Sunday, 22 July 2012

Checking out the Dead Sea Scrolls

I had the opportunity through work to drive down to Philadelphia over the weekend and help host an event centred around the Dead Sea Scrolls. I think most of you who might read this blog know about these scrolls--they were found in jars of clay in a cave by a shepherd in the near past, and are the earliest pieces of scripture found yet. Abrahamic faiths find them very important.

Driving the seven hours it took due to bad weather, construction, and moronic drivers (myself naturally not included in that definition) was still a lovely drive. I've driven that way so many times I think I could do it with my eyes closed--though I would like to say I have not ever done so. In fact, I've driven it so often that even with traffic, I can still predict timing to locations along the way (and the final destination) within minutes of accuracy. It is incredibly satisfying to be able to do that. I have my favourite stopping points (only 2!) and the same order. I should probably vary it up one day just to avoid too much predictability. The road gives me in itself a sense of home. Funny that should be, but so natural at the same time.

I don't know what I enjoyed most about the event we held. Last time I was in the Franklin Institute, I was 8 years old, with my parents and a sister, got sick at the I-MAX theatre, was horrified by the display of real babies, and was fascinated by walking through some kind of pumping red heart. This time, I skipped most of the institute, drove myself there (wandered around the streets in circles unable to find the right parking for a quarter of an hour!), and while I went alone, was not without good company. We had a lovely alumni event there, and it was so much fun to be in a lovely old library room with alumni from even back to the 40's--to have this kinship with people I never knew, and to wander around learning about other hearts--the hearts of all these people who attended the same uni that I did. There were members from every decade up through the 2010's! And while each decade was so very different from every other, there was still this same sort of rhythm beneath it all.

After our presentations in the library room, we made our way together to the scroll exhibit. I remember hearing about the Dead Sea Scrolls over the radio back when I used to live in the Caribbean. I don't remember what was said, just that they were talked about. Now I finally got to see them. It took me back to days in London, standing in the British Library and looking at the first press prints of the Bible, of the Magna Carta (the English always did mix Religion and Politics!), and of other absolutely beautiful pieces and many gorgeous illuminated scriptures and texts. The exhibit itself, full of pictures of countryside, of multi-screen video displays playing insinc; of endless patched-together clay jars and ceramics and bathtubs from cult places mentioned in the Bible and of earrings and old coins--all oddly enough also took me less to Ancient Israel and more to places I have been before--to the Roman ruins scattered across Austria and Slovakia, where I grew up playing or walking around and even over. To the island of Crete and the even more ancient ruins there. And to days in Kenya, my own experiences in the desert and with pastoral and nomadic tribes.

It was not wonderful, or thrilling, or exciting to see the exhibit. It could even border on the boring--how many clay jars patched back up do you care about seeing, really? How many deep and impressive voice recordings playing at you theatrically do you want to hear? And I can't really help but analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the exhibit and what I would do if I were the curator or whatever the particular term in this case would be.

But it was wondrous; it was slightly chilling--looking at these fragmented and fragile oh-so-ancient texts in a language I cannot speak, in someone's real-life long ago personal handwriting--their ink and sweat and effort. The holiness of the time they set aside to write at all these very words. These words which survive to effect so much of the world, through centuries. Words lost for so long, hidden remotely in clay jars, that when uncovered, still ring true--even to ring true to the copies of them from much later on in the years--that transcribing and copying them did not dilute their message. It was a goosebump moment to remember.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Going To Court

My very first day back in the States, I had class all morning for a leadership program in the county that I am a member of. While it was a bit rough to try and stay awake through it all after so much travelling the last few days and jetlag, I can't imagine a more interesting way to have passed that morning.

That Thursday was what we call an "Industry Day," when we do site visits and have speakers talk with us according to the theme of the day. Thursday's was the judicial system, so we spent our morning between a conference room, a courtroom, and the county jail.

Yes, I spent my first morning back in the States in court and then in jail. You can laugh. :)

But in all seriousness, it was really an interesting morning. I've never sat in on a live court session in the States before. This was a special court, in fact--something known as Drug Court. It is where people who are guilty of non-violent drug crimes (possession of, falsifying prescriptions for drug use, etc) who might otherwise get up to even 9 years in prison for their crime, can instead be sent to drug court for trial and conviction there. In this court, they go through a special programme with four phases, and if they successfully complete this program they are free to go.

The programme that they go through in the Drug Court is a restorative programme; one that helps them to work through their problem instead of merely punishing them for the results of that problem.

It was really fascinating to experience that and talk with the judge and other people part of the court process to see how and why this court is run.

In fact, the very last time I sat in court as a witness was back in Rwanda, in the days when the Gacaca (pronounced Gachacha) courts were still operating. You can, in fact, read the post I wrote on my then-blog about that experience here if you want. These were courts that opened up to try those from the genocide as the international tribunes would never get through them all. These courts also operated according to the traditional village court model. One of the really beautiful aspects of these courts was their emphasis not on justice to the full measure (because an eye for an eye is justice to the full measure, yes, when in comes to genocide crimes? Yet if you operate on an eye for an eye system, you will have no society left to restore; no hope for redemption; no promise for a brighter future.) but rather on mercy. They wanted to have a society to rebuild, not merely a punished society.

I had never seen such a beautiful blending of mercy and justice before in my life as I witnessed day after day in Rwanda; as I witnessed that one particular six hours in court in Rwanda.

I love the fact that the system in the States is realising that punitive justice is not always the best way of dealing with people. We are humans and as such we are all broken in some way. It is the human predicament. So to begin instead to help us heal ourselves; to learn how to become whole people again and know that this exercise of mercy (not simply a releasing of the wrong-doer, but an investment in their restoration) is better for our society in the end than carrying out full justice on people who have committed crimes out of their brokenness is exciting to me. To exercise mercy and grace and to repair and heal instead of punish and lock away and leave the problem to continue to grow or fester and likely repeat itself when they are released from prison. I am so happy to see that transpiring here.

First Thoughts on Being Back to This Back...

These past few days have been something of a blur as I have struggled to orient myself back into this timezone and continue to fight off not feeling well, so I'm sorry to have not posted again right away! But here now, I've just slept 10 hours straight and feel much more rested at this moment. 

Homecomings, no matter where to, are always strange but lovely things. It has been good to be back here; to fall asleep again on my porch; to walk to work; to laugh with my colleagues; to reunite with my car and the power to take myself wherever I will and whenever. Even just to have again my phone and my computer: to experience here the joy of the possessive, because this is my current home rather than a past one which I am returning to find if I am still welcome.  

Barely a week before leaving, I was asked over a lunch which I preferred--the local life here or the international world. It was hard to answer, because after all, this local life here is my continuing choice; but the international world is one which I perpetually miss. So I finally (I say "finally" as my mind raced through so many thoughts to answer, but really, it was probably the breadth of a few seconds) said I thought I still preferred the international world. It is, after all, the whole of my world until these last few years of discovering this other sphere of living, and as such, a much more comfortable place for me to exist in (comfort zone!) than this local world where the roots actually run vertically rather than horizontally. 

The interesting thing is, I don't know if I could answer that question the same now, just a month later. I wish we could repeat that lunch and I could muse my way through the differences. Perhaps if I could have said with certainty before leaving that I preferred the international world, then my choice would not have changed. I wonder if such certainty would not have spelled the failure of my experiment here in this local world, though--expressing a stubbornness to allow for something else to genuinely be experienced; to truly compete.  

I find coming back--I found whilst on my travells--that I am incredibly proud of the life I have slowly been carving out for myself here. I am very proud of the fact that I have been able to find the courage and strength to stay in a world that is so foreign to me, and am delighted on my return here how happy I am to embrace it all again. The thing is, in the whole of this world, there are two ways you can live: either as an international or as a local. Living here, I've been asked so many times why do I live here and not somewhere else, when I am indeed one who could simply live anywhere. Anywhere in the whole world! What a deliciously enormous backyard to just step out into and play in. 

Here is a response I wrote to it once-- 


They do not know when they
ask me, why on earth I live among
them. They do not know this
question is absurd. Why, of all
the earth, do I live in their tiny
slightest dot.
when I could live there. Somewhere
else. That exotic-sounding far away vision
they carry in their minds; they might
one day visit on a holiday; they would visit
if they could leave their locality; they do not
even know how to imagine.

They do not know when they
ask me, why on earth I live in this here when
I could live in that far there.

They can never understand that
wherever you live is always a here, and that
wherever I live people will always
wonder what I’m doing


with them.

Every place is, in the here-there
eventuality, simply another

--So here I am now, living currently in a place where of all the places in the world, I can find a way to slip into the locality of it instead of remaining in the international sphere alone. I find it, still, a fascinating experience. And my trip home to Europe, and then off to explore Thailand, has reassured me of the fact that no matter how locally I may come to live somewhere I will still always be myself, which is still an International. I don't have to fear losing that part of myself (which I love, this ability to dissolve into the whole of the world, to live anywhere in a satisfying way, to make meaningful connections with people no matter the who or where, and to step into so many different stories) by experiencing the depths of locality. So why not stay in a place where I can reach the deepest depth of locality for a while longer? 

And perhaps really, in the end, the question isn't fair--this which do I prefer? Perhaps it can be both. And perhaps one can choose to stay and to go all at once. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Making a Splash in the Gulf of Thailand

I hardly know where to begin; so much has happened in the (short?) time since last I wrote. My time in Hua-Hin completed quite nicely the unforgettableness that this trip has consisted of. Perhaps the best way to describe my experience there is to say it was pregnant with the unexpected and very, very full. 

We rose early on Tuesday morning after an absolutely beautiful deep sleep on my part, at last, and readied ourselves for the first portion of the morning: horseback riding on the beach at 8 a.m. In advance of that, we went to this adorable little coffee shop on the corner of our street--both of us being slightly less than awake in mornings before some strong coffee. 

One of the interesting things there is that before entering any of these buildings (our hotel included), you have to take off your shoes. You just leave them out on the sidewalk or on the terrace before entering. May I say, eating barefoot in an open-air restaurant is absolutely refreshing?

After wolfing down our breakfast (I was determined to arrive at the beach in good time for the horses), we walked to the beach and then down along the water in search of the horses. It was overcast--the sky and sea both the same shade of cloudy grey--and the horses were much farther down the beach than we had believed. They also did not com out at 8--we had received misinformation there. So, in the time we had to pass til 9, we wandered through the waking market place just off the beach, explored a bookstore, and picked up some water. (My most perpetual state these last 2.5 weeks has been of endless thirst.)

They were waiting for me with a horse when we returned to the beach, Candace having decided the previous evening to be prudent and not ride. Now, here I might note that I *thought* at the time I had not ridden since I was 12 years old--a time when the girl behind me was nearly thrown from her mount on our trail ride and then carried madly into the woods, all at the provocation of the horse behind her, who then began to annoy my mount before being controlled at last. As I recalled while riding on the beach, though; I have actually ridden a horse once since, just before my 3rd year in uni. That was in West Virginia, where I discovered riding a horse along a ravine while being unable to sit well in the saddle due to a sprained ankle is not the best life choice. So really, all that to say, I am not much of a horsewoman. 

That was fine, my lack of skill, until Candace, being a fine horsewoman, decided to ride after all. Due to her mad skills, the horse people gave us free reign of the horses and the beach--we were quite on our own. No trail ride, no guide, no thing. Just us, horses, and beach. Me alone on a horse... 

I had visions of being able to gallop along the sea--visions that, if you have ever seen the movie "Second Hand Lions," you can draw up in your own mind as well. I am not so foolish as to actually think that I, with no skills, could ride like that. The horse, however, didn't know this about me. So after a very pleasant walk down the beach, it trotted me (oh the jostling!!) and then cantered back up the beach. Exhilarating, but terrifying. But definitely exhilarating and absolutely awesome. 

After dismounting, we went back into the market to find a way back to Bangkok for me. The ladies at the hotel reception the previous evening had told us of a vanservice we could find that would take me. We must have inquired of at least 5 different people before finding it, but we did succeed in arranging for them to pick me up at our hotel at 3 PM. They would get me to some place in the city and from there I would catch a taxi to the airport--all with extra time built in for some crazy delay or breaking down.

Getting to the airport on time was the most stressful part of the entire 2.5 weeks, actually. Not having a phone, not having any sort of device that even could get online, and not speaking the language were all factors enough here... Not being particularly inspired by our train-rides to trust Thai-time as operating anywhere near according to my needs or desires was another. But in fact, it was made even more stressful by my going to the beach at all--a choice which involved missing a flight. You don't deliberately miss your flights. But we made our beach plans after I had bought a ticket, and that ticket left me in Chiang Mai until the 3rd, flying from there straight to Bangkok to London to JFK to home. If you just skip a flight, they often cancel your following flights. I had asked my travel agent beforehand if this would be alright and they wouldn't cancel on me, and he said it "should be fine." Not "will" be fine, but "should" be. So I also had that nagging question in my mind--what if it wasn't fine? Getting to the airport and checking in would be such a relief to that question which could only be answered at that last minute. 

After settling my return trip to the city, which we trusted would actually only take 3 hours instead of the 6 it took via train, we rented a scooter and rode around the city a little before returning to our hotel to change for swimming. There, I tried my first time driving a scooter--very fun! And driving British style, at that. First time legally (I may or may not have driven that way in the States when first learning to drive...Oops.) It was so natural, I later dreamt that I would crash at the airport back in the States for forgetting which side and doing it wrong.

By the time we arrived to the beach, the rain had stopped and the clouds begun to dissipate. It was beautiful. The water was not nearly so clear as the Caribbean, but it certainly was warm. I think I could have stayed in it all day. It was so calm you could float without your face getting splashed by water, too, and for the longest time we had it all to ourselves excepting the fishing boats nearby and some navy boats further out.

Of course, a walk along the beach looking for shells and interesting sea things was necessary, so we did enjoy a nice walk again, only to run back into the water shortly after. Alas... We were lounging luxuriously in the water when all of a sudden Candace yelped--she'd been stung on the arm by a jellyfish and it burned horibbly. Thus abruptly ended my sea-time. But we got her taken care of back at the hotel and then had a delicous lunch (shrimp in tamarin sauce for me, followed by crepes for dessert) and then packing me up to leave.

The 3pm arranged van never showed up, and I realised anew how much I hate trusting my future to others and not having any hand in it at all. We finally just took my things, got a tuk-tuk and took that to a station downtown that was also a van shuttle service--a much more reliable one, it seems. So I took a van an hour later, leaving at 4 instead of 3, back to Bangkok by myself. I fell in with a group of recent graduates from Hong-Kong who had come to celebrate their graduation together, and we enjoyed talking and navigating our way through the Bangkok subway system together before parting ways when I left them to take the sky train to the airport.

My 2nd impressions of Bangkok were much more favourable. This time around I actually got to see the built up, awesome, and almost ridiculously modern section of the city--skyscrapers and beautiful bridges and all! It was gorgeous. I really enjoyed the van ride through over the train ride, as well--entirely different perspective. I chose not to take a taxi because I was so completely done with feeling helpless and having to trust myself to others--taking the subway and then the sky train was tiresome with all the bags, and super crowded, but so rewarding to fight and find my own way through and arrive successfully on my own at the airport at last.

12 hour flight to London left at midnight... I stayed awake for a whole movie (most excellent: "The Exotic Marigold Hotel" or something like that) and then slept for a solid 8 hours at least. There was even an empty seat next to me, so I felt quite spoilt. We got stuck on the plane in London, however--their gang-plank to the airplane wasn't working, and it took a long time for them to relocate steps over to our plane to get us off. I had to run through the airport in order to make my next flight, even with being shortcutted by the airport staff through all the lines.

7 hour flight to JFK was still good, though perhaps a bit less. I wasn't overly fond of my seat-fellow, who felt that he had priority to the entire armrest and over onto my side, kept messing up my tv channels, and kept putting his feet on my side as well. Happily for me, his chair didn't lay back, so he ended up moving to another seat for all but the last remain 30 minutes of the flight, and I again had an empty seat next to me. I also watched another most excellent film--"Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" as well as a rom-com to keep awake.

Which I still am. Despite having to go through immigration and security in JFK, check myself in for the next flight in a different terminal, wait, fly again, and then drive the remaining 1.5 hours home. I calculated that the entire trip--from leaving at 4 pm in Thailand to arriving home, took between 36 and 40 hours. I had it worked out exactly, but I might be a bit exhausted right now. Which means it is time for me to sign out. More tomorrow!

Monday, 2 July 2012

Night Train to Bangkok

Deep darkness has fallen; I ride the night train to Bangkok. Right now we we sit at a station somewhere. Leaving Chiang Mai to head south, we had to go up into the mountains and are only just now descending from them. It is junglesque in there; the colours all bluegreen and the full palate of avocado and deep shades of lime.

The conductor just lowered some of the beds in our compartment; we are riding second class with private beds; the bottom two seats slide down to meet each other and form one bed, and from above, a storage unit unfolds itself to reveal another, rather smaller little “bedroom.” Curtains then separate you from the aisle between sides of the train, and outside your curtain is the luggage rack where you stash your belongings.

This morning I spent the day at last in the market in downtown Chiang Mai. My concious hours here have been full of longing to be out and about; I think it is a unique form of torture to be in a place you have so long waited to explore and then be so entirely incapacitated. Freedom and energy this morning were beautiful in combination. I surely could have shopped forever, wandered endlessly through the streets. It is so fascinating to me, this place. I have never travelled before in Asia, and the last thing I expected was to feel familiar here. Yet, that has exactly been the feeling I find myself coming back to; a familiarity with this place so foreign to me in actuality. Nearly all the trees and fruits I know from somewhere else, with but a few exceptions, like teak. Nearly all the building structures and particular array of colours I have seen before, with but a few very temple-like places the excpetion—and certainly the discovery and variety of these structures surprises me in itself. I am more surprised by my familiarity here, perhaps, than shocked at the differences I expected.

Even today, in the market; the items sold themselves are new, and many of the more pungeant smells were new, but the arrangement and the chaos and the specific order of how it all works were all familiar from markets in Slovakia; on Crete; in Uganda.

I go back and forth one moment to the next here thinking ah, that's Rwanda! Ah, that's Uganda! Ah, that's so British it's ridiculous! Ah, that's like Venezuela! Whoa, that's so Caribbean! And that is odly like Slovakia. How does it happen that the world so big can be so small? Even the language; so very incredibly foreign to me, yet I am already accurately picking up on the grammar and some of the particular words—it's wonderfully exciting. (Especially as this shall be the first country whose script I do not know coming in and will still not know going out. That aggravates me greatly, I confess!!) So this small ability to crack the language gives me that much more enormous a pleasure. If I ever came for longer than a week and a few days, and were not sick most of that time, I would immerse myself into this language until I could wear it like an invisibility cloak.

It is also interesting to me to begin to comprehend a little of this place at large. When we come to a new place, we do first see it through the only eyes we have, and so we cannot see it for itself as it is for different eyes. We have to learn first how to see the place at all. I have enjoyed getting tidbits of history and culture in this short time here—again wishing so badly I had more time to delve!--and a bit better a view, as I said. I don't remember what started our conversation—some question I asked—but I got to learn this morning all about how Thailand has grown as a nation. It was never colonized, which I knew beforehand, but didn't really register until that moment. I don't think I have ever been in a country outside of Europe that was not at one point colonized (or still a colony)! And now here I am. Shazaaam—another new experience I wasn't even looking for. It was also pointed out how all the surounding countries (all of which were indeed colonized by the various European entities) have collapsed completely since that time in the redoing of themselves. Thailand, on the other hand, could perhaps be equated then with the old story of the tourtise and hare-- the Thai being the tourtise slowly but surely developing themselves. They have done an impressive job, it seems, maintaining their Thai-ness whilst still incorporating Western culture—other cultures at all, really—into their mainstream at their own will. Not to say that their own will has always worked out for their own best, but no one and no country always can make the best decisions for itself. Isn't that part of the adventure of life, the twists that we didn't see but have to work out?
(Authors interrupting note: When travelling, it is always more interesting to leave the curtains on the train open and not yet go into your private sleeping compartment when there are good looking people sitting across the aisle from you. We just decided we don't really need to go to sleep or sit in private for a while still...Alas, though, it seems the french eye-candy have decided to retire... )
We dined tonight on sticky rice and pork sticks that Candace picked up nearby the train station. So tasty! I am thankful to eat and enjoy taste again. It is a beautiful thing. 

[Next day...]
So at last we are arrived at our destination at the beach. The night train to Bangkok came into the station several hours late, but it was a lovely trip nonetheless. We didn't go to sleep right away even after the conductor came by and put down all our beds. Instead, the two of us and our charming french companion across the aisle sat on Candace's bed and watched Star Wars, A New Hope. I was informed that I'm much more of a "fan" than I realised previously. Haha. Oops... When the train finally lulled me into sleeping sitting up watching that fantastic movie, I went up the luggage ladder to my bunk, curled up, and fell asleep promptly. I think it must have been hours later that I awoke at some stop, and it took a long time to fall asleep again, but when I did, it was bliss. Morning and wake-up and bunks-up came far to swiftly. 

My first impressions of Bangkok were of congestion and smell. I'd like to add more to those impressions, but I am at least glad to say that they were insignificant enough as I quickly fell asleep sitting in my chair there, and slept the extra two hours of the trip away. 

Bangkok train station was massive and awesome and air-co'd a bit, and after purchasing our train tickets to the beach, we settled down for our 2 hour wait at a lovely coffeeshop where I actually ate a whole croissant! (I am feeling MUCH better!) Then we bookshopped, looked into how to get me to the airport from the trainstation on the return journey, and finally waited and waited and waited some more for a very late train to come.

2nd class on this train was a vastly different experience than the first. In the first place, not only did C and I not get seats together, we were in entirely different train-cars! Moreover, whereas the first train we took had air-co and individual, padded seats; this one was "padded" seats on a bench, with open windows and fans blowing and lots of noise and bustle and vendors coming down the aisle hawking all sorts of delicious looking and smelling goods. At one point there was icecream being sold and run around the train-car windows on lids and it looked so very delicious and cold, but... i'm not actually a big icecream fan. 

While our beautiful (I presume) beach is only 2 hours out of Bangkok, it took the train six hours to get there. (2 hours longer, again, than the ticket said...). So we missed our first afternoon on the beach, and arrived in the dark. But we did arrive, grumpy and absolutely gross from the travel, and I wondering if spending 3 hours on the beach would really be worth it before having to turn around next day and take the train back to take a taxi to get to the airport to spend the next 29 hours from that airport in transit. Hmm.

As frustrating as it was to spend extra hours on a train alone the time we had hoped to spend together on the beach, I confess the trip was absolutely beautiful. The night train veiled much of the scenery, being night and therefore dark for most of the trip. But those 6 hours of watching a more southern Thailand unfurl outside my open window, and smelling the air (sometimes heavy scented with beautiful flowers, sometimes with delicious food and thick spice, and sometimes with the pungeant smell of the canals and slums) and just breathing was wonderful. The hot and the sticky. The breeze. The wonder of "where am I?" and not even knowing the time to count the minutes or hours by, or listening to a language I'm left out of. 

The colours changed, too--much more the colours of lemon and lime. I got to see a pink sunset over fields, and harvested rice fields set to fire in the darkening twilight. The houses on stilts. The cities we passed by--some with tall fiercely modern buildings and some with sprawling older houses of concrete, of wooden stilts, and of metal-piecework slums. 

And the mountains! Finally I have seen what I always have wanted to see; the mountains that look like clay, rolled around and pulled and squashed and slashed jaggedly to look like dragons and hollows of mystery and I am in love with them from afar. Enchanted as I have always known I should be if I saw them; bewitched to come take a ridiculously long train ride just so I could pass them and fall for them and their  raw wonder. 

I wish so much I had more than but these few hours. Hours which I won't even spend in the hills or mountains, but will stay in the sea. Hide in the sea. 

When we arrived (and we both did make it off the train despite my being in a separate car from her and she not being able to make it to collect me!), we caught a taxi to our hotel, tired and as I said, grumpy and gross. As soon as we got cleaned up, though--and more particularly, as soon as we walked out on a beach with sand that feels the same as the sand I grew up playing in and I heard the surf breaking, it was all worth it. Even for just that moment, without the 3 hours of daylight tomorrow. And then we ate delicious, heavenly food (mine being stir fried asparagus and fresh shrimp) and it was even better! And now we found a way for me to stay here for longer than 3 hours tomorrow and ideally still make my flight. We'll see! Here's hoping nothing goes wrong on the journey to the airport tomorrow afternoon or I might be doomed. 

Well, it's time to curl up and get rested and continue being happy. So very happy.