Friday, February 24, 2012

Indochine Adventure pt.4 - Adventures with Ellies

          After our busy teaching day, and on our last full day in Laos, we decided to have some real fun - elephant riding, jungle hiking, riverboat riding, zip lining, waterfall cliff jumping kind of fun!!*  We spent our entire day in a nature reserve along the Mae Kok river, a tributary to the Mekong, about a one-hour drive outside of Luang Prabang, and where we had about half-a-dozen mini-adventures planned throughout the day.

          First we visited an elephant camp, where we met some Asian elephants and then climbed up onto them for a 90-minute ride up into the surrounding hills and jungle.  Instead of saddles, they had custom-fit little wooden benches set onto thick blankets and burlap on their backs. First we forged across a river, then up into the wild unknown. The swift current and deep water of the river crossing provided our first adrenalin rush of the day - especially when our mahouts (elephant drivers) told us not to be afraid if the elephants decided to start swimming in the deep center channel! A mahout and the elephant they work with are essentially together for life, or at least for the working life of the elephant. They are together every day and the mahout cares for and feeds the elephant. Most working elephants in Southeast Asia (some 95% of all elephants in SE Asia are privately owned and working) work in the forest industry and there is minimal protection and welfare for them, but these particular elephants are well cared for and only work (walk) about 4 hours a day. Our ellies seemed happy and calm, and their mahouts let us ride them alone, sitting up on the elephants neck with our legs tucked behind their ears - we even wandered off a bit in different directions, so each ellie could search for her favorite foods along the way. Claira especially loved riding her elephant and rode on her elephant's neck for the entire journey, but she said that the coarse, wiry hairs on the top of her head (the elephant's!) made it difficult to stay in a comfortable position.*

          After our long climb through the jungle, we arrived at the elephant outpost. Now we had to continue on foot. After the elephants departed, it was time to start the trekking part of our day and we had a fairly rigorous hike through the jungle, but were rewarded with lunch in one of the most beautiful settings we've ever experienced, completely secluded, miles away from anyone else. We dined in a bamboo structure with a table and chairs that was built right next to a beautiful waterfall. It was stunning. How they got all that building material deep into the jungle I'll never know, but it was definitely not with the elephants (the terrain was way too steep and overgrown for them).

          After lunch, we continued the jungle-trek with our guide for around an hour and a half, and, for the last part of the trek, we had a pack horse available to carry our gear down a steep grade....but, before we could load our gear, he was reallocated to the riding team as Claira was quickly aboard the saddle! After the steep downhill climb, we arrived back at the Mae Kok river and were picked up by a boat. But not just any boat, a bamboo boat, well it was more of a bamboo hut with floats beneath. It took us around 15 minutes to float down river. We then pulled up to a little dock, and took a short walk to a series of waterfalls - actually, it was several acres of wide, tiered waterfalls with beautiful blue water and dozens of swimming holes. The area was fairly developed, with shops and open areas to swim. While my dad and sisters explored the waterfalls - cliff jumping from pool-to-pool, I discovered that there was a zip line course, and was quickly off with two guides for a 15 minute hike to the launch point. There were around 10 lines on the course, and they were all great. (at some point, I'll load some zip-lining video here). We then re-boarded our floating hut and drifted back to the elephant camp where we ended our fun filled day.

       Our time in Laos was now coming to an end. On our 6th and final day in LP, we had a relaxing walk around town in the morning and a really good lunch at a French restaurant (where my sisters were both served wine by our waiter, despite the bemused look on my dad's face). At 2 o’clock, we boarded our flight back to Hanoi. Emily and my mom were flying straight back to California, so we said goodbye at the airport. But my dad and Claira were staying on in Hanoi with me for another couple of days. The big surprise upon my return to Hanoi was how shockingly cold it had become while we were away - Winter had arrived! The evening I got back the temperature was in the low 50s, whereas I had not experienced anything below the high-70s in my four prior months here.

Wintertime is Cold in Hanoi!

          For the last couple days of my break, we stayed at the fancy Metropole hotel, located in the Hoan Kiem (old town) district. It was nice to have a couple of relaxing days with nothing to do or places to go. On Sunday, January 8th, it was time for my dad and Claira to depart Vietnam, but rather than head back over the Pacific, they had purchased an around-the-world ticket (with is just about the same price as a round-trip to Vietnam) and continued west to Europe, where they had a whirlwind train-tour of Florence, Paris, Amsterdam, and Dusseldorf, before heading over the pond to New York.

          We had an awesome Indochine adventure, and I was sad that it was over, but I am also excited to be looking towards the new school semester in Hanoi.

* Once again, thanks to my dad for the text and pictures I just stole off his facebook page!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

See a Problem, Solve a Problem - a day with JWOC


Emily helps with those hard to remember colors
          After we finished our early morning giving alms to the local monks in Luang Prabang, we returned to the hotel and ate our own breakfast, and soon after that, we were greeted by some local staff of the Cambodian/American company that had arranged our travel in Laos. Our plan for this day was to join the staff of Journeys Within Our Community for an afternoon helping at a local village school which their company had built and operated for elementary school aged children who otherwise wouldn't have a school to attend at all.

The kids really liked Claira
          We brought with us some arts and crafts to do with the kids while we were visiting their classrooms, and also we had text books and supplies which we were donating to the school. As we arrived at the school, which was about an hour outside of Luang Prabang, we could tell that the kids were excited to see us. There were two different age groups that we would be assisting with that day, preschool/kindergarten and 1st-to-3rd grades, but when we arrived they all gathered in one large classroom, so the teachers could introduce us and tell them a little bit about who we were. None of children spoke English (nor did most of the teachers!), so there was a language barrier, but they were learning to count and say colors in English - which was definitely something that we could help with! (I didn't tell them that I was helping to teach English to every school kid back in Vietnam)

They were great with numbers - all the way to 22!

mom presents some classroom supplies
          The staff had some large flashcards with numbers and colors, and we held them up in front of the class and helped them practice their English. They had the numbers down, but the colors were a bit more difficult for them (they were actually kind of hard for me too...what color is sea-foam green again??). After all the hard work was out of the way, it was time for some fun, so the kids broke back into their two classrooms and we broke out the arts and crafts. In spirit of the impending Year of the Dragon, we had dragon masks for the kids to make. We helped them cut out the masks, and they colored them. It was a lot of fun working with the kids and they truly seemed to enjoy our presence in their classrooms. They loved looking at themselves with (and without) the dragon masks in the camera. I would flip the viewfinder of our camcorder around and they would laugh and laugh when they saw themselves. After about an hour and a half of fun, it was time to say goodbye to all our new little friends, and head back down into LP. We took a bunch of pictures and had a bunch of little hugs, and then we were off. It was a great experience meeting the kids and interacting with them, and I know my sisters had a lot of fun too.

The kids wanted us to have "teacher shirts", so we would always remember to come back and teach them

          It was a great day from start to end for all of us.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

My Uncle Matt

On February 1st (January 31st back home), one week after I finished my first month in the new semester, I was pulled out of class to receive the most terrible news from home. My uncle, Matt Sanborn, had passed away after he crashed while riding his mountain bike on a trail above Montecito. I was on a plane home from Vietnam hours after I found out. It has been a very sad week for my entire family. He was a great uncle, and I miss him so much. We said a private goodbye on Friday before his body was cremated, his memorial was on Saturday, and there was also a service at his church on Sunday, which is held at a movie theater (which I think is pretty cool). He really loved mountain biking, and I loved to ride with him too. He would always be doing crazy things, like racing motorcycles, downhill mountain biking, extreme skiing… etc. that's just what he did. I don't really feel up to writing a lot for this blog, so I’ll end it with this:

I love you Uncle Matt, I will remember you forever, you were an awesome uncle and a good friend.  -Andrew

We played this video at his memorial service:

The eulogy written and read by my grandmother, Uncle Matt's and my dad's mother:

My husband, David, and I walked down to the beach this morning -- to be close to Matt -- to feel him -- 

I wanted to write something about him -- to acknowledge what I, his mother, knew of him. 

I had his hat from Jackson Hole shielding my eyes from the sun.  I put my feet in the water and heard him say, oh you sissy, it’s not cold.  The sound of the waves, the sparkling water, the smell of the beach, are calming and healing to me right now.

So, I’d like to ask you all to take a moment and close your eyes.
Picture Matt in your mind’s eye.
Okay.  Open.
I bet he was smiling, right?
I hope you always hold that image of him in your heart -- that expression of happiness, joy, sense of adventure, humor -- the willingness to take a risk, to dare -- THAT WAS MATT.

He embodied the qualities we hold up as the best of being human:  HEART, COURAGE, COMPASSION.  What the Buddhists call LOVING KINDNESS.

He was also the best boyfriend in the world.  I got that straight from Stacy -- she told me so herself!  He was brave enough to be vulnerable -- strong enough to be protective.
I believe if a man loves his mother, he has the capacity to love a woman and treat her well.  
Matt loved me so much!  And I him.
When he spoke at mine and David’s wedding three years ago, he said I was his best friend.  I never could have believed I would be speaking at a memorial service for him.
Matt loved his family and was never happier than when we were all together -- especially when his brother, Eric, and Kendre’s children, Andrew, Emily, and Claira, were around -- then he could really let loose and play!
He loved Bump and Nan -- was heartbroken when Bump left this world -- and I know that Bump was the first to welcome him home.

Matt loved Stacy.  And she loved him.  Those two beautiful people had plans and we are all at a loss not to see them live it out.

And Matt loved the outdoors: skiing, biking, hockey, roller blading -- and he had such grace and allignment with himself doing it.  He loved deep sea diving, the beach and the mountains, the Bruins, the Red Sox, the Celtics -- he loved people and connection and conversation.  He loved LIFE!

His name, Matthew, meant Gift of God -- and he was.  I was so proud to be his mother.  I watched him face his life, the triumphs and the suffering -- and despite the dazzling smile, he bore deep suffering.  C.G. Jung said that suffering carves out the soul -- and Matt’s soul was very large.  

From his birth, May 3, 1969 in Massachusetts, to his final thrilling ride, January 31, 2012 at Cold Spring Trail in his beloved Santa Barbara, California, he had a great one!

He told me once that the mountains were a cathredral to him -- that in nature he was close to God.  
I know, without a doubt, that he left this physical world in a moment of pure perfection -- he was in love -- he knew his was loved -- five minutes from the trail head, joy endorphins were coursing through his blood.  He had a sense of accomplishment from finessing his way down the mountain’s rocky trial so he could get home to his love, Stacy, who was waiting.

We don’t know another’s Soul’s Path, their contract with God.  I would have wanted him longer, but it wasn’t my decision.  I accept and honor his to leave how and when he did and say, Go Matt Go!

TO AN ATHLETE DYING YOUNG by A. E. Housman (1859-1936).

"The time you won your town the race /We chaired you through the market-place; /Man and boy stood cheering by, /And home we brought you shoulder-high... Smart lad, to slip betimes away /From fields where glory does not stay /And early though the laurel grows /It withers quicker than the rose... 
Now you will not swell the rout /Of lads that wore their honours out, /Runners whom renown outran /And the name died before the man... 
And round that early-laurelled head /Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead, /And find unwithered on its curls /The garland briefer than a girl's." 
"Now take back the soul of Matthew Bruce Sanborn whom You have shared with us. He brought us joy...we loved him well. 
He was not ours. 
He was not mine."

My Grandmother, Mae-Mae, with Uncle Matt

Friday, February 10, 2012

Binthabhat - the Giving of Buddhist Alms

On our 3rd morning in Laos, my dad had arranged for us to participate in a ceremony called Binthabhat, which is the giving of alms (in this case, food) to the Buddhist Monks of Luang Prabang. The monks are not allowed to handle money, nor prepare their own food and so the offerings they receive from the community during this daily ceremony is all that they will eat during their two meals each day. Around six o’clock every morning, the monks, mostly young boys, walk in a line around the town collecting food. Many townspeople and a few tourists take part in the offerings. The most common offering is rice, but people give them all sorts of weird stuff as well. We stuck with the more traditional items that my dad had arranged for us; rice and tangerines - in fact, 10 pounds of cooked rice and 25 pounds of tangerines! After a little wait, we saw them. Marching down the street in their flowing orange robes. They each had a pot to put the offerings in, we soon ran out of rice, and then switched to tangerines. It made me feel good that we could help these monks out, and offer them food to eat. 

*There are certain protocols to follow to show respect for the process and he monks.  It is important (to the monks) that women keep their heads lower than the monk's heads at all times, so they generally remain seated or kneeling, while men are able to sit or stand while giving alms.  It is equally important that women not touch the monks or their clothing as the monks must go through a purification process should they have any contact with a woman or girl.  As each monk passes by, they open their basket so you can place a piece of fruit or a handful of rice inside (again, being careful not to touch the basket). It is also tradition, and a sign of respect for their culture, to wear a hand-woven sash across the chest and over the shoulder while giving alms.  The monks ranged in age from around age ten to very old men, but most of them seemed to be in their late-teens to late-20s.  There is a seriousness that prevails during the ceremony, but the monks and participants relax and lighten-up a bit after it concludes. We chatted with a few monks who wanted to practice their English during our walk back to our hotel.*

Also, as an interesting side note, the monks also donate some of their food to beggars, who also line the route. The monks will walk by them, and take a large chunk of their rice and put it in the beggars’ baskets. It was a fascinating way to begin the day, and I could already tell it was going to be a great day for us in Laos.

* special thanks to my dad for the second paragraph of this blog as I copied much of it from his Facebook page!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Indochine Adventure pt.3 - Laos, days 1-3

Exploring the mighty Mekong River in central Laos
FROM JANUARY 10, 2012:
           We arrived in Laos on New Year’s Eve. Before we even left the airport, I knew that Luang Prabang was no Vietnam. The city of around 100,000 is Laos’ largest tourist center, and former capital of the Kingdom of Laos before the communist takeover in the 1970s, yet it felt like hardly anyone was there. The airport was hardly larger than a house, and the customs room was so tiny that would have felt small as a living room.

At a waterfall outside of Luang Prabang

Lots of trippy-bridges in Laos
            Luang Prabang (which I will refer to as LP) is nestled deep in the mountains of central Laos, and is surrounded on all sides by abrupt hills and steep mountains. It also is right on the banks of the Mekong river, the very same river where I was in early December, but now I was on the other end - deep in the heart of the mighty Mekong. We would spend the next six days exploring all that the town and surrounding countryside had to offer. As we arrived late in the afternoon, we took a short rest at the hotel, and then had a New Years Eve dinner on the main street. All the fancy restaurants had increased their prices by about 100% for the night (but for some reason I doubt that the quality increased much), since that's what all the fancy places do. We chose the more casual pizza restaurant for the night, planning to eat at the fancy places when their prices dropped. There wasn't much of a fireworks show, but that might have been because I fell asleep at around 10. The one neat celebration we did see was the launching of giant paper-bag balloons carrying there own self-sustaning fires - just like the Christmas farolitos launched in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but much, much larger. They were alternately beautiful to watch as they slowly drifted hundreds of feet into the air, and then terrifying to be under as they inevitably lit themselves ablaze and came crashing back to Earth.

Claira enjoys some chocolate soup with her lunch

Hiking along the Mekong
            On our second day in Laos, we took a bike ride and saw a beautiful (yet crowded) waterfall: After breakfast we were picked up by our guide and then chose out our beach cruisers that would serve as our trusty steads for the morning - we let my sisters and my mom have the only bikes with functioning brakes while my dad and I went with Flintstones-style drag your foot brakes. For the next few hours we cycled all around LP, and left the tourist area behind. It was quite a pleasant time, although there were quite a few hills to climb with just a few gears to choose from. Being able to leave the air-conditioned comfort of the car and getting out and feeling the cool village air on my face made me feel like I was really seeing an unobstructed view of the country. That afternoon we traded in our two wheeled steads for a large four wheeled stead, which took us up to a waterfall, around half an hour from LP. It was a beautiful waterfall that could have been even better if there weren’t so many people there. But then again it was peak tourist season and this is one of the places where everyone goes. The water was amazing, it was a light blue that, combined with the green of the trees and the sand just looked simply incredible. On the way back to the car, we also saw a sad sight. There was a pen with an endangered species of bear. The sad part was that their enclosure was obviously not large enough for them to properly exercise, and were going a bit crazy in their cages.

We had Broiled fish, Grilled fish, fish Stew, Fried fish, Steamed fish, Curried fish....   we had a lot of fish.

Lao lao Whiskey distillery
            The next day, we drove around 1 hour through the mountains to a small village along the Mekong, where we boarded a small fishing boat (hardly wider than me) and crossed the Mekong to a village that makes alcohol, lao lao whiskey. They were also having a large party at the time as well. We could hear the music blasting across the river, and after we arrived on the shore, we went up and saw how they make their drink. It's actually a pretty interesting process. They take aged, fermented rice, steam it, collect that steam, and distill that into the lao lao. My dad tried it and said that it was really strong. Soon after we once again hopped aboard our little craft and returned across the river. We had lunch aboard a large boat, with many other tourists, though we were the only Westerners. The meal was mostly fresh fish caught from the Mekong that day. We really enjoyed the entire meal, we ordered six different styles of preparation - steamed, broiled, curried, fried, grilled and cooked in a soup - and every dish was unique and delicious. With our meal complete, we boarded another, larger vessel that took us across the river to a cave that cut into the side of a cliff just above the river. It was filled with Buddhas. Little Buddhas, big Buddhas, golden, silver, glass, stone… every Buddha statue you could possibly imagine were crammed into this cave, placed there by pilgrims for hundreds of years. It was Buddh-tastic. And finally, we enjoyed a nice relaxing cruise down the Mekong, and after a two-hour or so float, we arrived back in LP. So far we were having a great time in Laos, and with another 2 full days in Laos, it was gearing up to be an awesome adventure. 

Monks along the Mekong

We ate a lot of fish, but we didn't have much luck catching them

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Four Food Groups of Cambodia

          Ever diligent in maintaining my renown soccer match fitness, I present to you the secret I've discovered to promote good health and well being while traveling in Southeast Asia - The Four Food Groups of Cambodia:

The Frog Torso Group

The Live Ants and Larva Group

The Fried Tarantula Group

The freshly-shelled Duck Fetus Group

          Independent research has concluded that strict adherence to this well-balanced diet will lead to significantly increased attraction from the opposite-sex, as well as rejuvenated ferocity in the bedroom.

          However, the good people at Andrew Aboard have been unable to confirm any of the above claims.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A Weekend in the Countryside

            Disclaimer: Let me first tell you that as I write this, Monday the 30th, I have spent the last two weeks visiting/being visited by countless relatives and people, so if I can't recall their name or who they are and refer to them as “the relatives” or “a relative”, please forgive me.

When I think of Vietnam, I don't usually think Pine trees and fog (I associate that more with Oregon), but that's exactly what I got on the weekend of the 14th. Tet was upon us and it was time to visit relatives, so my family brought me to my Host mother’s town, around 50 miles northwest of Hanoi.

Graves overlooking a beautiful lake
            We boarded our train at around 6 am on Saturday, not the most pleasant departure time, but we had a lot of things to do once we got to town, so it was a necessary sacrifice. Let me tell you, These Vietnamese commuter trains are no Bullet trains. They have a max. speed of around 25 miles an hour, and I’m fairly confident that the cars haven’t been replaced since before the war.  They also have bars across the windows, to prevent any escape from the ridged wooden park benches that substitute as train seats. Of course they are equipped with the classic ‘hole’ toilet that dumps directly onto the tracks, because it doesn't smell bad enough along the tracks already.

            Of course some of this is exaggerated, well, actually it isn’t now that I think about it…  Even Amtrak puts this train to shame.

The temple in all of its majesty 
            So after about 3 and a half hours aboard, we finally disembarked at the Ga Phú Tho (Phu Tho railroad station). We were met by some relatives, who showed us the way to their house. Once there, we were introduced to some more relatives, like my host mom’s siblings, her aunt and others. After a round of tea, we met some more relatives, who took us out to the family grave site, located in a quite pasture overlooking a fog covered lake, surrounded by tall pine trees, it was quite surreal in the late morning mist. Buried there were her grandparents and father. Her grandmother lived to be 96! Which is incredible for a person living in 20th century Vietnam. She lived in 3 different countries and didn't even have to move out of the house; colonial France, North Vietnam, and finally, Vietnam. That must have been quite extraordinary to live through. We then lit some incents for them and said some prayers, and continued on with our countryside adventure.

Pine trees in Vietnam, who would've guessed?
            We returned to the house, where we ate lunch, and then went on a excursion to a temple that honors the mother of Vietnam. The temple is set high up in the hills, and on this particular day, was covered in a thick layer of fog. This place in really off the beaten track for tourist, well it really was never on the path to begin with. We practically had the hill to ourselves on this cold January day. The temples were, great, really dramatic with the fog in the background. By the time we finished our hike it was nearly dark. We gathered the party together, the 4 of us, plus 2 other relatives, one of which was also the driver, and drove to the city of Viet Tri (51 klicks NW of Hanoi) for dinner with a friend of my host dad. It was a seafood dinner, and was actually very good, I got to make my own fish rolls out of rice paper, star fruit, banana and fish, and I have to say I was impressed with my cooking abilities.

I don't know about you, but I appreciate when my
train cars are heavily fortified 
            We then drove back through the rain to Phu Tho, around 15 miles or so. We spent the night at my Aunt and uncle’s house back in town. We wouldn't be there long, because we had an 8 o’clock train to catch back to Hanoi. Looking back, I honestly think I could have jogged it back to Hanoi faster than that train. The return trip of around 45-50 miles took a little over 4 hours. But that's all not what I will remember most about this trip. What I will remember is the kindness and warmth of the family out in the country, and even though I don't even know who a good 9/10ths of them are, I still really liked them and their hospitality. Until next time, this is Andrew Abroad.