Pack Light but Carry Your Sense of Humor

If you’ve ever moved overseas you know that one thing more stressful than transoceanic economy class flying is transoceanic economy class relocating.

This is equivalent to taking your entire life and physically packing it into a nutshell- or more technically 20kg suitcases. This is not fun. This can be exceptionally stressful if you’re a travel masochist and have routed your trip home on 11 flights via 4 continents and included a mountain climb.

I love flying, but I hate flying with baggage. So I was proud to be traveling light as I started my very long strange trip home.

My first stop enroute was Kilimanjaro which required a flight via Bangkok, a Middle East transit, and a quick stop in Dar Es Salam before finally reaching the mountain I couldn’t see. (That’s PNH-BKK-DOH-DAR-JRO for fellow airplane nerds)

While packing up my life for this journey I had followed one wise piece of advice – carry or wear your essentials for the climb because many bags disappear.  And so I set out, traveling light, and wearing hiking boots and the world fattest winter coat in 90+ degree Cambodia.

One leg into my monster itinerary I was stopped at my gate in Bangkok by a smiling, yet incredibly determined Thai agent who flat out refused to let me board the flight with my carry-on.

I argued, and pleaded. I tried all my usual tricks. I attempted to show her that my bag was the right size and full of things I couldn’t check- like cameras, lenses, and computers, but there was no budging. I opened my bag and began putting on my extra fleeces and jackets.

The agreement, which I eventually had to comply with in order to board the flight, was to check my bag. But I refused to check my stuff.  (I was certain all my warm clothing were going to disappear).

I was kindly provided with an airport trash bag, dumped my entire suitcase inside, and checked an empty bag. I boarded the plane like Santa Claus- dressed in three layers of jackets and hauling a giant trash bag over my shoulder.

I stuffed my bag into the overhead bin, noting that it was now larger and just as heavy as it was when the contents were compressed neatly inside the suitcase. The other passengers smiled at me curiously and I smiled back. On any other day this charade probably would have made me cry, but something was different today.

I had packed light, but I hadn’t forgotten to pack my sense of humor.

Yes, travel is full of amazing experiences, but some days one small illogical thing is enough to push you over the top.  While sometimes it is easier to cry than it is to smile, I’ve learned that laughter is much better medicine than tears.

Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on. – Bob Newhart

 

** Photo- Finally landing in Kilimanjaro with my “luggage” by Andrea

 

week #6: In Search of Sanuk = finding fun in doing good

Several months ago I sat in the upstairs booth of a very unassuming Japanese restaurant in Bangkok. The place was modest yet awesome, and in some ways mirrored my dinner companion. This was my first meeting with Dwight Turner who started and runs In Search of Sanuk, a project that helps refugee families and asylum seekers living in the slums of Bangkok.

I’d heard about Dwight through a friend of a friend, and through a long trail of twitter connectivity, I’d been following his work. The purpose of our mini tweet-up was so I could learn more about what he was doing to decide if I wanted to support them as part of #give10.  After all, some people are good with twitter, but not legitimately good at the good they claim to be doing.

Dwight’s story was the real deal, as authentic and unpretentious as the yakisoba. He had never planned to start a project, but when he’d moved to Thailand, he accidentally got introduced to the world of refugees living in Bangkok’s slums and holding centers. When Dwight started learning about the refugees living with no means and no recognized existence in Thailand, he knew he had to do something. He looked for existing projects he could support to help his new friends, but came up empty handed. Instead of giving up because he didn’t know what to do, he heeded the advice of a friend and mentor, “You don’t need a project, get off your ass and start your own thing.”  And so he did.

Sanuk isn’t just a brand of flip flops. In Thai the word means fun, and In Search of Sanuk is on a mission to help a dozen refugee families in Bangkok rediscover the joy of having their daily needs met. The project financially support families to cover their needs of food, rent, and sending their kids to school. “Search of Sanuk isn’t a big project,” Dwight explained. “It is “micro-philanthropy”, (or fun-lanthropy as he calls it) small giving that has a pretty huge impact for the people who are receiving it”. For a stateless family that comes from a mountain village with no legal identity or papers to do any kind of work, it is a pretty big deal to have someone help them with the $60-$150 they really need per month to survive.

Give10 supported their women’s day project last year, and recently caught up with Dwight, over similarly amazing Lebanese food recently in Bangkok to find our what impact our dollars are having there:

1. Last year we gave $10 to In Search of Sanuk for your International Women’s Day project. What has this done?
We used our Women’s Day Donations to educate girls. One group of girls from the slums went to a place called Play Act where they learned song, dance and drama, and another group of girls attended lessons at a proper English school. The sucess of this project led us to develop the idea of Saturday School to provide education opportunties to kids in the slums.

2. What project accomplished are you most proud of this year?
This year we ran a Saturday School for 20+ refugee kids. We partnered with an international school and a group of 16-18 year old highschool students spent their Saturdays actively teaching the children. This was a change from our old approach of taking volunteers to teach in the slums which wasn’t financially sustainable. For kids who live on railroad tracks where it is dangerous to kick a soccer ball, it’s an amazing opportunity for them to even get to run free at a school to learn and play.

3. What are you most excited about in the year to come.
Building a stronger foundation of partnerships within the Bangkok community. The majority of our regular donors are local and we want to engage them more to build relationships with the community and families they are supporting.

4. How can a small 10$ donation make a difference in achieving your mission?
Many families don’t have as much to give as they used to, and it is overwhelming to think about one person supporting an entire refugee family. I try to encourage people to give recurring 10 – 25$ donations. Small recurring donations add up. Most of the online donations we get are small, but they add up to about 13% of our donations.

5. What is one thing you wish that the people who give to your cause knew or understood better?
I wish they understood how difficult it is to talk about what we do. Because many of the families we work with are on difficult terms with the government and lack legal status, talking about them or posting pictures of activities can put them in real danger. You connect to something you have had an experience with. I want people to see and understand what we are doing so they can understand the issue. My fear is that this makes it difficult for donors to connect.

6. What do you think stops people from giving to a charity?
People see “charities” as businesses and don’t want to give to a company. They don’t want to send money off into the distance and not hear back or get a response. People want to give to something personal, something with personality.

7. What do you think motivates the people who do donate to give again?
A donor who becomes part of the narrative. If someone sees a project as ‘something that I support and a cause I am a part of” rather than “that thing I gave to once” they are more likely to be engaged with time and/or money.

8. Doing world changing work isn’t free. How do you pay for the operational costs of your project?
We are 100% volunteers including us. Everything goes to the families and kids or a cost related to supporting them.

9. What’s one question people usually ask you about your project, and how do you answer it?
People ask all the time “How can you make this project to financially assisting refugee families sustainable?” Truth is, there are a lot of things that you can make sustainable, but this isn’t one with a simple solution. There is no plan for the people that we work with, and until something changes at a much larger level they pretty much won’t officially exist and need support. Some things are things are worthwhile and need help simply because they are worthwhile and need help. We have a reasponsibiltiy to give whether the project is sustainable or not.

10. What are three projects you believe in and would recommend to others to learn about and support?
I can’t possibly pick three, there are too many. Make sure you check these out if you haven’t already:
Cause and Effect, (Adam working in Brazil’s favelas)
100 Friends (the mentor who told Dwight to ‘get off his ass and do something’)
ildi (international Leadership)- a creative space / art collaborative in BKK with focus on social good
Bangkok Vanguards – random people washing car windows to raise 1million baht (350k USD) for flood victims.
Hope Mob (a mob of people changing lives one at a time through small gifts)
Preemptive Love (amazing guys doing heart surgeries for kids in Iraq)

Learn more about In Search of Sanuk or #give10 here:
twitter @insearchofsanuk
www.insearchofsanuk.com

We’re giving another 10 x 10 this year to In Search of Sanuk to see what magic they can make for familes. Want to join us and #give10 here to help them make more fun today.

#11: heatstoke, half marathons & hills worth dying on

After a lot of travel injuries and an extended running hiatus, recently I’ve gotten back on my feet and have finished 1/2 marathons in Cuba, Cambodia and Bangkok. “How (and why) do you run races in the far corners of the earth?”, is the question I’m most often asked when it comes to my nomadic racing habit. (Closely followed by, ‘What countries have you run races in?’)

I’ve been a runner as long as I can remember. Never a fast runner, but always a committed runner. Running keeps me sane and goals keep me running while I’m on the road, so I often look for race opportunities that overlap with my wanderings. Not to mention there isn’t a much better way to see a city then by covering 13.1 miles of it on foot.

You’ve already heard the story of my first marathon in Amsterdam, but long before that, it was the amazing country of Thailand where I first caught the bug of lacing up my running shoes in cross-cultural competitions.

Catching the nomadic running fever

In April of 1997 I moved to Thailand. Living in a strange Bangkok neighborhood and in an incredibly hot country for the first time ever, I struggled to motivate myself to exercise. When I saw an advertisement for a 1/2 marathon in the beach town of Pattaya I knew it was the perfect challenge to get me out the door. I’d never run that far before, so if I wanted to live through it, I’d have to put in the miles.

Training while living in the city center of Bangkok was just the start of the adventure. As a young and penniless teacher i I didn’t have the big bucks to join a gym, so it was just me and the road. Potholes, pollution, three legged rabid dogs and friendly buses were a free bonus.

I trained for many weeks, and then on race weekend I traveled to Pattaya. As I made my way to the starting line pre-dawn on race morning there were a few things that I very quickly recognized were different from any race I’d ever run before:

  • It was pitch dark
  • There were almost no other women runners
  • There were very few foreigners at all

When the gun shot fired, I crossed the starting line, one foot in front of the other into the dark 13.1 miles ahead. Although I was one of the few foreign runners I certainly didn’t feel alone. In 1997, expats in Thailand were much more of a novelty than they are today, and my first long miles were spent in the companionship of dozens of Thai racers who capitalized on the opportunity to practice their English with the lone farang. I ran in the blackness at a steady pace for the first hour, all the while building confidence that I was going to do just fine in my first half marathon.

By Mile 6 the sun was bright, the temperatures were rising, my fellow racers had exhausted their English vocabulary, and that confidence was waning.

Mile 7. Getting really hot.

Mile 8. Getting really tired. (and hotter)

Mile 9. Getting really dizzy. (and hotter still)

Mile 10. It all came crashing down. I stumbled into a water station and promptly collapsed from heat exhaustion.

Laying on the ground with Thai race volunteers gathered around, dumping cups of water on me and pulling on my arms and legs had not been how I’d envisioned my race finish (or my death). I had only been in Thailand a few months, and most of the Thai words people were shouting at me were lost in my limited comprehension. What I gathered from the charade was that they wanted to send me to the finish line in the medical emergency truck. Luckily one of the few phrases I’d mastered in Thai by this point was “mai ow” which simply means “No Want”. I said it over and over again until the medics let me stay.

I’m still not sure to this day why I was so bound and determined to finish this race under the scorching sun, but the hill at the 11th mile was one I was apparently willing to die on this day. I drank more and more water and sniffed smelling salts until I mustered up the energy to stand again. Drenched and moderately hydrated, I took water with me and started walking. I was going the rest of the 13.1 miles if I had to crawl across the line.

I didn’t have to crawl. In fact, after mile 11 I even started jogging again. Along the beach, past dozens of hotels, the finish line appeared. I didn’t feel great, in fact, I felt terrible. But above all, I felt undefeated.

And then the best thing happened. They gave me my medals. Two of them.

One medal was the one all racers got for finishing. The second medal was because I placed 5th overall in the women.

I’ve ran lots of half marathons since (8 official ones in 6 countries in fact), but I’ve never placed 5th in a race again. Nor have I ever skipped a water station on a hot day.

And the lesson I learned: Keep going, you just may win the prize. And if you’re going to run a race in a land where you don’t speak the language you may want to make sure you know the word for water.

—————————————————————————————————————————————

“Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.” 
– William James 

 

 

 

lessons from a bangkok bus ::

Picking the first of 100 travel stories to share wasn’t hard. Starting at the beginning with the story of my first passport stamp made sense.  But what story to tell second?

I’m not much of a person for order and chronology, so lets skip ahead a few years to Thailand in 1997 for travel story 2/100.

In 1997 I moved to Bangkok to teach English writing at a Thai university.  I was young, impatient, idealistic, and determined. (I’m still impatient, idealist and determined, but older now).  Bangkok 14 years ago was also much like it is today: crazy, chaotic, congested and operating by its own set of western-logic-free rules.  In short, Bangkok was ready to eat me alive with a smile.

For some unknown reason, idealistic and determined me chose to train for my first ever half-marathon in Bangkok, one of the hottest and most air-polluted cities in the world. This story could be about how many times I tripped in a gaping hole in the pavement while running and fell flat on my face while smiling Thais looked on and giggled, or about how I both passed out and placed in that very race I ran.  But those stories are for another time.  This story is about my weekend running ritual.

My 1997 home in Bangkok was approximately three miles on foot from the well-known Jatujak weekend market.  It was the cheapest place to buy anything I could possibly ever need or not need.  Each weekend I’d brave the heat, grey air, three legged dogs, and missing sidewalks and put in some miles.  On days when I needed to shop, I’d defeat Bangkok traffic by running one way to the market, doing a few laps around the park, finishing my shopping, and hopping the bus home.

On the day of this story, I had run to Jatujak , picked up a few things I needed, and jumped on the bus for a quick lift.  Only that day, like most days in Bangkok, there was nothing quick about the bus. If you know anything about Bangkok traffic you will understand that many days walking is actually faster than being in a “moving” vehicle.

We had gone about a mile and then came to a dead stop.  Everyone around me was patient and smiling and serene.  I on the other hand was dripping with sweat, legs cramping and completely frustrated. I’d had enough with the non-moving bus.

I grabbed my bags and pressed the button for the bus to let me off. It didn’t even have to stop to open its doors because it hadn’t moved in so long.

Free on sidewalk, I started running.  With my shopping bags.  At midday under the Bangkok sun. May I remind you, that on a regular morning jog people started at me like I was insane when I took to the road for a jog.  Let alone a foreigner, running in the noon heat with their shopping.

I got about 10 minutes down the road, as the traffic along side of me thinned.  Sure enough as I was jogging along the bus I had defiantly disembarked crept up behind me.   If this had been in the US, I’m sure the bus would have blown by me as the passengers remarked how dumb I had been to get off and run.  But in a pure Thai manner, the bus began to honk its horn to get my attention.  (and perhaps to ensure that anyone in the entire vicinity who hadn’t already been watching me was now).

The driver pulled the bus up beside me, opened its doors and beckoned me back in. In my perfect memory all the people on the bus cheered when I hopped back on, but perhaps I was just hallucinating from near heat exhaustion, and they were all just smiling in their patient way that I obviously hadn’t mastered.

I rode the bus the rest of the way home that day.  Embarrassed and educated in my own impatience.  To this day when I’m stuck in traffic or nearly losing it in a long line and contemplating if I should change lanes, I sometimes remember the lesson I learned from that day on the Bangkok bus.  Perseverance is the fastest way to getting where you’re going, even sometimes when you’re stuck in a traffic jam.

Are you a waiter or a runner?

 

 

koh yao yai ::

Translated from modern Thai, “Koh Yao Yai” means big long island.  According to the travelers Thai dictionary translation however, Koh Yao Yai is more commonly known as the last remaining island in Thailand with no 7-11.

Last week I found myself in a conference room high up in a concrete Phuket hotel tower overlooking a sea of beachside massage parlors and cheap restaurants. Gazing out the panoramic window, I struggled to reconcile myself as a tourist with the overflow of mass tourism that I viewed below.

Consumerism and convenience stores seem to have swallowed up the idyllic Thai islands that linger in my memory from many years ago. While I cringe to think I’ve become one of those “back in the good old days” travelers, I miss the fishing villages, longtail boats on the horizon and backpacker beachside bungalows.

With a three day weekend ahead of me, I decided that if there was an unadulterated piece of Thai island remaining, I was going to find it.  As with most things in life, my dream destination was just a Google search away.

If 40,000 people read my blog, I think I’d write about Phuket and keep this island a secret.  But since there is little fear of www.wanderingzito.com readers overtaking this bastion of tranquility and demanding a 7-11, here’s the 4-1-1.

Koh Yao Yai is a little slice of heaven on a hilly isle smack in the middle of Thailand’s most touristy bay.  Nestled nearly equidistant between the overcrowded shores of Krabi and Phuket, the primarily Muslim island is only a 20 minute boatride from Phuket’s seedy bars and starbucks and seemingly 100 worlds away.

Home to just 800 people, and a few dozen water buffalo, Koh Yao Yai has miles and miles of empty beaches, and it’s lush green landscape is painted against the backdrop of the famous limestone cliffs of Phang Nga Bay.  I couldn’t have dreamed of a better place to hang my hammock in the palm trees and soak up some silence.

There is little to do but sit around, watch people fish, eat a curry, or listen for the birds and frogs.  On Koh Yao Yai, the very energetic can opt in for a swim or take a little bike ride to discover the rubber tree plantations, rice fields, small local market stalls or another quiet empty beach.

And with only four bungalow style places to stay on the long skinny island- what you aren’t going to see is a whole lot of tourists, karaokes, or hawkers touting pirated dvds  and hill tribe souvenirs.

If you’re looking for a quiet, peaceful paradise, I give Koh Yao Yai five wanderingzito stars.   If you’re looking for a full moon party or 50 cent cocktails, please, please don’t leave Phuket.

And if after all that you’re still wondering how to get here, let me point you to Google.

More images of Koh Yao Yai and my recent adventures in Thailand are here.

DSC_6455

A quiet mind cureth all. – Robert Burton

bkk embers ::

Things in Bangkok seem to be getting back to normal.  While I’ve finally come to understand that one never can be sure what is going on in the mind of a khon Thai, the land of smiles looks like it is getting back to smiling and it’s way of mai pen rai.  At least if you take it at face value.

I popped down to the heart of the city on a Saturday morning stroll, and the sight was so different from the images broadcast on CNN just weeks ago.

From the platform of the skytrain you could see the damage around the main intersection where the redshirts had camped just weeks before.  People wearing “I heart Central World” t-shirts lined the busy road in front of the burnt out shell of the supermall, replanting flowers and cleaning the streets.

The Erawan shrine was crowded with worshippers laden with flowers and incense in hope to make merit before the four headed elephant god on the corner.  People bought fruit and flowers from carts along the road which had returned to its normal state of traffic jam.

While the bullet holes in the remnants of the building remained as evidence of what happened just weeks ago, the evidence of one other things seemed stronger- the people wanting things to be back to normal- or at least pretend things are that way.

The problem with smouldering embers is that  just a little bit of wind will restart the fire.

“To bring the dead to life / Is no great magic. / Few are wholly dead:/ Blow on a dead man’s embers / And a live flame will start  – Robert Graves

blue christmas ::

I thought a lot about Elvis on Christmas this year.  Drinking pina coladas by the poolside, the king’s voice played on repeat in my head…. “I’ll have a blue Chistmas without you….”

Although I’m not sure Elvis and I were thinking about the same shade of blue in relation to the holiday, I did have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas….

While Elvis seemed more of the melancholy blue suede type, my blue Chrismas wasn’t the shade of sorrows.

My Christmas blue was serene, peaceful  and refreshing.   The blue of waves and dolphins. The blended color of sea and sky,  and their melted hue at the horizon.

It was curry shared with new friends on the beach for Christmas eve dinner and Christmas morning skyping across the sea to loved ones far away.  It was a Christmas feast at the Italian restaurant that was so good if you ate there once, you’d eat there three times, a gorgeous sunset, and a boxing day dive under the sea complete with Christmas tree worms covering the corals in their merriest shades of yellow, orange, and white.

My blue Christmas was one of thanks – thankful for family and friends across the blue ocean, thankful for a new year with a new start in Cambodia and most thankful that there was a real King who came at Christmas, and not just the one who sang about it being blue.

“Oh! darkly, deeply, beautifully blue.  As someone somewhere sings about the sky” – Lord Byron