The whirlwind month...

I've been on a bit of a whirlwind travel schedule this last month (at least for me).  I prefer to settle into the places I visit and soak them in.  This past month, however, has been a bit of a burner as I move quickly to get a broad (rather than deep) taste of SE Asia before heading on to South America.  In the past thirty days I've travelled through Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, Siem Reap, Saigon and Hue.  I've recovered from a two month long bout of bronchitis, had food poisoning twice,  visited the emergency room once and medical clinics a few times.  I made it part of the way through a 10 day silent meditation retreat - one that you promise and swear and promise again that you won't leave early.  I did, I had to make a hard choice based on my health.  I have missed home and my people more in the last month than I have the entire eight months that I've been on the road.

But here's the thing about the last month - it has been deeply rewarding in a way that might be hard to explain - full of big lessons and important reminders.  Reminders about the importance of connection, letting go of expectations and achievement and being in the moment.  Most importantly, I became an Aunt to Henry.  I haven't gotten to meet him yet but he has already changed the landscape of my heart - it just feels bigger somehow.  I dream about holding him sometimes and on those mornings I wake up smiling.  I have been reminded these last few days that it's ok and sometimes necessary to rely on the kindness of strangers.  Tu, one of the innkeepers at my guesthouse, has made me soup for lunch the last two days using the families personal kitchen.  When I paid my bill this morning I noticed that they hadn't charged me for this kindness.  It is humbling and so very good to be cared for by someone you have just met.  

I've been reminded that life rarely, if ever, turns out the way you have envisioned, planned or want it to - and it doesn't matter how hard you want it.  Instead, it unfolds as it should - beautifully - offering up each lesson like a gift - even the lessons we may not want to learn.  I've had to work through the lesson (again) that broken commitments don't always signal failure - they signal a willingness to work softly and openly with what has arisen in the current moment - regardless of what you committed to three days, three months or three years ago.  I'm not saying it's not important to honor and work through challenges that arise surrounding the promises we make to ourselves and others.  But to do so blindly - from a place of "have to" and "should" instead of gracefully taking in the whole current picture doesn't serve anyone's best interest.  Most importantly with this one - I can always, always start again.

In missing home these last several weeks I have had to remember patience and the importance of being able soothe myself during hard times.  That's not to say there haven't been a few teary calls home.  My parents are rock stars - hands down - the most supportive, graceful and encouraging you could ever want or need.  But it's been the moments where I've remembered to be kind to myself, to slow down, breathe deeply and just laugh at myself that have taught me the most.  Like the other day when I stood up on a chair to latch the window, hit my head on the wall mounted TV and then watched, in horror, as it crashed onto the marble floor.  It has simply been - just one of those months.

I've heard it said that when you travel solo the highs are really high and the lows are really low.  Yep - I concur.  This month has held it all.  I have seen some of the most beautiful scenery of my entire trip these last few weeks.  I've made strong connections with new friends.  I have grown - which (as I keep saying) is the whole reason I'm here.  And everytime I hit a rough moment and opened my laptop to change my a ticket home, because I have - several times in fact - I have closed it again - taken a deep breath, opened the door and taken a step into the moment.  This journey is not over yet and I'm embracing it.  Even the rough patches - maybe those especially...

Welcoming Henry Thomas from afar

Today, after a long labor and an unexpected C-section (everyone is doing fine), Emily gave birth to little Henry.  So everyone - please meet Henry Thomas Utz.  He's 9.03 lb.,  19 inches long and pretty damn cute.  The joy is difficult to put into words and there have been a lot of happy tears today.  I can't wait to hold this little man.  Thank you Kris and Emily for this amazing gift.  I love you all so very much.  

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Lessons from the sea

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The sea is one of my havens.  It always has been.  Nothing can bring me to the trembling edge of joy more quickly than the crashing of ocean waves.  Nothing signals home as clearly as the salty air.  I love the sea in every form.  Turquoise blue and tranquil.  Angry gray and ferocious.  I believe that the sea holds all of the lessons we need to learn.  It mirrors every human emotion.  Through it's very existence it teaches us eternity, renewal, destruction and the temporary nature of all things.  It will whisper these secrets or roar them full force into our knowing depending on it's mood.  It is a relentless and unforgiving teacher in one moment and in the next it will hold us gently rocking us in it's timeless embrace.  One of the greatest gifts of my life was to be raised next to the ocean.

I met a deep and knowing soul the other day who answers to the name of Blake.  The years have tugged the edges of his skin into a soft array of crisscrossing lines.  His blue eyes shine with an eternal acceptance - equal parts grace and energy.  He's been around this earth - you can see it in the way he takes in a room - in the way he dances his story in every step.  Blake crossed the ocean once, he told me, in a 36 foot sail boat.  He traveled with his sister and a stranger who acted as captain.  Somewhere in the wide open sea they met a furious storm - a force nine - just one step below a hurricane.  The waves, Blake told me, were higher than the mast.  I asked, as you do, if he was afraid.  His answer:  No.  He felt held in the hands of God.  The energy, the power, the joy - the sheer mass of the storm delivered him into the beauty of the divine.  Surrender.  Acceptance.  Wonder.

The storm broke nearly everything on that boat except the humans.  The crossing took them 10 days instead of three.  At some point they ran out of food so they fasted.  The whole time - through every new challenge, Blake says he was simply held and he just took in whatever came next.  It made me pause.  If only we could all remember that we are always being held in the hands of God (or whatever you choose to call it) - through every wave, through every up and down, every joy and every sorrow.  Then we could meet each experience wide eyed and innocent and free from fear - because as Blake told me:  Fear makes a mess of everything.  

Home again

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The bay in front of the Sanctuary is silky smooth and deep turquoise on this peaceful morning.  It looks like a giant hand has sprinkled pebbles along one edge of the long curve of white beach.  Rocky hillsides rise up on either side and the jungle reaches out over the sand towards the water.  I'm the only passenger in my longboat as it fully rounds the corner into the bay.  My captain stands, hand on tiller, belly protruding over his blue torn shorts.  He has a jolly look about him that makes me think he's happy and I wonder what life would be like if I chucked it all and ran water taxi's to and from this tiny piece of paradise.  It's tempting.

Our boat bumps up against the beach near a few naked hippies floating on their backs in the golden sunlight.  I'm here hoping to regain my equilibrium - to reconnect with the peace and centeredness I seem to have lost somewhere between India and this magical place.  I'm also here without a reservation - this is a show up and see if any beds are available kind of place.  I drop my name onto the waiting list and inhale the earthy blend of jungle and salt in the air.  I'm meant to be here - I can feel it - a bed will open up.

A few hours later I make my way to the reception counter.  Backpacks are piled waist deep and it's chaos behind the desk.  The wait list doesn't seem to bear any weight as I've witnessed them assigning bungalows to whoever happens to be standing in front of them at any given moment. I have, I quickly learned, come to the counter at the exact right moment (serendipity at work).  The guy behind me in line happens to be vacating his dorm bed and I get it.  YES.  

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Yoga, meditation, a huge vegetarian menu, hippies, beautiful setting.  I feel like I'm on the right track...  During my first dip in the ocean I look down to see a perfectly heart shaped piece of coral - a sign?  My first meditation session leaves me equally energized and calm.  My first yoga session opens a well of peace.    My first dinner is filled with good conversation and laughs with other long term travelers.  I realize that I feel at home and then I realize it has nothing to do with the place or the people or the setting.  It's because I've reconnected with my heart.  After several weeks of closure I'm opening up again.  And that openness - that connection is home. 

Malaysia

I've been working on this post for two weeks now - sometimes the words just won't come...

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My three weeks in Malaysia flew by.  Traveling there made me realize that I really do like smaller towns the best.  Melaka was by far my favorite spot.  I stayed in Chinatown in an refurbished shop house.  I enjoyed wandering around the streets and stumbling upon old craftsmen and women working in their shops.  I liked passing all of the Chinese temples with their burning incense and fierce dragons (Malaysia's oldest Chinese temple is tucked into these streets).  I especially liked the night market and the seafood selection there - hello tiny fried crabs with chilli sauce.  Most amusing however were the decorated Tuk Tuks - all hello kitty, fake flowers, flashing lights and pumping out either terrible hip hop or '80's love songs depending on the time of day.  This is serious business and I never tired of watching these guys go by.  

Melaka was followed up by Kuala Lumpur which held some interesting sights but I didn't really love it.  The bigger Asian cities (the few that I've seen so far) seem to be really focused on consumption - I've never seen so many shopping malls in my life. They do have amazing public transport in KL - for folks that like that kind of thing - and I took advantage of the public buses, the light rail and the mono rail (my favorite).  

I was missing India, of course, so I ventured out to the Batu Caves near KL and I just happened to be there during Thaipusam - a Hindu festival associated with the Lord Murugan.  There are all sorts of preparations for the festival which I saw at the Caves - but the real excitement happens around the full moon.  On the actual day of the full moon devotees shave their heads and undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably carrying or pulling some type of burden.  This I saw while in Georgetown on the Island of Penang.  I walked the route with the pilgrims and in pure Indian style it was a huge street party while these folks bled, danced and pulled their cargo to the temple. From a "burden" perspective I saw everything ranging from a pot of milk to guys pulling giant floats complete with Gods, lights and blaring Bollywood music (meaning they are also dragging generators).  They pull these floats with giant hooks that have been put into their bodies by their family.  I watched this for awhile at the start of the pilgrimage route and it was pretty intense.  I can't really imagine having to pierce someone in my family hundreds of times in the middle of a parking lot while a bunch of folks stand around watching and fireworks explode around my feet.    I even saw three guys carrying giant unicorns - cool but it definitely raised some questions.

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The food was pretty damn delicious.  The blend of cultures that make up the place create a very interesting and happy food scene.  I ate my share of street food and learned to slurp my noodles (with chopsticks!!) like a pro - it was a little awkward but it all worked itself out.  The crispy duck noodles were a delight - amazing sauce!  The beef noodles were ok - lots of tendon and other random nuggets but my favorite was the Curry Mee or Laksa - egg noodles in a spicy curry coconut soup broth with all sorts of different goodies thrown in - yeah, I ate that a lot.

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My best meal, hands down, was on my last day in GeorgeTown at a place called TekSen.  They started as a rice stall back in 1965 and now run out of a Heritage building on Carnavon St.  I ate there a few times but on my last visit I simply looked around and pointed at what looked the most delicious.  Turned out to be a good strategy.  I ended up with Lala Tau Cheow - soft shell clams in a ginger, garlic chilli sauce.  Oh damn - it was so good I even ate the Chilli's.  Simple with really well balanced flavors, tender - effing delicious.  I will try to recreate that one at home.

All in all Malaysia was a good time but I was definitely looking forward to some beach time in Thailand!