Come Sail Away…

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I’m sailing away,
Set an open course for the virgin sea,
‘Cause I’ve got to be free,
Free to face the life that’s ahead of me,
On board, I’m the captain, so climb aboard,
We’ll search for tomorrow on every shore,
And I’ll try, Oh Lord I’ll try, to carry on

I’ve been singing Styx since a very young age. There was not a family road trip that didn’t involve rocking out to Styx (along with a few other favorites…The Night Chicago Died–who doesn’t love a song about gang warfare? And of course, a family favorite, Afternoon Delight…yeah, don’t ask). In fact, I remember a bus ride at camp singing Styx with one of my first crushes. Styx. That is true love. (I may have had better taste in men as a twelve year old…the jury is still out).

And this. This is the song that comes to me this weekend in the midst of a silent retreat. Have you ever spent 48+ hours not talking? I highly recommend it, especially in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Advice from friends, family, and mentors is great–often essential. But sometimes you have to quiet all the voices and listen to what it is that you want and what you need. Plus, I’m all about inner peace and tranquility; living life in a rather large metropolis focused on success and achievement sometimes requires that you take a step back to reestablish the inner calm among the chaos and the busy.

So here I am: thesis-ing, job searching, working, homework-ing (yes, I invent school related verbs), blogging, and volunteering. Well-rested, I attempt to attack my thesis and my upcoming projects with a more sane (less anxious) mind and a firmer sense of direction. I have come to realize in my silence that what I am really seeking is not just the next adventure or the answer to the inevitable “What am I going to do when I grow up?”, but joy. The joy of travel. The joy of family and friends. The joy of my faith, of new experiences, of exploring new hobbies, of celebrating life.

And to my future, I say…

On board, I’m the captain, so climb aboard!

My Culture

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A friend of mine told me about a book that talks about the difficulties women have dating because they are ambitious and career-oriented, but want to have a family and be stay-at-home moms. That apparently men who are supportive of career-driven women may not see the value in a stay-at-home parent or that men looking for a wife who would value a stay-at-home parent may not know that about his ambitious female friends.  (DISCLAIMER: I haven’t read the book, I was just told about it. So this is my interpretation of what I heard. I also think she said it was specific to DC, or urban areas. Regardless…)

I can’t say this worry had ever occurred to me personally. Certainly, I have been in real experiences in which that conversation is necessary. I’ll out myself as an ambitious woman who would love to eventually have a family and be able to stay at home (I say stay-at-home loosely, I’ll probably be “on the road.” 🙂 ) But, it has never been a difficulty in finding someone to date. And let’s be honest, there are a lot of necessary conversations in any relationship. (Like my addiction to international travel…my bank account and I already go back and forth on that. I can’t imagine my future spouse and I won’t have to have that conversation. Or better yet, we should just have the same addiction to adventure. Hey, girl can dream!**)

This post drifts from away from a strictly “travel” blog here and shifts in to one about culture and values. As I was contemplating the existence of this book, I didn’t quite get it. But it did lead me to think more deeply about why staying at home or having a more flexible job as a parent would be important to me. I came up with this: my desire to create a culture unique to my future family. I love traditions, holidays, and rituals. These are what make life so rich. They are the very reason I yearn to travel—to see how others celebrate the joys in everyday life and in the monumental occasions (life, death, birth, marriage, coming of age…). Life is beautiful and it is the celebration of the joys and how we handle sorrows that makes one ordinary moment different from the next.

This thought led me to something else. I have these beautiful friends that aspire to own a farm. They have an amazing blog where they chronicle their made-from-scratch recipes and other craftsmanship projects. I see them value the hard work and the virtues that come with those efforts and I admire them greatly. They take their values and live them. Admittedly I have wondered to myself, if I really wanted to create a culture as I said above, would I be making lye soap or beeswax candles? After all, I like the values they hold that lead them to do this. But let’s be honest…I love projects, but I don’t ever see myself making detergent from scratch more than once for the novelty of it.

Part of the reason my friends’ blog has sparked so much thought was a debate in my Global Ethics class about particularism versus universalism in tackling poverty—that is are we more effective in our efforts to help our own and do it well or are we more effective in helping the most objectively impoverished though they may be in far corners of the world or isn’t the most effective use of resources? While most of my fellow master’s students argued in favor of universalism, I found myself defending a greater responsibility to our own children and our immediate neighbors. (How did I end up in an international affairs program instead of social work, if this is the case? I may never know.) In this same vein, I found myself inspired to volunteer and support local NGOs, dedicated to ending hunger and homelessness locally, upon my return from India.

If I truly feel particularistic—in that I can most effectively help the world by the children I may raise or serving those in my own little corner of the world—would I not be doing something radical like my friends’ in saving for a farm (or whatever it may be that you value) to create that particular culture that fosters those values?

But I have come to a conclusion. (Besides the fact that I think too much about things that haven’t happened yet…) It is through my love of people and exploration of culture—learning what and how people attribute meaning and significance to in life—that leads me to this frame of mind, to my desire to build a domestic culture. I know traveling has taught me so much—it’s pushed me to my limits and beyond on more than one occasion, but it’s also stretched me and forced me to grow. (In retrospect, I think relationships, families, and living together is similar–pushes your limits, but ideally challenges you to improve).

If I have values, I want to live by them…otherwise, they are no better than a presidential campaign—all rhetoric and no substance. It has just occurred to me that some of my specific values are learning, exploring, and finding meaning in it all. Maybe international travel is my farm–the a part of the way I live out my values…and maybe it doesn’t have to be particular OR universal.

***Speaking of dreamy: For anyone who saw The Bachelor finale this week, I wouldn’t mind riding off into the Thai sunset on an elephant either.

And here I’m facing adventure…

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What will this day be like? I wonder.
What will my future be? I wonder.
It could be so exciting to be out in the world, to be free
My heart should be wildly rejoicing
Oh, what’s the matter with me?

I’ve always longed for adventure
To do the things I’ve never dared
And here I’m facing adventure
Then why am I so scared

 

Without fail, Rodgers and Hammerstein have lyrics to fit every situation. (Including, “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no, I’m in a terrible fix!”…but that is another musical for another blog post!) This pretty much sums up my life at the present moment.

And what should I be doing at the present moment? I should be writing my master’s thesis at this very moment…the moment during “snowquestration”, with absolutely no snow on the ground but a day off from work. Sometimes, I do love the federal government. In fact, it’s well timed. I almost took a vacation day this week to dedicate extra time to my thesis. Instead I’ve spent the day attempting to work from home, looking at job openings, doing laundry, and getting my kitchen and bathroom spotless. …Well, at least I have clean clothes for tomorrow. And two paragraphs added to chapter two of my thesis.

I’ve also been reading blogs almost obsessively. Maybe I should’ve given THAT up for lent (lord knows my Facebook fast failed by week two). But somehow I can’t get enough. I’ve been yearning to write on this blog for months, but didn’t have something set to post about. Usually a coherent topic just comes to me and so a new post is birthed. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t for the life of me think of something that meshed what I wanted to write about and what my audience would want to read. If no one reads this, I might as well start a journal. I don’t need my private thoughts shared on the inter-webs–I would like to have something worth sharing.

But this Wanderlust Traveler is currently wondering, wandering and LOST. JRR Tolkien has a quote which I love (and is currently on a luggage tag attached to my suitcase), “Not all who wander are lost.” Well…such is the blessing and curse of so many possibilities come May.

 

“I didn’t always know what I wanted to do, but I always knew the kind of woman I wanted to be.”

Diane Von Furstenberg

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Daily Commute-Uncomfortable Moments

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I’m back in DC…amongst the hustle and bustle of the rush hour commutes, the endless grad school papers and reading assignments, and of course the never ending to-do list that is life. It’s great to be back with friends and only an affordable phone call away from family. It’s nice to be somewhat settled in my new apartment (though the decorating style of choice is still half full Home Depot moving boxes at the moment).

But man…I haven’t stopped moving since I landed on American soil. Perhaps, it was the decision to come back the day before classes started or the need for me to return to work or maybe even my need to reconnect with everyone I missed spending time with this summer. It also might’ve been the move, being in a wedding, hosting guests at my apartment, and getting sick on re-entry.

I have come back the same, but different. Cliche, I’m well aware. But I can’t help but see my daily routine with new eyes. The bus stop on my morning commute has a small shelter with a single bench. An uncomfortable, curved, and narrow, not-really-meant-to-be-sat-on sort of bench. What is the point of that? I can’t help but think the city is trying to avoid inadvertently creating a place homeless people to take up residence–either sitting or sleeping, as they often do in other parts of the city.

The problem is symptomatic of something greater. A societal problem which makes me uncomfortable even in my home environment. Sure, the first thought might be what’s the big deal with providing a place for the homeless to find temporary respite? But the larger issue here is homelessness in the United States. Why don’t they have a shelter in the first place?

Experiencing what other countries handle well and what they handle poorly has illuminated what the United States does well (and for these numerous things I am eternally grateful to be American) and what they handle poorly. Homelessness, at least here, is also a symptom of a larger problem. An inability and discomfort with mental illness. Both homelessness and mental illness are issues to me which are very uncomfortable. Part of it is the worry that takes root in me from the unknown and unfamiliar. I have thankfully not dealt with homelessness personally, but the foreignness of it and the risk of it makes it all too scary.

I don’t think we know quite what do with homeless people–mentally ill or not. Many people like to reassure themselves that if they work hard, it is avoidable. Thus comes the mindset that “if these people only worked harder, they would not be homeless” is an easy trap to fall into. Really I think that mentality is one of fear. If it’s in your own control, you can prevent it. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Mental illness (e.g. I’ve read many homeless people are former veterans with PTSD) and addiction play a huge role–both are seen as warts on society that are both difficult to deal with and difficult to talk about. As do many factors outside of one’s own control (the economy, for one).

I’m not entirely sure what I as an individual can do to overcome my discomfort with these issues, but I am more aware of them now than ever. The poverty that plagues the United States. Why aren’t the people I see on my commute seeking out shelters? Why aren’t shelters seeking them out? Why are the ones struggling with illness not receiving the help that they need?

This brings me to my final point–and please forgive me, it’s election season and I live in the Nation’s Capitol. I firmly believe there is a legitimate debate over how to answer these questions and societal needs. Both government and civil society (individuals) are capable of working on a solution. I am not here to voice my opinion in favor of one method or another (whether governments or individuals should lead the efforts in ameliorating these problems), but rather to bring these issues to the table for discussion and urge that we do something to address them.

I may have never noticed the bench I stand next to every day outside my bus stop if it weren’t for my time away from it. I may have never noticed the homeless man at the Farragut Square who’s there every day working as he can for his livelihood. It’s not an easy world to get established in without a hand up occasionally…establishing credit, trying to pay off medical bills, or find a job with a living wage. But each of these people that I am uncomfortable around have inherent human dignity. I am still trying to find ways to look beyond what the concept of what they deserve to what I can give.

It’s time to forget about what some people think the homeless or mentally ill deserve (and to forget about what we think “we deserve”), and instead focus on the giving of ourselves for the benefit of others. DC is not so different from India insofar as the most uncomfortable moments are the ones most ripe for growth.

It’s all Thai to me!

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I wrote this about a week and half ago at the end of my travels. I plan to continue my blog as I continue my travels and new experiences. I will also blog occasionally on re-integration and processing lessons and experiences from my travels. Please stay tuned! (And forgive the lack of posts towards the end, I got busy assisting with the conference!)

Many places I’ve been most, if not all, of the workers are not proficient in English. I understand that I can’t and shouldn’t expect everyone to speak my native language–the fact that most the world does to some extent is very lucky. However, communicating food allergies, directions, and other logistics necessary in conducting a conference has been much more challenging in Thailand. Perhaps because they weren’t as heavily influenced by the British…I can’t expect everywhere to be Delhi! (And frankly, as much as I enjoyed it for a few days, I would not the whole world to be Delhi anyway).

Perhaps even more challenging than the Thai has been the conference I’m at on disability policy. I was charged with airport pick up for the students in the masters program on disability policy. This was definitely a challenge for me, as I was waiting at the Bangkok airport–sometimes with a colleague and some days alone–armed with a welcome sign. No indication was provided as to what type of disability the person had.

I realized that shouting out a person’s name is useless if they are deaf, as is waving a sign in front of a blind person. I was unprepared once again for what lay before me. I would have to spot them in the crowd and adapt to my situation, as many of these students have done their whole lives. Then, after meeting up with each one, I had to call the driver who only spoke Thai to let him know he was needed and where to meet.

I also had to go on a quest for table cloths for a banquet. I don’t think I’ve ever mimed the act of putting a cloth on a table so many times. I went to 3 stores–the third finally having one possibility. A bolt of fabric hung out of my reach as I tried to explain to the store associate that I needed 15 tablecloths, 85cm long each. She spoke no English. She cut one and tried to send me to the cashier. I tried explaining 14 more and got one more…and was once again sent to the cashier. I needed 13 more. The message finally was understood, only to lead to more difficulty. She had to communicate that there were not enough centimeters of fabric for 13 more and I had to ask if there was any more bolts of fabric in the back. Between her calculator and my drawing skills (thank goodness I doodled my way through undergrad), I think we came up with a mutual understanding. And we laughed at our charade through the whole process.

Talk about frustrating moments. And, honestly, uncomfortable moments. To be almost completely unable to communicate with those around you is somewhat scary. What if a van driver got lost or didn’t understand where we were trying to go? What if someone had a medical emergency? Luckily, at least we were spared an emergency (I won’t comment on getting lost…).

I don’t speak Thai. I don’t speak American Sign Language. I don’t read braille. I didn’t learn Hindi or Oriya or Nepalese. And more importantly, I’ve come to realize that no matter how much schooling I have, how many countries I live in, or how many new places I visit, I will never be able to speak every language in every corner of the earth. That sounds so obvious when I spell it out like that, but I have a desire to adapt and fit in with my surroundings. I want to learn Thai, sign language, and every other language I have the opportunity, but realistically, I won’t learn every one.

This realization is an acceptance of my limitations.

In a society where children are raised to believe they can accomplish anything, it is actually difficult to come into your own–able to both identify your strengths and assess (or admit) your weaknesses; it is a challenge. In my two weeks at this conference and in my classes with these disabled students, I have learned something that many of them are already highly skilled at–adapting to their situation and capitalizing on their strengths. It is very true as one of my friends in the program said (and I paraphrase) that before this degree program, they were seen for their disability, but they are now recognized for their abilities.

Seeing yourself accurately in your abilities also means accepting and adapting to your limitations–skill-wise, monetary-wise, opportunity-wise or otherwise. I think that in expanding my wings and seeing more of the world, I have come face to face with my limitations. And accepting that is hard. But perhaps it is only when we are confronted with are limitations that we are most challenged to grow. To see ourselves for who we are and to use what we have been uniquely given where we are able to make a difference.

I think in summary that this is my internalization of the mantra think global, act local. I cannot single-handedly learn every language, visit every place, or even cure all of the poverty I’ve seen in my travels. But this journey has taught me more about what I want out of life and why I want it.
Riding camels through the desert I thought to myself, I love every life decision that has led me to this point. And I have no regrets about the decisions I’ve made and actions I’ve taken.

However, I have learned a lot during my travels. Life is a lot harder without a support network in close proximity. Achievements and successes mean less without my family around to share in them. And just because I have the opportunity to do something or the ability, that is not the same as the obligation to take it. I never want to stop traveling or to stop learning, but there are so many people I want to share my experiences with–as in experience it with them. I’ve also realized that there are also many things that though I am confident I could adapt to if I had to, there are somethings I don’t want to do or try and that is okay too.

This summer has been challenging. Definitely not an easy trip, but most things I can handle. I still don’t like squat toilets, but I can deal with it. However, the most difficult part of the summer was not material. There’s a line in the film Sweet Home Alabama which I’ve always related to that articulates the most difficult part of doing what I love. “You can’t have roots and wings, Mel,” the dreamy blue-eyed (you know what I’m talking about, ladies) Josh Lucas says to Reese Witherspoon’s character. But I think that describes my biggest challenge pretty accurately–I can be so restless in one place, but I hate to be far from friends and family. To a certain extent it’s definitely a limitation. I will not be moving to rural Peru to do fieldwork with a tribe anytime soon (though how cool would that be?!)–I couldn’t stand to be that far away from my family for that long or out of contact. And unfortunately, it’s difficult to pursue international politics from Oklahoma or Texas. However, as far as limitations go…what a gift it is to have the desire and opportunity to experience the world, as well as amazing friends and family back home!

If I walk away with only one lesson this summer, I hope it is a deepened appreciation for life. My life-the new friends, friends from home, family, my education, my opportunities…the amazing support network. And also, the lives of others that are different from my own.

I can’t wait for my next adventure…I’m thinking Africa. Who’s with me?!

To Bangkok or Bust!

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Yesterday evening I arrived in Bangkok. It was a miracle. With a flight leaving at 1:30pm from the Kathmandu airport, we intended to leave the foundation at 10 am in order to allow for the prescribed 3 hour window for security in international travel. However, the hired taxi showed up half an hour later due to a strike that was in effect until then. We pile in the Tata manual car, snugly but comfortable fitting the 3 of us and our luggage (as well as some of our spoils). Already this makes for an interesting adventure–the windows open to catch a breeze in the heat and our hands managing to prevent backpacks from falling out the side as we struggle up and down the faces of low mountains on what I’m told are “roads”, though they are unpaved and narrow.

This 30 minute ride quickly turned into 2 hours of sitting in traffic and even perhaps more exciting, off roading it in the mud. When we weren’t stopped or inching forward and then stopping, we were looking for any and every short cut available. Once we rear-ended the car in front of us. Only slightly though, so  it’s alright, right? Allison was brave enough (or by default) to take the front seat. She spent the drive slamming imaginary brakes from the passengers seat. Our driver, aware of the panicked look on two of our faces and the absolutely car sick look on the third face–the girl who had been sick for 2 weeks, was determined that we were going to make are flight or die trying.
Emphasis on the die trying part.

 

Every time there was a fork in the road, we took the one less traveled. And make all the difference it did, but with every choice my brain thought, surely that’s not a road, right? Usually my thoughts were right. We took it anyway. Including through many muddy, muddy areas and under a low rise bridge. I envisioned the car stalling (as it often did) or getting stuck in the mud, neither were far from possible. Even likely. I envisioned Allison and me, both 5’3″, having to get out and push our luggage, our driver trying to steer his way out, and our very sick friend in the car out of the mud and up the steep hill. Thank God that didn’t happen.

We arrive at the airport with exactly an hour before take off. Run like chickens with our heads cut off to find the right departure terminal and are greeting with a line to get in. Run to the counter, laden with 3 months worth of baggage and check in. Thank goodness they let us. We got boarding passes, hurried to fill out our exit documentation, and rushed through security and emigration.  We arrived at our gate, grabbed a snack, and boarded the plane.

Thank goodness we were greeted by Thai Airways. Western toilets. A delicious gluten free meal. Comfy seats and free drinks. Then we arrived in Thailand whizzed through customs and currency exchange and found our hotel shuttle. We spend the evening with our friends from grad school, one who lives here and one who had a layover. It was almost like being in Washington DC and back to our weekly ritual of grabbing Thai food after class. It’s nice to have the comfort of familiar faces after traveling for so long.

We are back in the developed world. Well, almost.

 

Nepal

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I will probably back date a post detailing the rest of my adventures in Rajasthan, at the Taj Mahal, and in Delhi…but it was a hot and exhausting (though exciting) two weeks, that I am not quite ready to relive yet. But for now…

 

Yesterday, I landed at the Kathmandu airport and other than the fact that the airport does not accept their own currency for visa fees, we arrived without any major problems. Even flying in to Nepal, you could see the topography change drastically from the Indian jungles and near-middle eastern deserts we’d been in. Landing in Nepal was a dream come true for me.

My freshman year of high school I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a book about climbing Mt. Everest. I also met Jamling Norgay and Peter Hillary, sons of Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary. They have climbed the peak, as did their fathers before them. I declared to my mom at fourteen that I was in fact going to Nepal. And here I am.

My first impression is that this is a city surrounded by mountainous hills, where the earth meets the sky. The way that clouds billow through the trees in the distance is just breathtaking.

From the airport, we drove through the dusty and crowded city of Kathmandu–that was actually calm following our stay in Delhi, but probably not so coming from anywhere else in the world. The paved roads were bumpy. The partially paved roads? Bumpier. The bumpiest roads are a tossup between the gravel and unpaved roads. I wasn’t sure our car would make it up and down the steep hilly roads.

But then we arrived to the Kevin Rohan Memorial Eco Foundation. We are staying as guests and volunteering for just a few short days. I can only hope to come back and stay longer in the near future. They are building an orphanage, they run a health clinic, they built a library/community center, they run a kindergarten, they conduct organic farming practices, and much more. They even sell beautiful jewelry handmade by women in the village. I have met some other volunteers here from all over, but many from the U.S. It’s been so fun to talk with them.

 

 

Learn more: http://krmecofoundation.org/