Category Archives: Adventure

Chonny doesn’t like Chokes

( I wrote this two weeks ago around the time that my sister was leaving. After that, life showed up and got busy when I started my online teaching prep program. When I found this today, I decided to finish it up.)

When my sister Sara came to visit me last month, we needed a way for her to travel to Mae Sariang after landing in Chiang Mai. I also wanted her to have a bike for transportation for times I would be in school and unable to drive her around. 

Enter Chonny. 

Invest has several vehicles for staff use. One of them is Jimmy, (also called Chimmy) a manual truck that is known for his temperamental behavior. Recently, a former IGo staff donated his old bike to the cause as well. This bike has now been christened Johnny, or Chonny. (PA Dutch speakers will understand the need to add the CH). I thought about calling him Eli, but my sister protested vehemently. So, instead we called him Chonny, since he made a very good partner for Chimmy.

Chonny managed to make it to Mae Sariang intact. He is aged and slightly stiff, but we took it slowly and managed to make it without mishap. Sara got along with him superbly, even with his quirks, or perhaps because of them. 

Before I begin my story, there are several things that you need to know. Chonny only starts via kickstarting. Not only that, there are times when Chonny is loathe to start on cool mornings, and then you have to choke him to start him. Chonny also has only 100 cc’s of “oomph” to get him up mountains. 

Sara drove him around in Mae Sariang for a few weeks, and then before she headed back to the States, she wanted to go back to Chiang Mai to visit our friend Amanda. Our original plans changed several times so instead of both of us driving to Chiang Mai, she took the bus to Chiang Mai and left Chonny sitting forlornly at our house. 

My friend Max was getting married in Omkoi on Saturday. Max was a police officer I had met at the station in Chiang Mai years ago when I was working as a translator. Max is also a Christian from a Karen village in Omkoi. Sara really wanted to attend a Karen wedding, so she planned to bring the bus back from Chiang Mai halfway, meet us at the Suan Son pine forest for the night and then we would drive to the wedding in the morning. We would then drive to Chiang Mai doubling up on Chonny. Sara would then board the plane on Sunday night, leaving for home. 

At first, I was leery of the plan. Driving to Chiang Mai on my well-maintained 150 cc bike is a long drive. Driving to Chiang Mai double on Chonny, who sounds like he is going to fall to pieces when you hit 80kmh sounded dubious. Not only that, I am attached to my bike and prefer to drive that. It irks me slightly to have to drive another one. (Don’t tell my sister).

But it made sense, and I needed to get Chonny back to Chiang Mai anyway. And it would be an adventure, I told my friend Abby, when trying to decide if we wanted to risk it. If you make something tedious an adventure with sisters, then it’s all good. 

Amy and I left for Suan Son after school on Friday night.  Before then, we stopped at the gas station to fill up with gas and fill our tires with air. At the air pump, a kind man offered to fill up my tires. He checked the front tire and was like, “Oh this doesn’t need any air. But…” his voice trailed off. “This tire is really worn. How far are you going?”

“Oh, to Suan Son,” I said airily. I didn’t mention Omkoi or Chiang Mai.  I tend to downplay my travel with Thai people because many people get worried when they see this farang driving that far. 

He got this funny look on his face. I thought maybe he hadn’t understood me correctly, but I was in a hurry and didn’t feel like I needed to clarify myself.

“The tire is very worn,” he said again. 

“Ok,” I said, “It’s not my bike. I will tell the owner.” Somehow I felt like I had to make sure he knew it was not my bike. 

I mulled over the meaning of the look on his face as Amy and I left for Suan Son, driving through the chilly mountains with the sun setting in resplendence on the right and a full moon rising over the mountains on the right. I was so distracted with the sun and the moon and keeping Chonny on the road that I forgot about the man with the funny look.

We arrived at our little homestay and then I left to pick up Sara at the Suan Son forest since that was where I had told the bus driver to leave her. I planned to pick her up there and drive back to our homestay.

But both Chonny and the bus driver had different plans. Just as I reached Suan Son, Chonny started limping and suddenly the look on the man’s face made sense. Chonny’s front tire was flat. Very flat.

Just like that my phone rang. It was Sara. “I don’t know where I am,” she said. “The driver didn’t let me off at the right place!”

Since Chonny was out of the running, there was no way I could go find her. And, it was rapidly getting dark. I figured out where she was and called Amy and Amy went to pick her up. 

Chonny had graciously decided to go flat right in front of the police checkpoint and the policemen just as graciously loaded up my bike on the back of the police truck and drove me to the nearest bike shop which was the only one close along miles of wilderness. I was very, very grateful.

That was episode one with Chonny. Now, with a new front tire I was a bit more confident that we would reach Chiang Mai in one piece the next day. 

The next morning came the test. It was cold so Sara offered to start Chonny up while I went to pay for the homestay. And then we started off for the wedding in Omkoi which was 55 kilometers away, with Sara riding behind me on Chonny and Amy driving behind us. The first hill we came to, Chonny groaned. 

I did too. 

If it took us this long to get up one hill, it was going to be a long drive to Chiang Mai.

We turned off towards Omkoi and I experienced a sinking feeling that sunk lower and lower the further and higher we went. Just before we got to a major pass, Chonny started going slower and slower. It felt like the more gas I gave him, the slower he went. Finally, I stopped. There was no way that we could make it up that hill in this condition. Sara jumped on the back of Amy’s bike and I decided to go up with Chonny by myself, but as I started off, I realized something was majorly wrong. Even with one rider, Chonny was struggling. 

The wedding was supposed to start at 10. This was a little before 9. What on earth should we do?

We went back and looked for a bike shop. The first person said, “That way,” so we went “that way” and the next one said, “that way,” too so we went “that way”, and then the next one said, “this way.” 

Our heads were spinning. I messaged P Tob, one of Max’s police officer friends who was coming to the wedding. 

“How far  have you come yet?” I asked. “If we leave the bike here, can you pick us up?” 

“Send me a location,” he said. I will, as soon as I have one. The last guy sent us up over the hill, saying there should be an open shop past the hill. I held my breath and gave Chonny as much gas as I could and even put my feet on the ground to help him up. We got over, just like the little engine that could.

“Hmm, “ I thought to myself. Maybe we could get to the wedding. If we would just drive slowly and at least make it to Omkoi, we could leave the bike there at a shop and at least attend the wedding. 

So, I told P Tob that he didn’t need to stop and pick us up after all. “But,” I said, “Just keep an eye out if you see us beside the road somewhere.” 

About 2 hills later, I changed my mind. Saying “I think I can, I think I can,” may work in certain circumstances, but not in this one. We were not going to make it like this. It seemed every time I stopped Chonny, he did a bit better, but not for long. We decided that Amy and Sara would drive on. I would get Chonny checked out and then get P Tob to pick me up and  try to at least come for the last part of the wedding. I drove him back to the shop. 

As I drove in, there was the usual fearful apprehension about a foreigner coming into the shop. I spoke in Thai to one of the little Karen boys sitting in front and tried to explain what was wrong. I didn’t know how to say it, other than that it seemed Chonny had no power. He called the head guy. I went off to the side to figure out where I was and send the location to P Tob. 

The man came over. He went to start the bike, and then said, “Oh, the choke’s on!”

The little Karen boys in front of the shop went into spasms of laughter. 

I looked and couldn’t believe my eyes. I guess when Sara went out to start him in the morning, she forgot to turn off the choke and I never thought to check since the only thing I have ever driven with a choke was a lawn mower. It seemed like magic. Chonny was fixed. And I was escalating the embarrassment scale rapidly. I

I didn’t look at the Karen boys, who I am sure were absolutely splitting their sides with laughter. Instead, I got on the bike and raced away with surprising rapidity, howling and screaming with laughter myself. For the next 10 kilometers, I laughed out loud. And laughed and laughed. 

We made it to the wedding a little late, but it was fine. And after the wedding, we drove to Chiang Mai on Chonny without incident, making chokes about Chonny not enjoying chokes. 

And I am sure that evening several little boys went home and regaled their families around the supper table about the foreigner who came with the bike that “didn’t work.”

Above: Chonny safely in Chiang Mai

Kawthoolei Christmas

December 14, 2022

Dawn slips over the river, sending silver light over the glassy surface of the River Salawin*. We walk down to the shore in the half-light, while another row of unrecognizable shapes moves down the bank a few hundred meters ahead. The boats are waiting. A few people wave their hands in a good morning, but for the most part we move silently. We climb carefully onto the boats. The three of us with long noses and white skin and lighter hair deck ourselves with long sleeves and hats and facial coverings.

The gray silence is broken by the roar of a boat starting. A man nimbly climbs from the front of the boat to the back, walking alongside the edge of the boat. The prow of the boat cuts through the water to middle of the river, going against the current of the water that used to be a frozen glacier in Tibet.

A ten-minute ride and we are there on the other side, the side that I have heard so much about, but never visited. Kawthoolei**, which in Karen means “the land without darkness.” The place where villages are looted and plundered day after day even now after decades of fighting and unrest.

There, on the other side, we are told to not take any pictures of immediate checkpoint. We climb the steep bluff. A Karen soldier is sweeping the ground around the checkpoint. He nods to us.

“Ghaw luh a ghay,” he greets us with the traditional Karen greeting.

We walk on, past a small hospital which currently has no patients. The patients are in a house closer to caves for when evacuations are needed when the Burma army flies overhead with planes, bombing the area. Recently, we are told, there were drones scouting in the area, which means that the residents of the area need to be extra careful.

The area is a medical training center where trainees come for 6 months and then leave. It is small, carved from the growth of the jungle, with a few spaces wide enough for a game of Takraw (a game similar to volleyball, using only feet and heads, and a smaller ball).  Passersby on the river would scarcely know that it exists. Surrounded by mountains on either side, we walk down to the makeshift church for the Christmas service.

The simplicity, not of the service or the church or even the hospital area, stuns me. What stuns me is how simple the line is that the River Salawin draws between two countries. Karen people inhabit both sides of the river. On the one side, they live in constant tension, not knowing when the airplanes might choose to sweep overhead, dropping their lethal cargo, or when a troupe of Burmese soldiers might come looting and raping and burning. Perhaps the worst of it is the not knowing. On the other side of the river, in the village Thatafang, they live in peace, under the protection of the Thai government. They travel freely without travel passes. When planes pass overhead, they may watch, but they do not run. They have identification and citizenship and rights.

None of the people on either side chose what side they wanted to be born on. None of them even chose to be born.

The River Salawin flows on serenely through the middle, unchanging in the conflict over the past seventy-three years, ten months and three days.***

Then in that slice of clearing, shaped uncannily like a slice of pie, we celebrate the coming of a Savior who left his life in heaven to be born in a stable, to become flesh among a tribe of people who were caught under the tyranny of foreign rule. Our worship rises in the early morning air, up from the campfires and forests of the Burmese jungle, calling out to the God who became man and lived among us. The God who was light who came to give light to us who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.

The God who is Immanuel. The God who is with us.

*There are two common spellings for the Salawin River, Salawin and Salween. I prefer Salawin, to match with the Thai pronunciation.

**Kawthoolei is the name that Karen people call their own country, hopefully named “land without darkness.” However, it is more commonly known as Karen State, Myanmar.

***According to Wikipedia (take it with a grain of salt) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_conflict

The Road from Chiang Mai

Bright as the day through darkest night

From valleys low to mountains high

You go before me, you go behind me

Untroubled under a troubled sky

Through clouds that unleash stinging rain

On roads under sunfire in aching blue

Where fog shrouds the road in wraithing white

Yet still, still, I am with you.

Only a sojourner in a transient world

Weary on a road ever so long

Only a speck on a river passing,

Only an echo, a fragment of song

Yet your heart yearns for me from the brooding sky

As I crest the mountain in rain-washed hue

All through the winding journey home

Still, oh still, I am with you.

I am not sure how often and how long I have tried to write this poem, but each time, my words failed me. (This is the Purple Poem I wrote about in an earlier blog post). How to explain that feeling of God hand cupping over me as I do the monthly trip from Mae Sariang to Chiang Mai and back on my bike? How to weave into a poem the different emotions of the ride, the different scenes and backdrops? Finally, this morning I was able to somewhat put a tongue to it. Besides the obvious inspiration of those drives, Psalms 139 and James 4:5 were also inspirations for the poem.

I am also currently working on a new book of poetry and essays. I think it’s far enough along that I can say it’s going to happen, but it’s impossible to give any release date right now. I do, however, want to get it finished before I start my online course for my teacher’s license in January, which will take up all my spare time.

Stay tuned! 🙂

Just Some Pictures

I realize that I haven’t been writing a lot lately.

My dad had open heart surgery on June 16 and it was excruciating to be so far away from home. During that time, I wrestled with 2 different urges. One was the urge to dump it all out, the other the urge to clam up and feel sorry for myself. And being pressed for time, I didn’t do the dumping out part.

But that time passed, and my dad is now safely recovering at home, although my sister reports that life at home is sort of like living in a nursing home, since my mom has also been to see the doctor several times recently, and my aunt has to go on a weekly basis for chemo.

But believe it or not, life goes on here in Thailand. And I realize that I take a lot of good pictures, or I like to think of them as good, but I don’t share them much.

And as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words” so I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

These are students from our Gifted English program that just started this year. The room is on the same floor as the teacher’s office, so some of the students like to come over in the afternoon and practice their English and play Uno. I do believe the air conditioned room is a drawing factor as well. I recently bought a tiny model house to teach vocabulary to a class, but I didn’t have time to assemble it so these students helped me. We have listened to a lot of stories during this time, such as stories about evil spirits haunting houses and the whiskey used in spirit ceremonies. (While most Karen people are Buddhist or Christian, in the past, before Christianity was introduced or before the Karen integrated more fully into Thai culture, they were mostly animistic, with practices steeped in spirit worship. This is still a huge factor today, and many nominal Karen Christians wear amulets for luck or safety.)

Some of my former Saohin students came over to make cookies after going to church with me. I found it amusing and heartwarming how they sat in front of the oven to watch their cookies bake as if they were watching a movie.

There are times I wonder about my cat…..

Our pastor finished his doctor in theology and we had a celebration at the church. Taking pictures with each other at celebrations is an important thing in Thai culture.

Jiu, one of the girls at church, with Che Che (I think that’s his name).
Prayer time for our pastor

Yes, that spider is for real, and yes we found it in our kitchen. I think that might be an egg sac it was carrying underneath?

Rainy days are plentiful in July. Most days I make my afternoon coffee at school, but some days I splurge, especially if it is a particularly rainy day that calls for a hot latte.

No matter how the world might be behaving around me, I still find rest and relaxation in making a batch of good homemade chocolate chip cookies.

And enjoying cookie making is not exclusive to women either. One evening, before my birthday, several of my former Saohin students (this time the boys, not the two girls pictured earlier) called me. Can we come make cookies at your house?

The above picture is not mine, but one I found online. At the time that I found myself driving through these waters, I was too busy trying to stay upright and moving to take any photos. The picture was taken beside the Mae Chaem River between Hot and Mae Sariang on a day when various parts of Northern Thailand flooded.

Another picture that makes me shudder when I see the brown angry river to the left.

On the evening of Amy’s birthday we went to the church to practice the song we were singing with the youth group. The sky gave us an extra special display that evening.

These people make me happy. Most of the people in this picture are students who are staying at the church while they go to high school. On Thursday evenings, I have the privilege of teaching them English at the church. They are the most dedicated group of learners and laughers I have ever taught, I think I can say.

Every morning the national anthem is played at assembly and every morning the dogs at the school howl along with it.

This was not a fire, as it might look, but a random round of mosquito spraying in hopes of cutting down on dengue fever cases. I had just gotten to my class and started teaching when we were all told to evacuate and stay out of the building for about 25 minutes while they sprayed. Mae Hong Son is highest in the nation for dengue fever.

This shirt is special to me. One of my students who is an avid football player, asked me if I wanted a football shirt for my birthday. He then let me choose a color and gave me one of his own shirts. This young man is actually half Burmese, but lives in Thailand.

It’s not often I get to eat Mexican food, but on my last visit to Chiang Mai, some of my friends took Amy and I out for our birthdays and this is what we got. It was soooo good.

Mae Toe is a local tourist attraction about 60 kilometers from here. I have now visited there 4 times, twice just recently. In the middle of June, I went up with some students and then yesterday with some teachers. Someday, I think I should like to take a book along and simply curl up and read on top of the world.

So…. yesterday, I had thought the original plan was to park our bikes on the bottom and walk the rest of the way up, but it didn’t quite work out that way since the others in our group zoomed up before me. To make a long story short, I was trying to get up this hill like the people before me, but kept on stalling my bike. I got off and then managed to dump it on its side, and it being a heavy bike, couldn’t get it up again. With the help of Amy and this kind man, we got it to a place where we could park beside the road and then walked up. Driving on these concrete tracks is complicated because if you happen to stop, you are in trouble because there is simply no place to plant your feet to keep you from falling over. It doesn’t help if you are helplessly laughing either. I still have to giggle just to look at this picture…. and the expressions on our faces. Bless that man’s heart for stopping and helping (the others in our group were out of side beyond the next hill and curve)

The view was worth the hike, though.

We parked our bikes halfway up and walked the rest of the way….but these village boys who couldn’t be more than 12 had no such intentions.

Walking down from the 360 degree lookout.

Kaning and Mint, the two student interns, and Kru Jack, one of the Chinese teachers. Kru Jack’s method of hair control always makes me grin.

Amy on the top of the lookout, dreaming of Mr. Willoughby.

And me, probably dreaming about cookies.

The Salawin River

I really wanted to write a poem about the river yesterday.

But while there were words rolling around in my head, they refused to order themselves coherently when I tried to put them on paper.

Perhaps that is because a river is already a poem. And to write a poem about a river is maybe like trying to make a poem of a poem.

Mmmmmm?? Yet Robert Louis Stevenson did it.

I don’t know. Someday I still hope to write a poem about it. But for now, I will just indulge in my fascination with this river.

Amy and I had a day off yesterday since it was the current Queen’s birthday. We took the chance to go to Mae Saam Laep, something we had wanted to do for a while.

Mae Saam Laep is a border town between Thailand and Myanmar located about 47 kilometers from Mae Sariang and is known for its trade with the other side, the other side being “Kawthoolei” ”(meaning “land without darkness) or Karen State. I had it my head that Kawthoolei was just a town in Karen state. I didn’t realize until yesterday that Kawthoolei is Karen State. Mae Saam Laep was evacuated at least once last year when the fighting on the other side came too close for comfort, and in the past shots have been fired on civilians in boats on the river. The village is built oddly, perched precariously on the mountainside above the river. Many people travel to Mae Saam Laep and from there travel by boat on the Salawin River to other more unreachable parts of Thailand and Myanmar.

I already have a fascination with rivers, probably fueled by memories I have of canoeing down the Arkansas River. But when I saw the Salawin river, and started researching more about it, it only increased my fascination.

The Salawin, as I learned from Wikipedia, has its base in the Tibetan Plateau where it is called the Naqu River, meaning “dark and deep.” It flows down through China through Yunnan province, known there as the Nujiang River and nicknamed the “Angry River”. Once it reaches Myanmar, it is called the Thanlwin River, and along the Thai border is known as the Salawin. It eventually flows into the Andaman Sea. The river provides a livelihood for millions of people.

I followed the river on Google maps from its source to where it spills into the ocean, which stirred up my dreams again for all things Tibetan and reminded me of my short trip to Pu’er and Kunming in China years ago.  The river is quite tame by the time it reaches Thailand, as most things are. I feel in my secret soul that whether its mountains or rivers or wildlife, Thailand is mostly just a shadow of China or Nepal. However, that doesn’t take away from my fascination with this river. My dream is to travel to the source in Tibet and follow it all the way down to the Andaman Sea.

But perhaps for now I will keep my teaching job here and start out first with a little boat ride here in Thailand.

A fisherman bringing in his morning catch/
Rain on the river
The sign on other side says, “Welcome to Kawthoolei”. If you look closely you can see a boat in the river, which gives you a bit of perspective on the size of the river.
Amy lost in thought
Again, notice the boat in this picture.

sources:

http://en.chinaculture.org/library/2008-01/08/content_21769.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salween_River

Small

This is the road

It is a ribbon running through the mountains

Glistening black in the rain, fading gray in the sunlight

Checked with yellow, edged in white

Swooping and diving between and around the mountains

Like a swallow homing forever.

The road carries me down into the valley

Into the shade of forest, dusky and dark,

Curving in the lowlands, trapped and winding,

Now, suddenly it flings me arching up, up, up into the heights

Floating on a ridge on the top of the world,

A patchworked world of fields and villages

Some intricate masterpiece quilted by skillful hands;

Along the sunlit crest the road flies until we twist and turn,

Turn down dizzying curves to reach the river

The brown, brown river running swollen from the rain.

The river and the road take me away, and the sun splashes

Through the canopy of wild trees, spilling flickering light on the road

As it moves along the woodlands

Past a pregnant goat grazing by the way, and a field of buffalo,

Past smoke rising gray against the blue and green,

And mountains upholding a bluing sky until a

Sudden flood of rain; and inside my pink raincoat and visor,

I become a kingdom of myself, a muffled, moving, pink kingdom.

But the rain ceases

And a sudden orange of blossoms bursts against the sodden sky

The road is not a ribbon.

It is a gray and yellow asphalt snake, and I am a beetle riding on its back.

(Inspired by my bike trip to Mae Hong Son today (and other trips similar to it)).

A rural gas station. I love places like this to fill up since you usually can have fun conversations with the owner. Photo credit: Abby Martin
Abby Martin and I on a recent trip

Zurich (Vignettes of a Journey #3)

I walk along the narrow streets cobbled and silent in early morning

Wondering at how the many years have flown, and I,

I have come back over the ages from a pilgrimage far through the tangled vines of history

Back to where a part of my soul was born.

Echoes from these ancient roads speak to my blood

Stirring the fire within me, the old, old fire from the masters of that age;

And as I walk, I feel the ghosts of yesteryear speaking

The flames of the old beliefs that turned history on edge;

And as I gaze upon the streets and the river where these ancestors lived and died,

I feel their eyes upon me as I walk, and I wonder what they see.

In Grossmunster church, I run my hands over the back of  the wooden pew and sit

Beneath the shadow of the faces in the stained-glass windows

Where Zwingli and Grebel and Manz once stood; and suddenly time is no longer a wall between us

Because men still kill in the name of faith, and the difference between zeal and truth

Is too often undiscerned while factions war against factions, both in word and deed,

Uncaring of the blood that is shed within the church itself, despite the legacy of sacrificial love,

Yes, love, that was mingled with truth and baptized by fire and water.

The words on the wall come alive as the church itself speaks:

Herr, bleibe bei uns, denn ess will Abend werden, und der Tag hat sich geneigt.

I will sit here under the shadow of these walls and wonder for many years.

I had a 7 hour layover in Zurich, Switzerland, and took the chance to make a dream of mine come true. I had about 3 and a half hours in the city itself. Perhaps some other day I will write a post on how to do a short layover in Switzerland.

Visiting Saohin

I drove up to Saohin for Children’s Day. Along with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Thailand also celebrates Children’s Day.

All last year, I had hoped to find a time and way to go visit Saohin again, but during the rainy season, it is very unwise to travel up alone on a motorbike and it was difficult to find a truck going up on Friday and coming down on Sunday, over the time I wouldn’t be working. Most people come down on Friday and go back up on Sunday.

So, when the invitation came to join in the Children’s Day activities on January 8, I jumped at the chance. Since it hadn’t rained for about 2 months, there was no flood danger and the creeks had returned to safe levels.

I learned and relearned many things about myself on this trip. I learned that when you are used to something it automatically looks much more doable. Like taking cold showers. And crossing creeks on a 110cc Honda Wave motorbike. And going up and down steep, stony hills. When I first came off the blacktop and got to that first frightfully steep hill, and the first stony part, and then the first creek, inside I thought, “This is worse than before.” But when I drove back 2 days later after over 30 kilometers of driving, I thought, “This is not so bad.”

I rediscovered the beauty of driving in first gear. There is something deeply satisfying about coming to an obstacle that gives you that jolt of fear— a deep creek, a steep hill- and then knowing deep inside yourself that you can do it. You can climb this hill, you can cross this creek. Especially when you put your bike into first gear. When you put your bike in first gear, you can do anything. Well,… ok, not quite. But going down some hills it is unwise to brake much because of the loose gravel and stones. Instead, you drop into first gear and ride your bucking bronco to the bottom. And the next day, as you rub your aching muscles, you wonder if you really had to get to the bottom quite that fast.

Different people find different things therapeutic. For my mom, it’s the garden. For some of my friends, it’s coloring and watercolors. For others, it’s creating. Horseback riding used to be my choice of therapy at home. I think that’s why I find that driving my motorbike in the mountains is therapy for me. That and writing.

I rediscovered how much fear can have an impact on my abilities. If I focused on not falling, or not getting wet, or not getting my bike stuck in the creek, I lost my sense of balance, and my sharpness of mind. But when I told myself that falling was not the worse thing in the world, or getting wet wasn’t really that bad, and if I got stuck then I would surely find a way out, things really went much better. I also realized how important it is to know your limits.

Arriving at Saohin brought a surge of grief for me. You would think I would only feel a surge of joy, but I felt more grief than joy. After poking the feeling a bit, I realized it was because I was coming as a visitor. I could no longer claim this place as my home. I was not going to stay there the next week and the next week and be a part of the flow of life and the daily routine. I was a visitor.

I woke up Saturday morning, aching and sore from the drive. Children’s Day was limited to only students and teachers, (and me) because of Covid restrictions. The children were glad to see me, but shy. I missed the 6th graders, who I had gotten to know the best. Towards the end of the day, they were warming up and not quite so shy.

The festivities were over by early afternoon so I took a nap and tried to get rid of a headache and then visited a former 6th grader.

The evening consisted of a campfire at the teacher’s house and making bamboo rice over the fire, doing some target practice with a 22, and some other activities that I did not participate in. Anyone who has had any experience with Thai mountain culture will be familiar with the drinking that happens nearly every evening. I went to bed around 10, but the sounds continued until midnight.

Sunday, I traveled down again. As I traveled down again, I felt an unsettled, unfinished feeling. I wished I could have stayed a little longer. I think I would have found more closure. I wanted to be a part of life there again, not just some visitor. Fragments of faces and places clung to the edges of my mind, even as I focused on the road ahead of me.

There was PaunSawan and her hair cropped close because of lice.

Pongsatorn, a tall, thickset boy, who struggles with learning. He gets heckled for it as well, even from the teachers.

Cholita, the girl from Myanmar, who is studying in first grade as well.

Oranit, a bright, spunky girl, whose father is one of the village leaders, and a devout Catholic.

Tawin and his shy, sheepish grin.

Di Di, and the way he used to jump around shouting out English words during vocabulary games.

Sawinee, with her large wistful eyes and sad face.

Kai Muk with her sparkle and laughter.

Paunyinee, who asked to take pictures together.

But maybe it’s ok to still grieve, to not have fully moved on from that little spot tucked into the edge of no-man’s-land.

Late Winter Night

Tonight, I was reading a few lines of Sara Teasdale’s in her volume of poems, Flame and Shadow. Her poems are always alight with vivid imagery, often of nature, and the few lines I read tonightabout night falling made me terribly homesick. Homesick for dusk at home, twilight in early soft June summers, or wintry landscapes and sunsets on snow.

Which in turn, both homesickness and poetry about the later parts of the day, made me think of a poem that I wrote when I was 17. This poem is not like Sara Teasdale’s poems in any way, but it always stirs a warm memory inside of me of late winter nights and a memory of my favorite thing to do as a child on those late winter nights: read in bed late into the night. (Come to think of it, it is one of my favorite things to do as an adult.)

The worst thing about reading in bed late at night was the fact that I did not have a lamp beside my bed. Why not, I am not sure, because I remember one year most of us got lamps for a Christmas present, but at the time I wrote this poem I lacked a lamp.

This meant that someone had to get out of bed and turn off the light before it was possible to go to sleep.

 Now, when you turn off the light as soon as you get up the stairs and then crawl into bed, there is no drama involved at all. But if you have been reading for hours, engrossed in your book in which you have just finished off the story of Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles, or perhaps White Fang, or The Prophet, or At the End of the Spear, it is impossible for a young (or old) person with a fertile imagination to turn off the light in an ordinary fashion. For one, someone might have sneaked in under the bed while you were busy reading. Or, something, who knows what, might be waiting out there in the hall just as you reach the light switch…. really so many things could go wrong.

If my sister and I were sleeping in the same bed, then an argument would follow about who should turn off the light, and it usually turned out that the one sleeping closest to the light switch would turn it off, if nothing else for personal safety reasons since having the other person do it would mean that person could easily land on you on the expedited return trip.

But it was worse when you were sleeping by yourself. There was no moral support or expectation of a warm, living human being lying in the bed when you returned from the turning-off-of-the-light. All the worse if there would be.

So, this poem was born.

Late Winter Night

It’s late winter night

And the snow is falling

 Brushing over barren trees,

The night winds calling.

Inside the fire’s warm

And I’m snug in my bed

Curled up with a book

The covers to my head;

Lost in a story

Or buried in a rhyme

The hour has grown very late

But I’ve forgotten the time.

The clock strikes again

 And it’s time to say good night

 It’s time to put my book away

 Oh! But what about the light?

It’s only five feet away

 But might as well be a mile

Even though the way I do it

Takes just a little while;

So many terrible things

 Coud happen as I go

Like hands that grab for my feet

Or pinch my little toe.

Or after everything is dark

When I’ve turned out the light

Suppose I made a jump for bed

And didn’t aim quite right?

 So many things could go wrong

 But the thing must be done

 So, I gather up my courage

And out of bed I run!

Take a leap! Switch off the light!

Come diving into bed!

Snuggle down into the depths

Pull the covers over my head

Take a breath and check around–

I think- I think – I’m in one piece still

Even though I stubbed my toe

 And hit the windowsill;

 And then I curl up in a ball

And wrap the overs tight

Sleep is coming, I’m drifting out

 Oh, late, late winter night!

-January 2008

From Echoes of Eternity

Gold

I thought Mae Hong Son province was at its finest in June when the clouds and mist hung low over the greening mountains.

But these days, I think differently. The rainy season is mostly past, and the days are beginning to be cooler now. The vibrant green has faded slightly, only slightly, and other colors are starting to emerge: browns, oranges and yellows. And still the mists come in the morning.

credit: Amy Smucker

Amy and I drove to the sunflower fields in Mae U-Kho, in Khun Yuam district yesterday. There are over 500 rai (1 rai is about .4 of an acre) of small sunflowers (similar to what we would call Texas sunflowers at home) that bloom every November and are one of the largest tourist attractions in the mountains of Mae Hong Son. I have heard several rumors of how the sunflowers were planted there, one being that it was a royal project by the queen, and another that they were introduced by missionaries.

We left after right after school yesterday, after a very odd week of teaching online, in which we only taught two full days since the students were getting vaccinated and tested for Covid before the planned onsite date of Nov 22. I was feeling very restless by the suffocating feeling that occurs from this kind of schedule and was very ready to see some different scenery instead of the inside of the office at school.

It took us about 2 hours by bike and by the time we got to Khun Yuam, it was dark and getting cold. Or cold to be on a bike. We were trying to reach our destination before it got pitch dark, so we didn’t stop to watch the full moon rising slowly over the eastern mountains. But it was there on the edge of our sights constantly as we maneuvered the curves and hills in the semi-twilight.

We slept at the empty house of a friend in Khun Yuam and left for the sunflower fields in Mae U-Kho early this morning.  There is something intoxicating about being out in the mountains on a motorbike in the early morning. It has to be intoxicating to induce me to set my alarm clock for before 6:00 on a Saturday morning.

I want to write about how the colors glowed, and how the gold of the sunflowers looked from the distance over patchworked fields, and how the sun popped through the clouds and how the sea of fog in the distance looked and it felt to weave along the curving roads in the middle of a November sunrise.

But I don’t know how to write it. I feel lost. I only know to say that there is something excruciatingly beautiful about the way rolling fields of sunflowers look on a backdrop of blue and black mountains that layer their way to the horizon and then touch a deep blue morning sky edged with clouds.

So I will say it with pictures. I believe they will tell the story better than I can.

“There’s gold in them thar hills.”

Walking up to the first lookout
Amy
Me
Our trusty steed that carried us all the way up and balked only once on a steep hill. Amy had to get off and walk while I labored on up the hill in 1st gear.
Our breakfast “Yom Gai Saep” or Spicy Chicken Salad.