Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Tiny high fives and smiles riddles with missing teeth. Stray cats that just want to cuddle. Random butterflies drifting past. Sun through banana leaves. The sweet serenade of a thousand frogs as they settle in for the night. Courage. Making silly faces. Deep breaths. Cricket concertos.

A world full of challenges, both physical and mental. Failures that teach. The endless possibilities evident in a map. Creativity. Bare feet. Hot showers. Handstands. A life full of risks and uncertainty. Stray dogs in sweaters. Sunsets and thunderstorms. Starry nights. Street food vendors. Quiet cups of tea. Balance.

The world is full of things worth being thankful for. It is in these small glimmerings of beauty that I find bliss spontaneously.

It is important to be grateful for life’s blessings, no matter how small, how seemingly insignificant. Gratitude can be life-altering, mind-changing.  Taking time to remember that each day offered us something wonderful can wash away the negativity.

It is easy to focus only on what goes wrong, simple to get swept away by a bad mood. Life is full of mishaps, insults, disagreements, challenges, and shitty days. The good things, the positive, can sometimes get lost in all that muck; they tend to be smaller, more commonplace, less abrupt and abrasive.

Much like meditation, painting, football, yoga, running a marathon, or any of the myriad practices to which we dedicate our time, practicing gratitude every now and then probably isn’t going to get the results you’d like. Stopping to acknowledge life’s splendor and blessings should be something we do on a regular basis.

Like eating well or going to the gym, we need to commit to being grateful. Not once a month or week. Not once a year. Be thankful every day. Because somewhere in all that muck, beneath the bad moods, we all have something to be grateful for. Daily.

So, here’s to a happy, bliss-filled Thursday.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


The Thai holiday of Loy Kratong is easily one of the more beautiful festivals I have had the blessing to attend. It is simple, graceful, and surreal. While I haven’t had the opportunity to be present for the bigger, mass ascension-style celebrations that take place elsewhere in Thailand, I am overjoyed to have had the chance to be back in the country for a second go at Chiang Rai’s festivities.

As I have mentioned before, Loy Kratong is an amalgamation of exquisite traditions for cleansing oneself, spiritually and mentally, for the upcoming year. Beneath a heavy moon, banana leaf and bread kratongs are sent floating downriver, as kohm lanterns lift away from fingers into a sky thick with false constellations. If it weren’t for the fireworks going off left and right, it would be serene, as though time were suspended, slowed.

This year, through a series of small-world occurrences involving five hot air balloon pilots, a common interest in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and my willingness to give out my phone number to strangers, our Loy Kratong weekend festivities were taken up a notch on the beauty scale.

Neither Win nor I had been in a hot air balloon before, despite our hometown being annual host to the largest balloon festival on Earth. But, thanks to some glorious strangers and the Thai propensity for ridiculous fairs, all that changed. 

The heat of the burner glows hot against your skin, contrasting sharply with the comparatively crisp night air. Beneath the balloon, so much larger than and hotter than anticipated, with the world drifting away from the soles of your shoes, one feels an experience of ethereal lightness. It is lightness abrupt, overwhelming. It is almost as though, if not for the tethers anchoring the basket to the ground, one might float off entirely.  

It was an experience augmenting an already magical holiday weekend. Fitting perfectly in among the floating, drifting, lifting, it was as though life chose, for this one brief moment, to have a theme, to lace a common thread into various events. Perfect, ephemeral, light; I didn’t think I could enjoy Loy Kratong more than I had in past years.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Weight Ain't Nothin' but a Number

Dear Thailand Committee on Self Esteem and Body Image,

I was recently in a yoga studio where I was asked to step on a scale. The reaction of the other people (all Thai) implied that I should be embarrassed about the number the scale displayed. Other days at this same studio, it is measuring and comparing waist, hip, and bust sizes. 

I do not feel the need to apologize for weighing 60 kilos. Nor am I in the least bit embarrassed by that number or by the fact that I have a solid 10-15 kilos on every Thai lady in my yoga class. I do not expect that as a woman in my late twenties I would have a 22 inch waist. 

Yes, I am bigger than many Thai women. I probably always will be. 

There was a time when I thought that weight, that magic number on the scale, meant something. At one point in my life, I gave it so much value that it controlled nearly everything I ate and did. From the age of 12 until about 20, I couldn’t imagine weighing more than 100 pounds; 110 felt like the end of the world. At one point during freshman year of college, I hit a low of 85 pounds. At that time, in that pound-oriented mindset, I felt like that was a glorious number.

But it didn’t feel healthy. I was frail and tired. I was sick and weak. I was skinny, sure, but I was in no way healthy.

Today, at the age of 26, I apparently weigh around 135. I might not be perfectly in shape – things might be bouncier or squishier than “ideal” – but I am strong and healthy. I am certainly not stick-thin, but by most standards, especially my own, I am not overweight.

Being healthy does not require washboard abs, sculpted arms, or cellulite-free thighs.  I would rather be the version of healthy that I embody right now than be super-skinny, have those perfect body parts, and constantly criticize everything I do and every morsel I consume. I no longer have the desire for my hipbones or collarbones to protrude, for my thighs not to touch, or for my arms to be 100% jiggle-free. 

Now, I do not necessarily agree wholeheartedly with the American adage about accepting yourself just the way you are; too often it becomes an excuse for apathy, laziness, and inertia. I accept myself, and this means accepting that in many ways I can be better. I can be nicer, kinder, more understanding; I can work harder, learn more, and find ways to step out of my comfort zone. I can be stronger, eat better, push myself to try things toward which I am not naturally inclined or gifted. But these days, I push myself to be better without criticizing that which needs to be changed.

Hear me: not only am I not ashamed of my 60 kilos. I’m damn proud of them. They took fortitude to acquire, perseverance to develop. They come from strength and confidence, rather than self-denial and insecurity.  I am proud that I sometimes allow myself to overindulge, proud of my 3-second handstand, proud of almost being able to run a half mile. I am proud to know that, with work and a positive attitude, I can push three seconds to four and half a mile to a whole mile. And if in the process my thighs or arms get bigger, so be it. I am proud, most of all, that a number doesn’t define whether or not I think I am beautiful.

So, Thailand, stop patting my belly and pinching my arm fat. Stop asking if I am pregnant. Stop covering the scale readout. This is me, all 135 glorious, healthy pounds of me. And, I will not let you make me feel bad about who I am or how I look.


disgruntled but ever-loving foreigner

*While I realize how many of these same arguments can be applied to American culture’s standards of beauty, Thailand is particularly blunt and graceless when it comes to social treatment of body size and standards of beauty. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Sweet Treats

Between Kuala Lumpur and the Malaysian border with Thailand lies the mildly-alpine cluster of towns known collectively as the Cameron Highlands. With its cool, crisp air, its land a patchwork of green blanketing rolling hills, and its charming colonial-inspired, mock-Switzerland architecture, the Highlands are a popular getaway for tourists and Malaysians alike.

Overrun with tea plantations, butterfly gardens, and organic farms of every variety -- vegetable, mushroom, honey, strawberries, and even a handful of cactus farms -- this part of Malaysia offered a calm pit stop after the rest of our jungle-trekking, mosquito-swatting travels.

Few foreigners were to be seen in the sea of weekend day-tripping Malaysians --- Muslim, Chinese, and Indians all accounted for. The weekend prices skyrocketed. The mountain roads were heavy with traffic, restaurants packed in the evening.

It wasn’t all as advertised. More than anything, we waded through an endless sea of souvenirs, trinkets, and junk. Most of the so-called farms were poor imitations, designed to lure visitors into unnecessary purchases. The butterfly and insect gardens had seen better days, sad and trampled as they were.

Despite the gimmicky atmosphere and over-saturated market, we got what we asked for. The honey was sweet, the butterflies big and beautiful, the insects and reptiles bizarre and intriguing, the strawberries ripe and luscious. And, equally important,  the Indian food plentiful and cheap.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Big is Beautiful

With no stems, leaves, or roots, the world’s largest flower is a bit of an oddball in the botanical world. Native to Borneo and Sumatra, the Rafflesia Arnoldi is actually a parasite living off the nutrients found in jungle vines, rather than through the traditional soil-and-sun routine.

The Rafflesia is also unique in its pollination tactics; rather than producing the sweet smells that attract bees, butterflies, and the like, this flower smells of rotting flesh and meat, thus earning it the name “corpse flower” among locals. The pungent odor attracts flies and other scavenger insects, which transfer the pollen.

Since the flowers take six to nine months to bloom and begin to decompose after two or three days, the opportunity to spot them can be rare. We were lucky enough to get just such an opportunity, even luckier that it didn’t cost us an arm and a leg (unless your limbs cost under $3 apiece) and only took about 30 minutes of jungle walking.  

Technically, we had missed the typical blooming time by only a matter of weeks, but our final stop in Sumatra allowed us easy access to a village where, by some fluke, the flowers bloom sporadically throughout the year, almost guaranteeing visitors the chance to see one.

Bizarre and bizarrely lovely, the rafflesia was a bucket list item I didn’t know I had until I saw it. A highlight among a trip chockfull of highlights, the flower was certainly worth the short, but slippery, mini-trek on our final day in Sumatra.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Double Double

On the island of Sumatra lies the world’s largest volcanic crater lake, Danau Toba. Within Lake Toba sits the Singapore-sized island of Samosir. And, if you’re quite determined, high up in the alpine trees of this double island, there are several smaller lakes. If you have the kind of bucket list we have, there’s just no resisting seeing a double lake on a double island.

On rented scooters, we set out to circumnavigate the island, turn inland and head up an over the island in search of said lake. We headed past remnants of the island’s animist history, palm trees on one side of the road, pines on the other. Through rice fields and rocky hills dotted at random with the massive, colorful multistory graves unique to Samosir.

We lost ourselves in towns, through markets filled with staring Indonesians. After some false starts, kind strangers eventually directed us onto the road that would lead us on a quick jaunt across the island. Stop at a lake, click of a camera, back before dark. Or so we thought.

“Hati, hati” and “Palan, palan” are two oft-ignored warnings in Bahasa Indonesia. Slowly and Caution mean very little in a land where driving is reckless, passing is nonchalant, and speeding is a given. So when told to drive slowly and be careful, we assume it’s because we are white and suspected of ignorance about driving motorbikes.

As pavement became pockmarked, giving way for wide expanses to dirt and gravel, we figured it couldn’t last. Wouldn’t maps indicate a dirt road? The road did, indeed, wind its way past the lake, the x on our treasure map. But that's about as far as our luck lasted. 

Eventually, you go too far to turn back and must forge on ahead. Even as you are driving at a snail’s pace, the sun inching closer to dusk, trying a dip and dodge around innumerable rocks and potholes,  scooter rattling and scraping all the while. At some point we crested the top of the island, some 3,000 feet above sea level, to see the island ring road a thin snaking string along the coast, far below us.

Much in the way that all good things come to an end, so too must the harrowing. After a brief pavement fakeout (which had us so assured we were done with dirt that we stopped for a victory break), the dusk trickled into dark, pavement back into rock and dust, leaving us to crawl back by the light of a barely-functional headlight.

Aching and dusty, we finally pulled up to our hotel. Soothing pizza and beer were applied to our wounded spirits. Bed was crawled into early. But, sometimes it’s not easy to reach your destination.  Especially if you’re looking for a lake on an island in a lake on an island in the ocean. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Red Head

Native only to the jungles of Sumatra and Borneo, the orangutan is a rare and exotic creature. With a name meaning “forest person” in the local tongue, our distant relative is truly a sight to behold. 

Eerily human, extremely intelligent, and largely solitary, the orangutan spends the first six years of its life with its mother. Much of this time is spent learning how to build nightly nests high in the branches, as well as the ins and outs of the diverse and complicated diet that gives these critters sustenance – primarily a wide range of fruits, supplemented by plants, honey, bark, and occasional bird eggs or insects.

Large, gangly-limbed, with frizzy red hair, orangutans still somehow manage to exhibit grace and ease while swinging from tree to tree high above the forest floor. No easy feat when you weigh up to 250 pounds.

It is a majestic and magical experience to witness such a rare, solitary animal in its native habitat. Perched high in the safety of the trees, the orangutans can be as interested in the people below as we are in it. And with any luck, this interest, this intrigue, will fuel efforts to keep the number of orangutans up, to keep the jungle from reducing in size, and to keep the devastation humans can bring from encroaching farther into the realm of the wild. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Paradise Found

Off the northernmost tip of Sumatra lies the tiny, rural island of Pulau Weh. Reaching this haven required some time and effort: a twelve hour bus to the north, a becak to the pier, a ferry to the island, and a harrowing, eye-watering, ear-popping motorcycle taxi across the island. But it was worth the work to reach Weh Island’s rustic (budget) tourist digs.

Waters vary from crystal clear to impossible blues and greens, enticing swimmers to find sweet, cool respite. Waves gently caress shores rocky and sandy alike, lulling the hammock-bound into swinging afternoon naps. Afternoon thunderstorms patter on tin bungalow roofs. For me, the bungalow balcony offered a perfect spot for morning yoga, and the affectionate local cats were ideal cuddle partners for those afternoon naps. It is in many ways postcard-perfect.

Even the negatives on Weh Island yield positive results. The herds of goats that love to clip-clop down onto our bungalow porch provide us with incredible goat’s milk cheddar for morning omelets. The impossibly incorrect maps lead us on a drive over the entirety of the magnificently picturesque island. The rough speedboat ride that sent us hurtling over six-foot swells through a thunderstorm and left us soaked to the bone allowed us to snorkel with dancing schools of fish, color flickering in the sunlight; it also ended with our being gifted a 25-pound fish, a gut-busting feast, even for six people.

With its minimal tourist infrastructure, herds of goats, and numerous mosques, Weh Island isn’t the ideal paradise getaway. It was rustic, our tour guides also made their living fishing, there wasn’t hot water or air conditioning, we forgot to reapply sunscreen, and the beer was absurdly overpriced and hard to find. But it was gorgeous, the people friendly and helpful, the food delicious, and the cats plentiful. I truly couldn’t ask for anything more. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Nearby Neighbor

Traveling from Thailand to Indonesia is a bit like visiting a friend whose house has the same floor plan as your own; everything is familiar, but the furniture is bizarrely different. The Elaborate Buddhist temples have been replaced by equally elaborate mosques, the tuk-tuks replaced with sidecar-wielding becaks.

Call to prayer, haunting and melodic, pours over the buildings, snaking in through windows and doors. It wakes you in the morning, and bids you farewell at night. Hijabs of every hue cover the heads of devout women, equally a proclamation of faith and a fashion accessory. Cats lounge and prowl in broad daylight, flaunting their power in the absence of canine competitors. The fried rice has a bit of a kick, the variety of local curries an even bigger one. 

The landscape and weather are both similar in temperament to what we live with in Thailand. Tropical flowers, palm trees, and banana leaves abound; fried rice and noodles rule the kitchen; smiles are offered openly and easily. Yet, touching down in Indonesia’s northern island of Sumatra, we are greeted by a land that is still incredibly travel-worthy, with a diverse culture, rare plant and animal life, and a lush array of landscapes. 

Despite being so close to Thailand, both in kilometers and in attitude, and despite having been to Java and Bali in the past, Sumatra offered us a whole new world to explore.