BACK FROM THE DEAD

As some of you may know, I spent the last week and half being pretty sick, bur FEAR NOT!!! Two clinic visits, two antibiotic series, and one IV later, I’m back to being the picture of health! And I can’t say enough how happy I am to be healthy again, because nothing makes you more homesick than literal sickness. Not that I need to be homesick, seeing as I’ll be home in a number of weeks…BUT NOT THINKING ABOUT THAT LA LA LA.

Instead, a word about our work project. Here’s the thing; I really like it. I do. But I’m wondering how much positive impact we’re really having on the environment versus merely defining the border of our village’s land? We’ve switched activities, so that now we’re trimming the bottoms of pine trees to help them grow taller, and next week we’re supposed to be cleaning up the waterways. So that’s exciting. But I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the environment, and our role it in, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe the most realistic way for us to do good is to not actively do harm? The thing is, amazing technological innovations like solar panels and electric cars don’t actually help the environment, they’re just not as bad as traditional products. And so few things actually help rather than minimize the hurt. So what does that say about us? Does that mean that the best we can hope for is for things to stay exactly the same? How can I ask someone to give up a part of their life if I’m hesitant to do the same? Does that make me a selfish person? Can we ever, realistically, enact change on a large scale? WHY ISN’T OUR INEVITABLE PATH TO ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION A BIGGER PROBLEM FOR PEOPLE???

Ahem. Sorry about that. But obviously, I’m still struggling with these things, and it makes me wonder why everyone isn’t aware of what we’re doing to our world. Or if they are aware, why they don’t care.

The homestay is also going well, as we’ve been spending more time with our family and they’ve definitely opened up to us. They are incredibly sweet, and I’m finally improving my Spanish enough to understand most of the conversations with my host parents. My host mom is extremely happy that I’m finally healthy again; she’s been beside herself with concern that I was literally dying, despite my protests. My only complaint would have to be the fact that we literally eat rice and potatoes three times a day, every day. I wasn’t a huge fan of potatoes to begin with, and I think this experience has definitely turned me off them for a while.

But, even with everything that’s happened, I’m still in love with Ecuador, and our beautiful village. Our host dad mentioned that the thing visitors always comment on is the clouds, and I don’t blame them. They sit in the valley below our village, or color the sky as the sun sinks, or sometimes even stroll through the village itself, muting and softening all the edges in town. And our dogs!! Our family has three grown dogs, Chadow, Loba, and Toby (such a cultural name). And the other day, our dad carried home the newest addition in a tiny basket; a teensy puppy named Bobby, who looks like a literal stuffed animal. He’s pretty scared of Julia and I, but we’re working on it.

So that’s pretty much it for me! Oh, yeah, my birthday is this Saturday, and we’re planning on visiting a nearby lake for fishing and horseback riding, so that should be fun. Our group is falling apart a little bit, as Sarah got attacked by a dog, Patty is away getting physical therapy for her knee, and Noah chopped his toe in half with a machete, but we’re holding it together for these last few weeks. I know this post is a little shorter than normal, but that’s probably a good thing?!? I love you all a lot, and shoutout to Godden, Rachel Gold, and Joseph Antony for also being readers of the blog, AS WELL AS anyone else out there reading this!! I’ll see you all very soon. Stay healthy!

 

In order to save the world, we must first discover it.

One More New Home

It’s weird to think that this is the last time I’ll post an introductory blog about a new country, but I keep telling myself that we have plenty of time left. If we’re being honest, I’m not really sure how I’ll be able to go back to real life, but that’s an existential crisis for another blog. For now, allow me to introduce you to a new friend of mine: ECUADOR!!!

As much as I loved (and I truly did love all of our past countries, even India) the countries we’ve visited thus far, I fell even harder and faster for Ecuador. I arrived at 3 am, tired, hungry, and slightly delusional from the medications I was taking since my body decided to rebel against almost 48 straight hours of travel, but my only semi-conscious brain was still able to register the vast sprawl of lights that were visible from the roof of our hostel. To borrow an old phrase from my group mate Lily, it looked, for all the world, like the stars had fallen from the sky and settled themselves on the ground of Quito, Ecuador. We spent the next two days exploring the city, adjusting to the 12 hour time shift, brushing up on Spanish skills, and stuffing ourselves with food that wasn’t, for the first time in months, from Eastern Asia. It was, in a word, bliss. 

Of course, even in Ecuador the sun doesn’t always shine, and we spent an unfortunate nine hours on a public bus to get to the sight of our work project and homestays, a small indigenous village called Caguanapamba. The indigenous language here is called Kichwa (although most people also speak Spanish), and the traditional style of dress includes little white bowler hats. Our first lesson in the culture came immediately after arriving, as our first full day here was spent celebrating Carnival, a holiday that welcomes the arrival of spring. Our host families dressed us in traditional skirts, blouses, hats and pullovers, then sent us out to join the hundreds of individuals from different villages who were gathering for an annual four hour walk through the countryside. The walk not only featured gorgeous landscapes and breathtaking views, but constant attack vis a vi foam sprayers and buckets of water. We finally bought some sprayers for ourselves and were able to retaliate, not only on the attackers but amongst ourselves. We were also offered a lot of potatoes and chicha, a traditional drink that is made by fermenting maize. The walk ended at a stage, where several hours were spent dancing, eating, and celebrating. At the end of the day, we were all very dirty, very full, very tired, and (for some of us) very sunburned. 

Even though we’ve only been here a few days, Julia (also known as J. Mom, aka my work partner for India) and I have been welcomed warmly into our homestay. Our parents both speak Spanish, and since Julia spent her high school years learning Chinese (SO COOL), I have the role of playing translator and doing most of the communicating with our family. It’s kind of weird being able to speak the same language as our family for the first time since South Africa, and although I definitely wish my Spanish skills were a little better, I think it’s made it easier to feel at home here. Another big factor in that is our two little sisters, who are the only girls in a family of six children. Lordes (9) and Sonya (12) have been a sort of gateway into the family for Julia and I, and we spend most of our nights watching videos, playing card games, or simply just talking with them. They are, as all little girls are required to be, absolutely adorable, and make coming home more of a joy than a chore. 

Finally, our work project. It’s been decided that we will only go to our work project on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and spend Fridays working with our families. Which is good, because the work is definitely physically demanding, but it’s surprisingly a lot of fun. We have to cram into the back of a work truck for a bumpy, shaky, half hour drive up the mountain, where the temperature drops a noticeable amount and it seems to be constantly overcast or drizzling. Even so, I would argue that it’s worth it to see the beautiful landscape at the top of the mountains, which is so unlike anything I’ve seen before. I can only describe it as being a grassland, with hills of green as far as the eye can see, occasionally dotted by cows or trees. The soil is so rich that it’s black, and retains so much moisture that it literally seeps out of the ground when we dig holes to plant trees. Which is what our job is in this otherworldly place; to plant lines of trees. The trees are not only nitrogen fixing, but help to hold water in the soil and mark the boundary between the land of different villages. It’s hard work, but unexpectedly gratifying, as we continually try to beat our record for trees planted in a day (our current best is 203). 

So that’s Ecuador! Oh, one more thing. There’s no Internet in the village, so all of my posts are dependent upon when we can get into town. Our core focus for this country is environment, so I’ll probably touch on that sometime in the coming posts. I love you all a lot, and will try to post again soon. 

In order to save the world, we must first discover it. 

Pad Thai, Movies and Spider Wine

Hello world!! I apologize again for the great expanse of time that has passed between my last blog post and now, but better late than never? I’m writing this while sitting aboard a plane flying from Cambodia to China. But wait, you say, what were you doing in Cambodia instead of Thailand?? Why aren’t you flying to Ecuador?? And for God’s sakes, HOW MANY PAIRS OF THAI PANTS DID YOU BUY??? To which I respond, patience is a virtue. All will be explained. And eleven.

First, let me take you back to the final four days we spent in our village in Thailand. They were, expectedly, bittersweet, lit with moments of laughter and clouded by those of sorrow. Even though my host family speaks no English, I feel extremely comfortable here, and the day we left felt remarkably similar to the day I set off almost five months ago. Like I was leaving behind a family, a community. A home. Sam and I spent the last day learning how to cook sticky rice in bamboo with our mae for the feast that evening, of course sampling a bit along the way. The best part was probably watching our pa carve the delicate edges of the bamboo away with an enormous machete, seeming surprisingly at ease. That evening, all of the elders in the village each tied a cotton string around our wrists, reciting a blessing to carry with us in our journey. The blessings were whatever came to the mind of that person at that time, so they varied from good health to good wealth to a beautiful spouse. In the end, each of us had 16 strings fastened around our wrists, a simultaneously beautiful and sentimental display. We then proceeded to stuff ourselves silly, watch a ridiculous slideshow of our time in Thailand, and sing/dance terribly to karaoke (the evening concluded with an unbelievably loud rendition of “Sweet Caroline,” much to the amusement of our families). It was, indubitably, one of my favorite nights of the trip thus far.

After concluding our time in the village, we all headed back to Chiang Mai for our IST weekend, which I spent at the Eco Resort doing exactly NOTHING. I slept until at least 11 every day, watched at least 6 movies, and lounged by the pool more than I’d care to admit. I also accompanied two of my favorite people, Bex and Jules, to get TATTOOS (those crazy bitches), and while I wasn’t feeling gutsy enough to get anything permanently inked onto my body, I did pay a man a lot of money to put two new holes in my ears, so that was fun. I have to say, one of my favorite things about staying at Eco wasn’t the resort itself, but a small restaurant about a three minute walk down the street. It wasn’t even a true restaurant, but a stove and a collection of tables, with only one real item on the menu: pad thai. The woman who ran the stand made the pad thai right in front of you in a huge pan, tossing in noodles and peanuts and spices and eggs and chicken and general deliciousness. She and her daughters spoke no English, but would happily comply when I held up my finger for one order and stood watching her cook, handing over the required 35 baht in exchange for a bag of pad thai wrapped in banana leaves. It was cheap, easy, and absolutely the most delicious pad thai I have ever eaten. I had pad thai for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a midnight snack. I visited her stand at least once every day for all six days that we stayed in Chiang Mai, and even now my stomach is rumbling as I think about it.

But Chiang Mai wasn’t all movies and sleeping and pad thai. I did end up spending a lot of time working on my media project, which, for the first time, I was tackling alone. To say that I was nervous would be a gross understatement. I was terrified. It was a subject that I had been struggling with for a long time, something that was extremely personal and required me to be exceptionally vulnerable. But in the end, I was happy with my work. I was proud of the project that I put out: I think it may be my favorite personal project yet. I delivered it in speech form, like a TED talk, which is why I’m hesitant to put the script up here, but if I can’t find a video to put up with my next post, I promise I will actually put that up instead (I mean it this time!!).

So anyway, after settling all our affairs in Thailand (including an epic adventure to send a box home: it’s shocking how little red truck drivers seem to know about the city they are paid to drive around), we packed our bags and headed off to Cambodia for our enrichment week. We first spent a few days in Phnom Penh, where we toured the Killing Fields and Building 21. This topic was especially important to me, because of an independent research paper I wrote not even a year ago on the subject of the Cambodian Genocide. For anyone who knows little to nothing about the Cambodian Genocide, I can first tell you that this is probably because the United States generally glosses over this damning piece of its history. Not only did the US drop thousands of bombs on Cambodian civilians as an accidental spillover from the war in Vietnam, but the United States (along with a large part of the rest of the world) turned a blind eye to the horrific acts recalled by refugees streaming out of the country, instead choosing to believe the brainwashed reports of Western journalists were only shown what the government wanted them to see. Some almost half of the country’s population was massacred in the genocide conducted by the Khmer Rouge, resulting in massive “Killing Fields” where thousands of individuals were taken every day to be murdered and dumped into mass graves. The means of torture and execution are horrific beyond comprehension. Building 21 details these abuses, and displays the beds to which prisoners were kept, only barely alive as they were slowly tortured. And those were the lucky ones, as the rest were kept in cages too small to even stretch your arms. In walking through the field and torture center, listening to my audio tour, I was struck by a sense of disconnected wonder. How? How could such cruelties occur, amongst any group of human beings? How could the world turn away? How could we ever be so callous, so heartless, so inhumane? I don’t know. I still don’t know. But as hard as it was to see the graves, to count the cells, to hear the stories, it is far worse to pretend as if they do not exist. In doing so, we commit the greatest crime of all. We claim innocence by ignorance, and forget that the only way to avoid repeating history is to remember it.

Around several of the mass grave sites in the field we visited, the posts were decorated with hundreds of bracelets, of every size and color, remembering those who were taken by the genocide. I pulled several of my blessing bracelets off my wrists and tied them to the posts, because I know that they need the love and protection more than I do.

I could go on for hours about the beauty of Angkor Wat and the Jungle Temple and the Cambodian circus in Siem Reap, but for the sake of time I’ll just say that they were works of art. One of my favorite memories was watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat, reveling in the silence and stillness of the moments just before the sun appears. It is my favorite time of day, when the darkness is just beginning to lift and the earth is holding its breath and you have the entire world to yourself. I think, to me, that’s what happiness is.

The last thing I’ll talk about in this ridiculously long post is our guide for Cambodia, a man named Bun (pronounced Boon). He introduced himself as Agent 007, James Bun, and spent our first bus ride from the airport to the hotel somehow wandering from telling us about the history of Cambodia to instructing us about the virtues of loving and living simply. That night, he took us to the temple where he had trained as a monk for two years and told us his life story. At eighteen years old, he had run away from the army to beg a monastery to take him in and train him as a monk. They finally accepted, and Bun stayed there for two years learning the Buddhist ways of life. However, he realized after two years that he needed to give back to the people of the world, and that he could best do that by leaving the monastery and working to serve others in different ways. He went home and opened a hostel, and started using the money he got as a tour guide to provide for his parents, his four siblings, and their children. As he took us around Cambodia, he never missed an opportunity to launch into his Buddhist teachings and impart some of his wisdom on us. He was not only hilarious but insightful, generous, and kind. On our last night in Cambodia, he invited us to dinner at his home, where played volleyball, cuddled puppies, and painted the TBBeast insignia onto his wall of travelers. The home was overflowing with laughter and love, and the food was beyond compare. The only thing I wasn’t a fan of? The spider wine he gave us to drink after dinner, which was in fact brewed by drowning tarantulas in the liquid. It was about as good as it sounds.

And now, finally, why am I flying to China instead of Quito, Ecuador? Well, this is actually only the first leg on what will be approximately two and a half days of travel. This is only our warm up flight; after this, we fly to New York, then Georgia, and then finally to Quito. Will provide updates on how that goes in my next post.

Wow, ok that was a long post…lots I wanted to share with you guys!! Even if you guys is no one but Beth and Bill Sherman (shoutout to the parentals, love and miss you guys!). Miss you lots, excited/nervous for Ecuador and wondering what the hell I’m going to do when this trip is over. Love you all!!!

 

In order to save the world, we must first discover it.