a small odyssey in nan province. &icu.

the scene before me depicts a feeling so notably similar to one which i know while simultaneously containing a foreign culture entirely indescribable..
the three youngest daughters sit on the floor in fixed concentration watching the transfixing fluid movements of the four eldest who gracefully maneuver their way around the big room, accompanied by a traditional instrumental music. one i would instinctively place as indian if it were not for the way their bodies incorporate into the overall melody, a synchronicity that gives it away as something wholly foreign to me. my mah and paw are draped lazily over one another on the floor looking weary while expressing a transcendent feeling of family.
while this moment marks my first night of my hmong village homestay it more importantly illustrates my initiation into a world i couldn't have even dreamed. 
the first few hours presented a slew of challenges relating to my ineptitude in thai vocabulary and the insecurities of being placed in a completely foreign situation with a group of about thirty or more hmong relatives with questioning interest. yet somehow the night worked its way into a place of innate comfort, focused in simple actions like teachings of head, shoulders, knees, and toes. little did i know that the initiation of english games was simply the start and that over the course of the next four days i would rattle off every english word for each entity crossing my path or event that occurred. the first night raged past with the clash of warm thundershowers and the sound i've been missing. 
day two commenced with the sun and more "gin coows" (eat rice, my family was vegetarian don't worry) than i ever thought possible. i soon learned not to disobey these commands as mah sia's food  was by far the best in the course of all my adventures on this side of the world. soon the family and i piled into the truck and trekked our way to shannons families house where we all embarked on our journey to a mountain top hmong village in another district. it was regrettably not mentioned until an hour into the trip that the location was one that rivals the roof of the world. regardless we made it to a place more beautifully isolated than i could have ever imagined and the incorporation of such strong cultural potency i was taken back. a couple of hours spent at our elevation allowed for walks thru bamboo forests and recess time at the local school. the afternoon was spent splashing at the lake and napping, representing the true perks of village existence. 
friday started even earlier than the others and allowed for exploring time around my neighborhood of sorts before the group met up for trips to a former refugee camp and the silom waterfall. the pickup ride to each place represented views of virgin forests and immense farm land, both seemingly ever plentiful. the multi-tiered waterfall presented itself as a mini expedition with efforts to traverse the forest and reach the top then slide back down..it ended up quite well i think. swimming through the pools created the perfect afternoon and i returned to make it up to the mango fields at sunset. my family also donned me with a hmong name ganshia; one with a free and open spirit, a boundless heart. the night ended with night time hide and seek and thai tv lounging with the little ones. 
saturday morning once again started with trips through the grid like streets of the village. unfortunately, i was particularily aware of the staring. having been paying attention through the course of our stay i was hoping for the long held glances to have subsided. looking back i suppose this is simply the first time i've felt truly uncomfortable with the color of my skin. even with all the awkwardness and discomfort it amounted i feel the experience was immeasurably beneficial to my cultural understanding. later on i made my way to misas families home where a few of us were carted into the depths of the mountain jungle to reach the lychee fields. truly beautiful the trip was long and induced more motion sickness than i care to remember but it was a sight i'm thankful not to have missed. the afternoon was blazing hot and led me to the local silver shops and on adventures with my siblings. who were all busy preparing and adorning themselves in hmong traditional costumes and new years apparel for their dance debut at the farewell dinner. with the youngest boy mong, preparing with intense hula hooping, his contribution along with backflips to the performance. that evening we made our way to the meeting hall with all, including myself, wearing layers upon layers of traditional handmade hmong designs. dinner was good and brought the entire community together with a buzz of anticipation and cultural influence. entertainment included many traditional styles, including my siblings dances, and ended with our rendition of " build me up buttercup". oh to be american. my final night ended as all the others had sprawled out on the floor surrounded by my siblings and the dim flickering of the thai drama overtaking the screen. 
sunday morning came far too quickly in my mind and served as the goodbye point for my amazing odyssey, which now resides close to my heart in a category far too unique to pinpoint. 


border crossing: chiang rai, mae sai, and the golden triangle

this weekend brought my first taste of expeditions in thailand without the presence of 15 + others. an acutely needed change for the soundness of my being. leaving after classes friday and boarding my first bus here four friends and i embarked on a 3 hour winding trip to chiang rai, the northern most province. arriving at about 10:30 to the chian guesthouse our first night was christened with a quick swim in the pool, that we were so happy to find outside our room. saturday began early and ended late in the back of a run-down pickup whose driver sped us along roads that fell in and out of civilization and back again. stopping first at the very justly titled "monkey" temple we got a taste of our nearest species brilliance as they inhabit the temple to flee the butchers block. monkey a thai delicacy. the visit also led us up steps into the clouds to reach a cave where a buddha statue inhabits about 50 meters under rock formations. after an hour spent marveling we piled in again to allow the driver to take us to mae sai, the border crossing town into burma. while i acquired a new stamp in my passport and the right to further inhabit the world here the crossing was bittersweet. everything i know and have learned about the realities to the north was solidified with each step across the bridge and made me simply want to turn back around. while perusing the market on the burmese side the world seemed unreasonably familiar with a marked increase in animal hides, faux designer everything, and children begging. while i can check it off in my conquest to step foot in all the countries of our world it left an unpleasant taste i can't seem to shake. our last stop of the day brought us to the golden triangle where the borders of laos, thailand, and burma meet along the mekong river.  the area is also  widely known for it's central participation in the opium trade that has long influenced southeast asia. while mostly a thing of the past, remnants are on display in a museum that pays homage to many of the hill tribes and history of the drug ring. the ride home twisted past many hillside towns and rice paddies and while serving to knot my hair into a small mass of dreadlocks the day was one of the best i've had on this side of the world. 


i know that starting over is not what life's about but my thoughts were so loud, i couldn't hear my mouth.

this week has passed so suprisingly quickly that i'm not sure i even remember it in its entirety. whether this has been the sheer speed at which time is passing here or the copious numbers of thoughts that seem to have taken over.. there really is no way to keep track. wednesday marked peace with several pelting hours of thundershowers. nothing has ever sounded so much like home and i've never been so grateful to hear the crack resound in the heat. otherwise life as usual hummed along with added planning for an adventure to chiang rai and burma tomorrow. visa border runs as they may be i am excited to be somewhere else. it's funny that even in this foreign world my calling to drift along as the vagabond i was born to be have found me. the thoughts of floating along appease my soul like no other yet such a section of my heart belongs to all the things i leave behind. conundrums for another day though really as i have entirely too many things to do presently. 


what it means to be collective. icu.

the concept of a functioning collectivist society is one that continues to allude me two months into my stay. whether it's the sheer disparity that exists between these notions and the ones that prevail throughout the nation which i call home or my own reverence is unexplainable. long have my ambitions aimed for community growth and aid but these have been just that, my ambitions. the fact that in these ancient lands it's possible for such initiatives to be taken on by a group is something entirely new. in the context of my placement at freedom house, as i've mentioned, the dynamism that surrounds this outlook is for me awe-inspiring. while this touches upon the very micro level of the collectivist reality it is one of the most pertinent for me personally. yet with increasing consciousness i have become more and more aware of the actuality of it all in a much wider perspective. contingent upon many cultural values the collective way of thinking stems from the nuclear family and branches out into the entire nation in a web of connections. this system of cohesive groupings provides a structure community wise and varying attributes in the population that are not present in the united states. from my perspective this is a reality i wish could perforate the individualist armor that is so present else where in the world. the ideas behind personal achievement and gain are not ones that i discredit in any way as our existence relies upon this innate drive but that should be integrated into the larger picture.  it is so easy to be entrapped in your goals and needs that the realities that should be forefront are pushed aside to make way. life as i perceive it is a sphere filled with these discrepancies and a balance of the two could change the world. while the  aim to change the world is simply the context i choose to relate these principles, i'm hoping to take some collectivist enterprise along with the other things that southeast asia is teaching me and return it to a society that if open minded enough could thrive on its the ingenuity. 


the beginnings of march and acceptance. icu.

how the semester has progressed to its halfway point is for the most part a complete mystery. the first days and explorations of this foreign terrain seem only hours past but in actuality 2 months have gone. any feelings of yearning for home have long passed and life here has taken on an aspect of comfort that can be associated with where my roots have reached the asian soil. while i'm starting to see more and more of what it actually means to be here the other aspects still win overwhelmingly. the past weeks have brought many changes and finally a more consistent integration with the thai students. in part due to my participation in the customs class. a couple hours in front of a group of peers detailing the aspects of the civil war, the american flag, and other traditions of the like. these interactions broke through a barrier of sorts and mutual recognition now ensues as i trek my way across campus. all of these aspects of daily life are helping to accustom me into this world i never thought i could access. my work through freedom house has also led to many of these new facets of assimilation. as the community is so small here the number of people i know is growing by the day, with the number who know me is even greater, a strange concept to say the least. this weekend was spent working on the new school, primarily painting, staining, and all other sorts of cleaning. while it was laborious work many of my friends came to assist us and other volunteers from all over came to help. this sort of communal project i'm realizing is more plausible and typical here than in any other area i've ever worked in. while the weekend has left me utterly exhausted the experience has been more than worth it with many new friends and a whole world of insight behind me. 


oh no pollution.

the air here gets thicker by the day. every year the end of the dry season brings months of dense pollution and an ever-present haze that sits on your skin like a layer of film. waiting for the rains to start each passing day reaches higher levels of air pollution. chiang mai, sits in a valley surrounded by mountains (that subsequently can't even be seen through the haze) which serve to trap the pollutants that create a ceiling of thick haze so dense that it shields even the clouds. in part due to the slash and burn farming methods that have half the landscape completely ablaze, and paired with a lack of carbon and CO2 emission regulations leaves your respiratory system entirely discontent. this has spurred my interest and some research into the severity of this new reality. while air quality data somewhat alludes me there are some things that are blindingly clear. for example PM-10, which indicates the density of very small particulate matter in the air these particles are too tiny to see and five would fit across a single strand of hair. their origin stems from any source of waste burning such as car exhaust and industry that then find their ways into the human respiratory system and wreak havoc in the way of health problems like lung cancer. in london, the us, and many other nations it is considered a serious pollution episode when PM-10 levels exceed 50. today, march 5th, levels are document at 191.4 for the chiang mai province and have reached as high as 304. while my own minor respiratory difficulties are somewhat disturbing the long term effects these levels have on the greater population are catastrophic. this type of information attests to the widely accepted notion that to cover up a problem is a much more profitable response than actually solving it. case in point.. the thai pollution control department has set " safe levels" at anything less than a PM-10 of 120. this dichotomy of health standards between health in the developing and developed world is something so forefront in my mind that my heart aches daily. the notion that you cannot save the world was something i swallowed a long time ago. i've since resolved to work on just a small part of it, yet as the injustices become clearer my resolve wanes and the question of " what about the rest of it?" doesn't seem to want to leave. the worlds inequalities are so easy to ignore when your located a world away but what about all those born without this luxury. even with that said these same issues arise in towns and states that border my own home and still the unwillingness to see prevails more times than not. being here i've renewed my faith in what people are truly capable of and have simultaneously become unreasonably baffled by the reasons as to why so many simply choose not to. presently, the world is in a state of economic disrepair, momentarily that is, and our fall from grace has caused a slew of misfortunes. yet they still are utterly incomparable to the true travesties that span the surface of our world. as my eyes continue to grow older they are more cognizant of the progressive dissatisfaction with my own race and attune themselves with the callings of my heart. i guess i'm simply finding the task of making peace with the world a much more onerous one that i had previously envisioned.


expeditions in bangkok.icu.

Bangkok located about 696 kilometres south of Chiang Mai equates to one very long journey on overnight sleeper trains. not an altogether bad experience the drop down bunks are in reality quite impressive but results in one very fitful nights sleep for most. The trip down my bunk had a window which held my interest as we were carried through the country at a rate of speed light years faster than the sleepy villages we streamed past and within seconds left in our wake. In preparation for the planting season vast sections of the country and mountain side were lit completely ablaze as part of the farming technique of slash and burn. Where the undergrowth is exterminated in flames leaving supple ash to mix with the dirt to create a rich fertilizer to better grow the crops, predominantly rice and other food stuffs, that will soon inhabit the ground. This left quite the impression as we past areas miles and miles wide completely engulfed in flames, most not more than 20 feet from the tracks and seemingly completely unattended. After the areas of vacant fertile earth had vanished the blank expanses of land were hidden entirely in darkness but made room for the stars. Stars like i haven't seen since my late night treks through New Hampshire, the kind that seem to touch every crevice of the sky and stretch down just enough to seemingly kiss the horizon line. I've always found comfort in the last remnants of massive balls of burning luminous plasma where energy from nuclear fusion illuminates itself against the dark backdrop of the great beyond. Sleep then finally found me and no sooner had we reached our destination. A quick trip on public transportation (an amenity i never thought i'd miss) led us to the guesthouse on Sala Daeng where our stay commenced with breakfast and our first journey out. Soon after arriving it was apparent that Bangkok may in fact be the center of the earth as the temperature scorched to about 41 degrees celsius ( 106 f) with humidity that created the sensation of a personal sauna. Regardless, we went on a boat tour to explore the canals that gave the city it's ancient title as "venice of the east" which outlined neighborhoods that exist primarily by boat people. These waterways also led us into Wat Arun, the temple of the dawn, a khmer inspired tower that is made of bits of porcelain and created for King Rama III and further on to the Royal Barges Museum. The first day completed with a documentary outlining the violent history of the 1976 uprisings and a very interesting talk with a particularily Liberal Thai student at Thammasat University, Tony. We continued the political and social context conversations over dinner and drinks in the neighborhood of Patpong, one of Bangkok's most famous red light districts. Exploring the market specializing in pirated DVDS and all things fake designer and alleys lined with go-go bars with nothing discreet about the offerings for ping pong shows, the essence of the big city was undeniable. Thursday began early and once again in blistering heat, the onset of a heat wave in the capital, and took us to explore the area of the Klong Toey slum area and The Duang Prateep Foundation. A very touching experience, the immense poverty of these people and their sheer numbers throughout the city is astounding and attests greatly to Thailands status as a newly industrialized nation. Lunch commenced and we finished the afternoon at the Bangkok Refugee Center. For me this was the most interesting and personally inspirational part of the trip as i'm going to school to ideally work in a center just like this one as a counselor, for child refugees on issue of trauma and resettlement adjustment. Being able to listen to the fundraiser talk about the families and their plight in Bangkok, as Thailand doesn't officially recognize the UNHCR work, was amazing. I'm hoping to also take a few days at after the semester is over and hopefully go back to do an art therapy project at the center, maybe murals on some of the blank walls in the courtyard. As the small gated area is their oasis in a world of oppression and segregation the ability to give back and create something more beautiful I think would be a truly unique experience . Thursday ended early and allowed for some much needed rest and a dinner at the first restaurant i've been to in Thailand with a vegan portion of  the menu! On our last scheduled day, Friday, we took a Democracy tour to many of the areas of high importance in Thai political history and walked the streets that the student protesters some 30 years ago made their mark on the history of this country. Led by Dr. Paul Chambers the trip that ended at Thammasat University was vastly informational and gave me a much broader perspective and understanding to the tumultuous history here. The day ended with a trip to view the Emerald Buddha at Wat Prakaew, a truly spectacular sight with gorgeous testaments of early buddhist art and architecture. Then to Wat Po which houses the reclining Buddha, the largest single Buddha image. Dinner as a group at an Indian restaurant commenced one of the better nights i've spent in Thailand and my first experience at a Kathoey , or ladyboy, show. Saturday brought a free day to adventure where my sights led me to the largest market in Thailand, Chatuchak, roughly the size of 12 football fields it well represented it's reputation. The day breezed by and as the sunset I was on the train once again this time aimed northward.