Kuraburi School. Where the children captured my heart.

Once we had all successfully arrived in Bangkok, the volunteer and cultural exchange portion of our trip began.  First, a quick flight down to Phuket.  Then we loaded into a van for a three hour ride to Kuraburi.  We thought it would be a shorter ride, so we arrived with a healthy appetite and ready for Chang.  After having a chance to drop our stuff off at these amazing little bungalows (with western style toilets, front porches and everything) we sat to the first of many family-style dinners.  Most meals had staples of rice and seafood.  Vegetables.  Often eggs.  Always at least one dish would catch everyone's attention as a spicy one. 

Our mornings in Kuraburi were delightful.  We'd wake early (still adjusting to the time difference) and head to the market for breakfast.  The market bustled.  We'd sip thai coffee or thai tea.  Strong with sweetened condensed milk.  (I'd often have seconds.)  Then we'd sample an array of yummy treats.  Rice, sugar, and coconut concoctions, wrapped in leaves.  Some of the wraps played out like puzzles - figuring out which way to unwrap it to reveal the sweet treasures deep inside.  I loved the waffles, about the size of an eggo, with coconut and turmeric in them, producing a yellow tint.  There were chinese doughnuts - little fried puffs of flour that weren't sweet.  There was the coconut pudding.  Absolutely delicious.  We were always thankful for the little sheets of paper on the table we could use to soak up the oil from our fingers.  Finally, the staple breakfast dish was a rice soup.  I only had it with pork, although some mornings it was offered with shrimp.

We'd ride in the back of a truck to Kuraburi School, where Burmese children greeted us.  At first, a tad shy, they quickly warmed up to us and melted our hearts.  Even after years of clowning and interacting with kids from various cultural backgrounds, I don't know that I've encountered children with so much affection.  Their genuine eagerness to interact forced us quickly beyond our language barriers.

I'm always fascinated by the universal languages - ones that surpass a common tongue.  Laughter and play.  As the days unfolded we all had turns at patty cake and thumb wars.  The delight of victory, the quick, fleeting frown of defeat.  And then the want to play again.  And again.  And again.

At the school our goal was to paint a few classrooms, prime and paint a mural wall, hang a door and hang some shelves in their library.  We powered through on the painting and ended up getting to even more rooms and did the exterior as well.  The second to last day we divided the wall in subsections and worked with the kids to paint their school's mural.

It was hard not to think about the last two times I've volunteered in New Orleans, also painting schools.  One was an interior of an elementary school, the other was murals and the sidewalk at a newer, sterile school of portables.  All of the painting projects seem simple, but provide the students with a sense of pride in the space they are receiving their education.  It gets you thinking about space and aesthetics.

An excerpt from my journal:


I have fallen madly in love with some Burmese children.  They follow you with their eyes until contact is made and then they might smile at you.  Once these two things have happened, you realize your heart is no longer your own.

We rode on the back of a truck to the school.  Nearby there is a bridge over water.  By midday, the tide produced a thick, living, muddy place.

We painted a few rooms while some scrubbed and later primed a wall.  The children were moved into other classrooms and we could listen to them learning their lessons and singing their songs.  In the first room we painted, there was a hole near the floor - big enough for kids to take turns sticking their heads through as we pretended we'd paint their faces.

By afternoon, the children started to help us.  They found paint brushes.  What began as one little munchkin helping ended up being 30 tiny hands trying so hard to help.

There's one little girl I have a very special bond with.  Don't remember her name, but she captured my heart.  We spun, danced, clapped hands.  She sang to me.  She blew me kisses, let me hold her and she kissed my cheek.  She is precious.

... One little girl, Michew, is my new best friend.  She clings to me like a little monkey.  Places her head on my stomach, the softest part, and kisses my cheek...
I brought my journal out at one point to write my name and have the little girls write their own names.  It is a precious page.

 We ended our work at the school with gifts of toothbrushes, toothpaste, wash cloths and soap for each child.  Then we performed skits to help encourage good dental hygiene, hand washing and recycling.  I wasn't feeling well, so I sat with the kids (meaning they sat in my lap) and tried to encourage them to interact with the skits.

We heard later that the kids were being encouraged to bring their toothbrushes to school.  They also continued to recycle like our skit taught them - shouting "no" as they hovered over the wrong container, and a resounding "YES!" when they dropped their item in the correct place.

These days went by quickly and I found myself in tears as we pulled away., waving goodbye to sweet little Michew.  A sigh of sadness that I wouldn't be seeing those sweet little faces.  A sense of wanting to keep in touch and return, in some capacity, sooner than later. 

Starting off on the right foot - First Day in Bangkok

Travel is so much more about the attitude you bring to it than your itinerary.  It's about expectations, or lack thereof. 

I arrived a day early in Bangkok, before the programmed portion of our trip began. Nora, Todd and I explored the Khaosan Road area, discovered the cooking school we returned to later on.  I had my first Thai massage and then we began our custom tailor experience and found ourselves in a complete downpour.

Perhaps it was the Seattle in us, or the pool beckoning us back to the hotel.  Perhaps it was the warm, sticky goodness of street coconut pudding.  We were totally the crazy farangs, running through the streets of Bangkok, completely drenched.  We were those crazy farangs jumping in the pool in the storm (and asked to exit the pool for safety reasons.) 

After rinsing and drying, Calsee joined us as we continued to explore.  We ran into a random parade.  We visited a Wat and gave some offerings.  We had dinner.  One turn took us over a bridge into a more residential area.  We spotted a crocodile in the water.

Jan and Kevin arrived, and we took them out to dinner, followed by beers and live music on Khaosan Road.

And then to grab a banana pancake.

Let's take a moment to revel in the beauty of a banana pancake, shall we?  Sweetened condensed milk and nutella or chocolate.  Banana.  A beautifully fresh, thin crepe.  It's fried perfection after a couple Changs.

Nora and I decided to do even more pampering (besides my massage and her facial earlier in the day).  On our way to get manicure/pedicures, Leigh spotted us from a nearby bar.  We joined her for a quick margarita, and she joined us for getting nails done.

It was in good contrast to the forthcoming paint and sand that would find its way under our nails, on our faces, in our hair, and on everything we wore.

It really was a fantastic day that showed us there are no wrong turns.  Every alley provided another adventure.  Every bridge took us to a new perspective.  I adopted the role of Zen Master.   A tad tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but a role I took seriously.  I have no formal training, but I took a moment, here and there, to reflect on the simple joys of the day.

Trying to avoid quoting John Denver lyrics.

Some of my favorite travel related lyrics come from a Jump Little Children song, recently covered by Joan Osbourne.

In the cathedrals of New York and Rome
There is a feeling that you should just go home
And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is

First, let me start by saying, I'm not a lyrics girl. I can anticipate melodies and harmonies, but it is entirely possible that I have heard a song a bazillion times and have no idea what the song is about. So when I actually hear lyrics, and they mean something to me, they stick. They find a place deep inside of me that's hard to get to and they don't leave.

There are lots of travel songs out there, but this defines what travel is all about to me. About finding yourself, and figuring out what home really means. I call Seattle home and I'm deeply in love with my city. But to see the world is to see home with added perspective. To see yourself through a worldview. To get out of yourself, your routines, your ruts, and discover new layers.

Ok, I admit it. In the last several years, I've gotten a little addicted to "voluntourism." Service projects. Taking my own vacation time and money to pay and spend time in a place where I'm volunteering. Tonight I leave for two weeks in Thailand.

My addiction enabler is Seattle Works. I've been passionately involved with this organization for the past 4 years or so, participating in just about every program they've offered and even receiving their SWVOTY award in 2007.  I participated in their first week long service trip to Biloxi, Mississippi in early 2007. I met some amazing people. Most I have kept in fairly close contact with over the years. It's a pretty special connection you get traveling and volunteering with a group of like-minded folks.

I went back two more times. Each trip exposed me to more of a city I absolutely fell in love with. And I connected with even more wonderfully amazing people from Seattle. NOLA has a solid place in my heart. And the people I've traveled with on these trips are some of the people I am most honored to know and consider friends.

But I told myself after my third trip that I needed to get out of the US and do some more international travel. I was super tempted by Seattle Works' first partnership with Crooked Trails. They went to Peru a year ago. I wasn't able to make that one happen (I was moving into my new condo and figuring out how a mortgage works!), but some dear friends and people I had traveled with before did go. And they all had nothing but wonderful things to say about their experiences.

So, when I heard about a trip to Thailand, one of many countries on my list of places I'd love to visit and haven't yet, I was stoked. Even though it seemed like I couldn't afford it, and I would *barely* have enough vacation time saved up, I made it happen. I watched airfare prices drop. I made my deposit. And now, tonight at about midnight, I'm leaving on my Next Adventure.

I'll be traveling with 8 other folks from Seattle and a guide from Crooked Trails. I have traveled with 3 of these people before - Jan and Kevin on my first trip to the Gulf Coast post-Katrina and Nora, who I met on my last trip down to NOLA. Our super simplified itinerary is as follows:

Nov 14 - Arrive Bangkok (I'm actually getting in a day earlier)

Nov 15 - Fly to Phuket and go to Andaman Discoveries office in Kuraburi

Nov 16-18 - Work at Burmese Learning Center school grounds

Nov 19 - Burmese Learning Center until lunch and then to Tung Dap

Nov 20 - Mangrove restoration in Tung Dap

Nov 21 - Tung Dap, Kuraburi,  Phuket; Bangkok

Nov 22 - Explore Bangkok

Nov 23 - Bike Riding on Koh Kret, back to Bangkok

Nov 24 - Ayutthaya (History)

Nov 25 - Go Home!

Lows will be in the 70s and highs just under 100.

I don't plan on actually blogging while I'm there, but I do plan on keeping good notes/journaling and then transferring some of that, with highlighted pictures and reflection after I get back.

I have gotten a really great vibe from this group at our pre-trip meetings. I am really excited to get to know my fellow travelers, stay in our homestays, take tons of pictures, and come back home, being just a little closer to finding out just where that is.


I was posting a bit there for awhile, wasn't I? Then life happened. You know how it goes. Insert cliche "acknowledgment I haven't written in awhile" monologue here.

I was driving north on Aurora the other day, through that no man's land between SLU and the Queen Anne exit from hell. (You know, the one right before the bridge with 5 stops that takes half an hour to get through when traffic is bad?) I looked up and noticed a squirrel crossing a wire.

Sure, there's a pedestrian bridge that takes you from Westlake Ave to Taylor. It isn't used very much. People sleep on it. But I don't see a lot of commuter pedestrians utilizing it.

I was envying that little squirrel. For that moment anyway. To be able to cross 99 quickly and efficiently, with a great view to boot.

I had just experienced the strange phenomenon where Aurora is backed up and the bottle neck of I5 was backed up and so I opted for 4th Ave northbound through downtown. And it was clear. Open. Easy to navigate. Lights synchronized beautifully.

If Seattle wants to be super progressive, we should offer ziplines over busy streets. I get that pedestrian overpasses are cost prohibitive, but you can't tell me a zipline is going to break the bank. You just need a little height on both sides. And good, strong rope. And healthy individuals who want just a tiny adrenaline rush while crossing the street. I'd zip over busy streets every day if I could! Think of the arm strength you'd build.

Poetic wax.

Moving along and totally switching gears, I was quite inspired by the concept of the Moth that we ran into last night. Such serendipity. We had just finished having amazing beer at Two Beers Brewery's First Annual Harvest Party. We decided to go get pizza at Stellar, but they couldn't accommodate our large group. So we mozied to Calamity Jane's. We were asked if we were part of the moth group.



Ok, so we weren't and we told them we weren't, but we did decide to stay to see people get up and tell a 5 minute story. This sort of thing is right up my alley. Connecting with community. A few of us put our names in. Not too many people did. So those of us brave enough to get up did.

First, there's the interpretation of a theme. I heard "busted" and was ready to tell a story from junior high. Note found. Grounded. Didn't get to do Ski Club.

This was a common interpretation. Then a friend in our group suggested I tell the story of me busting my teeth. Busted! I like it! But how on earth would I turn a moment of me being incredibly klutzy into a 5 minute speech to a bunch of strangers.

With a little liquid confidence and attention to detail. That's how.

I was one of the first people called up and I managed to get fairly detailed. Who was there. Where we were. Recalling details like my urge, while in shock, to call 911 and Annika's level-headed advice that we take a cab. Since it was after a Mariner's game and there were about 100 cabs within a block of us.

There were details I didn't mention, like the fact that people walked by us, but no one asked if they could help. I talked about stitches, but left out how happy I was that the scarring is basically non-existent, except for a slightly lighter discoloration on my bottom lip that only shows up in summer when my lips see a lot of sun. I did manage to mention making the most of the situation and being a toothless hill billy for Halloween while this was all going on. Just took my flipper out and went toothless for the night.

All in all, telling this story was a good experience. And it was fantastic hearing friends and strangers share their own stories.

Of course, it got me thinking. How feasible is this as a social activity? A quick little evite, a time, a location, drinks, snacks - and a desire to connect with people in an atypical (in our culture), yet incredibly natural and human way.

I took a storytelling class in college. Part of my communications-journalism degree. I've always loved a good story. I love being in that moment socially, where the atmosphere is right, and everyone's in the right mood, and everyone can hear everyone else and the stories start. Pick a topic. Any topic. Taking turns. Telling stories. It happens by chance and I love the idea of it happening intentionally. A way to connect, to interpret. A conduit for laughter. Lots and lots of laughter.

Yeah, so that's been on my mind today.

And the Sounders lost. What a season. I am so honored to have been a part of it all. While I obviously wanted them to go further, at least I won't be missing them take the MLS cup. But I will be there when they take it.

I'll be missing this year's MLS Cup because I'll be in Thailand! Leaving Wednesday night. Exciting stuff. More on that, of course, after I get back.