Stepping in or stepping on?

Tucked behind a lone tree and rusty gate, it took us a week to figure out that the billboard advertising Fitness Basics Gym was directly in front of the gym itself. The first time we noticed the sign, and with it the list of classes, we took a picture and said we’d call.

We still hadn’t the day I looked a bit closer and noticed one more sign inside the gate. “Is it right there?” I inquired. As I did, the picture became clearer: there were stairs leading down just below the second advertisement— and was that music I heard coming from below? Curiously, I wandered in and met Meenakshi, the owner of the gym.

Sure enough, just as the billboard promised, there was a full schedule of classes: Power Yoga, Zumba, Bollywood Dance (!), Extreme Core. Behind the mirrored area were a handful of machines and, further back, some weights.

I joined that night. Continue reading “Stepping in or stepping on?”


Wake up calls

Photo credit: Anya Zakhour  Jaipur, India November 2013 Title: India Struggles
Jaipur, India November 2013
Title: India Struggles
Credit: Anya Zakhour

Writing to you from India! Where tuk tuk drivers are sages and sages hail from Canada to teach you Everything You Need To Know. Where sages then tell dirty jokes and play dirty tricks to get your number or get you to their home.

I’m spitting out the bones and still chewing the meat as my friends, the Christians, say. Continue reading “Wake up calls”

Highest heights


We awoke in Quilotoa, a quaint mountain town at the base of what was once a towering volcano, now a breathtaking crater-lake. This stunning sight inspired the Quilotoa Loop— a trek in the sierras of southern Ecuador that takes you winding through Kichwa villages and around the crater we found ourselves prepared to hike. Continue reading “Highest heights”

Life in Bua

My favorite spot is at the front of the truck. I sit on a block of wood that I suspect is really there as a tether for transporting supplies. Stretching my legs over the cab, my feet dangle at the top of the windshield. From there, I watch the expanse stretch before us as we drive to our work site. Sometimes, I cease to watch and instead feel the expanse within, closing my eyes to enjoy the sensation of barreling down the main road.

We pick up the students from their respective homestays between 7:00-8:00 every morning. Once we’ve collected everyone, we head to the fields. The students stand and brace themselves with the railing on the perimeter of the truck bed. Community members often balance on the rim of the truck, standing with bodies parallel and tight against the cab. Winding through plotted land and seemingly obscure trails, we take turns jumping out of the truck to walk up hills or reduce the weight when caught in a particularly thick patch of mud. Frequently, someone calls out “duck” and we all bend our heads to avoid the scathe of a branch.

The ride is always adventurous. And– as with so many experiences here in Bua– there is a choice as to how to receive it. I could call it miserable and experience it as such, wincing with every bump and thud and counting the minutes until we reach our destination. Instead, I try to lean into it. To call out and focus on the positive parts: the beauty of the surrounding fields with the symmetry of the lines of yuka and chaos of the cacao; the feeling of cool air on my skin with the refreshing kiss of every drop of water; the humor of navigating potholes and wayward tree limbs.

That is one of the most salient lessons for me here: I have the agency to shape my own experience, as my framing creates the extent of my misery or pleasure.

How I’ve discovered so much of the latter! This morning journey brings us to our project site here in Ecuador, building trees with local Tsa’chila¬ people, an indigenous community known for their traditional dress and red-painted hair. Never having planted a tree before, I am still quite moved by the experience of seeing a new sapling in the ground, firm and poised to root.

Most days, I find the experience quite spiritual. As I plant, I talk to the trees and listen to the wind’s whispers. Mostly, I reflect on Life– marveling at and connecting with the energy flowing through the crowded jungles and stretching fields. Quite perfectly, I began a book with body prayer exercises just before our project commenced and I find tree planting an ideal space to develop this practice.

When the jungle’s sting threatens my serenity–bug bites mounting and rain pounding in quantities I question my capacity to endure– I resort to other mental tactics. Sometimes, I choose humor and silliness. There is ample comedic material as we search for stakes marking where to place each plant. Navigating the forested “paths” carved with machetes days before, we stumble over roots and sink into pools of mud. Packing the soil around the saplings’ roots invites biting ants to swarm and then there is the question of what to do about the sweat dripping from my face when my hands and cloths are covered in mud. Singing, laughing, and dancing through this labor always makes it more enjoyable. A lesson in positivity, I’m committed to the experience being nothing less.

Other times, I am in a more reflective place and I think about the many women and men whose livelihood comes from physical labor. I remember the folks at home and abroad whose daily work makes it possible to live the way that I do. An impetus to push myself further, these are the days I serve as tree distributor or post-hole digger, playing with physical limits and building an endurance that my privilege rarely necessitates.

We conclude our work when weather demands it or we’ve planted all of the trees at the site where we worked. Piling back onto the truck, this ride is always more pungent than the former. Perhaps in anticipation of the hammocks awaiting us at the cultural center, or just a concession to the winds, a quiet often passes over the group on our way back.

Though a cultural center, the hammocks are actually a fabricated part of the experience– brought in with the knowledge that tourists enjoy them and associate them with this part of the world. This makes me ask, as so many things do here, how else our presence influences Tsa’chila living.

We explore questions such as this over a delicious lunch and then take time to rest before seminar or the students’ work on their media projects. The unit here is on Environmental Sustainability and Natural Resources, prompting other questions of consumption, responsibility, and policies and approaches to sustainable living.

Our seminar space and lunch destination, the center is also my home for these five weeks. With open structures that boast a beautiful view of the trees, it is one of the most charming places I’ve ever lived. My room is elevated with a ladder to get you there, giving me the allusion that I live in a tree house (a childhood dream since the days of reading and watching Swiss Family Robinson). When the community has visitors like us, women come and stay at the center. It is a joy to get to know Adela, Cynthia, and Lizbeth while we all work on our Spanish, a second language to Safiki for the Tsa’chila. The women provide incredible food and abundant hospitality while I attempt to offer warmth, relationship, and cultural pursuit.

When the students return to their homestays, there is often a window to practice yoga or bathe just before night falls. The property is right on the river, our bath. Venturing tentatively down the path, I test each step before trusting it with my full weight. My caution comes from the multiple sliding splits that the mud has prompted.

I make my way to the rocks where water flows with varied strength based on the rain’s fall. Often, its force is powerful and I fight to brace myself in the heart of the current. Dipping into the cool pool, I revel at being this connected to the earth. Pulling out my biodegradable soap (irony noted), I lather my body and enjoy the rushing river curve over the contours of my body. My hair comes last. When I am finally ready to fully submerge, I duck below the surface.

I feel infinite. Remembering a meditation introduced to me in Sri Lanka, I observe my thoughts and picture them floating along the river. I then join the flow, One with thought, water, and source.

The evening concludes with dinner and a game or conversation with my co-workers and fellow volunteers living with us. Along with my Spanish, my Bananagrams and Set skills continue to progress.

I retire to my tree-house after spraying my toothpaste as thin as possible so not to disturb the plants. Living rustically while studying the environment is a compelling way to conclude our trip. I reflect on practices and choices at home where my urban ways create a false sense of separation between choice and impact. What chemicals do I thoughtlessly wash down the drain that I would never dare to dispose of here? How much more waste do I produce when I am not packing out my trash? Where is the limit to this life of excess? What are the costs of that line?

The rhythms of my days are ones of connectedness. Contentment and challenge present themselves in equal measure as life in Bua teaches me about Life itself.

Please excuse these tears

Building C. Room 11. Cell 5. She catalogues this in her brain and steps inside. She does not want to be here: standing in the former cell of a prisoner likely killed. The practice in empathy feels important.

Resisting the urge to distance herself from the pains of war, she sits. Takes a deep breath. Observe, she urges herself. Feel this, she implores.

The bloodstains on the floor draw her in. The questions of whose and why and when overwhelm. Perhaps most shocking, what were the crimes? A college diploma? A job in the city? The tragic timing of being in the path of the Khmer Rouge?

Turning to the side, she sees a long crack in the brick. Did they talk to one another? The neighboring cellmates. She saw the rules posted: silence unless responding to an order. In the veil of night, were hushed whispers exchanged? What were the consequences of such a breach?

Consequences: torture tactics prominently displayed in the adjacent building. Forced, though false, confessions. Bodies laid in the fields. Killed by machetes or buried alive with DDT to finish the job.

Oh, God- those fields. The stench is gone, swallowed by forty years of history. But the remains refuse to keep quiet. With every flood, new bones surface. Clothing- ragged and weatherworn- caught her eye at every turn. And that tree. No longer a symbol of life. The trunk stands tall, bellowing its horror at a body used to smash the skulls of children.

Inside the city, the prison served as a holding pen for those yet to be shipped to the “truck stop,” death’s door. Today, it is a site for people still in search of family members. The endless pictures of prisoners posted are almost too much to bear. She averts her eyes as a Cambodian family searches the faces of every photograph.

She moves on, searching instead the cells once filled.

The second floor is worse. The wooden panels threaten to close in, compressing the distress that surrounds. No sitting this time. The space is too crowded for that, filled with the spirits of the long dead. Overflowing with the agony of injustice. The claustrophobia mounts, making her wonder at the human capacity for resilience.

The human capacity for atrocity, though, is what is most disturbing. Maybe that is what she is trying to look at, to understand: what we as humans are capable of doing to one another.

What she might be capable of doing. She knows enough to not trick herself into thinking the enemy is clear. Distance from the pain is not the only temptation. To separate herself from the psyche of an executioner, to remove the common humanness of a murderer, that is the ultimate allure.

The stories of the child soldiers turned genocidaires echo in her mind. It was kill or be killed. I did not have a choice. We were running for so long; when they caught us it finally provided a chance to stop. I just wanted relief from watching one more family member be murdered. Most loudly, she hears the question: Why am I, the common peasant, being punished while the orchestrators of the genocide remain untouched?

Genocide. No word in the English vocabulary can illicit such a visceral reaction as this one. Chilling, incomprehensible, wholly inadequate in naming what happened here.

Not just here. Rwanda. Bosnia. Germany. Today: Darfur and the DRC. South Sudan and Syria in tow. (Let’s not forget we too belong on this list if we go back just one century more).

And how do we name such a reality? More importantly, how do we face it? Because without looking, we will never interrupt it. Dare she say eradicate. “Never again” is the slogan for every memorial, remembrance the ideal we espouse. But what of the continued, the current, the undeniable repetition?

Staring squarely into the face of our darkest potential, she fights the urge to put her fingers to her ears, squeeze her eyes shut, run out of the museum and far from the questions and implications of this place.

She can’t hold its gaze for long.

Mentally, she writes a story. Third person. Distant. Impersonal. Anything to keep these truths- these fears- at bay. Left on the soon-distant shores of Cambodia’s coast.

Catching Up

With the first half of our time in Thailand spent doing less settling and more exploring and the second half enjoyed in a remote village in the mountains, there are many untold stories between the dates and lines of recent posts. Given this, it felt like time to interrupt my storytelling and share of our travels more generally. The bulk of my past posts are written around my experience in Jaipur, India, where we lived during our unit on education.

Today, just a week remains of our subsequent unit on sustainable agriculture. I write to you from a hot spring resort outside of the hippy town Pai. I am enjoying my vacation and time to connect with loved ones from home and Self. I spend each day on the river’s edge marveling at the beauty and laughing, somewhat uneasily, at the “elephant trekkers” who pass by. I watch the sun go down, its rays reaching out across the clouds and inspiring paralleled warmth within while the chorus of frogs sing me to sleep. I’m getting ahead of myself, though…

We left Jaipur at the beginning of December and spent a week traveling in India. We first went to Pushkar for a camel trek. If you ever have a bruise on your bum from falling down the stairs, I don’t recommend this. Actually, I don’t know that I would recommend camel trekking to anyone. I spent the whole ride thinking about the notion (read: fallacy) of having dominion over other living beings and wondering what life events led my guide to this place where he walks tourists through the desert with his camel by his side, calluses building as shoes wear.

It did provide a rejuvenating night of camping in the desert and a pleasant hike out when I opted to decline camel round two (in my defense, I actually rode the baby of the group who spent the earlier ride trying to buck me off). We spent the rest of our week in Udaipur, a charming town with bustling markets and stunning views. I was reminded frequently of Stone Town, making the Indian influence of the East African slave trade quite visible to me.

When I walked the streets of Zanzibar’s hub in the spring of 2008, I was not a huge Stone Town fan. Having just spent three months living in the rural south of Tanzania, it felt like a commodification of a culture I’d grown to love and know intimately. Fast forward to this December: I did not have this same struggle in Udaipur, which raised questions for me about the ways that I’d received and experienced India. If the two (Udaipur and Stone Town) really are similar, what made them illicit such varied responses within me? As I write this now, I realize that you could also ask how I’ve changed in the past six years. Ha, we’ll leave that for another day [book, blog, etc.].

My head swirling with questions and memories, we concluded our demanding six weeks in India and flew to Chiang Mai.

As soon as we landed, I felt myself release a huge sigh, making me wonder how I could not have known that I was holding my breath for so long. The wide streets, clean roads, and green- so much green- revived pieces of my self that Jaipur’s dust choked out. While I’m quite skeptical about notions of love at first sight, this is precisely how I experienced Chiang Mai. What Thailand represents, how much my infatuation was influenced by the contrast of my previous month and a half, I’ll leave untouched. For now.

We spent the week in the alluring city soaking in the wisdom and experience of our partner’s ajaans (teachers) by day and enjoying the markets by night. The local organization we work with here, ISDSI, runs a study abroad program whose partnership confirms and revives my own dreams of one day doing the same.

Then, we proceeded to join the idyllic farming community of Mae Tha. Just an hour outside of Chiang Mai, this inspirational group of farmers developed a cooperative and transitioned from a monoculture of baby corn to organic farming methods. It felt so good to consume fresh picked vegetables with every meal! I was surrounded by heroes from our pa who founded the cooperative to the twenty-eight year old homestay brother of some of our students who created a CSA.

So much of this felt like precisely what I needed. Just as the vegetables replenished my body, the mountains reached down and nourished my soul, their peaks’ gentle touch received like a lover’s hug after months a part. One-on-ones with students transitioned to hikes throughout the rice paddies and my co-worker and I took a break from work to enjoy a long bike ride down the road through neighboring villages and farms.

That first sigh of relief I took when we stepped off the plane evolved into a living ujjayi- the oceanic breath of yoga, breathing in all that is good and exhaling all that one needs to let go. I rode on the tide of my breath as I entered a time of spiritual awakening, creativity, and love.

Just in time for the holidays of my tradition, we packed ourselves onto a bus and took the 8-hour journey to Mae Hong Son. Mae Hong Son is a quaint city at the base of the mountains of the north, one that has nestled into my heart and found its home as the site of the joyous Christmas and birthday celebration of my twenty-sixth year.

We gathered as the TBB family we’ve become and enjoyed laughter, a gift exchange I stubbornly called “secret snow person” despite the fact that the timing was anything but inclusive, and even some Christmas hymns for those so inclined. I assured my students that my family had long since figured out the Chirstmas-Birthday dilemma with daytime Christmas and nighttime birthday and they followed suit. I meditated on Love-incarate during the day and danced through the street markets by night. The dancing followed a birthday dinner where my students whipped out streamers and we enjoyed banana fritters (so much easier than a cake with a per-order and pick up to forget, my mom laments in recollection of our long-standing tensions over the cake scrambles of 1998, 2004, etc.). Despite the distance from my family whom I lovingly tease, it was a dream of a holiday.

Two days later, we drove up the mountain. And I mean up the mountain. The journey takes about three hours, spent bouncing along in the back of a truck with benches and a plastic cover. We passed our time making up stories and singing songs while enjoying the view as the trucks brought us above the clouds’ lines. Our stay with the hill tribe community of Huay Thong Ko deserves its own post, which I’ll write in time. For now, I will just say that sustainability takes a new form immersed in a peoples who live it. And nature continues to soothe, always generously reaching out to my deepest parts just as the hospitality of our moogas and patees did.

We (you- the readers- and I) then find ourselves at my present: poolside in Pai. Rest is not always my strong suit, but I’ve leaned into it quite well and am enjoying the emotional and spiritual benefits. I feel quite restful, and awake in all senses of the word.

My only complaint of my accommodation is that, despite the hot springs bursting from the ground, the shower never manages to get hot enough. I am boycotting in protest and it’s beginning to show. I guess my neglect of showers is really not new news though, is it?

So I will leave you with that: an image of my happy, hopeful, and sun-kissed face framed with oily, unkempt hair. It’s an image of me at my best, if I do say so myself. Until we meet again, bloggity boggers. Be wakeful (and don’t forget to rest).

p.s. If you are still reading this very long update, I’ll reward you with the secret password I leave after rambling voicemails so friends can alert me of their faithfulness. It’s grapefruit. Though, now that I’ve shared it publicly I suppose that it will change. Just as well, I don’t care much for grapefruits.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it

If I told you the truth, it would be this:

I did not see India as much as the inside of my eyelids. The glare of my computer screen. Endless tricks of Pinochle from my iPad’s small frame.

I turned up my nose to the stench of polluted waters. I vomited out the spices, and with it all flavors of the city. I closed my door to its outstretched hand, letting the rapping on my door and my heart persist while I pretended to sleep through the sound.

What travel I did do? I left for a week to lay on a stretch of a beach, made by the Portuguese and maintained for the Russians. On our weekend away, I hid in my hotel room with marathons of shows from home. With relief, I saw the curtains on the bus and closed them with gusto.

What I did see? Western establishments: the cafe filled with ex-pats, a rooftop restaurant with a hotel below, the deck and dance floor of one of the few bars that serves women. More often, my own hypocrisy, or limit. The extent to which I do not live what I espouse. I stepped out each day to stare squarely in the face of a neighbor’s home that I did not frequent enough.

If I told you the truth? I stepped out every other day. The rest, I did not leave the building in which we resided and taught– the smog-veiled sun never meeting my skin, the shouts of welcome rarely penetrating my heart.

I do not want to tell you the truth, one so far from the traveller’s tale of wonder and awe. If I did, it would be this:

I did my best,
and it wasn’t very good.

If I told you a truth, it could also be this:

India was difficult. And I wrestled with her, lethargically, but persistently. I was slow out the gate, yet continued running. Towards understanding. Engagement. Relationship. Health.

I turned inward to my neglected self-care and then counted this against myself with every measure of my level of immersion. I opened the door of my heart and listened to need. I slept when I tired. I responded to illness by slowing down. I tended to both self and students and gave to India what remained in the reserve.

What travel I did do? I enjoyed my breaks and remembered that life is still life no matter where we live it.

What I did see? The same things I cherish in cities at home: coffee shops, people watching, slow dinners, and nights out dancing. The ways that lived-values are a daily, momentary choice. While I saw my limit, I also saw myself stretch. Reaching out– despite the sexism and beyond the classism, amidst the dust and chaotic streets–to find that which is there to be cherished.

I squinted through the smog to stare at the light. Simultaneously, I did not deny the shadows lurking in the alleys of the city and the chambers of my heart.

If I told you a truth? India was challenging.

And I faced the challenge. I allowed myself to rest and pushed myself to grow.

I did my best,
and sometimes it was good.

Gender buffet has a whole new meaning

When I arrived in Jaipur, I felt as if the gender dynamics people spoke of were exaggerated or sought out. I sensed that we came expecting to see sexism, so we looked for it and then cried out against it: a ladder of inference filtering our experience through our pre-conceived bias. The longer I am here, the more this view changes.

At first I was unfazed.

Walking into the club, I feel the familiar rush of the feeling of the base vibrating below my feet. Beth smiles and shakes her head to the beat, lip syncing the words. We grab hold of each other and push our way through the crowd, finding a pocket on the dance floor where we can settle in.

Letting the music take hold of me, I dance. I feel at home in this place: unaware of my surroundings, only tuned into the music that surrounds. I let go.

Suddenly, Beth calls me out of my rhythmic stupor. She motions around the dance floor. Leaning towards my ear, she shouts over the music. “Are we the only women here?!” she asks.

I look around and see what she means. We are in a sea of Indian men. A swirling shirt catches my eye and I notice one woman dancing in the corner with her beau.

Smiling, I shrug. Pointing to the girlfriend, I reply: “not the only women,” and dance on.

Then irritated.

I look up from my book to realize that the group of men on the benches in front of us has doubled. Averting their gaze, I shift my eyes only to discover a man sprawled beneath the tree blatantly propped up so to see us better. Sitting up to turn my back to the onlookers, I face yet another set of men, unabashedly perched in the middle of the park. Just. Staring.

Literally surrounded by gawking men, I turn to my friend. “This is getting a little creepy,” I say. She agrees and we pack up our things and start down the path.

We hear the footsteps behind us and silently confer with one another. We veer right and step back into the grass for our uninvited guest to pass. He does not take the hint and turns with us. “Your names?” we hear as we notice him pull out his phone for the camera.

“No.” My friend says strongly. “We will not take a photo and we don’t want to talk. Please go.”

Now it’s him whose startled. Bewildered, he defends his past hour of staring and now pursuit, “Me? I am not a bad boy.”

It made me feel vulnerable.

I notice he is keeping pace with us from across the street. My co-workers and I are walking from the restaurant we just ate at to karaoke a handful of blocks away.

When it lasts too long for my comfort, I share my concern under my breath. “We have company,” I inform my friends. Fortunately, it is at this moment that Jaipur’s streets fool us once again. We turn right, one block too early.

When we realize our error, we turn back and head down the long road we strayed from. Crossing the street, I see the man cross so he is opposite us yet again. I watch as he slows his pace to meet back up. We counter by slowing ours.

When he nears the next intersection, unable to anticipate our move, he crosses the street and stands in the alley waiting, watching, for which direction we will go. We warily turn right and enter the restaurant.

As we get our hands stamped, I explain to the bouncers. “There is a man following us. Will you not let him in?” I give his description, but the man with the stamp is too busy laughing with his friends, inching towards us so that we have to contort our bodies to squeeze through the gate without making contact. Our request goes unnoticed while our presence and bodies certainly do not.

There was no reprieve.

I have come to acknowledge this: friendship with men here comes with undertones of something more. No, contact with men here comes with undertones of something more.

After all, they’ve seen our TV shows. They know what American girls are like.

Our favorite tuk tuk driver, the one about whom I was preparing a post because of the freedom and thrill of dancing through the city when he turns on his flashing lights and turns up the music, ended our evening with a crash and burn.

“So, you have boyfriend?” he inquires as he pulls up to our house.

And I just wanted to leave.

It is not just that these advances feel unending. It is that I feel my humanity being stripped from me as I am collapsed into what I represent: sex, promiscuity, desire. I don’t feel seen as much as consumed. I then watch myself participate in this cycle of violence, no longer seeing people or accounting for cultural difference. I deny a friendly handshake and glare at the laughter between friends as I pass by. I am defensive, on-guard. Disinterested in connecting to the humanity of others with the anticipation that it is not my being whom they seek, but instead my body that they crave.