a “direct” trip is never really direct with multiple changes of vehicle and lots of surprise twists and turns.

About 17 hours into the trip, the man sitting next to me began wobbling from the heat of the missed air conditioning and the motion of mountain bending curves. Wobbling soon turned into gently falling on the floor next to me which quickly turned into sounds of vomiting from below. Sometimes, when I don’t know what else to do, I start to giggle. I know…it seemed like I was lacking empathy (again), but it happened, even while I was feeling very bad for the young man next and found a bag to hand him. I looked to the girl behind me and we had an instant bond of “uh-oh” as Jason suggested I comfort the man by rubbing his back and grabbing his bag of vomit to toss out the window. I didn’t exactly rub his back, but gave him a few shoulder taps as I reluctantly pried the bag from his elevated, half-conscious hand. Clearly this had happened before because the bus driver – who really lacked empathy –  barely glanced back and kept driving. At our next stop, the vomit van baked in the hot sun. Opening the door to the sour stench told us we needed a hero to clean it up…like a two time veteran of war who prides himself on his ability to do jobs that others might resist. Sure, Jason was sick, but it was clearly a perfect leadership opportunity for him. We were all lucky that he thought so, too.

This was my first trip to Laos with visits to Luang Prabang and Veng Vieng. We spent the week with our new friends Eva and Joao from Brazil who we met on the vomit bus…proof that you can make new friends under the most unusual circumstances. I love meeting people on road trips because you share so much in a short amount of time that you develop quick and cool bonds you might not have with familiar friends. Our days with Eva and Joao were filled with mini adventures like waterfall swims, jumps off of tree limbs (or watching those jumps), morning monk walk, motorbike rides, motorbike wipeouts, batty caves, riverfront beers, sunsets, delicious meals, rustic bungalows, and surprise storms. As I write this, it all seems like a dream.

Traveling with new friends...we'll meet again someday!

Traveling with new friends…we’ll meet again someday!

Beyond a trip to a local waterfall and swimming holes, being cave explorers was probably one of my favorite moments. The thing about caving in other countries is that you just kind of get to go and see what’s inside the deep dark corners. One cave required a motorbike trip that was estimated at 3 kilometers, but was more like 7 – through the mud. After tipping a few times and needing to stop to collect Jason’s flip flops from the mud, our main concern was exploring the cave and getting back to the paved road before the impending storm broke. We arrived at the cave entrance, picked a locked gate, bent into the dark space, and let Jason lead the way. As we walked deeper into the dark cave, we heard a swoosh over our heads and watched Jason’s flashlight follow fleeing bats.  He not quite screamed, but definitely high-howled. When we left, he swore that the “girls” were scared of the bats, but our video proves that there was only one person howling!

From Laos, we spent a few days in Chiang Mai, Thailand which included a daylong motorcycle ride to the White Temple in Chiang Rai. Outside of catching occasional GoPro footage and waving to locals in our typical parade style, my only jobs on these long trips were to hold on tight and watch beautiful things go by. By this point, I embraced my hours on the back of the bike as opportunities to dream and work on important mind tasks. For example, if I knew I wanted to send an email, I would remind myself that I could think about the details once I got on the bike. If an idea popped into my head that needed consideration, I would write myself a note and think about the details from the backseat. The bikes also provided serendipitous road sign/side adventures like a quick turn on this trip that lead us to a hiking trail leading to a beautiful waterfall swim. As we traveled home in rainy conditions, I was thankful for Jason’s strong spirit and sense of calm under pressure.

The White Temple was a bit crowded when we arrived, and while it was very cool to see, it felt a bit dark to me. The ceramic hands reaching up from the underground gave a sense of helplessness. It was an unusual array of ancient and modern symbols of evil things that made me feel heavy while also feeling like I was surrounded by a tourist showplace. At the same time, you couldn’t help but be a bit awed by all of it.

Still not sure what I think about this place

Still not sure what I think about this place

Myanmar (Burma) was the final destination of this journey that was the “something special” place I had been dreaming about. After years of conflict, Myanmar is opening to visitors which offers fresh and welcoming interactions with locals. Meeting people who have never met Americans provides an opportunity to be loving ambassadors.

Our first days in Yangon were rainy. That’s what I remember! Rain, being a little grumbly with boredom, and just more rain in a busy city. The special event was meeting Jim in our hostel breakfast room who shared his story of having an NGO, adopting children, and preparing to open a café in Kalow with his children. Jim is an American who has lived in this area for years, building relationships and doing cool things. He’s the kind of guy who seems to have mastered dreams of living in a way where his gifts influence the lives of others in meaningful ways. He invited us to visit his home later in our trip – which we did – spending a day cooking with his family and learning about plans for the café.

One of my favorite memories of this trip took place in Myanmar, and it’s one of those permanently stored travel memories because it was an adventure that unraveled before our eyes and left me wondering exactly what would happen next.

Motorbike adventures became the theme of the trip. My “I will never” attitude shifted to a “what was I thinking” perspective as we continued seeking bike opportunities where they might not otherwise exist. Thailand and Vietnam have strong motorbike cultures for tourists. It’s kind of a thing to do with visitors sometimes even buying/selling bikes at the beginning and ends of their journeys. You could easily rent bikes for 5-$10 per day and knew they were easy to find. Myanmar was a bit different with strict laws denying access to tourists in major cities. When we visited Mandalay, Jason found a bike via the hostel front desk clerk – one of this “gotta guy” things that began with a warning not to ride the bike up steep hills. EVERYONE says that you must visit Bagan as the “must see” spot in Myanmar. It’s a land filled with temples that can be explored on foot, bikes, and by horse-drawn carriages. Google Maps suggested that this was a 3 hour and 18 minute trip, so we left with the confidence that we would enjoy a lovely afternoon at the temples with time to return for an early night of sleep before our early morning flight the next day.

We started the journey with our typical “Bagan?” to people we passed who happily pointed us in the destination direction? After driving for a few hours, we were surely getting close…we thought…until we stopped at an ATM and the security guard drew us a map showing at least 4-1/2 more hours of travel. We followed his road plan feeling confident that his timings must be a bit off…and we rode and rode and rode…down busy roads and then a tiny two lane rural roads with sporadic villages along the way. As we passed a school playground, we stopped the bike so Jason could join their soccer game and I could try a few circle games. The teachers just stood around and laughed at the antics – especially Jason’s silly faces and fun runs after screaming students.

As we rode, the motorbike got louder and louder with a few surprising pops that we couldn’t identify but were surely ours. After a delicious lunch stop at a petrified wood themed outdoor restaurant, we debriefed on our morning and considered our next steps. It’s painful to abandon a mission, but it was nearly 3:00 and we couldn’t imagine the dark ride back on the isolated roads, so we turned around with assurances that Bagan would happen someday, just not on this visit.

Recognizing that we needed to stop and pause for bike repairs, the first of three, we watched three mechanics in a small roadside shop work on the bike for about an hour. Imagine our reverse sticker shock when they asked us for the equivalent to $1.50 for their services.

As we passed a local village, we stopped to watch a long procession that included horses, beautifully dressed people, instruments, and songs. As I sat on the sidelines, Jason moved ahead to take pictures with a front view. As I engaged with a woman and her thanaka-covered baby – who she handed to me – I watched as a monk stopped the parade so Jason could take pictures with the parade-leading couple and two monks. The parade continued and we “chatted” in body language with the monks whose foreign (to us) words and fingertips to their mouths let us know that they wanted us to have dinner together. A sweet young girl who spoke English guided us to follow the monks on their motorbikes to our food destination. As we glanced at each other, we had a “how do we say no, but let’s make this quick” look with the knowledge that there was a long road ahead in fading summer skies…and we followed the monks.

Visiting with the parade philanthropists

Visiting with the parade philanthropists

The monks led us around curving dirt roads to a cluster of houses. We park and walked around to the back of a house where hundreds and hundreds of people appeared, eating at low tables with plates of rice, beans, and vegetables culled from mountain-shaped community piles. The small field area buzzed with party sounds.

A community meal

A community meal

We were led into a home where a table was pre-set with about 15 small bowls filled with the same food we saw outside – along with bowls of meat. Not just any meat – but a bowl filled with pork – well I’ll say pig – because you could see small cubes of skin lining an inch of gelatinous fat with a thin layer of meat below. As we enjoyed the food and tried to learn about the reasons for the festivities, I blended all of the food items together – Burmese style including the herbs and spice mixes provided – while avoiding the meat. We ate and chatted and the monk showed us a tall stack of dollars as the English speaking girl used Google translate and showed us the word Philanthropist and pointed to a picture of the couple who led the parade. It appeared that they hosted this event as a gift to the village, and I assumed the money was donated to the monk.

In my daily life, but especially during the open-eyed awareness of travel, I often think about my brother Dave and feel his gentle nudges. When he was alive, he believed that any of my ailments could be solved by eating some meat. He judged my mental state on my weight. If I looked a bit thinner than his last visit, he suggested that I would feel better if I ate some meat…even when I was feeling just fine. “Have a Whopper, Nan,” was one of his favorite phrases. Before he passed away, he gave me a copy of the Pursuit of Happiness by the Dalai Lama – not because he was seeking a Buddhist life – but because he agreed that being happy was a choice and felt the book highlighted his views, too.

So – as we sat at that table, I couldn’t help but think, “Well played, Dave,” as the monk opened his wide smile and proudly hoisted three big cubes of pig onto my rice and waited for my reaction. Jason’s plate was next. Again…the eye contact communication…and a clear understanding that we were BOTH eating it. Who says no to a kindhearted monk who welcomed strangers to celebrate with his village? Dave won as one, two, three cubes exploded in my mouth and slid down my throat. YUM?

Thanks, Dave!

Thanks, Dave!

When we exited the house, we watched a spectacular scene as we learned that the stack of money wasn’t for the monks, but for the villagers. One monk friend gathered the people around him and began to separate small piles of money from the stack, throwing it high into the air for others to catch. It was chaos! It was exciting! It was even a bit dangerous as we watched a woman holding a baby fall onto the ground and into a puddle. This was definitely a once in a lifetime event that we won’t soon forget.

Money! Money! Money!

Money! Money! Money!

After a short visit to our English-speaking friend’s house for more food, and one more set of bike repairs by the monks and their friends, we were on our way back to Mandalay. With this special day under our belts, we left feeling the pressure of the setting sun, a thin dark road, and hours of riding with a bike that continued to pop – even after multiple repair stops – a broken speedometer and gas gauge. We wondered how late village gas stations would stay open and decided to fill our seat storage with water bottles filled with gas. Our light only appeared to have a high setting, so Jason used his headlamp as a source of light…a funny sight to see. It was exciting…being unsure of what would happen next on this daylong escapade.  With one more motorbike stop that included an English-speaking professor who called a neighbor to open the local mechanic shop, and with a near-hanging muffler loudly blaring through the quiet alley, we pulled into our hostel at 12:30 AM – with time to spare to catch our morning flight.

The final days were spent in Bangkok – fitting and filling. Fitting in my last few $12 massages and filling the backpack with a few LIGHT treasures for home. The trip ended perfectly – with a near midnight ride through the busy streets of Thailand with a few slightly frowned up (or maybe illegal) trips along stunning viewed overpasses heading to the airport.

Yep…life in SE Asia was good – really good.

There were a few takeaways from this trip…always are.

The first is obvious. As I get older, I need to remember really reflect on the root of my “I will never” moments where incidents of the past determine decisions of today. Without an openness to get on that first bike, I would have missed so much. I appreciate Jason’s resilience, and while I am currently saying I will “never” ride my own bike, I just might. Sorry, Bones!

Sorry, Bones!

Sorry, Bones!

The world is changing so fast and getting smaller each day. Both our waterfall detour and village day ended with, “Are you on Facebook?” from young girls we met. We left Eva and Joao knowing that it was likely we would meet again someday because it’s easy to stay in touch. I am thankful that it’s easier than ever to stay connected with people we meet on life’s journey. At the same time, there something rapidly changing about our curiosity about the world. I feel it more and more with each trip. When we missed time in Bagan, it likely didn’t hurt as much because we felt like we had already seen so much of it while browsing Google images. We watched as children, who in years past may have craved interactions with foreigners, sat and watched Food Network shows or playing games on monitors while barely looking up. It’s getting harder and harder to stay curious while finding unexplored terrains, but it’s also feeling more and more important to just open up to new experiences while building real life people connections and friendships.

Speaking of friendships and connections, another takeaway is constant recognition that I am blessed by mine. Traveling with others offers challenges, and I felt grateful to have had a patient and generous partner on this trip who shares desire to be IN the world – even more than see it. There were moments when I had to stop and just say WOW – that is so cool! And…I certainly appreciate all that motorcycle driving that provided hours of “ME” time. I’m also aware that I have a team of well wishers and prayer partners who stay at home and send lots of warmth my way. It’s hard to miss home when there are so many cool people just a few keystrokes away.

Final takeaway? I am more determined than ever to make an international lifestyle my normal. In so many places, people have a non-traditional and location independent lifestyle. I am committed to making significant lifestyle changes for the next four years to get me there. I won’t exactly be retiring, but I’m calling this my “leaping” plan. Four years…saving all I can…gaining new work skills…and focusing on building international connections. It’s going to happen.

Other memories I want to store…

  • Eating LOTS of Indian Food
  • Stumbling upon the abandoned French monastery near Sapa
  • Fishies eating our feet in the waterfall pool in Laos
  • Splurging ($60 per night) for Inle Lake Viewpoint bungalow hotel with amazing breakfast and view
  • Coconut Snowball Dessert in Yangon…amazing
  • Delicious mangos bought on the streets for so little
  • $12 massages – especially those in Thailand
  • Dinner with Rafael and Lydia’s family in Yangon
  • The “burro” carrying the items purchased to replace lost suitcase items
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Feeling….GRATEFUL!

After 10 and a half months of life on the road…countless train rides, a load of flights, and almost one hundred different places where I’ve laid my head, this is it! One hour until I head to Fiumincino Airport and begin my journey home!

My last six weeks have been spent in Italy. Throughout the trip, I have happily shared highlights on my blog, but it has been hard to write in Italy because all I seemed to do was eat and eat and eat. Since I am not a foodie, I couldn’t imagine people wanting a daily report on my pizza with no cheese and pasta with tomato sauce.

Italy has been restful and a chance to soak in places I love! I have lost countless hours to people watching while reading and walking through new narrow streets.

When traveling to Italy, it’s fun to stay in the famous cities that roll off of our tongues from years of dreaming, but being on a budget makes “the town next to that famous place” the only viable option. For me, that is what made this trip quiet, exploring familiar places from a slight distance.

So, here I am! Ready to start dreaming again! I thought about spending my last lunch doing something out of character, like ordering something exotic with a glass of wine, but I am on a cement bench in Piazza Navona, full from my $2 slice of eggplant pizza, just sitting and watching people. I wonder how I will adjust to the fast pace of life that begins again tomorrow. Piazza Navona is filled with musicians, artists selling their work, and wedding couples taking pictures. It is a sunny afternoon and in my final minutes, I am feeling especially grateful and blessed with the fortune of great friendships and a network of support!

I have had hundreds of wonderful moments…times when people have gone out of their way to guide my path…answer a question, lend a phone, and so much more. Above and beyond those daily blessings, I made a list. I have met 21 people who have either invited me into their homes, spent a few days with me, and offered hospitality and friendship in extraordinary ways. Of this list of 21, I expect to continue friendships, welcome them to my home, and experience continued benefits of new friendships. These Divine moments and blessings will always be the best thing about my
trip.

I had no fear leaving…but now, as I prepare to come back, I am a bit scared. My trip of self discovery has left me with lots of answers, also some questions. I was prepared for anything and every worst case scenario that people presented. I remember when being away for almost a year sounded like such a long time…so why do I feel like I just left home? At the same time, why do I feel like it will take a bit to get in the home routine because I have been gone too long? Why do I not so secretly not want to fit back home? Why do I feel more peaceful than I have ever felt before while suffering from minor bits of being worried about maintaining good habits I have formed when thrown back into life at home? Am I in a great place or am I going to be a mess when I get home? And…months with nothing but time to think, why can’t I answer these questions?

I am eternally grateful for all of the support from home. Some travelers choose to disconnect while away, but for me, the messages from home, excitement of my people, and just general interest has meant a lot. I am excited to just listen and catch up on all of your years! That really excites me!

So, now…back to my favorite city in the world!!!!! Chicago, here I come!

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