Eating my way through Khorat

Nakhon Ratchasima was a blazing 36 degrees Celsius when I disembarked from my train onto the sleepy platform of the tired station. A wall of suffocating heat in the midday sun. The walk to the guesthouse was an assault of noise, dust, heat, and traffic fumes as I stumbled over the broken, uneven sidewalks. I’m normally rather even keel about the most uncomfortable of travel moments, but this was almost my limit. I began to curse my decision not to spend money on the over-eager tuk-tuk drivers for the distance of a 15 minute walk.

Not a promising start.

I huddled in my room, the air-con at full blast, as I guzzled water and wondered what on earth I was doing in Nakhon Ratchasima, also know as Khorat, the furthest thing from a tourist draw.

Thankfully it was just a bad day for Khorat. I awoke the next morning to a cool breeze and goosebumps on my arms as the sun slowly stretched and offered a reprieve down to 30 degrees Celsius. I just arrived on an exceptionally hot day for the region’s cool season.

The city is a dense grid of tired concrete buildings, endless traffic, motorbikes whizzing down side alleys, and even the occasional bike-propelled tuk-tuk. Braids of power lines drape down every street and the concrete soaks up heat like a radiant sponge. It’s hot, dirty, noisy, and not for everyone. But walk in the cool of morning or late evening, when the sun’s power has retired to the moon, and Khorat is suddenly gentler.

Around dusk, a fleet of food carts invade the street. It’s impossible to walk down the sidewalk without dodging forests of tables and carts and people noshing on every imaginable variety of spicy soups, stir-fried noodles, and steamed dumplings. I am sightseeing the city through my stomach. Continue reading

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Bangkok and I – Reaching a Compromise

Bangkok wears me out. She is brash, loud, sour and chaotic. The sun is heavy and the air soiled. By the end of a morning of simple walking, my skin and eyes and feet cry for relief.

She is that sister that doesn’t care what you think and will pull you along for the ride, whether you want to go or not. There are moments I cannot stand to be in Bangkok.  I guzzle water as the sun bakes my skin dry and scratchy, even as oily sweat glistens from every pore, and the haze that softens the skyline irritates my eyes.

Today I gave a shrug and embraced her, only in my own way. To follow the weary zombie-like tourist hordes when you have a chronic medical condition is insanity. I would wipe out within an hour in the 34 degree Celsius heat.

Instead of joining the steady flow of tourists heading to the Royal Palace, I turned left and walked past sidewalk-crowding vendors of amulets and meat-on-a-stick. A major event was occurring at the Sanam Luang – royal parade ground – that swamped the surrounding streets with barricades, checkpoints and police. I didn’t feel like shuffling through metal detectors just to walk a street, so I took another detour into the shady back lanes of the nearby university until I found a garden perch along the river, still in the middle of noisy, tumultuous Bangkok, but far from the crowds. Stretched out on a bench under the cool kiss of a banyan tree, I watched the world parade by on the Chao Phraya River. Long, plodding barges. Packed river ferries, passengers jumping to and from the floating platforms. The mad churning of longtail motors in the murky waters. Continue reading

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Nonconformist Singapore – Beyond the Skyscrapers

I did not expect Singapore to be more than a modern city, a perfectly curated and sanitized cityscape, where her residents ensconce themselves in air-conditioned buildings and scurry between work and home. I’ve never been so pleased to be proved wrong.

Yes, Singapore is a modern metropolis that grew into her skyscraper skin within an astonishingly brief 50 years. Yes, most residents now live in huge condominium and apartments complexes. Yes, social life centers around malls, where one finds movie theaters, coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, and children’s playgrounds. Life is efficiently organized and Singaporeans will politely queue for everything. Food carts no longer ply the streets, but are concentrated in hawker centres, much like an open-air mall food court, where vendors serve up their fresh, tasty cheap treats. Even traffic is staid, flowing calmly in their proper channels; no weaving motorbike hordes that I’ve come to expect in major SE Asian cities.

However, this is only a surface impression. Over the past four days, I’ve emerged from the air-con maze of the MRT to explore neighborhoods at the pace of my own two feet. I found vibrant, colorful life outside the condos and skyscrapers and malls. Continue reading

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Exploring Singapore in a Haze of Worry

I landed in Singapore three days ago. Three days of a new city to explore. Intriguing spicy foods to try, with tongue-twister names and fragrant spices. New faces, young and old, ever hue of the color skin rainbow. A cacophony of languages, all completely different in intonation and rhythm.

Three days of writer’s block.

My heart is weary with the constant barrage of news from home, most so upsetting to my pride and integrity as an American, that I struggle to concentrate and put experiences to paper. Every story I could share about my newest journey could not possible matter in the face of the shadow that grows bigger and darker from home. The fear of the “other.” The demonization of refugees, many of whom I call friend. The surge of hate politics. The non-stop efforts to undermine the core tenets of the Constitution in the span of one week. I am so whiplashed and battered in my heart and soul, I struggle to see the purpose in this endeavor of mine to travel SE Asia for two months.

Yet I am reminded of the importance of beauty, of mindfulness in the simple joys that unite us all as human, in the power of travel to shatter stereotypes and dangerous barriers of our minds as we meet and interact with people of cultures different from our own. I have been walking around Singapore in a haze of indifference and apathy that could not possibly justify the money I spent on the plane ticket (or maybe that’s just jet lag). Continue reading

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The World is Crying and I am Numb

It has been over a month since I flew home from Greece. A month since a giggling circle of children covered my face in stickers in Pireaus Port. A month since the beautiful smile of little Aya won my heart and I held her little sister slumbering in my arms in the cold stillness of night as we waited to secure their family a place in Eleonas camp. Well over a month since FYROM/Macedonia closed the border with Greece, stranding tens of thousands of people from reaching their husbands, wives, children, parents, brothers and sisters who have already reached asylum in Germany or Austria or Sweden.

The situation in Greece has deteriorated rapidly since I left. Pireaus Port is now filled with tents and thousands of people sleeping in the cold. Idomeni has transformed from a border crossing way station into a humanitarian crisis as families camp in the mud and burn plastic to stay warm, children contract Hepatitis A, and thousands sit in the rain and wait, wait, wait to learn their fate.

Meanwhile on the islands, the refugees braving the dangerous Aegean crossing now meet a new, harsher face of Europe. With the signing of the deal between the EU and Turkey, all new arrivals now risk the unthinkable of being sent back to Turkey, conveniently declared a “safe country” for refugees. Despite the fact Turkish law does not recognize non-Europeans as refugees. Turkish coast guard vessels have attempted to pushback refugee boats by any means necessary even if it endangers their lives, and Turkish border guards have shot and killed Syrian refugees trying to cross into Turkey from Syria, including children. Yet Turkey is now “safe.”

If they do arrive on the shores of Greece, instead of the gentle, smiling, hopeful face of the volunteers and local NGOs I have been so proud to work with on Lesvos, these traumatized people fleeing ISIS, war, the Taliban, torture, and death are now left to shiver in their wet, dirty clothes, shut behind fences inside detention centers run by the military and police as volunteers attempt to pass them food and water and blankets through the gaps in the fence. Basics such as medical care, sanitation, water, food, dry clothing, and baby formula no longer reliably provided. Men, women, and children shut away from cameras, journalists, volunteers, doctors.

I read the stories and Facebook posts of my friends still on Lesvos, in Athens, in Idomeni. I message back and forth with refugees stuck in Idomeni who are losing hope, watching the embers die in the mud and rain as they sit and sink into the chaos that is the EU-Turkey deal and Europe’s hardening hearts. I scroll through the photos of wide-eyed children and refugees setting themselves on fire.

I discover I am numb.

I sit here, safely ensconced in the comfortable materialism of a smug, wealthy society turning its back to the faces that haunt my dreams. The world is crying and I yearn to hug her, to surrender myself to her tears.

But everything is parading past me in 2-D on the computer screen and I am numb.

I knew returning home would be jarring, an ugly culture shock as people around me spoke of the trivial and mundane details of life. I didn’t realize just how hard it would be to sit on the sidelines, watch the headlines, and feel useless as the people go about their lives, blissfully unaware of the everyday tragedy and human drama playing out across the ocean. I find myself bursting into rapid-fire jumbled explanations of what is actually happening in Europe, only to see my friends’ eyes glaze over. I retreat back into everyday, polite conversation, but my soul feels hollow. It’s easier to hibernate with my books than engage with the people around me.

Every night, I descend into vivid dreams. I embrace the sorrow, the pain, the anger, the hopelessness, and the frustration. The eyes of the children I’ve met from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq are all simmering pools of trauma that plead and call to me, but I find I cannot move or speak. I awake in a flash of panic.

Then the gray dawn that fills the room also fills my heart and I step into the day, my soul heavy and slow.

Numb.

The world is crying…

 

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Sorting Shoes and Sad Blue Eyes

I am now in Athens, a 12 hour ferry away from the intensity of the life and death crisis playing out daily on Lesvos. Every day I question, “Did I make the right decision to leave and come here? Should I be here, in the bustle and normality of the big city, where people shop and chat in cafes and go to school and gossip and argue over silly slights and the refugees seem to not exist? Did I leave too soon?”

But then I see the endless yaw of the massive former sports stadium, the piles upon piles of boxes stretching back into the dark corners of infinity. Volunteers wheel lorries piled to dangerously teetering heights back,back, back….the depths and scale of these donated boxes of supplies are beyond my comprehension. I hear a volunteer who seems to be in charge mention they never have enough volunteers to really sort through the donations. They can barely keep up. The generosity of Europe pours in and a tiny army (truly tiny,maybe 20 people?) struggle to make any sense of the chaos.

I may not be charging into the icy waters to help a floundering rubber raft or changing a shivering child’s shoes, but I am needed here.

Yesterday I sorted shoes. Big tennis shoes, sleek women’s boots, flimsy flip flops (honestly, not useful, but people are well-meaning), tiny delicate baby booties. All varieties and colors and sizes. Usually no one sorts the shoes, they just trust the handwritten marker labels are correct and ship them off to the islands. I know from experience what that means – hours of volunteers on Lesvos sorting through shoe mismatches, wet moldy shoes that were wrapped in plastic, fishing adult shoes out from children’s shoes.

True, the single shoes that have lost their partner are turned into beautiful cascading chandeliers of art by my friend Thomas, a cheerful addition to the sterile world of white camp tents. So maybe I am depriving Thomas of his creative genius that brings light to a weary man, woman, or child in the dead of night.

In one box, I came across a pair of thick,warm boots for girls. Brand new. Pink with hearts. The image of a Syrian girl’s sad blue eyes pierced me, a memory of 3 weeks ago when I desperately tried to find her warm boots that fit and failed. We tucked scraps of crinkling emergency blanket around her feet and slipped them back into her soaked tennis shoes, dunked in a frigid Aegean Sea.

I wanted to cry and shout, “Here they are! Wait, I’m coming!” But where is she now? I don’t know. Safe in Germany, at a brick and mortar refugee center? Huddled against the winter in the mountains of Macedonia, waiting and waiting and waiting for the border to open and the arms of Europe to welcome her in, out of the cold of death and war and fear?

I don’t know.

So I sort shoes into boxes and hope the boots will find another young girl on Lesvos when she needs them most.

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Embracing Elpis, the Spirit of Hope in Lesvos

Elpis. In Greek mythology, the daimona, or spirit, of hope. When the infamous Pandora opened her box or jar, away flew the other daimona, leaving behind mankind in their suffering and toil on the Earth.

Except Elpis. She alone remained behind, a beacon of hope to every man,woman, and child who crys out in fear and despair.

And from such a mythos, on a Greek island embracing those sojourners of despair who take to the seas and face death in the face in the Hope of a safe haven, a place of respite called the Hope Centre, formerly the Elpis Hotel, has been born from the sweat and tears and HOPE of a hodgepodge crew of international and local volunteers.

Two days ago, we quickly put down our shovels, paint brushes, hammers, and humble instruments and opened our doors to a group of 120 refugees, mostly from Syria. A ferry strike had stretched the island of Lesvos to the breaking point, almost 7,000 refugees stuck on the island, all the overnight and temporary transit camps full, some men even sleeping outside in the winter chill.

We were not ready, not done with our renovation work, our tools scattered about, but news of the refugees coming our way galvanized us and we rushed to make ready. Our hearts, our souls beat in one dance.

It was a beautiful night, a beautiful morning that followed. Families gathered togther in rooms, a rare moment of private togetherness where they could let down their guard from constant vigilance. Steaming tea, a roaring fire, children playing with markers and paper, an inpromptu raising of voices to a ukelele. Harmony and peace. A rare gift in the uncertain path of a refugee. I have never seen so many genuine, radiant smiles as hope filled each and every person there.

It was the most poignant moment of my entire life.

Hope is powerful. Elpis stirs and takes flight from her jar, not to flee us, but to take root in each one of our hearts.

In the face of fear, indifference, hate, I choose Hope.

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