Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Meditation Retreat

In early November, I decided to try my hand at meditation. Having attempted both self guided meditation and podcast meditation, I was prepared to admit that I needed help. While meditation doesn't come easily to anyone, I felt like I was in desperate need of professional guidance if I was to improve. Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is home to countless Buddhist temples, with several of them offering meditation programs lasting anywhere from 24 hours to several weeks. In the past the only way to try your hand at silence and meditation was to sign up for a 14 day retreat. Apparently the monks saw enough foreigners lose their minds that they decided to offer 'entry level' meditation for the mildly curious and cautious types. After speaking with a local Buddhist Monk at a program called, 'Monk chat,' I signed up for the two day meditation experience and was eager to get my zen on. 

On the Tuesday of the retreat, I arrived at the Buddhist temple. Having filled out the appropriate paperwork, I collected my white clothes and watched a YouTube video of one of the few female Buddhist monks. Being a fairly large group of 24, we waited for the other participants to arrive before starting introductions and learning the rules of the temple. By early afternoon we were in the back of small red trucks and making our way to the meditation center, roughly an hour outside the city. 

Arriving at the center, we were matched up with someone of the same gender and sent to our rooms. The rooms consisted of simple beds, a small dresser and a small bathroom. Void of decoration or unnecessary items, it was a space created to keep your mind empty. We were told to take showers and change into our white pants and white shirts before the gong rang at five pm. Speaking briefly to my Chinese roommate, we made quick introductions before conjecturing about the coming hours of meditation. Neither of us had tried a silent retreat or serious meditation and we were both eager to see how we reacted to the experience. At five pm, the gong rang loudly and we all moved from our individual rooms to the space in the center of the complex. The gong also signified the beginning of silence between all participants, a practice that would last until the following day at noon. 
Evening meditation practice

Entering into the space, we located small white cushions and were instructed to sit cross-legged in preparation for the first meditation. The monk, who had been meditating as we entered the building, opened his eyes and explained the basics of sitting meditation. He encouraged us to remember that meditation is a difficult practice that will take time to improve. The purpose of the practice is to 'calm your monkey mind'  from all the places it wants to travel and bring it into stillness. You begin by focusing on breathing and when the mind begins to wander, you can focus on the thing that's distracting. When you start to think of a to-do list you repeat the mantra 'thinking, thinking,  thinking'  until you return to your breathe. If you are distracted by the sounds of the ticking clock or a person speaking, you repeat the mantra 'hearing, hearing, hearing' until the sound is no longer bothering you. If you have a pain in your knee or a tickle in your ear, you repeat the mantra 'feeling, feeling, feeling' until the physical distraction is a distant memory. Following his explanation, we recitated a short text and began a short group seated meditation guided by the monk. Next we tried a short standing meditation, essentially the same as a sitting meditation but a little easier when your knees and back aren't accustomed to sitting for long periods of time. Finally we did a walking meditation in which you speak your physical actions, ie, 'I'm walking, I'm walking, I'm walking, I'm turning, I'm turning, I'm walking...' The walking meditation is often easier for beginners since it combines the physical and mental exercise, and has the same benefit while feeling easier to your aching body. After two hours of meditation practice, we were instructed to repeat a common phrase to the Buddha, bow accordingly, and head to dinner. I found the bowing and recitation to be strange given that Buddha is not considered a god, but I learned that it was meant to be a sign of respect. 

Group Picture 

Practicing a walking meditation to dinner, we moved silently and slowly in the dark. Small white bodies moving within feet of each other, although totally separate. Quietly taking our dinners of vegetarian curry with water and fruit, we spoke the dinner recitation before beginning the meal. The recitation reminded us that food is meant for nourishment, not fun and that its purpose is sustenance and should be eaten thoughtfully. During our meals, we were also encouraged to meditate on the act of eating, repeating the mantra 'chewing, chewing, chewing.'  

Following dinner, we returned to the large meditation chamber and continued practicing various forms of group meditation. By nine pm, we had silently returned to our rooms and the lights were dimmed. Despite missing my practice of sharing every thought with those closest to me, I quickly fell asleep. Sooner than expected, the 4:30 am gong rang.
Practicing giving alms to Monks - a daily practice in Thailand

The following day consisted of several hours of individual meditations, a small breakfast and a short group discussion. During the group discussion we were finally allowed to break our silence and speak at length about our experiences. Even though we'd only been silent for roughly 16 hours, I was relieved to hear voices again. The discussion started with individual stories of the practice; some practitioners were frustrated by their inability to 'control their mind' while others were surprised at the discomfort felt by their bodies. I spoke of my ability to fall asleep during any meditation and was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was a great sign. The monk smiled and congratulated me for feeling relaxed and listening to the needs of my body.

As the retreat came to an end, we participated in a few final meditation rounds and listened to the parting words of the monk. Returning to the city, once again dressed in colorful clothes and able to speak freely, we discussed the retreat. While I appreciated many core aspects of mindfulness and meditation including increased awareness of what you put in your body, how you move and actively training your mind, there were other aspects with which I struggled. The nature of detachment feels robotic to me. We were encouraged to move our minds away from not only painful thoughts, but also to create distance between our minds and happy thoughts. Monks are not meant to dwell on joy, good food, dancing and pleasure. While I understand the value in not allowing these pleasures to control you, they are also an essential part of what makes humanity beautiful. I never want to detach myself from the beauty of a magnificent sunset, the truly complex glass of wine or the joy of seeing my niece. These sparks of love are small glimpses of a greater power and a connectedness between humans everywhere.
Group Discussion

Furthermore, I disagree with the role of women in Theravada Buddhism. Unlike in Burma and Sri Lanka, the lineage of women monastics was never established in Thailand. Women primarily participate in religious life either as lay participants in collective merit-making rituals or by doing domestic work around temples. A small number of women choose to become maechi, non-ordained religious specialists who permanently observe the Precepts but do not receive the level of support given to their male counterparts and their position in Thai society (wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_Thailand). Additionally, women are never allowed to enter certain temples and are asked to refrain from visiting others due to their periods. We are never allowed to shake a monk's hand are targeted for wearing 'the wrong sorts of clothing' at temples more frequently than men.

More than anything, this meditation retreat forced me to think critically about religious traditions around the world. These limitations and benefits are not specific to this particular form of Buddhism and it's important to learn the the effects that religious devotion has on a culture. Spending time in focused meditation, I was free to feel emotions which had been hiding under the surface and to engage with my surroundings in an intentional way. My meditation practice has been inconsistent since continuing my travels, but I left the retreat with a greater understanding of another religion and the tools I need to continue to broaden my horizons and think clearly about everything that passes before my eyes.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The things I would tell him.

Living far from my father since I was ten, I learned to cherish our good conversations and precious quality time. Those days when he lost track of time and became immersed in the topic. When we dug deeper into our relationship, sorted out painful memories from the past or just thoroughly enjoyed each other's company. The conversations over a meal at Russ' or Arnie's grew in depth as I aged and our relationship shifted from mandatory to intentional. Shared meals evolved from a strict one hour time frame to slow afternoons where we sat for hours and grudgingly said goodbye when other commitments pressed upon us. While living in the USA, every Saturday afternoon he would call. Whether we spoke for ten minutes or an hour was largely dependent on his energy and the quantity of family news to communicate. At times this arrangement was convenient due to my own time constraints, yet in other seasons it was hurtful when I sought his worthy opinion or a listening ear. I suppose you could say he was human and communicated accordingly. When I lived in Zambia, he was difficult to reach online,  but by the time I found myself in Morocco, he was one of my most consistent skype partners. Providing wonderful insight into the Muslim world, we explored the way religions interact with culture. He delighted in my daily joys and listened after particularly soul-crushing experiences. After a full year of talking about Morocco, he made the effort to visit my small town and walked a few miles in my shoes. That trip will forever be one of my most cherished memories of my father.  

After his illness and death in 2015, the most acute loss has been that no one calls on Saturday afternoons. That the world around me continues, but I've lost one of my favorite people to reflect upon it with. That in all things good and bad, I still wait for his well reasoned response and am left wondering, 'what would my dad think?' 

A woman well versed in loss once told me that when I miss him, I should still try to communicate. Whether it's outloud, in a quiet prayer or in my writing, I can present my thoughts and see if I receive an answer. Although the practice often feels strange, it's also comforting and cathartic. During the course of my travels this fall, there have been countless occasions when I've sent my thoughts to him, hoping that someone is listening. Here are a few of the things I'd tell him.

If my dad was enjoying his morning cup of coffee, I'd tell him that I finally understand what he loved about the depths of the ocean. The initial fear and excitement of entering the water and the faith that you'll be able to breathe as you descend meter after meter. That the Indonesian waters are rich with fusiliers, clown fish, eels, tiny mantis shrimp and sea cucumbers. That I can barely wrap my head around the vibrant colors of the coral and the grace of the sea turtles. I'd ask him about his research in Oregon and what drew him to the ocean. We'd talk about how different our lives would have been if he'd stayed in marine biology. Maybe we'd even plan a diving trip together. I think he would have liked that. 

If we were sharing coconut ice cream after some spicy pad thai, I'd tell him about how much I loved spending time in another Muslim country. How the people of Indonesia were incredibly kind, accepting and open and how it was fascinating to see how the world's largest Muslim country operates. How I'd love to live there and explore the islands for years. I'd ask him about the differences between the primary forms of Buddhism in Asia. How frustrated I was that women can't be monks and that I couldn't enter certain temples because I was considered 'unclean.' How those gender norms still exist in Christianity and how damaging it is for women. 

If he were smoking a cigar and sipping a glass of whiskey, I'd tell him about my shock that our country has turned to bigotry and xenophobia. That I cried when I heard about the results of the election and couldn't believe that we elected a man without wisdom or courage. That I fear for the safety of my friends who are black, Muslim, queer, and immigrants. That I fear that my reproductive rights are in question and that we've elected a man who is openly misogynistic. That I feel attacked for being a feminist. That I thought the church stood for the widow, the orphan and the alien rather than for power. That I don't recognize our country and am fearful of the darkness on our doorstep and on the horizon. 

If we were walking on the beach together,  I'd tell him that I'm grateful for the opportunities I've had to travel, but would have traded a few more years with him for all the sunsets in Myanmar. That I'm thankful he gave me an education and encouraged me to think critically about the world around me. That I can't wait to start grad school and it wouldn't be possible without him. That he taught me to love the outsider and advocate for justice and that I plan on continuing that work after school. That even though the world feels scary, he taught me to stand firm and fight for the rights of the disenfranchised. That I miss him, but know that he's with me through the darkness and the light. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Tales of the Moto

Waking up on the shores of the largest lake in South East Asia, I was looking for an adventure. My fellow backpackers told me the scooter, or moto, was the only way to get around the island of Samosir without perpetually waiting for public transportation and despite my desire to take a 'local ' route from point A to point B, this was the way the locals traveled as well. My hands were tied and I was secretly thrilled to test my skills on the Moto: the most notoriously dangerous yet widely used form of transport in Asia. 

The woman across the street gave me a crash course on the fundamentals of the Moto, having me drive up and down the street once before she let me take her bike. Thankfully she was distracted by another customer when I gently ran the bike into the curb (whoops). Having a total of ten seconds of riding under my belt,  I was ready for the streets of Samosir. The woman reminded me that there was no insurance , ie, I'm responsible for all damages and encouraged me to buy magic mushrooms from her after I returned the bike. Don't be too surprised; magic mushrooms are on the pizzas, in the shakes and are readily available everywhere on Lake Toba. Maybe that's why the people are always singing and dancing  . . . I digress . 

With my overconfident attitude and uninsured bike, I was on my way. Cruising along a well maintained and straight road, I was on cloud nine. To my left, the hillside of Samosir replete with the shrines of the Batak people. To my right, small villages and fields nestled in snuggly before the shoreline. With the wind in my hair, no set destination in mind and two of my favorite French backpackers sharing the moto in front of me, it was a pure moment of absolute freedom and happiness. This was what all the fuss was about. 

Samosir Island, or technically the peninsula, is roughly the size of Singapore and is home to the Batak people. According to Lonely Planet, 'The Bataks were among the most warlike people in Sumatra. . . They were so mistrustful that they did not build or maintain natural paths between villages, or construct bridges.' Cannibalism was practiced until 1816, although it was combined with the Christian faith thanks to German missionaries. Today the Batak people still incorporate animistic beliefs with their Protestant faith and shrines and elaborate graves are found throughout the island. This 'proud, debaucherous Christian people who love a drink'  are fascinating to engage in conversation and even more fun to sing along with. 

Finding a few of the locals along the side of the road, the French girls and I stopped for a spicy lunch of fish and cola. We came for the food, but stayed for the large groups of older men who were fascinated by our height, blond hair and love of riding fast bikes around their home. Sitting down to lunch with the foreigners, they asked standard questions about why we came to Toba, where we're from and what we think of their country. Stomachs full, we jumped on the bikes and continued toward our final destination - the hot springs. 

Two hours later, we hadn't found the hot springs and had run out of gas. Happily we found ourselves on a gravel road just a few kilometers from the nearest gas station and exactly where we wanted to be. In a few short kilometers, the views changed from urban Sumatra to the land before time. Drastic cliffs rising from the lake set the scene. Some were foraged by local woman, others were just on fire. A few weeks before the beginning of the rainy season, these cliffs caught on fire daily and burned until the rains began. Waiting for the liter of gas, we exchanged stories of travel and discussed our hopes for the future. Hopes to see more, to experience the world in a richer way, and to never settle for lives that didn't fit us. Astonished by the natural, harsh beauty surrounding us, we were thankful for the road that brought us here.

All too soon, our motos were refilled and we continued off the hillside. Finally locating the hot springs, we took a quick dip before speeding back to our side of the massive peninsula. We returned to the hostel without incident, and I didn't even wreck my motorbike until the following morning. That's a story for another blog. That afternoon on Lake Toba, we let the day choose our path and were delighted with the outcome. Another reminder that the destination is just that, a destination after a rewarding journey. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Persons of the Forest

Friendly people, powerful volcanoes and cheap massage; Bali and Java had not disappointed. Traveling westward via one of Southeast Asia's many budget airlines, Sumatra loomed large in my mind. Family and fellow travelers had assured me that the island was amazing 15 years ago and continued to be a must-see, despite the low number of backpackers. 

My first impression wasn't good. Medan, the biggest city on Sumatra and main travel hub, is considered one of the grittier places in Indonesia. Arriving at a central bus hub, I was met with an immediate scam from an uncharacteristically hostile man at the bus station. Thankfully the interaction was short and within 20 minutes I was wildly bouncing around in the back of a local minibus. Mildly entertained by the scratched, skipping music videos produced by 'Medan Media Publications,' it was only when we left the noise of the city behind that I caught my first glimpse of the Sumatran countryside. Small villages punctuated vast expanses of palm tree forest while local children yelled 'hallo!' while chasing the minivan. An hour into the ride, the villages remained uniform while the forest dwindled. We had entered the area dominated by the Palm oil industry where huge portions of land are routinely burned to produce the valuable substance found in western beauty products. The industry is responsible for huge deforestation in both Sumatra and Kalimantan, another Indonesian island blessed and cursed by its rich jungle. The industry pushes into the Gunung Leuser National Park, one of the richest tropical ecosystems in the world and one of the few remaining habitats for orangutans. 

The orangutan, or 'person of the forest' in Bahasa Indonesian, is threatened by extinction in both Kalimantan and Sumatra. An intelligent and solitary creature whose mostly vegetarian diet include nuts, fruits and leaves, the orangutan is threatened due to extensive habitat loss from the logging and palm oil industry. Combined with the seven year nursing period where mothers pass on all essential information to their offspring, the orangutans are in serious danger. Like similar conservation efforts in Southeast Asia, the industrious people of Bukit Lawang have worked to create a tourist experience with the hopes that finances earned from tourism will outweigh the benefits of deforestation and will loosen the grip of the palm oil industry. Despite the additional complication of exposing orangutans to human illness, of which they are highly susceptible, the effort has been successful. 

Arriving in Bukit Lawang, a small village deep in the heart of Sumatra, I located a charming guesthouse and arranged my jungle trek. Like most tourists, I opted for a two day, one night jungle experience. Starting early the following morning, our small group encountered our first orangutan within roughly twenty minutes of entering the jungle. As part of the rehabilitative process in the National Park, orangutans were fed at a local feeding station for years before the population was considered strong enough to survive on its own. A recent change, several of the orangutans in the area are considered to be 'semi-wild' and are more comfortable coming down from the forest canopy to take a look at the visitors. Weening the orangutans off human food is challenging, especially as commitment to the cause varies between trekking companies. While my guide refused to feed the orangutans just to please his western guests, many of the guides feel pressure from their groups to feed orangutans so the group is able to get a better photo or even a selfie with the animal. This practice is damaging for the orangutans who don't develop a healthy fear of humans and won't pass along basic survival skills to their young. 

Encountering these magnificent creatures was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While slow moving on the ground, once they take the arm or bag of a human, you won't get it back until they choose to return it. While close to orangutans, we were told to keep our bags closed at all times. When an orangutan decides to take a bag, it will carry it to the top of a tree, empty its contents, take any food, and then leave the bag hanging at the top of the tree, almost like a small warning flag for tourists. After the orangutans spent a few minutes on the forest floor, examining its guests, it would quickly return to the safety of the canopy and move gracefully through the forest. In addition to seeing a variety of orangutans, we heard the call of the black Gibbons, played with the pink-haired Tomas monkey who is only found in this National Park, spotted huge turtles and witnessed Sumatran peacocks call to each other in the dense jungle. 

Later in the evening, after a large dinner with abundant tea and spicy cuisine, I sat under the stars and asked one of the guides about life on the edge of this fragile ecosystem. Bukit Lawang is built on the banks of a gushing River that separates it from the National Park. The locals wash, play and drink from its rushing waters, but it hasn't always been a purely positive relationship. Early in the morning in November 2003, when Omar was a young man, he warned his mother that the river looked higher than normal and that they should leave their home on the banks of the riverbed to be safe. Gathering a few nearby family members, Omar and his mother ran to higher ground. During a flash flood upstream, a natural dam broke and sent the river raging through the community of Bukit Lawang. After the water settled, 239 people were killed and most of the riverfront development was destroyed. Omar lost family, but like so many other community members, he had to move forward. Today the basic infrastructure has been rebuilt and the tourists are slowly returning. Omar and his fellow guides seem to look forward to the future of Bukit Lawang and Gunung Leuser National Park, rather than to the tragedy of the past. They seek to protect the natural habitat of the orangutan from exploitative interests, to maintain their rich way of life and to invite the outside world to their home in the hopes that we will see the value in the jungles of Sumatra apart from oil and logging. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Trump talk over ginger tea

Just an hour before our Friday evening plans, the text came through that he was suffering from a bout of food poisoning. Having already spent the day sightseeing alone, my extroverted self was uninterested in a quiet dinner. Deflated, I decided to continue my research into Sumatra on the communal rooftop prior to seeking out sustenance. As circumstances typically unfold in Indonesia, the solo dinner never took place. Joe, an Australian currently talking a break from teaching bahasa Indonesia to high schoolers, was also looking for a dinner partner. After bonding on the roof over our mutual love of the country and desire to eat all the street food, we made our way to a glorious hole-in-the-wall resto. Having finished dinner, although no longer having an appetite, we couldn't resist taking in the sights and smells of Malioboro street. On the first night of the Eid Al Fitr holiday weekend, the biggest celebration in the Muslim world, the road was pulsing with live pythons, street performers, plastic-wrapped clothing and every type of sweet javanese cuisine available. Standing at an appropriate distance from the seemingly docile pile of snakes, we met Anton.
A first generation Indonesian immigrant to Texas, Anton was dutifully visiting his family in Yogyakarta. One of only a handful of visits he's been able to make over the 16 years he's lived in the USA. Anton was initially concerned that I wouldn't believe that he was an American; maybe because he looks like an Indonesian, maybe because he's used to convincing his fellow Texans of his citizenship. Despite his heritage, Anton feels like an outsider here. It's good to visit his aunt and sister, but Java isn't home anymore. He works in the criminal justice system in Texas and is worried that the United States won't be able to compete globally with China or India while incarcerating a huge number of young people who should be contributing to the economy. He thinks that Trump will fix this. Or not necessarily this problem, but that he's certainly the best man for the job. He doesn't think Trump's hate speech regarding Mexicans, many of whom he works with, women, one of whom he was previously married to, or Muslims, which he identifies as, is sincere. Anton doesn't always agree with Trump's statements, but he thinks Trump's bold character is what the country needs. Anton represents another important part of the far right movement. Besides white men, first generation immigrants make up a significant portion of parties favoring a closed door policy in Europe and the United States. The last people to benefit from the open immigration of a country seem to be amongst the first to rapidly close the door behind them. From my conversation with Anton, his desire for closed borders rests on economic insecurity and a real fear that he will be left without a job. After he finished apologizing for his support of Trump, which he did a number of times throughout our discussion, I told him that I respect his opinion and that it's good that he's putting thought into his vote. As a young woman in the States, I refuse to vote for a candidate who has normalized hate speech towards huge portions of the population, including myself. That Trump's policy is non-existent, that he's a failure of a business man and his speeches promote violence and bigotry. While I'm not in love with Hilary Clinton, I don't have to be. Even though I don't want to have a beer with her, I believe she is over qualified for the job and will be a measured, stable president. She's unlikely to start a third world war and may even prove to be a fantastic Commander - in - Chief if we can stomach the idea of a woman running the country. Anton and I discuss the role of the media in this election, the vitriol present in political discourse. We agree that America has a lot of problems, but support different methods for how to best solve them. Most importantly, we talk about the polarization of politics and the fact that in a normal election cycle, neither of us hear or engage in many intelligent conversations with the opposing side about the state of the country. Perhaps if we spent less time criticizing the backwards ideas of the 'other, ' we might be able to form a consensus. In my distant memories, I recall learning about the importance of listening and compromise, in politics and life. Neither Anton nor myself are sure about where those values have gone. 
Now the three of us, an Australian and two Americans, continue down Malioboro street. Pivoting from politics, Anton tells us local stories of pet snakes fasting so they can eat their masters and the supposed healing powers of drinking cobra's blood. Vitality! Virality! Kids cuddle up to characters from Transformers while other children choose to wrap a python around their neck for a photo. Yikes. 

Anton asks us questions about our travels in Indonesia. Do we feel safe? Are people nice to us? Do we get cheated by the local bus boys? How about the spicy food? He says that Americans feel scared of Muslims in Indonesia and in the States. That his co-workers are accepting of him, but have more complicated feelings about Islam. Eager to try a ginger tea with unknown jellies and other added sweeteners, I look to the street vendors for options. Taking a more conservative approach to the local food, Anton insists on an inside venue. Just off Malioboro, we find a small coffee shop and music venue. It's just past 11pm and the chairs are filling up quickly. Anton insists on ordering the drinks for us in case they try to charge us extra. We take the hot ginger milk tea and locate a table near the band. Despite numerous attempts to pay him back, Anton stubbornly refuses stating that we are his guests in Indonesia and he is responsible for us. While I sip the incredibly sweet tea, the band finishes tuning and starts off their set with Hotel California. Apparently everyone in Indonesia knows the song and a genuine sing-a-long begins. Conservative university students take selfies while older women in revealing shirts start to dance with their husbands. Quiet families watch the ordeal from the side tables and the wait staff grooves in the back. The band pivots toward sone popular Indonesian music and the crowd goes wild again, dancing and singing late into their Friday night. 

Listening to the band play Indonesian pop mixed with American classic rock, I started to wonder about my fellow Americans. Having only met three during my first month of traveling, it does seem like we are an underrepresented group of backpackers in the country. The Germans, Dutch and French are everywhere. You find a Spaniard, Brit, Aussie and Canadian in most locations. Considering the size and wealth of the USA, we are not equally present in Indonesia. This is purely anecdotal, but I hear the same observation from many of my fellow travelers. In the eyes of the world, Americans are scared of Muslims.

It's a simplistic conclusion, but I think Americans are being taught to accept easy answers to difficult questions. Who took your jobs? Immigrants. Who are these terrorists? Muslims. How do you stop gun violence? A good guy with a gun. When we are fed a story of a black and white world, it becomes challenging to see the countless shades of gray. And how would Americans react to the  the diverse religious environment in Indonesia? It's by no means perfect, but conservative areas with sharia law exist near tourist beach resorts. Hijab-clad women sit next to their sisters in shorts. There is no monolithic Islam practiced here; just as Christianity encompasses hard-line Baptists and tattooed millenials who don't believe in heaven or hell. Seeing this level of diversity in a religion forces us to think deeply about our own prejudices, the roots of extremism and our own fears.  If we are truly a nation that fears Muslims, what is the larger consequence of this fear? What experiences do we miss and what conversations do we avoid? As stated by the wonderful Bob Garfield of the 'On the Media' podcast,  "You are more likely to be killed by a white Christian, your spouse or your bathtub than by a Muslim stranger." We spend so much time worrying about a small group of extremists that we allow the dark parts of humanity to win. Xenophobia, prejudice and bigotry start driving us rather than a nuanced view of a complicated world. 

The band continues to rock, but the ginger milk tea is putting me to sleep. Stepping into the street after midnight, we say goodbye to Anton, thanking him for his hospitality and company. Although our paths may never cross again, we'll always have this Friday night in Jogya where we ate, drank and celebrated what unites rather than divides us. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Back to the Start

Nearly a month into my travels in Indonesia, I still have to pinch  myself and realize that I'm on a train in the middle of a sprawling archipelago. Picturing life at thirty years old, I assumed that I would be settled into a regular routine and perhaps already have completed my master's degree. How did I get to this island on the other side of my world? 

After an outstanding Peace Corps COS trip, or close of service trip, with Eugene through more than 25 National Parks, we decided to try life together in Philadelphia. Finally moving in late November to the hipster neighborhood of Northern Liberties, we celebrated Thanksgiving and started to explore our new home. We felt lucky to have located a fantastic apartment, secured an interesting new job for me and for Eugene's pending position at the Department of State. 

Almost immediately, life unraveled. My father and cousin were diagnosed with cancer and I stated to learn about the fragility of my new employment. During a tense holiday season, we waited for test results and treatment plans. While visiting my sister in Vienna, my father was hospitalized and on the eve of 2015, he called to inform us that the cancer was everywhere. Within two weeks, my siblings and I descended into Minneapolis to say goodbye. His condition deteriorated rapidly and we spent most of our time in the hospital waiting for his pain to subside. Daily crises were the new normal. We cried with visiting relatives, got angry at strangers, spoke like zombies to servers and tried our best to support each other. We watched our father tearfully say goodbye to our grandfather and joyously reconcile with our mother. We told stories to pass the time, asking our dad to recall memories of his own childhood, young married life and of our youth. At times he was lucid, coherent and himself. More often he would drift off during conversation and not return to us for hours. After three weeks in Minneapolis, we said our final goodbyes, knowing that we'd be unable to be at his side during his final moments of life. Just after midnight on February 15, the call came. 

The weeks continued as a blur of grieving and pain. My step-father was diagnosed with cancer shortly before my father's funeral, both paternal grandparents passed away and my cousin's illness continued to win battles. By the time I was laid off from my job in mid - June, I had no shits left to give. Having toiled pointlessly for months, it was a relief to give up the charade. The day after my 29th birthday, I was jobless, grieving and desperately needed a break. 

This is not to say that everything was terrible. While life felt aimless, there were wonderful people who supported me endlessly in Philly. Eugene was patient and loving despite my violent mood swings. He cooked me dinner, encouraged me to connect with family and watched any TV show that I wanted. Together we ordered pepperoni pizzas and binge watched Netflix and Ken burns documentaries. At work, several of my coworkers shared stories of their personal losses and allowed space for me to open up over coffee. Caitlin danced with me, Miranda hugged me and so many others sat with me. Despite being in a new city, I had abundant support. 

As the months passed, life in Philly became easier. I found a new job, started studying for the grad school entrance exam, and began thinking about life after the losses. Following the year anniversary of my father's passing, I started to experience familiar levels of energy, albeit with obvious terrible no good very bad days sprinkled in. Grad school acceptance letters started to arrive and I could see a change building on the horizon. Choosing to accept a spot in a program in Rotterdam, I considered how to spend my last few months before beginning a new chapter of life. What did I need to feel like myself again?

And that's how I arrived in SE Asia. The best, truest version of myself comes to light when I'm on the road. Meeting new people, riding in rickety trains and operating outside of my comfort zone sparks joy in me. More than a travel adventure, this is my first extended solo backpacking trip. A new challenge to prove to myself that despite the assault and the loss of my father, there is so much good to be found in the world. That while I'm not the same person, I'm becoming a wiser, stronger, more loving version of myself. I'm meeting her during the quiet moments of sadness, in the depths of the ocean and peering into an active volcano. I think that my dad would be proud. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Full Circle: Healthy Living in the Peace Corps

"Has the assault changed your service? Do you think that your life is on a different trajectory than it was one year ago?"


At the time it was challenging to respond to the well-meaning question without a touch of sarcasm in my voice. Of course my service and my person were fundamentally changed, how could they not be? Can anyone pass through a traumatic experience unscathed? If you cut me, I bleed - but that's not the end of the story.

Later in the day, I met with members of Peace Corps staff and Volunteer representatives to discuss the plight of volunteers facing medivac, the term used for sending volunteers to the states for treatment or recovery for a medical reason, as well as addressing similar hardships faced while remaining in Morocco. The meeting went smoothly, but it felt like the majority of the committees were stuck in the mud of turnover and bureaucracy. Nearly a year after my assault and medivac, I was still receiving calls about volunteers whose experiences paralleled my own. Volunteers who were isolated in Rabat, volunteers who felt their mental health concerns were diminished and volunteers who returned to site without a follow-up call or way forward.

Peace Corps staffing and training depended on approval from Washington, budgets and bureaucracy. Having voiced my concerns multiple times, I decided it was time to stop waiting for Washington to catch up and act on my own. Turning my focus from staff concerns to volunteer-to-volunteer action, I began working on the first "Health Living Workshop." Collaborating with Melanie, an insightful volunteer who is well-versed in dance therapy and mental health, we began discussions on the gaps in volunteer support and where our knowledge and passion could be utilized.

Workshops inspired from our shared experiences and struggles began to emerge. Incorporating yoga, meditation, art therapy and group discussions to the curriculum, we set our intentions beyond mental health concerns and focused on the overall well-being of the volunteer. After several months of preparation, we concluded that the focus of the workshops would be to :

  • Learn techniques to maintain health and manage stress
  • Provide support to volunteers through shared experiences across training groups
  • Raise awareness about how to navigate mental health issues in Peace Corps Morocco
  • Help volunteers find joy in Peace Corps life, not just ‘get through it’

Retreats took place in Tissint and Foum Oudi, reaching volunteers from various training groups, mental health backgrounds and life experiences. Together we acknowledged the painful moments which led us to participate in these workshops, our current struggles and motivated each other to move past the hurt and into a better version of ourselves. We cried together, breathed together and encouraged each other. 

I have been blessed by these retreats - it feels selfish that I get to continually benefit from the keen insights of my resilient friends and co-workers. They inspire me to leap forward, to smile more and to never stop believing in the beauty of the volunteer experience. My cup runneth over. 

After two successful rounds of workshops with volunteers in Tissint and Foum Oudi, it was clear that this retreat was beneficial to the Peace Corps community. Encouraged by the volunteer testimonials, we created a curriculum that was passed on to the next group of facilitators in a 'training of the trainers' workshop in early April. It was bittersweet to watch the new facilitators to plan their first retreat; I felt proud that my workshops would continue to improve the lives of volunteers, but saddened that I wouldn't be part of the process after April 30. 

"Has the assault changed your service? Do you think that your life is on a different trajectory than it was one year ago?"

Yes, and I wouldn't have it any other way.