Caving in Vang Vieng

19 02 2015

The Midwest is frozen. With highs in the single digits around here this week, another massive snowfall is slated to fall this weekend. February may be waning, but winter is still going full force.

It’s this time of year that I relish in warm memories to keep me sane.

Winter is also the time of year when I get caught up on all of my indoor hobbies, like sewing or collaging photos in my collection of photo albums. Recently, I was donning my double-sided tape and glitter pens, as I finally placed my photos from Laos. It was 2012 when we were there on our true, month-long ‘Honey-Moon,’ and I made enough memories to last me a lifetime.

546778_411245945624702_1231613780_nVang Vieng

Halfway between the bustling capital city of Vientienne, and the French-influenced Luang Prabang, sits a small town of Vang Vieng. Nestled between steep mountains, this village has one way in and one way out, along a winding, 2-lane road that they like to call ‘paved.’ We arrived on a 10-person minibus (a van whose driver clearly wanted to make it round trip and home in time for dinner). We stopped at a small guest house with an open courtyard ringed with individual buildings for the rooms. Our new German friends, who we met in Thailand, ended up staying at the same place as us, so we dropped off our packs and walked to town together for dinner as the sun was already setting behind the mountain.

The town center is actually pretty developed, with a jarring contrast of bars and restaurants each blaring bad dance music and selling cheap plastic souvenirs targeted at 20-something college students from Australia and Europe. Even when we found a place to eat that was geared towards a more mature crowd, we could still hear the music thumping from the place next door, whose storefront was completely open to the street. As we ate, we read more in our guidebooks and travel apps about this place.

Apparently, when the borders opened to Laos, this sleepy village became a prime destination because of it’s amazing mountains and the lazy river that flows through. Things quickly escalated, as young people flocked here to get drunk on an inner-tube or go rock climbing. Alcohol abuse and drug use were quickly running rampant, and several tourist deaths were starting to become normal. The government quickly shifted gears, to try to market it differently- no longer as a party town for rich foreigners. The excessive drug and alcohol use has tapered off, but the remaining business owners seem to be confused about who they are selling to, now that more nature lovers are coming here.

vientienne siem reap 457The next morning, we slept in- a treat for me, since I usually wake up with the sun no matter what time zone I’m in. The steep height of the neighboring cliffs kept our room in a pool of shadows until late morning, and we were enjoying the leisurely pace of things here. Our new travel companions, Timo and Inez, came here to climb, so they set about their day renting ropes and gear. We knew about some caves nearby, and were looking forward to the free bike rental that came with our room. We ate breakfast outside (also included in our $18/night room), under the shady canopy of the main common space, where Laos soap operas played on a television mounted to the wall behind the bar. While we ate, our host had her husband pull out a couple of bikes for us to use. They were single speed cruisers… with baskets. Ohhhh, yeah. I asked about bike locks and they smiled, “You no need here.”

Searching for Darkness

It’s pretty difficult to get lost in Vang Vieng, with the mountains framing your horizon, and just a few dirt roads peeling off from the main road. I had written down directions to the first cave, but we had to rely on the infrequently posted, hand painted (and often peeling) signs to show us our turnoff. Bethany and I proceeded to pedal down the main road, where trucks and cars swooped into the oncoming lane to give us plenty of room. I thought it would be scary to bike on this main road, but, unlike in the U.S., biking is the most common form of transportation here, so those with automobiles were incredibly respectful and cautious of people on bikes. We set off, the warm sunshine shining on our backs. I tried to take pictures with my phone as I cycled, and we had to stop a couple times due to livestock in the road. It felt like we had been biking a while- longer than I expected- when we finally looked back and saw a sign that said “Vang Vieng 20 km.” That’s when Bethany looked at me and said, “I told you I thought we missed our turn.”

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We turned our bicycles around and started peddling back toward town. From the opposite direction, we saw a sign for a different cave, and decided to try that out. We pedaled down a dirt road for a mile or two, and came to a parking lot with a few tour buses haphazardly parked. We rushed ahead of the group and crossed a small bamboo bridge. We followed the wooden signs until we saw the cave. It held a large, 17 foot long reclining Buddha, and there was a large island in the middle where people could choose a fortune reading. We removed our shoes, I wrapped my exposed shoulders in a sarong, and we entered. We watched as Laotian people pulled one, read it aloud, and gleamed with joy. We wanted to understand, but we barely spoke enough Laos to get by. Thankfully, as we were lingering and about to leave, someone who spoke English asked us if we wanted them to read ours to us. I grabbed the cup, shook out my fortune, and handed it to the kind stranger. We struggled in broken, woven languages, and smiled at the fortune, though not really sure what we had just been told.

vientienne siem reap 329We took a few photos of the cavern and the sculptures, then turned to leave. There was another cave, a real cave, down another path, so we followed those signs. We grabbed our bikes and walked for a while, then got back on and road over the bumpy, winding dirt path. We enjoyed the quiet, meandering through a sparsely treed area, with the massive rock looming before us, guiding the way. Eventually, we got close to the base of the rock, and then saw a small shade structure with a few teenagers hanging out, blaring loud music from a boombox. They explained to us that we must pay the equivalent of $0.50, which was what we had read ahead of time. Then they loaned us a cheap headlamp, and pointed us to the entrance of the cave. Bethany tried to say she would pay them double to turn off the music so we could enter this sacred place in peace, and eventually they did turn it off for us. We looked at the headlamps they gave us and tried them on. Thankfully, we had our own, much brighter headlamps with us.

We walked up to the face of the cliff, the opening was obvious, but there was no actual sign. We ducked slightly to walk into the opening, and were faced with nothing but darkness. We saw glimmers of gold reflecting back at us, and turned on our lights. Before us was a large seated Buddha, barely illuminated by the sliver of daylight shining in. We admired the statue, which was again quite large. Then we turned our heads to the left and saw only endless blackness. “I guess the cave continues,” I stated. We walked on, exploring stalagmites and stalactites. We stepped through narrow passages, and heard the sound of distant water rushing. We paused, unsure of whether it was safe to continue.

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The sound of water quickly grew louder as we pressed on into the darkness. It was odd, to get so far into a cave, and to be utterly alone. I’ve been on cave tours before, in Kentucky or Indiana, but never once had I been simply pointed towards a cave without a guide. I verbalized the natural fear that crept into my head, “you know, if something happened to us in here, nobody would ever know where to look for us.” We recognized the risk, and decided to just go a little further. We’d been exploring for about 45 minutes, and  we had no idea how far this cave actually went.

We stumbled upon the source of the water sound. A small stream crossed the floor of the cave, then sharply turned and disappeared into a hole in the wall to our right. I tried to shine my light inside the hole to see where it went, but all I could tell was that the echoes implied a very steep fall downward. At that point, we realized that we had NO idea how far up, or down, this cave had already taken us. After about an hour, we decided to head back.

Emerging from that mountain was surreal. We left the dank, dark, isolation and were plunged back into the lush, forested meadow.The teenagers had turned their music back on, we handed back the lights we didn’t use, and counted our blessings that nothing unexpected had occurred in there.

There were 4 more caves on our hand drawn map.

The sun was still up, as it was only just after noon, so we mounted our bikes, and off we went. We decided to intentionally get lost. There was a split in the path, and we had no idea where it might lead us, but with the mountain on our right, we felt safe in our adventure. We bicycled through a tiny cluster of houses made from thatch and bamboo, along an irrigation canal, past farm fields growing rice. We saw cows and chickens roaming freely, and waved back at the small children who seemed so excited to see us rolling past their homes.

We had no clue where we were headed, and, frankly, we didn’t care. It was so freeing to feel unrestrained by roads, or signs, or rules. We just were pedaling in the sun, and smiling. Eventually, we did see another hand-painted sign for a cave, so we followed it back to another remote area. We paid our admission fee to the elderly woman standing near the entrance, and she smiled profusely at us, possibly the only visitors she’s had all day. We didn’t see another white skinned person the whole time we were back there, away from the main road. It felt like this place was here just for us to see and appreciate the hidden treasures that the denizens of Vang Vieng were keeping.

We saw two more caves that afternoon. Each was equally desolate. They required climbing down on progressively questionable handmade ladders, branches strung together with twine. Some were slippery with damp condensation from the cave below. Never once did we see another soul. The caves were remarkable, each with different formations. Some were chilly; some felt warm and humid. We became comfortable navigating the dimly lit darkness by ourselves, holding hands, and only able to tell when the other was smiling by the sound of our lips squeaking against our teeth.

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We paused in every cave, to take a few minutes to sit still in the absolute darkness. I could hear my breath echo as I strained to listen to the silence. It was utterly beautiful. Nothing can describe what it feels like to be there, surrounded by thousands of pounds of solid rock, not a sound to be heard except the infrequent drip of a stalactite, and the heartbeat of my love.
vientienne siem reap 427When we bicycled home that afternoon, the valley was already in the shadow of those magnificent formations. My heart felt so full, I was grinning like a schoolgirl in love. And… I was.

Despite the misfortunate beginnings of tourism in this area, it is a nature lover’s paradise. Quiet, stunning, peaceful, and I’d go back in a heartbeat for a full month of exploring.

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“It’s okay, to be Takei.”

17 02 2015

Human Rights Campaign Los Angeles Gala Dinner - ArrivalsIn the single digit, February air on Monday evening, I bundled up to walk with a friend to Butler University for their Distinguished Lecture Series on Diversity. The speaker was George Takei.

 

I knew very little about George Takei just a few years ago. I was not a Trekkie, nor would I have even known his name if not for his persistent quotes, memes, and video appearances all over Facebook-land. It was only when a friend’s post prompted me to look him up that I finally figured out, “who is this Takei guy?”

 

When I agreed to go to the lecture, I wasn’t really sure what he would talk about. He clearly still enjoys referencing his Star Trek days, but he’s also a very funny guy, and a strong advocate for LGBT rights. I also had read on Wikipedia about his childhood internment at the WWII Japanese-American camps, but wasn’t sure if this was simply a factoid, or something he actually still spoke about. I had no idea if this evening would address marriage equality or Starship Enterprise, whether it would leave me laughing or crying. In the end, it was both.

 

Japanese-american_childrenOver the course of an hour, George Takei shared his own personal biography, starting with his 5th birthday. He began with his vivid memory of his American family being rounded up at gunpoint in their home, to be loaded onto a train and shipped from California to the muggy, barbed-wire internment camp in Arkansas. He recounted the many daily ways that his mother and father were treated as “non-aliens,” their loyalty to their home country completely discredited. After being shipped to another camp for refusing to sign a paper swearing that he “revoked his loyalty to the emperor of Japan,” it took 4 years of imprisonment before Takei’s father was handed $20 and his family released, with nothing else left to their name.

 

JapaneseAmericansChildrenPledgingAllegiance1942-2George spoke eloquently about the irony of being trained as a child to pledge allegiance to the flag every morning, to a country that had frozen their bank accounts, seized their home, and destroyed their lives for 4 long years. Those words, “…with liberty and justice for all,” still seem to haunt him. As he repeated that chilling phrase in the large auditorium to us all, I could clearly see that this moment had set the tone for this man’s entire life.

 

Although I had learned about these internment camps in school, I had never heard anyone’s first-hand account. I couldn’t help but listen to his story and think, “how awful to have known this kind of hatred, so young, to have felt the very real threat of discrimination before you could even comprehend that you are different.” What’s more, hearing about Takei’s childhood helped me to understand why a man, so proud to fight for freedom, held so much fear in his heart when it came to his own truth’s being exposed.

 

George_Takei_(5777853681)George Takei knew he was gay at age 9, but was silent, as most were in those days. Even after he met his partner years later, and attended AIDS walks as ‘allies,’ he could not come out of the closet about his own orientation. It wasn’t until 2004, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed California’s approved marriage equality bill, that George finally found the courage through his anger to come out publicly. I don’t think anyone could accuse him of being silent ever since.

 

Hearing these stories reminds me just how much history I am living through, right now. How lucky I am to be alive TODAY. I wasn’t alive when Stonewall happened, but his words make me feel like I could have been there. I never lost a friend to AIDS, although my wife has lost many. I didn’t come out until I was 29 years old, and by that time, things were getting better for LGBT people in Michigan. I have never known, firsthand, the hatred and violence and discrimination that many of my LGBT ‘family’ have suffered through. I don’t have the same fear burned into my heart.

 

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Hearing George recount his life was amazing. These firsthand accounts won’t be here with us forever, and I feel lucky to have been able to hear about American history in the first person. It’s not just my admiration for him that grew, but my 1549530_808123595936933_3010165892456356179_nadmiration for ALL the people, gay, lesbian, trans, and allies, who fought for us. To be alive this year, in 2015, knowing that my marriage is now legally recognized by the federal government, and that SOON the Supreme Court will end this era of discrimination once and for all, fills my chest with pride, and my eyes with tears.


At the conclusion of the lecture, George stayed for a lengthy Q & A session. The two aisles on either side of the auditorium at Clowes Hall quickly filled up with excited listeners, eager to ask that one burning question of Takei. The second question came from a young man in his 20s, who was clearly nervous at the microphone. He thanked Mr. Takei, saying that we were all grateful for him being here, but especially him. Then he turned to his boyfriend, opened a small black velvet box with a ring inside, and he proposed. The crowd roared with applause, I was sobbing with joy, and my face was flooded with tears. I wiped my cheeks with both hands, wishing that my beautiful wife could have been there with me. She is the reason I came out of my own closet. She is the reason I have the courage to fight for equality. She is the reason I wake up every morning and feel like I am the luckiest person alive. While I am proud to be an active participant in changing our country, I hope that future generations can say, “I can’t believe your marriage was ever illegal,” and may they struggle to know this only from history books.26398_1410316064949_3457646_n





Maple Syrup Mayhem

9 02 2015

maple_tree_snowWhile the snow melted off the dormant grass, the sun was shining on the trees in my yard. It was February 12th, and I could only think about one thing. The light gleamed back at me, reflected from the beautiful, silver spile that I had driven into the tree trunk earlier. Yes, it is finally that moment I wait for all winter long… it’s time to tap the maple trees.

 

My first time was about 8 years ago. It was exciting. It was refreshing, to learn to make something myself. But most of all, it was very, very memorable. NOT in a good way.

 

Back then I lived in my first purchased home, a tiny little ranch, literally no bigger than a three car garage. It sat on two acres, and gave me countless freedoms to teach myself some basic homesteading skills. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but that first day when my 1 gallon jugs filled up with that tasteless, colorless tree sap, I knew that it was time for the next step: to boil it!

 

Beamans-Maple-Sugar-Shack-sap-from-the-maple-treeIt was with great pride that bundled myself up in my knitted hat and scarf, headed outside, and emptied my jugs of clear sap. I had just purchased this giant aluminum pot, the only thing big enough to hold several gallons of tree sap. I dumped each of the jugs, hung them back up, and lifted the heavy container.

 

Back inside, I turned the stove top’s peeling metal knob to ‘High,’ and then I waited. And waited. It took MINUTES for this large of a volume of- essentially- water to start to bubble and finally boil. I turned the heat down to simmer and went about making myself something to eat.

 

New-Hampshire-maple-syrup-canningThe sap boiled for almost 3 hours, slowly evaporating the water from the sugar. By the time I was ready to turn it off and go to sleep, it had only shrunk by less than half. I had no idea how long this would take to some day get to actual maple syrup. I knew that it was about 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, but I didn’t even have a clue how many gallons of sap I might end up with from my three taps.

 

mapletapThe next day was a bright, sunny day, and the tree heated up quickly, which meant that by the time I got home from work, the sap collectors were overflowing! I beamed at my trees. Then I grabbed my pot to empty them as quickly as I could. Back to boiling!!

 

This time, I had so much sap, that I decided to pull out a second, smaller pot, to get them both boiling at once, and hopefully speed up the process to get me that sweet, sweet nectar ASAP. Once both pots were happily churning off that excess water vapor, I returned to my evening tasks. I made dinner, started a load of laundry, and then set about cleaning up.

 

wiping counterI grabbed the counter sponge to wipe up a couple of water droplets that had jumped out of the smaller pot. Then I turned and noticed a couple of darker drops on the breakfast bar that needed wiping too. “That’s weird,” I thought, “I swear I just wiped that counter a minute ago. I’m surprised that I missed that.” Then I heard the washer buzz, and left the room to switch loads.

 

kompetiblog2013_wordpressAfter starting the dryer, I walked back into the kitchen, noticing that a cloud- literally, a CLOUD- had formed in my kitchen. “Huh, that’s a lot of evaporation,” I thought. There was a noticeable mist in the air hovering just below my white tiled ceiling, and, while I appreciated the humidity in the dead of winter, I wasn’t sure that my ceiling would like it as much as me. I flipped the switch for the exhaust hood, and the cranky, 60-year-old motor got to work feebly evacuating some of the air. I checked on the sap, and everything looked good. Both pots were making progress, and the clear water was now donning a faintly yellow hue.

 

While I waited for more boiling to occur, I grabbed the stack of mail and returned to the breakfast bar. Before I could set down the papers, I stopped in my tracks.

 

There were drops of amber syrup on the counter… AGAIN.

 

dropletsI stared incredulously. I KNOW I just wiped this counter. The drops were not near each other either, they were spaced apart by about 6-8”. In fact, they were in a linear row, about 4” back from the counter’s edge. I paused, as my brain processed this pattern. Then I looked up.

 

There, above the breakfast bar, was an architectural  bulkhead wrapped in faux wood paneling. And, as I watched, the light from the recessed cans illuminated a glistening stream of water condensing on the very edge of the bulkhead. Then, it dripped down onto the counter in a rich, heavy, syrupy drop.

 

I was inadvertently making maple syrup on my ceiling.

 

maple_syrup07171055With horror, I began to slowly turn my gaze. As I assessed the other walls and ceilings, I realized that there were almost invisible drips running down each of the dark wood paneled walls. It was EVERYWHERE.

 

Staring at the enormity of this mess, I took a deep breath, and decided what to do. I debated calling my partner, to warn him of the hilarious gravity of the situation before he got home. Instead, I sprang into action. I turned off the two electric burners, I opened the front door, and I grabbed a sponge- or three. As I laboriously wiped down EVERY square inch of surface in my kitchen, my mouth cracked open, and I just laughed, and laughed. I couldn’t believe what I had done! For weeks after that, I would find a spot I missed. The hardest part to clean was the flimsy window film that  I had put up over my single pane windows. It just tore under the pressure.EvapAndSteam

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe good news is that I managed to still create some deliciously sweet, Grade B maple syrup. And I learned my lesson. No more than ONE pot boiling at a time for indoor evaporation! I am NOT a professional evaporator, but I feel like I’m one step closer to a homesteader.





Separate, But Soulmates

3 02 2015

cedar key sunrise 11Given that it’s February, I don’t think it’s too sappy to write about love today. Anyone who knows me knows that I am deeply, deeply in love. It oozes from my pores. It creeps from the corners of my smile. I sometimes try to veil it around people I don’t know that well, but I often find myself boasting about my beloved to complete strangers. I mean, she’s AWESOME, sooo…

For two months, however, I am living apart from my soulmate. I’ve lived apart from partners in the past, and you learn how to do little things to help you feel connected. Talking on the phone every night to share the silly little things that, on their own, don’t seem worth talking about, but when they add up, they make up our entire day. Sharing photos of sunrises, or poetry. I knew that 2 months would fly by before we knew it.

bk sunswt grilleThe trouble is, I made a small miscalculation. This is not just a boy/girlfriend or fiance, or even a spouse. She’s the person that I never knew I was waiting to meet, for longer than I’ve been in this body. Her soul makes mine sing every morning that I wake up next to her (though I sing real quiet so I don’t wake her up). Simply seeing her makes me smile! It’s been five years since we met- three since we wed- and I still cannot wait to kiss her every single day that I come home. When I met her, suddenly every sappy love song that came on the radio MEANT something to me. So, yeah, I might seem melodramatic when I share how much I miss her, but it’s nothing but the honest truth. I ache without her.

It’s not easy for either of us, although only one of us is left in the midwest in February. I know that she is trying to enjoy the balmy beauty of northern Florida, but would rather be home as well. She didn’t take an opportunity to leave me for some amazing personal growth or career development reason, so there is no ‘reward’ at the end of this journey. No, she agreed to go to Florida to work for my family.

family train stationMy mom decided to get my brother Kurt out of Michigan for a couple months to celebrate the fact that he turned 40 years old on January 20th. She might seem like an exceptional mom, and she is. But I’m not holding my breath for the same luxurious gift for myself in six years. No, Kurt really deserves this. When he was 21, he was an a horrible car crash- an accident due to his own reckless driving- and suffered a brain injury that has left him trapped in his body, unable to walk or talk or eat. For 18 years, my mom has done everything- taken him just about everywhere- to find any shred of hope that he could gain back some control over his body. Kurt is ‘in there,’ though communication is challenging at best. He has a system of eye blinks- 1= yes, 2= no, 3= I don’t know. It doesn’t work when he’s tired. Or stubborn. You often have to ask him to answer a question 3 or 4 times to be sure that you understood what he wants. And sometimes he just blinks at you, and you realize that you are trying to interpret a message that simply isn’t there.

cedar key sunrise 9After all the hardships that Kurtis, and my mom, have endured, they both earned this vacation. They rented a two-story beach house in a quiet little town. It’s on a flat, paved road, where Kurt’s wheelchair frequently gets passed by more golf carts than cars. From his rented hospital bed, he can see out the picture window onto the water, and there are eagles nesting just behind the house. It’s a relief, not to have to worry about whether or not the day shift worker is going to be able to make it up the icy dirt roads back home. The catch is, you have to bring all your staff with you.

b photo sunsetEnter Bethany. After struggling to find someone willing to relocate to Florida for 2 months, my mom called my wife to ask her to consider the job. It’s not something Bethany wanted to do, though she did work in medical assisting as a young adult. The reason she left was because she is too squeamish, so that has been a challenge for her taking this on. We also just got into the groove of living together again, after being separated by a state for the 9 months between my accepting the job offer down in Indiana, and Bethany finishing her Masters degree up in Michigan. While we were separated then, however, we rarely spent more than a couple weeks apart, as one or the other of us would make the 5 hour drive so regularly, our radio stations were tuned for the shifting reception. Nevertheless, when it came right down to it, Bethany had flexibility, and my family had a need. So she selflessly accepted the long-distance position, and I started searching for a reliable pet sitter to help me out back home.

bahia bridge b 3I have to say, I was originally nervous about being lonely, then I got excited about finally having some time to myself to work on things like my art, and writing. Since my return to Michigan, however, I have been utterly (and gratefully) inundated with friends reaching out to keep me busy. I haven’t turned down an invite yet (unless I was already busy), and it’s been a welcome distraction! If anything, I’m actually a little exhausted from all the socializing thus far. As time goes on, I’m sure that I will find a healthy balance to recharge my introverted bones, without falling into a funk.
cedar key sunrise 4They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I suppose that’s true. But I truly don’t think that I could possibly be any fonder of the amazing, energetic, blissfully sunny woman that I am blessed to call my wife. I love her just as much as I did before, but the difference is that it has to travel a lot farther now to reach her. No matter how many things you do to show your love, the ions from my heart are getting lost and scattered in the sea mist, and I only wish that she could still feel my love in its purest, closest form.

On the plus side, I’m finally creating poetry for her again:

“Sunset Moon”

As this frozen night falls in Indiana

I see the ocean through your eyes,

the sun licking the surface,

the clouds kissing the breeze.

I dip my paintbrush in the water,

dripping with colors so rich,

I can smell the oranges on my paper,

doves cooing in my ears.

When I awake from your salty ocean

I find myself alone with just the moon.

It glows so balmy in the bleak sky,

blanketed by your burnished amber sunset.

2.3.15








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