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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Going Shoeless in Laos

23 11 2014

734808_409663145782982_653643432_nAfter a full day of traveling on the slow boat down the Mekong River, our group of 100 locals and adventurous visitors stopped for the night at a small Laotian village called Pak Bang. It was dusk when we arrived, and we quickly found our way up the steep hill, past the men and women holding signs for rooms, to a small inn where we had a room waiting for us (at the steep price of $8). We were hungry, and ready for food, but wanted to explore the tiny village with what little light we had left.

398036_409663169116313_790757319_nAs we got checked in to our room, the English-speaking grandson of the owner told us that we would get a discount off dinner if we chose to dine at their restaurant as well. The village only had one road, about a mile long in total. After a short walk through the village to examine our other options, we decided this was the wisest choice. At least we knew we could easily translate “fish sauce” to avoid an unpleasant meal.

We walked back to the inn and followed signs for the restaurant around the sandy courtyard. We saw a wide open doorway, bathed in warm yellow light from inside, with a pile of shoes just outside the door. I paused, momentarily confused. Was this the owner’s room? 1748_409662782449685_1220354557_nI peered inside and saw that the space opened up to the river on the other side, and was filled with tables and chairs. In all the places we had traveled in Asia, we were very accustomed to taking off our shoes before entering a Buddhist temple, but this was the first time we had seen shoes outside a regular business like this. “So, no shoes in the restaurant?” I asked Bethany. She shrugged her shoulders and we leaned down to untie our laces.

Could you imagine going to a church on Sunday and everyone taking off their shoes? This is exactly what we discovered in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. While I have always believed in taking off shoes in the home, it never occurred to me that this would apply to other buildings as well. Temples, I also quickly understood. But restaurants? Shops? I was very surprised. We learned to simply remove our shoes whenever we saw other shoes sitting outside.

A Long History of Shoelessness

Many other cultures, far older than my own, have had this policy as a social norm since shoes were invented. Modern day countries such as Japan, Russia, Korea, Turkey, Thailand, India, Scandinavian, and European countries like Germany have the custom of removing shoes in homes. This is also the case in most Middle East countries and some African countries.

shoe sign3It is absolutely mandatory to take off ones outside shoes in most Asian homes, and even in some public places and business establishments – like traditional restaurants, inns and hotels, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and grade schools and kindergartens.

In Japanese architecture, homes are designed to have an area near the entrance called a genkan, which is one level lower than the rest of the house. Here, you remove your outside shoes and place them so the toes are facing outwards towards the door. You then are usually supplied with a pair of slippers, though socks are also fine in their own house or at a friend’s house.

734282_409663845782912_1649442926_nToilet Slippers?

When we were visiting the famous White Temple in northern Thailand, there was a long line of toilets outside, each with a door onto the sidewalk. At the front of the line, was a large bank of black rubber sandals. Although I did not understand, I watched as each person before me removed their shoes and donned the slippers to enter the toilet room. I suspect this was more to keep my shoes clean, rather than to keep the toilet room clean. Once it was my turn, I saw that they were squat toilets (no seat, just a ceramic base to stand on while you squat) this made some sense to me. Apparently, some inns or restaurants also have separate slippers just for the toilet room, which you are supposed to change into before entering, although this practice is slowly disappearing.

The Role of Shoes

bare feetIn Mesopotamia, (c. 1600-1200 BC) a type of soft shoes were worn by the mountain people who lived on the border of Iran. The soft shoe was made of wraparound leather, similar to a moccasin. Shoes were invented to protect our feet from the elements. A nice perk was that it meant that your feet stayed cleaner, and as dirt floors became outdated, you actually could keep your indoor floor clean!

The health benefits of removing shoes in modern society are pretty clear and numerous:

  • EPA conducted a “door mat study” showing that 60% less lead dust and other chemicals were brought into the home by removing shoes and using a front door mat. There was also a reduction in allergens and bacteria tracked into the home.
  • Shoes pick up and carry into your home pesticides, fertilizers, traces of gas fumes, industrial pollution, and animal waste.
  • Bacteria brought in from shoes can cause stomach and lung infections, especially in the young, sick, and elderly.

shoes mudBeyond health, there are many other reasons why shoes come off:

  • Your feet can breathe, relax, and return to their natural state. This is healthier for your feet and more comfortable.
  • You create a more relaxed, informal atmosphere in your home.
  • You have to sweep and dust your home less.
  • Psychologically, this act of removing shoes separates the home from the rest of the world, and can be an important ritual for brushing off the worries of your work day.

With all these good reason for removing shoes, it made me wonder. Why doesn’t everybody do this?

The American Way?

shoe benchWhen friends come over for to my home for the first time, sometimes they pick up on the cues (the row of shoes by the door, the bench to sit on, the cubbies of slippers), but sometimes they don’t notice. I wait until they’ve fully entered my home and we given our greetings, then I politely ask, “Would you mind taking off your shoes?” Most of the time, people look down and realize their oversight, and often apologize, as if they’ve offended me in some way.

Occasionally, however, I can see that someone is uncomfortable doing so, and when they respond, “I’d rather not,” I simply let them do what is most comfortable for them. I may not know why, but it’s not my place to push. My reasons for removing shoes are mostly for comfort, cleanliness, and to prevent scratches on my nice wood floors.

Why is it that we Americans have gotten away from this predominant cultural norm? Do we see wearing shoes as a necessary part of being presentable, like wearing shirts and pants? Is going barefoot akin to walking around shirtless, or walking around with your fly unzipped? Is it simply too informal? Does it come from the south, where there is a stereotype about southerners that involves not wearing shoes and/or a shirt equating to being a “hillbilly” or a “redneck?” Signs on stores that say “No shoes, no shirt, no service” may help reinforce this idea.

sock monkery slippersThere may be concerns about embarrassment as well. Some people may have fears of foot odors, or exposing their ugly feet. I have definitely found myself regretting my choice of socks on occasion, when I realized as I was removing my shoes that my thin socks had sprung a hole.

There may also be more practical concerns. Perhaps wearing shoes prevents elderly people from falling and breaking a hip. Or, also in the south, Cowboy boots don’t have laces, straps or buckles. They aren’t the easiest thing to get off if you’re not a limber person, and if we didn’t have a bench to sit down on, it would be quite challenging to remove.authentic_womens_cowboy_boots-e1358885688446

I’ve been in people’s homes where the floors were so dirty or messy, I was actually afraid that walking around sock-footed might result in a wet sock, or a stabbed sole. Here in the north, winters can be very cold, and in many homes the floors can be downright chilly! I’ve learned to bring my own slippers to visit friend’s homes, in case my feet get cold.
Regardless of the reasons, I doubt that we are so different from the rest of the world- our problems SO unique- that we could not adopt this norm. Just remember what your grama told you- never leave the house without clean underwear- or clean socks- because you never know where the day will take you!





Commute Like You Give a Damn

1 06 2013

A lot of people talk about transportation, and how different it is in, say, Europe compared to the U.S. They have punctual trains that can take you anywhere and everywhere. We have miles of 6 lane concrete ‘free’ways that become a personal prison during rush hour. Your symbol of American freedom- THE CAR- is your cell.rush hour traffic

Commute time is a source of stress, and something we all want to minimize. There is no opportunity for chatting with a stranger, accidental networking, or even a pleasant smile from someone who lives in your community. Instead, I find myself bracing every time I step into my hybrid. When I get home from my hour long commute, I am drained.

I’m the mouse on the road, and hyper-sensitive to the potentially dangerous maneuvers of my fellow drivers. When the semi-truck in front of me starts drifting into another lane, my brain immediately starts calculating alternate escape routes. When traffic gets backed up, I’m glued to my rear-view mirror to anticipate whether or not the idiot speeding towards me has noticed yet that we are all stopping. I leave twice as much following distance to allow for the errors of others, and gracefully accept those who want to take advantage of my cushion of safety to dart across all three lanes of traffic to make a last second exit ramp departure in thirty feet.

INTERSTATE PILEUPSometimes I feel like I am the only person who appreciates how inherently dangerous and serious to concept of driving is in America. Don’t get me wrong, I actually LOVE to drive! It’s the high ratio of idiots to drivers during peak travel times that causes me anxiety. My sensitivity is not based on the size of my vehicle, rather, personal experiences.

When you’ve been in a rollover accident where the truck you’re in twists and crunches the cab, pivoting upside down around the place where your head should be, you appreciate the inherent risks of driving a wee bit more. And that was only going 25 mph. But this is not where I learned my lesson.

One Saturday morning in mid-July, I was awoken early by my mom. She told me there had been an accident.

My two brothers had been driving separately home from a late night at a friend’s. No drinking was involved. They were simply having fun on a long stretch of empty, rural road. Kurtis went to pass Brian’s truck on the left. He swerved out into the oncoming lane, his tire bit the gravel shoulder, and his Camaro immediately spun out and flung into a tree at 60mph.

For seventeen years I have watched as my mother takes care of Kurtis in her home, with the help of 24 hour care. He will never again use his 6’-4” height to run in the Junior Olympics. He cannot walk. He cannot move his limbs, except for his left foot and his thumb. We worked for years in physical therapy and hyperbaric oxygen chambers to get him to this point. Kurt can’t talk, but communicates (irregularly) through eye blinks. One is yes, two is no, three is I don’t know, or his eyes are just tired and dry. I never really know if he’s answering my question or not.kurt mom kurt dr

I miss my brother terribly. I know that he is gone, to some degree, but his body remains. I was only 16 when I lost him. Even after this much time has gone by, as I type this, I am mourning the loss, tears streaming down my cheeks. That’s the really tough thing about this car accident- the wound can never truly heal.

As you can imagine, that simple miscalculation on the road changed my life forever. My family fractured. I clung tightly to a young but solid relationship for solace. And you’d better believe that not a day goes by when I get behind the wheel that don’t think about Kurtis and the risks that I am taking when I drive. If everyone drove like me, I’d be perfectly happy and comfortable. But, they don’t. So I am left to make up for their carelessness by being overly cautious and anticipating the next dumb thing to happen around me.

I meant to write this blog post about transportation and sustainability. About how people in other countries actually get to enrich their lives through social interactions while riding the bus, or bicycling past street vendors, or walking through a crowded piazza. I meant to talk about how isolating and terrible our system of single person auto commuting is by comparison, and how 90% of the auto trips in the U.S. involve only one passenger.

I really miss working close enough that I could ride the bus, or spend a relaxing 38 minutes on my bicycle to commute to the neighboring downtown. Even biking can be dangerous when on the road with absent minded drivers, so I have a little mirror that sticks to my helmet so that I can anticipate those moves as well.

One of the most striking things about transportation in our recent trip to Asia was how different the interactions are between cars and… everyone else.

tuktuk bethany tuktuk kelly tuktuk cambodia moped dogs  There, the ratio of cars to bikes or mopeds or tuk-tuks is far different than in the U.S. Therefore, cars do not rule the road, and their drivers are cognizant of this fact. They always look before changing lanes, fully aware that there could be a family of 4 on a moped just beside them. It looks like utter chaos- a cacophony of traffic endlessly weaving in and out and around one another- but when you stop to really observe, you see that it is like a sort of ballet. They move seamlessly, in a balanced, well-planned orchestration. Nobody gets mad! Honking is just a polite courtesy to let someone know you are going by, and everyone understands what it’s like to be that person biking or trying to cross the street with no traffic signals.

When we were in Veng Vieng, Laos, a small town of 30,000, we had free cruisers available to borrow from our guest house. We took those bicycles farther than any basket-toting, single speed bike has ever gone! We cruised up the main road, where cars actually slow down and swing wide to pass you. There are no bike lanes, no shoulders, just an unmarked swath of asphalt, replete with crumbling potholes and an occasional herd of cattle in the middle of the street. We had no helmets, which normally would terrify me, but I had zero fear of being run off the road by traffic here.bike laos bike luang prabang

We biked 50 km that day. We stopped to ask for directions in our broken Lao language, using maps and apps to try to translate. The roadside stand was staffed by a couple, who spoke no English, but they smiled big and tried their best to help us find the cave we were looking to go hike. We veered off down back roads, totally off the map, but we didn’t care. There was a mountain in front of us, and that would always be west, so we couldn’t really get lost. We biked down cow paths between rice paddies and the irrigation river, and waved back at excited children. We had an amazing time on those bikes, and all of that would have been missed had we simply hired a driver or rented a car.

I know that I cannot recreate the charm of a rural Laotian town, but I can still seek out those kind of local, quality interactions. We are social beings, and the automobile separates us from one another. I want nothing more on my commute than to have a chance to say hello to you. To ask how you are enjoying the beautiful spring weather. To buy a piece of fruit or admire your loyal dog who rests by your side. Is that too much to ask?

Though there is little that I can do about my current one hour commute, I can prioritize this. I can change jobs. I can demand that I be able to get to work by more than one mode of transportation. I can go out of my way, once I do park a car, to walk past places where random social encounters are more likely to occur.

bike kids in streetI will live my life like it could end tomorrow. Kurtis taught me that. Life is too short to not go out of my way to find simple joys in daily living. Sometimes I just need to give myself a little pep talk to remind me of these important lessons.





Swapping Countries- Leaving our Thai son for Thailand.

24 05 2013

It was bittersweet when we met Lori and Elizabeth for dinner. This was the night that they would take our son. Though he had only been living with us for 3 months, he was as much a part of our family as our beloved animals, whom we were also worrying about leaving behind. Veerephat (Bank), was willing to go live with these two new moms, because we were preparing to embark on a journey back to his homeland, Thailand.

We had been planning this trip for some time now, almost longer than the actual wedding, and he was the final piece to the puzzle. Having Bank come into our lives allowed us to gain a deeper understanding of Thai culture. Seeing his reactions in broken English, gave us clues as to how real or serious certain lapses were.

Like the time he was seated and I walked by, giving him a familial tousle of his hair without even thinking about it. He immediately flinched like a battered child, as though the innocent touch was a sad reminder that he wasn’t good enough. To our knowledge, this was not the case, but in Thai culture it is incredibly disrespectful to touch anyone on their head- even a child. Once I realized what I had done, I apologized deeply, and explained the meaning behind it in US culture, but have been sure to never make that mistake again.laos kids

We needed time to pack and mentally prepare for our journey, without worrying about homework and school lunches, so Bank left our home a week early. This also gave us time to answer any questions and help with the transition, though it went smoothly despite our availability. I think Bank was a little bit sad that we were going to his home country, though he was to stay here in the U.S. Although he loves living here, in America, he does miss home a bit, occasionally.

As for us, we were not even going to make it to his part of the country. We never saw a beach the entire time we were in Asia. We were bound for Northern Thailand, Laos, and Siem Reap in Cambodia. The rest would have to wait for another time.

laos pak bang shorelaos pak bangThe entire time we were gone- over three weeks total- we were reminded of Bank. He taught us so much about not only Thai culture, but things that translated to Laotian and Cambodian as well. We felt like we adapted seamlessly into southeast Asia, and there was no culture shock at all. I resisted the desire to use chopsticks unless I found some off pocket where locals were using them (often transplants from Vietnam). We removed our shoes before entering a restaurant in the small village of Pak Bang in Laos. We never raised our voices, even if we were angry or suspected we were being scammed. We learned to tell locals that their woven fabrics are “beautiful” in Laos’ native tongue.

When our trip was coming to an end, I wasn’t sure if our son would even be interested in coming back to live with us. After all, we sent him to live with another couple in a household that has a warm wood-burning stove, and where they cook meat in their house. Surely, he would beg us to stay rather than reluctantly coming back to our cold, vegetarian household. The other ladies even lived closer to school so he could walk or bike less in the snow.

One day, as we were relishing in our final week in Asia, I got a message from Bank while connected to the internet. He asked, “When you come home? Do you think I can come back stay with you again? Will you still want me? I miss you.” Bethany and I looked at each other and I actually felt my eyes swell with tears. We love our boy, and we felt honestly surprised that he missed us, and thrilled that he was as excited to see us as we were to share all of our stories with him. We counted the days to our return, in between treats like freshly scraped coconut ice cream and chilled glasses of red wine.laos chilled red wine





Mother’s Day

15 05 2013

I have always known that my chances of having a child are slim. While I believe that I am physically capable, I could never really picture myself in that role. Babies terrify me, for starters. And although I am fascinated by the miracle of pregnancy, and would actually LOVE to have that experience of carrying another life inside my body, I would rather hand the babe over to a partner until it is old enough to be potty trained, carry on short conversations, and run around with me. That’s what makes me a perfect “Auntie.”

With my first marriage, this was always something that was unresolved. We talked at great length about our theoretical children, and the things we would do differently if we had our own little people to mold. My husband wanted kids, but not bad enough to make an issue our of it. I kept stalling until we felt financially stable enough, and made him agree to take on the primary parental role until age three. Of course, our own moms were anxious to see us finally give them each a grand-baby, since we had been together for almost 15 years by that point. As I started approaching age 30, I realized that the countdown had begun. Age 35 is when risks start to noticeably increase for things like Downs Syndrome, and who knew whether or not we were very fertile.

My life changed dramatically right before I hit that decade trifecta. Just six months before my 30th birthday, I met my current spouse, my wife, and realized that I was gay. My high school sweetheart and I decided to get divorced, and my mother’s dreams of an accidental grandchild were flushed away. I honestly think she was more devastated at her loss of a grandchild than she was at my coming out.

This pretty much sealed the deal. My wife has no interest in having children, we can’t really afford to adopt, and I’m still not interested in babies. So, I was pretty sure that I would never experience Mother’s Day as anything other than an opportunity to thank my own mom for her love and support, and to cheer on my friends who are changing our society, one little person at a time. This year, however, was different.

Last week, our teenage Thai exchange student made me suspicious. He’s very independent, but he was more than aloof one afternoon. Bethany had a meeting to go to, so I told Bank that he and I would go out to dinner together, just the two of us. At first he said okay, but then when I told him we were going to Ann Arbor, he said he wasn’t interested and had too much homework to do. He happened to have stayed home from school that day because his sinuses kept him up all night and he was too exhausted to go. Since he’s a straight A student, we let him listen to his body and stay home. But, I asked him why he didn’t have time to do his homework during the day, so that he could come out to dinner with me. He made up excuses about new homework, and I let it go.

Without his company, I stayed home and just ate leftovers. It was a warm day and I was sitting outside at the patio table when he came out to ask for permission to walk to Faye’s house. He was supposed to meet another Thai student, and I knew the host family, so I said okay. It made me wonder, however, why he suddenly had an interest in going out when just an hour ago he felt too busy to go out with me. I decided to call in ‘back up.’ I texted Bethany and asked her to check in with Lori and Elizabeth to be sure that this was where Bank was going.

His story checked out, and I felt a twinge of guilt for being suspicious of his intentions. He and Faye met up to go to the Thai restaurant together. “I wish that he had just told me the truth originally,” I thought. But Thai culture makes it very hard to say no to others, so I understood that this was not really lying.

Saturday night before Mother’s Day, we were making plans to get up early in the morning to drive to Ohio. Bank casually asked me what time I would get up, and I responded, “Oh, I dunno. I only need 15 minutes to get ready, but I’ll probably wake up earlier.” He pressed me for a time, and I had none. I thought it was odd that he was so interested. I shrugged it off, we said goodnight, and then we all went to bed.

Bethany and I watched a show on the computer before brushing our teeth. I realized I had forgotten something downstairs, and walked back down into the dining room. There on the dark, mahogany table was a vase full of pink roses, with two envelopes in front. He had written each of us a Mother’s Day card and labeled them with our names written in Thai. He drew on the front, an elaborate decoration of the Thai flag and U.S. flag intertwining. He put them out early to be sure that they would be there when I got up early the next morning. It was so sweet, and I was so touched by the gesture, that when I returned upstairs Bethany immediately asked me what was wrong. I told her about our surprise, but that we should wait until the morning to open the cards.mothers day

Bank and Faye had been sneaking around to surprise us four moms for Mother’s Day. I was absolutely floored!

We had had conversations earlier about what Mother’s Day means in the U.S. I explained how I celebrated it differently when I was younger, and we would make breakfast in bed and homemade cards for my mom. As I got older, it became a day of service, where I would go back home to help my mom plant flowers or work on other projects. Now, it’s more of a promise to go out to spend time with her sometime in the weekends surrounding the day proper.

mother day bethanyIn Thailand, Mother’s Day is different. The day is the dame date every year, because it is celebrated on the Queen’s birthday. Everyone wears blue in honor of the Queen, but they also pay respect to their own mothers. When we got up early Sunday morning together to leave for Ohio, Bank was wearing bright blue jeans and a blue sweatshirt in honor of Mother’s Day, and I smiled.

It may be the only Mother’s Day that I ever get to celebrate from the receiving end, but it was the best Mother’s Day I’ve ever known. This year has been a true gift, and Bank will always be our Thai son.





Begging and Tipping

2 03 2013



One of the fascinating things about much of Southeast Asia was the way that they approached tourism. For the first couple weeks we traveled through a dozen town and cities across two countries, and primarily found the same thing. They didn’t care.

It wasn’t that tourism was not a large part of their economy. They just didn’t act like it. I never felt any high pressure sales pitches to get me to buy some piece of junk knockoff made in China. Sure, the larger towns all had their night markets, and the bigger it is the more likely that there is a section for locals and a section for foreigners.  There were always plenty of cheap Chinese factory made knick knacks that were for sale on the blanket right next to the little old lady hand stitching pillow cases. However, when negotiating with either type of vendor, they were much less likely to try to bargain with you by convincing you to buy three instead of just one, or to haggle hard with you. They were much more likely to simply let you walk away. There’s this fascinating difference there, called ‘saving face.’Image

An important part of Thai and Laos culture is one’s ability to maintain a calm demeanor. This means that you will likely never witness a local yelling, or raising their voice excitedly, or even showing excessive enthusiasm. If you elevate a conversation by losing your temper, you will deeply embarrass them and disgrace their honor. Ultimately, this means that they are less passionate, and therefore less aggressive when it comes to getting a few bucks from tourists.

As we wandered the streets, there were a few people that we would see who clearly could have used a few more meals a week, or some fresh clothes, but not once were we asked by them to help them out. It made me wonder, “Why not?”

At first, in Chiang Mai, I suspected that the city had a public ordinance that heavily punished beggars, for fear that it would scare away the tourist dollars. Some cities in America have had a similar approach in the past. As we ventured further afield into smaller and smaller villages, I still could not find anyone asking for anything from me. I even noticed that I saw fewer people who looked in need. I began looking for this, intrigued by their absence.

What I came to conclude is that it was not a matter of public policy- a heavy handed law- but more of a social policy. They take care of their own. It is even more evident in the smaller villages. No family would ever go hungry there, unless the whole town was suffering. They simply could not let that happen. These people are very loyal and proud. They would be far more likely to receive an uninvited contribution of rice during hard times than to be forced to shame themselves by asking foreigners for a hand out.ImageImage

The interesting thing is that there is also a correlation between this lack of beggars and tipping. In all of Thailand and Laos, tipping is not customary. There are some European-influenced, high class restaurants in the biggest cities, like Bangkok, where they will impose foreign customs, and add a tip to your bill, but this is not the norm. It wasn’t until our journey took us down to Siem Reap in Cambodia that we first experienced the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction.

Upon arrival there, some 17 days into our trip, we were culture shocked. The streets were filled with panhandlers, scammers, and aggressive hockers. You were bombarded every 10 steps or less, and it quickly created a sense of dread when you thought about walking somewhere. The ATMS spit out U.S. Dollars only, and everything was priced in that foreign currency. The people there all spoke remarkable English, and they were suave sales men and women… and kids. And despite the dollar menu pricing, they gave out change in Riel, so you were likely to give at least $1 for a tip. Additionally, they expected tips, which was a surprise to us.

When we went to see the sacred sights of Angkor with our newly purchased 3-day pass, our revelling was interrupted by even more persistent adults and kids trying to sell us anything and everything. They ALL spoke English, and verbally assaulted you nonstop until you either paid them for something, or another victim came closer. They must have been forbidden from actually entering the temples (though a few snuck in), but the second you crossed the wall of the temple, you were bum rushed.

The worst was the kids. First, one little 6 year old girl came running up to us and asked me, “Lady, you buy my bracelet?” all sweet and innocent. I didn’t know any better at the time, so I looked into her face and smiled, and said, “No thank you.” Then, seeing that I was giving her my attention, four other kids came rushing up to take advantage of a “Day Oner.” “Lady, just one dollar for four of them!” we were then persuaded. I looked at Bethany before responding, and without speaking, we agreed that it was not a good idea to buy from children, despite how sweet and desperate they seemed. Then, we realized, they wouldn’t take no for an answer. We continue walking, and the swarm followed us. Each of the children trying to convince us to buy “just one” of something, pleading with us, and causing us to start to fear getting pick pocketed. Once we would shake them off, the swarm buzzed back to the temple wall to await the next sucker.

The only way to get rid of them was to completely ignore the children. You couldn’t look at them, you couldn’t talk to them. Any recognition whatsoever simply implied that there was a chance you would buy something, and they would walk with you for 100 yards if that was what it took to make the sale. It was heartbreaking.

In Cambodia, tourists are viewed as walking dollar bills. They are quickly assessed, suavely convinced, and thoroughly sucked dry. It was an awful feeling to be participating in a culture where they are that desperate, because it means that children and adults are being exploited to make those sales, and probably only get a few riel out of every dollar. We tried to do what was right, and we only shopped at local stores that were connected to some sort of humanitarian campaign. We only bought handmade items from artisans who were legitimately trying to make a living, often after losing limbs in landmine accidents. And we never bought from children. There is a local NGO with an ad campaign that explains, “Let Adults Earn, So Kids Can Learn.”Image