Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hellos, Goodbyes, and everything in between

Nov 28, 2010

I had to cut grass today, yes at the end of November. Earlier, I had do make sure all of my papers for the Asia trip were in order. That meant I had to make multiple copies of my passport, itinerary, volunteering document (immigration officials in Vietnam I hear can be a pain), and travel insurance (which is ironic as the only time that I have health insurance is when I travel to developing countries). Between paperwork and yardwork, I have been listening to my iphone's music. It dawned on me that I have been listening to the same music that I have been listening to these past few months. For me, music leads to free-association and often times, it brings me back to specific people, places and times. Once in a while, I would run across a song and it reminded me of the ski trip I took with RU one weekend in Feb 2004. "Round and round" would make me remember AN and how she looked when I first saw her the summer of 2009. Now, a series of songs remind me of all the goodbyes I said to my friends before heading to Uganda, the hellos I made to some amazing people, and finally again, goodbyes to those same amazing people.
One thing that I am starting to begrudgingly recognize and accept is that in my life now and for the foreseable future, there will always be a constant cycle of hellos and goodbyes. This cycle is made up of saying goodbye to my mother and dog, some friends, and the comfortable lifestyle and hello to a mixture of culture shock and learning new ways of life and cultures. It will also include the hellos to inspiring friends whose friendships silently as if through osmosis, mature me. There is also the hellos to beautiful sights, people, and different ways of living that completely amazes and humble me. In time, it also include the sad goodbyes to those same friends as well as the culture and people I have come to know and love. For those seeking a certain career path, such as aid work, this cycle is a perpetual one, an accepted side-effect of the chosen path. I am a creature who hates goodbyes and goodbyes (the good kind) internally wreck me. I was an unhappy camper for days after JS left Uganda and was worse as my impending return to the US was approaching. However, I am happy to have the chance to undergo this cycle. I know that because of it, I will continually grow as a human being, and through it, my life will have some meaning.

1 week and 14hours to go...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pre and Post thanksgiving...

Nov 24, 2010.

It's the day before thanksgiving and all was... wait, that's for christmas. Anyways, pre-thanksgiving for me meant, early day at work, haircut (I am now back to getting carded for alcohol..grrrr), and quiet dinner with Mom at a local seafood restaurant. What a difference a year make. The atmosphere and demeanor of both my mother and I greatly changed this past year. We talked about that, about my Mom's subtle sadness that soon, I will leave her again for nearly 2 months, and about the future. But we are both at peace and hopeful about the future. For once, I am truly happy of where I am, what I want to do, and all the people who are in my life. She too, is happy for me. Instead of the floundering fool she had for a son, she says she is proud of who I am becoming. Also, we talked about her future. I am slowly convincing her that retirement should not be the start of the end. Instead, if she is willing, it is the beginning of a new life. I know my mother and I know that once she starts this new life, she will love it. And so, with a growing sense of excitement, my mother sees the potential within her and starts to actually grasp the idea that her future, the last chapter of her life, can be as beautiful as she wishes to make it. I am therefore, ecstatic that the first step she will take will be to visit the remote villages of Vietnam during her Vietnam trip in 1 month. Unlike before where she spent countless hours sitting around in Ho Chi Minh City, she will be travelling to remote villages of the Mekong delta, and seeking out impoverished families to donate money to them. That will be her gift to her relatives (although I think that, knowing them, they will not be thrilled to know that the money that was supposed to go to them as gifts was spent on strangers). She will also be heading to Thailand or Laos next year to volunteer. If all goes as she wishes, she may decide to start something. I am completely supportive and extremely happy of her new path. I will support her in any way that I can. It is the least that I can do for her insurmountable amount of support she had always placed in me. It was a good dinner that started out with a quiet sadness but ended with hope.

Nov 25, 2010

Thanksgiving, thanksgiving, everywhere on TV it is thanksgiving....well at least in the US. 6 hours before it officially became thanksgiving in the US, I had wished all of my American friends who were still in Uganda a happy thanksgiving. That led to Leah P (co-founder of Musana) and others' description to me of their fun and memorable version of thanksgiving party abroad. Suddenly, I wanted to be there, with them. At the same time I am happy that they were enjoying themselves. Later, I called Pipih and had a great conversation. Talking to him always make me laugh and this time, I laughed harder. He had asked me about why another friend had liked his picture and I erroneously thought of a funny reason, and proceed to give him a hard time. When I asked the other friend, AN, her answer again reminded me of why I have always thought of her as this wonderful and beautiful creature. This made me think deeper about how things have changed since last year and make me appreciative of the changes. I have discovered that lately, I am surrounded by some of the most wonderful people one could ever meet. These people have great and open minds, generous spirits, and epitomize the cliche "beautiful inside and out". And the miraculous thing is that, last year, I could not call them my friends. At this time last year, I have not met people like Andrea, Leah, Sally, Jackie S, Lacey, Jen, and Pipih. I was such a jerk that I could not call Ashley my friend (hah hah, a more apt word may be "jackass"). And my mother, despite her support of me, felt a sense of sadness for who I was. All of that no longer exist this year. Instead, I am constantly amazed and re-invigorated by the conversations I have with these people. I know that no matter how drained I feel by the materialism and spoiled ways of thinking by others (and by the so-called-friends) around me, each week, I will be recharged by either my conversation with Pipih or Betty, or the occassional emails by L.P and A.N. To be honest, I feel emotionally spoiled as I think that any human being would be blessed to have correspondences from just one of those people. So considering that I heard from Pipih, LP, and AN, all in one day, I consider my thanksgiving a pretty damn good day.


Some of my friends always wondered why Uganda was such a significant trip for me. It is difficult to give an eloquent response. However, I have been reading a book by Hermann Hesse entitled "Siddhartha". This morning, I came upon a long passage that for the most part encapsulates the transition I felt while I was in Uganda (and for some part, even now, I still do). While I was there, I could feel the changes within me whenever I visit the orphans in the villages or just sit around Musana and watch the orphans play. And so, here is the passage:

"He felt joy welling up gloriously within his breast.

Tell me, he asked his heart, what is the source of all this gladness? Might it come from this long, good slumber that has so restored me? Or from the word Om that I uttered? Or because I have escaped, because my flight was successful, because I am finally free again and standing like a child beneath the sky? Oh, how good it is to have fled, to have become free! How pure and beautiful the air is here, how good it is to breate it! In the place I ran from, everything smelled of lotions, of spices, of wine, of excess, of lethargy. How I hated the world of rich men, of gluttons, of gamblers! How I hated myself for having remained so long in that hideous world! How I hated myself; how I robbed myself, poisoned and tormented myself; how I made myself old and wicked! No, never again will I imagine, as I once enjoyed doing, that Siddhartha was a wiseman! But one thing I did do well, one thing pleases me, which I must praise: All my self-hatred has now come to an end, along with that idiotic, desolate existence! I praise you, Siddhartha. After all these years of idiocy, you for once had a good idea; you did something; you heard the bird singing in your breast and followed it!

....He has tasted his share of sorrow and misery these past days and times, tasted them and spit them out, eaten of them till he had reached the point of despair, of death. All was well. He might have remained a great while longer at Kamaswami's side, earning money, squandering money, stuffing his belly and letting his soul thirst; he might have gone on living a great while longer in this cozy well-uphostered hell if that moment had not come: that moment of utter despondency and despair, that extreme moment when he was hanging above the flowing water, ready to destroy himself. That he had felt this despair, this deepest nausea, and yet had not succumbed to it, that the bird, the happy fountainhead and voice within him, had remained alive after all - it was because of all these things that he now felt such joy, that he laughed, that his face beaming beneath his gray hair.

It is good, he thought, to taste for oneself all that it necessary to know. Already as a child I learned that wordly desires and wealth were not good things. I have known this for a long time but have only now experienced it. And now I do know it, know it not only with memory but with my eyes, with my heart, and with my stomach. How glad I am to know it!"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Day off but not really..

Taking my day off to finish up some things around the house. My travel to Laos/Asia packing list is done. I am pleasantly surprised that it is only 2 pages long (slightly less than 2 complete pages). Of course, this means that I do anticipate buying stuffs while I am there. Besides, from the description of my volunteer package as well as the nature of my visit to Cambodia and Vietnam, 2 pages may be too much. Luang Prabang, Laos, the place where I will be volunteering, is a World Heritage city. Which means that there will be tons of tourists. Tourists mean higher prices than other places, avoiding streets where half-lost people totting massive cameras with lenses a mile long, and well, pick-pockets. It is funny but I used to be one of those. Now, I refuse to visit places as a stereotypically tourist. How snobbish of me, but I find that touristy cities are almost all the same. Similar craft shops, similar sorts of restaurants, and similar way locals treat you. So, if I go somewhere, I would rather not look like a tourist. In a way though, one truly never escape doing it, as any where you go for the first time, you will have that deer-staring-at-the-headlights effect.

From what I have read of the "amenities" that will be afforded to me by *** volunteering program, this trip to Laos will be a physically-inconvenience breeze. My own room with a bathroom with a running toilet and hot shower? I guess for one month, with the exception of self-motivated trips to remote areas, I will essentially be staying at a hotel. I am not such a big fan of doing that as I like the experiential volunteer atmosphere. I am pretty sure that most Laotian do not live in similar conditions as how I will be living. My trip to Uganda was special in part because we lived closer to what some people in Iganga lived (ok, those that are more spoiled). Also, there were not many tourists or foreigners where we were (may be 10-20 in a town of a few hundred thousands?). Well, when I say foreigners, I did not count Indians or Chinese as there were tons of them around.
So today, I am finally getting myself ready for Asia. I am not excited about it as I was with Uganda. There is a slight nervousness but I know that once I land in Cambodia, after an hour or so, that anxiety will dissipate. Hmmm, perhaps I am more anxious about the gropping sessions while at the airports....

Also, I am vigorously freshening up my English grammar. Each night, while in Laos, I will be teaching English to the locals for 2 hours. God help them. A transplanted Vietnamese American educated by the American inner-city school system, teaching them about English grammar. I will try my best to not butcher their learning experiences.

13 days...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Ironies of my current life...

Recent, I was facebook messaging a special friend, AN, and it started to sink in that in less than 18 days, I will be in yet another continent this year (not counting N. America, it will be my third). I think it was the discussion of Buddhism, monks, beads, and family in Cambodia that brought the realization that I will soon be physically there. Ever since, the recognition of little ironies of my current life started.

I love to travel. It allows me to meet new cultures, live with the people, absorb all that I can, and in a miniscule way, help as a volunteer. However, in transplanting myself to a new place (for any prolonged time), I am exposed to culture shock. Regardless of how often a person travels, that phenonmenon always strike. It is understandable. Although the ears, eyes, and all of my senses may have been mentally prepared by the act of flying or the active mental reminders that I will be in a new place, it is still shocking to me to be walking among people that no longer speak my language (at least not well). All of the senses that I have come accostumed to are no longer there as I step out of my guest house door. It is hard sometimes for the mind to accept the fact that all of my comfort zones have been completely stripped away and in the new place, I have to get used to the new senses, the new ways of life, and redefine my new temporary comfort zones. The irony of it all is that, it is this set of newness that makes this lifestyle exciting, while at the same time, too much of it may make me just want to go to a private corner somewhere and regroup. For me, when that happens, I would call home, go to a cafe or bar that is known to have others like me there (aid workers or volunteers), read a book, listen to my iphone music, or just watch recorded episodes of my favorite shows (two and a half men or How I met your mother. I love my iphone). That little "alone" time is normally enough, and I would re-engage the new temporary life.

Another thing I have come to anticipate is that in traveling to certain places, I just have to let go of worries about personal safety. I know due to the distance, the locales and the conditions of healthcare and/or security in those locales, if anything serious should happen to me, not much can be done. It is amazing how mentally and emotionally liberating it is to accept all that could come. Suddenly most of the fears that the western world has taught me to carry in my daily life, no longer exist. But ironically, I feel my most secure while abroad. This is because I am my sharpest, most alive, and most aware while abroad. Also, as I live longer in a place, I quietly learn my ways around, learn little tricks, etc.. So, in a sense, I think it is harder to get hurt while I am abroad. Besides, I think that not truly worrying about one's safety is a requirement of this career choice.

Although the comfort of home, knowing friends, having my dog around (love my Milou, the mini-schnauzer that like his Dad, still acts like a young puppy), etc.. can get boring, it is something that I do miss while abroad. It is a double-edged sword really. While I am in the states, these comforts and luxuries make me feel connected and close to my immediate surroundings. However, I feel disconnected from the rest of the humanity of the developing world. Also, I just feel as if I am just floating through life, not doing much meaningful things. When I am abroad volunteering, despite feeling distant from the local comforts, I feel connected to humanity, and feeling as if I am doing something constructive. I guess it comes from the daily exposure to truly impoverished people. Hearing their stories, touching their lives, and seeing their lives and feeling their sufferings, make me grounded. There, I feel truly connected to their lives, lives of complete strangers. I guess these experiences in a great part, help make me feel "alive".

Finally, in terms of the heart, while I am far away, there is a physical distance with the special people like my Mom, AN, and some of my close friends. However, because I emotionally and mentally carry them with me wherever I go, I don't feel that far from them. When I was in Uganda, when I looked at the smiling eyes of the children, I thought of my Mother. When I saw little dogs running around, I thought of Milou. When I visited Kitgum and spoke to the people at an IDP camp, I thought of RU. Some beautiful Ugandan sunsets made me think of AN, wishing she could have seen them. And when I was in Kampala, I visited a bar carrying my best friend son's name, Mateo. I know that while I am in Asia, there will be constant reminders of those special people. Buddhist monks will remind me of my Mom. Cambodia and its children will remind me of AN (she has family there and she loves to volunteer). Running children and adults with broken english will remind me of RU (she was an ESL teacher in DC). I guess, sometimes the loneliness when I am abroad makes me think of them more. Here, in the US, I am inundated by so many unimportant things that I never truly get a chance to think of them and/or appreciate them. So, yet another irony. Close physical promixity yet far in thoughts. Distant in bodily touch, yet close in mind and spirit.

16 days left...