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Surely this is heaven.

Cradled in a wooden boat,

We cross over, our cares and Patrick’s phone behind us.

You really want me to get out now?

We slip from boat to ocean, shoeless, laughing.

Ask him to bring out bags to the villa.

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That feeling comes up again,

Some call it disbelief.

Pinch yourself, this is real. 

Warm sand, tide pools,

Blue and pink whorls, shiny black stones,

Sea glass, broken coral.

Driftwood, stray dogs.

The jungle barely held at bay.

The water laps gently,

I can’t picture a killer wave to save my life.

Our beach is perfect.

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Things go wrong in paradise.

You can snorkel, honey,

remember?

Rung by rung, I am submerged.

I bob on the surface, paw through a milky web,

pull something that looks like rice noodles from my shirt. 

Needles of fire in this aqua splendor,

My collarbone burns, welts up.

I pay a price for laughing with the fish.

Urine is the only thing that helps, the boys swear.

But I’ll be damned if they can pee on my neck.

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Hot water chases off the ocean.

in the ubiquitous outdoor shower.

I look for mosquitoes.

Soap, lather, swish, swipe,

dash, wrap, light, spray.

Spray again, spray more.

Goddamn you little horrors. 

Damp hair for seven days,

nothing dries around here.

Where is the fan?

My dress is tight, body swelled in the heat,

Skin sticky, salty, resists clothing.

But I squeeze in anyway,

leaving the glamour for the girls in the movies.

A girl at odds with nature,

dressed for another night of pad thai.

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Meeting Sue,

friendship sparks in an instant.

Have you tried this lipgloss?

No, but my favorite is Chanel. 

Funny, mine too.

We love dogs, kids, books.

We only take green or blue ski runs. 

Collecting shells and fashion tips,

Whiling away the tropical hours.

A comrade in arms against the jungle,

She sees it my way.

Sue, I like everything about you,

Especially the way you ride a bike.

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Games of skill, feats of strength,

Boys will be boys they say.

Even grown men succumb.

Screw you, with your tight rash guard.

Hey, I make more money.

I’ll race you to the platform.

We’ll climb that mountain without a machete or a guide.

A fistful of thorns later,

Angry, puffy skin.

Maybe antibiotics will help?

Nah, just suck it up.

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Boys dream things up,

Fueled by testosterone and lack of work emails.

We’ll pedal to lunch.

No, we’ll paddle.

The best seafood is always around the way,

the hot, sweaty way.

Don’t make me ride over potholes!

Don’t go too far from the shore!

Our pleas useless,

our lunches delicious

 

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You like spicy?

Sure, why not.

Bragging, puffed up, the boys claim they can cook.

Coconut milk, peppers, curry paste, no problem.

Aprons on, wine glasses full.

Soak the noodles, seer the shrimp.

Is that how you use the egg?

Thank God for Mei,

Someone with skill around here. 

We gobble it all down,

Geckos eat too, dashing from light to light.

The sun sets orange, glowing.

Dinner in our villa feeds everyone.

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Shrouded in nets, lulled by fans,

We sleep like babies.

Mostly, until I hear something buzz.

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Goodbye, ankle deep in water,

A kiss on each cheek

And a promise to return.

Going back is as easy as closing our eyes.

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Thanks again, Po, for the photos!

To stay at Koh Jum Beach Villas, click on

http://www.kohjumbeachvillas.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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As the pilot circles above Canberra, I think he’s tricked us and flown instead to Boise.  I see round, brownish foothills, big blue skies, endless roads, wide-open space.  I step off the plane and it hits me – warm, dry air.  My throat fills with tears, and for a split second, I think I’m home.  But I’m in Australia, and just minutes away from a beloved friend.  I look up to see Tobie, holding Asha, waiting for me at the gate.  I step into their embrace, feel Asha’s hand on my hair.  It’s been a year, a really long year, since we’ve seen each other.  Asha pulls a stuffed rabbit from my backpack and cuddles it.  Aaron grabs my bag and we head out.  I’m leaving the airport in a car, with friends.  No taxis, no queues, no crowds.  This feels like home.           OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I delight nonstop in the ordinary bits of a day in Australia.  I am staying in a house!  The houseflies are huge!  It’s so quiet – no trains, buses, cars, honking, screeching!  It’s so dark – I can’t even see my hand in front of my face when the lights are out!  The birds – they’re huge!  The people – they’re huge too!  I get to drive a car!  It’s cool at night – I can sleep with the window open!  I get to drive a car!   They have a dishwasher!  A stove! They have real sausage here! I get to drive a car!  I get to see a kangaroo!

I really want to see a kangaroo.  Tobie promises me they’re everywhere.  She and Aaron chat about the best place to find them.  We sneak out at dusk, drive around, get out and stalk through neighborhoods.  But for the first five days, nothing.  Not a hint of a kangaroo, unless you count the dead one we pass on the highway.  We make a plan that if we haven’t seen one by the last day, we’ll go to the zoo.  A captive kangaroo is better than no kangaroo.

On the sixth day, we drive out to the bush.

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Geared up to hike, we pile out of the car and apply sunscreen.  Then Aaron points to something on the hill.  Sure enough, kangaroos!  They DO live here!

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We see heaps of them that day, hiding in the bush, sitting out on the open, hopping about where they please.

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We even see a koala bear and a platypus, and we’re not at the zoo.  We troop about for hours.

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Satisfied and hungry, we pack up.  As we drive away, we pause to see just one more mob.  And just like that, two of them bounce down the hill and head straight for our car.  They stop just short of us, lick their arms, stare for a minute, and then bound back up.  It is a perfect Aussie goodbye.

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I know then that it will be really hard to say goodbye.  And not just because of the kangaroos.

To my sweet friends Down Under,

Aaron – thank you for teaching me to drive on the wrong side of the car and the wrong side of the road.  I know I hit the wipers more than the turn signal, and occasionally went into the wrong lane, but you stayed cool.  I felt so alive, driving around with your hand-drawn map and no idea where I was going.  Thanks for my morning coffee deliveries, for everything, and most of all for letting me steal Tobie for two days all to myself.

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Asha – I had a wonderful time with you, little friend.  You’ve grown so big.  I can still hear you outside my bedroom door, asking if you could just take a peek at me.  I loved watching Dora and playing Swiper in the bush.  I’m glad we tried out all the stuff in my makeup bag, plus my shaving cream, hairspray, and mousse. You were great with your training chopsticks!  I remember you bravely carrying your little schoolbag on your shoulder, walking into your classroom.  Thanks for showing me your school.  And for sharing your books and hiking snacks.  I can still feel your hug as we stood at the window, waiting for the taxi to come.  You were still warm from sleep, wearing your jammies.  You kissed me and said that maybe I could come back tomorrow.  I wish I could, little one.  But we’ll see each other again soon, and until then, check behind all the trees, just in case Swiper is hiding….

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Tobie – thank you for the loveliest week in forever. It was amazing to be in your home, to know that you were just on the other side of my bedroom wall.  I’ve missed you terribly.  Our trip to Sydney!  We talked for almost 48 hours straight, only taking time off to sleep.  It was so luxurious, wandering the streets, trying on shoes and jewelry, eating those gingersnap-butterscotch whoopee pie things, stretching out in bed and talking the night away.  I can still feel the salty air on my skin, the Sydney sunshine all around us. And you – all dressed up in your lace top and heels.  Thanks for talking me into a nightcap at Palmer and Co, because without that drink, we might never have started dialing up the USA!  I loved every minute of it, even the bus ride home to Canberra in the dark, munching the last of our cookies.  It was great to be at the National Library, to see where you work.  To go all the places you go and imagine your life.  To ride bikes and play with Asha at the park.  Thanks for taking those days off work to spend with me, for relentlessly searching for kangaroos, for clearly explaining what a singlet is, for keeping my secrets.  I continue to be amazed by you, your ability to move all the way around the world, to make a new life, to flourish, to get more job offers than I ever have, and to still be your humble, brilliant self.  I picture you that last morning, climbing onto your bike for your commute to work. One more hug.  I’ll keep our memories safe in my heart and think them when I’m missing you.  You’re one in a million, Tobie.

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I love you.  And I’ll see you soon too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wait nervously with Po in our Singapore apartment, scanning the airline websites.  Our friends from the US are landing in the middle of the night.  I wash a few stray dishes, fiddle around with the guest room sheets.  I reluctantly head to bed, sleep with one eye open.  And then I hear it, the soft click of our condo door.  I rush out to get my first hug from home.  World’s collide.  Singapore mixes with Boise as Mark, CS, Liz, and Aaron arrive.  We are six giddy schoolkids, heading to Vietnam together, where the Tiger beer is cold and the pho is hot.

Ho Chi Minh City is vibrant, buzzing.  We eat pho and prawn pancakes, run between motorbikes, buy tourist t-shirts, visit the War Memorial, and laugh at the water puppets.                      IMGP2653

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Next we float the Mekong River, adrift on a wooden boat with painted eyes.  We alight and explore the surrounding villages, rice paddies, schools, and floating markets.  Some of us take a turn on the longboat oars as we paddle down a side creek, ducking under thick foliage and waving to the village kids. The sun sets deep pink and orange over the palm trees.

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At dinner, one of the boat guides explains the reason for the ice-cold aircon in our cabins and we strain to capture the details.  He instructs us to keep our windows shut to freeze the flying monkey toes.  Puzzled, we stop listening entirely and ask each other – monkey toes?  Oh, mosquitoes!  And I groan.  If there is one thing I detest, and endlessly complain about, it’s mosquitoes.  I grimly wipe my nose for the hundredth time with a swatch of toilet paper and hope that either my newly acquired cold improves or that the aircon really does keep the monkey toes at bay.

We fly to Phu Quoc Island, eager for sun and sand, and find our jungle huts with mosquito nets over the bed.  The bathroom is also open to the sky and God, and we have no hot water.  As I see it, this resort called Freedomland should be called the House of Flying Monkey Toes.  How cold can a cold shower be, I muse nervously. I cough, sneeze, blow, and coat myself with DEET.  My cold hasn’t improved and I can’t find a Kleenex for sale on this island.  I wonder if I shouldn’t have taken malaria medicine after all.  But it’s time for bathing suits, another Tiger beer, and a swim in the Gulf of Thailand.  I wad up more toilet paper and jam it under the strap of my bathing suit.  Looking grandmotherly, I soldier off to the beach.

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The water is divine.  Warm, baby waves lap against the shore.  We walk out forever on soft sand, the water only reaches our waists.  We swim with abandon.  Even I forget my terror of the ocean for a few minutes, and I help to judge the handstand, flip, and floating competitions between Mark, CS, and Po.  We romp up to the beach, stretch out in hammocks, eat crispy spring rolls, and guzzle coconuts.  Dinner is served every night under the trees.  White lights sparkle, music plays, and we dress up and sip cocktails until it’s time to eat.  Our green, wooden table seats at least thirty, and we cozy up to new friends from all over the world.  When dinner is served, the food is beyond delicious.  On our last night, the hosts build a roaring bonfire.  I stretch out next to it, feeling dry for the first time in over a week.

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But I’m irritable and sick.  And beyond having a cold, I am homesick.  Our friends remind me of the life I’m no longer living, and I feel unreachable.  I can’t relax because the time might go too fast and our vacation will be over.  I want to be the old Jillian they know but I’ve changed, and not necessarily in a good way.  My crazy, grumpy bits still cling to me like sweaty clothes.  Iwon’t snorkel with broken gear and a head cold.  I can’t even will myself to drink a Tiger beer.  I am my worst self, complaining about city living in Singapore, the humidity, and the jungle insects. Then I worry that maybe my friends will move on, that my home in Boise won’t feel the way I remember, that everything has changed.  I tuck the mosquito net around me and bawl in bed.  They say home is where the heart is, but where is that?  And can I ever go back?

We slurp up our last bowl of pho together in the airport.  Then it’s time to say goodbye to Mark and CS and I come undone.  I curl up against them, wail out loud that I want to go to Boise with them. I say I’m sorry for spraying bug repellent in the van, sorry for being so whiny. They rub my back and say they love me.  A day later, when I say goodbye to Liz and Aaron, I cry again.  Liz and I kiss on both cheeks and blink hard.  I watch their taxi roll away into the dark, toward Changi airport.  They are going home, and for now, I’m staying here.

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But the sweetness of our time in Vietnam stays with me for weeks, long after my bug bites stop itching.  My heart is just a little lighter.  Mark, CS, Liz, and Aaron – thank you for coming to visit.  Your friendship is home to me.

Thanks, Number 4, for the pictures.  And for rowing the boat like a local.

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Antonia, if you’re reading this, it was great to meet you!

For a fantastic, local homestay, try Freedomland on Phu Quoc Island.  The hosts are so friendly and the food is incredible.

http://www.freedomlandphuquoc.com/

I’m not a cyclist.  I ride Bikkonen, my Gary Fisher commuter bike, no more than ten times each summer, and it has a forgiving seat.  I don’t own bike shorts, jerseys, or gloves.  But here I am, on a bike tour in Cambodia.

We drive to a small hotel downtown Siem Reap and say hello to our Australian cycling mates, Denise, Kellie, and Laurice.  I’m busy applying last-minute mosquito spray and mosquito patches, turning myself into a walking Citronella candle.  I fiddle with my bike shorts.  It feels like I have a baseball cap shoved down my pants.  I’m as jittery as a cat, and looking, as my friend Carol says, very Sporty Spice.  And it’s already hot at 8 am.  Mr. Bun, our guide, adjusts our bikes and adds a gel seat cover to mine.  I try it out.  Seems OK.  I take a wobbly spin around the parking lot.

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We head straight into city traffic. Motorbikes, buses, cars, bicycles, pedestrians, and dogs try to negotiate a roundabout.   I go into a coma and tail Mr. Bun without even looking at traffic for myself.  There is no way I can take one hand from the grips to signal a turn. Lucky for us, the traffic is fairly slow.  How much would it hurt to be run over by a tuk tuk?

My heart is pounding in my ears.  Look where you want to go, I say to myself.  My gears are low and I’m pedaling like a maniac.  My mouth is all the way open, sucking in dust and exhaust fumes.  At one point, a car bumper comes within inches of grazing my knee.  Po is filming me and he is not looking where he wants to go.  He is completely turned around on his bike, asking me to smile for the camera. I feel a cramp starting in my shoulders.  But I’m too nervous to slow down or straighten up.  I hunch over and pedal.

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We move from pavement to dirt roads.  Careful of the loose gravel, I think.  There are fewer cars and motorbikes, more cows, buffaloes, chickens, stray dogs, monkeys. I damn near wreck trying to pedal through thick sand and avoid an aggressive monkey.  I try to stand up on the pedals when we cross over potholes.  But there are so many holes that I end up crashing through half of them.  My upper arms are shuddering so violently that I appear to have bat wings. Thirteen kilometers until our first break.  I give up calculating the difference between miles and kilometers.

My eyebrows collect sweat, which is a new phenomenon for me.  Bugs hit my face and I swallow a few.  So much for my malaria pills.  I thunder over rutted jungle roads, swerve to miss every life form imaginable.  I see dead snakes, some crushed on the road, some cooking in a wok, all coiled up and held together by string.  The smell is pungent and fishy.  Sometimes a breeze blows up, or a patch of shade appears, and the relief is almost too much to bear.  We stop for cold drinks and a snack, forage in the van for mangosteens, lychee, small oranges, bananas, Coco Chip cookies in little packages, ice cold wet wipes.  I offer to eat some durian just so our break can last longer.  That’s when I discover that easing my butt off the seat is the most painful thing in the world.  I stand motionless, straddling the bike.   Mr. Bun offers to take the bike and prop it against a tree.  I’m too embarrassed to admit that I can’t even swing one leg over.   I just pretend I like standing better.

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We ride again.  This time 16 kilometers until the next temple.  I try shifting to one side of my butt, then the other.  I try standing up. I moan every time I hit a pothole.  I am outraged, in agony.  My legs are coated in a paste of red clay, sunscreen, bug spray, and sweat.  I am minutes away from waving down the support van and giving up.

 

But something good is usually around the corner and pride is a vicious thing, so I keep riding.

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Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bakong, Arun -we see so many temples in three days. Built over a thousand years ago, they tell the story of a splendid kingdom that crumbled apart and was swallowed by the jungle. Ringed by moats, they are a majestic labyrinth of stones, doorways, huge sculptures, elephants, Gods, and Sanskrit writings.  The ruins have been places of worship, burial grounds, and movie sets.  Some temples burn incense and have offerings for the gods. They are resplendent in the morning sun, sultry and mysterious in the late afternoon glow. The stones go from deep mossy green-black to pink sandstone to red clay.  The air is heavy with mystery, the piercing ring of cicadas, and the muted conversations of tourists.

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I wander about the temple grounds, squinting in the bright sun. This may be my one chance to visit and I take it all in.  I look down long, cool corridors, my mind tricked by the repeating columns.  I climb steep flights of steps, my feet sideways in order to fit.  I trace my fingers over the carvings, listen to Mr. Bun explain how ancient people hunt, fish, ride elephants, pick lice from their hair, chop snakes into bits, destroy invading armies. I get a Hindu blessing – a red string tied around my wrist.  As we come and go, small children persistently hawk souvenirs.  Three for one dollar, miss?   Washington DC is US capitol.  Barack Obama is President.  You come back later?

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My favorite thing is the sound of the word hello, echoing from village huts and deep foliage, ringing from rice paddies.  The children call out, run up to the edge of the road to greet us.  They are sometimes dressed, sometimes naked, always smiling.  Hello, what’s your name?  Where you going?  You go to temple?  Bye bye.  They reach up for a high five.  At one point, I look up to see an entire group of school kids at the edge of the road.  They cheer raucously, stretch out to touch our hands.  I reach out too, even though I’m unsteady with one hand on my bike.  Their tiny palms touch mine.  My throat burns when I swallow.  Tears come down under my sunglasses.  Here I am, welcomed to Cambodia by these precious kids, and all I can do is feel sorry for myself on my bike? Their spirit changes my ride entirely.  Just when it gets too hard to pedal, I hear it.  Hello!  Hello!  Hello!  I holler back, HELLO!  And it saves me, over and over.

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The best good thing is my husband Po.  On our last day of riding, he joins me at the back of the group.  I struggle and he reminds me to stand up to relieve the pain.  Just a little bit further to the floating village.  I’m dying, I say, I’m totally finished.  That’s when he reaches out and rests his hand on the small of my back.  Riding next to me, he takes over my bike.  I am flying.  I stop pedaling entirely, just to see what happens, and I’m still flying. We zoom by the fish market by and gag at the smell, laughing.  We stay neck and neck like this without swerving.  It’s like I have a motor on my bike.  Delight washes over me.  My legs rest, I only steer.  I ask if I’m too heavy and he says it’s no trouble, just stay out of the potholes.  He can push me as long as I need it.  And believe me, I need it.  His bike handle sometimes brushes my hip and I picture us crashing together.  But even that doesn’t scare me.  It’s so fun to go fast, I say.  Is this why you love riding?  He just laughs and shakes his head.  And we go the last 13 kilometers together.

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In the end, I ride 56 miles in Cambodia, some of them easy, some of them difficult, all of them full of love.

 

Thanks Kellie, Denise, and Laurice, for all the laughs on the ride.

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Thanks, Po, for all the pictures, for believing I can do anything, and for assuring me that the scabs and bruises on my butt really are just from riding!

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For your own Asian cycling adventure, visit http://www.spiceroads.com/

 

 

It is 5:30 a.m. in Siem Riep, Cambodia.  The sky is still dark and the hotel lobby is quiet.  Our driver waits with a sign saying Jillian Huang.  We hop into his tuk tuk and head out.  I curl up against Po as we whiz through the dusky, cool morning air.  We arrive in thirty minutes, with a bump and a lurch, at the Bakong School.  We are right on time to serve breakfast.

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We are met by the school coordinator, who proudly shows us a few school buildings on our way to the open-air cafeteria.  We pass four wooden signs and he explains the school motto, reads each one aloud for us.  Learning to know, learning to do, learning to be, learning to live together.  A few dogs poke around lazily.  The sky lightens, the air hums with anticipation.  We are shown two giant pots of porridge, given the ladle and bowls, and instructed to put two scoops into at least 100 bowls for breakfast. I keep watching for the students to arrive.  Maybe they come 6:15 today, the coordinator says.

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Then I see them.  One, two, four, seven.  They roll around the corner, prop up their bikes, wander over to the tables.  They shake off sleep, watch us carefully, curiously.  I fill a few bowls, wink, say good morning.  Most of them shyly avert their eyes.  A few smile back and giggle at my funny faces.  The crowd swells.  They jostle for position and squeeze their way into a spot at one of the tables.  Po and I practically run the bowls over to each student.  We take turns scooping, carrying, saying good morning.  Some students come back for seconds.  Most all of them bow and thank us.

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After finishing their meal, the students wash their own bowls and spoons, returning them to the pantry for the next group to use. They assemble as a group to put up their flag.  Then they head off to do a few school chores, like sweeping the courtyard and porch, tending the school garden, cleaning their toothbrushes.  I ask them about the vegetables in the garden and they point out which ones are growing the best, smile ruefully about the crispy-looking brown ones. They have carried manure in small bags to school to use for fertilizer.  I try to guess the age of one boy, saying aloud that he must be 9.  No, ma’am, 14.  He grins and looks down.  Then he softly wishes me luck for every day for the rest of my life.

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We move on the library, meet the librarian.  Each book is numbered with a sticker on the front to keep things organized.  The principal comes by and we thank him for allowing us to see the school.  He nods and smiles.  At the computer lab, the teacher asks for a class volunteer to come up and speak English to the visitors.  After some giggling and prodding, a student steps forward to say hello.  Suosdey, we say back in Khmer.  I, too, feel nervous speaking another language.  She says that she would like to be a doctor.  A surgeon, really.  The next student we meet says that he would like to be an English teacher.  My heart is literally burning, as if a hand is squeezing it.

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We wander into the courtyard to watch the morning exercises.  Each child takes a turn leading the class.  Po and the coordinator encourage me to jump in, so I do.  Up, down, to the side, touch your toes, jump up.  Laugh and laugh some more.  Do it again.  After warming up, I can almost touch the ground.   Dust fills my sandals.  I’m sweating in the jungle heat.  But the children are unflappable.  Soun, muoy, pii, bei.  One, two, three, four.

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Before we know it, it’s time to go.  Our driver signals that he’s ready leave.  We shake hands, give our thanks, and hop into our tuk tuk.   But I want to stay.  I want this to be my school too.  I want to wash the bowls, sweep the courtyard with the little stick brooms, practice my Khmer words.   I want to say good morning every day, check out library books, read stories, learn together. I feel a huge lump in my throat.   I turn around and watch the school until it fades into the jungle.  Aw khun jann, thank you very much, I say to the whole world, for such a special morning.

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*******************

I have worked with children my entire life, teaching piano lessons, reading storytimes, building library collections and programs. High-fives, belly laughs, bright eyes, and hands raised earnestly are the rewards of learning with children. Kids lift me up, help me live in the present, remind me of what is important in this world.  They see who I am and like me anyway.  There isn’t a better gift.

There are places in the world, like Bakong School, that will stay with me forever.  To see students succeed despite all the rigors of life in Cambodia, I was humbled.  I have never suffered such a lack of basic needs, never faced such adversity. Would I be as cheerful and brilliant as the little ones at this school?  They want to learn, to be together, to have a routine, to have a favorite teacher, to have their own backpack.   The same things mattered to me as a child, matter to children all over the world.  They deserve it.

Caring for Cambodia established the Bakong and eight other schools in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  Check out http://www.caringforcambodia.org.  They build schools.  They train and pay local teachers.  They provide books, school supplies and uniforms.  They serve two meals a day and give toothbrushes to each child.  They teach basic health and sanitation, providing clean water, soap, and washcloths.  They work with families to encourage school attendance.  They believe in the power of education and they know how to get it done.  They have high ethics and standards, respecting each and every student.  I witnessed the outstanding work with my own eyes.

Po and I have donated to Caring for Cambodia because this is something we can do to affect positive change.  We will continue to donate.  If you have any money left this Christmas, or any other presents to give, please consider this organization.  Any and all gifts change the lives of students.  You can donate online in US dollars.  Your donation is tax deductible.

To the students at Bakong School, I hope you become doctors, teachers, tailors, shopkeepers, business people, travelers, farmers, fishermen, parents, readers, whatever you can dream.  It was an honor to spend a morning with you.  I wish you luck for every day for the rest of your lives.

I fly through the night skies toward Bali, relieved to be leaving Singapore behind.  I long for a break from my routine, from the struggles of hauling groceries and hailing taxis.  It has been three months since our move and homesickness still finds me when I least expect it.  I flop about, desperate for solace.  I resolve not to take yoga on this trip, and furthermore to forgive myself for that decision.  I want a different kind of peace – one that doesn’t require me to stand on my head.  I think of looking for God, and then I remember my dad telling me that God is in us, not in the places we look.  He said that before I went to Mt. Everest, where I was sure God lived.  My dad’s probably right.  But as the jet wheels touch down, I promise to keep my eyes open, just in case.

My resolve strengthens the next morning in Ubud, ensconced on my balcony, sheltered by rattan blinds.  I snuggle deeper into my robe.  The sun peeks through the clouds, reflecting light across the rice paddies. The rice shoots glow, lime green, chartreuse.  A white crane swoops in and settles in the marshy soil, foraging for food among the shoots. I watch him pick and sort, balancing on thin legs.  I hear frogs and roaring insects.  Roosters crow.  A lone cow moos.  Life teems around me, urgent, buzzing.  I hear water dribbling, a net being dragged over the pool to gather fallen leaves.  The soft chink of breakfast dishes in the kitchen, muted voices laughing companionably.

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I have forgotten such sounds, living in our Singapore condo that overlooks the MRT.  There I wake to the whir of the train, the jangle of police sirens, the scream of tires stopping on pavement, the frantic, high-pitched barking of the neighbor’s dogs. There, I am an anxious girl.  I worry about the unsafe taxi driving, dread the pending rain.  I battle the suffocating tropical heat, at odds with my own self.  But this morning in Bali, I watch a blue dragonfly hover right above my knee, a huge bee probe about the tiles of the roof.  Their hum is hypnotic and I feel it deep in my bones.  I stay very still, breathing.  I am awake.  Now is the time, God, I write in my journal.  I am eager to see you.

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And this is what I see.

 

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Offerings, called canangsari, abound.  Filled with fruit, rice, and flowers, they are made to show gratitude to the gods for all the blessings of life, as well as to appease the evil spirits.   Sticks of incense poke out of these small baskets, the smoke carrying the blessings skyward. I see them in ornate temples, at the feet of the carved stone statues.  But then I find them on cash registers, sidewalks, dashboards, steps, doorways, making every place holy.  I move carefully to avoid disturbing them.

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Villagers clog the dirt roads, preparing for a celebration.  Today they will ask the gods to ward off the evil spirits, to bring them another season of prosperity.  Women ride together on motorbikes, carrying baskets of offerings balanced on their heads. Men follow playing instruments and drums, children and dogs trailing.  Noise, color, prayers, love.  Knees touching, hands held.  The evil spirits don’t stand a chance.

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Water surrounds me in Bali.  It is pooled, orderly, civilized, wild, dirty.  It sprays from temple walls, drips from my chin as I am blessed. The skies are wild with thunder, lightning.  Rain bangs on the thick canopy of leaves, softly patters on the ferns.  Soaks my dress as I run beneath my umbrella for dinner.  Twists my flip-flops as I climb the temple steps, drenches my sarong.  It unearths the smell of mud, chickens, frangipani, wood, people bathing, my skin.  It splashes off the end of my umbrella, weaves a path down the part of my hair, races down my arm.  Rain falls on the parade of villagers, washing away the evil spirits.  It hammers the roof of the shadow puppet theater, steaming up the night, adding to the profusion of music and revelry.  It mixes with the shower water as I soap up.  It falls steadily through the night.  I cannot stay dry, and never have I so loved the rain.

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I find beauty everywhere, in the bright red blossoms holding the rain.  In the spots on Nancy’s large elephant ears and the fine hairs that sprout off her rough, gray skin.  On the slick temple stones, mossy, worn, washed by sun and rain.  In the shocking pink thread on the weaver’s loom.  In the smell of incense.  Beauty flickers in the coconut candle,  illuminating the lacy shadow puppet silhouettes. In the leathery filigree and craftsmanship of the puppets themselves.  Beauty lives in the chickens roaming the streets, herding their chicks.  In the giant lizard squishing through a pile of trash, tongue flicking in and out.  In the humongous fighting rooster with spraying plumage and feet the size of my hand.  In the stray and collared dogs ambling along the street, snoozing in the shade.  Beauty radiates from the Balinese people and from my husband’s patient grin.

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I wear a yellow flower behind my ear all day, a remnant from my temple offering. It reminds me to stay connected to the spirit throughout the day, to stay humble and to keep my eyes open wherever I am.  I feel a little more like laughing.  I offer my sincere thanks for a renewed outlook on life.  I am reminded that our everyday steps are opportunities to see God, our every word spoken to others, our every action taken, our attention given to the slightest of details.  I am washed, refreshed, wrapped up, and given back.  And in this, I find solace.

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For more information on shadow puppets and plays:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2LKAl3tfXg

To stay at Villa Sabandari:

http://www.sabandari.com/en/Gallery.asp

To learn more about the Balinese offerings:

http://www.murnis.com/culture/articlebalineseofferings.htm

 

 

We approach Tioman Island on a ferry, speeding over the rippling, greenish sea.  I think I have arrived on the set of Jurassic Park.  Rainforest foliage chokes the rocks and the island rises steeply out of the water, shrouded in mist.  A small sandy beach sprinkled with cottages and huts appears.  The saltwater spray sticks to my skin.  My hair is plastered across my forehead and I am exhilarated. For a minute, I forget that a bit of snorkeling awaits me, and for that, I will need to get into this resplendent, jade colored water.

On Po’s birthday, we ride out to the reef and put on our gear. I am a Pisces with one swimming lesson under my belt, plus a few floating sessions in the confines of a pool. I reluctantly let go of the boat ladder and plop into the South China Sea.  We’re here for you, the boat crew says.  Main thing, just relax.  I’m told to circle Coral Island and enjoy the sea life.  I peer down into the water and it is deep, periwinkle, gray. I can’t see the bottom.  I hang motionless and suck air through my snorkel.  I don’t see Nemo anywhere.  I don’t see the island I’m supposed to swim around.  I thank God for my lifejacket and no longer feel embarrassed for wearing it.  I see a knee, then a flipper, then nothing.  Am I already alone?

I start swimming.  My arms flap forward, legs pedal like a bike.  I pass through currents of cold water then warm.  I can hear my heart beating in my ears.  I angrily remember my Everest trek performance, struggling to keep up, exhausted, lost, and dead last.  I have a massive underwater counseling session with myself.  Jillian, you’ve been here before and you will be fine.  Plus dive master has his eye on you.  Then I picture him enjoying a cigarette on the boat, completely oblivious to my location in the water.  I breathe so harshly that I fear I will pass out.

When I finally see the underside of the island, I am downright stunned.  Fish are flashing about everywhere.  Corals look like platforms or pointy castles.  Tentacles wave in the current.  Sunlight pierces the water and shoots laser beams to the bottom.  This is less ocean, more discothèque.  Out of nowhere, hundreds of fish engulf me. They are silvery with blue lips and red fins. They dart right, left, right, left faster than I can follow. So this is a school of fish, I marvel.   I try to imitate their movements.  They invite me to follow them, schooling me.  OK, why not?  How did you guys get out of the aquarium, I ask?  I keep the large shelf on my left and swim until my shins and arches cramp.

One of the dive guides taps me on the shoulder.  I look up above the water, blinking at him from behind my mask.  You take break, miss?  I shake my head no and lay my face back into the water.  He offers to tow me around on some orange float.  I decline, my pride getting the better of me.  A thrill shoots through me to know I am not alone.

I look up again and I see Po!  He says we have to stay with the group. If we spread out it’s too hard for the crew to keep track of us.  OK, I say, I’m swimming as hard as I can.  That’s the problem – why are you going so fast?  Everyone else is back there.  He points behind me.  I’m not last, I gulp?  We laugh together.  I’m speed-snorkeling and awash in delight.

Sun burns the tops of my ears and sparkles on the water. I drift over coral so close it could scrape my knees.  I hollow in my belly and skim over it barely breathing.  Yellow, zebra stripes, blue, tiny, flat, spiny –I twist around to see them all.  Sharks pass by, though only my companions see them. Po points out a turtle and I watch it feeding near the bottom. I slow my breathing a bit, laugh, talk through my snorkel.  Then I finally see Nemo.

I crawl shakily back into the boat, peel off my mask and rash guard, gobble a handful of salty Pringles. It’s done. I’ve snorkeled and stayed alive.  I ride back to the resort, drowsy, wrapped in a towel. I look over the side of the boat and remember what is below us, flooded by tenderness for our amazing world and how gently it accepts our presence, shows us into our own hearts. The color of the water is so blue-green beautiful it hurts and I pretend it is the speed of the boat and the wind that makes me cry.

Thanks, Po, for the encouragement and the photos.  Happy 43rd Birthday!