Breaking the silence

I sit in front of Tonsai pier. On the southwest center of Koh Phi Phi, I look out to see towering limestone formations draped in shrubbery, a stretch of water between me and them. The bay is crowded. To the left is a neat row of longtail boats, the traditional vessels adorned in ribbons to bless the journey and honor the ocean. To the right, clusters of speedboats abound attesting to the booming tourist industry here.

Behind me is a paved road cluttered with shops boasting of imported goods for the tourist’s consumption.

To understand my emotional response, we need to turn back the clock three weeks.

I arrived on Koh Lipe- an island five hours by boat from my current location- on Thanksgiving. More remote, it is in the midst of a transition Phi Phi’s already seen. 

In the past nine years, Lipe went from having four resorts to over 200. The island’s center, once swamp, was converted to a “walking street market”. The local Chao Lay people- originally semi-nomadic fisher folk- are being crowded into an increasingly smaller pocket of land away from the shore.

When the students arrived to Lipe, we met with the Chao Lay group and learned about their community organizing efforts. They told us their story of selling their land to a business man some thirty years. They explained their unfamiliarity with the notion of land as something to own; the enticement of short-term profit without a sense of long-term costs; the twenty-year lag before any consequences came. When the man (now in jail for his role in a human trafficking ring) sold it in plots to hotel owners and other developers. When Lipe joined Phi Phi amongst the must-see spots of Thailand’s attractions.

We spent the next week paddling around the Adang Archepelago camping on neighboring islands. Surveying tourism’s other costs as we snorkled at dwindling reefs whose fish populations decline every year. (To be fair, commercial fishing and changes in climate also contribute to the reefs’ threatened state).

I probably should have better considered all of this when scheduling an island vacation to directly follow. Or perhaps this is the best time to really examine myself as a tourist.

Either way, here I am. Peering into Lipe’s future as I step onto Phi Phi.

Getting off the ferry, there was a line of tourists 200 deep. Just one of six departures for today, as I too am one of countless boatloads being ferried in.

While I want to handle all of this with the complexity and nuance it deserves, today I feel the need to just respond emotionally.

To sit in my sadness. My fear. My guilt. To wonder where we are heading and what my role is in the future of this resilient though greatly taxed planet.

To ask: should I be here? How do I do so responsibly?

What is my every purchase supporting? What livelihoods- and life- does my presence threaten?

How do we account for the fossil fuel consumption, waste production, and cultural imposition of travel? 

These questions crowd my throat, tearing at my voicebox. Begging for a response that alludes me. Stripping me down to the desperate inquiry: how do I find space to breathe in the midst of all of this? Leaving me fearful of the more pertinent: how are my choices choking off the planet’s own breath?

That’s where I land today. On Koh Phi Phi with a growing concern of what that means. I’ll leave you here to go find some trees. Whom I’ll thank for their important work of inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen. I’ll breathe in this gift as I unite mind, body, spirit with the breath of the world. As impartial of a response as it seems, I’ll return to my practice, inching closer to a disposition from which to view this crazy beautiful, deeply aching moment in time.

From which to be me: a tourist, an activist, a healer, a consumer. A living contradiction.

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Scattered pieces

I flew into Chiang Mai close to midnight. The city was dark as a co-worker drove me to the house.

As we passed buildings and navigated the city streets, everything felt vaguely familiar. I recognized shops and remembered different landmarks, but couldn’t quite place them geographically. Struggling to conjure an image of the city’s grid, I held miniature puzzle pieces in my hand with little recollection of the picture on the box. Continue reading “Scattered pieces”

Reality check

Riding my bicycle through the Old City of Chiang Mai yesterday, I passed a woman also riding. She was meandering slowly down the street while an auto rickshaw driver prepared to pull out in front of her. I knew I had time to get around them before turning left at the next light.

I checked my mirror and then over my shoulder. Using my arm to signal, I swiftly moved into the other lane.

It was a simple moment. A simple decision. 

Yet as I passed, I experienced this deep revelation: I live in Thailand. Continue reading “Reality check”

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.