What You Think You See…

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

Having grown up in a very affluential part of Canada, where I was largely sheltered from the daily realities of poverty, I had unknowingly formed an image of what poverty was supposed to look like. In my head, poverty was shanty towns and poorly dressed, undernourished individuals, with wild hair, which in many cases may be true. I had also imagined that anyone who didn’t have an electric stove or was forced to cook outside must also be poor. But, my experience in Thailand has taught me otherwise. There are many forms of poverty and sometimes it expresses itself physically making it easy to spot, especially in more affluential societies where those with little stand out in stark contrast with those who have much. However, I think that there is a need to be wary of what we label as “poor”.

Due to the wide availability of the media and the general public access to photos taken all over the world, its easier than ever to misjudge something when it is received out of context. Just Google poverty and I am sure that you will see many sad images of outrageous injustice, all which communicate a very real truth: there is devastating poverty in the world and people are dying. However, as a Westerner that is more or less removed from the worst of the living conditions present in our world, it is easy to sort images into categories. This is poverty and that is not.

While in Thailand, I had the immense honor of being a guest in two homes where both families cooked outside, without an oven, in conditions that I had previously sorted into the “poverty box”. But such was not the case. I was first a guest in the residence of my homestay parents. My Khun Mae (the Thai equivalent of mom) cooked all of our meals outside under the protection of the second floor of our house. She stood on a dirt floor and used a propane stove to make some of the most delicious food I have ever eaten. Logically, it makes a lot of sense that she would cook outside in a hot country where it is already a difficult and expensive task to keep the house cool. My second experience as a guest was in the Karen village, a few hours north of Chiang Mai city. Here, of all places, a Westerner such as myself would expect to see physical signs of poverty. Again, all of our meals were made in a common kitchen building that had been setup to accommodate large group gatherings. The kitchen itself was totally open to the elements and there was no access to electricity. To tell you the truth, I am not totally sure how they cooked our meals. I just know that they were delicious and made in conditions that I would previously have classified as a textbook example of poverty.

A glimpse of the DELICIOUS food we ate while visiting the Karen village.


What I am trying to get at is that things are not always black and white and what we think we know, isn’t always true. Certainly, in some areas, I saw rugged shacks that served many people as their only form of shelter and I saw a lot of suffering. But that’s not all I saw and often, what I thought was poverty, was simply just another way of doing life. The children in the Karen village had access to higher education if they so desired and they were some of the happiest people I had ever seen. Their possessions were not numerous as the stars but they had what they needed to be reasonably happy in this life. Sometimes, what you think you see, is not always what it appears to be.

A lemon – picked straight from the tree!

Jai, A Lesson from the Heart

By | 2016, Asia | One Comment

In regards to our recent journey across the world to Thailand and Laos, there is one specific experience which I wish to capture amongst all the beautiful, scary and life changing moments.

This happened after weeks of seeking something which I could not put into words until it happened. I was searching for a heart to heart* moment, a moment where I was able to glimpse into another’s world and understand for a minute, even though it may be very different from my own. A smidgen of empathy.

What I learned, though, was this is not something I can force to happen nor is it something I could buy at the market. In order to see another’s worldview, your own must be pierced, at a price.

On one of our first days in Vientiane, Laos, our group went to a museum called the COPE Centre. This centre is a memory of what happened during the Secret War on Laos, or as we know it, the Vietnam War. Little known facts faced us as we entered a room which housed bombs and stories of those affected by it.

 

Story after story fell upon us as the weight of this act became clear. Many, many, deaths and much suffering was inflicted upon this nation. Children, indiscriminate violence. Over two million tons of bombs dropped. The worst part: the injustice continues in that the explosives dropped still explode today, unperturbed for years until a fatal blow.

This shadow of pain was heavy upon me the next day as we attended a class taught by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) about peace and how they teach peace to their youth. The irony of it upset me. Why would Lao people need to learn about peace? Should not this class be taught in the US? Why is the value of peace so important to these people, instead of justice? As I sat in the corner and attempted to move on and process what had happened there, one of the leaders and I chatted. I mentioned to him that we went to the centre, and tears threatened to fall. Instead of being embarrassed at my crying, he too teared up.

In this moment, something was exchanged, and in a strange twist of fate, this Lao man comforted me as I considered the tragedy in his country. And I felt empathy towards him and his people.

What I learned from this was that in order to experience empathy for another, it requires one’s own suffering in order to understand. This conversation taught me that anger and bitterness would not be the way to justice, and that forgiveness, even if an act is so heinous, can be given before justice is acknowledged or granted. Peace is more important, in one’s heart and life over the value of being done right by. Forgiveness is the path to peace. And it is the only way to endure suffering, or as Madeleine L’Engle wrote:

“Peace is not placidity; peace is the power to endure the megatron of pain with joy…”

This lesson from the heart of Lao people touched my heart, and now, I hope it touches others.

 

*The Lao word for heart is ‘jai’

 

Perspectives on Peace

By | 2016, Asia | 2 Comments

During a workshop with the staff from the MCC Xieng Khouang office in Laos, our group was asked to brainstorm some answers to the question “what is peace?” It seems like such a straightforward question, but it’s pretty loaded. I realized that I’ve never actually thought about this before. It turns out that the term “peace” can hold entirely different meanings to different people. MCC Laos’ Mittapab (meaning “friendship”) group even had to change their original name, which included the word “peacebuilding,” because the government claimed that the nation already had peace and therefore had no need for a peacebuilding group. Since the workshop, I found myself trying to define this crazy concept (I know that it’s already technically in the dictionary, but I don’t like the official definition. Peace must be more complicated than that two-line explanation).

I think that peace can look different within different contexts. It is bound to display itself differently as inner peace with oneself than it does as interpersonal peace in relationships, and even more so as peace on a national or international level. Anywhere on the scale, though, I’d say* that peace is not the absence of conflict, but having the ability to come together and listen to each other to come up with a cooperative solution when conflict does arise. Peace and conflict are not opposites. But that’s still pretty vague. Peace could be an environment of appreciation of differences, where a broad diversity of people and opinions is nurtured and can flourish. It could mean safety or refuge. It could mean the presence of a mutual understanding, or at least an active willingness to work toward that. Regardless, I think peace is a good thing and should be strived for.

I believe another big part of attaining peace can be found in the Zulu greeting “sawubona,” which is used as an equivalent of English’s “hello,” but translates into “I see you.” This is seeing a person’s soul, value, feelings– all that good human stuff. A deeper connection is made. It is saying you matter and are valid. To recognize this in a person is very humanizing and equalizing. After that, the response would normally be “sikhona,” which roughly means “I am here.” They exist after being fully seen by another person. Interconnection is important. When we take time to truly see, acknowledge, and appreciate others as humans with souls and stories, we can then learn and grow toward justice and equality, which leads to peace.

With our friends from the Mittapab Peace Group.

Maybe the concept of peace cannot even be encapsulated in a set of words or a strict definition. Maybe it just is (or isn’t). For example, I’m not really the city type. Smog gives me headaches, traffic baffles me, and I’m not a fan of having my butt accidentally and repeatedly touched while weaving through market masses. So Chiang Mai, as much as I loved it, was a bit much to handle at times. The Karen village that we had the privilege of visiting was precisely the breath of fresh air that I needed. It was totally non-hectic, both embraced by and embracing of nature, and had a small, flowy community lifestyle that just made sense to me. Peace was undeniably present when I was sitting under the tin roof of my host family’s house, listening to the pouring rain but seeing nothing but the pitch blackness of the uninterrupted night sky. It was there again as I stood at the highest mountain peak that we hiked, feeling emptied and breathless (due to both my being out of shape and the stunning view below) as I absorbed the wonder of what I was seeing. I knew that that was peace, even if I can’t define the word itself. I felt content and calm and rejuvenated and okay. Peace was present.

So, what is peace? I don’t know, but I want it.

*Disclaimer: I am no peace expert. I’m just spitballin, here.

The Spice of Life

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

Food in Thailand is some of the best food I have had in a long time. While almost everything you eat there is served on rice, with fried noodles or in a curry soup, there is still a wide variety of meal options for even the pickiest of eaters to choose from. From the spiciest dish you’ll ever try to plain fried rice with a fried egg over it, Thailand offers an array of intense yet amazing flavours that will completely blow your mind.

A delicious home cooked Thai meal.

The best dish that I tried in Thailand is the classic pad Thai. This world famous dish has an egg noodle base with fried greens, fish sauce and fried eggs and either chicken or shrimp all mixed together and topped with some crushed peanuts to add some crunch to this otherwise soft dish. This dish is usually eaten by using chopsticks to get the noodles onto a spoon; however, foreigners often prefer to opt out on the spoon as most think this is the ‘authentic’ way to eat.

One of the main things to consider in Thailand while ordering a dish is the level of spice. If there is a dish on a menu that is usually served spicy and you don’t order it with out spice, your in for a hard night (it also hurts just as much coming out as it does going in).

Papaya salad is usually served with lunch and served extremely spicy. The reason behind this is that by mid day after working all morning, the spice wakes you up and gives you an energy boost to get you through the next part of the day. Similarly to this in North America is having a mid day coffee break to get some caffeine.

Over all I would strongly recommend trying anything you can while in Thailand. As with a lot of cultures worldwide, food is a huge part of tradition and everyday life. The people there take pride in the food that they eat and if you just stick to pizza and wings while your there, then you have really missed out on one of the best parts of Thailand.

A Continuous Effect

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

War is a huge thing. It affects people from all over the world, including those who have not even been alive while it was happening. This is one thing I saw very clearly in Laos. There, people from all over the country still suffer from a war which happened over forty years ago, a war which very few people in the West know about today. I used to be one of these people. In fact, I knew nothing at all about what was happening in Southeast Asia.

What surprised me about going to Laos is how peaceful it seems, despite having had millions of bombs dropped over multiple years. This was most evident to me when we went to the Plain of Jars. Hundreds of jars were scattered everywhere, and people came from all over just to see them. At the same time, there were several large craters where bombs of some sort had fallen, and there were markings where the Mines Advisory Group had removed bombs from all over the place. I wondered how a place that is so beautiful and peaceful could have once been a place overcome with war.

Plain of Jars

 

The country itself was amazing. It looked like any other country, not like a country still suffering from war. Still, as I walked around and as we rode to different places, I thought about how it would be possible for a bomb to explode under us, and then I thought of how the people in Laos have to live with the possibility of that happening every day. So, even though it seems as though the war is past, to the people it is still seems very present, and it will be until the bombs are gone, which may not be for another 200 years.

Discovery

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

When I was on the 14 hour flight going from Toronto to Seoul and I was getting hot and cold flashes, I discovered a love for that little fan vent in the ceiling of the airplane. When I was throwing up in the Korea airport and there was a line outside the only working stall, I discovered a loathing for out of order signs.

When I was sick for my first three days in Chiang Mai, sleeping all day on a bed as soft as plywood, watching while everyone else was out exploring an entirely new and different world, eating new food and seeing amazing sights; I discovered a deep longing for my home, for my family, for a hug. When I finally felt better, just in time to move into my homestay, when I managed to eat a plate of my homestay mom’s food and I didn’t throw it up right after, I discovered a sense of gratification, of relief, that I could eat her food and see the smile on her face when I told her it was aroy (delicious)!

I discovered my vulnerability while sitting in a songthaew, watching as the perilous traffic moved around us and scooters zipped in and out of any space they could find. I also discovered bravery (or stupidity, I haven’t quite decided) watching those scooter drivers zip through traffic with no regard to their safety.

Wonder was discovered as I walked around thousand year old ruins and temples, as I looked up into the eyes of a 15 meter tall Buddha statue and felt so small in comparison. I discovered disappointment when I discovered the muffin I’d been waiting all day to eat was already being eaten by an army of ants.

I discovered true friendship every day, when we were out listening to live music and having fun but also when we were stressed and knew we could lean on each other. I also discovered a strength in the others and myself during that time; when we were on a bus for 12 hours, all car sick and grumpy but still holding on, still there for each other.

I discovered God on that trip too; in the busy market full of people shopping and vendors selling food; in the people I met who were so genuinely kind and compassionate. In the biggest and most busy of cities and in the remote jungle with no internet or phone signal. In Thailand and in Laos, I saw Him everywhere. I discovered a lot on my trip, but most importantly, I discovered myself.

Ancient Ruins & the Resonance of Mystery

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

The ancient ruins of Sukhothai

Staring out at the ruins of ancient Sukhothai, the hot sun stretches down, aggressively upon my back and upon the ancient flats of brick. My mind stretches down, aggressively upon the question of what this place is to me.

The mystery of these ruins taught me something important: the idea of deep history in foreign lands.

In that moment, I understood the metaphor and the symbolic significance of these ruins for me. They were a reminder and a good representation for the unknown unknowns with my worldview and the limited vantage point of my consciousness. They spoke of a knowledge that is not only hidden within the depth of history but also expanded away by the width of the world.

I suppose that’s what I see the goal of philosophy to be: to seek both a deeper and a wider understanding.

In his apologetical work Pensees, Blaise Pascal once wrote that there are two kinds of intellect. One, the precise intellect: “able to penetrate acutely and deeply into the conclusions of a given premise”, the other, the mathematical intellect: “able to comprehend a great number of premises without confusing them”. In summary he wrote that “the intellect can be strong and narrow, and can also be comprehensive and weak”.

The mystery of Sukhothai for me then, has a resonance harmonious to my heart. An ancient and ruined echoing and a calling, to come closer, and deeper, and more into wisdom and into reality. This is the aim of my heart and the goal I went into the Asia trip with: to discover how the widening of my worldview would deepen my worldview.

As I wander through these structures of the unknown, both in my mind and through the park, I’m searching around for photos which have poetic potential.

I scan around and as I widen the view of my lens the image is caught between a frame of a giant tree on the one side and a large stone chedi on the other.

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Two temples. One, a pillar of nature, of God’s intentionality and design within creation. The other, a relic of humanity’s attempt to access God, to access deeper reality. One, the immanence of God. The other, the transcendence. One is reaching up to God and the other down to man and it reminds me, of the importance of those hands meeting.

The space between them reminds me of the dislocation between man and God or between man and a greater reality, and it’s interesting to me, how much this dislocation marks our lives. We’re always seeking and searching and I find, in the ruins of the ancient city of Sukhothai, an equivalent ruins within me.

A ruins, which represents my philosophy, my searching for a greater reality… because… the tree is already right in front of me. God has reached down and created. He is immanent. And I learn that appreciating the moment and the presence of immanency is just as important as the attempt to seek and search for transcendence within reality. And, through and through, moment by moment, this is what the Asia trip has instilled in me and taught me.

Soccer in the Rain

By | 2016, Asia | One Comment

There are so many experiences I could write about and draw with words.

But instead, I choose the simple stuff. Escaping from the bustle of Chiang Mai, the twelve of us venture in two song thaews (red trucks with two benches), loaded with ginger gravol and peppermint essential oil. Weaving through peaceful rice fields and around mountainous greenery, and then up and up the heights, we arrive.

Later, I walk beside a gentle stream beside a deep verdant forest. The ground below me is reddish like I would imagine PEI’s dirt to be like. Little streams trickle past to join the big one. I step over. Up a little knoll, I glimpse, as do my classmates, and we can see a collection of small buildings. Our guides tell us this is where the Karen’s school is and we can play games with the children in a minute. Then they say it. The ‘s’ word.

SOCCER!

I had been groaning to one of our Thai university buddies that I had been wanting to play soccer for weeks, but I did not expect my only opportunity to be with children up to my waist. But they were good. And they kicked our butts.

All the young boys from the community sized us up as we tried to communicate if we should mix teams. None of that seemed it would happen. Us against them. The ball hit the pavement and the game was on.

Their best player was uniquely talented and most likely would have been recruited for competitive games at home. His fellow mates fed him the ball and he would attempt to break through our wall of defense.

GOAL!

The game is on!

The game is on!

Ah okay, one for them. I ran around giggling to myself as I had one of the best times in my life. I felt like I was fourteen again and that my hips were too wide and my limbs too long as I attempted to maneuver around so many little figures. The goalie was all in as he dove on the hard pavement to save a goal.

The glee on their faces was obvious too. Silly farang, they’re not very good. Passing was almost pointless because there were so many swarms of them. I longed to tell them how good they were and to encourage them, but I just put my thumb up and laughed with them. Even our very little Thai was no good there. We would have played for hours if the unseasonal rain would have stayed away. We were all soaked but happy until the guide shooed the children away in fear of them getting sick. Score: 5-1. For them.

Sadly, we allowed the ball to be picked up and ran to shelter. Another wonderful moment was gone. Just like climbing the hill again in our song thaews to say goodbye. Small smiling faces and waving hands soon disappeared into a blur as we journeyed away. Yet they exist on. How many beautiful places like this exist in this vast world, that I neither know about nor need me to know about them. Their existence depends on Someone else, and not me. Who knew such a simple place could fulfill my desires so aptly.

New friends in new places.

New friends in new places.

Jump Right In

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

It was our first Saturday in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and we were ready to explore the city.  There were so many activities to choose from. Cafes and restaurants, elephants and nature parks, even the famous Thai massage.  A bunch of us squeezed into the back of a Songtaew and set out. Our decided destination was a museum called Art in Paradise. This was unlike any museum I have ever been to. The entire museum is interactive. You take pictures the entire time as you pose with the art.

Sharing the LOVE outside Art in Paradise.

Sharing the LOVE outside Art in Paradise.

When I first got there I had a difficult time with the whole premise of the museum. I had a thought of how our generation is addicted to taking selfies. Then I realized that I was thinking of how many pictures there would be of me on my Facebook page.  We paid for our tickets and started taking pictures. At first we were kind of clumsy and didn’t know how to pose but then we looked at some of the pictures. It was amazing! It looked like we were really standing inside of the art.  Once we felt excited about being at the museum there was a spark of creativity. We came up with fun ways to pose and it turned out that we had a lot of fun together.

Looking back on the pictures now I can see how the artist brilliantly painted each scene to make it look 3D.  In every picture there is also each one of us. We are part of the art.  This wasn’t by accident- the artist intended for the people coming to the museum to not just pass by but to jump in.

We made the cover of TIME!

We made the cover of TIME!

Throughout the rest of our trip through Thailand and Laos we took many more pictures.  We took pictures with friends we met along the way, at waterfalls, on top of mountains and in the middle of fields. There was art all around us. The Creator had made vast scenes and if we so choose we could jump right in and become part of it all.

As I sit here now back in Canada watching the fresh snow cover the trees I’m thinking how amazing it is that God, like those artists, wants us to jump right in. He wants us to part of his art. I must say I’m also thinking how great it would be to be back in South East Asia right now…. Soaking up that warm, gorgeous sun.

Sunny days in Thailand

Sunny days in Thailand

The Bee’s Knees

By | 2016, Asia | No Comments

I’m a fan of bees. So naturally, I was ecstatic to come across forest beehives and signs of honey collection during one of our hikes through the forests of Ban Huay Hin Lad Nai Village in Northern Thailand. This Karen community in particular has been recognized as a model for self-sufficiency, responsible forest management, and sustainable living. Seriously– they’ve won awards and everything.

Some of that success can be credited to their forest beekeeping. Ban Huay Hin Lad Nai began harvesting honey around 10 years ago, when the then-dwindled bee population finally started to pick up again thanks to their reforestation efforts. Now, with their thriving, fertile, and natural forest ecosystem and the HOSTBEEHIVE initiative that partners with the community to turn their resource management efforts into a profitable practice by producing and selling pure wild honey, it is one of the three main commercial forestry products (alongside bamboo and wild tea) that provides household income for many of Ban Huay Hin Lad Nai’s families. Not only does a portion of every honey sale through HOSTBEEHIVE go right back to the community members and preservation of the forest, but a strong interdependence with nature is fostered. To summarize, though this is a fairly small-scale project, it has tremendous effects.

Anyway, back to these sweet hives. I almost didn’t see them because they were just chilling among the rocks and brush, blending in with their surroundings. They have a very simple design, but evidently get the job done. Each hive is basically a chunk of hollowed out dead tree trunk with a lid and an entrance that is just big enough for one little bee at a time. This is probably the closest a man-made hive can get to mimicking how the honeybees would do their thing on their own in the wild.

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A nice looking hive – blending into the forest.

In nature, they tend to choose spaces such as dead trunks for their homes due to the thermal properties and sufficient vertical space they offer that allows them to build and shape their comb as they deem necessary. In these trunks, they are not restricted to a man-designated frame to create their comb that goes against their every natural instinct of being a bee. Here the bees are given creative freedom and a comfortable studio space to do what they do best. Forest beekeeping is also great in that it doesn’t completely relocate the bees from their natural habitat. It brings the human side of things to meet the bees where they are already living. While urban beekeeping has its benefits, I feel like it’s always a good thing to keep wilderness as wild as possible and limit human intervention– the bees know best.

So, yeah. I just thought the hives were really neat.

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A natural beehive coming out of a tree trunk.