45 (no, not him...!)

My 45th birthday began with a sniffle and a gust of wind.

We have been traveling on Koh Lanta, an island in the south of Thailand, for nearly a week. Always keeping it real on this blog - there have been highs and lows.

Let’s start with the highs. Something happens to you as a parent when all of your kids are FINALLY able to swim. It’s like you did your job (shout out to the Talmud). I have been utterly surprised by the depth of satisfaction I have had observing their triumphs as independent swimmers. It's been so cool watching two of the kids move from fear to (what I would say now is) attentive bravery, working towards something on their own schedule, and deciding which inner voices to listen to. I also learned that forcing swimming just doesn't work - just needed some consistency, a pool, and allowing them to grow in their own ways.

This was in full bloom as we embarked on our first snorkelling trip – a family of five snorkelling together for the first time – pointing out the coral and the brightly speckled fish to each other. Each of us explorers, independent, and yet our own school of fish. It was truly magical.

We went on two pretty magical boat trips – one speedboat and one longtail boat. One trip to Koh Rok and Koh Haa, the other to a sleepy island called Koh Jum. 

That otherworldly water color, a curious pair of monitor lizards, catching air in the speedboat, looking out at the vast expanse of ocean from the longtail, swimming on deserted beaches. 

Then we hired a driver to take us to the many beaches down the coast. We wound through the jungly curves in the back of his pickup, spotted monkeys in the trees, watched the coastline ebb and flow, and blasted the kids’ playlist that we have heard everyday throughout this journey on repeat (please, someone, send Obie more music so we can listen to something new).

And the truth of this trip is that sometimes you can be in the most magical of places but somehow the rhythm is just unsettled. Despite all this gorgeousness, each time we take a trip away from our base we lose our practiced rhythm of travel (schooling, feeling comfortable in a place, etc.), and there can be a whole lot of grumpiness and uncertainty about what the days will bring. We have indeed seen a few days of meltdowns, reticence to meet new people and extend oneself beyond the safety of our family, and wholesale invention of obstacles to have something to fight against. And I suppose that just comes with the territory.

So back to me! I’m now a day past 45. I have had a cold for a couple of days. A storm edged in, with sporadic rains and fierce winds. It forced me to do a whole lot of nothing. There were moments of buoyancy – reading and eating cheesecake on the beach, watching the unseasonably rough waves, even spotting a green snake slither through the sand – time to myself, time with family, a date with Chris. And still, the same questions remain about my next chapter. Not even a third of the way through and yet I long for clarity. I want to know how this part of the story ends. I watch this impatience for what it is. There are times I feel like I am making progress and it’s all going according to plan, without a plan. And other days when it feels like I have stalled, like I have concocted ‘progress’ to tell myself a story that simply isn’t there. And there are even moments of wondering if I am truly living this gift of a trip to its fullest, appreciating its wonders, treating each day as a blessing.  My birthday was the stew of it all – snot, majesty, pause, doubt, appreciation, wind just enough and a bit too much. 

Scooter as Metaphor

“I feel like the veil becomes harder to take off when you're an adult,” remarked Obie, in one of those rare moments driving a scooter when I could relax the hyperfocus and talk. Discussing writing, he had asked if I was now embarrassed to read my teenage musings. I told him that I thought my teenage poetry was real, raw, and totally me – that there is something so special about writing at his age, like he has a direct line to him, unfiltered.

I learned how to ride a scooter three days ago. Our week-long stay in Pai (a town about 2.5 hours from Chiang Mai up in the mountains - think: hippies, fire-dancers, lush jungles, waterfalls, etc.) turned up an unexpected adventure. The house we had rented was about a 7 min drive from town and there were no songtaews, tuktuks or taxis to be had. So we had a choice – make the kids walk 40 min each way into town or teach me how to drive a scooter.

So during the kids’ iPad time, Chris took me out to the surrounding streets to teach me how to ride. 

After only an hour of road training, we launched into what turned out to be two days straight of trial-by-fire Thailand driving – with Obie riding on the back, and Chris riding ahead with the two little ones. There were narrow rutted streets, wide lane highways with overtaking trucks, surprise off-roading (see pic below) where I had to incorporate my too-few mountain biking lessons with Chris over the years, steep inclines and still steeper descents.

I was not so talkative on the bike during these days. Self-affirmations poured out of me (“you got this” over and over, mantra-like), a lot of “I believe in you, Mom” from my cool-as-a-cucumber and biggest cheerleader Obie, and a likely unattractive look on my face etched with battle-tested resolve.

As I sit here three days after this initiation, noticing the soreness (yes, sore) from the full-body clenching, there is something of a metaphor in this learning, in what I did and what my family saw in me.

As you all know, we are on a journey here. And this growth is not just about the kids. Sure, we orient much of the trip to their own edification, but a lot of my energy is going into my growth. I am not quite ready to fully articulate what growth is happening or where it is leading me, but I can say something of moments.

I have come to a halting realization that I lead a bifurcated life, living into a dualism that is no longer serving me. There are many bifurcations I can speak to: mind vs. body, analytical vs. intuitive, planful vs. present, conscientious vs. free, even west coast vs. east coast. But I think much of the bifurcation is rooted in a disconnect between my predilection for the spiritual and my tendency towards the categorical, strategic, and linear. I do not believe that one is more real than the other (perhaps best not to dive into what is real – at least not in this blog post!). I do see that it is time in my own evolution to connect these planes, and that the connections lie for me in the realm of intuition. 

So in this stage of my midlife eat-pray-love journey (let’s just fully own that, shall we?), I am attending meditation groups, working with a body worker, reading and writing without goal, and watching the inquiry unfold.

And here I find myself back at my fire engine red scooter. That was not part of my spiritual exploration! But it was. It was an act of faith.  It was utterly unplanned. It allowed my kids to watch me embody beginner's mind, stepping into it with equal dose of trepidation and determination. It allowed us to find gems en route that we otherwise would have missed. It opened a part of me that had been dormant for some time: unknowing, vulnerable, clumsy, exhilarated. It was an act of unveiling. And in those few moments (when there were no trucks or cars or motorcycles in sight), when the road was paved just enough, I took my raw hands off the brakes and took in the vast landscapes of rice paddies, the sweet smell of burning in the distance, with no thought about what’s next. 

The Banal + The Adventure: Part II - The Adventure

This trip wouldn’t be anything without its fair share of adventures, so here are a few we haven’t yet written about in detail.

Elephant Sanctuary
An incredible day hanging out with and learning about elephants. After extensive inquiry into the grey area of what is an ethical elephant sanctuary, we headed out on a day of hanging out with five elephants – from a two-year-old mischievous toddler, to a pregnant 22-year-old, to a 70-year-old grandma. We fed them, hiked with them, and bathed them.

Up bright and early ready to rock. 

The day was so special. It was just our family with a few guides - all of whom belong to the Karen tribe, a hill tribe that comprises the largest minority in Thailand. Our guides were from the areas bordering Thailand and Myanmar, including one from Myanmar. Sparing no time to brief us on what we were about to do, we met and began to feed the elephants. It took a few minutes to get used to engaging with these majestic (and very large) creatures, and we saw that they each had their own personalities, seemed to be quite habituated to humans, and were very sweet. Their trunks were extraordinary - like something prehistoric, so rough and oddly hairy. Sometimes they would try to sneak into our baskets of bananas when we were not expecting it.

Hiking down to the river.

At the river. Asa was a bit apprehensive to engage with the elephants, but finally got into it once we were in the water with them. Obie had a sweet goodbye with grandma elephant, and then we hiked back up the hill.
We ate lunch, pet adorable puppies, and then randomly, a parrot (?) landed on Obie's shoulder. You never know what's going to happen on adventure day!

We rode there/back in a songtaew traveling at too-high highway speeds, kids happily/sweatily asleep on our laps with the wind pulsing around us, Chris and I hanging onto the kids for dear life and taking some very deep breaths upon surviving the hour-plus-long drive. As Obie said, that might be one of the best days of my life. Though in all honesty, I think it was the elephant sanctuary paired with unlocking of characters in a video game that may have tipped the scales. Just keeping it real over here, folks.

Jungle Trail Running
I can’t really speak to this, since I opted out and instead did a somatic movement course (more on my journey soon!), but Chris took the kids on quite the adventure. Early morning departure, still raining, hour-plus journey to the base of a wat in the middle of nowhere to meet random people. Each of these factors required a good dose of faith. But it turned out great – the kids led the 5 km run, first time trail running/jogging, no complaints, saw a snake (Chris' Thailand snake dreams finally realized) and a big spider, rode in a pickup truck, ended up at a cavernous café filled with vintage toys, waited for an hour and a half for food, and then got dropped off all sweaty at a mall near our house only to be surprised by walking into a Beatles-like Thai boy band concert with hundreds of screaming teenagers surrounding them. What a day.

Pigeons! (And a Wat)
We have been to so many wats. Luckily, the kids humour us on these sojourns, especially if there is a hike involved. But this one takes the cake. Wat Umong is a 700-year temple situated in mountains of Doi Suthep, famous for - among other things - interconnecting underground tunnels between Buddha shrines (and of course, bats). But dare you think that winding through the cavernous shrines was the pinnacle of this day! Nope. It was the pigeons (and the catfish). I will say that only some of us were enthralled with this part, and while I am bearing the comic load in the movie, it was NOT just me. 

Always good to remember.

Day-Long Meditation
I did this one alone, but Chris and Obie will soon do this too. A fantastic day of meditation techniques, learning about Thai Buddhism, exploring local wats, and engaging in conversations with monks about their lives. Met some lovely foreigners in the process, so many folks in their moments of exploration about their lives and presence and becoming more whole. 

Upcoming Adventures
Of course, more to come! A week journey to Pai and Mae Hong Song, a week in Koh Lanta, the upcoming Loy Krathong/Yi Peng festival in Chiang Mai. Suddenly we feel our time here in Thailand is rushing by.

The Banal + The Adventure: Part I – The Banal

Our lives here are a mix of adventure and the banal. I suppose that is life everywhere, but here it feels more pronounced. Maybe that’s with the expectations of travel life thrown in – what one imagines life to be on the road vs. what actual life turns out to be. That said, I fully get that this post might bore you to tears if our quotidian routines remind you of your everyday life and it’s not the escape you hoped for! Feel free to skip this one or hop to the next post on adventures (coming soon)!  

Part I – The Banal

Our House
We live in a pretty humble two-story house. For those of you Beth-Chris lifers, think of our Mumbai house, but bigger. It has 2.5 bedrooms on top (Obie has his own room, but it’s really an exaggerated closet). We have ACs in the bedrooms, but none on the ground floor. The floors are classically S/SE Asian style white marble, few decorations, curlicue bars and mosquito coverings on windows, and heavy teak furniture. We have a small washer, but line dry the clothes outside. 

Our Neighborhood
We live two blocks from the Ping river in a decidedly middle class Thai neighborhood. We're at the end of a small dead end street with a few townhouses, an auto repair shop, an apartment building, and a plot of banana palms. The streets are narrow with no sidewalks, and it's pretty sleepy except for the occasional motorscooter. 

The shortcut that circumvents the incredibly busy, no-sidewalk street that our small street connects to winds through a wat (temple) and a school. 

This sounds like a great short cut! And sometimes it is, with kids shyly waving to us...but not in the evening when the grounds are empty - save for a lone monk sweeping the floors, the soi (street) dogs in the midst of their dinner, and a family of five unknowingly traipsing through their territory. We have had more than one moderately scary moment of dogs surrounding and barking at us, only to realize that we had inadvertently positioned ourselves between the dogs and their half eaten bowls of rice. That said, we do love that we are surrounded by the local community, near a supermarket, and can walk to restaurants/shops in five minutes or so. And the kids have developed some incredible street smarts – how to watch for cars/motorbikes where there are no sidewalks, when/how to cross the road, and how to assert confidence around the stray dogs. 

Our Weekday Routine
We have finally built up somewhat of a routine when we are not off on a big day/multi-day adventure, and it's been really important to incorporate the Chris-designed, kid-decorated elaborate calendar into our life here so that the boys can have a sense of normalcy.

Here's our weekday routine:

  • 6:00-8:30: Me time (read, journal, meditate, write blog posts)
  • 8:30: Wake the kids up (we found this was important, otherwise our days don’t get started until 11!)
  • 8:30-9:30: Breakfast/clean up/get dressed
  • 9:30 – 11ish: School work
  • 11:30 ish - ?: Leave the house! This might include going to lunch, or finding a new cafe. I can’t even begin to describe café culture here – amazing coffee, smoothies, juices, etc. generally housed in a modern café with gorgeous sprawling backyards/jungles. Or then there are the toy cafes, littered with nostalgic video game/game memorabilia from the 80s/90s. Or we might end up sampling a local, often deserted pool to spend the day in (tourism has really not come back to Chiang Mai yet), feeding animals/riding water buffalo (?) at a café/farm, taking a hike, going to a wat, exploring a market, attending a local soccer game, etc. We might be out all day or we might come back for some iPad time. Sometimes our journey will take us into the night, ending up at a night market or cool restaurant. It all depends on how we feel. 

So let’s start with the real. I do not enjoy being a ‘formal’ teacher to my kids. We are doing the bare minimum here, but I suppose it’s not the bare minimum since it still involves 1-1.5 hours of parental teaching a day. If you’re interested, here’s how we’ve finally settled into a school routine:

  • Throughout the week ongoing: general expectation of everyone reading all week (for the littles who sometimes need some more challenging reading direction, we download specific chapter books for them to read weekly)
  • Throughout the week ongoing: near-daily journal writing as a family
  • Alternate days: math (Khan academy or workbook)
  • Alternate days: writing - this varies from researching a place we are going to and writing about it, to Obie writing a book or Emmet writing a graphic novel, to Emmet reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and responding to essay questions about the text, to Asa writing stories inspired by Hindu myths. We try to allow the kids to tell us what they are interested in so they can be authors/designers of the task itself, but that doesn’t always work! Sometimes they translate this writing into blog posts!
  • Obie specific: Obie is obviously at a different place in his learning and has different needs. In addition to the basic educational infrastructure we have created for the kids, he also takes a Thai course with me twice a week (so fun to be his learning peer! Also slightly demoralizing that his sprightly 12-year-old brain absorbs Thai language faster than me), has developed an interest in meditation so may do a course on that, and does a weekly Outschool class on analyzing text (various fiction pieces) and writing. 
  • Fridays: we need to report into our learning platform/coordinator (SelfDesign) to tell them what we have accomplished that week, so that generally takes some time, and is authored by the kids.

So that’s school. It can be a SLOG. Some days the kids are running with their own stuff and independent and happily learning. Other days, it’s like pulling teeth. This is particularly true when they have to absorb a new concept without their peers around them to help them remember that sometimes learning is slow and steady rather than lightning speed revelations. Then they get frustrated and generally take it out on us. As Chris tells me when I am wanting to pull my hair out, this is an investment in them. And the pain points are not daily and sometimes there are even moments of elation, as we watch their writing evolve or their creativity emerge in new ways. 

We try to have the weekends feel different than the weekdays. This has proved important for everyone’s sanity. If we are not embarking on a big adventure, the kids can sleep in and Emmet (soccer) and Obie (drama) do outside classes so they can meet other kids and have a life outside of us. Obie is also dabbling in Muay Thai. While Asa wanted to do gymnastics, one of the features of this trip is that he seems just not developmentally ready to attend a class in Thailand. We tried gymnastics (his choice), but he refused to go. So, we have opted to give it a rest. As he said to us, ‘don’t pressure me.’ And instead of that being an ongoing argument, we have decided to let it go for now.

Food is incredibly affordable here and there is an enormous restaurant culture, so we generally eat out. We barely cook, which is weird, but we are rolling with it. That seems to be pretty common with Thais as well. The ubiquitous night markets full of food stalls are packed every evening! Our kids have always been somewhat open to foods (depending on the kid and their respective stages of development), but here's a learning: if you are fed up with your picky eater, just go live in another country. Our kids in just a month in Thailand have become incredibly adventurous and open eaters. They are now into spicy foods and generally eat and will try everything (with the exception of Obie and seafood – that is still a work in progress). They will now often opt for Thai food over Western food. We all love eating at night markets. 

It’s pretty cool to watch that evolution! That said, only one of our kids would eat crickets (see the video for who!). 

Whew, that was a lot - very impressive if you managed to stay with me! Stay tuned for the coming adventure post! 

Wat Pha Lat [Obie]

Two days ago, my family and I went to Wat Pha Lat. It is a temple high in the mountains with only one road and trail leading to the peak. The temple is nestled in the forest beside a beautiful waterfall overlooking the city. Ancient Buddhist statues dot the cliff, making you feel like you are in a forgotten place. The temple has been standing for more than 500 years. It was built during the reign of King Kuena from 1355 to 1385. The story begins with the royal party journeying to the top of Doi Suthep while the king rode on his white elephant. One of Buddha’s bones was placed on the elephant with the king. Once they arrived at the top, the elephant trumpeted three times and then died in exhaustion. That was declared an omen and the king immediately ordered Wat Phra That Doi Suthep to be built. Later, he declared the erection of three temples on the mountain, all places where his elephant had rested. 

We began our journey in a Grab taxi that dropped us off at the Basecamp Trail Cafe. After gobbling down a few bites and buying a drink to keep us energized, we started walking up the road to the Monks Trail. Ascending the tiring uphill, we eventually reached the opening of the trail. We hiked along the winding beaten dirt path to the temple. 

I'm not going to name names, but there were some complaints because of all the humidity in the air. Halfway through the hike, raindrops began to fall. In Thailand, if you feel a few drops, you know that a downpour is in your near future. Miraculously, the rain did not worsen and eventually stopped. We reached the temple and marvelled at the rock statues scattered around it. 

We walked up a few steps and reached a meditation site with an amazing view of the city. Passing statues of Buddha, we wandered through the temple and found an ancient wat, covered in moss. 

This temple holds different kinds of architecture. In 1934, the temple fell into disrepair and a prosperous Burmese businessman worked on reconstructing it. The Burmese influence can be seen in the architecture of the newer buildings through symbols and design used in Burma. Another design in Thai architecture modelled heaven which created a sense of peace, lightness, and floating. Lightness was usually symbolized by curves. This technique wove Buddhist philosophy into traditional Thai architecture.  

The curving design appeared in several spots of a temple, such as an arched roof and the base design. Steep roofs or multi-tiered roofs symbolize the achievement of wisdom or nirvana. This is the symbol of peace and lightness. Peace can also be represented in the symmetry of a temple, which is often visible in Thai temples regardless of the shape. 

Suddenly, we heard an electrical whine which refused to stop. By that time we had already explored most of the temple so we decided that it was time to leave. We negotiated the songthaew's price in our broken Thai, piled into the taxi bus, and watched the ancient wat fade into the distance.