If tomorrow should come
Let it not rise in splendor and color
In the brightness and glory of cloudless days;
But let it rise in holy silence
Shrouded with the grace of quiet hope
And mists that cloak solitary ways
If tomorrow should come
Let it not rise in splendor and color
In the brightness and glory of cloudless days;
But let it rise in holy silence
Shrouded with the grace of quiet hope
And mists that cloak solitary ways
The mountain swallowed the sun tonight
Tugged it down from the sooty sky
Into the smoky red of horizon’s shade
And west into the shadows of Burma
And for a moment there was a fire in the town
Titian on the water, low and light
Between the sandy banks of the Yuam River
Rain-thirsty in the smoggy gloaming
Then the sun slipped into the mountain’s pocket
And all was gray again, until the kindly dusk
Purpled the world and wrapped my town in its arms
And with an indigo lullaby, rocked her to sleep
A unique thing about life is the various shades that seem to color different periods of life. Some seasons in life are gray and blue, misty and melancholy. Others, for instance the last month I spent in Saohin, are characterized by browns and reds. This past season has been a rich mix of golds and greens, framed with wild blue skies and crimson sunsets.
October 7 was officially my last day of work before school break, although I took on some tutoring over our time off. On the evening of the 12th, on one a day when the air held a crisp hint of autumn, I set off for Chiang Mai where I met up with Amy and the rest of our INVEST team for our annual retreat as a team. Amy’s parents, Paul and Dorcas, served as speakers for our retreat. I felt like our activities and input at retreat were like a well-rounded meal, with a good amount of personal growth mixed with relaxation. It was an easily digestible meal: some meat, a lot of vegetables and light food, with a little bit of sweetness added.
Monday after retreat Amy and I headed off for Doi Chang with three other friends, Abby, Nancy and Glenda. We drove our motorbikes up the soaring heights of Doi Chang and among Akha villages, sipped coffee at coffee shops way up in the mountains, ate pizza while watching the sun set over a pond, woke up early to see the glory of the sunrise and feel the wind blow in our hair, and then made our way down again.
I left the others and headed to Chiang Dao to stay the night at my friend Louie’s house, taking the road through Doi Ang Khang National Park. I had been to this park years ago with Louie, but I had never come in from the east side. The heights were stunning. While Doi Chang had roads that were built high above patchworked fields, Doi Ang Khang was full of hairpin curves on roads that hugged cliffs and required me to drive in first gear. Every now and then, I stopped to savor the view and listen to the absolute silence of the mountain.
I spent the night with Louie and her hilarious sister in Baan Mai Samakkhi (which I wrote about visiting here 4 years ago), laughing over old jokes from bygone school days and making new ones. We talked about the time our instructor forgot to close the zipper on his pants and how I once accidentally hit a stranger over the head with a sweatshirt. Louie and her sister needed to leave early in the morning for a youth camp, so I spent the next morning with her mom and her younger brother. Louie’s younger brother, who reminded me of my high school students, took me to buy coffee, and to get the chain on my bike fixed. Her mom then loaded me up with avocados and a vegetable I don’t know the name for, then off I headed for Pai and Pang Mapha. I had already reserved a room in Pang Mapha since I knew if I took that way back to Mae Sariang, I wouldn’t be able to make it back to in one day without exhausting myself.
The road from Chiang Mai to Pai and from then on to Mae Hong Son is renowned for curves, steep slopes, and the foreign, accident-prone tourists that drive them. I drove behind a motorbike with the typical long-legged, white foreigner look for a while, and thought to myself that it looked like one I might later see in the ditch. I stopped for lunch and about 45 minutes later I rounded a curve and encountered this very bike in a ditch with two bewildered foreigners standing beside it. I stopped, and we examined the situation, and I poured water over the young, excited man’s cuts. Whereupon, he sat down on a mile marker and then promptly pitched backwards into the ditch in a dead faint while I frantically tried to call 191. He then awoke and lifted one of the aforementioned long white legs and gravely stared at it as if trying to figure out how it was attached to him.
“Pound sign,” he blustered. “Exclamation mark, percent sign, pound sign, asterisk, pound sign!” I ignored the language and upon examining him further, we decided we didn’t need an ambulance after all.
He then asked for something sugary to eat and I was grateful to be able to pull from my backpack mentos that had been gifted to us on retreat. He gulped them down like a starving man.
I ended up going with them and a helpful Thai guy to the next police checkpoint to look at the wounds a bit more, and then went with them to the hospital and stayed until they were looked at by a doctor and feeling less emotionally traumatized. Then I headed on to Pang Maphaa, racing the sun in order to get to my guesthouse before dark.
The last time I had made this trip, I drove through chilling rain and mist. The wet road had made me very nervous then, but I remembered the thrill of cresting a hill and the gorgeous views below. This time the road was half as treacherous, and I made good time, even stopping now and then to snap a picture. The sun was dying, shafting gleams of golden light over the mountains, nectar for the soul.
My guesthouse was adorable, and its price just as adorable at less than 8 dollars USD. There was one window and I kept it closed since it didn’t have a screen, so when I woke up to a dark room the next morning, I figured it was about 6:30. It wasn’t until I looked at my phone that I realized it was close to 9 instead.
As I sipped my coffee, I Googled Pang Maphaa and started looking at my maps in anticipation of the route home. As I studied the maps, I realized there was a road leading to the border, and that the border was only about 30 kilometers from my location. It didn’t take long to make my decision, and about half an hour later, I was at Baan JaBo on my way to the border. JaBo is a small tribal village, known for its restaurant where people can eat noodles while dangling their feet over the side of the mountain. (I thought it was a Lisu village, but I am seeing other sources saying Lahu)
Several times past Ja Bow, as I drove on towards the border, I was tempted to turn back. With the roads I have traveled on in the past, you would think I would have no fear of driving, but somehow the unknown road ahead struck a deep fear in me. They might be incredibly steep and stony, for all I knew. I kept on telling myself that I had driven worse than this, and that this was my only chance in a long time to do this. I knew if I turned back, I would always live with a feeling of regret.
About 3 kilometers away from the border, I came onto a lookout. I stopped to take a picture and ended up talking a while with the old man there. His gray hair was wild and unkempt, and he chewed on red betelnut as we talked, but he told me a lot about the village and surrounding areas. He pointed out a mountain in the distance. That’s Myanmar, he said.
I started off for the border checkpoint. The road ahead looked steep again, and I stopped again and almost turned back. No, I told myself. I won’t. Surprisingly, it wasn’t nearly as steep as I thought at first.
I still feel disappointment when I think about what happened next. When I came to the checkpoint, the soldiers came out. I stopped my bike to talk to them and see if I could cross. I was a bit flustered, not having rehearsed what I should say, so I asked, “This road goes to Myanmar, right?” The soldier, looking equally flustered at having to talk with this strange foreigner who came chugging along, said, “Umm you can’t go.”
It was one of those moments where I looked back later and wished I had asked for more clarification. Did he mean the road didn’t lead to Myanmar? Did he mean, I as a foreigner couldn’t get across? Did he realize that I wasn’t going over to stay, but only to hop across to say I was in Myanmar? I still don’t know, and I should have asked, but I am someone who hates to cause a fuss or make a scene, so instead, I swallowed my bitter disappointment and meekly turned around with an odd, heavy feeling in my stomach, even shedding a tear as I left.
The heavy feeling had lifted by the time I got to JaBo. I ate some noodles like a good tourist, and then faced the long drive to Mae Sariang.
About 6 hours later, by the time I crested the bridge over the Yuam River in Mae Sariang, the last of the pink sky behind the mountains was rapidly disappearing into pitch darkness.
I was home. And I had this odd feeling that God had given me a tour package designed especially for me.
*A note of clarification in case you are thinking I am crazy in even attempting to cross the border: in many parts of western and northern Thailand, it is possible to cross over into Myanmar by simply leaving your identification card at the border checkpoint as proof that you will come back. I did this in Saohin with Thai friends the first time I visited. However, I think it is easier for Thai people to do than foreigners.
**Secondly, as I looked at the map later, I noticed that the road doesn’t really seem to connect to other roads within Myanmar, but instead runs along the border, twisting in and out of the border line. It does lead to another village in Thailand, though, eventually. I am still unsure of the exact meaning of the soldier’s words and if I could have crossed if I would have argued my case.
I looked at the world upside down for a bit
Just for a little, to see
How it was like and if it would right
Some of the world’s problems for me
The ground was a sea of cotton below
And the sky a green carpet on high
But the funniest sight that I saw upside down
The trees hung like chandeliers down from the sky
And ever since I righted my aching head
The strangest things have crossed my eye
Cows walking like spiders in the oddest of places
And birds swimming down in a soupy sky
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.
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)).
The sun rises, one fiery eye
From behind the drought-scarred mountains
Wreathed with smoke
The heat whispers in the cornfields
Burning its secrets in the ground
Writhing around the withered stalks
The dry wind catches the fallen leaves
Pushes its heat into a dust devil and
Twirls the leaves to the tops of the trees
Fire licks in V’s in the ridges, up and down
Fire rings the valley about
Fire on the mountains
The Tukay laughs and calls on the porch
A confused rooster crows
And the cat sprawls on the cool tiles
Although all photos are mine, and were taken in the Mae Sariang disctrict, several of the ones with fire, as well as the Tukay were taken last year, some up at Saohin.
The next series of posts will be vignettes of a journey as I travel from Thailand to the States, Lord Willing and I don’t catch Covid, on Sunday evening. This includes a 6 hour layover in Switzerland, a day and a half in NYC, 3 days in Lancaster, PA at the Reach conference, and then home to Kansas for several weeks, and then flying back to Thailand in late April, with a 12 hour layover in Germany. If anyone comes to Reach, be sure to stop by the INVEST booth, which will be right beside IGo and MTM’s booth. I am holding all these travels in an open hand and trusting God (or trying to, I should say) to orchestrate this all ( and keep me from catching Covid before travel, since many of my acquaintances have had it recently).
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.
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.
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.
A bit over 6 weeks ago my cat, Tua Lek (meaning Little One), who had defied her name and blossomed to extraordinary proportions, gave birth to 4 little kittens who looked almost exactly like her. One of the four died on the first day, but the others lived on to be happy, healthy and adorable kittens. (Ok, I know the word adorable is overused with kittens, but it is necessary in this case.)
However much I enjoy kittens, having 3 litters a year populating my house is not something I really want to deal with, and neither did my housemate, Amy. Especially when my cat’s temperament drastically changes every time a new litter appears and she becomes whiny and “awhang-gish.” Now, perhaps if I lived on a farm, and did not work away from home every day, and did not take month long furloughs once a year to visit family and did not need to find someone to take care of my 30 cats while I was gone, I might consider it.
So, since Tua Lek’s behavior was again becoming suspicious even after giving birth only 6 weeks ago, and the neighboring male tomcat was starting to hang around again, we decided the time had come. I made an appointment at the Mae Sariang animal clinic at 8:30 this morning.
Living in Thailand and having a motorbike as your main mode of transportation is a Wonderful, Free, Joyous Experience. Most of the time. Except when it’s raining heavily (I will refrain from the pun), or you have to take your cat to the veterinarian. Then, if you don’t have a pet carrier, your only recourse is a cardboard box strapped on the back of your bike with bungee cords.
When the time came to take Tua Lek, I grabbed the closest box that looked like it would work. It ended up being the box that my youth group had used to send goodies for my birthday. It was a little bit battered, but with a little tape, I thought it might work.
It did at first. I wrestled the confused cat into box, while her little gray kittens sat on a pile on the porch chair and looked at me with big, round, innocent eyes. Sweating profusely, I grabbed the Gorilla tape from Joel and Malinda that had come in the same box and proceeded to tape the box shut. I punched some holes into the box, got the box to my bike, and had just strapped it down with cords, when Tua Lek found a small hole in the side of the box. Before I knew it, the hole was much bigger and the cat was out of the — er, box. I grabbed her before she could flee, though, and ran for another box. Amy came out and helped me with this one, giving me some advice on how to tape it shut better. Once we had Tua Lek in again, I strapped it on once more. This box was wider, giving me less room on the seat, with my knees hitting the front part of the bike. This is a drivable position for short distances, although decidedly more awkward and less modest than the normal position.
When Tua Lek is hungry, she meows. When she is wanting attention, she meows. When she is scared, she meows. At times when she is not any of those, she still meows. So, it was not a surprise that as I drove along, mournful, betrayed cat wails came from the box at regular intervals. Each time, I cringed, thinking of the attention we were drawing, and embarrassed at my lack of pet transportation equipment. At the same time, I also drew comfort from the fact that we live in Mae Sariang, which is quite “baan-nawk”. This word, literally translated means “outside village” but is usually used when talking about country people or hill people and has the connotation of being not quite as modern, educated and up to par as people in the cities.
Mae Sariang has three stoplights. Going to the clinic, I had to drive through 2 of them. As we approached the first one, I willed the car ahead of me to go faster, but it didn’t and couldn’t. The light became red. As I waited at both stoplights, I forced myself to look straight ahead each time an agonized wail came from behind me, thankful for my mask. I do not know where that sound is coming from, I told myself silently, and the others on motorbikes beside and behind me. What could it possibly be?
Finally, I reached the clinic. As I waited and held a terrified Tua Lek, I talked with a couple who had brought in their neighbor’s cat to be spayed. I found this very humorous. I had to sign a release for them to do surgery. Finally, they took her away and I went home.
Going to the vet in this fashion is traumatic, both for the cat and her human. I felt like a betrayer, like someone who was senselessly inflicting confusion and pain on an innocent life. I think both of us will be happier because of this, and Tua Lek’s life will be much easier. But, how do you tell that to a cat? I mean, I did tell her several times, and I also triumphantly announced it to the visiting tomcat, but I know neither of them understood. I almost cried several times in the whole ordeal. Doing something like this would be so much easier if I could explain to Tua Lek what was going on.
Amy had some good words to say, something I hadn’t thought of before. “Well, maybe that is the way God feels. When God lets you go through something difficult and there is no way that we can understand why we have to go through it, God probably feels the same way.”
And now I really cry when I think of God holding me like I held Tua Lek when I am asking Him what He means when He lets Covid disrupt my life, or doesn’t iron out the tangles of my visa situation, or why he doesn’t just take certain struggles away from my life.
Tua Lek will never know that the undignified, terrifying ride to the vet, the pain and the anesthesia were all reasons that she will never have kittens again, and instead will grow fat and happy all the days of her life.
And maybe in the same way, I will never know exactly why God lets some of these things happen my life either. But I can know, better than my cat can ever understand, that He means the best for me, no matter how terrifying or undignified the ride.
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