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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Wilco-Impossible Germany (missing home listening to this one)

Saturday night and I’ve decided to stay in for the evening. I am very jealous my brother, cousin, and several friends are currently at Bonnaroo, having an undoubtedly amazing time, seeing the best bands of our time and generations past (Paul McCartney AND Tom Petty are on this year’s lineup).

Bonnaroo 2012. Best music I have seen in my life. I believe this photo is from the Kooks performance (I'm in the hat).

Bonnaroo 2012. Best music I have seen in my life. I believe this photo is from the Kooks performance (I’m the one with the big hat).

WIlco will also be appearing at this year’s festival and has, as of the past year and a half, become one of my favorite bands. I have watched their tour schedule during this time and envied the Europeans being graced by Nels Cline’s guitar work and Jeff Tweedy’s vocals and accompaniment on guitar. “Impossible Germany” speaks out against the Fascist state of mind. The first two lines in the chorus of the album’s heav weight track, “Impossible Germany/Unlikely Japan” gives voice to the outsider and the unlikely success a narrow-minded way of being, in culture or individuality, will have.

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“Your Mind is All You Have” —- Living in the moment and free of worry

Check out this cool video from Sam Harris (author, neuroscientist, philosopher) explaining the need to “locate a feeling of fulfillment in the present.” Though the feelings of anxiousness creep up on me occasionally, mindfulness in daily activities takes me away from the what ifs of the future and past and allows me to enjoy the moment I’m in.

Mindfulness is easy to practice, and can even be done every time you eat, for example.

Turn off the radio, television, computer, tablet,  and other gadgets or distractions that may take you away from where you are at in this moment in time. Sit down at the table, and look at your meal, becoming aware of the colors and textures as the light reflects off the food and passes through your cornea to your pupils that have already adjusted to accommodate the intensity of light in the room. The light travels through your eyes’ lenses and on to the optic nerve where this mix of visible spectrum, which we have evolved to perceive, passes on to the visual cortex and is processed into what we understand as the image of food in front of us.

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Love is Louder

Everyday boys choose to come to our programs and center to empower their lives. We're slowly but surely winning the fight against the exploitation of teenage boys in Chiang Mai. LOVE always wins.

Everyday, boys choose to come to Urban Light’s programs and center as a choice to empower their lives and make a positive change. We’re slowly but surely winning the fight against the exploitation of teenage boys in Chiang Mai. LOVE always wins.

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The Traditional Thai “Lanna” Wedding

This past weekend I had the awesome opportunity to attend a traditional Lanna style wedding. Thailand’s relaxed and go-with-the-flow attitude, and unofficial national motto mai-pen-rai (meaning no worries), was more than evident when my co-worker approached the Urban Light team and announced that her sister and sister’s boyfriend, who had been dating for nine years, had decided to get married in three weeks! Of course we all accepted the invitation, as we were all excited to get into some traditional Thai threads and see how a wedding could possibly come together in a matter of days. I headed to the Warorot market a short walk away and negotiated a price on a green, heavy, 100% traditional Thai silk shirt (still questioning the silk content) and fisherman pants (which are quite airy— I’m thinking about buying a few more to wear to bed at night).

Me and Marissa, another UL volunteer, with Aw who graciously invited us to the wedding.

Me and Marissa, another UL volunteer, with Aw who graciously invited us to the wedding.

The day of the wedding came, me nervously waking up a half hour before my 7:00 alarm (I actually set two just in case my body resisted after a Saturday night). A song-taew arrived at 8am to pick up the nine members of the Urban Light crew, and off we were (nearly ten farangs in traditional Thai dress is definitely not a regular sight for our neighbors living on our soi, or side street). When we arrived, we entered the space where the wedding would take place and were greeted by the bride and groom, both receiving us with a wai which we all returned. The dress and suit of the bride and groom looked great! I’m thinking of grabbing one of those suits before heading back to the states— goodbye wool sports jackets, hello silk!

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Of Elephants and Men (and Boys)

When I first told people I was going to Thailand for eight months, many reacted questioning the quality of the water, infrastructure, whether I knew the language, and some even asked if I was excited to be in the sex capital of the world (a disappointing question considering the work I’m doing to fight westerners appetite for “exotic” sex and eroticism here in the “Land of Smiles”). The stereotypes were all laid out on the table, and the misconceptions about Thailand that are constantly perpetuated by the media were more than evident in the conversations I was having.  If you spend your nights on Loi Kroh road or in the Go-Go bars that line many of the streets, or even hit enter one of the massage parlors lined with women cat calling you in for a “massage, massage,” it’s easy to see where people might get the wrong idea about Thailand and its locals. The people here are beautiful in spirit AND appearance and the cities boast beauty that’s only surpassed by the natural world outside of them. Of those I talked to who had previously been to Thailand, I had only heard good things, and I am definitely seeing the greatness described. From the gorgeous Wat Chedi Luang of Chiang Mai and the Royal Palace of Bangkok, to the carst cliffs jutting out of the turquoise waters off Railay Beach and the graceful mountains that call home just beyond Chiang Mai, Thailand has a lot to offer— and I’ve only just scratched the surface.

Wat Chedi Luang behind one of the many beautiful temples in Chiang Mai.

Wat Chedi Luang behind one of the many beautiful temples in Chiang Mai.

Close up of the historic Wat Chedi Luang, constructed in the 14th century.

Close up of the historic Wat Chedi Luang, constructed in the 14th century.

The GORGEOUS grounds to the Royal Palace. A must see in Bangkok.

The GORGEOUS grounds to the Royal Palace. A must see in Bangkok.

Beautiful cliffs of Railay Beach in Krabi.

Beautiful cliffs of Railay Beach in Krabi.

Under that surface of good infrastructure, overall safe cities, clean streets and an amazing trash pickup system (I’m still figuring out how they manage trash pickups everyday on every street), there lies an underbelly of Thai culture, largely driven by western demand. It’s like the many cockroaches I see every night on the sidewalks— visible, but easy to dismiss as they quickly disappear through the cracks of the sewers and walls for an escape. You can see exploitation in Thailand but must be conscious of it in order to avoid enabling it.

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To Thailand and Beyond

After just listening to David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College, I realize the dramatic shifts my thinking and way of living has gone over the past several years. Wallace states that sometimes, “The most obvious and important realities are often the ones are the hardest to see and talk about.” The “banal platitudes” of life are the ones that seem to be meaningless but happen “day in and day out.” Grocery shopping, the laundry, brushing our teeth— do we ever think about these things, or are these just the necessities that drive our life into seemingly endless tedium? Wallace starts his address by telling the “fish story.” Two young fish swim towards an older fish who nods and says, “Morning boys. How’s the water?” The two fish swim along for a bit and one turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water.”

Graduating college in 2011, I, like most fresh college graduates sought to jump right into the workforce, make those big bucks, and REALLY enjoy the real world.  My frantic job search for two months landed me away from the pizza shop (shout out to Brenda’s Pizzeria, my place of employment for eight great summers) to a government defense contractor position working in Army chemical defense research (yea, cool stuff). This was an incredible opportunity to flex my research muscles and get some real world experience in the research field. With an incredible mentor and great team, I was able to do just that— attending several conferences around the country and even contributing to several papers that will be published in the near future. My love for science was being nurtured well, but an itch to get out into the world and immerse myself in new cultures had not fully been scratched.

That's one good Bronx Belly Buster Steak and Cheese Hero.

That’s one good Bronx Belly Buster Steak and Cheese Hero.

Chemistry and Biology B.S. degrees attained.

Chemistry and Biology B.S. degrees attained.

Welcoming ceremony at our research institute. Yes, Darryl and I ended up working at the same place. Great carpooling opportunity!

Welcoming ceremony at our research institute. Yes, Darryl and I ended up working at the same place. Great carpooling opportunity!

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