Sunday, September 28, 2014

Two Years and Counting

So much can happen in two years.

You can quit your job, blow up your life, pick up a couple of new professions, accidentally take a trip around the world…Boom. Just like that.

Two years ago today I walked away from my job as a nursing home psychologist. Since then, I’ve been an English teacher, a research consultant, a freelance editor of independently published fiction, a shepherd, a cheese merchant, a farmhand, and now I’m a housekeeper in a Turkish guesthouse. And I contend: Anything is possible.

You need a beekeeper? On it!

Even though I’m in my 15th (15th!!) country for this year, I’d say the journey I’m on is as much internal as external. I regularly sit shaking my head as I contemplate the leaps and bounds my heart and mind have made since I first boarded that plane to Tokyo. To watch insecurities and doubts fade, replaced by confidence and self-assurance...to happily shed that sense of panic in confusing and unknown situations, feeling instead ready to tackle anything at any time…to see a broken heart mended and restored by the return of love…to laugh at the correct assessment of a new friend who grips my calf and pronounces me “strong”…I can’t even begin to plumb the depth of the delight it’s all brought me. 

And some literal leaps and bounds.

And yes, when I called this an “accidental” trip around the world, I was dead serious. When I left Japan, I figured I’d take advantage of being on that side of the world to see a little more of it, maybe have a beachy winter. But that was as far as my plan went. Until I took the next step. And the next. And the next. I’ve totally been making this up as I go, letting each step come to me in its own way, often with zero clue of where I’m going or what I’ll do there, with only the vaguest reasons. And it’s been MAGNIFICENT.

Never would've ended up in this stunning place if I hadn't been opening to conversing with a friendly fellow traveler.

I’ve met so many wonderful people, seen so many amazing things, learned so much about different ways of life around the world…each little bit causing more of those internal shiftings, changing who I am, how I think, what I want for my life. This, of course, is not limited to time spent traveling…we are all changing all the time. As I’ve said before, change is the one constant we can count on, and we are all different people when we go to bed each night than we were when we woke up that morning. Being in such unfamiliar surroundings in my travels has just made some of these changes and differences easier to see, but they were always there.

Thankfully, some things don't change.

So today, I’m spending a little more time thinking about these last two years, taking stock, and how what I do for work affects my identity. Or doesn’t. And what kinds of things do play into my definition of who I am. And who I want to be. Anyway, I’m gonna sit here and pontificate away…but I thought I’d at least share these few musings with you.

And this quote that I recently ran across and find a lot of truth in:


Maybe I’ll take up consistent blogging again, maybe I won’t, but in any case, I’d love to continue this conversation with anyone interested!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Nepali Time Machine

I love the communal nature of life here, especially in rural Nepal. When electricity is limited and unpredictable, sunlight is not wasted, so in the villages, the day begins as the sky lightens at 4:45am. Lazy Westerner that I am, I stayed abed until 5:30am, when morning tea is served. I continually had flashes to the farm life imagined from the Little House on the Prairie books I loved so much, minus wagon trains and hoop skirts and locust plagues. 

Morning work, plus chickens hoping for some spillage
By 6am, the stream of visitors begins, whether it's a hilarious 14-year-old kid on his way to school stopping by to deliver milk and ever impressing me with his knowledge of English slang, a neighbor who comes by for an early morning chat, or a band of curious little girls dying to meet the foreigner. They show up unannounced, stay a while, and treat the place like home...so much so that it took me five days to sort out who actually lives in the house where I stayed. Every time I thought I had it down, someone else would walk in like they owned the place and I'd get all confused again. 

He stopped by every morning to crack me up. Champion.
It didn't seem to matter if it was the middle of meal time...they'd simply share whatever we were having. A lot of times I'd find women who'd stopped by doing dishes in the yard, though they hadn't eaten with us...so presumably they were just helping out for a moment, doing whatever needs to be done. And it was the same in every home we visited. I was usually hard pressed to tell who the hostess actually was because everyone was involved in welcoming, helping, serving, doing. Visitors were always welcome, and there was no pressure to have a "perfect" house to be "ready" in some special way. It was truly lovely. 

Having a visit over some dishwashing
 Though it wasn't all just work work work. There was also time for visiting, for rest. Work is integrated throughout the day, and the rhythms of the day just felt very natural. If you're tired, go take a rest, even if you're in the middle of visiting...I took a nap on a neighbor's porch, just wiped out from the heat of the day, and I wasn't the only one...and it was totally fine! If it's hot, sit and find shade. And the work all seems to get done, and in a very laidback way. As stressful as it can sometimes be to my Western mindset to NOT stress about things (how messed up is that?? But it's totally TRUE), I do so envy the very relaxed attitude about things that all Nepalis seem to have. 


Time out for a photobomb!
There was even an open door for me everywhere we went, which as very much a stranger I so appreciated. When we walked through the villages, most homes we passed offered an invitation for us to come in and visit. It was hard to get used to being treated like the guest of honor, since most of the time I felt like a big awkward lump, having little idea of local customs and wary of making some unintentional gaffe. I was always touched at how immediately I was offered a straw mat in the best shade and that they'd go out of their way to find me a safe beverage, sometimes undertaking a long walk to a shop to buy me a soda. Then I'd do my best to cross the language barrier and fascinate them with my heat-reddened face, my blistered feet, or my personal favorite: videos of my beautiful nephew laughing like the international superstar he is. Who doesn't love a laughing baby, I ask you. NO ONE. So we'd sit a while, visit, then be on our way. 
This baby definitely appreciated her fellow baby.
And for the record, my only gaffe was not realizing that when they asked me if I needed to go to the bathroom the "long way" or the "short way" that this was a number 1 vs 2 question. I thought it was simply about whether I wanted to hike down to the outhouse or pop a squat around the corner or wherever. I'm just not accustomed to being quizzed about my bathroom intentions! Plus with constant fear of curious witnesses, I was a no-go for the "open toilet" and always opted for the outhouse...even if I now realize that always going for the "long way" must've meant to them that I had some serious intestinal instability going on. Which may or may not have been spot on the truth anyway... 

Limiting public humiliation is worth a hike of any length, am I right??
I digress!! People wander in, wander out. Always welcome. Helping out. It is a beautifully undistracted, easygoing, neighborly way of life. Multiple generations just sit together and talk. No TVs, no phones, no internet, just each other's company. Until dark, when we'd all head off to bed. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

What is a daughter worth?

As I sit on the ground and write this, I am a great curiosity to this group of chickens. As long as they don’t poop on me or my computer, we’re cool. 

Stay back or you're dinner, birdies.
This is not a drill.
Last night's chicken was DELICIOUS.
Besides being followed by chickens, these darling chickadees have become my shadows here in the northern village, the granddaughters, ages 6 & 8, of my host mother. 

Cutest groupies ever
Whether watching them playing the Nepali variant of jacks, climbing trees to get leaves to show me how to make a whistle, pretending to be a cat, or demonstrating the English they know ("d-o-g-dog-d-o-g-dog!!" or counting alllllll the way to a hundred...again), it continually strikes me that they are LITTLE GIRLS. 

Children. 

Innocent and funny and lovely. Free of the cares of the adult world. 

Except that all over Nepal, girls their age are forced into marriage, or trafficked for hard labor or commercial sex work. Lucky for these two, that's not their fate. On the contrary, they are cherished daughters, unlike many girls here, and their education is of paramount importance in their family, as evidenced by the morning scene where the younger was literally and quite comically chased to school by her mother, her wails echoing over the mountain all the way. I'm so glad she didn't see me laughing!

With everything I've learned while being here, it breaks my heart to look into their sweet faces and confront exactly how dastardly and vile the world of child trafficking is, knowing hundreds of thousands of girls like them are suffering in the worst imaginable situations, and that only 1% of them will ever be rescued at the present rate. 

Human trafficking is a worldwide epidemic with 21 million victims, and I again and again wonder how people can be so cruel, so unfeeling, so exploitative of others for their own gain. When even family members will sell off their own. Though there are infinite individual and cultural differences between each of us, the fact remains that every human on this earth is born with the same six basic human emotions, and unlike the animals, we have a capacity for true empathy, the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else, no matter how different their circumstances. Where does that go? How? I both marvel and lament that it's possible to lose this part of our humanity, though in my work as a psychologist I have seen the profound, lasting, and often multigenerational impact of all kinds of brokenness. And it hits me hard every time.

So, crazy as it might seem, there is a part of my heart that breaks for the traffickers as well, to be living such a base and terrible kind of life where they are devoid of the empathy and love for their fellow man, blind to the pain and suffering they are inflicting on such innocents as these. There is pain on both sides that needs healing and restoration.

Facing the depths of the problem here in Nepal, it would be so easy to feel hopeless, but I have also been blessed to meet so many people dedicated to making a change here, and I admire them more than I can say. I have been especially inspired by the 22-year-old woman who is leading a church in her village, and taking a leadership role in her community to provide anti-trafficking education in her entire district, often walking and climbing hours to get to neighboring villages, rallying her peers. Words fail me. Just amazing, really. And I'd love to say more about her, show you her picture, talk about all the wonderful work she is doing for pages and pages, but I am scared that should a trafficker ever find this page, they will identify her and target her and her family for threats and try to stop the work she is doing. That fear and their power is real, my friends. Think about that for a second.

Despite the dangers faced, I dare to have hope with her and others like her that change is possible, and that day by day, week by week, month by month, fewer girls will find themselves despairing, learning they've been sold to a brothel. Girls will know how to protect themselves from trafficking, and families won't feel compelled to trade their girls for short-term financial gain. And more mothers will chase their daughters to school. And I will laugh with glee at every single one.

So sweet that she thinks I can actually learn to play jacks with her.
Darlin', I am definitely not 'letting' you win...you are schooling me all on your own.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Whiling away an afternoon in rural Nepal...

Despite being high on a mountain in the northern Nepali village I visited, it was blisteringly and mindfryingly hot during the day. And luckily the villagers were experts in knowing exactly which spots had the best shade and the best breeze at any given time during the day. Now that's practical and useful knowledge! And I happily took advantage of this, moving from spot to spot throughout the afternoons, all the while marveling that giving up bathing AND deodorant had not rendered me nearly as foul as one might expect. Or maybe it just helped that there was always livestock around that smelled way worse, functioning as quite the cover. Or as I choose to believe, I am naturally as lovely and fragrant as a fresh spring day.

So, one day, we were sitting on our straw mats under the grapefruit tree by the goat house, enjoying the cool breeze, as one does.

Goat house!
And goats! Woot.

The ladies were chatting on my right, and this cutie was chittering away like a Nepali squirrel on my left:  

Note: I have no idea if there even are Nepali squirrels, but she'd be their queen for sure.

And from the corner of my eye, I caught sight of one of the goats practically SPRAYING pellets from his caprine hindquarters. 

First thought: That looks like the popcorn machine at the movie theater. Huh. 

Second thought: *cue insane jealousy* That's so unfair! Why does a goat get to easily and neatly go to the bathroom wherever and whenever without anyone batting an eye?? Look at those neat little pellets! How does his body even DO that? And I'm actually AMUSED by his spray of pellets, but even if I were disgusted, HE WOULDN'T CARE.  *cue realization that my bathroom anxiety has taken a weird turn*

Instead, humans are faced with signs like this:


"To Defecate in Open Area is to commit a SOCIAL CRIME!"
“Bishnu, we really gotta do something. People are just popping a squat wherever they are and it’s gotta stop! This is the second pair of loafers I’ve ruined this week. Nepal needs a change!”

NO. JOKE.


Fourth thought: I really need to get out of the sun.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Captains log, May 13-18, 2014

Tuesday 
1000 hours
Only moments before departure for the Sindhupalchok district, I learn my three day trip is suddenly six. If I were to ask why, I'd get "Welcome to Nepal." I have learned not to ask. 

Crossing the Sunkosi river

Wednesday
1130 hours
Yet again confirm that the "What sounds does this animal make in your language?" conversation can bridge even the most formidable language gap and delights and amuses children and adults alike. But you have to be willing to make an absolute idiot of yourself to get it started. I am that idiot.  

1400 hours
Suddenly realize my host usually means "or" instead of "and." A lot of things fall into place. Including my weirder than usual breakfast. 

1600 hours
I have become that grubby child in my kindergarten class that was always wiping his nose on his shirt (Tony E., I'm looking at you). An unfortunate resurgence of a childhood sun and dust allergy has turned my entire face into a faucet, with nary a tissue in sight. I will burn this shirt when this is over. Burn it with the heat of a thousand suns.



But for the dust, you'd see the behemoths Himalaya


Thursday
2100 hours
Could I PLEASE stop sticking my head in cobwebs???

Friday
0630 hours
Learn my daily morning tea is made with freshly milked water buffalo milk. Assiduously ignore this information, drink tea. It's delicious.  


Boiling tea in a tin cup...an exercise in patience. And burned fingers.


Saturday
0200 hours
Wake up because something jumps/lands on my legs. Decide I don't care which, and I'll save the panic for if it burrows under the covers. Go back to sleep. 

0830 hours
Finally understand that if you're going to use the squatty potty, you must fully embrace the squat. Hovering gets you peed on. 

Sunday

0600 hours
Waiting to start the five-mile hike down to the bus, I study the 18 days of hair growth on my legs in the early morning light. Realize hair doesn't grow on the back of my legs anymore. Must get this condition to spread. 


Met on the road on the way down the mountain. I feel like such a wimp.

Ladies off to cut brush to feed their livestock.

Monday, May 12, 2014

If we could all agree that 6am is too early for this

I love how colorful everything is in Nepal, especially the trucks and buses. If I wouldn't likely end up with some kind of lung disease from the ever-present clouds of dust and exhaust, I'd love to wander the streets and just take pictures of all the crazy decorative additions that drivers make to their vehicles. I mean, I've seen metal eyelashes welded onto the headlights! It's awesome! And so flirty!

Anyway, I was doing just that while I was standing on the roadside waiting to be picked up for the trip back to Kathmandu, and I captured this awesome school bus:



And then suddenly, my Nepali guide shouts "Be aware of that bull, sister!" Which until that moment, I would've sworn the only English he knew was "Let's move, sister." And sure enough, there's a Brahma bull having an altercation with the back of the bus. Like a SERIOUS disagreement. Like they are never gonna be friends after this. So we run into the nearest house...though the problem with this is that the house only has three walls and is open to the road, so should Mr. I-Don't-Know-How-To-Use-My-Words decide to turn this way, well, I had half a mind to whack him with a hiking pole. It worked with the monkeys...but I'll admit my confidence was a little lower in this situation.

Fortunately, he was angry AND focused, so he proceeded to chase the bus up the road until I guess he felt he'd made his point. Then he comes back strutting all casual like nothing happened. But, dude, WE ALL SAW YOU.


What? He mocked my majestic hump.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

I think it was the jackals that pushed me over the edge

Confession: I am a lifelong bathroom anxiety sufferer. Thanks to a traumatic pants-wetting incident at a Blue Angels air show some 30 years ago (NO, I will NOT squat where everyone can see my pearly white heinie, thankyouverymuch), I can’t leave the house without wondering “But will there be a BATHROOM?”

And you know where people with bathroom anxiety shouldn’t go? Asia.

Right now, I am pretty much 30 feet of rumbling, twitching gastric tract stitched together with Imodium, Pepto, and sheer force of will.

But here I am, growing as a person. Though I really don’t think this is doing anything to lessen my bathroom anxiety. But you be the judge.

Despite strategic evening avoidance of liquids, I awoke at 1am in my little attic loft here in the Haripur farmhouse with a pressing bathroom need. I immediately start panicking and calculating. There’s no way I can wait til morning. And getting up and going to the bathroom involves the following:
  1. Find my flashlight.
  2. Wrestle my way out of the mosquito net.
  3. Put on pants.
  4. Unbarricade my door – and the wooden crossbar is wedged TIGHT.
  5. Navigate the dark through a finicky gate, down a tricky set of stairs that has me fearful of re-dislocating my knee with every step, find my shoes, head across the inner courtyard, through another tricky gate, and across the yard…where there might be jackals. DID I MENTION THE JACKALS? Note to any B&B proprietors out there: Avoid using phrases like “There might be jackals” with your guests when explaining the facilities. And when you say other things like “they don’t usually come close to the house” but you’ve also said “No, we don’t have any monkeys here” just an hour before a pack of macaques shows up and you’ve given me a room with open windows and no screens, you’ve lost all credibility, wildlife-wise. I don’t know how to get around it, but just don’t say things like that. The night is dark and full of terrors, indeed.
  6. Now I’ve made it to the outhouse! Yay! Uh, no. So deal with the inner and outer latches of the outhouse. And mentally prepare yourself.
  7. In the dim light of my flashlight which I will attempt to hold with my chin and pray to not drop in the squatty potty, I’ll try not to pee on my balloony pants or my own feet. And forget about startling or jumping when huge beetles land on you or you put your hand on a spider.
  8. Use your imagination to deal with the no TP situation.
  9. Now I get to traverse all this back up to my bed.
There's the outhouse, so innocent in the daylight.

And that little guy is a squatty potty. NOT A FAN.

I don’t know about you, but that is all the exact opposite of what I can cope with in the middle of the night. Or maybe ever.

So my bleary-headed solution?

Drain my water cup, pee in it, then toss the contents out the window into the water buffalo paddock down below. They pee there all the time, so what's a little more? PROBLEM=SOLVED. But then I can't fall back asleep because I TOSSED MY PEE OUT A WINDOW ONTO TWO WATER BUFFALOS.

I don’t know how I survive.


How do I even begin to apologize???

Friday, May 9, 2014

From Tokyo to Nepal via lotsa places

Geez, where does a year go?? ALL KINDS OF AMAZING PLACES, that's where.

Right, so I finished my year confusing my Japanese students with the joys of English (Let's blow this popsicle stand!), but there was so much more Asia to explore…and it turned out yet again that having the preparedness skills of a master Eagle Scout held me in good stead, because looky there! I'd dragged all my backpacking gear along with me from the US. So I headed south for the winter like the dutiful Floridian I am, where there was hiking in Hong Kong, crying in the graveyards of Macau, night swimming with glowy plankton in Thailand, and eating my way through Cambodia and Vietnam like there would be some reward at the end of it instead of simply finding all my pants have gone squeezy. And then I just couldn’t let Japan go, so I headed back for the glory of another hanami season and to make my Pikachu dreams come true.
 

Confession: I am REALLY regretting not buying this.

Does anyone order this? EVER?

I can't wait to introduce you all to the sassy Buddhas I met.
Best. Monastery. Ever.

Where I expected a pink dolphin lookout point to be, I was instead greeted by this crazy fiberglass statue perched on top of a hill. I might have become hysterical with laughter.
Street food snack: Fried bugs and baby birds. PASS.
Don't know what this is selling, but I know I wanna buy it.
Not three feet into Cambodia, and I've been handed a cold can of Cambodia. Genius!

Angkor Wat - World Heritage Site. Word.

If you like cemeteries (and come on, who doesn't?), the Protestant Cemetery in Macau is in my top 3 world cemeteries.
What? You don't rank world cemeteries? Weirdo.

Sunsets. So many glorious Thai sunsets. And I flooded facebook with them EVERY DAY. Sorry!

Vietnam donut shop tries to dispense a little truth??

Why does it feel like the mannequins of Southeast Asia will murder me when I turn around?

Seriously. They missed the appropriate-mannequin-behavior memo.
Oh Pikachu...Gundam will CRUSH YOU. Silly electric mouse pokemon!

Touring Tokyo...every pokemon's dream.
And yes, I presume to speak for all pokemon.

Eating dinner and the proprietor offers you a monkey suit? Yes, please!

UFO catcher in a Tokyo arcade.
I don't know. At all.

So now: Nepal. Somehow, all of the craziness of what came before this has all come together to bring me here. At this moment, I’m in the village of Haripur in rural southern Nepal, trying not to feel guilty that my soft Western self doesn’t even know how to help them with the laundry or the dishes for fear of wasting water or other precious resources. I’m here volunteering with New Light Nepal, an organization that is working to prevent human trafficking in Nepal and sharing the Gospel. I am visiting the villages in the south to gain an understanding of the cultural context and the reasons for and the impact of trafficking children for forced labor, plus trying to wrap my mind around the practice of child marriage – 62,000 girls ages 6-10 are married in this region, and over 600,000 under age 15. Next week I will visit the villages in the north, where women and girls are trafficked to brothels in India and elsewhere in shocking numbers, often sold by their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, and other people they should be able to trust in exchange for a new tin roof or some other negligible amount.

I have been tasked with creating a curriculum that will train the people in the villages about the schemes and tactics used by traffickers to deceive women and families, combat the cycle of poverty fostered by the caste system, negate Hindu teachings that treat women like property, get uneducated families to value education enough to allow their children to go to school, and give hope in the face of police corruption where little is done to enforce anti-trafficking laws…that’s all. No big deal. Should be able to wrap this up by Tuesday. Um, right. So this is my personal exercise in coping with feelings of being totally and completely ill-equipped to handle the task set before me but getting on with it anyway, knowing God has inexplicably prepared me for this place and time to make some small contribution to the good work they are doing. All the while learning to deal with a life without toilet paper. Challenge upon challenge up in here. In all seriousness, the focus at present is on improving educational opportunities while also increasing awareness of traffickers’ methods, and my focus is on the latter, getting the mamas into full mama-bear mode. I solicit your prayers for this and all of the work of New Light Nepal.

Women (and children as young as 6) working in a brick factory, paid 3 cents for every load they carry.

A tutoring center, 1 hour per day.
Most of these children do not attend school.

Another tutoring center, the children of indentured farmers
Goats. ON A LEASH.
If you know me at all, you know I wanted to keep ALL the goats.

Anyway, I’ve spent enough time in omphaloskepsis for one day, so I’d better get back to the task at hand. 


Do take a moment and think about how blessed you are and what you can do for others. Even if you think you have nothing to offer, it’s simply not true!
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