The Bus Trip to Jhule (My Mount Everest)

This is a note to myself…while I will never forget yesterday, I might forget the details and the texture of the moment, and I never want to do that.

Renu asked us if we wished to take a separate car or ride on the bus with the children on our laps on the way to Jhule. Three minutes later, I was sitting in a seat meant as a tight fit for two people, with Srijana, Manju and Pinky, who insisted, despite the fact that their seat already was an excruciatingly tight fit, that I sit with them.  They had a mission. They wanted to teach me a Nepali song.
Photo by Manoj Jirel, Student Photographer and Joker
I positioned myself on a full half inch of seat available to me and began to try and do what they said as they moved quickly through the song, expecting me to pick up and repeat the simple words they were telling me. After a laughed filled five minutes, I redirected them. I asked “is there a song you teach the babies? Like a VERY simple song the very little ones can learn to sing?” They laughed wildly and then began teaching me this one:

Ma Janchu, Kathmandu

Motor chadera

Bholi parsi aune chhu

Ma doctor ba ne ra.

They tell me that this means “I am going to Kathmandu by motorbike. When I come back, I will be a doctor.”

I asked them to please write down the words for me so I could follow. They first wrote them in Nepalese, which is a truly beautiful looking writing, but one I cannot read, of course. They got help from one of the teachers to write the English phonetic spelling for me. I now have it in their handwriting in my little book, along with the words for parts of the face and the word for silly. They enjoy it very much when I identify several of the boys as jokers…and jokers they are.

I sat with them, trying to sing the baby song for a while (I plan to record them singing it as soon as possible, so that I can continue trying to learn it when I go home). Then Manoj asked me to sing an American song for them. I told Manoj (who, by the way, is quite the joker) that I was glad to see everyone happy and that I did not want to make everyone cry by singing. He laughed and asked me if I knew songs by Hannah Montana. I told him my favorite song of hers was Party in the USA and, miraculously, one of the teachers produced their phone playing the song for me to sing along to. So sing I did…at least the chorus. They watched me very seriously, studying me…like I held some kind of information in my random moves and singing manner. It was odd, but ok somehow. Then I sat back down (yes, I had to stand for this so I could turn to face the one requesting the song) and the back of the bus, where I was sitting, broke into Let it Be, by the Beatles. As I was sitting, I had to brace myself by placing my hands on the seat back and the seat in front of me. As I sang, my hand was stroked by the little girl sitting in the seat behind us. We only stopped singing because Manju said she wanted me to look out the window with them and see their country as we drive past.

The ride was hard. As uncomfortable as it was for me, kids all around me were throwing up from motion sickness into little plastic bags. The 30 minute bus ride seemed to last for hours. All I could do to comfort them was stand so that they had the seat to themselves, and offer the exotic wet wipes I had for them to wipe their mouths and faces. The remainder of the trip was them being sick and me wiping their faces, pulling their hair out of their faces and asking the teachers around me how much longer the trip was. I was glad when the ride ended so my friends could recover themselves, which they did with amazing alacrity.

But the amazing thing was how the other kids took care of their friends. As kids up and down the bus became sick, their friends would move them to the seat by the window, yell for plastic bags and water, and tend to them constantly. Some of the older kids, even the jokers, stood in the aisles to facilitate quick transfer of the needed items. They were all focused on taking care of the motion sick kids. And no one had to ask any of them to step up. Not one of them shirked the responsibility of caring for the others. Not one of them. No one wanted to change seats to get away from the sick ones. The seat in front of  me had kids in it who were probably 7 years old, and when one of them fell sick, the other two in the seat tended to them for the remainder of the trip. They would look up continuously and make faces like it smelled awful, but it never occurred to them to do anything other than what they were doing. And, for the return trip, they sat with the same kids…never once considering changing their seat mates as an option, though it most assuredly was.

Next installment will be about the trek itself.

Miro Nom Kim Ho

My writing will have to change. If I am to capture the intensity of every moment on these kinds of trips, I will have to learn to get out of my way. To lose the training I have had in writing. I ache for this, particularly today.

Today, I am capturing the stories of some of these children. I was not prepared for how I would feel here. I knew I would feel compassion. I knew I would feel pain that I could not do more. I knew that I would think they were sweet. But these are the least of my emotions here.

I am filled with hope for the world here, within the walls of this school. I want more for these kids, and I want more for me and my kids back home. I want the thirst for life that these kids have. I want my kids to want to learn and be as these kids so clearly do.

Stephanie is teaching them now and their focus and intensity is not compulsory or polite. You can feel them pulling the information out of her…hanging on her every word. Sometimes, it feels more that she is allowing the information to be pulled from her, rather than “teaching” it to them. Stephanie and the kids are natural together in a way that I would not have thought possible.

In fact, I am surprised at how comfortable I feel here. With this group from the US, with Renu, who I only met three days ago, with these kids whose names I am becoming so familiar with.

As much as we bring knowledge to these children, they have more to bring to us than we can imagine from where we sit at home. I am only beginning to learn. What I am learning today is hope.
In any case, the stories are not done. They are not simple. I need more time with these kids. In the meantime, I am sticking some of the pics onto Facebook.
Tomorrow we go trekking with the school. I am hoping to get to know them better. One at a time.


I’m not worthy…Nepal

Am I up to this?

Today we meet the children. We are going to the Koseli.
After breakfast, Jen pulls me into her office (our bathroom) to discuss my enthusiasm. Which, despite my assertion that I am controlling, is apparently bubbling over the edges of the teapot of my brain. Our bathroom conversation is wildly helpful in a way that I cannot possibly verbalize. What I can say is, that Jen connects with me in this and now I have someone here who can hold my intensity…if I can hold it through the day, Jen will hold it for me at night and help me contextualize. Now, I am good. I have so much to learn. And that makes me happy. I love to learn. I want to grow into what is next. This is an intensive in that.
We leave for the school and I am sitting in the front seat with the driver. Jen directs me to sit there and I protest, but she sits me up there anyway and I’ll be damned if she is not right. I feel like there is a soundtrack moving through my head as I we make the trip to the school. I don’t want the drive to end. I am happy.
I step into the school’s gates, my insides melt. I could live here. I swear this is true.
Stephanie disappears immediately. How anxious she is to begin her mission. Ah, her mission, I have not told you about this. Let me tell you now.
Stephanie is a photographer. She lives in Georgia, outside of Athens, on a cow farm. She has a brilliant smile and she is here on her own mission. She wants to teach the kids to tell their own story, through pictures. She has just formed an organization called Lens on Life. She has kids in Tanzania and Nepal that she is now dedicated to in driving this mission. This is a real call of the heart. She travelled, met these children, took pictures, and when she left, her work came to her. She needs to help the kids tell their own story. These kids needs the tools to communicate. This is a mission I can get behind.
Stephanie has, through her Twitter network, eight iPhones donated for her trip. She is teaching the kids to take pictures with them. Pictures of their life.  Pictures of the things that are important to them.
So, today, I am in a class of twelve kids as her assistant. Twelve kids who are magnificently ready to take on this challenge.
And they are incredible, these kids. Each comes from the slums of Nepal. Slums I have not seen, but are clearly beyond anything we identify as slums in the US. Each of them has a story that is beyond our ability to comprehend from where we are. I fall in love instantly. This is not the “how precious are these children” kind of love. This is “I love them. I want to them to teach me. I want to help them become whatever it is they want to be.” I want my kids in this school. I want my kids with these kids.
Immediately, two girls focus in on me…and I on them.
This is Srijana and Pinky.
As Stephanie gave them the iPhones. They immediately began taking pictures of me. Every time I looked at them, they were looking at me.
Pinky is an artist. I mean, seriously. I will post pictures of her work tomorrow.
She and her friend, Srijana were magic to me.
I love them. Seriously. I want to bring them home with me.
Stephanie engaged them in a way I would not have thought possible. She taught them how to start the phone. How to take pictures. How to communicate what it is they see.
“What is important is you…not your camera. There are people in the United States who would love to come to Nepal. They can’t. They need you to see what it is like here. What your life is like.”
Stephanie showed them her pictures from Tanzania and the US. Showed them pictures of kids in their natural environment. The kids were silent as she clicked through the pictures, drawing in the lives of kids they would never see in person and don’t have any context for what their lives are like. They got it. You could see it in their faces. They understood the importance. You could literally see the lightbulbs going off in them. I could live in that moment.
Neil and Kristi, the videographers who said yes to this project before they really knew what it was, were moving around the small room in a way that seemed completely natural and beautiful. I have been watching videographers for years and I have never seen a dance like this. They moved around the room like they were connected by an invisible thread. Never in each other’s shot and always shooting the complimentary shot. It was a beautiful symmetry that could only exist between two people in love. And they are. You should see them together. It is a true romance. It is my goal to capture that love with my camera at some point so you can see. They are lovely, fun, sweet and their heart is totally in this.
I am an assistant here, and I love this role.  I am learning so much. Stephanie tells me what to do and I gleefully do it. If she asked me to clean the bathroom with a toothbrush, I would do it with more love than I thought imaginable.
There is more. Of course there is more. And you will know it. I promise you. I will give you everything.

Running into Kuan Yin

Yesterday afternoon, as I was waiting for my luggage to arrive, I scouted online for some things to see in Singapore. I ran across a very brief comment about a temple here that was on someone’s MUST DO WHILE YOU ARE IN SINGAPORE lists. It was the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho temple on Waterloo street. It was mentioned that wishing something in here makes the wish come true and that there is a fairly complicated process for paying your respects here (at least complicated for the uninitiated, like me). I made a mental note to check it out at some point and then called a cab to take me to Bugis Village.
After walking through the mosh pit market I found myself on, what I thought to be, a quieter, but still quite populated, part of the market. And then I literally looked up and discovered I was right in the presence of the temple I had just read about. I sat and watched what people did on the outside of the temple for a while before deciding I would go in myself. I did not see a single other westerner approach the temple at any time…but something inside me was dying to go in and see for myself. I went to a woman selling lotus flowers nearby and purchased one that I assumed would be an offering of some sort. The flower was so beautiful that I wanted to take it home. I have never seen a lotus flower in person before.

As I entered the outer vestibule of the temple, I followed everyone else in picking up joss sticks (an incense stick) and walking over to the fire to light them. A kind man there, who was lighting his own sticks) literally lifted mine away from the fire and told me in the sweetest voice that I needed three, not two. That only three would bring me the luck I needed. I thanked him and brought a third back and he showed me the correct way to light them and, once they lit, told me to hold them and how to pray and place them before entering the temple. Which I did. I did not realize at the time that I was praying to Quan Yin.

Once I had placed the burning joss sticks into the sand in front of the temple, I entered tentatively. The place had hundreds of people, inside and out. A stunning golden statue of Quan Yin stood at the back of this temple behind a wooden counter filled with flower pots. I followed everyone else to the front, bypassing the large red carpet positioned in front of the goddess on the floor…filled with prostrate worshippers.

At the front, I noticed a donation box and put in my donation as I placed the lotus flower in one of the pots nearest to me. I then did as everyone else did and walked over to men behind another counter with brass containers holding maybe 100 wooden divinations sticks and red divination stones of some kind. Then I turned and walked over the carpet, on a side just a little less populated than the one I had entered on. I stood and watched what the people did and almost decided to return the sticks and red stones, when a female official of some kind approached me and said “I will help you.”

Here I am. Clearly a clueless westerner, and this kind woman offer to teach me what to do. I remove my shoes and kneel as she instructs in broken English. “Now you pray, in your heart, to her. Tell her what you want and what you want to know. She will answer you.” And pray I did.

Being in a room with so many clearly faithful people fills you with a reverence that is hard to define. Their prayer was intense and focused. Their hearts were reaching out to this goddess of mercy. I felt her there. I did not have a problem praying to her.

Once I felt sufficiently connected, my guide in the process instructed me to shake the box until only one of the sticks fell from it. This is more difficult than it sounds and, while other more accomplished worshippers completed the task in moments, it took me some time. Finally I felt the motion and a stick dropped out on the floor before me.

I gathered my things, as instructed and headed to the same counter where I had picked up the sticks in the first place. I handed them the stick that had dropped before me and they handed me a piece of paper with the goddesses words for me. The counsel I got was perfect, but less important than the entire process had been for me.

I walked out and crossed the street to sit on a wall and witness the people coming out. I had stumbled into another world and I was not quite ready to return to the bustling mayhem of Bugis Village. I took the only picture you are allowed to take of the temple, which is outside…but the statue of Quan Yin is etched in my brain. She was that beautiful… infused with the wishes and dreams of millions of devoted who had bowed before her.

I felt lucky to have been a part of this. The details I share here are really not sufficient to deliver the impact of the experience of entering a place of mercy, a place packed with the faithful and being gently guided through the process of seeking your own answers. I believe I got mine in the faces and love shown to me in the process.

I am blessed.



And Batu Caves are Worth the Trouble

The caves were strange, funny, interesting, and magnificent. (WARNING: this is picture heavy.)
This is the first thing you see as you enter the side gate:

This is Hanuman. You see him first as you enter from the station. Another very good reason to not take the taxi. You could easily miss him altogether and that would be a shame. He is worth seeing.

I think I took nearly 100 pictures here, I will only put a few. But it is a shame to see it piece meal like this.

Here are some pictures of the characters in the epic battle told here.


Here are the 272 steps, straight up, to the caves.

The giant golden statue to the right of the steps is Lord Murugan, the Hindu Diety, proudly standing guard to the temples dedicated to him. And the pictures do not do him justice, of course. He is so imposing that I did not notice the shrine to the left of the entrance until we descended from the caves.

I’m not gonna lie. The walk up was intense. These are not gentle slopping stairs and the hike up is not for the delicate. I went anyway. 🙂 But at the top is an impressive cave, with ceilings 100 meters high and temples and shrines scattered about. There is also, oddly, a substantial souvenir stand. Selling all kinds of shrine souvenirs as well as general KL souvenirs. In this moment, I am kicking myself for not having purchased one of the insane pieces of wall art, featuring any one of the deities represented in the shrine in a plastic frame with lightning bolt lights blinking around them. What was I thinking?

I took lots of pictures. Here are two of them.

I am dying to know if this is Kali. If she is, she looks quite different than I have seen her represented. But she is clearly standing on a man…

It was at the top of the stairs that I felt a twinge of disappointment. All these beautiful, reverent pieces around and still I am disappointed. Because there were no monkeys. Not one. Perhaps I had come at the wrong time of the day…but I read nothing of this in the descriptions of the place. Perhaps they had been chased away. Perhaps what I had read was old. In any case, I looked and looked and did not see a single one.

Here is what the cave looked like

We descended and at the bottom, it began to sprinkle just a bit and we were about to leave when I decided I wanted just one more shot of Lord Murugan. As I began snapping shots, Dorothea, the German student I was exploring with, whispered, “the monkeys.”
I looked up and there they were. Bananas in hand, they sat among the shrines that told the stories and scouted the crowd to see who was the most likely “mark.” I was mesmerized.

Right above our heads on the entrance to the shrine
At Lord Murugan’s Feet, eating a banana
This guy is the madman. Totally bared teeth and went all postal on some poor woman.
The baby was teeny and the mom was very protective. Very sweet.
Another tough guy…seconds away from stealing someone’s peanuts.

The trip was full, more than I could have anticipated really. So I was ready to go. The sky had become more threatening, and, to be frank, as cool as it sounded, I was not that excited about going to the bird sanctuary as I had planned. I scoured the map the hotel had given me and found a place called the “Malaysian Craft Cultural Center” which was described as a recreation of a traditional Malaysian village with traditional Malaysian crafts being demonstrated and sold. Why had no one told me of this? I changed my plans. I would head over to this place, despite the threatening weather. I said goodbye to Dorothea, who was heading off to kaoroke with her friends, and set off on my next adventure. Starting in KL Sentral Station.



A Bear Cub in Wimberley

This is Moose.

OK, he is not actually a bear, but it took me a minute to make sense of his size when I first encountered him. This was not my first time meeting a Bouvier de Flanders (a very formal name for the very bearish moose to be sure). I have loved them since I first laid eyes on one…years and years ago.

As Tina finished getting ready to go to breakfast that first morning in Wimberley, I took my camera outside to see what worked in my baby photographer’s eye. I thought that surely this place would make me feel like a brilliant photographer. Surely here I could just swing the camera around and capture magic in every image. Ha.

Magic was there, though. Only not in my lens. As I stepped off the front porch I saw the movement of something large and black behind the car. I froze…not in fear, but curiosity. How was it possible that a bear cub was here? A black bear cub, no less. In Wimberley? Then a very timid Moose peeked out from behind and I fell in love.

Clearly unaware of his impressive size, Moose timidly approached me as if it were me that was all muscle, teeth and black eyes peering from behind mounds of hair. When I reached out to pet him, he backed up as if I would strike him. In my eagerness I had forgotten the dog-approach rules. No eye contact…let them smell you first…no smiling (showing teeth)…raise hand, palm up, to nose for approval. When he approached again, I was ready. We became fast friends.

In fairness to Moose, who is a gentle soul, the picture above was taken as Moose played by the creek. He followed me and Tina down as we strolled down to sit in chairs and listen to the wind. Moose played in the water and ran around and around like a wild thing. I took many pictures. This is one of my faves because it is so out of character. The dog in this picture would scare the hell out of Moose. My skills at photography were quite challenged by moose. He is so dark that many pictures ended up looking like a mass of fur. The best pictures I got were with him playing with Tina.

Tina said at one point that, in order to get into my pictures that weekend, she had to be standing next to Moose. And, while it is true that I was just a little obsessed with this gorgeous dog, I took lots of pictures of her as well.




Possible, Not Probable

Almost a year ago, Tina and I had just returned from our latest trip to the desert. I was preparing mentally for surgery and the weeks following when I would be on “bed rest.” It was a strange time for us, to be sure. And into the mix came Mondo Beyondo.

Mondo Beyondo is an online course in dreaming big. Over five weeks, Jen Lemen and Andrea Scher walked us, and 300 others, through the process of reawakening the parts of us that imagine amazing lives full of adventure and rewards. For five weeks, we focused on what is possible, as opposed to what is probable.

Something shifted for me during that class and the past year has been a wild ride. At least internally.

It never occurred to me to go through this exercise with the kids for some reason until Jen suggested it to us recently. She gave us the process and we sat down with our kids this past weekend and had them make their own list of the possible, not probable.

Here they are making their lists.

The results were stunning.

I promised them I would not share them with anyone without asking, but trust me…they have some really cool stuff on them. I shared some of my list with them too. So did Tina.

Our conversations have changed as a result. I am regularly finding myself in discussions with them now about cool things they want to do. And not things like “Go to Disney World” (which was noticeably absent from all three lists). More adventurous things like travel to exotic and remote locales and adrenaline rush type of physical activities. I am finding out more about them every day. And man, they are cool.

I am hoping all their Mondo Beyondo dreams come true. In any case, we are dreaming into our future together. And it feels better that way.



P.S. If you have not taken Mondo Beyondo already, get on it. For 99 bucks you can find out for yourself what big dreams are lurking in your heart.