To plan or not to plan…
Certainly if I am headed to SE Asia, a lot of planning is necessary to get there and back safely. My next big adventure is closer to home. Nuada and I are packing up the camping gear, photography gear and heading to the Carolinas. Family and friends to see, portraits to make and a project meeting with the Forsyth County United Way in Winston-Salem. The only thing that is set in stone is the meeting on 7/13. Whatever happens there will dictate what follows.
When I was teaching, I knew what I was going to say every class, everyday and every year I taught…27 in all! Lesson plans had to be turned in and I had a clear outline for what would happen. Objectives, and techniques and measurable outcomes. When directing theatre, I had a carefully calculated vision of what the production would look and sound like when opening night arrived. I live with calendars filled with details of my working life,traveling life, social life, etc. Seems that everything is planned out carefully!
So after the truck is serviced, the camping gear is checked and stocked with supplies, the presentation for the meeting is prepared and we are on our way, I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do! All I know is the adventure is open-ended. Now, I “just” have to quiet my mind, give up my hyper-planning tendencies, and live the serendipitous life. OMG!!!
Years ago, when my daughter and I lived and traveled aboard our sailboat, I’d spend countless hours going over charts, trying to figure out what the next day would hold. Where would we anchor? Where is the slip in the marina? Which way does it face? Port or starboard side to? What REALLY made me crazy was that I knew I had no idea and would just have to wait until I got there.
Enter Buddhism and meditation. How the hell do I quiet the monkeys in my head insisting I plan out every detail? How do I live moment to moment when I have trained myself for a lifetime to do just the opposite? Breathe, Hank, breathe! Time to sit and allow the unknown surprises, lessons and adventures unfold as they will. They’re going to anyway. If I can even attempt mindfulness, I won’t miss them!
So, now I think back on the many, many wonderful, unplanned moments and experiences. Monkey mind, be gone! I have adventures ahead!Get out of the house!
So…how do you meet locals? Well, on my first trip to Laos, I took a very touristy excursion to ride elephants in the jungle outside of Luang Prabang and met Phan at the facility. In visiting with him, I discovered that he was also a “TSA” employee for the Laotian government at the airport. We ran into him again on our way out of the country. Phan and I became Facebook friends and kept up with one another for several months. I discovered that he was teaching English to the novices at a small temple in Luang Prabang and he invited me to come visit him and hang out at the temple next time I was in Laos! Well! That’s all I needed to get me out of the house…
He became a good friend and taught me about how they practiced Buddhism there. I was able to talk with the monks, chant with them (at 4:30 in the morning!), follow them as they gathered alms, ate with them and basically got to see what their days were like.
The monks all fought for the chance to practice their English with me and as I tried to learn to say a few phrases in Laotian, they laughed hysterically at me.
After spending a few days at the temple, Phan said we would go visit his family’s village about 50 km from Luang Prabang. So I packed a backpack and hopped on the back of his scooter and off we went into the mountains. THIS was an adventure! No one except Phan spoke any English! Here are the accommodations I was to find myself in for two days.
And again…as in Siem Reap…the people have so little, but are so generous. Everyone in this little village was thrilled to see Phan and were anxious to hear who the hell this tall, skinny white man was. After I was explained and introduced, I was family as well.
That night, there was a feast and a blessing ceremony for me. Much Lao Lao was consumed…local moonshine that tasted as if it had aged about an hour and a half! Those who know me can just imagine what that did to me. Since I was the honored guest, I received the best part of the meal to begin with…. a chicken head and the feet. Luckily, lots of vegetables and broth followed. Oh..and…no matter what you hear, rat does NOT taste like chicken!
The next morning, Phan announced that we were headed up into the mountains for some “trekking”.
Our little group was Phan, his brother and sister (who insisted on carrying my backpack and gear) and me. Quite a troupe!
This was definitely off the beaten path of the tourist industry. It was wonderful! We went through villages that didn’t even speak Laotian, but a dialect that even Phan struggled with. Beautiful kids and simple, hard lives led…but all we met welcomed us. One woman insisted we share some soup she had made. A group of “partying” men in a dark room invited us in for a drink of god knows what! I faked drinking through the straw they gave me and gestured and winced at how strong the drink was…much to their delight. We had a great time and they were REALLY drunk by the time we left.
And then the children we met…
We trekked our way back to Phan’s village for one more night before heading back to the city. There was one person who I had not yet met and wanted to: his grandmother who happened to be the oldest person in the village. 97! Just think of what she has seen and has been through. She was a little shy, but warmed up quickly and visited with me (through Phan) for quite a while. Her family and mine had so little in common and yet everything at the same time. It was an amazing encounter for both of us, I think.
Who could have known that this adventure, having started with meeting a young man on an elephant excursion, would have come to this. When I travel, sure, I see all the “postcard” sights, but then I start to wander. I am enriched and challenged, thrilled and distraught by what I see and experience. There is a commonality across the cultures that I am now understanding in my soul. Not because I have read about it or have seen it on Netflix or heard about it in some lecture hall…I have been gifted with the experience. Heartfelt thanks to Phan. And to the rest of you? Get out of the house…you never know who you’ll meet..
I’m into my second year of medicare, have been retired for a long time, have grandchildren, a big dog, a small apartment, a ten-year old truck and a helluva lot of life experiences to filter the lenses on my Canon. I have had many teachers: a career in education which allowed me to be taught by my students, that devastating disease which attacked my son when he was sixteen, a year-long sailboat trip with my daughter, my father’s life, my father’s death, too many homes around the country and not enough journeys to remote places and cultures. All of them teachers. Thousands of lessons taught. Some of them even learned and taken to heart. All of them life changing by some degree. I am grateful and shocked at the same time.
This stream of consciousness is written for my benefit and for those who know me. You see, it serves as an explanation of who I am and how I got here. As my mother slips more and more into forgetting what brought her to where she is, I realize the importance of writing your own story. No one can tell it like you can!
I am a father, a grandfather, a son, and a brother.
I am a teacher, a student and an observer.
I am a musician, a photographer and a traveler.
I am a Buddhist, an environmentalist, and an evolutionist.
I am Gay.
I’m not writing to impart wisdom or create great inspirations for bumper stickers. I’m just writing. You should do the same.
That’s what my Mom said when I told her where I was going. “Why the HELL would you go to Cambodia?” Well, it was a pretty simple answer. A friend of mine is the treasurer and board member of a non-profit that operates a school about 60 km NW of Siem Reap. He needed photos to document the school and I am a photographer. That’s all I needed to know. I’d never given much thought to Cambodia, but it was a gig, you know? This October will mark my fourth trip there. The image above was from my second trip…a solo one. I visited the school and when I arrived the kids were lined up to applaud and welcome me. They led me to a plastic chair, shaded by a tarp and I was presented with a beautiful dance from this older student. Almost three hundred kids gathered and watched her dance for me… a remarkable and humbling experience.
Cambodia is filled with remarkable experiences. I stay in Siem Reap at a wonderful little hotel named the Rambutan, about a five minute walk to the night markets and Pub Street. While sitting at the bar one night, I remarked to Sea, the bartender, that I wished for a way to see the part of Cambodia without so many tourists. “My brother has a car!” And so, I discovered my keys to the country: Sea and his brother Sout. We went to temples out in the country that are seldom visited. Many of the ones I saw had no one there but us…remarkable. I rode with Sea on his motorbike so he could take me to a locals’ market out of town…frightening!
We went to temples so I could see what went on in the daily lives of the monks and the locals who prayed there. You hear music around a corner? Go and see who’s making it. This little band was playing just outside a tiny little room where some sort of celebration was happening. Don’t ask… I have no idea!
Sout drove me up an impossibly rough road to hike to a waterfall. Again…very few tourists, though the locals were very fond of it.
The people of Cambodia are so welcoming, it seems, to everyone. The country is desperately poor, corrupt and war-torn, yet they are happy. They struggle with a system that has no safety net for those who fall, yet they make it work. There is a respect for family like I have rarely seen. And that respect is oftentimes extended to guests. One evening, after a long day at Ankor Wat, I asked Sout if I could meet his parents and family, as they live less than a kilometer from the temple complex. When we arrived, they were getting ready to eat and his mother insisted that I eat with them. So I sat on the floor and shared dinner around a single candle illuminating the room…this was generosity!
We take much for granted here. The first time I visited Cambodia, I was walking with friends down the streets and noticed that there was no one around that was my age. I mean, it was VERY noticeable.When I remarked on that, someone reminded me that a whole generation was murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Imagine what those years must have been like. To this day, many people are killed each year,working in their fields, by hitting a mine left over from the Viet Nam war era.
And still they are a welcoming culture. So many lessons there to be learned.
And then, there are the children.
Some are able, through generous benefactors, to attend schools that prepare them for a still uncertain future. Some live out their lives as generations have done. But kids are kids!
They are the ones who draw me back again this year. I can’t wait to go wandering with Sout and see whatever he wants me to see. He is proud of his country, his family and his culture. He gives me an insight that I would never get otherwise. So many lessons to learn!
That’s why, “Cambodia”!
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