Starfish

Tomorrow morning we will arrive in Switzerland. I am not quite sure what it has in store for us but whatever does present itself we will reply with” this is exactly what we wanted”.

It has been an amazing experience for all of us, too short to say that we accomplished even the smallest of feats but a seed has been planted, and maybe this is just the beginning. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for being part of our journey, supporting and encouraging us along the way.

Remember every little thing counts in thought, in act, in speech and in intention.

I love this story

Starfish by Loren Eisley

StarfishA young man was picking up objects off the beach and tossing them back into the sea. A second man approached him and saw that the objects were starfish.

” Why in the world are you throwing starfish into the water?”
”If the starfish remain on the beach when the tide goes out and the sun rises high in the sky, they will die.” repeated the young man.
” This is ridiculous. There are thousands of miles of beach and millions of starfish. You can’t really believe that what you are doing could possibly make a difference!”

The young man thoughtfully picked up another starfish, paused, and remarked as he tossed it out into the waves,

”It will make a difference to this one…”

Hokas Pokas

Jessica and Noa at the airportIf you are ever travelling to or from Koh Samui make sure you have ample time at the airport. It is one of the most beautiful on this planet. Actually, I almost missed our plane last December taking a few last photos of the bathroom and the gigantic shell-shaped lamp hanging from the centre of the main lounge. Philippe Stark design, ultra clean and it appears  that they add to the decor quite often. The new addition was river stones lining the walls framing 5 ultra contemporary smooth basins in porcelain white. The best of all is the sliding glass doors leading to the bathrooms unveiling a large rectangular fish tank housing brightly coloured fish swimming gracefully about elaborate coral structures. And not to be taken for granted, is the full bar of delicious exotic fruits, pastries and fruit juices, coffee and teas all free of charge.

A  blue azure pencil skirt showing off long lean legs, the envy of any short legged woman, and perfectly polished black high heels appeared inches before our feet. From the floor where we were squatting, our heads buried in travel books and magazines killing time (what a horrible notion!) before our 20h30 flight out of Koh Samui, our eyes scanned upwards to see a Bangkok Air hostess. Impeccably dressed, with her jet black silky hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, a clip board and walkie talkie in hand she asked us to rise and follow her. Apparently Bangkok air had found 3 extra seats for us on the 19h00 flight.  No watches banded our wrists, we glanced up at the huge globe- like clock suspended from a light pole on the outdoor strip. 18h45. With 15 minutes before take off, we followed the hostess trying to keep up as gracefully as possible. By 18h51 we presented our passports, slid down a long hallway, 18h55 we boarded the shuttle bus and miraculously at 19h02 we were making our ascent into the cloudy grey sky that would soon shower massive drops of rain onto the earth below. 20 minutes into the flight with Philippe sitting at the back tail of the plane and Noa by my side, the tiny seat belt sign lit up in blood red. Within minutes the 40 seater plane was taking turns bouncing here and there, nose dipping what felt like meters, trembling at its core. Some sat gripping onto the armrests, others sweating profusely with their eyes forcefully shut and others anxiously searching for comfort outside the tiny window-   city lights, a hilltop, some land just to feel secure and grounded.

We don’t really like to fly it is just part of the territory and not much we can do to avoid it if we want to experience faraway places. When I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to soar thousands of miles above the world where a certain freedom would come alive. It was a moment to meet others from different paths, feel weightless and transported and I enjoyed it so much that I applied to a few airlines and secured a position with American Airlines. But that all changed the day I met Philippe back in 1987 during travels to Mexico. A move to Switzerland, a few random incidents on cross Atlantic flights, a shaky bout on a ten-seater plane in Africa  and of course 9/11. Yoga helps and so does positive thinking. Unfortunately, Noa has inherited our fear of flying which compounds the situation. As the turbulence increased so did his panic. I had to be strong, I had to be there for him. Before taking off, I had grounded my feet into the thinly carpeted metal floor of the plane, my hands placed openly on my thighs, my eyes closed I concentrated on my breath then visualized a golden ball encompassing the body of the aircraft. This has become a ritual that has helped me maintain equanimity during tumultuous flights. I just kept the image of a golden oblong vessel of light protecting the plane that dances and dips within pockets of air. Whether this might sound like hokas pokas to you or you are a firm believer believe me  it works. At least I remained calm enough to be there for Noa and my relaxed state diffused his fear and he instantly joined me in visualizing the protecting golden bubble. We did land in Bangkok in the midst of a rain storm, the temperature had dramatically descended to a chilly 20° but we were grounded and relieved. A note to remember.  Always, with turbulence or not, graciously thank the forces above.

The purple football

I wake with a gnawing feeling, one that won’t go away with my early morning practice nor a dip in the tepid waters. We leave today. I dread the thought but decide to make every second count.

We do a last head count on Noa and discover some lingering friends and their white sticky eggs yet to be hatched. This could be a disaster with each egg yielding close to a 100 lice during a nights sleep. For precaution, we decide to resort to the magic potion prepared generously by Phan and Hoy, a mixture of some type of potent wild apricot leaf shredded and then mashed into a thick coconut paste. Thank God for the sweetness of fresh coconut which diluted the strong stench that is despised by most Thais. We emptied the smelly paste onto Noa’s head weaving it into each layer. Tears ran down his face, a few not so nice words and lots of thrashing about. He finished with a pea- green mass pasted onto his long bleached blond hair, a shower cap to hold it all into place and got lucky when we agreed to plop him down in front of a DVD (his second since we left CH) with a plate of fresh fruit and pancakes. The DVD and my moral support by physically joining him in the venture (psychological or real, I itched !)  made the two hours fly by and hopefully the lice too! Would hate to infect the entire plane and bring them home to CH! Our lives are full enough!

A foot scrub, a Thai massage for 7USD,  time with the staff, dunks in the pool, a last coconut shake, plunges in the ocean catching a wave or two, lounging on a teak chair finishing up our books and absorbing the large palette of odours that permeated the balmy air, the day passed quickly. Five o’clock came with a smiling visit from Orasa who had kindly prepared a spare room for us to shower and clean up.

Phi, Jess and Noa in ThailandGood thing we intuited the possible lengthiness of the good-byes and began the rounds 45 minutes before our organized taxi arrived. In retrospect, we needed every minute. Ady, Ching, Orasa, Oyi, Gai, Tip, Rang, Aoy, Aom, Mos, Wut and Chai showered us with ”khwap khun” bowing at our feet with their hands pressed tightly at their hearts which proceeded with tight bear hugs that squeezed all the air out of our lungs . (Luckily we are yogis and have the capacity to retain our breath!) Then came the unexpected gifts, a simple bath towel tweaked into the form of an elephant, a hand crafted flower made delicate silk and a purple American football with all of their names inscribed under ” We love you Noa, Philippe and Jessica. You are our family”  and then more hugs ending in a escort onto the street where they waved us farewell until they were tiny specks in the sand.  We felt like shinning stars without the annoying Paparazzi driving into the sunset.

The Indian tailor

From the secluded haven of Devaterra Cove, we said good-bye to our dear friends and headed due north weaving in and out of large irregular potholes and rubble along a winding road that wraps securely around the thick foliage of the island. Passing the port of Nathon, curving around Bang Po, positioned on the most northern tip, then making a rounded dogleg right descending south along the eastern shores to Lamai Beach. A 180° turn clockwise from where we had spend 10 relaxing days . The only visual obstacle that kept us from connecting the dots from east to west or north to south or any combination of any  given cardinal direction was the lush overgrown rolling hilltops that emerged from the waters like a resurrected Phoenix.

The seaThe main strip of Lamai Beach is lined with dozens of Thai restaurants, a handful of continental, hair and massage salons, lady-boys wearing stilettos by nightfall, and small portable stalls selling customized silk suits to knock-off Crocs, Prada handbags and Gucci sunglasses. The diversity is intoxicating and  becomes a playground of ”wanting” for most westerners satisfying one’s every desire. Bargaining for most anything is the ticket and can be applied comfortably for immediate gratification.

At the street corner,  just before the narrow alley leading to the jasmine Resort which dead-ends at the foot of a white sandy beach with clusters of lounge chairs and umbrellas , we unloaded our backpacks onto the curb. Before being able to complete our sentence of gratitude to Matthew who kindly gave us a lift, our attention was distracted by an thick eager yet familiar  Indian accent  coming from a smart looking young man in his early 30’s dressed in a fancy silk suit ‘Hey! Sa wat dee krap!”  You are back , it is so good to see you again! I remember you, Noa, from December! How long are you here? Maybe time enough to let me make you a customized silk suit or dress?” And from there the light hearted dialogue began exactly how it had numerous times back in December. ”What would we do with customized silk suit or dress where we live?  we asked. ”You can wear them to work”. We jokingly added ”But we teach yoga and live in sweats.” With a smile and certainty that he had found a  solution , our friend the Indian tailor continued ”Aaaahhh, very good indeed. I make you silk yoga sweats to teach!”   Ping ponging back and forth, finishing with a few good laughs and a squeeze of a hand we parted until next time which would be just a few short hours later.

It seems that Thai people never forget a face and once they like you you are part of ”the circle” which can be good, but at times, an overwhelming thing. We hadn’t even put foot onto the first step of the Jasmine Resort where we would be the guests of honour for the next 3 days when Osara and her beautiful fullness squeezed us as a foursome and then again individually until we had ridden ourselves of any excess gas from the cabbage that floated in our soup at lunch. Joy and excitement shined from her perfectly round face as she escorted us into the lobby where we were greeted  in an untraditional Thai manner (bear hugs) taking a total of 20 minutes for us to  finally  reach our room. Never, in any place in the world,  with  the exception of returning to Phoenix and being tackled by my parents have we been greeted with such enthusiasm and love. It is enough to boost one’s self esteem and expand one’s heart.

We like to eat, especially in Thailand – grilled fish with ginger or with hot peppers, green mango salad, green papaya salad, seafood salad, green, red and yellow curries -extra spicy, fried morning glory, fried rice with shrimp, fried noodles with vegetables, soups with lemon grass and coconut milkshakes… the list goes on and on. There are two wonderful things to be noted about eating Thai food. One, the meals are light on one’s wallet and second, surprisingly light on one’s belt.  So with little time ahead, we carefully and strategically arranged the days to come. With 3 meals a day, 2 1/2 days to go, we successfully calculated 7 meals in total and from there, with pertinent questions beginning with ”what, when and where” we planned our few days. After the ”what’s, when’s and where’s were confirmed, we  pencilled in the ”other stuff” into the ‘betweenness” leaving lots of empty pockets for the unexpected.

NoaIn the ”betweenness” we basked in the sun, munched on grilled sweet corn served on a stick,  read thought provoking books (two ‘musts’ Three Cups of Tea and The Gate), swam in the shallow depths of the sea and splashed in the pool, played catch on the beach and in the water, was massaged, practised on the tiny terrace overlooking the horizon and wandered aimlessly in and out of the shops and hidden alleys. Time fell into a cadence of endlessness where the days stretched well into the early evenings and the evenings well into the darkness of the night way passed Noa’s bedtime. We flowed with time as she presented herself, watched the sun set into nothingness, gazed into the blackness of a star painted sky and honoured the rise of the sun as it paved the way into a new day. Nothing seemed necessary, everything could wait.

So with endless time on our hands and delicious spicy food in our bellies, we wish you well.

Never say never

Beach in CambodiaSo here we are and here is the present moment. It takes a bit of adjustment, of time to sort things out in ones head. Travelling to far away places that seem off the planet cause a mixture of intrigue, disgust, gratitude and havoc to ones priorities. Being away from what seems to be normal is like having an excerpt of ones life removed, caught in a stand still, suspended above time, place and comprehension. But than again , it is addicting and thought provoking. A question that haunts us and that has been contemplated over countless meals of traditional Khmer dishes is ”why and who is it to say where and when one is born?”  It could have been anyone of us that was born into a poverty stricken family that was  ”forced” to sell their daughter for a mere 300USD, or that was born to parents tortured and murdered during the Cambodian civil war or any war at that matter. ” Who makes the rules and what are they based on? Luck, Karma, who can tell?”

We arrived in Koh Samui late yesterday afternoon as the sun was slipping graciously beyond the horizon. It was difficult for me to leave Cambodia and again I found myself fighting to hold on to what we had experienced and the relationships we had formed. The tears fell but I know we will return. Attachment, one of the obstacles to happiness. It is a hard habit to break!

20 odd year ago we had fallen upon this tiny island by chance. It fell naturally into our plans during our 3 month adventure through South East Asia. I remember leaving Bangkok and its craziness in the early early hours, catching a very local local bus where everyone smoked DJs at that time, including us. The sweet smell of cloves had suddenly become nauseating and the desire to JUST arrive was over ridden by a VERY VERY strong need for frequent pit stops to breathe. I don’t recall exactly how many hours it took but it was something in the range of ”long”,  very long. Dropped off in Surat Thani, which resembled very little in those days, we caught  an open roof oversized cross between a canoe and a traditional fishing boat. We were few, the sun was scorching, I fell into a deep slumber waking only minutes before this virgin island called Koh Samui which means coconut island. I had never seen anything so pristine. The island was inhabited by a lush green foliage with turquoise waters that serpentines around fine white sandy  shores peppered with towering coconut trees . From afar, it seemed deserted except for a few fishing boats, staggering in the harbour, swaying gently to a relaxed cadence , a forewarning to what we would soon experience. We found an isolated bungalow inches away from the water. No luxury, no electricity no running water but total privacy and a serenity known only to those who dare to let it embrace them. In those days, Koh Samui was reachable via boat and that was it so it’s access was limited. There were miles of untouched virgin sand and at high tide crystal clear waters lapped the edges of the entrance to our bungalow.. Not much to do but relax and that is exactly what we did. It was perfect and therefore we promised NEVER to return.

Well, we all agree that promises aren’t made to be broken but ”never say never” according to some could jinx you. So with a bit of superstition and a lot of coincidence we’ve returned, not just once but 5 times in total!  No, Koh Samui no longer is that deserted faraway island which no one has heard of but it still has that ”something” that I am unable to articulate.

SunsetDoing nothing is debatable cause when you sit you are ”doing”, when you sleep and eat you are ”doing”, when you look into the eyes of a multicoloured sunset you might say that you are ”doing”. Well, if all this is considered ”doing”  I must admit that I like it, a lot!!! The day consisted of yoga solo and then possibly with the kids or a friend, playing with the kids on the beach, in the sea, in the pool, on the deck, in town, eating, eating , eating, swimming, chatting, dancing , laughing even a melt down or two or three and that was about it. That is our holiday in a nutshell or a coconut shell. Oh, we did manage to take the boat out one day for a snorkel and picnic on some off the coast island. The most monumental event was Noa’s( and possibly mine too) kind and thoughtful offer to transport head lice from Cambodia to Koh Samui for free. So a day (or 2 or more) was spent shampooing everyone’s hair, the 4 boys and the 6 adults, stripping the linens, boiling Noa’s clothes and Mylo too (the poor thing, there isn’t much left of him).

There are sunsets here that melt your heart. An alchemy of gold, of ruby, of tiger’s eye and amethyst,  with hints of amber that colour the sky as the golden ball dips into nothingness. As dusk falls graciously,  so does God’s hand as he fills his canvas splashing strokes here and there until the entire sky is transformed into something that is beyond expression.

I am content, immensely so. Cambodia secretly remains in my heart and on my skin,  it took me 3 days in to take shower.  In this moment of ”perfectness”, head lice and all we couldn’t have asked for more. So with extended gratitude for this perfect moment, we wish you well.

Gross national contentment

HappinessRelaxing on a rattan couch with the Gulf of Thailand extending into nothingness there is a feeling of dislocation from what had appeared to be the real ”reality” , a harsh but gratifying one that we seemed to integrate and come to appreciate. Life had taken on a different meaning. Colours and experiences were intensified by a strong sense of impermanent- ness. We had adopted a ”that is exactly the weather or type of day that we had wanted! Thank you, Thank you!” type of attitude, one that  works very well in Cambodia and to be honest, in life in general. This new easygoing attitude just seems  easier to apply in Cambodia where so often the forces lie beyond our western control. Interesting enough, things had never moved  so smoothly in the lives despite the bumpiness of the unpaved roads we travelled upon. Within the tangled web of what appeared complex, relinquishing all expectations, things suddenly became uncomplicated, enjoyable and light. Who cares if yesterday our guest house served ginger coffee and today they had nooooo idea what we were asking for.

Today, our first day in another world, one far away from the trials and struggles of a good 85% of the Cambodian population living a poverty stricken life in rural areas with a daily income that wouldn’t even buy Noa a gum ball, we find ourselves in a semi-pseudo world of luxury. Our plane fare alone to reach Cambodia we embarrassedly calculated, cost more than the equivalent to 6 years of income for one Cambodian and,  be assured, we flew economy, a grey market ticket. And what about the CO2 that our plane spit into the air? Something comparable to 24 years of daily commuting of one car. These uncomfortable statistics are quite a deterrence in themselves and weighs heavily on our mind. How does one justify?

But below, without a care in the world, the 4 boys play on the white sandy beach. The sun glistening in their hair, imagination comes alive as they search for odds and ends of broken shell, bits of wood and coconut creating a  magical kingdom founded in nature. It muses us to witness the change in a child when removed from the material world of ”wanting” and placed into the beauty of nature where they suddenly have all that they desire to be truly happy. I often ask myself if it is not us, the western world, that needs the  assistance of the disadvantaged and not the contrary. I think that in truth we could all learn a lot from one another how to live with more joy and less fear.

Yoga on the beachThere is a poignant quote that I read while reading ”Three Cups of Tea” that sums it all up in a few short simple words that I don’t exactly remember but the gist of it goes something like this. ”It isn’t the gross national income that determines the happiness of a country but better the gross national contentment.” And one could add, being in harmony with one’s community, one’s land and one’s heart. Sounds bit simplistic for our modern techie minds to grasp? Maybe, but try it it might just work.

Strike a beat

Cambodia Orphan Save Organization (COSO)C.O.S.O, Cambodia Orphan Save Organization is located in tiny Sra Shrang (Pool of Ablutions) just east of Ta Phrom. We had learned  about this newly established, non-profit, non-governmental and non-political organization 12 km from Siem Reap Town but still within the walls of Angkor, while dining at a community aware café in PP.  A small black and white flyer was taped to the bathroom wall and it caught my attention by one small but hugely significant sentence ” YOU DON’T NEED ANY SPECIAL QUALIFICATIONS, JUST A DESIRE TO HELP OTHER PEOPLE AND A FEW HOURS TO SPARE”. That was enough for us to make the trip. C.O.S.O.’s  main objective is to offer food, shelter, education and safety to local street kids living in extreme poverty. Their orphanage resemble a makeshift wooden shelter with a tiny open air dirt floored room acting as a school house. The children are barefoot, dirty but are content and cared for. Their wish list – rice, food, sleeping mats, mosquito nets (Dengue epidemic killing 1000s of children), blankets, medical and school supplies, clothing, shoes which is sadly a far cry from most of our kids wish lists – iphone, ipod, skate board, watch, new laptop… and the list goes on. C.O.S.O provides Khmer and English lessons, 3 square meals a day, a safe place to sleep, evening traditional Khmer dance training and love. We are keeping our eye on this one too for future involvement and hopefully by next summer we will be back with a group of interested yogis ready to invest a bit of their time and love. Website: www.coso-orphanage.com

With good karma and Vishnu for protection we survived our biking adventure (quite a miracle!) had the most delicious swim in the River Garden’s newly installed pool and then off on tuk tuk to listen to Dr. Beat Richner, a true saint. If you have never heard of him and are depressingly down on mankind check out his web site: www.beatocello.com. You will be inspired and your life will never be the same. This tiny Swiss-German man of little charisma nor power has humbly moved mountains, those large than the grandest. With a dream and a determination stronger than the political corruption that he constantly encounters, Dr. Beat Richner has successfully opened 3 children’s hospitals saving close to 8 million Cambodian children in the past 15 years. All medical services are free of charge and they even pay the transportation to and from the hospital. Yearly they receive 600’000 visits with 55’000 admitted for severe illnesses and accidents, they perform over 9’000 surgical operations, inject over 100’000 inoculations and deliver over 5’500 babies a year. Without these hospitals, close to 3000 children would die each month. Dr. Beat Richner has a staff of 2’600 qualified doctors and nurses and best of all all but 2 are Cambodians and paid between 250USD -1000USD! What is humbly amazing is his down to earth approach and presence. Every Saturday evening at precisely 19h15, Dr. Beat Richner shows up at the Siem Reap auditorium to play his cello for donations only. He begins with ” We need your help. It costs 17 million USD to run our hospitals per year. With 7% of donations coming from Switzerland another 3% from the Cambodian government we depend on individual donations.  If you are old give money. If you are middle aged give money and blood and if you are young give blood.” It was as easy as that. No elaboration or exaggeration just hard cold facts that make your blood rush and your heart tear. He then beautifully stroked his cello, talked a bit more and showed an inspirational documentary on his work. One cannot leave unaffected! There is so much to be done but remember ”small acts with a big heart” go a long way.

Philippe talking to people We leave tomorrow and my tears prepare for the journey.

P.S. We did end up dropping by the last hut at the top of the road just before the park. The crooked wooden door hung loosely on its rusty hinges, a pair of pink tattered children’s slippers  were scattered on the stone floor and the sound of cartoons whispered from a small T.V. A young man in his early 20’s met us at the doorway. Our friend had left after the death of his wife just a few months after our departure last December. Saddened, we sent warm thoughts his way and hope that our paths will cross again one day soon.

P.S.S. Internet connections failed so this portion of our journey is an aftermath but still so real.