You break it, you buy it. Those were the exact thoughts that came to me today as I was about to begin an evening run.
You see, I always run with music, always. There are those occasional times when I run sans music, when I run with just the sound of my feet hitting the pavement, the sound of my heart thumping through my chest. However, those moments are far and few between and “Andrea’s Half Marathon Playlist” always usually wins.
Not today. Upon jumping out of my car, too excited that I was going to be able to run in weather that was less than 100 degrees outside (throwback to my runs in Bangkok), I dropped my ipod. Facedown, apple sign up, it was screen to pavement. Boom. After nearly five years of keeping this Ipod in nearly perfect condition, the time had come when perfect condition would be no more. My first thought, without hesitation, was utter annoyance, that I couldn’t keep it together enough to simply HOLD ON to my ipod. Butter fingers at its finest. My second thought was how I would just buy a new one, how I would and could go to the store later this week and pick up another one.
I had to stop myself in my tracks (literally, as I had just begun my run), had to STOP my way of thinking. We live in a world that is SO quick to discard and replace, to rush off to the store and pick up whatever we need, all at the tip top of our fingertips. There is no waiting, there is no saving up, there is simply a need, and us doing everything as quickly as possible to fill that need. We hardly think twice about such purchases, throwing things out the minute they no longer serve their purpose to us. There are so many places around the world where every item is treasured, every valuable held tightly, because the minute that it is broken, it will be a long time coming before it is replaced.
Although with the addition of a slightly bruised screen, music was still able to be played on it. However, I turned it off and ran without noise or distraction, letting myself wander in my thoughts, letting my feet move as my thoughts drifted….drifted drifted drifted, into what my next plan was, into what I was supposed to make of my life now, now that my grand adventure of having traveled the last nearly 9 months was over.
Traveling is amazing, it is exhilarating and opens your eyes to the great beyond, to everything there is in the world, to everything that is meant to be seen, touched, embraced. It shakes up your world so much that you nearly shed the skin of your former self. But what happens when you come “back to reality”? What happens when you jump right back into the life you once had, the life you once lived? One minute you’re pushing sick patients in wheelchairs at a Buddhist monastery, washing yourself using buckets at a house in a village 2 hours from the nearest town, eating rice for breakfast lunch and dinner without blinking an eye, and the next minute, you’re running to the nearest Best Buy to buy yourself a brand new Ipod. It’s crazy how quickly you can jump from one life to the next, how quickly you can switch roles and personalities to match those of your surroundings, how you can forget about the person you were just a few days ago, the person that was wearing the same outfit for days in a row, not giving a second thought as to how you might look in photos and if anyone would notice. But what if those roles, those personalities, no longer felt like they belonged to you, almost as if you were talking about a stranger, about someone that once was.
It’s a strange sensation, an uncomfortable feeling, that seems to define the phrase “being in limbo”. You are straddled between two worlds, trying to keep both of those worlds spinning, without letting one stop, all the while not being sure which world you exactly belong in, or in which one you want to remain.
I let it get to me today. The stupid, careless crack in my ipod caused my head to spin, my thoughts to drift, into where my life was now, where my life was going. I became instantly stressed out and anxious, evaluating every decision I had made and was going to make for myself in the next few months. What kind of job would I find? Would it be a job I liked? Where do I want to live? Do I want to keep my apartment or explore new options? Do I want to keep traveling or do I want to find something more stable?
It almost as if the crack represented something in my life. Now, you can call that far fetched, yes, but in that moment (and if i care to admit it, even slightly now), I felt as though that symbolized something, something that I hadn’t quite put my finger on until that moment. Almost as if I myself was cracking, as if I had hit a breaking point, as if the weight of the world was on my shoulders and that if I made the wrong decision now, the course of the rest of my life would be absolutely ruined (okay, maybe a bit dramatic, but like I said, my thoughts were running…literally).
My feet carried on, my run continued, and then, just for a moment, I stopped to take it all in. To remind myself that music or not, traveling or not, I would be ok. Life would be ok and that in due time, everything would be figured out.
That’s when I realized there were birds chirping all around me, a small creek flowing next to me. The true music of life was surrounding me, engulfing me, and what it took was a crack in my Ipod to take off my headphones, to turn off the music, and listen.
The clocks ticks. It ticks, ticks, ticks, going by ever so slowly and quickly all at once, all in the same instance. We have no control over it, no say over it, and certainly no power to stop it, wishing with all of our might, with every bit of strength and concentration we have, to find a way to slow time down, even for just a moment. Time reminds us, constantly nags us, that we are in fact impermanent creatures, creatures that are ever changing and ever transforming, creatures that are morphing and evolving at every given second.
Just think, what were you doing at this exact moment yesterday, two days ago, one week ago. So much has happened between now and then. While in the moment, it may have seemed like time was at a standstill, however in hindsight, it’s almost as if the past is played on fast forward, going by so quickly, that it’s almost incomprehensible that we are sitting in the moment that we are, having experienced so much.
In order to make the most of the very little, infinitesimal time we have, we must strive to be as mindful as possible within each and every moment, speaking with intention, with forethought, with sincerity, honesty and love.
I have never learned more about mindfulness than I have in the past three weeks exploring Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. I have never learned to be more in the moment, to adopt a peace of mind that my mind, and quite frankly, my life, has never known. I turned the wifi off, put the phone down, and let myself take a trip back in time; to a time where the only thing that mattered were the people surrounding you and the love within your heart.
To give you some quick backstory, due to a very unstable political situation, many tourists were not inclined or encouraged to visit Myanmar prior to 2012. The government was run by the military and many areas in the country were considered restricted areas and tourists were not permitted to enter into such areas. Then, in 2012, sanctions were lifted and tourism was encouraged and promoted throughout the country, especially when the League for Democracy came to power in Myanmar during the historic general election of November 2015.
Now, consider the impact of that. A country that has very rarely seen Westerners, let alone tourists of any kind, has just five years ago opened it’s doors to outsiders. And while the backpacking community has gotten a hold of this remarkable country, many areas are practically “tourist-free”. Being a blonde, western girl, I often received stares from the locals, and many times the locals would come up to me and take photos of me and with me. Of course I didn’t mind, as I was taking photos of them as well, with them wearing their traditional warpaint known as Thanaka and the men wearing skirts known as Longyi. So, we were even 🙂
I did my best to see as much of the country in the three week period that I had. I knew that it would be remarkable, impactful experience, but I truly had no idea what was in store for me, how much I would change, how much I would learn, how much my eyes would be pried open to all that there is, all that there could be, in a country running on tradition, hope, and optimism.
I began my journey in Yangon, located in southern Myanmar. I had found a workaway opportunity which was to volunteer at a monastery/meditation center, and I knew immediately upon finding the opportunity that I absolutely needed to incorporate it into my trip. I had no clue what it was that I would really be doing, where I would be staying, or how long I would be there for, however, I had an address, and that was all I needed.
A common rhetoric of Myanmar was how remarkable, open and sincere the people were; how they embraced those that were different than them, and not only embraced them but brought them into their homes, into their lives, without asking or expecting for anything in return. My experience was absolutely no exception to this and was seen within the first hour of being in Myanmar, when upon asking for directions to the local bus stop, a young girl not only pointed me onto the right bus but also paid for my bus ticket. A small gesture that set the pace for my entire trip. On countless occasions I was invited into homes of locals for tea, coffee, lunch and company, just because I happened to be walking past.
The monastery, called Thabarwa about an hour outside of Yangon, was everything I expected and so much more. For one week, I lived amongst monks and nuns, the sick and the disabled, the helpless and the weary. You could volunteer as much or as little as you wished…the experience and what you got out of it was entirely up to you.
Daily activities were set up for the more than 3,000 residents of the monastery, including gym class, art class, acupuncture, teaching at the local village school, and bathing and washing the patients. You chose the activities you wanted to attend, or, you could also simply walk around the center and talk with the patients or offer them wheelchair rides, which many of them graciously and eagerly accepted. If the patients chose not to partake in such activities, or if no one came around to visit the patients, the patients would most likely remain in their beds (which was actually far from the beds you and I know…being basically a four post wooden board with a basic blanket if they were lucky) for hours or days at a time.
The center was started by a Buddhist monk who felt that mediation was the most important component to life; that everything else would fall into place if meditation was diligently practiced. The monk knew that if people were struggling to meet their basic needs such as food, shelter and access to water, it would leave little time for meditation. Therefore, he created a center where shelter, food and access to water was provided, thus making room for people to practice meditation.
And meditate we did. Meditation began as early as 4am and classes were offered the entire day. My personal favorite was the Burmese mediation at 5 am which comprised of mostly nuns and residents of the center and was done entirely in Burmese.
Living conditions can be described as minimal at best. I had to share a room with five others, shared a bathroom that would occasionally be out of running water where we then had to go to the public bathhouse and wash ourselves while wearing a longyi or towel (you weren’t allowed to strip down into your birthday suite for bathing). Food was always rice with side dishes, and many times we ate food that was collected during the morning alms rounds (this is where monks walk the streets collecting food donated from local villagers). Absolutely no alcohol was permitted or offered at the center, however cigarettes and Burmese cigars were allowed.
Now, how to describe my experience. How to capture what I saw, the emotions that i felt, the love that I had for each and every patient, monk, nun, volunteer whom I encountered. How to fully encapsulate the happiness I felt in the smallest of moments….from helping wash rice in the morning, to walking barefoot with the monks in the morning collecting alms, to teaching English and learning Burmese from the center’s tailor, to hugging and playing with the orphan boys, the boys whom always seemed to find themselves getting into trouble, the boys whom slept under parked trucks and with borrowed blankets, to laughing and drinking tea with the other volunteers, talking about the lives we were hopefully impacting, the difference we were making, both at the center and in ourselves.
Orphan Boys with one of the stray puppies
We have ONE LIFE to live, ONE LIFE to make a difference, ONE LIFE to make someone else smile, ONE LIFE to put our needs aside and instead focus on those around us, on their happiness, on their worries and needs, on their dreams. It is only through selfless acts and good deeds that we can even begin to understand that THIS is in fact how life should be lived. We need to care about each other, watch out for one another and ensure that all of our basic needs are being met, because if we are not looking out for one another, who will? It is our responsibility and ours alone to be compassionate towards ALL of those around us, regardless of age, sex, gender, religion, nationality, occupation.
Our fancy cars, our big cars, our expensive and luxurious nights out mean essentially nothing in the scheme of life. How can someone who is living on a wooden board, amongst hundreds of other people some of whom are sick and dying, someone who most likely is incapable of moving from their spot for days at a time, someone who is living in unbearable heat surrounded by constant mosquito and rodents, exhibit more contentedness, more love and happiness than those of us that seem to “have it all”?
Myanmar is incredible and the Thabarwa center is life changing. I am honored to have had the experience that I had there, as I have let go and shed the skin of the person I once was, only to adopt and transform into the best possible version of myself.
While at the center, in a time of having seemingly nothing, in a time of seeing life seemlingly at its worst, I, actually, had it all.
They say time flies, faster than anything you’ve ever experienced or known before, they say don’t blink because moments will be missed, memories lost, they say seconds can feel like a lifetime but a lifetime, seconds, and yet, the clock still ticks on, ticking ticking ticking without our consent or approval. We do our best to make the most of every minute, to be mindful and in the moment, to be aware and alert of the things engulfing us, yet life still continues, jumping from experience to experience, with us begging, pleading, for it to slow down.
And pleading I’ve been doing. My time as a kindergarten teacher at a school in Thailand has come to an end, an experience that ended just as quickly as it started. For the past six months, I have only responded to the name “Teacher Andrea” (and not the correct pronunciation), have handed out approximately 1,000 cups of milk, have sang and danced my days away, have complimented children based on their supburb coloring skills more times than I count, have screamed (at least on the inside), have wanted to pull my hair out (oh wait the children did that), have braided hair (or at least attempted), have laughed, almost cried, and more importantly loved. Even on the days that were mundane, on the days that I was homesick and was desperate for home, on the days that felt like they would never end, I still, through it all, loved.
I have loved every minute of this experience, knowing that this experience is one that I have waited my entire life to experience. This was something I have always wanted to do and I am proud that something in me made me do it, letting go of everything I knew back at home to adopt a new life in Asia. Like any new experience, there certainly have been struggles, setbacks and plain and simply moments of utter despair. But of course there were going to be, and I was ready for it.
During my time as teacher, I was a K1 homeroom teacher in a private Thai schoold to a group of 16 Thai students, 16 adorable, reckless, intelligent, maddening students. The school was located in a business neighborhood of Bangkok and consisted of children from fairly affluent families. In Thailand, kindergarten starts at the very late age of 3, so here I was playing mother goose to the smartest three year olds I have and may ever meet. Since I do not speak any Thai (unless you count knowing how to order Pad Thai in Thai as “speaking”), I was required to teach them English using hands on activities, pictures and repetition. The intention at this age is simply to build their vocabulary and to immerse the children in English. Even if I knew Thai, I more than likely wouldn’t be allowed to speak it to the deck deck (Meaning: students, in Thai), as they wanted them to be speaking strictly English.
While this may seem like an impossible feat, the children already had a good, solid foundation of English. Many of their parents speak English, amongst other languages, with them at home, therefore their English was very advanced for their age. So advanced in fact that I often forgot that they were native Thai speakers. I guess dancing around to songs from Frozen and One Direction played a part in that forgetfulness 🙂
Lessons were organized by week, organized by topics. One week was technology focused, another week, transportation, another week, weather, and so on. Despite my urging desire to give homework to the students ( I didn’t want to be known as the “easy” teacher of course!), I was only able to distribute worksheets within the classroom, helping the students along as they practiced writing their names and class name.
Now, although I did not give homework, the students were still required to take midterm and final exams. Yes, that’s right, three years old taking exams. Most of the children handled the stress of it with grace (far from my exam experiences) however there was one little boy who felt the weight of the world on his shoulders from the test and simply was waterworks for the week of testing, crying silently numerous times. Was quite sad to watch, to see a boy at that age take the test to seriously.
Now, do not let me lead you to think that I was alone in this, for there was one Thai teacher and one Thai assistant helping out in the class. Between the three of us, we essentially were responsible for 5 kids a piece which in Thai schools is not something you take for granted. Thai schools normally have a class size range of 20-40, so if you can imagine that, 16 was a godsend.
My main intention when coming to Thailand, other than traveling and immersing myself in the country, was to actually improve my management skills. As a former PR/Marketing Manager at a German Bier Hall, and with a desire to continue to learn how to be a better leader and mentor, I figured that learning the skills associated with teaching would help me hone in on those qualities. I pictured myself pacing back and forth around a classroom full of eager and excited learners, helping them see the world differently and asking thought provoking questions that they surely would think about for the rest of their lives (or the semester at the very least). However, I soon came to find out that my moment to shine was not in the form of day long lectures and discussions but rather in one jam packed hour. That’s right, between the hours of 7:30am when I had to be at school and 4pm when I was allowed to leave, I only taught for an hour a day. The rest of the day was filled with nap time, activities, lunch time, bathroom visits and a one hour lesson in Thai. Not exactly the teaching experience I was looking for.
However, as most things go, we learn most from the experiences we least expect. After a rather long adjustment period for me, I slowly began to know the kids. And not just know them by their names or how old they were, but really know them. Know that Namo loves dinosaurs and that he will ALWAYS ask for the dinosaur pencil when we are doing worksheets, know that Pei Pei likes Pi and that they can be found most times holding hands, know that Tonnam wants to be a doctor when she grows up, know that Puppup wants to be a solider, know that Pungya will wear her Frozen Princess dress on casual Friday EVERY Friday, know that Toei will have to go “Poo Poo” at 12:30pm on the dote every day and I will have to use the bum gun to assist her (don’t ask), know that JJAy will have a runny nose no matter how many times you wipe it, know that Ayres lost her father while she was at school, that she will never really know her father and the heartbreaking thought of that, and know that PK lives every day like he is Spiderman, hopping and jumping about with his hands permanently fixed in the spiderman way, ready to shoot out a web. THESE are the things you know, THESE are the things you learn. And understanding these little personalities, these little humans, makes the one measly, simple hour WORTH IT. To hopefully, really truly, have an influence on these children and show them how great the world that they live in is. To show them that they can be whatever and whomever they want to be, because the future is theirs, all theirs, and their dreams can come true because I believe in them, because the world believes in them, because we NEED them.
I have had many many wonderful moments with these kids, moments that have brought laughter to my life, happiness to my heart, and even, occasionally, tears in my eyes. But the one moment that stands out amongst the rest, the moment that I will hold close to me forever and always, is when I taught little 4 year old Carrot to repeat the words “I am going to rule the world!”, when she repeated it over and over and over until she herself thought she was the ruler of all that is and all that will be. To hear her words, to suddenly feel the rush of confidence and excitement she exuded, to watch her understand what those words meant and to see the smile that spread across her face as she said them, I felt as if I was watching the future of humanity, of the world unfold, and in that moment, I felt at peace, knowing that we as a people would be alright.
I am not cut out to be a kindergarten teacher, in no way shape or form. In addition to the respect I had for teachers already, I especially applaud those that work with such youngins every day. The patience, the passion and the creativity needed are endless, and so to you, I salute you.
Now, that is certainly not to say that my teaching days are over, and in fact, I would feel rather uncomfortable making such a bold statement. I do enjoy teaching and I am very passionate about mentoring, however a piece of me has really missed PR and events, in ways that have actually surprised me. I will be going back to the states for the summer, ensuring that I am there to celebrate the weddings of people very special to me (and of course I would never miss an opportunity to drink champagne), however after that the plan is unknown, the road, unclear. I am humbled by this experience, grateful and indebted to every person I have met that has guided me, translated for me, helped me, assisted me and even just smiled at me, as I am who I am because of those memories, those moments.
But, before I throw in my Thai towel, and in typical Dre fashion, I have one last adventure here in Southeast Asia…I will be heading to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) for the next three weeks trekking, exploring, and exciting of all, volunteering at a meditation/Buddhist center for monks, nuns, the disabled, children and whomever else needs the services of the retreat for a portion of that time.
In the words of Carrot, I feel as if I am going to rule the world
Or at the very least, my own little world 🙂
I have found the most perfect, absolutely perfect, coffee shop. The coffee drinker in me is overjoyed, never wanting to leave this place, to stay here, caffeinated, forever. I am more than half attempted to ask if they are hiring, however, I’ll withhold my inquiry, at least for the time being. Can’t come across too strong straight off the bat, you know? 🙂
I stumbled upon this place by complete accident (but isn’t that how all great places are discovered). As I had a long day of sightseeing in Chiang Mai (or more so, wat seeing), I was in desperate need for a large coffee.
I had just finished up seeing one of the largest wats in town and decided to walk around the area to see what I could find. Chiang Mai is great in the fact that there is usually a coffee shop on every corner, and when I say coffee shop, I don’t mean your typical Starbucks (and no, not a Dutch coffee shop). These coffee shops are decorated to the extreme, really making their theme come to life, with coffee, tea and smoothies galore. Miranda’s cafe is absolutely no exception.
I would’ve missed the cafe had I not been paying attention or if I would’ve looked down at my phone for just a moment…I would’ve passed by it that quickly. Tucked away on a side street off of The Main Street where the Sunday night bazaar is located, the cafe had a small, completely charming patio, with about 5-6 small tables, just waiting for guests to indulge in this Chiang Mai treasure of a coffee shop.
Light acoustic background music played over the speakers, and plants adorned the outside space. I noticed a small sign right outside explaining the story of Miranda’s cafe, and if I didn’t think I could fall more in love with this place, I did, then and there. I’ll let the story speak for itself.
Walking up the few steps to come inside, the cafe almost felt like your great aunt’s living room. Board games were in no short supply, a china cabinet was lined with dolls and figurines, and a 50s style tv was propped up in the corner. In the middle of the space was a scooter decorated with flowers and a small carrying basket.
The decor represents Miranda’s parents life journey, of all the things they loved and cherished, all blended into one.
My intention by coming to this place (beyond needing a much needed energy boost) was to finish up the book I have been reading so I could exchange it for another book I found at the used book store earlier. Therefore, this was not going to be a quick coffee session, rather, coffee camping as I put it.
I ordered a Thai coffee (70% espresso, 30% sweet cream, helllooooo productivity), and a mango bake. When ordering, I asked the lady behind the counter if she was the owner of the place, as many people who work in coffee shops are. My guess was right. She was in fact the owner, and I obsessed over her cafe for approximately 7 minutes until I realized I was coming off a bit….eccentric. I compiled myself and sat down to enjoy the best (and thus far only) mango bake and Thai coffee of my life.
Simply being there made me feel like Miranda has welcomed me into her home, into her life. I felt like I’d suddenly become a part of Miranda’s journey. And any journey that involves coffee, I’m there.