Life’s Too Short: My quarter life revolution

And so the journey continues. Two years ago I was living in the Chiang Mai headquarters of Urban Light (UL), a non-profit group working to end the sexual and systemic exploitation of young males in Thailand, all the while grappling with all that would come in the next couple of months with my inevitable return to the United States. I had worked with Urban Light day and night—- giving English and guitar lessons to clients, helping with day-to-day operations of the drop in center, and helping to conduct, write, and publish a research project on male sexual exploitation in Chiang Mai. I had heard of reverse culture shock, but would my experience upon return be different? My stay in Thailand sank into the depths of humanity’s darkness, but also shined light on the power of love and connection, that indeed, there is more good to this world than bad.

I returned to Baltimore just one week before Christmas in 2013, perhaps the most exciting time possible to make a homecoming. Festivities and happiness abound. My previous job as a neuroscience lab technician awaited me shortly after, and I committed to completing a four month RYT200 Yoga (200 hour Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher) training at Sid Yoga, a local studio I have practiced in since my early years in college. Surrounded by family, my girlfriend, yoga practice and what seemed to be a lifestyle similar to that I had lived just one-year prior, I still felt a sense emptiness. How could I leave my pre-Thailand life just 10 months prior, experience a completely new culture and lifestyle and return to the “same” life I had? I was changed, but my surroundings seemed too familiar. Puzzle pieces weren’t fitting—- a confusing and frustrating time finding my place.

My buddy Brooks and I on night one back in the states. Rocking my Lanna wear and sipping on some American craft brews.

My buddy Brooks and I on night one back in the states. Rocking my Lanna wear and sipping on some American craft brews.

While I had started my journey in Thailand in mid 2013, my twin brother Darryl was on a similar path (read my previous blog post “Strong Bonds”), starting service with the Peace Corps in Tanzania. I followed him in the beginning stages of his journey, which included intensive cultural and language training, adjustment to local cuisine, and several severe of bouts of giardia, which caused him to lose more weight than any exercise program ever would (not a recommended form of weight loss). He struggled at first but found a foothold and has been thriving over the past two years.

Yes, “place” can define home, but for me, people create the warmness of home more so than any structure or city ever could. Those we love and surround ourselves with inspire passion and drive that moves us forward. I can’t ask for a more incredible family or support system at home, but still, my twin brother was missing when I returned to the United States. The hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai distracted me from an apparent “twin separation syndrome” (this is REAL), and our prior 24 years of joint living in the states left me with the true “shock” I experienced when I returned. Even so, the separation was positive and has given me a chance to grow even closer to the rest of my family, something I am extremely grateful for. Darryl and I taking separate routes is something we both needed to do and the growth each of us has experienced through the past two years is immeasurable.

Fast forward one year from my return to the States and plans came together for a second stay in Thailand, this time with my girlfriend, Cara, by my side. I completed my yoga teacher training and had taught ever since my training was wrapped up in July 2014. I continued to progress with my practice and teaching all the while working as a research technician in a neuroscience lab (work I have grown to love and look forward to continuing). The disoriented sense I felt after returning from Thailand had faded, and I was truly coming into my own way of being— a true sense of contentment of all that had transpired. My interests in science, art, music, and yoga have blended into homogeneity. Each interest has become miscible with the others— perhaps the most liberating part of my growth over the past two years.

oil-in-water

At the end of 2014, my cousin Scott and I had the chance to visit Darryl  in Tanzania for an entire month. We joined him for Thanksgiving and adventures in Zanzibar, Ruaha National Park (safari), and Darryl’s Peace Corps site in Njombe. It was incredible to see Darryl at his Peace Corps site and explore the country he has called home for the past two+ years! He is a currently a chemistry teacher in a rural part of Tanzania and has also worked extensively with his school to increase the capacity to provide good nutrition to all students. By planting over 1500 Avocado trees and nearly 1000 apple trees, students will have year-round healthy snacks to supplement meals. Check out Darryl’s blog HERE!

Prior to this year, letting my life flow was not an option. I felt an overwhelming sense that a choice in one interest would mean sacrificing another. Instead of wallowing in the POSSIBILITIES of action I took ACTION and carried on each and every one of my interests—- teaching and practicing yoga regularly (fitness and wellness), playing music with friends regularly (Black Eyed Boh rocked more shows than I could have asked for — thanks Rob, Chris, and Greg), and working as a lab technician (immunofluorescence microscopy fulfilled my love of art and photography). Often, all that we want is already in front of us. The stress is all in our heads and even I get lost in the brain’s tendency to wander.

And so I am back, back in Thailand, continuing my journey and living life on my own accord. Many people, including my family (and girlfriend) may think I am crazy but it is the richness of experiences that will bring riches and a concrete path. Taking a leap into the unknown is a risk for sure, but faith in my self is the strongest determinant of where I will end up. And a lot of faith I have. Cara has joined me and I cannot wait to grow along with her. Living with the one I love is a HUGE jump, perhaps even comparable to moving 8000 miles away from home. Combining the two is perhaps unimaginable for most people, but again, I know when things are right. Cara accepted and Elementary English teaching job (proud boyfriend) while I am continuing to work with Urban Light, building awareness and fundraising capacity for the organization. I am currently working on revamping Urban Light’s merchandise by raising $1000 for the purchase of shirts, stickers, and other cool stuff to sell at shows and to groups who visit the Urban Light Youth Center. CHECK OUT THE FUNDRAISING PAGE HERE. It is incredible how much UL has grown over the past two years and the increased capacity for those it serves. I will be continuing to fundraise at the Colour Bar, as I did in 2013 (which raised 100,000 baht), while teaching yoga and hopefully starting a yoga studio that will benefit UL.

Sometimes I am scared that I haven’t bought a house or settled into a career. So far my investments have been travel and connecting with the world, something no interest rate could ever compare to. The relationships I’ve made across the world feed my heart and soul each day. Take a chance, take a leap, but most importantly fall in love with the life you have. What could be a better revolution for this world?

Morning

I wake up in Urban Light’s center to the white noise that plays on an 11 hour Youtube video loop—if I was waking up at 5AM, the mosque’s call to prayer, the temple bells ringing, and dogs howling on top of it all would be a sufficient alarm for me. Currently, I’m keen on sleeping through this early hour of the morning. I throw my blanket towards the wall uncovering my drowsy self. It took a while getting used to not sleeping with a top sheet on my bed. When I purchased my linen set, there was none included, and I have learned to do without, as most Thais do. My feet hit the wooden floor and I’m up. The fund-raiser show I played last night at the Colour Bar went great and it will take a bit of coffee to shake the later-than-should-have-been night.

I carry my computer down two flights of stairs turn the gas stove on and make my first pot of coffee of the day in my not so conventional Moka Pot that I purchased secondhand in my first weeks while in Thailand. Making my coffee saves me a considerable amount of money— nearly 100 baht per day (even at local coffee shops, a cup-o-joe will cost 30-50 baht). I’m happy heading over to the local grocery store to pick up a month supply of hill-tribe coffee ( one kilo) for 200 baht (`$7).

Moka Pot--- my Italian Coffee Maker.

Moka Pot— my Italian Coffee Maker.

Eggs, always eggs— I pay the extra twenty baht for the organic ones— not as cheap as the eggs I was used to buying at my local Aldi’s store in Baltimore, but a few of my friends here are really into the vegan, organic and permaculture movements. Sometimes I feel they are ALWAYS whispering in my ear as I buy ANY unnatural or processed food products from the local markets and grocery stores. Hearing these voices doesn’t help me resist making the short walk down the road to the Warorot Market at night to pick up some delicious muu ping gap khaw niaw (marinated grilled pork on a stick with sticky rice). One bite and I am in dollar-dinner heaven— I’ll eat raw, organic, vegan food another night— I really will. We are what we eat, after all—right?

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Akha Swing Festival

After attending the rice planting ceremonies a few months back, I knew I wanted to make a return to the Akha Village for the New Year Swing Festival that would take place approximately 120 days later. Near the end of August, most of the boys Urban Light serves made the journey north to be with family and celebrate this age-old tradition of swing building and dance. Urban Light’s Outreach Worker, who is also my Thailand brother and best mate, Fame, was kind enough to invite myself and another Urban Light volunteer, Marissa, into his family’s home for the weekend’s festivities.

On my previous visit, the fields were bare and freshly burned from the slash and burn style of agriculture that is still very prevalent there. The burning of fields is considerable reason not to travel in Northern Thailand during late February through April, as resulting clouds of smoke and debris linger in the air. The climb to the top of the mountain where Fame’s family’s rice field rests was much more of a site to behold, and a considerably tougher trek, with lush, green, and chest tall rice grasses forcing us to take care with every step. Though the journey to the top of the mountain is worth it for the view, we were there to collect cantaloupe and cucumbers that had been planted the same time as the rice. Vines scattered through the field, and we all were excited to come across a ripe melon or cucumber— they were a bit tough to find in the huge field.

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The Swing Festival is meant to bring good fortune on the current rice harvest, as last year’s supply is more than likely gone or dwindling. It also seems to be a coming of age event, where girls who have worked hard all year long making traditional dress wear these clothes for the first time, or add to costumes of years past, and boys actively participate in different roles surrounding the swing building.

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Boys, Too: The Forgotten Stories of Human Trafficking | Fair Observer°

An article I wrote was just published through the independent and non-partisan news agency, Fair Observer.

shutterstock_95803324Photo COPYRIGHT © DMITRY BERKUT: PATTAYA, THAILAND. SHUTTERSTOCK. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Read the article here:

Boys, Too: The Forgotten Stories of Human Trafficking: FAIR OBSERVER                

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Down the Dirt Road: An Unexpected Glimpse of Human Trafficking in Laos

It was around 3pm while I was sitting in my hotel room that I decided fatigue’s lure to the bed needed to end— how often would I be in Laos after all? With only two nights and three days in the country’s capital, my time was limited, and of course, I had to see some of the sites while in town for an unexpected visa run (a print error on my old visa nulled two months of my stay in Thailand). On this particular Friday, I had just picked up my newly issued visa from the Thai consulate and headed back to the hotel room. I drank one of the delicious and dark BeerLao’s that was left over in my fridge from the previous night and looked through the ripped Lonely Planet pages I managed to scrounge about everything Vientiane (though the information was dated~ 5years, it was still useful in finding my way around). The only thing that really piqued my interested in the “attractions” section was the Buddha Park, a site containing over 200 Hindu and Buddhist inspired statues. It was recommended that traveling on an empty stomach would be best, as the road is quite bumpy. I had a sizable breakfast and thought I wouldn’t have a problem making the 45-minute journey without lunch or another large meal.

I hopped on a local bus bound for the Friendship Bridge after getting a bit of guidance from my tuk-tuk driver, and after many local stops, we finally made it to the Thai/Laos border crossing where I asked around about ways to get to the park. I was informed that a minibus leaves on a random schedule. After hopping in the rickety bus, I began reading my book, and after waiting for about 20 minutes with no signs of leaving, I asked another driver about ways to get to the park. I was the only one sitting in the bus and I assumed the driver was waiting for more passengers before heading out. It was about 4:45PM and the sun would be going down shortly. Not wanting to miss my chance to see the park, I took up the offer of the other driver for the higher price of 8,000 Kip ($1 US). His vehicle was much nicer than the one I was sitting in and the price was fine by me! I knew more Thai than he did English (most Laos people have a very good grasp on Thai, as Lao and Thai are very similar languages), which made for a great opportunity for me to practice my Thai skills, something I was eager to try, as communication would have been impossible without my limited knowledge of the language.

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Urban Light Music Project and Outreach Expansion: Call to ACTION

Tomorrow marks my three-month milestone living in Thailand. As I pack my bags for my visa run to Vietnam, I consider my time living here, especially being a the first outside of Maryland, to have been a success thus far. The experience has already been life-changing and I am looking forward to all that is in store for the next five months! My Thai is okay, but has a very long way to go (communication has actually been amazing, even with the minimal Thai that I do know) and will improve with more time and perhaps another level Thai class.  Just in the past two weeks, I have started giving one-on-one guitar lessons, and I can tell that the communication barrier that existed even  just a few weeks ago has fallen. After performing two shows in Chiang Mai, it feels great to start teaching and hopefully inspire the kids here at the center.

First Ching Mai performance! Even had a drummer sit in.

First Chiang Mai performance! I even had a drummer sit in.

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Trip to an Akha Hill Tribe

One of the highlights of the past month came after receiving an invite from my Thailand brother and buddy, Fame, to visit his home in an Akha Hill tribe a little more than three hours north of Chiang Mai. Fame was kind enough to let me tag along for the annual rice planting ceremony that he was obligated to perform. I jumped at the opportunity, and after a long van ride and two Song-Taews, we made it!

Upon arriving, Fame took me around the village, first showing me an interesting development that I later learned was one of the many Royal Projects occurring all throughout hill tribes in northern Thailand. Travel Impact Newswire describes the projectsHis Majesty King Bhumibhol Adulyadej and members of Thailand’s Royal Family have set up numerous village-based community development projects nationwide which are now open for small-scale tourism. They provide unique insights into the King’s concept of a sufficiency economy and are models of alternative economic development. 

Sustainable agriculture part of the King's Royal Project happening in this Akha Village.

Sustainable agriculture part of the King’s Royal Project happening in this Akha Village.

Pond and guest accommodations for tourism.

Pond and guest accommodations also part of the Royal Project.

From what I understand, many hill tribes were resorting to the drug trade as a means to sustain themselves, and by introducing alternative agricultural and other economic opportunities, the Royal Family sought to combat this growing issue throughout Thailand. That is not to say that the drug trade isn’t alive an well in the villages. Fame explained to me that many of the villagers, especially the elders, use opium, and that the use of the drug and others is very widespread throughout the village. Lack of adequate education is the root of drug and alcohol problems, as is the case throughout the world and even in the US. I was even offered Yaba (which is the Thai analog of methamphetamine) for purchase while in the village, just an indicator of the availability of these socially harmful drugs in an already vulnerable population. Yaba is one of the most notorious problem drugs in all of Thailand, and to be offered and shown those little pink pills was a reminder of the temptation that many of the boys that come to Urban Light must feel on the streets. The reality of the drug’s presence was no longer just a thought; it was physical. It’s addictiveness and availability is so dangerous, and needless to say, I declined the offer and moved along on my tour of the village.

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