New Year Traditions… Let’s Break 2018

1 01 2018

I am a fan of tradition. Traditions are the ways that we tell stories, share history, and impart morals with our community’s next generation. This is why we celebrate the arbitrary day of the year- not Winter Equinox or anything physically significant- but New Year’s Day. Long ago, our great-great-great-great-to-the-nth-degree-ancestors decided that this was the beginning of a new year and the end of the old. Similar to Loi Krathong in Thailand, and other cultural celebrations, we bid adieu to all the horrible BS that was the year past, and welcome in the promise of something better.

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As part of my tradition, I like to end the year with a clean slate. Literally. I take a hot shower and scrub every square inch of my body to be rid of the filth of the year. I even trim my hairs to have fresh, clean ends. I also like my house to have a fresh start. So I tidy, wipe, scrub, sweep, and deep clean as much as I can. This year was particularly satisfying because I am pre-menstrual, and cleaning is extraordinarily satisfying this time of the lunar cycle.

 

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On New Year’s Day, our tradition is to have a few friends over for a casual, day-long gettogether. Folks bring food and drink to share, we sit around, talking, laughing, eating, playing games. We have REAL conversations about how to make our lives and the world better in the new year. We set our intentions. There’s no drumming or chanting, but our non-ceremony is still very serious in that we believe that the first day of the new year should be focused and intentional about where our priorities set.

 

During my cleaning frenzy, no dust was left untouched this year. I actually MOVED objects to wipe with my almond-scented cleaner. For realz. Chopper dog thought we were playing a game, I was moving so fast. He scurried around my feet, excited at the prospect of whatever was clearly coming next! MORE CLEANING!!

 

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I was so efficient, that I had our trusty robot vacuum working simultaneously. Merf (we named him after a Dirty MERF that was being proposed for our city when we adopted him) was working away, humming in the next room, while I kept Chopper out of his path. I was thrown from my frenzy when I heard his needy beeping start up. Merf acts like he is dessicated of attention. “Clear my path!” he shouts, like he’s the only one doing anything worthwhile. I rolled my eyes and stopped what I was doing to walk over, knowing what I would find. This happened no less than 5 times, before I gave up and took him to recharge in his bedroom (aka docking station).

 

At one point, I was moving so fast, that the carved wooden statue of weeping Buddha slipped from my grasp and leapt off the shelf, down onto the stoic IKEA shelving unit. You know, the one that my sister-in-law, the interior designer, said, “If you ever decide to get rid of that, I want it. They don’t make them like that anymore.” Yeah… that one.

 

Buddha crashed into the top surface, then disappeared into the abyss between the bookcase and the wall. It all happened to fast, but when I looked down to find him, all I saw was this massive dent in my faux wood shelf. Buddha broke it. Buddha BROKE it. It’s like Buddha was saying, “Fuck 2017! We are not going to just sit around and whine about this shit anymore! 2018 is for making a move and letting our resistance be known!”

 

IMG_5154Well, I may not be religious, but my wife is. And clearly her Buddha was speaking to me. So, just in case I was getting exhausted, burned out, weary, or frayed at all ends… let it be known. I will NOT sit quietly and let the world crumble around me. I will NOT accept things that I cannot change, because I know that TOGETHER, WE can change things. I may not be able to move a mountain on my own, but when we move together, we can make anything happen. 2018 is going to be a year to remember. Let us restore ourselves, and then let us rise up in resistance. 2018 will be ours. 24796699_1858683254214290_8876786741059340184_n

 

 

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A Gentle Reminder (Part Two)

18 12 2017

(Continued…)

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The first temple that we visited was in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was a simple, neighborhood temple, one of dozens in the area. It wasn’t for tourists, and there were no signs in English, but the intensely brilliant colors and gold leaf coating the building drew us in. There were no monks there at the time, but there was a large tree trunk wrapped in giant swaths of colored fabric, and the base of the trunk was protected by a short wall, painted with colorful depictions of religious characters. It was topped with burning incense, candles, and several imperfect, white lotus blossoms that looked like they had fallen from a nearby tree after a squirrel took a bite. It was stunning, and yet completely commonplace.

The next temple we visited was a true destination- the Golden Temple. It was a breathtakingly beautiful complex with layers of intrigue. We slowly meandered up a steep set of stairs lined with little huts selling trinkets and items for offering to Buddha. At the very top, the temple unveiled itself, with four distinctly sculpted walls framing in the courtyard with ancient stories. I frequently stopped to admire the ornate architectural details and the gilded sculptures. And, yes, I DID bang the gong that hung from its own pagoda- it was taller than me!

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There was a large area in the center for honoring Buddha, and rows of people seated on the cobblestone floor, praying. I watched Bethany make her offering and receive her blessing. I was nervous, because I am not Buddhist, and I didn’t want to offend. It reminded me of attending a Catholic mass as a 12 year old, with my best friend, and how disappointed I was when they told me I wasn’t allowed to take communion like everyone else because I was not baptized. As I watched the elderly monk lean forward and grasp her two hands in his, a smile never left his peaceful face, and I knew that, even if I faltered with the customs, my heart would be received with love.

images (2)As soon as the monk finished tying the knot on my wrist, he paused, closed his eyes one last time, and placed his palm over my pulse. Seconds later, we exchanged bows, and I got up to leave him seated on the stone. The monk’s presence was palpable. He filled the courtyard with a sense of love and calm, and when he directed that energy into me, I could genuinely feel it. The string on my wrist served as a simple reminder of this love and kindness that we all aspire to be vessels for.

By the time we made it to Cambodia, my wrist was graced with multiple strings of various colors, each one carrying not only a blessing, but a memory. It was not until Cambodia, however, that my heart filled with the most memorable encounter, with a most amazing monk.

~~~

424389_412929122123051_1929217999_nThey say that you can get ‘templed out’ in Asia. That was not the case for this grrrl! Having studied many of these ancient temples in architectural history classes over a decade earlier, it was a dream come true to get to see them in real life. Such is the case for Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom, the two most well-known temple ruins in Cambodia. (You’ll recognize them from Tomb Raiders and Indiana Jones movies). Little did I know, these are just two of dozens of temple ruins in the area! It was a feat to see as many as we could in just 3 days, without becoming so utterly exhausted and overheated that the adventure becomes a chore.

312484_412884435460853_1548089458_nWhile on a 2-day ‘slowboat’ down the Mekong River just a week earlier, another couple, traveling generally the opposite direction as us, had told us about their strategy for experiencing Siem Riep. Get up early, hire a tuk-tuk for the day, explore the temples, drink water and snack until the afternoon heat becomes unbearable, then go back to town for  good lunch with A/C, then go sit in the pool to relax and recover from the heat of the day. For just $24 a day, we stayed in a stunning 5 star hotel with an infinite pool, and did just that!

On our very last day, we had worked our way out to the far flung, less visited temple ruins. There was one, the story goes, that was actually designed by a woman. Unlike the more popular destination temples, which are being constantly maintained and rebuilt, these ones were truly crumbling into history. Walking through the temple, it felt like being on a disaster recover team. Every time I ducked under a threshold into a new space, I was in awe at how these massive and mesmerizingly beautiful columns were simply strewn about, fallen and broken. It seemed as if a herd of behemoth brontosauruses had been chased through here, massive tails thrashing about, toppling over everything in their path. The rooms with fully intact columns were far more rare here, yet even the scene of crumbling disaster was something to behold. The voluptuous female figures carved into the stone now rested horizontally, after a few thousand years of standing in perfection.

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As we reached the heart of the temple, we ascended to the top, climbing over stubborn weeds and ancient steps worn down from time. I stepped into a dark tower, following the trail of sandalwood whispering with the breeze. There, half in shadow, half in light, was a figure seated on the stone floor, leaning onto one extended arm. Wrapped in robes, the bright light reflected off the dingy white stones onto her dark, shaved head. Her face was as wrinkled as the ocean, and her eyes shined like stars. She must have been in her 80s or 90s, but her energy hit me like a heavyweight champion. Never had I felt such a powerful force emanating from a person! She was… indescribably awesome. The scene burned into my mind, and I was so thrilled to find this woman. It felt like our entire journey led us here.

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As we boarded the plane in Thailand, I looked down at my wrist. The strings were powerful, but that last one was simply amazing.

~~~

One year ago, it felt like our country was crumbling. I started to wonder if, someday, thousands of years from now, they will uncover us deep in the jungle, and wonder what happened to our civilization. What led to their demise?

15697343_1397671346982152_6921785271375302890_nI was devastated and depressed, and the timing could not have been better for the trip we had planned to go to Sri Lanka. There, after wrapping up my conference, we immersed ourselves into the Sri Lankan culture and wilderness. It was there that I got up at 1am to hike the pilgrimage to the top of Sri Pada, to be at the temple on top of the world and watch the sun rise.

Today, one year later, I look down at the white string tied to my wrist, and I can remind myself that the sun always rises. There will always be a tomorrow. There is always hope.

IMG_4736 (1).JPGThis blessing may bring me luck, or it may not. But it serves its purpose. I am reminded daily that life is too short to focus on the negative. I need not want for anything. I am truly, completely blessed, and I work to keep reminding myself to share my love and light with others who may need it.

 





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!





The Secrets of Travel Grrrls

5 07 2014
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This is the grass hut we stayed at while living on an elephant sanctuary in Thailand

Today we hosted a Meetup group of vegetarians for a potluck lunch (called a pitch-in here in Indiana). We had just flown in the day before from Montana, and were excitedly sharing stories about our trip to hike Glacier National Park. Meanwhile, one of our guests was looking through our photo album from Thailand, and we started sharing stories about staying at the elephant sanctuary, and the sound of elephants purring. After a few minutes of talking about all the places we have traveled, one guy in the room looked at me incredulously and said, “what do you DO?”

 

I laughed, and briefly explained that we don’t come from rich families, or make six figures (in fact my wife just graduated and we are a single income family right now). We are just travel lovers who have found a way to travel as much as possible on the cheap. We camp, we use mass transit when we can, we bring our own snacks, and the most expensive part is really just getting there. I’m pretty sure he still thinks we are filthy rich and that’s the only way you could see the world like we do. Here’s our little secret…

 

About a year and a half ago, my wife and I started exploring this new hobby. We collect air miles. we had heard about it from others but were suspicious at first. “Surely, this ruins their credit score,” I presumed, since it involves repeatedly opening up new credit cards that award you bonus miles when you sign up. As it turns out, it’s legit. And after reaping the benefits for over a year, I can honestly say it is too legit to quit.

 

Hiking Kauai's version of the Grand Canyon in Hawaii

Hiking Kauai’s version of the Grand Canyon in Hawaii

What changed my mind was when we met another older couple who was already doing this. We were staying in an AirBnB (peer-to-peer room rental) on the island of Kauai. We were there for just 3 days, on our way back home from our epic honeymoon in southeast Asia. The place we were staying was a large home with 5 bedrooms, a large shared kitchen and dining area, and an outdoor pool and hot tub. And it cost half as much as a boring hotel on the beach, while giving us a view to Hidden Falls out the back door. Another couple staying there was telling us about how they flew there for free. FREE. Really? We were doubtful.

 

After talking with them (and basically grilling the husband), I was finally convinced enough to give it a try. He explained that there was this website, MillionMileSecrets, run by another couple who does this way more intensely, and makes money telling other people their methods and the latest deals. Once you find the right deal for your goal (maybe with a particular airline, or hotel versus flight points), you apply, and then you must spend a certain amount of money on that card in a given time in order to earn the bonus miles. When we first started, the goal was relatively easy. We would have to spend $1000 on a card within 3 months, and then earn 30,000 bonus miles (which is enough for a free domestic flight!). Of course, these cards also award you points or miles for every dollar you spend on that card from there on out. But the big money is in the bonuses.

 

THE CREDIT DING?Credit-Scale-pic1

Every time you apply for a credit card, you get a hard inquiry into your credit report. This shows up as a ding, usually about 5 points or less. The drop in your credit score is temporary and it goes back up in a few months. If you start out with a good credit score, like my score of 815, 5 points is pretty minimal and does not impact my ability to do things like, say, get a mortgage for a house. Over the past year or so we’ve been doing this, we have actually applied for and received a new mortgage with no problem, and a great rate with no points, so we can personally vouch for this being a true statement.

 

DON’T BE A DUMMY

Credit-cardThis only works if you PAY OFF your credit cards in full every month. If you can’t afford to spend your target goal (like $1000) without risking exceeding your budget, then you should not be looking into this right now. The trick is to funnel all of your expenses onto that one card that you are working on hitting a goal for bonus miles, and you need to be pretty organized and diligent in keeping track of all of this. We have an online spreadsheet that logs which cards we have used in the past, how long ago we closed it, and then we enter in the new card goal and deadline, so we know whether or not we are going to be able to spend enough to earn the bonus miles. If you are unable to devote some time to this hobby, you’re likely to end up wasting your time with little reward.

 

SPENDING SPREE?

Believe it or not, it’s not that hard to hit some of the target spend goals. You just have to get a little creative, and sometimes decide if it’s worth it. We are always looking for things we can pay for with credit card. Besides the obvious stuff like gas and groceries, there may be other places that you already are spending that much each month, and it could be earning you miles. Utility bills? Laundromat? Restaurants? Home improvement projects?1601579_592594560823172_69793799_n

 

Some cards have been easy for us, and others we have had to work hard and plan ahead. For example, we knew we were going to need to buy a new washer and dryer when we moved, so we planned to open a new card around the same time, so we could use that big-ticket purchase to count towards a card with a much larger goal. We also had to have our house insulated, so we found a contractor who would let us pay for the materials ourselves with our credit card, and we just paid him for the labor. We’ve even found some contractors who were willing to accept partial payment in the form of Home Depot gift cards (which we bought with credit card) instead of a check. And if you are getting close to your deadline but still haven’t made your spend goal, you can pay ahead for some things by buying gift cards for yourself to places like gas stations and grocery stores.

 

RAKING IN THE MILES

bk grinell hikeAfter playing this card game for over a year, we have had a total of 6 credit cards, earned over 200,000 miles, and also received other perks like free checked bags, sky club membership, and discounts on other items via our card membership. This year alone we have used these free Delta miles to get one free ticket to Croatia, one free ticket to Montana to hike Glacier National Park, A free ticket to have my wife join me on a business trip to Raleigh, NC, and two free tickets to fly to Las Vegas for a road trip through Zion National Park in Utah and the Havasu Falls in northern Arizona. And we just got an email yesterday stating that we have earned another free Delta Companion Fare to use anytime in the next year. In January we are planning to fly to Florida to celebrate my brother’s 40th birthday, and roll in a trip to the Everglades and the Florida Keys, all using stockpiled miles. With 175,000 miles sitting in my American Airlines account, I’m not even sure where we will go next!cambodia thailand 455





This Thing They Call “Traffic” in Chiang Mai

10 01 2014

We had only been in Thailand for 14 hours, and had a whirlwind morning in Bangkok before we got on the puddle hopper, just across the street from the hotel we had landed in. We arrived in Chiang Mai early in the afternoon. The airport was small, and we were outside within 10 minutes, trying to decipher the transportation options. We waited behind a large group of tourists, all awaiting taxis. Nobody was having any luck. It seemed like we could be there for an hour if we wanted a ride in a car or van. Around the corner was the departure drop off, and we wandered over there to try to catch an entry taxi. “Taxi” is a generous term. What we discovered, after trial and error, was that we could pay much less by hiring a “Tuk-tuk.”

tuktuk bethany

Although we had heard stories about how terrifying and dangerous these vehicles are, we were weary travelers, and willing to take a chance just this once. We negotiated what we thought was a fair price, and loaded our packs at our feet, before climbing onto the bench of the tuk-tuk. It was basically a small motorcycle with a hitch on the back, carrying an open-air, two-wheeled rickshaw. I was shocked to see just how nimble this vehicle is. Although the roads have lines on them,  demarcating what one might think are lanes of travel, the tuk-tuk is seemingly immune to such restrictions. Alongside mopeds and bicycles, tuk-tuks can scoot between lanes of cars, or alongside curbs, to get up to the front of traffic. They fly through rush hour traffic, only to get passed again once the light has changed.

  tuktuk trafficWhile this sounds like a recipe for disaster, I was surprisingly comfortable on our harrowing journey across Chiang Mai on the back of an unstable trike. In the U.S., cars would be honking, and swerving over to block other vehicles from attempting to pass, endangering all involved. But here, this is perfectly normal and acceptable. Car drivers are always aware, and expecting to be cut off or passed in a 3 foot shoulder by a dozen smaller vehicles. Instead of honking, they move over. This behavior would be considered reckless where we come from, but here it seemed perfectly safe. As a sister of someone who is permanently disabled because of reckless driving, I would be the last one to endorse risky behavior on the streets, and yet, here I was, feeling remarkably okay with the situation. Who knew?tuktuk kelly

185739_408084849274145_854844882_nAfter checking into our room at the ‘Eco-Resort,’ we explored the shared bathrooms, built in a beautifully open-air grass hut, with cast concrete counters and bamboo columns. We were excited to walk, to get to know our surroundings, and we sat down at the dining hall to inquire about directions back to town. The woman there looked appalled, “Walk to town?! No, I never walk. It take 20 minutes. You hire tuk-tuk.” We looked at her expression, looked again at our map, and decided to ignore her advice. Maybe in the hot, rainy season this would make sense, but we were hearty stock, ready for a little hike. Besides, it was a mere 78 degrees, without a cloud in the sky. We would much rather walk!

motorbike loadedOur path was clearly not common, as we strode past a young man fishing into what looked like a sewer ditch. Then our sidewalk abruptly disappeared and we walked in the road. We wandered past auto shops, convenience stores, and banks, all while being passed by a flurry of mopeds and tuk-tuks, and small trucks. We didn’t mind, since traffic was so slow and respectful here. Nobody buzzed past us within 12 inches at 35 mph, as might happen in the US if you walked in the gutter. That would not be okay. Instead, we walked in peace, feeling safe, although still wishing there was some sort of differentiation between us and traffic. When we turned and crossed the large river into town, we saw traffic slow down even more, caught in the congestion of the Old Town. As traffic yielded, smog thickened, and we were wishing for a pedestrian only zone.

Dogs and roosters ran free, causing more havoc than tourists. The animals, you see, have no fear of crossing the road in front of this traffic. It’s only Europeans and Australians who paused timidly at the curb, waiting endlessly for traffic that will never yield. We quickly learned that in order to cross, you must simply find enough space- and courage- to step off the curb. The rest of your path will emerge as the steady stream of sputtering vehicles bends gracefully around the paths of the individuals.

Crossing the street in Thailand is an act of faith. While the thought of leaving the safe haven of the concrete curb seems scary, I never once felt endangered as I found my way across the tides of traffic. You just have to believe in the cultural norm, and hope there are no tourists on the roads. I lived to tell about it, didn’t I?





Have yourself a very Krampus Christmas!

22 12 2013

Last night we celebrated several lesser-known seasonal delights, and had the joy of sharing these with someone new. They were: Winter Solstice, and Krampus.

We have another international guest, Joel, from the Netherlands, who is staying with us forst nickolas boot 3 months. He arrived here just days before his own version of Christmas. In that part of the world, they celebrate St. Nicholas night in early December, instead of on December 25th. On this night, everyone places their boot outside the back door in hopes that they will be filled with candy and goodies as a reward for being good. We didn’t want him to feel homesick, so Bethany immediately started planning something to welcome our new friend. She couldn’t find Joel’s boot (since he was wearing them), so she filled a sock with little toys and candy from The Rocket and hung it on the back porch for him to find. It’s just our way of showing how much we love embracing all the different celebrations that we have.

Last year at this time, our home was filled with people sharing their holiday traditions. Our high school exchange son, Bank (from Thailand), was experiencing his first ever snowfalls, while we explained the traditions of Christmas. We also had two young men from Germany staying with us for 3 months, Sven and Torben, who shared their own European traditions. Lastly, we had Craig, the retiree who lived with us for a year and a half, who shared his life stories with us, when he wasn’t be a curmudgeonly recluse.

loy_krathong_yi_peng_san_saiThere we were, one big, makeshift family, covering the globe with our religious, cultural, and generational experiences. We gathered around the fireplace and shared with each of them the tiny tokens of our friendship that they pulled out of the six stockings hung by the mantle. Bank talked about how they have started to celebrate Christmas in Thailand, even though most people are Buddhist. It’s a secular celebration of lights, and lanterns, and gift giving. Sven and Torben talked about how their concept of Santa Claus differs slightly from the American version. Craig talked about when he was a little boy, and the memories he has of his family back then, and the joys of celebrating now with his grandkids.

solsticeSo back to this year. Our dear friends invited us to their Solstice party. It was a dreary, freezing rain kind of December night, but we invited Joel to join us anyway as we walked through the rain, about 20 minutes across town. Bethany splashed her winter boots in puddles along the way like a gleeful child, while Joel avoided drenching his sneakers, and shared my umbrella with me. When we got to the house, it was brimming with celebration. Packed with people, since it was too wet for an outdoor fire, it felt like we were salmon swimming upstream. And that’s not a bad analogy for a night where we celebrate the shortest day of the year, and the swing back towards more daylight and the springtime to come.

We had a wonderful time visiting with old friends, and meeting new ones alike. As the evening waned on, Diana dimmed the lights and directed everybody on how to write down a thought or a wish that they would like to say goodbye to from the past year, or welcome into their lives in the new year. Then, one by one, we each reached out our hands with our tiny folded piece of flash paper, held it over the candle, and watched it disappear in a quick eruption of flames. Farewell, 2013! It felt more like Bank’s Thai tradition of Loi Krathong than New Year’s Eve, though all three of these share that reflective, introspective characteristic.

krampus-black-beat1After we left the Solstice party, Bethany and I explained that we were going to take Joel to another, far more obscure, celebration. It was the Krampus Ball. I found it ironic that we would be educating someone from Europe about a tradition that originated there. Leave it to American hipsters to resurrect the oddities of another culture and start practicing them here with full fervor, as if they’ve always been celebrated.krampus

We walked into the Corner Brewery to find it filled with music and people in costumes. They weren’t quite as authentic this year as they have been in years past, but still, it was eclectic. I explained that Krampus was the horned, hairy creature who was kind of like the devil version of Santa. He would come around and whip children who had been bad, instead of giving them candy. If they were really bad, he would stuff them in his sack and take them away! Krampus was a mythical creature that was used to scare kids into being good, and men from the village would dress up like him to make it more real. The creepy character was abandoned in the early 1900s, particularly after the war, when the Austrian government said, no more! They must have thought people had enough nightmare material already, and shoved this centuries-old tradition under the Alpine rug. The much more jolly red suit grew in popularity, but Krampus could not be contained, and was recently resurrected here and in Europe, prompting events such as this Krampus Ball.

There are hundreds of weird ways to celebrate this time of the year, and I always like to share that there’s more than just Christmas to December. Whatever you celebrate, I hope you rejoice in love, kindness, and acceptance of others. Don’t be a Krampus or a Grinch.krampus2 krampus couple





The Vegetarian Roll: A Love and Hate Relationship with Thanksgiving

27 11 2013

Ah, Family: a Love and Hate Relationship
Basket of fruits and vegetablesEvery year, around this time, I reflect on what it is to be a vegetarian in America. I have my own pleasant and tortuous memories of family feasts, where I was accused of not having a thick enough skin to ignore the taunting. It’s supposed to be a time of gratitude, when friends and family gather to celebrate the cornucopia that nature has belssed them with that harvest season. Our family meals were an extensive spread of wonderful foods, many of which were kindly altered to make them an option for ‘the vegetarian.’ In more recent years, as I have learned to cook elaborate dishes, my own uncles have admitted that “that tofu was pretty darn good” and gone back for seconds. A huge victory for me, and others who have lived through this experience.turkey cartoon

There were usually 20-25 of us sitting down together at various impromptu tables at a given holiday. About half of those were my cousins, mostly younger boys. For about 15 years, no Thanksgiving was complete until one of the boys grabbed his slice of turkey with two hands, and pried the slice apart, mocking the motion of a beak, while making “Gobble! Gobble!” turkey sounds in my direction. The others would laugh, or at least smile, at the ingenious humor and wit, which they had completely forgotten about in the 365 days that had passed since the last ritualistic display.

I had learned by age 13 to just ignore them, as it only egged them on to get a reaction from me. Still, this didn’t exactly make me feel embraced in our family. This did not stop until one year, when I was 26 years old, and I finally erupted. I declared that this was rude, inconsiderate, and childish behavior and I was sick of it. I left the room and did not return. The “Gobble, gobble” noises have since not returned either. The holidays have been vastly improved ever since.thanksgiving cartoon

Who Are ’The Vegetarians’?

a_vegetarian_thanksgiving_menuThe holidays are probably the hardest part about being vegetarian, depending on your family, but by no means is this the only day of the year where we feel different. There are plenty of other challenges to being in this ‘other’ category for something that is such an integral part of daily life. In the 1970s, approximately 1% of the population in the U.S. was living on a plant-based diet, sometimes including animal by-products like milk and cheese. Today, self-reported vegetarianism is between 10-13% of our population, with more and more people switching their diets for health or sustainability reasons. (For a country by country breakdown of vegetarianism, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism_by_country)

The definition of ‘vegetarian’ is also not consistent. When I first became one at age 11, I began feverishly researching and writing a research paper on the topic to learn more. This was back in the ‘dark ages’- pre-internet. I discovered that, at that time, there were as many as 7 major categories of vegetarianism. You could be a pescetarian (eat fish but not other animals), you could be a lacto-ovo vegetarian (most common, eating eggs, cheese, milk, but no other animal-based foods), or, the most extreme type, vegan (eating only 100% plant-based foods). So when you ask, “Is the soup vegetarian?” in a restaurant, it must be followed by a dreaded onslaught of follow up questions. “Is there fish? Chicken broth? Bacon bits? Cream?” By any definition, being vegetarian means you are a minority.

Travel Much?

When we travel, we all enjoy the tasty, unsual flavors of exploring another culture’s food. As a vegetarian, you always have to take extra steps to plan ahead to ensure that you will find sustenance along your travels. I always learn enough of the local language to be able to ask for vegetarian food. This sometimes means spelling it out, “No meat, no fish, plants only, please,” since some cultures don’t really have a word for ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan.’

india veg mcdDepending on where you go, it can be hard or it can be easy. In Europe, there is a lot more education and awareness, and therefore sensitivity to diet needs, despite the relatively low percentage of vegetarians who live there (typically less than 5%). In Germany you have to politely ask for dishes “ohne Speck” or without bacon crumbles, since they view this as ‘other’ and not really meat. In Thailand everything comes with fish sauce, and it can be a struggle to get a truly vegetarian meal unless you are pescetarian. This is in contrast to countries like India, where various sources estimate that 20-40% of the population is vegetarian, and the cheaper the food, the more likely it is to be veg. There is a country-wide mandated identification of non-vegetarian items, noted with a red dot. Even chains like McDonald’s are jumping on the bandwagon in India.

What’s ‘God’ (Buddha, Allah, Krishna, Nature, etc.) Got To Do With It?

bibleAs we quickly learned from our Thai exchange son, diet does not always align with religion either, as we sometimes have been led to believe in overly simplified stereotypes. I always thought that all Buddhism, like Hinduism, was aligned with the belief that we should not take other lives. However, in Thailand, Buddhist monks must accept whatever food is given to them, including animal meat (usually fish). Our Thai son told us that, “Buddha give us fish so we can eat them,” which was a very different interpretation than what we have seen in most American Buddhist traditions.

There are also interesting twists in religion where the faithful have chosen over time to ignore some pieces of scripture, while embracing conflicting quotes. For example, the bible warns Christians not to eat animals at all in some passages, while giving a specific list of approved animals in others.

  • “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” (Romans 14:21)
  • “You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes.” (Leviticus 19:26)
  • “Thou shalt not eat animals that ..walk on paws… or unsplit hooves.” (http://www.openbible.info/topics/eating_meat)

book of mormonSimilarly, the Book of Mormon states that “Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I, the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly; And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” (D&C 89:12-13) Despite this relatively recent (and therefore less diluted by interpretation) religion, many followers do not follow this religious scripture on diet.

With so many interpretations, innumerable sects of religions, cultural norms, and geographical reliance on local food, who is to say what is truly the ‘right’ answer? You will never hear me telling someone that they are wrong for eating animals, although I have a long list of reasons why I choose not to. I am happy to share my reasons with those who want to know, but, as with religion, I do not think it is right to force my beliefs onto others. We each have to find our own path to happiness, and no two paths will be the same.

Who Cares, Let’s EAT!

So, wherever you are this week, whatever you choose to eat way too much of, remember that there is a vast and varied world out there, and you are simply enjoying one tiny slice of the ‘pie.’ Our cultures and traditions are no more right or less wrong than anyone elses, and nobody should be made to feel different or lesser because of what they choose to eat.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!The-Last-Thanksgiving