May 13, 2015

The European Adventure Begins

Welcome to Munich, the cultural center of Bavarian Germany! This means an abundance of beer, wood-roofed houses, blue-and-white checkered maypoles, and bratwurst. My hostel in Germering is a 20-minute train ride from the city, plus a 45-minute walk into the forest. It is one of the most beautiful walks I have ever taken – you can see the dome of the blue sky, fields of yellow flowers, and the green forest on all sides. Germering is near several lakes; this, combined with the familiarity of the trees and climate, reminds me a lot of Michigan's natural landscape.
Maypole in Germering

Tulips in Germering
At the end of the S8 train line, you can walk onto the pier over Ammersee lake. On a sunny day you can see the Alps on the horizon, blue and and majestic with bright white snow caps. The actual, real Alps! I was in awe... seeing them for the first time with my own eyes made them real.

Just south of this scenic spot on a steep hill is the Kloster Andechs Monastery where monks have been brewing beer for hundreds of years. A group of us from the hostel grabbed seats next to the live band in lederhosen, and with full liter beers (yes, liters) we said cheers with a hearty “Prost!

Kloster Andechs Biergarten
Bavarian Food
View from Kloster Andechs

In Munich's city center, most buildings had to be restored after the war, but the Neues Rathaus (New City Hall) has survived from the late 1860s. The chiming clock tower, or glockenspiel, has dancing figures and jousting knights that come to life at certain hours.

Neues Rathaus

At the Englisch Gardens, there’s a permanent wave where Munich’s surfers come out to practice their skills. You can't go far even in these scenic gardens without finding yourself at an overflowing, open-air biergarten.

Wave at the Englisch Gardens
The Englisch Gardens
The National Bavarian Museum
I also spent a half-day at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. It is very difficult to describe the visit… I feel it's an important trip to make, and worth going to.

When I returned to the hostel in the evening, a dozen guys were watching the Munich vs. Barcelona football game. Several had on their team jerseys.

I feel I'm in a whole new world.


Apr 28, 2015

The Worst Trip to the Hospital Yet

In an instant, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake leveled Nepal's capital with over 4,000 in casualties. By grace I had changed my travel plans to visit the country in mid-May instead of throughout April (aka right now). After I read the news of the natural disaster, I couldn't fathom exactly how terrible it was, or what I would have done if I was there. In a macabre mood, I watched online footage of the 2004 and 2011 tsunamis, trying to instill a sense of horror in myself so I could take in the magnitude of such devastation. It only served to make me feel more numb.

One should not seek the horrors of death.

Since returning to Thailand I've been working at the KUMON tutoring center helping children learn English. As a reward for the teachers and student assistants' hard work, the principal decided to have a pool party at the local "resort." It's been over 100 degrees everyday since the oppressive hot season began, so when we arrived at the pool six of the boys and I jumped right in. The other teachers and guests sat around the perimeter watching us splash around.

We were in the pool for what felt like less than ten minutes when I saw the oldest – Tete, 19 – swim out to the center. Someone was floating there, so I called out he was going to swim right into them, which he did. Tete pulled the person – Ford, 12, another student – to the side of the pool. He tried to push him up the side, but Ford slid back in. It was then I realized what was happening.

I raced over as the other teachers pulled Ford's body out of the pool. Now on his back, water streamed from his nose, then gushes of foamy blood poured out of his nose and mouth. He was unconscious and not breathing. I thought, He is going to die.

What words can describe what that moment felt like? I remembered you're supposed to do CPR, but... There was a short in my brain circuitry. I couldn't tell right from left to know what side to press down on Ford's heart, or even if that was really the correct thing to do. I didn't think I could breathe into his mouth with all the bloody foam pouring out of him.

A teacher pushed down on Ford's belly, trying to get the water out. We shouted his name. Bubbles came from his nose – then his mouth opened and he suddenly gasped in a breath. Then another. He was alive. A few moments later his eyes fluttered slightly open. The teachers struggled to carry his heavy weight up onto a pool lounge chair, where he proceeded to throw up blood. His eyes were open now, and he was talking a little.

My arms were shaking terribly. I couldn't do anything except rub his back when he sat up. His hero, Tete, stood beside the scene watching it all. Some time later the paramedics arrived and carried Ford away into the ambulance on a wheelless rescue stretcher. The younger boys were standing on the opposite side of the pool, dripping wet and watching in a stunned daze. Everyone at the resort had evacuated the pool, regarding it with a sense of distrust.

The principal went with Ford to the hospital. When she returned in the evening, all of us went together to visit him. In the open-wall hospital, families had set up bamboo mats and mosquito netting tents along the cement "patios" to spend the night near their sick loved ones. In the pediatrics ICU, only three visitors could go in the small enclosed room at a time. The boys took turns with the teachers first, then I walked in.

I passed incubators of impossibly tiny babies to reach Ford's bed. He had a tube through his nose and another down his throat. He was hooked up to a machine that kept beeping warnings about his frequency of respiration. His lungs still had water in them, so the hospital was waiting to give him medicine. However, his eyes were wide open, aware, and teary. His mother – a nurse who was on duty when her son came in – stood at the head of the bed. His father was behind her, his body tensed with so much worry he looked crumpled in on himself.

I said a few words to Ford; it was all I was capable of. His parents and the hospital staff were there, he was under good care... I couldn't do anything for him. His mother pulled out an extra large adult diaper from a bag at the foot of the bed; it was our signal to go. The principal, teachers, students, and I left and went back to the resort to sleep the night. And by sleep, I mean watch foamy blood pour from Ford's nose and mouth a hundred, hundred times in my mind's eye.

– – –

Apr 21, 2015

Finding a Direction

I returned to KUMON in time for one of Thailand's biggest festivals, Songkran, the start of the Thai New Year. Children stood along the streets with pails of cold water to splash over passing bikers and motorcyclists, instantly cooling them down from the soaring heat.

At the beginning of 2015 I stayed at a temple for a meditation retreat, and here now at the beginning of Thai New Year I was doing it again, this time for five days of individual practice at Wat Naluang. KUMON Principal Jiab took me there because she is devoted to the temple's abbot, Luang Phor Thonbai, who is considered by many to be a living enlightened monk. She encouraged me to take the opportunity to learn from him.

At the mountain top temple, Jiab and I poured bottled water on Luang Phor's and other monks' hands for purification. To keep Luang Phor pure himself, a large twin Naga (dragon-snake deity) water slide bedecked with flowers was constructed for devotees to pour water down to be received by his hands.

During Luang Phor's speech in that hot, open-air hall, I was wrestling with the fear of uncertainty – of what I should do for a living/graduate study after this trip is over. I've been telling people I'm going to be a librarian because it seems the safe, practical choice; it's "what I know." But every time I told someone this, I felt shame and uneasiness. It didn't feel right in my gut. If I took that path, would I be living up to my full potential?

While mulling over this, I gradually became calmer as I began to meditate in the hall. I centered my thoughts on the question: "What do I really want to do?" It became apparent, when I listened inside myself, the answer was I want to study mythology.

This is not a new idea, but I always shot it down in the past because: (1) it doesn't lead to a practical job; (2) it's $90,000 in tuition alone; and (3) only one university in the US has it, and they only meet for three days a month for instruction.

"Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls." –– Joseph Campbell

Where is my bliss? My heart's center is in STORIES –– from animated feature films to epic mythology; from the narrative of our lives to a friend recounting a recent experience. Stories are how we making meaning of our lives.

I'm leaning towards pursuing an M.A. in Mythological Studies because I believe it will help me to be a better storyteller – I will be able to better grasp the depth psychology of the universal human story: of how we live and dream.

This doesn't answer all my questions, or quell my fears of uncertainty, but at least I have a direction. I'm going to make an effort towards it, and see what doors will open...


Apr 2, 2015

Halfway Through

My apologies for not posting every week as per usual. To be honest, ever since I returned to Japan it hasn't felt like I'm really "traveling." This world is so familiar to me it feels like home.

Every day I've met up with friends, former students, fellow teachers; and I haven't written. Not really. My journal is noticeably blank throughout the month of March. Why? Coming back to Japan has awoken in me a mix of strong, sometimes opposing, emotions. I felt I couldn't clear my mind to focus and write about any one of them. At the same time, I've been lulled into a comfortable routine of living where everything is familiar.

Well, maybe not everything... Ishikawa has changed quite a bit since I left eight months ago. For one thing, the shinkansen line that connects Kanazawa to Tokyo is now complete! You can reach the capital directly in two and a half hours (the same amount of time it takes to reach Oku-Noto at a fraction of the distance). In anticipation of the tourism boom that will (hopefully) result from this new train line, the Noto has also been building new highway roads and rest stops.

Balloon Shinkansen in Nakanoto

Speaking of roads, Olivia and I went on an incredible road trip through the Oku-Noto. We had homemade lunch at a "magical" park complete with dark passageways and hidden tunnels. The park also had a long slide too, but unfortunately the rollers were stuck. We went to several famous places around the Noto I'd never been before, including "Battleship Rock" and Sojiji Temple.

For dinner in Noto-cho we were served by the same cook who made food for the Emperor when he stayed at Kagaya Onsen! He gave us a dish of crab legs, on the house, which were perfectly split in half so you didn't have to struggle to scoop the meat out. We did so much more that weekend, all thanks to Olivia being such a wonderful hostess. Thank you!!


Last Monday I went to Asahi for the retiring/transferring teachers' farewell ceremony. I joked with the math teacher, helped carry one English teacher's three large bouquets to her car, and caused my usual mischief with the students (i.e. switching the shoes in the student genkan).

And then... I said goodbye for the last time, to all of them. For some reason when I left this job in August it didn't hit me as hard as this time around; I know I won't be back. In a few years, Asahi Junior High won't even exist, since many schools are being consolidated due to the drastic population drop.

Later that week, another former English teacher and I went down to Kanazawa together. We visited the art museum to view a coworker's award-winning sculpture of his daughter titled, "Shell." It's message was to encourage people, especially those who are junior high school age, to break out of their "shell" and not be afraid to express themselves. Exactly the kind of positive message these kids need, I think!

Afterwards, we headed to Kenrokuen to view the budding cherry blossoms. Has it truly been two years since I first saw them? なつかし〜

Time is passing as quickly as ever – I am exactly halfway through this year of traveling around the world. Can it be? It feels like I've just begun, and yet adventures like SCUBA diving in Fiji seem so far away it couldn't have been the same trip... yet it was!

I have one week left in Japan, then I'm back on the traveler's trail of Southeast Asia. I feel like I don't have to try and soak up all these moments in Ishikawa because they're already a part of me. In that respect, when the time comes, I won't have to say goodbye. Rather, またね!

Sunset over Kanazawa (no filter)

– – –

Mar 22, 2015

A Warm Welcome Home

SURPRISE!! I made it back to Japan for my students' graduation!

My heart's been bursting at the seams ever since Japan came into view from the airplane window. I kept thinking, "I'm home, I'm home, I'm home!"

When I reached Ishikawa, everything felt so familiar and welcoming it was as if I'd never left. Of course, it's been so emotional. My mind has been playing the "Did you make the right choice when you left?" guilt game, and I have to gently admonish the thoughts with, I made the right choice; I'm happy pursuing my new dream now.

After reuniting with my friends, I met the wonderful young woman who works at my former schools. I was relieved to see how much she loved the students, too. We went to graduation together –– me hidden under a disguise –– and I surprised the teachers when I walked into the staffroom for the big reveal! They rose to their feet and started clapping. I felt so happy to see everyone again.

At the graduation ceremony, as the names of the graduates were read, tears came to my eyes because I know them; I am one of the few people in the entire world who know these kids and became a part of their lives. I was a witness to their everyday lives.
"We need a witness to our lives. There's a billion people on the planet. I mean, what does any one life really mean? But... you're promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things; all of it, all the time, every day. You're saying 'Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.'"  
-- Shall We Dance, 2004
Junior High Graduation Ceremony

The graduating third years singing goodbye to their younger classmates. All the feels!

After the formal graduation ceremony, the students and I had opportunities to take photos, share lots of hugs despite it not being a cultural norm, and play table tennis together. That night I was invited along with the Asahi staff to their graduation/retirement enkai (work party) at a famous onsen ryokan (special hot springs Japanese-style hotel) in Wakura.

It felt like I was living a dream – as if I had died and was getting "one last day" surrounded by so many people I love before having to say goodbye forever.

The two retirees cut their cake together.

The view from Ae no Kaze Ryokan.

The next morning, I went to the Salad Bowl International Group in Nanao to make gyoza (potstickers). I was reunited with Olivia, befriended a fellow Michigander living in the Oku-Noto, and met a young Japanese woman who'd studied abroad in Buffalo, NY. After eating copious amounts of gyoza, we all went out for sweet potato ice cream parfaits.


Singing Maps by Maroon 5

On a rare club activities rest day, a former student and I hung out around Nanao. We went to karaoke where she impressed me by singing all English songs! Her English conversation level is very high, and she's only going into the equivalent of 11th grade this year.

I'm so proud of her, and feel incredibly lucky to be a part of her and other students' lives, no matter how small that part may be. She insists I've made a real difference from my contribution to her and other students' lives, and that's inexpressibly priceless.

Elementary Graduation Ceremony

When graduation day came for my favorite elementary school, there was only one sixth grader who walked across the stage. The rest of the students – who were mysteriously replaced while I've been gone with taller, older versions of themselves – sang songs telling her to "do her best" and how much they care about her. In a few weeks she'll be starting junior high and, for the first time, be in a class of 60 kids her own age.


Every month I send a postcard to my junior high and elementary schools, telling them the country I'm in, a word or two in the native language, and what skill I'm currently studying. The principal assured me he's been practicing the words of the foreign languages with the kids, and in his weekly newsletter he's reprinted my postcard for the kid's parents and surrounding community to learn from. I was deeply touched; it was everything I had hoped for when I first thought of sending them messages from abroad.

When I saw this corner of the staircase with all the postcards hanging up, my heart sang. I'm so glad I ultimately made the decision to come back here for these moments. ♥