Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Video for Khom Loy - Thailand

Completely remiss in posting this for viewing, here is the video that Tony made for the Khom Loy Foundation in Chiang Rai, Thailand. One of their projects is to help both Burmese refugee children and indignenous hilltribe village children integrate into standard Thai education by use of the Montessori method at the primary level. Nothing could be closer to our hearts--


Friday, December 30, 2011

A New Year in Perth

It is that limbo time between the festivities of Christmas and New Year; but, unlike the Wise Men, we are no longer wandering but affixed in a new abode in Perth, Western Australia. It is still very odd and unreal to believe that we are here: it was not on our planned itinerary. I did not have a Lonely Planet book in readiness. But in holding to a certain belief in fate and with a continued wanderlust and relative lightness of load (6 suitcases, up from 4,) we came here upon the urging of Tony’s sister, who has also newly arrived with her family for a temporary spell. 
River waters flooding through Bangkok amulet market

We left warm Thailand ahead of the serious flooding which enveloped Bangkok in October, though we did see the beginnings of the water filtering into the streets and around our hotel. We flew to Australia and spent a month with Tony’s parents, just outside of Brisbane. We knew that there would be a different sensibility--a ”let down”, so to speak--upon entering a Western country again. Little did we realize the immense culture shock. We realized that, from this point onward, we were at that threshold in our journey where we were leaving the “exotic”--the heart of our trip--behind. All I remember is crying on the plane trip between Sydney to Brisbane with my 10-year-old child comforting me. We looked like a band of gypsies, with Thai fisherman pants on and Ganesh talismans around our necks, seated in an airplane full of black-suited men and women. No color, no smiles--it was so far away from all  with which we had become familiar.
The kids, however, loved being back in an environment that they could, literally, understand and it proved a very special time being with Tony’s parents. While Tony took on the huge task of securing a temporary base, albeit in New Zealand or Australia, the kids and I made a few excursions to keep the adventures going:
Lady Musgrave Island -- the Great Barrier Reef:
An amazing day spent snorkeling and exploring this island off the mainland, north of Bundaberg, where Tony’s father is originally from. We thankfully took seasickness pills (recalling our Zanzibar crossing!) for the boatride out and docked up to a pontoon just off of the island. We saw all types of fish and corals and had a very special moment where we snorkelled alongside a Green turtle.
Leaving the town of 1770 towards the reef

On Lady Musgrave Island

Hiraani watching Green turtle along beach

Nesting Noddy tern--one of 70,000 on the small island

Rav and Hiraani feeding fish from pontoon platform
Mon Repos Turtle Sanctuary -- near Bundaberg:
Along a small stretch of beach is the largest Loggerhead turtle rookery in the South Pacific Region. We were lucky to be there in mid-November, when the turtles come to lay their eggs. The Wildlife Service offers special evening watches where park rangers take small groups to see the laying, dependent, of course, on whether any turtles come. We were doubly lucky in that 3 turtles came to lay eggs on the night we went. It was an incredible experience to see these huge turtles giving all of their energy to this process. We also helped in relocating the eggs that our particular turtle laid, as the original nest was too close to the high tide mark. As we gathered as a group to leave, it was 11:30pm. A warm crescent moon was rising over the horizon. It was an extraordinary moment when we felt that nature had truly given us a gift of itself that night.
Hiraani's inspired turtle diorama

Rav's continuing cardboard prowess
Australia Zoo:
Though minus the real thing, Steve Irwin lives on in his zoo. The highlights were the stadium show, where various birds swooped back and forth as well as the kangaroo and koala enclosures, where we could touch and spend time up close with them.

So, why Perth?
The allure: a strong economy based on a vast mineral/natural gas sector. Perth is the administrative center for gold, iron, and various mineral mines spanning the deserts of the State, along with natural gas platforms dotting the coastline in the northern areas. While we noted via nytimes.com the continued battle in the US and European economies, Western Australia seems to be still going strong. Other allures: unending beaches along the clear, green waters of the Indian Ocean; lots of sailing in the Swan River due to the “Fremantle Doctor” afternoon breeze; dry, Mediterranean-type climate, which has attracted a very large Italian community and, thus, lots of great food; and a relaxed and easily navigable city. Importantly, it gives us a chance to re-connect with Tony’s sister and her family. Rav has particularly enjoyed being with his two, older boy cousins--Oliver and Guy--who have taken him under their wing, surfing and rock-climbing, and away from his parents...
Shocks: the cost of certain things, such as rent, food, and clothing--this, particularly, after coming from Thailand. The competition to rent a house was fierce: in one situation,  Tony was one of 50 people vying for a house--and not a pretty one, at that. With the help of amazing friends at home, supplying kind references, we made it into a comfortable, little bungalow in a very lovely area--Dalkeith--about 10 minutes from the city center. Across the street is the walled compound of a convent and the ringing of the bells throughout the day bring back sentimental memories of Italy. Tony “reckons” that one day I will just ride my bike through the front gate and never come out: it is a comfort, at least! 

Home...for now.

We arrived at a time when the birds had been nesting and, since then, have seen the emergence of lots of little fledglings. Our most intimate encounter was with a family of Willy Wagtails, who built their nest just outside of our dining room window. we have watched them from their hatching to their first flight to learning to scavenge their own food. So many different bird species to learn about: huge, red-tailed black cockatoos, moisy rainbow lorikeets, to the amazing other-worldly laugh of the kookaburras.
Our choice of location was strategic due to school catchment areas. Hiraani is enrolled to start 6th grade at Dalkeith Primary School at the end of January. She has her uniforms (though not quite as chic as Thailand!) which is inclusive of the required broad-brimmed hat--a necessity in the Australian sun. Her school is four blocks away, so that she will be able to ride her bike or walk to school. Rav will be starting 9th grade at Shenton College and will ride his bike to school, though it will be a bit more of a journey--with hills. Biking to school, however, is still considered the primary mode for students, as there are no school buses, so our cardio levels should improve through the year.
As well as working on a new documentary and other visual art projects, Tony is back working as a Senior Bridge designer @ BG&E, a dynamic practice in downtown Perth. I am still waiting on the FBI to grant me criminal clearance (not sure what I may have done!) in order to process my residency visa here which will, in turn, allow me to work. In the meantime, I have been lucky to be with the kids and settle them into our new nest. Rav will start sailing camp (lasers) at the club just down the road and Hiraani will be continuing with her tennis and art camps through January until school begins.
Accustomed to living with little over the last months and inspired by friends in low-impact living, we have decided to take this opportunity to maintain a very light footprint here. So far, no car--all amenities are a bicycle-ride away, which I do on a bicycle which Tony found abandoned in a heap of bushes. Tony rides the bus to work. Furniture found either on the side of the road or in thrift stores. Most expensive purchase: 2 cockatiels--Rav and Hiraani’s bribes--I mean “gifts”-- for agreeing to move to Perth. It has been a very liberating feeling, as we remember well the energy and time it took us to extricate ourselves from home and worldly possessions before departing on our trip. The challenge will be to keep up the resolve and not slip into IKEA with a credit card...
Cosmo and Sunny

Our time here is intended to be for two years only; however, so much will be dependent on the changing global economy and Rav’s high school years. We will keep our thoughts flowing and use the blog as a portal for communication. Our doors stand open to any and all wishing to venture our way. We send our love and best wishes for joy and peace in the coming new year---

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Chiang Rai 2

Our days continue. The sky shifts from blurred grey rain to puffy clouds in blue sky. During the week, Hiraani goes to school. Tony scooters off in myriad directions. I write. Rav reads.
Our week-ends alternate. Last week-end, we started our fortnightly run to Mae Sai in order to re-new our Thai tourist visas. It is a Wild West place, though of the consumer type. The large north-south highway running through Thailand seems to come to a crashing dead end at the large white portal-type building with a blue-tiled roof. Stark  concrete shops and carts flank the road on either side, offering last-minute Thai souvenir items or first-chance cheap Chinese goods.
Through immigration and over a small stream of a river, and one is in Myanmar. It has taken a lot for me to even call it that, as it only seems to give legitimacy to the regime (but then Burma gave legitimacy to the British, so what do you do?) Myanmar’s border town--Tachiliek--is a bootlegger’s dream come true. A warren of awning-covered alleyways display fake iPhones, Lacoste shirts (are they still making those things?,) Ray-Bans, Nikes, travel luggage and the requisite current-model fake designer handbag. I sadly encouraged the illegal practice by buying a “Prada” bag (which even has an tag of “authenticita”) for US $18. We will go again next week with the line of middle-aged British men who seem to populate the immigration window.
This past week-end, we stayed local. We went to see a real cinema movie for the first time since leaving Jacksonville and then walked through the weekly Saturday night market. A length of 12 city blocks was turned into an amazing melange of items and people. One alleyway off of the road was lined with lounge chairs filled with people getting foot and leg massages. Food. Traditional musical instruments. Machetes in woven bamboo holsters. Hip clothing. Frumpy clothing. Traditional clothing. Tony bought t-shirts. The children bought fighting Rhinoceros beetles on sugar-cane stands (Rav’s is named Starke. Hiraani named her particularly feisty one Nipper.) I bought a banana-leaf bouquet for 16 cents.

As we discovered later, the beetles only fight in the presence of a female. They are happy to spend their days munching on sugarcane. (Rav is a bit disappointed.) 

Our time has not been spent running around madly to take in the sites. With Hiraani in school and Tony scheduling for his video project, we have our routine. It is a moment of pause in a beautiful place. Things seep in slowly but deeply. 
Sunday morning, Tony bought a small hand net from the local hardware store. The kids spent hours catching small fish, minnows, and fish eggs in the pond. Today, Hiraani has taken the day off from school to accompany Tony on a visit to a Montessori school for preschoolers from poor hilltribe villages. She will teach them a song in English and demonstrate to both the children and the local teachers how to use some of the Montessori learning tools. Things seep in slowly but deeply.

Khun Khon Waterfall

Below the falls

Tethering device for cows in field beside house

Friday, September 9, 2011

Chiang Rai, Thailand

Hiraani @ Wat Po, Bangkok
It is a hushed Friday morning, except for the rumblings of thunder in the hills and the cicadas buzzing after the morning rain. It is monsoon season here in Thailand as well, and the rains come and go. The rains are absorbed into the fields and is all done gently and calmly. Even the land acts Thai.
We have settled easily into our new abode within the countryside outside of Chiang Rai. We look out onto the forested hills edged with corn fields and the pruned bushes of a tea plantation. It is a perfect place for contemplation and quiet after the intensity of our past urban experiences. And it gives us a feeling of a home. It comes equipped with chickens, some strange fungus which has caused my hands to peel, and a motor scooter, which we take to the nearby market to fill up on my favorite fried bananas and all assorted curries and satay sticks. And to think that I was worried about trying to cook Thai. Fish or chicken curries for less than $1, pork and chicken satay sticks for 15 cents each: no need to cook, excepting rice in the cooker. Magic.

Some of the sauces and pastes, ubiquitously packaged in small plastic bags inflated to look like jellyfish, are completely an unknown. But at 20 bhat (30 cents,) it is worth experimenting (as long as I pick up a few satay sticks as an emergency back-up plan if all fails.) Yesterday I stopped by a vendor selling mounds of soft, thick rice noodles and a bag beside it looking fiery red. Completely ignorant of what to do with it, this lunchtime I just stuck them both in a big pot with a bit of vegetable broth, fried greens, and a bunch of coriander (washed and bundled for 10 cents--Publix charges over $2, no?) My nose was running from the chili, but it was heavenly. No chance of infections developing in the body with all that ingested firepower. Thai cuisine is truly the pleasure/pain principle incarnate. Rav took one look and heated himself up a hot dog.

We have rented the house for six weeks from a fellow American, Jeff, and his Thai wife, an otolaryngologist (how well we know that term from Rav!,) who built a lovely Thai-style home as their country retreat. But paradise always has its catch, and on the first morning here we awoke to it: bugs. Upstairs, in the main living area, a 2-inch wide column of ants were pouring in to sample our garbage. Downstairs, in Rav’s bedroom, various carcasses of small frogs, various flying insects, and spiders littered the floor. But we have learned our lessons and the tricks. We have come to revere our resident geckos who appear at nightfall and we cheer at their catches. 
The other magical component of our compound is a freshwater pond. Schools of small fish swim in the shallows. On hot days, we are there multiple times a day. Our standard time is in the late afternoon, watching the dragonflies and birds while floating in intertubes on the clear water.
At Jeff’s suggestion, we went to his children’s English-language elementary school to see if Hiraani could enroll for the short time that we are here. Within one day, we were madly running around Chiang Rai on the scooter to find chunky black Thai schoolgirl shoes, a white shirt, and to adjust her new school uniforms. Yesterday was her first day of school at Anuban Muang Chiang Rai School of English Curriculum: Hiraani was beyond excited. The prospect of being back in a school setting with new friends, schoolbooks, and uniforms kept her awake with excitement the night before. Her teacher’s name is Silas and he is from Cameroon. Though they only had room in the fourth grade class, we felt it would be an incredible experience regardless. Her curriculum includes Thai and Chinese languages, “career”, and Thai dance among the other standard subjects. Hiraani very kindly broke it to me that homeschooling was good and that she appreciated all that I did for her, and that she really apologizes, and it it not meant in a bad way, really, but school is way better...

Hiraani's first day of school
Second day in Friday's traditional Thai dress uniform
Dad's School Shuttle Service
Rav is stuck with us at home. The beginning of our homeschool term has been a tough one for him, as it takes him away from his beloved Game of Thrones book series. I think that Tony and I have been the ones enjoying his homework, discussing the noble strength of Santiago in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea as well as his science chapters on Machines. He is ready for separation, too; but with fewer school options for him here, he’ll have to deal with us a little bit longer.
Rav's dragon collage
Tony and I are using this time to work on personal projects. It will be a busy time, but we are in a perfect place to do so (barring a very slow internet connection.) We will reserve our cultural outings to the weekend, when Hiraani is home and can, hopefully, once again, be our translator. There are waterfalls to swim in, hilltribe villages to explore, and lots of Buddhist wats to visit (Rav is particularly impressed with the amount of gold leaf and shiny mosaic tiles used.) Hiraani and I have been researching about Buddhism  and learned that early Buddhist monasteries evolved in India as a shelter for wandering monks during the monsoon season as well as to protect the new plant growth from their trodding feet. Though our spiritual purity is questionable, we will use this as a retreat for new and deep thoughts...or deep fried bananas (I’m leaning toward the latter...)

Images from Bangkok:

Jim Thompson House
Hiraani @ Grand Palace: just like in her Montessori photo album--
(Tony paid Rav 30 bhat to be in photo...)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reflections on Nepal

We are now in Bangkok, Thailand with our last Lonely Planet book remaining. All the others have been left behind in hotel rooms in each country. The modernity of Bangkok comes as a surprise and a given: a surprise in seeing the changes that have happened in the last 23 years since I was last here, and a given in the great dichotomy that has always existed in Asia between the hunger for technology and the strong day-to-day culture.

But before plunging headlong into Thailand, a few retrospective thoughts on Nepal.

It seems that I personally am fated to know Nepal only in its monsoon season. This is not the season to be in Nepal to see Mt. Everest or to be trekking in the Himalayan ranges, as much as we would have wanted to. Our one day hike with the Kevin Rohan EM Foundation had us picking off leaches as we “slid” down the steep mountain trails. No, to come to Nepal in this rainy season is to focus on the Kathmandu Valley towns. What has always fascinated me about Nepal is the extraordinary way in which both the Hindu and Buddhist spiritual life is intertwined and physically manifested in every nook of the typical Newari town. From an architectural perspective, they are beautiful models of urban planning, with pedestrian alleyways lined with elaborately carved wood window screens leading to large central squares. From a cultural standpoint, I thought this would be the perfect place for the kids to see both Hindu and Buddhist religions in action.

First 10 days: Kevin Rohan Memorial Eco Foundation
As Tony shows in his video, it was a great experience and Krishna and Leela could not have been more generous and hospitable. One of our first excursions was to walk to a 100-year-old leprosy colony with which Krishna’s Foundation works. Though now only a fourth of its original size, the colony houses generations of families, some who have stayed, even not having leprosy themselves. The most touching story that we saw was of an older couple, both who had leprosy, who had adopted a boy with cerebral palsy. Left behind by his parents at the colony at age 4 days old, the couple have taken care of him for the last 4 years. Blind and unable to move, he sat cradled in the arms of his older, infirmed father, who looked on him with such devotion and love. Very moving--

Krishna helping Hiraani plant a fruit tree in her honor
As Tony worked on the documentary, I helped to draft a plan of the existing village to help with any future town planning. Hiraani adored the young American and Swiss volunteers staying at the Foundation to help, as well, and assisted them teaching at the local school and helping to make jewelry for the cause.

Second 10 days: Kathmandu and Bhaktapur or “The Reckoning”
In order to allow Tony some unfettered time to finish his video, I set off with the kids to Kathmandu for a few days to see some sights. Kathmandu is a restless place. We stayed just north of Thamel, the main backpacker/tourist area. Shops filled with pashima shawls. silver, “hippie” clothing, pirated DVDs and North Face trekking wear line the narrow streets. From these streets, blaring with cars and dotted with muddy potholes are upstairs bastions of great Italian and other Continental restaurants, expresso cafes, and convenience stores selling British biscuits and Toblerone by the tableful. Walking to the original heart of Kathmandu--Durbar Square--and the tourists fade in numbers as the locals swarm to pray at the various temples and shop en route. These crowds are what unnerve the kids and it is difficult to reassure them in the face of so many different senses and activities. We stuck to one excursion a day--sticking the toe in a bit at a time into this mysterious sea--and retreating back to the hotel room to absorb what we saw.

First latte & cake in months...

  • Swayambunath, or the Monkey Temple, due to all of the rhesus monkeys living at this Buddhist shrine.

Insolent monkey eating offering to Buddha

  • Durbar Square, where Nepali people flooded in to give offerings to the Hindu god Bhairab (the “mean” incarnation of Shiva.) Rav and Hiraani immediately felt more comforted after seeing an area full of pigeons.

chasing pigeons

  • Met with Beni Ghale of HEED Nepal, who single-handedly has started an initiative to give work to 300 uneducated women as well as 50 men in prison by making items form recycled materials--old rice bags, foil from food packaging, bike tire rubber etc.

In Bhaktapur, we met up with Tony and stayed a week to explore this unique town which has retained its historic fabric due, in part, to a huge grant given by the German government in the 1980s. It was a festival week, and every morning at 6am, small troupes of students would play trumpets, cymbals, and drums through the streets, to be repeated into the evening hours by huge throngs of people. An amazing city; but our week there and on some day excursions had Rav, in particular, as far away from life as he knew it. On a walk to one of the temple squares, Rav unwittingly witnessed the sacrifice of a kid goat to Bhairab (again.) On another day, we walked from the main Tibetan Buddhist shrine in the Valley to the main Hindu Temple in Nepal. Here we saw a young man, who had died, being prepared for cremation at the funeral ghats which lie along the sacred Bagmati River. Dreadlocked yogis slept in open shrines across the river and beggars lay on the sidewalks. It was life at its most intense.
Tony & Hiraani in Bhaktapur's Durbar Square

Tony @ ghat in Bhaktapur
Through our travels, we have tried, whether successfully or not, to discuss different cultures’ perspectives of the spirit. Rav always feels like I am trying to convert him to one religion or another (!). We have seen so much of life. This was an extraordinary time to actually see the cycle of death. And yet life still swirls around, still raucous, honking, and dirty. Sometimes it is cleaned up, as it is here in the shopping malls of Bangkok. But the nut is cracked and, though tough, the kids have caught a glimpse of the seed.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Kevin Rohan Memorial Eco Foundation Documentary

The past few weeks we've had the pleasure of staying with Krishna Gurung in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Its been an incredible experience in which we have learned some valuable lessons about
sustainability, biofuel, bio-dynamics and life in general.  Tricia was involved with Master planning within the community and I made this documentary which follows.  Its a touching story about an amazing person of vision.

Kevin Rohan Memorial Eco Foundation from antony rieck on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Changes in Longitude

The last three weeks have been a swirl of places and cultures. We have now landed in Kathmandu, Nepal after a crazy 24-hour transit period through first Qatar, then Bahrain. Our mindset, within that short period, had to adjust from leaving the interchangeably green hills and dry plains of Tanzania, to the absolute rock-and-sand desert of the Arabian Peninsula, then onward to the mountainous and lush Kathmandu Valley. An upgrade to first class helped the childrens’ tolerance to the changes and their adjustment to the very new and different culture that is now part of Asia is remarkably more easy--slowly they are becoming more open. The key has been to balance moments of transience with a longer period spent in one place.
Forgive me if I backtrack at this moment, as our last week in Tanzania was one of those moments on the road and cannot go unmentioned...
After our wonderful restful week in Pangani, we organized a boat to take us on to the outlying island of Zanzibar, for millenia is own nation until unification with Tanganyika in 1964 (thus TanZania was born.) Given the kids (and my own) diminishing tolerance for long drives, we opted for the 4-hour boat ride as 1) faster and 2) much more adventurous. A clear early morning portended good travel. We set out in a large motorized wooden dhow with visions of beautiful blue water and native dolphins ahead. It took about one hour until Hiraani, Rav and I were deathly ill. Waters rushing northward within the straits between Zanzibar and the mainland collided with eastward forces surging in between the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. Tossed into that were the tidal and wind forces, and we found ourselves in a small boat within the washing machine of the sea. Even the prospect of seeing the trees of Zanzibar emerge from the horizon and the increasing blue waters did little to comfort. I firmly realized then that any ideas about sailing around the world to exotic places was caput.
The waters finally calmed close to shore and Hiraani and I waded to shore with our EgyptianAir sickness bag still clutched in hand. As our knees gained strength, we could finally admire how beautiful the blue water and white sands really were. What is not beautiful are the dense resorts packed around these particular stretches of beach. Hoping that our hotel at Kendwa Beach would be different, we held out hope in the taxi until we reached its entrance. “Bikini Party Tonite” was plastered on the gate and we all groaned in horror (maybe Tony was trying to be supportive?) After Tylenols, water, and food, we headed down to the beach for our 1-night/2-day stay. The water was cool, the sun warm, and a walk past the thick hotels to the beaches bordering village land, one had a sense of the extreme beauty that is/was Zanzibar and what is critical to preserve in the face of such hyped tourism.
Tony resting after morning's journey
After our short sojourn at the beach, we headed southward to Stone Town, an ancient port town and seat of the Sultanate of Oman, who traded in spices and slaves. As one grows more familiar and ventures further into the heart of the city, it is quite amazing. Narrow streets, Arabic architecture, varying ethic faces. The grit of the town--muddy streets, exhaust, heat and smells--was a bit of a shock to the kids and therefore we did not venture too far into its’ corners. This is the part of travel in poorer countries which is difficult to philosophize about as a child. Their reaction to the physical is physical. Tony and I learned to explore it in small doses at a time. What we did do with them that was fascinating:

  • Spice tour, where we went out to a plantation in the country and learned about the plants and how the spices grew and were harvested.
  • Forondhani Night Market, where all kinds of foods are grilled and made. Our favorites were freshly-squeezed sugarcane juice with ginger and lime, beef satay, coconut naan bread, and pancakes with banana and chocolate.
  • Taareb concert--the unique Zanzibarian mix of Western, African and Arabic instruments and music.

Breakfast on guesthouse rooftop with morning fish market in background. Note: prevailing winds were luckily coming from opposite direction.
Next stop: Dar es Salaam by boat, but this time we went by the large catamaran ferry with no repercussions. Dar es Salaam is what is to be expected of a sprawling third-world city: concrete mid-rises with the congested mix of cars, pushcarts and people lumbering with huge bundles of wares on their shoulders. Our first hotel was an absolute slumdive (don’t follow Lonely Planet!) and at 9:30pm, we finally found a great, native-run hotel (the Cate Hotel, if anyone is going to Dar) that did not extort us for being foreigners. A few days to catch our breath before going to Mikumi National Park, finally, for our day’s safari. Excepting for the elusive lion and cheetah, we saw the spectrum: elephants, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, baboons, hippos, elands, crocodiles,  monkeys, (a) jackal, impalas, monkeys, plus some beautiful birds. It was perfect, and we really felt the land as we rode through the broad, barren savannahs.

Back to Dar for a few days to refuel English-language books, cafe lattes, Pringles and Snickers (bad food choices, but there is some comfort in these things so far away from home.) Onward to Nepal of which I will chronicle next time...