Sunday, April 29, 2012

To stand is human, to dance...divine.

Whew!  I'm done with my therapist training course.  Trying to finish that off and live it up my last week in Chiang Mai has been...exhausting.  I've tried to fit in as much dancing, massage, markets, and good food as one human possibly could in 7 days.

Tuesday night I went salsa dancing met a Russian girl named Natalia and a fun Cuban guy named Reuben.  Reuben was not only fun to dance with, but fun to discuss politics with.  The best moment was probably when Natalia was talking about Russia and Reuben mentioned how their countries used to be great friends so they should be friends too.  Then they both looked at me.  I couldn't contain my laughter, but Reuben generously added "Yeah, I know...but we can still be friends."  The whole experience just made me think of the beginning of a joke.  "So, a Cuban man, a Russian woman, and an American Mormon walk into a bar...."  I'll let you create the punchline.

As is to be expected, I asked Reuben how he views his own country and culture.  Namely, what is life like for your average Cuban?  Though he was exiled to Miami when he was younger, the majority of his family is still in Cuba, so it was nice to have an experienced perspective.  He explained that because of the way the government works (dictatorship), people live a life of extreme emotions.  Family is a big deal (partially because they have nothing else), so while they may be happy and enjoying their family one day, the next they'd be crying because another one of their family members went into exile or was arrested.  As he explained to me the problems Cuban people face, it was interesting to hear how much passion he has on the subject.  It made me think of a quote from Castro's sister. "My brothers Fidel and Raúl have made it an enormous prison surrounded by water.  The people are nailed to a cross of torment imposed by international communism."  I guess it's just another testament to the power of freedom.  Whatever that means to you personally, try not to take it for granted.

So Wednesday, I dedicated to shopping and prepping for Chihiro's goodbye dinner on Thursday.  I promised Chihiro that I would make her dinner and crack cookies to celebrate her graduation.  This is her helping me make the crack cookies that evening.

Not wanting to spend my whole trip fund on this dinner, I decided to go to the Thai supermarket to do my shopping.  I've been grocery shopping before, but only at the local markets and the very touristy and expensive supermarket.  This supermarket was a whole new experience.  It was the Thai version of Walmart - a giant Tesco.  It was really interesting to see the similarities and differences.  I was able to navigate it alright, but almost everything was in Thai, so I was grateful for clear packaging.  They organize things very similarly, though the content was definitely a different variety.  Luckily for me, noodles, tomatoes, and basil are easy to come by here, so I decided to make my killer good spaghetti.  The most difficult part was navigating the meat section.  Thai people buy and sell meat in a disturbingly open environment.  I have a hard enough time with the smell and look of raw meat as it is.  Knowing what grows on it in open bins at room temperature just makes matters worse.  I was able to accrue some packaged ground beef for the spaghetti, but I still cooked it veeeeery thoroughly - just to be sure.  Shout out to the USDA:  I know you and I have many differences of opinion, but I'd like to send my thanks in this regard.  You make grocery shopping less nerve racking and less nauseating.

As you can see, the dinner I made Thursday night turned into quite the feast.  I made the spaghetti and crack cookie dough (still no oven), one of the guys from school made okonomiyaki and yakisoba (Japanese), and some of the teachers made tom yum kai, kangkung, and some fish balls (seafood version of a hot dog).

The awesome food plus some of the drinks brought by the schoolmaster put everybody in quite the boisterous spirit.  We just talked for a while, but Julie (the French girl on the left in green) was feeling sassy and when the subject of dancing came up, tried to imitate my style of dancing for all to see.  Though I admired her efforts, I think it's safe to say French people struggle with hip hop.

While I was about to pass out from laughing, one of the girls started playing Waka Waka by Shakira on her mini-speakers.  Feeling a slight need to restore my dance reputation, Julie and I ended up in some sort of improvisational dance-off that eventually involved the whole table (even the headmaster).

After about 2 hours of trying to teach Japanese people how to pop, lock, and drop it like its hot, our party dispersed and somehow I convinced Julie, Mimi (bottom left), and Chihiro to go salsa dancing.  Mind you, I was a mess already.  I had been at school all day, cooked all evening, danced all night, and with the weather being humid and about 90 degrees...well....lets just say I was gross.  One of the nicest things about travel, is that you really don't care too much about that since you're not really out to form any lasting impressions.  By 10:30pm, we were in a tuk tuk and bound for salsa.

Being quite pleased with my Tuesday experience, we went to the same place.  When we got there, we found a group of about 5 Japanese people trying to learn how to dance salsa.  Incredibly convenient right?  More importantly, one of them knew how, and after enlisting me as his partner, we did what we could to teach.  I wish I could tell you the name of that guy because he was really very good.  In fact, he was probably the best asian salsa dancer I've danced with thus far.  But, I have this really bad habit of not getting to know anybody I dance with unless I actually sit down and talk with them (like I did Reuben and Natalia).  That goes for just about everyone I dance with too, so it's not personal.  For instance, that same night, I danced the last two bachata's with a gorgeous Scotsman (tall, broad shoulders, dark curly hair, dark eyes, and of course...the super hot accent), and I never even thought about getting his name.  Oh well...I guess it's just how I roll.

By Friday morning, my body felt like it had been hit by a truck.  I somehow still managed to teach yoga, but by the time massage class was over that day, I was feeling pretty shot.  Thank goodness I'm in Thailand, where massages are about $7 per hour.  It being our last day of classes, Eriko and I ended up making an evening of it.  Painful as it was (and usually is for me), I think it's safe to say I will miss them terribly. 

Saturday was my big day of tourism.  Mimi (short for Miwako) decided to join me.  I really like Mimi.  You can tell she's kind of an odd duck for Japanese culture, and she has confirmed to me that this is true.  She's opinionated, outspoken, and very spunky, so it's obvious why I like her.  She used to be a middle school teacher, but has decided she'd like to go into massage therapy and get a job in Hawaii at one of the resorts that caters to Japanese people.  One of the coolest things about Mimi, is that she's been to 20 different countries, and she's only 25 years old.  She's not rich, but she's curious, loves experience, and has a boyfriend that works for Swiss airlines, so she travels cheaply, but effectively.  She fluent in both French and English, and also doesn't drink, so it's nice to have her around when the others do drink and therefore lose their already rough English skills.  Spending the day with her as tourists was quite enjoyable, and I hope we can continue to be travel buddies in the future.

Anyway, Saturday.  So we started the day off with a drive up to Mae Taeng where our first activity for the day was the chance to float down the river and even guide a bamboo raft.  The funny hats were provided.

Next up we went to see an elephant show.  We watched them play soccer, paint pictures, and build a dam.  I've always like elephants, but this experience gave me a whole new appreciation for their intelligence and gentle, but playful nature.  Each one had it's own distinct personality, and it kind of reminded me of having really really big, smart, and strong Great Danes.  We also got to play with the elephants, climb up on top of them, and feed them.  My favorite moment though was when one of the mahouts gave one of the baby elephants the command to kiss Mimi.  The elephant was small, but so was Mimi, and watching her face as this trunk totally enveloped her mouth was possibly one of the funniest things I've ever seen.  I tried to get a picture of it, but I guess I was too slow.  This is what I got instead.

Still pretty good, but not the money shot.  Oh well.  After all the fun and games, we ate lunch at the camp (where they served an incredibly yummy massaman curry), and went for a ride on the elephants.  Watching how flawlessly those giant creatures navigate narrow mountain pathways just sealed the deal for me.  I want an elephant.  And if that can't be done, then I'll have to keep coming back to Thailand to visit.  Either way, elephants are awesome.  I'm not sure which I like more, elephants or tigers.  But I'll be headed to tiger kingdom tomorrow, so I'll have to let you know next week.

After the elephant camp, we went to a long-neck village nearby.  This was a fascinating and perhaps a bit depressing experience.  Little history on the long-necks.  They originated in Burma, but came to Thailand as refuges.  In order to earn their keep, they allow tourists into their village (for about $10/head) to gawk at their customs, take pictures of/with them, and purchase their hand-made wares.  Though most were very friendly, and the tourism does keep their way of life afloat, you could tell something wasn't quite....right.

Unique as it may be, I can accept the practice of neck stretching as no different or weird than breast augmentation or a nose job, but this is pervasive cosmetic alteration.  Every woman in the village practices this, not just some, and those without long necks are just simply not considered beautiful or of worth.  Their whole value is wrapped up in their ability to fit more rings between their shoulders and skull.  Granted, when a woman has the rings, she is very well respected in her community and well taken care of by her husband.  But I struggle to understand how they can have a deep and fulfilling commitment when everything is so focused on something as superficial as the amount of space between a woman's skull and scapula.  But then again, I don't really understand how anybody has found fulfilling commitment through superficial means, so I guess that's not surprising.  Either way, emotional depth seems to be the least of their problems for now.  Incest is a much more pressing matter, mostly because there's just not that many people in the village, and since long-necks are hardly the concern of most Thai people, they do not marry outside the village.

In order to optimize touristic funds, they do share real estate with another hill tribe from Burma - the Big Ears.  This wasn't as dramatically different to me considering the ear-gauging practices that seem to still be gaining popularity.  However, the principle with the big-ears is the same as the long-necks, and it still depresses me a bit.  These are beautiful women, and it makes me sad to think they perceive the source of beauty and worth to be somewhere in those shiny brass rings.  But once again, that belief extends far beyond the bounds of Thailand.

After the long necks, we went to a butterfly and an orchid farm.  As I closely examined all the varying types, colors, shapes and sizes of the orchids, I thought more about the beauty each of us has within us.  That sentiment continued as I walked through the butterfly farm.  Because while these butterflies now have gorgeous wing spans with incredibly stunning patterns, they each started off as a simple and rather plain looking caterpillar.  Likewise, I considered how we are gods in embryo.  Butterflies in the larval stage of our development, ignorant and perhaps totally blind to the kind of potential and beauty we have ahead of us.  

Eventually, I did give pondering all this stuff a break.  We made it back home just in time for our graduation ceremony.  So here I am, all official and certified by the Thai Ministry of Health.


Afterward we celebrated by going to a Thai buffet.  Talk about an experience.  The basic setup of the buffet was a mixture of prepped foods and hot-pot style raw meats and veggies.  They are all lined up on long tables in the middle of a stadium-like building with no walls.  Considering my reservations with the supermarket meat displays, it may be redundant to say I pretty much steered clear of the raw meat.  But I did have several other cooked foods and vegetarian options that were quite tasty.  It turned out to be a great opportunity to try many of the Thai foods I wanted to taste, but not eat a whole meal of. 

After eating more than our bodies wanted to allow, we tried unsuccessfully to find a decent karaoke bar.  Eventually we gave up and ended up going for massages again instead.  After loosening everything up, we headed to Zoe's, and spent our last Saturday night together, dancing like there was no tomorrow.  Around 3am, my body decided it was done so we went home, but my mind wasn't quite through digesting the tour to the long-neck village.  There was something about it that just didn't quite settle.

As bittersweet as the visit was, and though I'm not sure how I feel about it, I'm glad I went.  It was a good reminder to me that women everywhere struggle to remember that they are daughters of God with an innate and divine worth.  It's another affirmation to me that there is great understanding, happiness, security, and peace in the knowledge of that divine nature.  Additionally, as convicted as I am about my need for depth and understanding, sometimes I forget that beauty is in the eye of the beholder because it seems like so many are beholding with the same eyes.  But that's just cultural attraction, not beauty.  And it's good to remember that there is a difference.  I think, most of all, that's where my mind kept wandering to.

I know cultural attraction has it's place in propagating a society, but that's all it is, part of a culture.  In the eternal scheme of things, it's about as valid and meaningful as the Utah hair bump, the fohawk, or this here skin whitening tablet.  The more I think about it, I'm not even sure attraction as we know it really exists in the eternities.  If everyone is of one heart, one mind, and one understanding, then the length of their neck, the size of their bust, or the shape of their eyes is completely irrelevant.  If you think about it, those are nothing more than cultural distractions, covering up the true spiritual attractiveness of any given individual.  Think of what the world would look like if people were purely attracted to one another because of spiritual development, understanding, and compatibility.  Think of how much less adultery, divorce, or even pornography where would be if we saw one another for what we really are, rather than what we are packaged in. 

Humph, but I know I'm just spouting ideals.  I know attraction is as much a part of our physical natures as hunger or thirst.  But if we can fast, diet, and refrain from certain foods, that means we are able to overcome those physical urges and appetites.  Can't we do the same with attraction?  Is it possible to change what you're attracted to just like it's possible to change what kind of food you like?  I know it's changed for me over the years.  I remember when I thought there was nothing hotter than a emotionally troubled rebellious musician with a bad mouth and a sweet side.  Now, that's completely unappealing.  I remember when I refused to eat wheat over white bread growing up, now whole grains is always my preference.  Some of that was conscious choice, some of that was a consequence of other life changes.  But it does go to show that we have some say in what we are attracted to.  It also goes to show how fickle and temporal attraction actually is.

Most of all though, I wonder why we've chosen our current standards of attraction.  We change them all the time, but they still seem to be centered or at least heavily weighted on physical appearance, and none of them ever actually address that void we are looking to fulfill.  And despite some beliefs, Mormons are no better at this.  We should be.  Based on our teachings of divine potential, the Holy Ghost, eternal families, and especially eternal marriage, we shouldn't even be batting an eye at cultural attraction.  We should be able to see one another as Christ sees us.  We have the tools, but too many of us aren't using them.  You look at who dates, who marries, and who does not, and it's apparent that we struggle with that.  But it's never too late to learn.  It's never too late to decide you want something different, hopefully, something better.

To all my single friends:  I have a suggestion.  I know you've heard this before, but if you are looking to find a spouse, work on your own development.  Be the guy/girl you would want your daughter/son to date.  Read, pray, look for understanding that will bring you peace, fulfillment, joy, and eventually, love.  Work on developing the vision to see the sons and daughters of God that surround you as they really are.  Not just for romantic purposes, but for the betterment of your life.  The more clearly you see yourself and others, the less confusion and drama you'll have in dating, which eventually leads to a better marriage (or at least that's what I've observed).  Ditch the drama, it's mindless (and often stressful) entertainment that has no eternal value.

To illustrate this:  I was watching clips from The Mormon Bachelor earlier in the week, and this became glaringly obvious to me.  Just watching the interviews for these men and women made me feel anxious and a bit nauseated.  Not that they were awful or unappealing people by any means.  Many were well accomplished, attractive, good men and women.  But with the vast majority, there was something just a little off in their interview.  It took me a while to put my finger on it, but I think it had something to do with a general lack self-awareness, depth, and genuine confidence.  There was plenty of entertainment, arrogance, and lots of talking about self, but few of them really addressed who they really are.  They talked about things they liked, what they were looking for, but rarely did they offer up an explanation of who they were as a unique son or daughter of God.  Rarely did they address why those desired attributes would be specifically beneficial to them or their development and understanding.  

Now granted, this is for a show, and shows are about drama.  And I know making a video about yourself, trying to sell a committee on why you should be picked for something, is not the easiest forum for expressing your own self-knowledge or understanding.  I thought about whether or not I would be able to make a video that accurately portrayed my own self-perception (not that I would EVER try out for that show).  Truth is, it would be hard, perhaps even impossible.  So this is not a judgement on those who auditioned, but rather, an observation of something I think our generation struggles with.  I think we struggle seeing things and others as they really are.  Maybe it's because our attention is always being demanded elsewhere (media, friends, drama, etc), but I think we struggle seeing ourselves as we really are.  Yes, part of that is just a bi-product of mortality, but we have the tools to see better every day, and few seem passionate about using them.  Wouldn't using those tools be an incredibly good investment of our time and energy?  Not just for ourselves, but for everyone.  Think about what a waste it would be for an optometrist to know how to test or improve vision, but never bothered to correct his own.  How helpful would he really be to any of his patients? 

Being pervasively single, I probably should add, that this is something I have been and continue to work on, every day.  So, this is as much for me as anyone.  That desire for greater vision is what ultimately drives me, and so far it's worked out pretty well.  It's what directs my choices, creates my curiosity, and curbs my appetites.  I am single, but I'm happy.  I feel patient.  I feel at peace.  I'm working, learning, and striving to see better all the time.  Every day I see more than I did previously, and I know I'm doing what I should be to become the person that will be more capable of participating in a healthful, happy, and fruitful relationship bound for nothing short of eternity.  I may have a while to go, but I'm not worried.  I'm really not even lonely.  With that knowledge and a stubborn sense of optimism, I feel good on my own.  I enjoy single life, but I still look forward to the day I can share my life with someone, have children with someone, and figure out what exactly it means to become one with another human being.  I have faith that the Lord will help me to see clearly who that is and when the time is right.

Until then, I know I've got a whole lot of work that can be done on my own.  So, I best get to it.  Thanks to all of you who have been and are so patient and supportive throughout that process.  Thank you for putting up with my ignorance, curiosity, verbal vomit, and ideological pontificating.  Thank you for listening to me, laughing, dancing, and crying with me, and helping me to see everything more clearly.  Thanks especially to my family, both biological and otherwise.  Nobody has put up with more from me than you, and nobody is more important to me than you.  I miss you all dearly, but I can feel your prayers, love, and faith, even on the opposite side of the world.  It is because of you that I've been able to embark on this adventure with no fear, high hopes, and no worries.  It is because of you that I've been able to continue with a decent amount of patience and more energy than any sober human being should be capable of possessing.  You've each helped me to better understand myself, God, and the plan He has for me.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  God bless, namaste, and sawadee ka!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

How To Be A Burmese Bongo Rockstar

Today is the first day of my last week in Chiang Mai, and once again, timing is perfect.  It's getting hot - very hot.  It's been super humid and in the upper 90's all week long.  I'm ready to quit that.  I'm more than incredibly grateful to have air conditioning in my dormitory, but the moment you step outside, the heat and humidity soak you.  The warm nights have turned into hot nights, and I have wear too much clothing to enjoy that.  So while I've loved Thailand, it's food, it's people, and it's sense of fun, I'm ready to head down under that equator.

Due to the incredibly hot nights, I haven't done much this week.  I studied a lot because we had two exams, but other than that, I stuck close to the air conditioning in my room.  Well, mostly.  Thursday night we went to dinner to celebrate another unit completion.  We had dinner in the city, did some impromptu karaoke because the singer that night struggled with English, and then went to a Muay Thai boxing match.  The boxing match was interesting, but not terribly impressive.  It was apparently more of a 'show' than a match, and you could tell there just wasn't a whole lot of heart involved.  While it was cool to see the style and methods behind everything, it became boring after a while, so we ended up playing Jenga and billiards for the rest of the night.

Friday night, I went to the market with Kozue and Eriko.  After some shopping, we decided to go to a restaurant called Dash! (exclamation point in the name).  The food was alright, and the owner was shamelessly hitting on us the whole time (kind of to the point of annoyance), but the dessert made it all worth while.  We had a fantastic cheesecake with mango sauce, and a carrot cake with passion fruit icing.  Oh, my goodness, it was amazing.  I think it has become one of my goals to master that icing.  It was one of the best things I've ever tasted, and I'm not a huge frosting fan.  While inhaling our dessert, the performer for the evening started playing "Home on the Range."  Never in my life did I think I'd enjoy hearing that song, but apparently, absence does make the heart grow fonder.  After the song was over, I thanked the musician and told him I'm from Kansas, where that's our state song.  Not sure if he knew what a 'state song' was or not, but he smiled, said "Kansas huh?" and proceeded to play "Dust in the Wind."  Thai people crack me up.

It was during this song that I spotted a set of bongos next to the table.  Feeling the desire to jam a bit, I started playing.  Though it took me a bit to find my bongo groove, by the end of the song we were sounding pretty good.  So good in fact, that the guy asked me to keep playing.  Thankfully, he only played songs I knew, and we synced up very easily.  I even sang harmony on a few.  The audience was eating it up, but I'm not sure if it was because we actually sounded good, or because they really got a kick out of watching a young white girl jam out with an old Thai guy.  Either way, their enthusiasm prompted us to joke about going on tour together (because who doesn't love a spectacle).  Who wouldn't want to come see this handsome duo?

After a few more songs, the girls started getting tired.  Everyone graciously opposed my leaving, but I was pretty tired myself, and I knew I had to be up by 5am the next morning.  So I bid my buddy adieu and headed home. 

The next morning, I headed to Myanmar (Burma) to do the visa run I mentioned before.  I woke up at 5, got to the bus station by 6, and had to wait until 9:30am to catch a bus to Mae Sai, Thailand (earlier buses were full).  I tried to make the most of the down time and the stations hot and smelly, but cheap internet cafe.  For 3 hours, I caught up on my episodes of 30 Rock (Big Bang Theory is the only show I've allowed myself to stream thus far).  Needless to say, the wait went by pretty quickly.

The bus to Mae Sai was was incredibly comfortable, and cold.  Luckily, I brought my jacket with me, because the AC was blasting for the full 5.5 hours.  I slept, listened to the last book of the Hunger Games, tried to snuggle with my freezing limbs, and enjoyed the snacks I purchased for the trip.  The only real hiccup was attempting to use the toilet while the bus sped down the very windy, very bouncy, mountain road.  Though sitting down wasn't difficult, trying to stand up, maintain balance, and pull up my pants at the same time became quite a feat.  Eventually, I did manage, with only minor injuries, and we reached Mae Sai at 2pm where I had to catch a taxi to reach the Burma border.

When we got there, I walked through one rather nice looking gate, got my passport stamped to exit Thailand, then walked to a second, more shoddy, gate and got my passport stamped to enter Myanmar.  (Even the difference between the two gates was rather telling.  Thailand is definitely doing much better than Burma).  I then took the next couple of hours to look around the shops of Myanmar, which, to put it lightly, is basically knock-off central (Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, etc all for $5-10).  If I had any concern or attachment to labels, bags, sunglasses, or wallets, this is the place to be.  But, since I don't, I mostly just walked around, got a deck of cards and some earrings as souvenirs, fended off more "I love yous" and marriage proposals than I cared to count, and headed back to the border.

I ran into several beggars heading back, and it woke me up to the current state of affairs in Burma.  There's an awful lot of stuff in that market, and a lot of money being made off of it.  But the people are still struggling, still hungry, and still suffering.  I guess when government is formed in fraud, supported by fraud, and economically fueled by fraud, it's hard to come by the social and political integrity required to make things better.  I can't say any of those I interacted with seemed miserable.  Most were actually quite pleasant, but you could see the need in their eyes.  I was so glad I had brought all of my travel snacks with me.

Haha, maybe I should explain that.  So, in Salt Lake City, there's a prolific amount of organized panhandling.  Giving money to beggars is therefore discouraged by the homeless shelters and city government.  I always felt awful ignoring them, because I knew some were genuinely in need, but I didn't know how to separate those really in need and those just taking advantage of others generosity.  And since I couldn't differentiate, I always had this internal moral struggle every time someone put out their hand.  "Am I just promoting panhandling?"  "Weren't you taught to take care of those less fortunate?"  "Are they going to use it to just buy drugs or booze?"  "I do have much, so I should give right?"  It was a bit of a mess.  

The solution I came up with was to offer food instead of money.  If someone is truly in need, food is the #1 priority, and I'm always more than happy to feed someone.  It was interesting to see how quickly you could separate those in need and those being contracted out to look like their in need.  Some would flat out tell me no, they only wanted money.  Some would accept the food, either graciously or begrudgingly, and at that point it was always pretty apparent when they really needed it. 

So anyway, while I was walking through the markets in Burma, every one who approached me to beg was incredibly receptive to the food I gave them.  In Salt Lake City, about 25% of those I offered food to would happily accept it.  In India, it was more like 75%.  So 100% to me says something about that country's state of affairs.  When I tried to give a bag of apricots to one older woman, she looked at me, confused, and gestured to ask if they were all for her.  I nodded, and seeing her beam with gratitude at something so minor broke my heart.  Those apricots cost me 20 Baht, which is equivalent of about 80 cents.  Perhaps it goes without saying, but we are truly blessed to live in the country and era that we do.  If nothing else, this trip has taught me that.

Where was I....oh yes....leaving Burma.  So I walked back across the border (which is apparently a river), got my re-entry for Thailand, and now I can legally stay until after I'm done with school.  Yay.  After getting my stamp, I bee-lined it back to the bus station and then caught the the next bus back to Chiang Mai.  From the bus station, I took a tuk tuk into the city because I had promised the girls from school I would go dancing with them that night.  I was incredibly hungry and VERY tired, but I do try to keep my promises.  So with the infinitesimal amount of energy I had left, I went dancing (till 1am), came home....and died....or at least pretty close.  All in all, a good week, but that was one very very long day. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Fear, Faith, and Motivational Math

Sometimes I wish there was a way to just download random thoughts and observations from our brain, directly into text form.  It has been a great week here for many reasons, but the effort it will take to form sentences and explain why now seems daunting.  Ugh...but here goes.

So quick recap on the last week since I didn't really cover it in my last post.  I passed my lymph and thai massage exams.  After examinations we had a Thai New Years party (Songkran starts this week) with the whole school at the Holiday Inn restaurant/buffet.  It was a seafood buffet and was actually a good precursor for the types of food I would be trying the rest of that week.  Everybody else seemed to love it, but I myself....well....lets just say for the first time in my life, I feel comfortable concluding that I don't really care for seafood.  Most white fish, salmon, lobster, and perhaps crab are still on the pass list, but after trying oysters, clams, octapus, squid, crayfish, shrimp, and frog, I feel well versed enough to conclude they are not for me.  The taste was either fishy or texturally repulsive, so it didn't take much to conclude an aversion.  And I'm not sure if this is common all over the rest of the world, but the Thai have a habit of presenting food in such a way as to remind you where it came from.  Personally, I prefer my food to be a little less...authentic?  Here's a couple of examples of what I'm talking about.

I know it's hard to see, but that last picture is of an octopus, a whole octopus mind you, that is cooked in with a seafood stew.  The taste/texture of the octopus wasn't too bad, but I had a hard time getting past the sensation of masticating it's rubbery and suction-cup-lined tentacles and bulbous head.  Blech...

So on a completely unrelated and much more appetizing topic, I took a Thai cooking course (seafood free) this week.  It was the first really touristy activity I've participated in here in Chiang Mai, and the most English I've spoken in weeks.  I learned to make Khao Soy, Pad Thai, Cashew Chicken, and Tom Kha Gai (coconut soup).  Making the food was actually easier than I anticipated, as long as you can gather the proper materials.  I was also given a small cookbook with various other curry recipes, so I'll be practicing in the meantime.  And yes Dan, I'll make you Khao Soy when I get to Cali...I promise. :)

The rest of this week, I've basically been a bum.  We've been out of school for Songkran, but celebrations didn't actually start until Thursday.  So, I just used the time to relax and catch up on some trip planning (booking hotels, flights, tours, etc) for when I head to Australia and New Zealand.  I'm glad I took that time too, because Songkran is freaking nuts.  Historically, it was a time for paying respect to elders and family members by taking blessed water (blessed by Buddha by pouring it over his statue), and pouring it over the shoulders in an effort to wash the bad away and give them good fortune.  Considering it's close proximity to Easter, I found this rather interesting.

But despite it's serene and rather religious origins, Songkran has evolved into a 4 day all out water war that pervades all of Chiang Mai.  It's so pervasive, in fact, that if you make any effort to go outside during that time, you should plan on getting soaked....repeatedly.  Everywhere you go, you'll meet people armed with water guns, buckets, and barrels of water, just waiting to 'bless you with good fortune.'  I enjoyed it for the first few days.  In fact, it was a nice break from the heat.  But my nerves can only take so much shock, and after being soaked for two days and having countless unanticipated buckets of ice-water being dumped on me, I'm in bad need of a break.  So today I've made a goal to stay safely inside...and more importantly....dry.   Hence, writing my blog seemed like a good idea.

The one thing I keep thinking about though, is how to get to church tomorrow without getting completely soaked on the way.  Hmm...oh well, I'm sure I'll figure it out.  That reminds me though, I finally got to go to church last week!  Because of my navigational issues the first week, and conference the next week, last Sunday was the first time I've been able to attend church in 2 months.  It was Easter Sunday and I was really looking forward to going and finally taking the sacrament.  When I got there, I realized that that wouldn't be an option.  I guess with the time it takes to translate everything, General Conference is broadcasted a week later here, and broadcasted in Thai at that.  Luckily, I was able to acquire some English headphones, and even though I had watched all of the conference a week before, it turned out to be an incredible experience.

Though the talks were the exact same, the Spirit I felt that day among all of my Thai brothers and sisters was incredibly powerful.  I could feel of their faith, devotion, and community.  Almost the entire congregation was Thai and hardly anybody could speak English, but I felt an overwhelming amount of kinship, peace, and love just sitting with them.  By the time the first hymn was sung, I was already choking back the laugh/cry/giggle that usually accompanies my being overwhelmed by the Spirit.

For my readers who don't know what I mean by 'overwhelmed by the Spirit (Holy Ghost),' it's probably best described as an overwhelming feeling of peace and happiness.  Every person on earth, regardless of faith, experience, or culture can feel that Spirit (Mormons, by no means, have a monopoly on it).  Often, it accompanies an experience, realization, acknowledgement, or affirmation of truth.  For some people, it causes them to become emotional and cry (Have you ever inexplicably cried during a really happy/beautiful movie?  It's kind of like that).  For others, it causes them to become almost giddy or really enthusiastic.  But while these may be the more common ways I've heard described, everybody experiences that Spirit in their own way.

For me, it sometimes feels like a warm peace that starts deep within my soul and washes over my whole self.  Other times, it's like a shot of happy juice that brings clarity to my perspective, gratitude for my circumstance, and a lot of love for everyone around me.  Most of the time though, it's a subtle mixture of those feelings.  Last week, during that broadcast, it was more like a deluge of every experience I just described.  I wanted to laugh, cry, dance, hug the strangers next to me, shout "This is awesome!," and thank God for everything....all at the same time.  It was truly an amazing experience, and another affirmation to me of how real and wonderful the Gospel of Christ really is.  Best...Easter...EVER! :)

For the next few days after my spiritual cannonade, I was thinking about Christ's atonement, the love with which he performed it, and started pondering faith, fear, motivations, and why I do what I do.  I've always been fascinated by the power and polarity of intention.  Have you ever heard of a morally ambiguous intention?  An act or belief may be morally ambiguous, but the singular intentions behind it seems to always be described as 'good' or 'bad.'  I think this might be because intention is something wholly individual in nature, and the ultimate drive of our God-given ability to chose.  Nobody can dictate another persons intention.  Nobody can even truly know what another persons intention actually is.  We, as individuals, are the only ones who can know (and chose) what is driving us to do what we do.  I also think it's why we're told not to judge others.  Actually, I know that's why we are told not to judge others.  Because until we become like Christ, we do not have the ability to look upon or see the intentions of another human being.  Others can observe behavior and speculate intent, but only the individual acting can delve into their own motivations and answer the question of why they do what they do, and whether it's good or bad.  And I firmly believe it's the "why they do what they do" that can determine the personal happiness or misery of any given individual. 

Not only does this mean we shouldn't judge, but it also means each of us responsible and accountable for our own intentions, independent of age, circumstance, or experience.  I can testify that personal intent, essential to our peace and happiness, often takes time, effort, and introspection to know/understand.  I think everybody can agree that an intention of love is always a good intention, and I would argue it's present in all good intention.  But sometimes, love hurts others more than it helps.  I think it's partly because the emotion of 'love' is ambiguous and utterly subjective to human understanding and experience.  I may think I'm loving someone simply because they feel love for them, and from there convince myself that every intention felt is a good intent.  That turns into thinking "All of my desires will bring me happiness because I'm doing it for love."  I think this happens a lot, and is the source of a lot of confusion for a lot of people in many different kinds of relationships (families, romance, communities, friendships, etc).  Proof of this: millions of people have a hard time differentiating between real love and twisted adolescent obsession.

I rest my case.  

So this was my realization.  While perfect love is always the best intention, it's also something we are still learning, and therefore stands as a poor method assessing one's personal intent (at least on it's own).  It's like trying to navigate with a compass when you don't know which way is up.  The way I see it, there needs to be another way to check intention, to check and see if our current intentions are congruent with future happiness.  I think many, both religious and otherwise, use principles they hope or know to be true and judge their actions for ill or good depending on how well they line up with those.  I would agree that truth is another important axis for assessing intent, and that having 2 points of reference does create a better understanding of location (think of an xy plane).  However, this is a 3D world we live in (sorry for all the math references).  With love and truth, we might be able to pinpoint our horizontal and vertical intent, but we might be completely backwards and have no way of knowing it. 

I therefore propose a third dimension.  Namely: Faith.  This creates an axis or reality that looks something like this.  Just like most mathematical axis, the negative half of the axis constitutes the opposite of the positive (ie. truth is positive, and the opposite of truth is negative, etc.)  Since the end goal of all human desire is to achieve/exist in happiness, I've pointed out the quadrant (ok...technically an octant) where I believe eternal happiness is experienced.  The equation for happiness then would go something like this:

 A(Truth) + B(Faith) + C(Love) = Happiness   

I know.  I've thought about this too much.  But this realization was probably one of the most clear epiphanies I've had this whole trip.  As with most epiphanies, it hit me in the most random place.  It wasn't in church, reading my scriptures, or saying my prayers.  No, awareness of this dimension struck me as I was wandering around Chiang Mai, completely lost and all by myself.  Perhaps and odd time to be checking intent, but I started wondering why I was wandering since I had no idea where I was.  I tried to assess the various emotions I was experiencing at the time.  There was a lot of confusion, frustration, and even some self-loathing, but none of those were the reason I continued to move, despite having no idea where I was or where I was going.  Then it hit me, I was wandering because I was afraid of not getting home.  Immediately after this realization, another thought hit me - faith casteth out fear, and I can choose faith.  Rather than wandering out of fear, I can choose to wander in faith instead.  It wasn't really a new concept, but in the context under which it was applied, it was all a little mind-blowing for me at the time.  

So in that moment, I decided to choose faith.  I chose to believe that even if I was wandering for while, I would reach my destination and all would be well.  The almost immediate internal transformation that occurred is hard to describe.  I no longer worried about getting home.  I felt peace about what I was doing and where I was walking, even though I had no idea where that was.  I didn't walk in a perfect line straight home, but I wasn't questioning every turn, going back and forth, or even thinking about what would happen if I didn't make it home.  My intention was to have faith that I would get to where I wanted to be - and eventually, I did.  

So as I wandered with this faith and it's accompanying sense of peace, my mind started racing.  What is the place of faith in intention?  Can all intentions be so simply divided into those fueled by faith and those by fear?  Is that the element that I see missing from those supposedly 'good' intentions that don't turn out so good?  Is that why some of the most intense forms of love result in some of the most controlling relationships?  Is that why something as pure and good as parental love can be so powerfully detrimental?  Is that why some people who have a great understanding of truth are so often so prone to worry ?  Is it really as simple as choosing to act in faith instead of fear?  Can it really be that easy?  The Spirit's affirmation to me: "Yes, yes it is." 

So here is how I see it now, and I've provided some examples of what I mean.  We are either....

******motivated by the fear of desires not being fulfilled and happiness therefore obstructed.******
-- studying because we fear not getting a good grade
-- voting for someone because we fear their opponents policies
-- giving our teenager a curfew because we fear they will make bad choices
-- dating lots of people because you fear living life alone
-- working because you fear unemployment and poverty
-- writing in your journal because your computer died in the middle of a blog post and you fear you'll loose your train of thought

*******motivated by faith that desires will be fulfilled and/or happiness achieved (aka optimism)*******
-- studying because you know you'll get a good grade if you do
-- voting for someone because you know they'll do a good job while in office
-- giving your teenager a curfew because you know it will improve their choices and therefore their lives
-- dating lots of people because you know one of them will be 'the one' you'll want to be with forever
-- working because you know the act of work brings fulfillment and joy
-- writing in your journal because your computer died in the middle of a blog post and you know a break from the keyboard will help you write a better post

So going back to my 3D axis:  Like positive and negative integers, I think each intention can be separated by either an eye of faith, or an eye of fear.  I would argue that those who feel both faithful and fearful are actually just hovering around 0, being swayed one way or the other by various events or emotions.  For intentions that are a mixture of two positives and a negative, you may be closer to the octant of happiness, but still not quite there.  They may feel satisfaction or even fleeting joy, but still lack the proper formula that equates to real, lasting, and permanent joy.

Example: What happens when someone acts out of truth, love, and fear --> They worry.  What happens when someone has truth and faith but no love? --> They become self-righteous or conceited. 

I think it's safe to say neither of these things brings eternal happiness.  A worry wort may be happy when something they worry about doesn't happen, but they are still miserable in between.  A conceited person may be happy in moments they prove themselves right or perhaps better than others, but eventually, the pang of loneliness and isolation will strike, destroying any remnants of that satisfaction in it's wake. 

Now, all this being said.  I know a single action is often fueled by multiple intentions.  That most of our motivations are made up of a mixture of good and bad intents: some out of love, some in selfishness, some based in faith, and some in fear.  But I don't think that excuses us from owning and acknowledging each and every intention that precedes every action.  I believe each of us have the capacity to achieve the happiness we all fundamentally desire.  I believe that most people are actively working to achieve that desire, but that many haven't quite figured out the math, and are therefore getting frustrated and more confused.  I believe The Church, missionary work, and all other programs are ultimately geared toward teaching people these principles.  True, many of the tutors are usually still figuring out the process themselves, but I feel pretty comfortable saying that our leadership has a really good grasp on these concepts.  Just think about what was taught in this past conference - or every general conference at that.  The root message is always either "have faith and hope," "know this eternal principle," or "love one another."  More often than not, it's mixture of those three.  I do think the path to happiness can be found in the practice of of what Christ described as 'pure intent'.  I think pure intent is the what occurs when we know truth, feel love, and act in faith.  I do think optimism is necessary for pure intent to be achieved (perfect brightness of hope anyone?).  I have experience that as one practices these principles, they will find joy.  I have faith that because of Christ's love and his atoning sacrifice, that happiness is something I can choose to experience now - and always.

So in conclusion: Why do you do what you do?  Is it bringing you the happiness you desire?  
If not, perhaps you should check your math.

Monday, April 9, 2012

India Revisited

Last week I promised I would give my assessment of India.  I've taken a lot of time to assess my overall perceptions, and here is what I've come up with.

Disclaimer: 1.) There are a lot of generalizations in this post, and there are many exceptions to each.  2.) I've only experienced one region of a very large and overpopulated country.  So I acknowledge that my perceptions have some major limitations.   

In many ways, India is very much like my father; vibrant, crazy, gregarious, old (haha had to throw it in pops - love you!), incredibly unique, dichotomous, and rather difficult to understand.  Like my father, many in India seem to struggle with prioritization, and seem to invest their time and money in some of the most frivolous affairs (by typical western standards - they are in no way frivolous in their eyes).  They have an incredibly strong sense of family and familial stewardship, but perhaps little regard for environmental and public health.  They are both incredibly devoted, extremely intuitive, and reverent.  They always show great regard and care for sacred things.  Yet somehow, both are rarely bothered by the material disarray and filth they are surrounded by otherwise.

They are both passionate about politics and quick to share their opinion on how to 'fix' things on levels both large and small, often by principle, with diminished attention to practicality, context, or unintended consequence.  They both love ceremony, symbols, and things of the eternities, and they love to speculate and expound on those things.  They love to teach and counsel others about the things they've learned/know.  This brings them great satisfaction.  They cherish familiarity and tradition, which gives them a quality of constancy, but also makes them resistant to any idea, product, person, or movement that does not fit in with their current religious, social, or economic schema.  I love my father, and I admire all the work he has and is putting into his own personal development in the last 10-15 years.  Likewise, I see India doing the same, with great help from the upcoming generation.  I'm excited to see where they both will be in another 15 years.

True to their dichotomous nature though, I see some stark differences between India and my father.  For one, India seems to have a vanity problem.  I was often shocked by how beautiful, colorful, and well dressed the women were as they walked the filthy littered streets lined by dilapidated buildings, litter, and homeless beggars.  How out of place they seemed as they emerged from what can best be described as a shanty in gorgeous sarees and jewelry laden ears.  The men are not much better.  They strut, fix their hair, and check themselves out all the time.  Interestingly, in Hindi, they don't even have a word to describe vanity in the superficial looks sense.  The closest synonym is pride.  For two, India has an character problem.  I met men, admired by their community, who would cheat, swindle, and lie to a stranger without even batting an eye.  This is probably my biggest problem with India.  Honesty is only valued once a social relationship is established.  Before that, you're nothing but a possible quick dollar, and lying is just a part of doing business.  I suppose one advantage to this is that it makes forming good social connections essential, but only doing good business with those you're familiar with means social segregation is prolific (something India has always struggled with).

Oh, and there is one more thing I should probably address.  I have a problem with Ayurveda.  I know, it's been around for thousands of years and has been 'proven' by the test of time, but really?  If it's so well proven, why does India still exhibit such poor health?  Where's the fruit of this claim?  I'm sure Ayurveda does have benefits, but lets use that nifty tool called the scientific method to weed out which elements might be harmful or outdated instead of ascribing the nutritional needs of an extinct society to the one we live in today.

Example 1 - a scientific study

"An NCCAM-funded study published in 2004 found that of 70 Ayurvedic remedies purchased over-the-counter (all manufactured in South Asia), 14 contained lead, mercury, and/or arsenic at levels that could be harmful. Also in 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 12 cases of lead poisoning occurring over a recent 3-year period were linked to the use of Ayurvedic medications."

Example 2  - a personal story

I don't know how many people I had to explain this to, but unless you're lactose intolerant or perhaps anorexic, ghee is not 'healthy,' nor will it ever be 'healthy.'  I don't care how clarified it is, it's still butter.  And in fact, it's actually more calorically dense and higher in saturated fat (a major contributor to cardiovascular disease) than plain ol unclarified butter.  Like butter, it's not bad if eaten in moderation, but the idea that consuming ghee will make a person healthy is just a bit ridiculous in the context of today's dietary demands.

But this is the mentality of India, and it reaches far outside the realm of ghee.  Being such an old society, they are trapped by the "don't know better" bug.  That's the illness that convinces them that the way they've always done things is the best way to do things, simply because that's how they've done it for so long.  For example, I met several people who would rather buy a gemstone and exercise faith in it's healing powers than put the work into educating themselves on what's making them sick in the first place.  Granted, maybe their faith will be strong enough and they will be healed, but wouldn't it be better to know what's making you sick, adapt the causal behavior, and THEN have the faith to be healed?  Wouldn't it be easier to exercise that faith if one knew where to direct it?  Alas...many just stick to the stone.

This is why I have such a problem with Ayurveda.  It bothered me how often people would grab some random root extract and tell me "it's good for __insert organ here__."  Well, how is it good?  What does it act on?  What are the effects?  How do you even know it acts on the primary organ of action?  If my pancreas isn't producing enough insulin does it make it start producing more?  What if my pancreas is OVERproducing insulin?  Wouldn't taking something that stimulates my pancreas be bad?  What if my pancreas isn't producing insulin because of some tumor blockage?  Wouldn't stimulating that also be bad?  Unfortunately, these questions are not asked.  Why?  Because someone saying something like "it's healthy for you" is just accepted blindly, with no need for further explanation or even credentials.  And trust me, just like here in the States, there is a WHOLE LOT of BS going around about what's good for you.  I don't think it's intentional deceit, but perhaps more of a 'blind leading the blind' kind of a problem.  

For example, a friend of mine was looking for something to soften up her stool but didn't want to use any 'harsh chemicals' or 'manufactured laxatives.'  She purchased an Ayurvedic stool softener (aka a laxative), was informed that it was 'all natural' (therefore good right?), and took it that evening.  The next couple days she was plagued with rather violent cramping and diarrhea.  Does that seem healthy to you?  I'm pretty sure some milk of magnesia or exlax would have been far less harsh on her system.  But natural is always better right?  Ha...yeah right.

That being said, I don't think people should shun Ayurveda.  There are benefits to be had.  But perhaps I do see some of it as outdated and largely untested.  I really struggle understanding why people would prefer to ignore the science of nutrition and trust the 'all natural' Ayurveda as the end-all authority on their health.  Ayurveda is an intricate and involved method of medicinal nutrition that was formed (strictly from observation - not scientific method) at a time when food was scarce and calories coveted.  Of course ghee had health benefits back then - it kept starving people alive.  Of course the laxative was good - it was the only way to treat constipation.  That being the case, we have increasingly different medicinal capabilities and nutritional needs, and I don't understand why some cling so religiously to such an archaic and isolated system.  Just because it's old and was around for a long time?  Well, blood letting and arsenic laced medicine was around for a while (and apparently still is).  Or hey, the caste system is really old - maybe we should go back to that because it existed for so long.

Sorry, I'll cut back on the sarcasm, but you get my point.  To me, basic nutrition is beautifully simple, and something I can testify to in my own experience.  Whole grains, lots of fruits and veggies, lean proteins, unsaturated fats, and moderate caloric intake.  It's not complicated.  Though sometimes I think it's the simplicity that discourages people, as can be manifested in fad diets and diet programs.  It's as if they can't believe achieving health could be that simple - so they put themselves through some strange or complex regimented program to help them achieve the health they desire.  When they don't achieve that health, they become frustrated, and continue to search, often from bad sources, for the next cure-all.  But it's all there already, just waiting to be read and understood.  If you're wondering why you should eat whole grains, read some papers on it.  If you're wondering what the big deal about monounsaturated fat is or perhaps what's a good source of the stuff, look it up from a reputable source. is a good one.  Read those nutrition labels, know what you're putting in your body, and for heavens sake, educate yourself on the whole organic vs processed war going on.  It is not a battle of good vs evil or healthy vs unhealthy. Both sides have their own agenda so do yourself a favor and empower yourself to choose wisely for your own personal needs.  And remember, there's a whole lot of money at stake, so read some studies (not just a blog), check the sources, and make your own conclusions.

Wow, sorry for the tangent.  But I guess it's time to wrap this up.

Conclusion: India is a fascinating country full of amazing and wonderful people.  Like my father, I have truly gained an understanding and love for those people and the way they view the world, even if it is so different from my own perceptions.  And though I disagree with many of their methods, I still have a respect for how adaptable they are to their rather volatile way of life.  I'm grateful for the chance I had to get to know so many wonderful souls.  It was a great experience, and the trip was worth ever penny, tear, and muscle ache.  Namaste.