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Alicia Farnham

So how was your trip?!

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Oh, what a horrible question that is!  That inevitable question when you first get back, and see someone who cares about you and you know it’s coming; you almost hold your breath for it a little…and I hardly resent my friends and family for the interest they show in my life! On the contrary, I love them the more for it! But can I say it?  Can I really answer with just “It was great!” ?  How can I possibly infuse that inevitable five-letter response with an appropriate amount of joy, excitement, sweat, stress, claustrophobia, thoughtfulness, deliciousness, grumpiness, humour, laughter, tears, yawns and shivers, thrills and fears, discussion and adrenaline to express two months of travel on a continent I’ve only ever dreamed of?!  I can only respond with “It was GREAT!” and hope that each of those five pathetic letters can stand strong and shine with all the enthusiasm I can otherwise never express!

Europe was so great!

It was more than a vacation, but also beyond the scope of a school term.  Maybe a Scavation? A self-andthethirtyeightotherpeople-help get-away that stretches?  And it was the sights, and the smallest moments, those pinpricks of delight that are just impossible to convey to anyone else, that made it so great. I don’t even have any stories! Just anecdotes that make me sound like a complete braggart!  (When I was in Rome…… There was this shopkeeper in Paris…. Oh, the rain in London was…. See what I mean?!)

I cried a little when I stood outside this cathedral in Orvietto, watching a bunch of people kneeling of one accord.  I could have sprouted wings walking through Florence at sunset.  I’ve never felt so graciously humbled before as in this chapel, in front of this old wooden crucifix in Assissi.  That little poem “They came for the trade unionists…” spoke something deeply into me. I beamed all the way through that town of Farnham. I went through the depths of despair in this city;  I was on top of a mountain in this one.  It’s all in the context, in the moment, that never-to-be-again moment, that not even I can recreate for myself just how my trip was!  Suffice it to be said, then, that I learned a lot, I saw a lot, I felt a lot, and it was GREAT!!

Where’d the Bad Guys Go?

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The past few weeks, the carnage and slaughter and senselessness of the World Wars have been a common theme for our program days.  It began with our stay in Dresden, a cultural mecca of pre-war Germany that was levelled ruthlessly during WWII without precedent, literally disintegrating thousands of civilians in the middle of the night as they huddled in their bomb shelters; it is now a city alive with a sense of restoration and commemoration of the past.  Next was Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp that became the model and training centre for the running of all other camps during Hitler’s dictatorship, where thousands of lives were worked away, and tonnes of innocent blood soaked into the ground that is now a garden.  This past week, we’ve seen the front lines of WWI–Vimy Ridge and Hill 60, and Ypres–where men threw themselves headlong into the work of killing and dying; where men suffered and slogged witlessly in the trenches and tunnels of bloody, muddy, otherwise insignificant kilometres.

A few days ago, we visited a museum focusing specifically on the battles around Ypres in Belgium, called the ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’ in recognition of John McCray’s famous poem.  Here I learned that Belgium had been promised the ability to remain neutral but found itself overrun with the armies of its neighbours, forced to fight or fall, because of its bad luck to be in between the two great enemies, France and Germany.  Poor, unfortunate Belgium!  The entirety of Ypres was reduced to rubble after three battles meant to defend it, and is now surrounded by over a hundred cemetaries, many of the gravestones marking the graves of soldiers “known only to God.”

I think the hardest thing about all of these experiences is having to acknowledge and coming face to face with the conviction that Canada, the “good’ side, also slaughtered and rejoiced over fields of battle strewn with snuffed out lives and spread the myth of the glory of war.  Admitting that there was no “good” side in these horrific events, realizing that all that really mattered were the lives that ended and the lives that only half continued and the lives that were left behind, has definitely been a challenge for such a determined believer in the romanticism and heroism in everyday life as I am.  Why is it so easy to glorify the victory of the Canadians at Vimy Ridge–the troops who didn’t even have their own country yet, idealized with wonderful comraderie and determination–after all, we did what the powerful French and British couldn’t!  Why is it so unpleasant to see the shell ravaged territory, to hear of the Allies, the “good guys”, creating killing fields, deliberately trapping the young, hapless “enemy” into several crossfires at once?  Why is it so easy to make a monster of another people, and not realize that this tactic is one of the most dangerous enabler of that sequel to the Great War that was to end all wars??

The In Flanders Fields Museum brought this home in a new and poignant way with its indiscriminate display of both sides, any nationality involved in the war, from any “side”.  Here’s a few of the quotes they had:

I caught sight of a German the day before yesterday. He was building fortifications 50 metres away from me. I had to kill him, didn’t I? I took a rifle, quite calmly I took aim, and he fell. And yet I can see the features of that man with perfect clarity.  I think it’s very much like a murder. Horrible!” -Maurice Laurentin

They came out of their trenches and walked across unarmed, with boxes of cigars and seasonable remarks.  What were our men to do? Shoot? You could not shoot unarmed men.” -Count Gleichen, Christmas 1914

The night of Christmas Eve, 24.12.14, it was my privilege to play Father Christmas and to carry a Christmas tree to my company commander in the trenches at the very front.  There was a new moon, and the bright starlit sky was lit even more brightly by the tracer bullets from the two front lines.  For me, they were beautiful Christmas illuminations.  Nothing was heard, except machine gun fire from time to time, or a short burst of shots.  Sometimes an infrantryman would shoot to the left or to the right of me, but I knew that the enemy would not use me as a target, despite the light which was as strong as day, because I was Father Christmas, and I was carrying the decorated tree.” -Carl Muhlegg

“All sorts of stories have been circulated regarding the meeting of the enemy and British troops between the trenches.  Luckily the troops holding our immediate line of trenches just waited until the Germans got out of the trenches, then they let them have it, rapid fire; it stopped any of this ‘scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ sort of nonsense.” -Bryden McKinnell

I for one see no accusable monster here. I’m ashamed to have ever believed in “the enemy”.

Torches Passed, Flames Past

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I’ve always had a fascination with history. Especially history that reminds us how connected we are to the somewhat removed and impersonalized people of one’s textbook. Trying to imagine what a famous hero of our past actually thought and felt and loved on a daily basis, looking past the simplistic textbook identity, gives me the chills! I mean, do you ever wonder how much Columbus loved apple pie? Did he despise potatoes? Who knows? Has anyone ever cared, besides his wife, cooking him meals, never knowing when he was going to return from his long journeys? And who made the first apple pie, anyway?!

What’s awesome about Europe for me is seeing this kind of history, real history, coming alive in the people who belong to it. In Orvieto, we watched a parade of medieval colours, divided as if by guild, or even by feudal landlords and serfs. It was so easy to see them as the distant impersonalized medieval characters from a legend or something until I saw the wink or the wide grin shot towards a friend and the head bowed wearily in the sun. Then I suddenly remembered that these were men in today’s world, today’s workforce, wearing jeans and sneakers on every normal day (as opposed to this day’s bright tights and squeaky leather boots). In fact, they might not even live the serf-type life described in my grade 10 history text!
Even still, I was forced to come full circle in these thoughts as I walked around the town and saw their moving veneration of Corpus Christi day and the flags recently marched through the streets hanging from townhouse windows; I’m left wondering with intense curiosity how much the history I was seeing and experiencing might mean to each of these Orvietians. Is it as consequential as their parades make it seem, as a personally defining history? Is it part of them as much as I want it to be? In Siena, we learned of the vying contrata, each with their own church, and alliances and feuds, all of it as old as the hills. So my full circle is this: these people may not be their ancestors in the flesh; they are very much a part of this world, this era, today’s events; but they are something more, a continuation, a passed-on torch, from the oh-so-distant and romanticized past.

But the coolest part of all this is that, though things have obviously changed, progressed, developed, the past doesn’t seem so distant here. It’s here now, just as it was here, and the future is here as well. That’s something that’s missing from Canadian identities, Canadian histories and presents; thus, I am absolutely loving this very tangible sense of ancestry so thickly rooted in these ancient places, of these ancestors whose history we (as in Canadians) also claim. The people are very rich here.

Alicia

Thinking About Community

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The theme for the Europe Trip 2010 is the “Individual and community”. I didn’t think about that much when I first read it in our syllabus; in fact, I briefly considered how corny that sounded! This week, however, it’s been cropping up a lot, and I’m thinking about that deep, largely unplumbed concept with dread, anxiety, excitement, anticipation, fear, gladness—pretty much every emotion available.

In my first year, “thinking about community” was codename for going to the washroom ‘for a very long time’. In my second year, “thinking about community” meant sending one mystery slushy from Chiang Mai University’s meal hall around a circle of fellow classmates—we were all sick, so it never mattered if there was only one straw. Now, in my third year, community a much broader meaning for me—one I haven’t quite laid my finger on yet. I’ve spent the past week feeling like my brain was its own little storm system of emotions and reminders and forgotten reminders and unpreparedness. I’ve had moments of breakdown, moments of irrational insecurity, moments of exhaustion, moments of depression, moments of restlessness, moments of…well, you get the idea: I’ve been on a roller coaster of moments! But then, by chance, I overheard someone else mentioning that she felt the same way! After further discussion, half the girls on the girls’ hall had confessed to feeling some kind of distress over our coming trip. Someone suggested praying about it, and a few hours later we had gathered in an empty room and were compiling a lengthy prayer list. Just last night, I had three or four people helping me make a belated packing list as I obsessed over forgotten items which I immediately forgot again.

Tomorrow, I board a bus with these same people and cook and tent and sweat with them in the heat of a European summer for eight weeks. And I’m glad, and really nervous, and thoroughly challenged at the prospect of holding up my end of this theme of the “individual and community”, at the prospect of being part of a community that I’m already so in need of, and at the prospect of thinking about community with them in ways all too personal! So, here goes! Let the individual be vulnerable!

A Whole New World

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I hardly know where to begin!

It seems like a lifetime ago that I stepped out of the Toronto airport and breathed the crisp and cold air of Canada again after two months of the perpetual sauna-soaked air of Southeast Asia: with glee, I spread my arms out, threw my head back, inhaled dramatically and refused the jacket offered me right off my aunt’s back.  The whole trip feels like a dream–even the heat!  And yet, the more time that slips by and separates me from that experience, the more I seem to absorb from it.  I can’t answer the demands from well-meaning friends to tell them about my trip; I can hardly remember more than one specific story at a time (such as the ill-timed story on how I took my relationship with squatty-potties to the next level: this went completely unappreciated by my mother, busily preparing Easter dinner!) but I feel the whole experience all in one piece as a completely indescribable…enlightenment?  That might sound really corny or implausible but I can only explain what it is that has changed for me, as a result of this trip, as a feeling.  To be more exact, I feel larger, not by physical measure but inside somewhere, deep down; there’s something new there that wasn’t there before.  Maybe it’s just things like being able to say ‘I know what a traffic jam reallylooks like’, or ‘I’ve seen how people in a poverty-stricken nation can be rich without money or justice’, or ‘I know history that other people can only hear about on the news, where it’s unrestricted by government leaders’ (because it’s different somehow, perhaps more valuable, when you know lecturers to be risking their safety or their reputation to tell you about their country).  Or I can skim a textbook and get a chill when, upon glancing at a picture and receiving a strange wave of deja-vu, I realize I’ve stood in front of that very same ruin, seen it in colour and even taken a picture of it!

Above and beyond all that, however, I think what I feel most in reaction to Asia 2009 is merely the fact that I no longer have a dark void where all knowledge of Southeast Asia is concerned.  Dark voids are burdensome things and a person doesn’t even notice how heavy they are until they’re gone!  (And by “dark voids” I suppose I mean ignorance or lack of knowledge.)  I am so incredibly gladI have had the opportunity to go to these three countries–even if learning about and experiencing them doesn’t make me an expert, I’ve learned so much more than just the politics of Thailand or the security issues in the Philippines or the day-to-day Islam in Malaysia, and I can boast epiphanies both personal, interpersonal, spiritual and even academic!  I can hardly believe there was a time I was anxious enough to consider not going at all!  In short, pre-Asia, in-Asia, and post-Asia are periods of my life that have opened up a whole new world for me and I wouldn’t dare close my eyes now!

Blue Men, White Monkeys and Me

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For the past two weeks I have been obsessed with the Ramakien, the Thai epic poem translated into English prose and based on the Ramayana.  I really cannot tell you why I have been so absorbed by this story but I have determinedly searched through at least twelve bookstores within walking distance in Chiang Mai just to find a copy of the legend and even ignored the hundreds of beloved and cheap Western classics!  On Saturday we, as a class, visited the Khon, a performance in honour of the 60th anniversary of the King’s coronation.  The Khon is a masked dance in which the dancers become glittering several-headed giant demons, monkey soldiers who yawn moons and stars, gods reincarnated as blue princes and gorgeous women equal to Helen of Troy.  It’s not fast paced.  Far from it! If you’ve ever seen The King and I, Tup-Tim’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin should give a fair idea of the Khon’s style.

A portion of the fascination, for me, lies in the fact that the Ramakien and its dance performance so ably embodies all I have experienced of Thai culture as I could never have expressed it myself.  For one thing, the miraculous and rampant spirit world of the Ramakien is no mere fantastical legend here.  Every large building, almost every home and even some vacant lots are carefully protected through faithful maintenance of spirit houses, tended by all ages of all sorts of Thais at any time of the day.  Elephants are presented at the shrine in the front entrance of the Chiang Mai University to give the student good luck on his or her exam.  Temples are more common than flies!  (Yes, that may be an exaggeration, but it’s slight!)  For another thing, during the experience at the Khon, as we sat en masse and struggled to follow what little of the epic poetry that could be translated into English, fully aware of just how much we were missing in the Thai narration, I found I could finally put my finger on what it was I had been observing with confusion and a certain amount of frustration for the past three weeks.  Even still, my words alone cannot adequately express it and I must rely on the translator of my copy of the Ramakien to do so:

Neither political, religious, nor social obstacles of an overt kind stand before the institutions, temples and homes of the Thai, and many Westerners, thinking that to see is to understand, gain the impression from having seen so much of the country and people that they understand it–and them–completely.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  For like the chameleon, the Thai have perfected the useful art of being fully in view and remaining almost invisible. (J. M. Cadet)

While I am very grateful for what I have experienced of Thailand and I mean no criticism of this beautiful kingdom, I have still that haunting feeling as I explore the streets and temples that I have missed something, some of the depth and meaning of Thailand.  I have never been smiled at or welcomed so enthusiastically or fed so well or respected to such an extent as I have been here but neither have I found out what is behind the smile or discovered what could make them want to smile at me, the rich Westerner who tramps through their temples as they venerate their religious leader and cheapen their handmade wares to ridiculously low prices.

Cadet conjectured that perhaps it was because, and I paraphrase dramatically, all the fairies were massacred long ago in the west while their wonderful species is allowed to thrive in Thai culture that we cannot bridge the gap.  Personally, in discovering the Ramakien, I feel as though I’ve found a window that slightly lessens the thickness of the transparent glass wall standing between “us and them.”  I’ll never know the beauty of Thai poetry, straight from the pen of King Rama I, but I can share with them in imagination, at least slightly. And that in itself makes the hour long walks to so many bookstores well worth the sweat and stink!

Snapshots of the Time of My Life :)

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My shoddy math skills tell me I’ve been away from home for twenty days. My fears of the past blog entry, if you care to know, only simmer in the back of my mind whenever I’m not too hot or tired to simmer anything. I don’t remember how long ago that actually was. The time here seems to be blurring together and remaining in my memory are only moments of life lived.

…I went to a Catholic church. And not just any Catholic church, but the kind that took literally centuries to build, finished meticulously through the strength of faith and persevering slavework (a point which I was somewhat disappointed to learn as not only does it seem incongruent with a church’s values but it also quite effectively squashes my bent for romanticism–and yet I forge ahead!); it’s the kind of church that was Robin Hood’s protection, Guinevere’s punishment, Quasimodo’s sanctuary and dungeon! Yes, that’s a little dramatic but I have never before entered a cathedral–a real one!–and I feel I’m justified in calling up legends of such epic proportions. Only their memory echoes the kind of awe I felt inside the cavernous Paoay Church of St. Augustine, viewing the saints lining the walls and the still-fluttering and collapsing candles beneath them, evidence of a surviving and vital faith. It was an immense feeling–or, rather a feeling of immensity. I have never before experienced immensity.

…I swam a path of liquid gold! It was 7am, the South China Sea was calm and cool. The sun was rising, a golden, burning sphere of perfect light, first silhouetting the leaning palm trees, then the squat bamboo shelters lining the beach and then! I was swimming in a path of liquid gold. The sky is a canvas of spilled ocean and oranges; behind me the water and sky met in indistinct grays and blues. Only there, from me to the shore, did the extraordinary mat roll out, as if the sun rose for me alone, to grace the lapping ripples of the water and kiss me good-morning!

I guess what I’m trying to say with these snapshots is that this experience–the Asia travel abroad term–has been amazing so far. Along with being sick three separate times in the past 20 days, I’ve also raced with the clouds in the mountainous regions of Sabah, Malaysia, bathed with a cockroach, tramped through the jungle just to see how pineapples and ginger are grown, been told what the cold parts of North America are like from a Filipino’s perspective and eaten rice for breakfast for over a week straight! So as much as I absolutely detest rice at this point, I’m no longer asking myself why on earth I’m on this trip. I even have the great pleasure of tellling all those who, like myself, were unaware that pineapples do NOT grow on trees! 😀

Mist and Shadows

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“The Lord is my light and my salvationwhom shall I fear?”

Psalm 27:1 (NIV)

I began my first and second ‘rough copies’ for this blog basically saying that I’m scared out of my wits about going to Asia.  Now that I’ve moved into the third attempt at expressing this satisfactorily, that’s still true, but I thought I’d be creative and find a Bible verse about fear: that verse above happened to be the second one in my concordance.  Interestingly enough, the only way I’ve been able to describe the reason for my fear of these coming two months is to say that, from my limited perspective, I feel like I am deliberately walking—or rather, flying—myself into a dark void chalk full of black shadows.

Even though I’ve gone to all the classes in the intensive courses, meant to prepare us all for meeting this major paradigm shift, and I’ve talked to so many experienced travellers I can hardly keep track of all their advice, I cannot make Southeast Asia a reality.  I know, that sounds ridiculous, right?  After all, the existence of whole continents and billions of people is hardly up for debate.  But, in all sincerity, I cannot in the least fathom what two months in Southeast Asia might be like.  I’m stuck in ‘smalltown New Brunswick’ mode and can’t escape the difficulties of imagining such possibilities as any one single city containing a quarter of a million people without exploding! (Fredericton is big enough for me!)  And so, as I try to convert all that I’m learning of Asian cultures into actual, physical reality, to picture it as really and truly existing and being lived, I find the people and the places mischieviously morphing into Canadians and Canada and the strong conviction that these things could never be done (especially since I’ve certainly never seen it) has suddenly popped into the middle of things just to stir up trouble!

And there!  I’ve revealed my egocentric world-revolves-around-North-America worldview!  I can’t help it.  Thus Asia or Southeast Asia or Thailand, Malaysia or the Philippines remain vague proper nouns, associated with black holes and shadowy shadows.  And I’m terrified.  Fortunately though, just now I was reminded that the Lord is my light.  Whom/What shall I fear?  Well, to be honest, probably just about everything!  But somehow, I’m at peace with being afraid and I’m going to Southeast Asia no matter how badly my ‘cultural blinders’ distort reality and maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll shed them as I go.