I love everyone here – I want to stay.
I love everyone at home – my children, parents, friends. I am so eager to hug them all. I miss them so much. Let’s go, I want to take you all from Brazil with me. No, I want to stay but everyone from home to come here.
I love my home – miss my garden, kitchen, my cats, the mountains the cool clear mountain air, camping in my wee little tent.
I love my beach in Rio, the islands in Fiji, the breathtaking mountains in Nepal, the feeling of freedom and joy racing up the hill on a moped to get a little closer to the infinite vastness of the sky above.
I miss my family in Nepal. I want to be there to help them harvest rice, share meals, spicy snacks, drink warm roxy on the rooftop, laugh, be together, be me. No, I need to be here to help them more.
I want to take the children to Canada so they can go to a good school. I want the children here to come to Canada to study in the summer. No, its better for me to be here for them. But then, I’ll need to leave home again, leave my children, my students there, my colleagues, friends…
I love my backpack – the weight feels so good on my back. Can’t wait to explore again – alone, meeting so many interesting people. No harp, no titles, just me. Learn new languages, food, feel unsettled and free.
But I can’t wait to come back here – not just for one month but for 5! Speak Portuguese again, listen to bossa nova, dance samba, walk on the beach every morning and greet all the other regulars. And this next time, bring my own children, or a friend. Introduce them to every unique and wonderful person I hold so dear in my heart.
I want to lie on the beach. Make music with friends. I want to race up a mountain on a scooter, down mountains on skis, learn another new language, improv. I want to fly on the water with a kite – one with the wind, sit alone at a lake so silent I hear the birds gliding overhead.
I want it all, I want you all – all to be with me, all the time.
Ah yes, you are here in my heart – always, everywhere, Forever!
In many ways, Luang Prabang has a lot in common with Luang Namtha: separated by 300 kms of jungle-covered hills and an insanely curvy and mostly-unsealed road, both are quite small towns in Northern Laos, set in a very scenic area along rivers. Although both suffered massive damage during the war in the 60’s, they seem to handle their past and present realities very differently.
For me, its these differences between Luang Namtha and Luang Prabang, both in Northern Laos, that are so dramatic. Formerly the royal seat and capital of Laos, the town of Luang Prabang was added to the World Heritage Site list in 1995. A UNESCO quote from the web explains why: “Luang Prabang is an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.”
With that significance in mind, a place like this could easily become a monument suspended in time but void of life. In fact, despite the great number of tourists, this town seems to be very much alive and well. Given the amount of damage in the war, of course now, there is alot of reconstruction of the 32 temples and older colonial buildings going on but I got the impression that the government has a good sense of how to keep things in balance.
In my 4 days there, I spent a lot of time riding around in the townsite, exploring the temples, chatting with local shops owners, some of whose English was pretty decent and tasting the offerings on the tiny streets lined with a huge array of foods, both cooked and fresh. In my usual fashion, doing what I could to meet locals, I loved the fact that I could hop on a bicycle and explore the outskirts of the town as well as areas on the far shores of the town’s two rivers. Within minutes, I felt completely removed from any tourist routines and anyone who could speak ANY English! There were still temples to visit and some handicraft villages with opportunities to shop if I wanted. (Silk weaving is a real art in LP but I managed to resist the temptation except for one scarf!) In these areas, generally, the people I met seemed to be just carrying on with their daily lives while also curious to meet a foreigner, mug for my camera or take the time to show and have me taste (gotta love charades!) the tamarind fruit that grows everywhere.
Being that there are so many Buddhist temples, obviously there are lots of monks in the temple areas as well as on the street. One of the most powerful and biggest tourist “attractions” is the 6 a.m. daily alms procession of the hundreds of monks. Throughout the town, the tourists are given clear indications that they should be respectful of the religious practices and in particular of this procession when the monks are given food from the locals to cover their daily needs. Many tourists go to see the procession but it is made clear that one should watch from afar and avoid intrusive photo ops.
If one feels particularly spiritually drawn to make a gift of some food (or money) to the monks, then you can buy some food and someone will gently let you know how to act appropriately when you place it in their bowls. The woman I purchased some rice from showed me where to sit and kindly loaned me a particular kind of sash to wear. It was a very special experience for me to give to these people who devote their lives to prayer and I felt humbled to be part of it.
What really interested me though, was the action of the woman who sold me the rice. Nearly at the end, she herself crossed the road to bring rice to place in the monks’ bowls. As she did it, I noticed that she discreetly also gave them the banknotes with which I had purchased my rice offering. Clearly, this woman’s interest was not to sell something to a tourist for her own gain but rather, for the benefit of the spiritual leadership – and her own spiritual benefit in the long term. This is very much a Buddhist attitude so she was simply living her faith with active generosity.
It was this simple action that gives me hope that maybe this unique place can maintain the essence of what makes it so significant to humanity. For me, Luang Prabang demonstrates that spirituality and secular life are not mutually exclusive but rather that an active spirituality is an integral and essential aspect of living well. I pray that this special town continues to maintain that fine balance despite the notoriety that the UNESCO designation brings with it.
Crossing the mighty Mekong River from Thailand into Laos over the new Friendship Bridge 6 days ago, I was eager to meet the people and see this country about which I’d heard so much. I’d been told that the north was particularly special – both the scenery and the people – so I was very interested to experience it firsthand. That said, I knew that, more than anywhere I’ve travelled so far, I would be experiencing this place as a pure tourist. (Something I normally do everything I can to avoid!) I would only be in Laos a short time and the language was a HUGE barrier so I would have to accept being seen as what I was: a voyeur of a people and land of which I could not possibly gain an intimate understanding in a few days.
That said, my heart already breaks to imagine the suffering of these kind and peace-loving people in a war in which they played no part except as innocent bystanders, or, to use that now-acceptable but inhumane war term, collateral damage. This apparently was the country that suffered the greatest amount of air bombing and there are still large, unexploded ordinances being discovered, sometimes with devastating effects on children. This means that none of the simple but neat homes and orderly villages can be older than 40 years as the area was completely devastated by the war that finally ended in 1974. These are clearly a people who have incredible resilience but it is interesting to see just how differently the two main towns of Northern Laos – Luang Namtha and Luang Prabang – have moved forward. I certainly don’t have nearly enough understanding of the history so can only speak from a place of personal experience of the past 6 days. Nevertheless, the differences are dramatic and hard to miss.
The small town of Luang Namtha is the capital of the thickly-forested Luang Namtha province, through which runs the scenic Namtha River (creating for a foreigner numerous opportunities for confusion!). It is presently experiencing a massive amount of foreign (Chinese) investment and the development is staggering. There’s no question that this will be a completely different place within a very short time – maybe 2 years! In light of that, I was quite surprised that the locals seem strangely disinterested or disconnected from the foreigners coming in and moving around them. I wonder whether they are so numbed by the trauma of the past that they have a fear of any form of communication with foreigners. To what extent are they being exploited or are they willing to be exploited just to “improve” their quality of life? There is no question that the area is extremely poor and the percentage of population that has any education is very low. I wonder if they really have a sense of what is going on around them.
Although the people seemed very wary or reluctant, I did have some opportunities to at least try to communicate a bit. A few exchanges stand out in particular, all initiated by a smile. The first was a young girl and her mother who were selling noodles at the night market. In a very simple, honest way, with only the help of sign language, we exchanged warmth and understanding. At one point, after being ogled by a drunk, opium-drugged 60-ish Hungarian (opium is easily available and a BIG problem), he wandered away for a moment. The mother and daughter immediately indicated that this was my chance to escape from this sad case of humanity. I returned a grateful smile with my “Kapb jailailai” (thank-you very much) and made a quick exit.
The second really special experience was with this young mother in her home on a visit to a Lanten tribe village. She clearly loves her baby and sharing a few quiet moments with her mother as well was beautiful.
The third exchange was through another young girl who threw me a warm smile from afar at the fresh (day) market. Feeling encouraged, I gradually made my way to what seemed to be her family’s stall. Selling the typical Laos mix of unnameable veggies was a fairly young mother surrounded by about 5 children (one being the girl who had smiled at me) with a very young baby suckling at her fully-exposed though tiny breast. To be clear, I am in no way shocked by nudity but knowing that showing any form of it is considered highly unacceptable in this part of the world, this surprised me immensely. As my children know, I absolutely adore babies so of course, I couldn’t resist cooing with the little one for a moment. At that point, I got an extremely strange message from the now broadly smiling woman. She was either trying to suggest I take the baby in my arms for a picture OR she was suggesting I just take the baby – in either case, clearly in exchange for money. A strong sense in my gut told me that it was the latter.
Are these people so desperate to improve their lives, that the human person has no value except in a monetary way? Certainly selling her baby would have given her more to support her other children, so perhaps she was just as willing to exploit the opportunities that foreigners represent.
In any case, despite enjoying the scenery immensely, especially by moped and kayak, I was happy to leave after 3 days. To top off the experience, I had been scammed (or was it just another language-provoked misunderstanding?) by the ticket agent in Luang Namtha who assured me I had purchased an assigned seat in a sleeper bus for my 9-hour overnight bus trip to Luang Prabang. I was definitely unprepared for a seat in the second-last row on a smelly, ancient bus, full of locals, a chicken and a ride so curvy and bumpy I bounced right out of the seat somewhere from my half-sleep around 3 a.m.
As the wise “Ines”, whom I met in Fiji recommended as a rule for travel (and life!), “No judgements, no preconceived notions, no opinions. Allow, accept, receive.”
“Suspense” in Luang Namtha
Next stop (and next blog): Luang Prabang…
1. Avoid being stuck sitting at the back of the bus – the air conditioning drips (IF it has A/C), it smells worse than the front, its VERY bouncy and makes it difficult to type
2. Based on sage parting advice of my youngest son, Joseph, when in doubt, say Yes! Be willing to change plans at a moments notice
3. Don’t be so sure of what you THINK you know. When in doubt, TRUST YOUR HEART!
4. Travel with a built-in-filter water bottle – it is valuable beyond measure
5. Keep very well hydrated AND always remember that you never can be sure when you’ll find a toilet – plan liquid intake accordingly!
6. Always keep a wad of toilet paper in your pocket
7. Travel times can end up many hours longer than expected – refer to number 5 (especially if trip involves a boat with a wooden seat and no toilet!)
8. Sticky notes are extremely useful
9. Real travel guidebooks are way better than e-books and worth carrying their weight
10. Finger calluses take a full 7 weeks to disappear completely
11. Do not be afraid – fear makes one a target
12. Do not be afraid to make mistakes – they keep you humble and real. Likewise, embarrassment is a waste of energy. Instead, laugh easily, especially at oneself.
13. Trust your instincts and don’t second guess – one way or other, you have a 50/50 chance of being right. If you “go wrong” you might find something really interesting that’s not on a map
14. When things really seem to go off the rails, BREATHE (X3) – now they don’t look so bad
15. The first and MOST IMPORTANT WORD to learn in every place you go is THANK-YOU! Use it as often as possible
16. Ask for and take advice willingly but never forget that this is YOUR journey!
17. Acknowledge, Accept and Receive every moment with gratitude
18. Give yourself a rest when needed – take time to step back and let things sink in – put your feet up whenever possible (without offending anyone!)
18a. Keep a journal!! Take photos of information sheets for later reference.
18b. Whenever possible, when taking a photo, take it first with ALL your senses, before pushing the button.
19. A hot shower and proper mattress can be a very nice treat
20. Staying in a truly native village is a blessed and humbling experience. Nevertheless, smoke from open cooking fires burns the eyes and sinuses – 3 days in a row is my max
21. Try new foods, especially if you have NO CLUE what it is – you never know what kind of a surprise you’ll get!
22. When tasting new foods, ALWAYS have water nearby
23. REAL bananas are small, sometimes pink, taste like sugar on a stick and might contain big, very hard seeds – savour every bite!
23a. Avoid packaged food like the plague. It’s usually stale anyway!
24. Feeling and probably looking like a fat blob from all the interesting food you are trying is totally okay!
25. If you feel like something is crawling on you, it probably is! Get used to it!
26. Some people perceive 20 degrees Celcius as being cold. Laugh with them – not at!
27. Don’t judge people if they seem rude. It may just be a different cultural perspective. Remember that I can seem equally rude or insensitive because of my own ignorance.
27a. Be OKAY with feeling ignorant. It’s humbling and prompts one to learn.
28. Know and/or learn quickly what you TRULY need to be comfortable and allow for that in your budget. Be willing to let go of EVERYTHING else.
29. Travel involves A LOT of sitting – walk and stand as much as possible – exercise is possible in all positions.
30. Nodding (yes) and moving the head back and forth (no) can mean the opposite in a different culture!
31. Be ready to be challenged in ways you’d never imagined – those are the best opportunities for growth
32. Smile! Smile! Smile!!
33. Finally, a repeat because it bears repeating, learn THANK-YOU, say it out loud and PRAY it in your HEART, in whatever spiritual language you speak, AT ALL TIMES!
October 11, 2014
After being in SE Asia for 2 days I have a real sense that my trip is actually just starting now. In the first 6 weeks, I learned an immense amount about how to travel, what works well or not, what tires and what invigorates, what level of comfort I really appreciate (a decent mattress and hot shower every few days) and what pre-conceived notions really don’t bother me (cockroaches, rats and dorm rooms). Once in Australia, a cull of non-essentials brought my total pack weight down to 14 kg so the actual process of moving around has become streamlined and much less tiring. Apparently “hurry up and wait” is par for the course with this kind of travel so best to drop the “Hurry up” part and maintain my sense of “Fiji time.”
Besides discarding physical stuff, this trip is also very much about stripping away my default roles of “mother” and “harpist”. At the beginning of the trip, it was a huge but essential challenge for my ego to let go of those titles. It surprised me just how hard it was to meet people without including some words about what I do.
In our daily lives, we have such a propensity to define ourselves by our jobs as well as to judge others by them. Work becomes such an integral part of our identity but it can also become a safe place behind which we can hide our real selves – even from ourselves. Although I have been the recipient of jokes about going off to “find oneself”, I am discovering that this is a hugely important aspect of this trip.
My entire life has been imbued by a passion for the harp, so my identity has always been connected to my instrument. Now that I’ve had a bit of time to get used to the idea – by actively forced myself to refrain from using occupational titles – I am enjoying how much freedom this gives me to meet people on a much more human level.
It turns out that travelling with “no strings attached”, both literally and figuratively, is a pretty exciting way to go!
October 1, 2014
My birthday today so I take the liberty of writing a particularly long post!!
After the first few weeks of total sensory overload, I have begun to make some sense of the time here by focusing on one particularly striking difference to Fijians: my over-dependence on eyesight. Maybe it is for general lack of use of my other senses like hearing and smell that they have felt under assault since being here. Life in Fiji is certainly loud and inundated by strong scents – beautiful and not.
In so many interactions and situations, I have been struck by the ability of Fijians of all ages to walk, either barefoot or at the most in flip-flops, in places where most North Americans like myself, would fear to tread without sturdy hiking shoes, trekking poles and a high-powered flashlight. While I stare at my feet and grasp a walking stick for every footstep of an 11-hour hike both up and down a slick and thickly root bound, rain forested mountain, my guide (in borrowed gumboots with the soles falling off!) watches and warns me carefully about particularly dangerous spots as well as points out the flowers I miss spotting along the way (15 metres up!!). The two flip-flop-shod gazelles in their twenties race both ahead and back down the mountain, with plenty of time to gather rare flowers from the treetops. The bounty from the coconut trees they’ve climbed are quickly chopped open, as they walk, using 18-inch machetes without missing a step or a beautiful vista ahead of them. Thankful for the boys’ prowess, my body and brain are revived by copious amounts of coconut water and flesh, as well as freshly chopped sugar cane (delicious!!). Finally at the end of the long hike, crossing a river, putting full trust in my solid hiking shoes, I take a confident step on a dry rock, slip and end up nursing a tennis-ball-sized bruise on my leg for 3 days. Damn!!
Eyesight – for me at present, the most disturbing and clearest indicator of the aging process. With time to think and reflect, I notice how much I rely on that failing sense and how I am concerned by the effect it is already having on my work. Much to the amazement and amusement (these people LOVE to laugh, both with and at each other!!) of middle-aged Fijians, this 54-year old has the energy and strength to trek up a very challenging mountain but the reality is that my falls and eye issues concern me far more than I’d like to admit. At what point will I begin to limit my activities because this one particular sense is letting me down?
Reading material this week: “The Brain that changes itself” by Dr. Norman Doidge. By good fortune, the book was on my son Jonathan’s Kobo which I am borrowing for this journey. Turns out it’s broadly about brain maps, plasticity, and how senses, thoughts, movement are recorded in various and changeable sections of the brain. Essentially, it demonstrates how, when we neglect to use particular senses for whatever reason, our brains switch to using the intended map area for a different purpose. By relying heavily on vision, for instance, we severely limit development of other senses and in fact, the area that could be used for those others is quickly hijacked by the visual. Eventually, the space allotted in the brain for other senses is simply no longer available, without real effort to retrain them.
This all seems highly technical but the evidence has been so obvious in the past weeks here that I can’t ignore the implications. Here, children jump barefoot on wet rocks, do back flips into 2-foot deep water and run around on hard, broken coral paths, completely unaware of any possible discomfort or danger, all the while developing and strengthening the neural pathways in their brains and their kinesthetic sense of their bodies within space. In our highly-developed our society, the majority of children waste away in front of screens doing schoolwork, watching TV and texting with their friends who may be sitting only a few feet away! Recreational time is widely spent in organized games that although valuable in many ways, can also limit the creative potential of the child both physically, mentally and emotionally.
In putting all these ideas together, I decided to become my own science experiment. The path to my bure (traditional Fijian house) is relatively steep and uneven with a few stairs and numerous frogs thrown in for a little excitement. After 3 days, I can already take this path more securely at night without a flashlight than in broad daylight! And I now also perceive and enjoy far more beautiful scents, like the lemon trees at night. The brain has such huge potential for quick and lasting change if we take the time to use it well.
My newest definition: Fiji Time – moving forward at a pace that is in tune with the space of which one is an integral part.
Resolution as I celebrate my birthday and prepare to leave Fiji: maintain Fiji time, taking a pace slow enough (preferably barefoot) to feel the ground and see with my feet. Walk confidently in the dark, and resist the incredibly strong temptation to look down when walking in the light. Recover space in my brain for all of my senses. Look up and spot the rare flowers hidden in the heights of whichever jungle I am exploring.
By the way, according to Doidge and considerable scientific research, just imagining what we want to achieve can physically change our brain in such a way that the dream soon becomes reality. Now that seems like a great lesson to carry forward from this first month of my sabbatical.
Students, consider yourselves fairly warned that your first lesson when I’m back will involve a hike up a mountain in the dark! Better start practicing now!!
September 6, 2014
One week into my travels and beginning to relax, recovering from the busyness of the months preparing for this trip as well as from the overload of impressions in my first week here in Fiji. After 2 days at the Beach House spending time with other travellers, expats working for NGO’s here in Fiji on their weekend off, a Rotary architect from Australia, working on housing projects in villages with Scouts from home and catching up with my cousin Remy from France, moved on to Suva – the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the South Pacific.
Still battling with myself over the idea that it is okay to take time to just be in a place without feeling a need to be productive. North Americans are so indoctrinated with the belief that we should constantly be busy in order to prove in some way that our lives have value. But what about the value of taking time to slow down and to allow oneself to be surprised by life and all it has to offer when we don’t try to control every minute?
In the past week I’ve chatted with fishmongers, Indian sellers, women patiently tossing a fishing line to catch dinner – one proudly showing me her catch of the day; a 3-inch-long silver fellow we would never ever consider enough for a one-bite snack. This treasure would provide the woman’s family a tiny amount of protein in a diet largely based on cassava or taro root – both similar to potatoes – or rice.
So many of these extremely poor people have shared excitedly with me that a family member of theirs is living and working in Canada – Cold Lake, Toronto, Vancouver, even Medicine Hat! The few bits of information they know about Canada is widely more than what most of us would know about their life and culture.
My romantic image that the “real” Fiji is only to be found in the villages and 300 tiny islands has quickly evaporated. Although Island-life is certainly an essential aspect of life here, life in the cities or towns is equally important. Everywhere I go, I run into masses of young people eagerly on their way to and from school. Sitting in the gardens of the University of the South Pacific, beside a huge open-walled lecture hall, the wide garden area is filled with students (Fijian, Tongan, Indian, Asian and a very few Caucasian) sitting, sleeping, laughing, discussing, studying, working on laptops. Even while waiting for the boat to ferry me across to the idyllic island of Leleuvia, I watched a boat pull up filled with a class of young kids taking their boat ride home at the end of their school day.
In essence these young people, full of life and immense potential are no different from any young people in North America or Europe, living, learning and curious and exploring pathways to fulfill their hopes and dreams.
And what about those dreams of all these students both here and everywhere in the world – this beautiful world which offers us so much plenty and provides for all of our needs – which we have raped to an extent that is so clearly not sustainable? What kind of a place have we made for them?
7 days into my odyssey and my heart tells me already that I will have few answers but endlessly more unanswered and unanswerable questions at the end of it! The biggest challenge for now is to still my mind and stop asking questions at least for awhile and simply enjoy the beauty of this country, the warmth of the people and the full extent of the flora and fauna that pervades this paradise.
Now just 5 days away from my departure to Fiji, beginning a 9-month adventure sure to be filled with new experiences, people, languages, food…challenges I cannot even begin to imagine! In these past few days, cleaning and packing up my house, test-packing my backpack and small suitcase (under 50 lbs total!!), sharing final moments with friends and family, my brain and heart ride on a roller-coaster of emotion that has taken me so much by surprise! Oh yes, I am VERY excited – one moment – the next in tears knowing how much I’ll miss my children – the next, eager to experience the all-embracing warmth of the South Pacific and the endless multitude of fish – the next, happy to be leaving the damp, early-onset Fall in Calgary, yet sad to miss the bountiful harvest my garden will produce – the next eager to meet the children at the home in Nepal and of course those in Brazil, eagerly awaiting the arrival of 3 harps and their teacher in February… Please bear with me as I move through these next few days of final preparation. I’ll try to make my posts interesting for all of you who have asked to be kept informed of my location and experiences throughout my sabbatical. Definition: Sabbatical (from Latin sabbaticus, from Greek sabbatikos, from Hebrew shabbat, i.e., Sabbath, literally a “ceasing”) is a rest from work, or a break, once every 7 years (REALLY?!!), often lasting from two months to a year. In recent times, “sabbatical” has come to mean any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve or learn something. From setting up electronic devices, apps that work like homing pigeons or deep-sea pings, devising ways to access my music library while 8000 kms away from home to studying a new language for the past 2 years, the learning has certainly already begun. Now facing months alone with my thoughts, passion and curiosity, I follow a path that my heart knows is the right one. I take you all with me, tucked safely in the depths of my heart and will do my best to share this journey with you if you care to come along. Let’s start with a rest in Fiji. 5 weeks to explore, discover, renew, be still, just be…
I am so excited, I can hardly contain myself!! As of today, my first flight is booked to start out on my 9-month adventure to explore, learn, share, relax, BE! After several months of dreaming, planning, fundraising etc, it finally became clear that (thanks to Brazilian bureaucracy and the World Cup!) there was no way that the harps for which I’d been fundraising could possibly get to Brazil by September when I had planned to begin teaching there. Sooooo, time to turn things around and instead start my trip where I’d actually planned to finish – well, sort of anyway.
In fact, although I’d thought of taking time to travel “at some point in my life”, this whole adventure was precipitated by another long story. Suffice to say the main protagonists were my eldest son, Jonathan, a middle-of-the-night phone call and the most authentic people I have ever met. Having fallen in love with Nepal, I had promised myself to return as soon as I could to find some way to repay the people there for the amazing support I experienced during my short stay there in early 2013.
So here it is, July 31st, 2014, and after a life-changing 18-month journey (part of that other long story), I have finally booked a flight that will, in a slightly roundabout way, take me back to Nepal. On August 27th, I begin my 9-month sabbatical (“Granted by which institution?”, People wonder and I emphatically reply, “By myself to myself! I’ve earned it!”), not in Brazil as I had expected but instead, at the other end of the world – FIJI!
Why Fiji? Well, it’s on the way to Nepal (generally speaking!), warm, has gorgeous water, fish, birds, wind, flowers, generous, friendly people and countless islands to explore all on “Fiji time”. A perfect place to rediscover life at a different pace, recharge and begin to define myself without 47 strings attached – at least for a few months! I’ll reconnect with them when I get to Brazil in February…